What happens when you leave behind one career, and its style tribe, for another?
The idea of “dressing for success”, certainly for women, is one complicated by the invisible but lethal tripwires of fashion faux pas. Come for a job interview, in NYC media, wearing sheer, flesh-toned pantyhose, let alone plain black pumps, and you might as well go home. But show up for work in the boys’ clubs of banking, law or finance in peep-toe pumps and you’ve marked yourself as Stupid.
A dress code of any sort is something of a risible notion for most freelance writers, for whom switching from PJs to sweats is a typical fashion decision as we start the workday, commuting from bed to desk. Of course we dress up for meetings and media events; last year I was on CNN and BBC television, and now have my go-to outfit ready, a cashmere turtleneck and black blazer.
I hate summer because it’s so much easier to look really, really bad.
In my three newspaper staff jobs, it was clear from the start what the style was — “Fashion? Feh! I’m too busy seeking Truth.” Or some equally tedious variation.
It was like high school all over agan, the peer pressure to look like the cool kids. At the Globe and Mail, Canada’s respected and prestigious national daily (then the only one), one woman reporter wore knee socks, sandals and a skirt. Um, seriously? But the larger message was a good one — get the story first and best, and who cares what you’re wearing?
At the Montreal Gazette, to my horror and disappointment, it was all about the low-cut sweaters and short skirts. Ugh. One young woman wore long dresses cut so tightly you could practically read the label on her panties. At the Daily News, it was back to whatever-world. Your best pick was anything you could run fast in or do a ten-hour stakeout in 80 degree heat.
I’ve never, thank God, worked in a place where Manolos or Choos or Chanel were de rigueur. I love to dress up and to dress well, but not as a daily, I’m-paying-for-it uniform, the rules unspokenly enforced by chilly gazes.
For most people, it isn’t easy to purge a closet, especially when it’s full of items that were once meaningful. Christos Garkinos, co-owner of high-end Los Angeles consignment shop DecadesTwo, says he often has to coach people as they work up the gumption to relinquish items from their former selves to his boutique. And he often gets calls days later, when a client regrets having let go of an item.
One client, he says, sat on her bed and shivered with emotion as he sorted through her wardrobe. “I actually would have to stop and give her reassuring hugs and have her give ‘permission’ to let her clothes go,” he says.
People often feel the need to reinvent themselves when they reach midlife or the years before retirement, says Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, a psychologist in West Allenhurst, N.J. It’s common for people like Ms. Kan to feel that they’ve compromised too much of themselves for their job or their marriage, and to want to rectify that by starting afresh.
I suspect that the pace of change in technology and business also contributes to people’s sense that it’s time to change skins. Our jobs and industries keep moving, morphing, and disappearing, creating opportunities for image changes—and the fear that we’ll need to change, whether we like it or not.
Despite the lure of letting go, Dr. Holstein suggests avoiding hasty decisions to leave a job or home or even to toss out significant portions of your closet. And she warns against purging photos and mementos—items that can never be replaced if your feelings change later. “The average person has a natural pull to stay connected to who they were,” she says.
Have you changed how you dress as your work or career has changed? How?