I have always loved fashion. It is about the power of transformation and the feeling I have when I know that a particular piece is just right for me. It gives me confidence. When I have an important meeting or speak at an event, I plan my outfits in advance. Not only because it reduces a lot of stress on that particular day, but also because I want to feel good about myself.
When I think back, I have not always dared to wear what I wanted. In middle and high school, I tried to blend in – like most kids probably. It was the time of baggy pants and sneakers. Frankly, I hated this style. I always found it unflattering. I ended up wearing jeans and sneakers almost every day. When I was 15, I discovered a pair of red sneakers. I loved them because they were so different. (This was the time when we all wore white sneakers, almost like teenagers today. Fashion does go around.) And from then I started to care less about the opinion of others. I wanted to be myself. Fashion became a way to express that.
When I started to work for a multinational group after my PhD, I always was the youngest in the meeting room. In German, people are often addressed with their titles, not just with “Ms/Mr” and their surname. Hence, I was “Frau Doktor” (Ms Doctor, if you translate it literally.). On phone calls, it definitely helped me – it made me appear older. But in meeting rooms it was obvious that I was 25 while my counterparts were mostly in their forties or upwards. While some did not have a problem with my age or title, others saw exactly that as a problem. According to them I was an inexperienced young “girl” (sic!). My way to prove them wrong was delivering results, my skills, my effort to talk to them and understand their point of view of the projects – but also my outfits, my “uniforms to conquer” as one of my friends put it.
I have this unwritten rule that I wear heels at important meetings and events. It may sound superficial but the reason for heels was initially also a power game. I am 1,70 meters tall – put me on 10-12 cm heels and I am at eye level with most of my male counterparts. Furthermore, I think flats, especially round ballerina flats, make me look younger. (I keep thinking about the cute image related to Audrey Hepburn.) I want to be at eye level with my counterparts – if the physical image helps to boost my mental ability, why not use it? Over time, naturally, I got older and more experienced. But the outfits stayed. Why? Because a great outfit and makeup make me feel empowered. Just because an outfit makes me feel empowered or boosts my confidence, it does not mean I wear it because I am insecure. On the contrary, it is one part of my overall strategy to succeed.
While many feminists argue that makeup and feminine outfits have been imposed on us by men, I tend to disagree here. Women freed ourselves from the mental and physical (fashion) corsets imposed by men long ago. Of course, I am not forcing myself into a corset, I do not wear shoes so high I can barely walk in them or only wear make-up for external approval. I think there are beautiful feminine outfits which are comfortable at the same time. A great and feminine outfit does not undermine my competence or skill level. Women do not have to look like men to be heard.
I have met many women who tried to force themselves into an image they thought was correct: a grey suit-pants-combo, a white button-down shirt, kitten heels and almost no make-up or jewellery. Put me next to them and you will call me a “bird of paradise”. At a conference, a consultant commented on my outfit (a brown pencil skirt, orange silk top and brown high-heels): “I could never wear this, it is just unacceptable at my company.” While I know that dress codes are particularly strict in consulting, I still think you can put a twist on your outfit. It does not have to be a dull combo. I think there are plenty of suits or button-down shirts with a nice twist out there, for example. And frankly, even when I had meetings with board members or attended meetings with consultants, I never had the feeling that the whole outfit etiquette thing was that strict. (Note: I am aware that it always depends on the corporate culture and the geography as well.)
For me, it has often worked out to look different. At an event by one of the big four consultancies, I was positively remembered as “the woman in the turquoise skirt” and after a job interview, the woman who hired me later on told me she loved my shoes because they showed my personality (neon-striped high heels).
The reason why I do this is because this is just who I am. There is no need to play a role. Women have to work so much harder to succeed. If we then need to hide, blend in or play a certain role, it is even harder for us. I can only be out there in the “battlefield” and “conquer” if I feel good about myself.
So, what have I been doing over the past eight months, when we have been forced to work from home and one meme after another makes fun of us sitting in front of Zoom meetings in our pyjamas. First of all, work-wise nothing much has changed for me. I travel a lot to meet artisans for Pelagona. But the daily operations I do from home. I never, ever work in my pyjamas, except for when I feel really unwell and work from my bed. But every single day, also on weekends, I get up, shower, change and put my make-up on. Naturally, it is subtler than if I headed out for meetings. But even when I work from home, I want to feel good about myself. I think it is a way of self-respect to not lounge in my pyjamas, without showering or brushing my teeth.
Everyone is different and for some, outfits and makeup are just not part of their strategy to conquer. But for me, they are. I am currently typing this postcard with freshly manicured nails. Even though we have been in lockdown for a week and I will probably not head out to any place but the post office and the supermarket, the manicure gives me the feeling of a somewhat normal work life.
“Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.”Bill Cunningham
At the moment, the reality means to be socially distant, spend a lot of time on our own and keep “functioning”, even though we have no idea what the future may hold. I agree with photographer Bill Cunningham: we need an armour for this – whether it is a power outfit or a comfy home wear combo for you, let’s conquer this week!