How I Found My Niche of Professional Attire



Introduction

People say to “never judge a book by its cover,” but we all still do it. This habit–constantly judging others knowingly and unknowingly–is why I am doing my Congressional Award personal development project on managing appearances.

There have been multiple times where I have been openly judged because of my gender and my lack of femininity. Other times, when I put some effort into my appearance, people have assumed that I was incapable of preforming academic tasks.

Although I think open-mindedness is necessary to see beyond ourselves, it is impossible to live non-judgmentally. Our judgments about others determines our feelings towards them; most of the time we judge others unknowingly. As a result, the quote, “do not judge a book by its cover,” is only partially effective, and it needs to be supplemented by making an effort into our appearance, and by exploring how our unconscious biases effects our perception of others. This article addresses the easy part–putting effort into our appearance. I explain why I think that professional attire can advance my career goal. Additionally, I explain what I think professional attire looks like in different scenarios.

Note: One failing of my article is that I focus on professional attire mainly worn by upper-class, white women in the Western world. If you are interested in women’s professional attire from other parts of the world, I recommend seeking out fashion-savvy women from those areas.

Like most young people, I have big dreams. I want to make sure that I set myself up for success. Specifically, I know that I cannot be successful purely on my own merit; I need opportunities, teachers, friends, and mentors to help me. As a result, I have to care about how people perceive and judge me, which includes my appearance. Not only does attractiveness factor into someone’s perceived trustworthiness and intelligence, but it also factors into their pay check.

Most of my dreams are related to my academics and future occupation. In order for me to achieve the success I desire, I need others to perceive me as competent. Everyone (including myself) will judge others based on their appearance. I want to be in charge of my impression.

I also want to address the elephant in the room: I do not think appreciating standard professional attire is degrading towards women. Anything that is subjective–arts, fashion, and beauty–involves personal preferences, standards, and beliefs. This is true of this article too. In this article, I will discuss two controversial topics: modesty and gender roles. Some people see the world differently than me, and I accept that not any one opinion is the correct one. Opinions are opinions for reason; they are not always based in fact.

Furthermore, I site stylists’ opinions as “facts” throughout this article. These “facts” are what I currently perceive to be the current standard for women, but they might not be the standard in the future. I hope that diversity and inclusion efforts can change the standard of what professional attire looks like in the Western world, so that women of all backgrounds can wear what is they deem is appropriate without getting weird stares and comments. That being said, I do not think denying the current standards will help women succeed, but I think that there is room for incremental change until non-Western and non-Caucasian-driven professional attire becomes universally accepted. Overall, women need to care about their appearance or they will be considered unprofessional, sloppy, or stupid. I cannot afford to have that happen to me… especially, if these assumptions are only based on my appearance.

Without further ado, here is how I found my niche of professional attire.

Clothing

Although appearing competent and professional attire go hand-in-hand, I want to have fun with my appearance too. I thought about how I could find my ‘style-niche’ inside of the broader category of professional attire.

I love the elegant outfits in Downton Abbey, but the complex designs of the Art Deco period are dated. In addition, I am a very simple and straight-forward person; I need clothing that is simple, but I want clothing that is elegant. Kate Middleton is someone who has mastered my desired look.

Photo of Kate Middleton from a The Daily Mail article It’s just makeup!’ Duchess of Cambridge insists she’s NOT ‘beautiful or perfect by Siofra Brennan and Tom Kelly. I did not read this article, and I did not use it for my congressional award project.

Kate Middleton’s style commands respect and authority. Her dress is modest (provides skin coverage and lacks flashy branding), timeless, and elegant.

Kate Middleton was a great starting point for my style journey; I watched documentaries on 1900s Royal British fashion, and I read articles about more recent royal fashions. As I consumed more media, however, I realized that women I thought were stylish had something in common: politics.

Although Kate Middleton is not a divisive political figure, she is in the political limelight. As it turns out, many female politicians, and the wives of politicians project the look I want. Examining women in politics helped me find inspiration.

I learned about why women in politics care about their outfits. Although short, one of the most helpful articles I read was The fashion of politics by Robin Givhan at The Washington Post. Givhan examines politician’s outfits, and explains what those outfits convey to their perspective audiences. Unlike many of the articles I read for this project, Givhan’s article does not pick on women for their clothing choices; instead, he analyses how each politician’s outfit fits into their broader political scheme. For example, some politicians want to be viewed as a competent professionals, so they dress formally. On the other hand, some politicians want to be viewed as ‘regular-Joes,’ so they dress informally.

