Sunday, 4 August 2013

Wearing Questions


MANY YEARS AGO, I worked for an enormous multinational IT and Management Consultancy firm as a Principal Consultant.

My work for a succession of blue chip companies involved analysis of complex business needs, problem solving, encouraging consensus solutions and then project and programme managing the agreed plans.

The job was demanding … not least because clients paying over £2,000 a day for your advice have a lot of expectations.


And life in that kind of environment runs a lot more smoothly if you play the image game … fulfil a few stereotypes … in order to help tick the right boxes.

Although the work was intense, and although I was moonlighting in my hotel room at night by helping to build and run an important human rights campaign, I still also found time to get involved in setting up the UK version of the corporation's works council.

I also represented the whole UK workforce of 8,600 staff in the corporation's International Works Council too. I became a regular visitor to the Paris headquarters, as well as subsidiaries all over Europe.

Back in Britain, along with 11 other elected representatives, we thoroughly challenged the UK board on repeated occasions, adding to the stresses by usually having to work under non-disclosure conditions.

And in the end, the whole thing became too much for many of us. We woke up one morning to the surprising realisation that seven out of twelve of us had quite independently applied for a voluntary redundancy scheme which we had helped persuade the company to offer in place of a mandatory one.

Life changing

The seven of us all crashed out of the company at the same time. In my own case it was doubly embarrassing for the company as my peers had just re-elected me for another term.

Big fanfare re-election one day. Goodbye the next.

And that was the end of my career in consultancy at such a high level.

The end of working in IT consultancy overall, in fact. Time for a complete career change.

Thus it was that the company, perhaps a little chastened by reflecting on what had happened, decided to hold one last get-together for us departed consultants at a nice hotel in London.

There we ate and drank and were merry together for one last time … discussing with even greater freedom our views on what had just happened with the Directors who had been our colleagues.

But this story isn't about that.

Dress code

The next morning, nursing a hangover, I had arranged to meet another woman from my former team, as she was staying at the same hotel on assignment.

I stationed myself in the hotel lobby and was surprised when my erstwhile colleague's first words were, "I've never seen you in jeans before!".

Apparently my casual attire came as a great shock. She had always naturally only ever seen me wearing smart dresses or skirt suits.

I say "naturally" because, when at work, I wear work clothes.

And, although I have occasionally tried trouser suits, I had decided they didn't really suit me for work … and some men you encounter just don't like them.

I certainly would not be seen by a blue chip high paying client in the clothes I wear around the house, or in anything that would cause them to question my professionalism.

But I'll come back to those house clothes in a moment.


Women get a lot of this kind of policing. Often, surprisingly, by other women … who notice and appraise your clothing with far more expertise than men.

Having said that, I recall one evening's project team social in the same company where a male consultant of equivalent grade saw fit to lambast me about the colourful leggings I had chosen for a trip to the pub.

In terms of fashionista rules he was right, actually. The leggings had once been fashionable seven or eight years previously, and the herd had moved on. I should instead have been wearing black or grey, and then there would have been no raised eyebrows.

Nevertheless, I told him what I thought of his opinion. It was not a professional way to address a peer. And we proceeded to the pub.

Fast forward

Fast forward about 12-15 years, in very different working surroundings, and I find that things have not entirely changed.

Some months ago, whilst working in the NHS, a colleague once again remarked that they had only ever seen me in smart dresses.

I don't know whether they pictured this was how I clean the toilet.

In fact, my recent fondness for very stretchy and comfortable-fitting dresses from Phase Eight had become a bit of a standing joke, causing me to pause and question what I was doing whenever I saw and bought another one that I liked.

This was the point. I had found a make of clothes that worked well for me. The sizing was so reliable, and the fit so good, that I didn't even have to try dresses on in the shop. 95% of the time I could buy straight off the hanger. And I loved the way the cut of this make flattered my figure.

When a formula works that well, and fits with the kind of image you want to project in the workplace, why would you knowingly reject it?

But you never know with these kinds of questions whether the assumptions run deeper.

Do people assume, without a complete picture of what else is in your wardrobe, and your rationale for style and place, that there is something else behind your consistency?

Something odd?

Something they wouldn't assume about other women or venture to query?

All change

This is where it all gets ironic.

Because those smart dresses only come out when I have something 'smart' to do.

In fact, I get my standards of dress very much from my mother, who came from a generation that was never knowingly under-dressed in public.

She imbued in me a strong awareness of what to wear in the presence of others, whilst having a very different standard when relaxing in private.

I don't think anyone would have thought to question her about it though. Because, of course, there was no half-thought-out pop psychology theory looking for evidence in her case.

And now, as I am suddenly spending a lot more time at home and not charging people for my expertise so much, the balance of demand on my wardrobe has changed accordingly.

Comfort and convenience

As a creative worker, I am no stranger to doing some of my most creative work in my nightwear and dressing gown. Why risk losing a good waking idea by prioritising time to change into day wear?

So long as you're not hacking my web cam this should not concern you.

The rest of the time I wear mostly leggings and T-shirts … because these are comfortable, practical, easy to coordinate, easy to wash and (most importantly) cheap. If it is chilly I will add to these a fleece.

I like this combination particularly because it is easy to disappear.

Whilst I don't have a burning urge to merge completely as one of the herd, there are times when I have no particular desire to stand out either.

Looking distinctive is for when you are needing to be so.

In grannyland this is less and less called for though. So chain store casual clothes that everyone else is buying and wearing do make some sense in that respect.

And yet, even in this alternate universe that I've moved to, I discover that the style Police are still lurking ready to pounce.

I was chatting to a neighbour the other day. She was being quite complimentary. She noticed how slim I had become in recent months as the result of a very successful diet.

She reckoned I had a great figure and that my figure-hugging leggings really showed this off. I was duly flattered.

And then she put her head on one side and said,

"But how come we never see you in a dress?"

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