Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dressing the Part

"Wow! You look nice. Do you always dress up this way?"

"Yes, she does."

The conversation took place in the lobby of the gym where I take an aqua aerobics class three times a week. The participants in the class are used to seeing me in a swimsuit with my hair pulled back in a pony tail, not in my usual work outfit of heels, nylons, skirt, and tailored shirt. I was really surprised that the second person had actually noticed how I dress.

"Do you have to dress this way for work?"

I never know how to answer that question. In fact, my company has a "business casual" policy, but the president of the company I worked for previously was much more traditional. So even though we technically had a "business casual" policy, the men all wore ties and most women wore suited skirts, dresses, or pantsuits. So when I came to work at my current company, I had six suits, several suits, a couple of blazers, lots of tailored shirts--and three pairs of pants.

So guess what I wear?

Besides, dressing professionally puts me in a professional frame of mind. Blame it on my upbringing: I wore a uniform to school for 12 years. Getting dressed in the morning was simple and once I put on my uniform, my brain knew what was coming. In a sense, it was--and is--kind of like dressing for a part in a play. It's much easier to act like an executive when I'm dressed like one. And I find that I am treated like one as well--my words are taken seriously.

So when I heard that the Republican National Committee spent $150,000 to outfit Gov. Palin and her family, I gasped. And then I thought, "They want her to look Presidential." And they want her family to look like they belong as well.

Shortly after I began working, John T. Molloy wrote Dress for Success and then, later, a special edition for women. I found many of his tips useful, especially since neither of my parents were executives and I looked very young. One of his tips was "Dress for the next level"--dress for where you wanted to be, not where you were, indicating that you were ready to move up the corporate ladder. My success with that has been mixed: I'm not a VP, but I've been involved in some high level projects.

Gov. Palin has a more difficult job: she has to look like she belongs in D.C. but not lose her "common touch." Her wardrobe has to reflect taste, quality, fit well, and not be ostentatious. No "obvious" labels. She has to exude self-confidence and her clothes have to show that. The Political Mavens are harsh: remember the hatchet job they did on the outfits Mrs. Roberts chose for herself and her children when Justice Roberts was sworn in? And the comments about Sen. Clinton and her choice in pantsuits? Or Barbara Bush and her pearls? Or the gown Rosalyn Carter wore to Mr. Carter's inauguration?

I hate to think how my readywear suits from Macy's and no-brand shoes would fare under close scrutiny.

And if those red peep-toe pumps are a size 8 and come up for auction, I might just have to bid on them. :)

UPDATE: On the way to BART this morning, the radio newscaster referred to a recent study that found that, in order to be successful, female politicians need to be attractive and confident while male politicians only need to be confident. (Sorry--I didn't catch the name of the institution that did this study.) The female newscaster and the male DJ both seemed surprised--after all, this is 2008!

I'm not.

I found my first job through a headhunter, who flat out told me that I would be easy to place because I was clean, neat, and reasonably attractive. My surprise must have shown on my face because she went on to clarify what she meant: I wasn't grossly obese, I didn't have any distracting moles or birthmarks or scars. The fact that I was intelligent was almost a handicap--employers would worry that I was too qualified for an entry-level job, would become bored quickly, and would leave. (This was during the Carter economy and the unemployment rate was in double digits.)

When I found myself unemployed a couple of years ago and back in the job market, Hubs suggested I dye my hair "to look younger." Gray hair makes a man look "distinguished" but makes a woman look "old." Mrs. Pelosi is a grandmother, as is Senator Feinstein--yet neither of them have a gray hair on their head. With five children, I'm sure Gov. Palin also has a few gray hairs of her own, too, artfully hidden among her highlights.

This physical double standard is a fact of life and I suspect it has roots in our biology. If so, it's going to take active effort on the part of both men and women to overcome it.