Articles worn by my political style icons have two things common: discrete or hidden branding, and traditionally modest skin coverage.

“And her sleeves are always rolled up — literally and metaphorically… Warren has adopted the traditional aesthetic of male politicians, who signal their intention to move from abstract policy promises into frank, regular-folk talk by removing their suit jackets and rolling up their shirt sleeves” – Robin Givhan.
Original Photo taken by Chip Somodevilla at Getty Images.

Discrete or Hidden Branding

It is often hard to tell where my icons purchased their clothes. According to the 17th edition of The Emily Post Etiquette Guide to Manners, “the message that clothes send often matters more than the clothes themselves.” I think most branding looks flashy and immodest. It is like taking a picture with money: tacky.

I also have an ethical reason to avoid branding; many popular clothing brands treat their workers terribly. In the past, I have bought clothing from Nike, Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Forever 21. However, I have made a commitment to no longer purchase items from unethical fashion companies. Here are some things these companies share: child labor, unlivable wages, and poor working conditions.

I still wear the branded items that I have purchased (or received) from immoral companies. There is no logic in throwing out clothing that I already own. It is environmentally and financially wasteful. (I still feel shameful when I am wearing the clothing though.) Again, I do not buy from the companies I listed anymore. I do not want to add to the problem. Instead, I buy clothing that is Fair Trade, and or is listed as “Made in America.” (yes, I am aware that these labels are problematic for other reasons). If I cannot find an ethical non-branded item, I am fine with wearing an ethically made item with a small logo. In other words, I try to wear branded items before I sacrifice my ethics.

Note: Although I am a firm believer in brand modesty, I see no reason for women to not to wear branded clothing. Some women value the clothing I view as tacky, and it is great they find value in their clothes. It is just not for me.

Traditional Modesty

I value and enjoy traditionally modest clothing. No, this does not mean that I wear sweaters in 100-degree heat. Nor does it mean that I shame women who wear bikinis. It does, however, mean that I like to wear modest clothing. In other words, I view traditionally modest clothing is a stylistic choice rather than a virtue. In fact, one of my favorite style icons is Nicki Minaj, who’s fashion choices often create controversy. Nicki Minaj’s Queen album cover illustrates that upholding traditional modesty is a stylistic choice that can be broken freely.

A zoomed-in photo of Nicki Minaj’s album cover for Queen. Although this photo is zoomed-in, and thus, censored, the elegance and intricacy of Nicki Minaj’s cover is still apparent.

According to the blog Diary of an Autodidact, a lot of what traditional modesty promotes is inherently sexist because it implies “that women’s bodies are a source of sin.” [I happen to agree with this statement, but Autodidact implicates religion whereas I am not trying to. As I stated above, an opinion is an opinion, and I will respect other’s religious values.] Despite this, I think it is important to talk about women’s modesty in a professional setting. Traditional modesty is not valued or expected in all occupational fields. For example, Nicki Minaj wears revealing clothing because her industry allows her to express herself without covering up. In most fields, however, modesty is a social norm. As a result, it is often viewed as inappropriate for women to break that norm. Furthermore, some fashion experts believe that immodest dress can negatively impact a woman’s reputation.

The more skin you show, the more power you give away,” said Ms. Jones, who frequently instructs her clients on how to show up to high-level interviews “not looking like they were going out for dinner.”

Women Learn to Dress for Success by Catherine Chapman at The New York Times

The quote above is somewhat controversial because many women can get away with using outfits for multiple situations. In addition, many assumptions made about women who dress ‘deviantly’ are old-fashioned and wrong. Unfortunately, these assumptions prevail, and women need to take these assumptions into account when deciding what to wear.

Overall, I think each person needs to look at themselves critically and ask “is my outfit and color scheme appropriate for what I am about to do? Does my appearance align with my goals? Is my outfit appropriate for my audience (i.e. children, night out, etc…)?”

