Working It: Dressing To Fit In And To Stand Out

ANNA MURPHY on how to dress with Monday to Friday confidence …

Jason Lloyd Evans
Jason Lloyd Evans

As Virginia Woolf wrote in her novel Orlando in 1928, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” This is why what you wear to work should be more than just an office-appropriate uniform. It should be part of your arsenal. “Dress like you are going to meet your worst enemy today,” is how Coco Chanel once put it. And that wasn’t even for the office. Imagine her on the topic of Monday-to-Friday garb. Terrifying.

In his best-selling book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell looks at the high-speed subconscious processing we humans use, much of which is based on visual clues. It can take us seconds to make up our mind about a new person, and once we have done so, well, we have done so. A mind made up is precisely that. It may be right, it may be wrong, but it’s inescapable: how you look, how you dress, matters.

In most workplaces a process of evaluation is ongoing. Which can feel stressful looked at in one light, but in another offers exciting opportunities for advancement. It’s never too late, in other words, or at least it shouldn’t be, and if you suspect it might be, it’s time to move on.

Sure, the intricacies of your attire may vary depending on where you work. Every office has its own codes, and first off it behoves you to work out what they are. Indeed, one of the most useful skills you can develop en route to finding your style more generally is to look closely at other people. Observe your colleagues as an anthropologist might, because they are – whether aware of it or not – a kind of tribe. There may well be outliers, people who deliberately stand out through their clothing choices, but there will be a middle ground. Plot it carefully. Do the women wear trousers or dresses and skirts? If the latter, what is the default skirt length? What about heel heights? Is the overall look polished or more laidback? What chimes with your personal style and what doesn’t?

Jason Lloyd Evans
Jason Lloyd Evans

How can you dress to fit in, but also – just as importantly – to stand out? Because among your colleagues there will be one or two women at least who have got a style signature which is their office equivalent of that hi-vis jacket again. And hi-vis dressing is important for the woman on the way up. You want to work out what your version is. You want to blend in and stand out at one and the same time. Sounds impossible, but it can be done.

Your hi-vis jacket might, in fact, be just that, by which I don’t mean the bright orange affair favoured by road sweepers, but a similarly hot-hued blazer, sharply tailored in wool, with defined shoulders to make you feel strong. Those padded shoulders ape the top-heavy triangularity of a muscular body; they signal physical strength. The shapeshifting abilities of the power jacket makes it my favourite office miracle worker.

American designer Norma Kamali was one of the first to tweak men’s tailoring for women in the 1980s. “Everyone talks about the 1970s as being the birth of feminism,” she said once, “but for me the ’80s were really about feminism in practical use. The silhouette I was doing – broad shoulders and thin hips – was my way of reinterpreting masculine power, but with humour.”

Our subconscious – and that of the people we work with – registers that semaphoring, even if we don’t realise it’s happening. We feel different in a hi-vis jacket. Colleagues look at us differently. Or it might be a hi-vis blouse, jewel-hued and worn under otherwise restrained suiting. Or a hi-vis necklace. Even a lipstick. You get the idea.

Certainly it makes sense to focus your attention on your top half because that, if you think about it, is where other people’s attention tends to be focused in the office. What is seen from desk level up is what really matters. I always wear some jewellery, and/or have an interesting neckline, and/or wear some bright colour, even if it’s only in the form of that lipstick.

Of course, workplace attire should communicate competency, not craziness, but it should absolutely not add up to boring. You want to look like you at your most dynamic.

Extract from How Not To Wear Black: Find Your Style, Create Your Forever Wardrobe, DK, Anna Murphy.

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