LPC of the fiercely original and fantastically smart blog, Privilege, took quite an interest in my recent post on pant suits. I have never worked in a conservative environment myself, and thus could only offer theoretical suggestions for making these lawyerly staples more fun and interesting. LPC, on the other hand, is a career executive who has spent most of her life in suits and knows firsthand the challenges and joys of personalizing the businesswoman’s uniform. And she’s been generous enough to share her wisdom with us! Keep reading for her tips on sneaking unique, sassy, and decidedly fun accents into your conservative workwear.
I love Already Pretty. You probably do too. It would be hard not to, right? Sal puts out such a wonderful, consistent message. I would paraphrase what she says as, “Style is a personal statement, and our personal statements ought to reflect our positive feelings about ourselves.” I find this site to be sort of like a gift, one to pick up every morning on our way out the door, and I have been thinking lately, about how to live Sal’s message even when the constraints of a conservative work environment get in the way. How to have personal style, when all around you wear the equivalent of a uniform?
One word. Secret, planned, measured rebellion. OK, several words. I was in marketing, what can I say? Old habits die hard, especially when you’re old.
Where Did That Uniform Come From?
But let’s set the context. Conservative industries, and their associated work environments, were originally populated exclusively by men. Women entered, in the Mad Men way, as helpers. The evolution to equal pay and equal work is still, well evolving. As a result, a cultural uniform developed based on menswear. The dark suit with matching jacket, button-front shirt, matching shoes and belt, and a tie.
Everything about the menswear uniform evolved to indicate power and gravitas. (Imogen at Inside Out Style is a great source for the rational background to all this.) Given that the currency of traditional workforces is power, you tinker with that formula at your own risk. The uniform also developed, in my opinion, to remove uncertainty. If the guy across the desk or conference table dressed like you, you could assume he would follow your rules.
Those of you who work in more creative fields, or small business, or the social professions, may be drawing back in horror right about now. Let me just say these jobs in traditional industry can bring many rewards, the joy of a battle well-fought, an intellectual challenge, the ongoing satisfaction of mentoring the people you manage. But style? Can be tough.
Use these at your discretion. Clearly there are times to play 100% by the rules, i.e. when arguing before a traditional judge, interviewing for your first law job, or presenting to a key conservative client. Start slowly, evolve your style paying close attention to your surroundings.
1. Fashion rebellion should start at your extremities
Jewelry is probably the most discrete of work style rebellions. It’s amazing what secrets you can hide in your earrings. There are dragons engraved on these little fingernail sized earrings from San Francisco’s Chinatown. Imagine skulls instead. No one would be the wiser.
Another option is a man’s watch. This is mine, but the style is available in all price ranges. Whenever I look down at my wrist I get a little burst of Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Break My Stride. Very helpful in some situations.
Hello shoes! There is nothing more fun than a pair of burnt orange, or red, or dark purple shoes with a navy pantsuit. Unless it’s dark green lizard pumps under black. While men obsess over the monk strap vs. blucher conundrum, we have far more choices.
2. Use menswear colors and shapes to ground your individual expression
If you stick to the classic menswear shapes and colors, including a dark, straight-lined jacket, you can launch a subversive shirt crusade. In the early 90’s I wore a purple satin blouse, covered in a pattern of navy and pistachio green abstract flowers. Along with, of course, a black cardigan, black skirt, and black slingbacks. These days I will pair my most conservative gray suit with this Issey Miyake blouse. The pattern evinces feral Nordic creatures moving between trees. For me. But no one has to know that. The ghost wolves are there to help me in battle.
3. Develop a signature quirk
Take a page from menswear. Build a collect of quirky items, but all in one category. Some men always wear those Wall Street shirts with blue bodies and white collars. Or goofy ties.
Think Madeleine Albright’s pins. Constraining individualism to one category indicates intent, a predictable pushing of boundaries, rather than wholesale, and threatening, rule breakage. Hair ornaments, large rings, or ornamented belts, any of these would work. Your imaginations can probably come up with better ideas than mine.
4. Rebel one thing at a time
Again, you always want to maintain the impression of control. So indulge your individualism one thing at a time. If your suit is highly textured or an unusual shape, stick to uniform navy, gray, or black. If the color is unique, traditional fabrics.
5. Fewer pieces, higher quality
I would suggest also, that if you’re pitching your tent, at least for a while, in a traditional industry, you adhere to the shopping philosophy of buying fewer but better goods. There are some designers that understand the executive/managing partner look very well. Giorgio Armani. Calvin Klein. Sometimes Michael Kors. Brooks Brothers, while not setting any fashion trends, offers nicely made classics for the midrange. Better a few good suits or jackets, with inexpensive tops, than multiple lower end suits. However, this is not about spending the money per se, or brand status. Nobody needs to know, nor will they care in these businesses, what label sits inside your collar, or waistline. It’s about the line, the quality of the fabric, and the color palette.
Throw Caution To The Wind
You do have another option. Full frontal attack. Throw caution to the wind, crying, “It’s about my work, not my clothing,” and push the limits past what I describe here as the breaking point. If you have the stomach, and the personality for this, I say, “You go, girl.”
But I have one word of advice. Pick your battles. If style becomes one of your primary initiatives, you’ll have to secure all other fronts. It’s the Top Gun Maverick model. Do better work than everyone else. Not staff work. Staff work quality can be debated, and recognition depends on the elusive political network. Produce bottom line work that can’t be argued with. Sell more, manufacture more, retain more talent, and your style freedom is guaranteed. I’ll be cheering you on. Wondering where you got that fabulous, aubergine, wide-legged suit, and how you knew to pair it with a pale blue top, skull earrings, and blue nail polish? A little jealous, but cheering.
*Note that of course Corporette is the bible for how to build a conservative wardrobe.