According to the 17th edition of The Emily Post Etiquette Guide to Manners, “dressing with consideration is also rooted in respect for cultural, religious, and regional customs.” I think that Post’s reason for dressing conservatively is more adept because it brings light to cultural and traditional norms that might still be followed. Again, each person needs to do their own research on professional style because cultural context is key.

Unfortunately, many people (especially women) may feel oppressed because of these norms. I am lucky my style is socially acceptable, but I want to encourage women acknowledge this boundary, and know that I fully accept their style either way.

Color Theory: A Future Guide

I think color theory is more of a trend and less of a factually based theory. However, I thought I should give it a shot. Considering that most of the clothing I already own fit into my color-season, color theory has worked out well for me; although, this is just a coincidence.

An introductory video about color theory by Audrey Coyne.

From a series of videos on color theory, I have concluded that I have: a cool undertone, deep hair, and deep eyes. Here is a picture of me in the sunlight without makeup or photo filtering:

I am in the middle. My sister is on the left, and my mother is on the right.

Since I have a cool undertone, deep hair, and deep eyes, I use the winter color season.

Winter Colour Palette by infinitcloset.com. These are the colors that look the best on ‘winter season’ people.

Luckily for me, most of my clothes fit into the winter color palette.

According to infinitcloset.com, “the colors in the Winter palette are high contrast, cool and either dark or bright. Winters suit light colors, but they need to be icy tones and not pastels. They cannot be greyed out or dilluted.

I will use color theory as a reference when I am buying clothing in the future. However, I will not treat color theory as doctrine. Instead, I will use it as a way to filter out clothing items when I shop.

Style in practice

Disclaimer

I do not list what is in my closet in this section. First, the organization apps do not work as well as the app’s sample photos portray. Next, I do not want others to compare their closet to mine. I used to compare my wardrobe to influencers’ wardrobes. I felt bad about my shoddy, cheap clothes and uncohesive closet. Although I am not an influencer, I still fear that someone trying to buy things they do not need or want in order to make their wardrobe look like mine. Instead, I want to encourage my readers to think about how others perceive them. I also want my readers to find what they like versus mindlessnessly copying someone else’s style.

Lastly, I own many unethically made items, and I do not want to encourage others to buy them. Ethically made clothing is expensive, and thus, unrealistic for many people. However, I still think it is shameful to encourage others to buy unethical clothing by posting pictures of my closet.

Finding inspiration

I used Pinterest and DuckDuckGo to get inspiration for my future wardrobe. I tried to find images that had pieces similar to those I already own. Again, I am not going to post my sample pictures because there are tons. Plus, this article is already very long. The primary style influencers I used were: Ivanka Trump, Kate Middleton, Kamala Harris, Hilary Clinton, Agata Duda, Paris Hilton, Meghan Markle, and Kate Spade.

The Sylebook Clothing App

As of May 2020, the Stylebook Clothing App is $2.99 on the iOS App Store.

The app helps plan outfits by allowing the user to take photos of their clothes and automatically ‘photoshops’ a white background behind the clothing. This makes the outfit calendar look clean and elegant.

I also imported some of my inspiration photos, so that I have reminders of what look I am going for. This is especially important because if I can see that an article of clothing does not meet my style standard, I will not buy it on impulse.

A picture of the Stylebook calendar feature. Image source: Stylebook.

In addition, I made a short list about the clothing articles that fit into my style.

  • simple in color, but not always in cut
  • solid color
  • bold winter colors
  • modest
  • does not require special cleaning
  • form fitting
  • improvements*
    • fair trade (or)
    • made in America

This list will help me shop in the future; put simply, I will use my list as a clothing grading rubric.

* Although I did not discuss ethical fashion in this article, I want to make a follow up article focusing on these concepts.

Corrections

In early drafts of this article, I used the word “fashion.” Then, I read Fashion’s potential to influence politics and culture by Henry Navarro Delgado, a professor of fashion at Ryerson University, who writes:

“Pick your preferred political graphic T-shirt or wear the colors of your party of choice. Just remember that isn’t fashion, unless most everybody else decides to dress the same for a while. In which case, your options are: Embrace your fashionable status or change either your outfit or political affiliation.”

As a result, I removed “fashion” and replaced it with “style” in later drafts.

I care about the quality of my work, and I want to be accurate and responsible. So, if you see me using “fashion” incorrectly, please email me.

Fashion resources I recommend