Austria in early summer is lovely. It is the right temperature and restaurants have opened their outdoor dining areas, “Schanigarten” as we call them. Gone are the our dark winter coats and as soon as the sun is out, I showcase all my colourful summer items. While writing this Postcard in one of my neighbourhood cafés, I am wearing a pink top and a very colourful blazer with big flowers.
When I walk through the city, most of the outfits I spot are grey, blue/navy, neutral tones and black. I always thought this muted colour scheme is due to the grey weather in winter. But it seems that even in summer, Austrians do not like to go bold. I am totally different. When I worked in Germany, my colleagues said I was like a flamingo, because I always added a pop of colour to the grey office crowd.
I remember when I read etiquette books for my first job applications in finance. Most of them recommended a grey suit-pants combo, a white button-down shirt and flats or kitten heels. No or only little jewellery, nude tones for your nails. Does that not sound like your worst nightmare? It did for me for sure.
For an internship in Brussels, I listened to these books and got some of these muted sets. I was only 20 years old and worked for a Member of European Parliament. Hence, I really did not want to take any risks. But as soon as I arrived at the office on my first day, I felt a bit silly. Most people working at the European Parliament dressed relatively laid back – appropriate and professional, but they did not shy away from adding their own touch. The same was true for the colleagues I met at the UN later on and I learned that I can look professional while also being me.
I applied for a seminar programme with a big consulting firm and for the assessment centre, I opted for a turquoise skirt. Consulting is one of the most conservative industries and nobody would ever recommend to show up at an assessment centre in anything but black or grey. Why did I opt for something different? I have to admit, I have no idea why I packed that outfit, but somehow this skirt gave me confidence. It really was me and I did not feel that I had to hide my personality. If they do not hire me because of the colour of my skirt, their loss. And you know what? People actually remembered me because of said skirt. I later heard them talk about “the woman with the turquoise skirt and her great presentation”.
A couple of months later, I did another round of interviews with the engineering company for which I ended up working in Finance. This time I wore grey and black, BUT I added some neon-striped high heels. Months after I got hired, I met my interviewer again and she told me that she loved my shoes on the interview day and that they reflected my personality. “It was refreshing to meet someone different,” she said.
Of course, there were also other comments. At a conference, one woman told me after analysing my outfit from head to toe (a brown pencil skirt, a silk shirt in rust, a turquoise necklace and brown high heels): “It looks great, but I couldn’t wear that, my position is way too important and I work with so many male CEOs, it would just not be possible.” It still amazes me that she managed to wrap her criticism in what should feel like a compliment. Well, what can I say, I did not tell her what my position was and I also did not brag about how important the people were for whom I worked. I just smiled and said that so far, my outfits had never been a problem. (Fun fact, that outfit ended up being a problem indeed, because that day, the conference programme involved a “surprise walk” through Berlin in the summer heat. I made it despite the 12 cm heels and, until today, nobody ever knew about my misery.)
Why is it so important to talk about how we dress and why am I sharing these stories? Because I would like you to be you. What we wear is also an expression of our personality. I do not know who came up with these etiquette rules about what women can and cannot wear. Furthermore, whoever thought that a woman needs a grey suit to be taken seriously did not realise that this type of work attire is even counterproductive. We do not have to look like men to be successful, we can still be ourselves. Of course, it has to be appropriate, but that does not mean that we have to blend in or, worse, even be overlooked. I loved when Angela Merkel started wearing blazers in bold colours, or Theresa May’s leopard print boots. Even if I did not always agree with their policies, I loved that they were bold and stood out from the grey suits around them. If the most powerful women can do it, so can you.