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Thoughtful Dressing | Manolo for the Big Girl

Thoughtful Dressing

Yesterday I was in a meeting with a client –that’s right, I’m going global– and the client brought in a couple who were also making a pitch. Awkward. But, as they walked in, my eyes nearly went out on stalks. He was dressed in his very finest Generic White Guy Horrible Plaid Shorts, a charming death metal tee and bizarrely flat-ironed hair. She was resplendent in a white jersey gypsy skirt tied in various places for maximum skin exposure, a flimsy tanktop with bra straps on full display (and lest anyone accuse me of not being thankful for small mercies, I give her credit for actually wearing a bra) and a cheap bag. They both had ridiculous sunglasses perched on their heads.

To.

a.

meeting.

I liketa died. This isn’t a formal place but there’s a difference between laid-back professional and going The Full McConaughey.

I wonder what they thought about what message they were sending by arriving in their Bonnaroo best. My guess is they didn’t think at all.

I’ve had several of you write in over the years asking for styling advice for situations where you’ll be making your first impression and my answer is always the same: Be Thoughtful.

We’ve got to assume fatness counts against us in the interview process. I’m not saying it always does, but it’s a mean old world out there and it’s better to err on the side of caution, so we’ve got to dress even more thoughtfully than maybe we otherwise would.

What do I mean by thoughtful dressing? Let’s take what I wore to a meeting yesterday and the thought process behind it:

Shoes: Olive snub-toed snakeskin flats from All Black. Normally I’d wear heels, but now that I’m in a more openly macho culture, I didn’t want to threaten anyone’s delicate manhood by standing a foot taller than they do instead of my normal six inches. I know, I rolled my eyes too, but I also put on the flats.

Pants: The denim trousers from Coldwater Creek I mentioned a few weeks ago. This is an informal place, so denim is appropriate, but there’s a difference between a tailored pair of trousers  and your grungy clam diggers. Admittedly this is a fine line to walk and if you’re going to be interviewing or meeting with someone who was old enough to fight in WWII you  might want to err on the side of caution. It’s an overstatement of course, but to a certain generation, denim will always be “play clothes” so skip the dungarees if you want the job.

Belt: I used a brightly-colored thin shawl popular with the women here as a belt.  I wanted to incorporate some local flavor and convey the message I’m not some Ugly American coming down to take all their money and ransack their culture, but I also know I’m not Mexican and won’t insult them by coming “in costume”.

Sweater: Fair skin is a sign of beauty here and to a degree social status. I’m pretty much the fairest in the land, or at least this sleepy seaside village, so a dove gray sweater that accentuates my Snow White complexion is an understated way of subtly emphasizing these indicators.

Jewelry: A pair of sparkly 1940’s earrings say “classic, but not common” while a single piece of elegant fine jewelry worn casually can say “I’m successful enough that I don’t have to be showy.”

Bag: The Birkin, of course. Not that I expected my client would have any inkling as to what the bag supposedly means, but people can recognize quality, so a well-made leather bag in a classic design is a way to say you’re stylish but serious. You appreciate quality and neither you nor your bag are throwaway trends.

Hair: Clean, naturally. I left it curly because I wanted to fit in as much as possible and curly hair here is much more common and professionally acceptable than it is in the states (there is a whole book to be written about anti-curl bias, but I’m not going to be the one to do it).

Makeup: They like a heavier hand with the old makeup trowel down here so I dialed it up just a bit. Obviously this is regional. What may seem Spartan in Georgia might read as Deranged Pageant Queen in Vermont. A barefaced Connecticut girl might look positively sickly in Dallas.

Grooming: Scrubbed clean and pink as a piglet of course, but also did my necessary facial hair maintenance. My eyebrows in their natural state yearn to become one, and before my lovely lovely laser hair removal I could’ve given an Amish farmer a run for his money. We can rage against it as much as we want to, but generally speaking if a man shows up half-shaved or a woman shows up in a serious unibrow, that’s not saying “I’m So Serious I Don’t Care About Stupid Things Like Eyebrows” it’s saying “I’m socially tone deaf or haven’t put thought into the message I’m sending, and I’ll be equally tone deaf and thoughtless while representing your company.”

Fair, maybe not always, but them’s the breaks.

And yes, I got the client. Of course it’s because I’m naturally the greatest thing since sliced Botox, but my thoughtful dressing didn’t hurt my cause the way the other folks’ thoughtless dressing hurt theirs.

How do I know?

Because when I was invited to stay and the under-dressed applicants were asked to leave, the door was locked and the two senior partners laughed.

 

 

 

 

32 Responses to “Thoughtful Dressing”

  1. Liz June 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    My SO recently did a series of interviews for her company. She came home with total horror stories about how inappropriately the applicants dressed.

    One guy took the “please dress comfortably” comment made on the phone to mean “ripped jeans, dirty t-shirt and flip-flops”. A number of the women showed waaaay too much cleavage and/or visible bras. (I’m chesty, too, but I avoid the adult entertainment look.) She had a problem with about 3/4 of them wrt grooming.

    She also had problems with their attitude. A number of them took calls in front of her. Very few stood up, made eye contact and shook her hand as she walked in. (She sits every applicant down at her desk, then walks into the office, to see how they respond to strangers.)

    I totally agree with you about being thoughtless. That’s a far bigger issue in interviews than weight.

  2. wildflower June 13, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Curly hair can be professionally unacceptable? Fair skin vs. tan skin as status indicators?

    What you say may well be true, but it sure is sad.

    I mean, careful grooming and dressing are one thing, but completely changing your god-given looks to fit others’ standards?

    This makes me sad. It’s understandable, but sad.

  3. Evie June 13, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Once again, thank you for this! I’m a PhD student in California, and you wouldn’t believe the getups some of my fellow students wear for the more professional aspects of this gig. It’s the same situation as your dress for success buddies at the pitch meeting – no one bothers telling you why you’re not getting respect, job offers, teaching assignments, or whatever…you just don’t get them.

    Favorite example: One female student decided there was nothing at all wrong with wearing a “sexy (blank)” costume to teach her undergraduates on Halloween. I’m pretty sure she’s no longer in the program…

  4. Miss Plumcake June 13, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    @Wildflower: Me too, sister. Me too.

  5. Klee June 13, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    When I was a business owner, I had applicants come in dressed like they were on their way to a nightclub, 6inch platforms and drenched in prefume. Men too-ripped tees, tight shirt unbuttoned to their waist, bathed in cologne.
    Yesterday I took the sommelier exam (and passed! Yah!). There were people there in flipflops and tees shirts (I wore a Lauren dress in a solid but striking color and neutral gucci pumps). There were many important people in the field to network with who taught and/or sat in on the exam. The master sommelier (and big fish in my new pond) gave me his business card. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the class he gave his card to.
    And it doesn’t take money to dress well either. I get my dresses on deep sale. The gucci shoes? Ebay at 20% their retail cost. I spent less than $100 on the total outfit and looked like a million bucks.

  6. Klee June 13, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    That shuolda been perfume

  7. Lorraine June 13, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    I’ll never understand how people don’t “get” what’s appropriate/inappropriate for an interview. Why can’t they imagine what they look like to other people? But then again I’ve seen people wearing flipflops at a large international law firm. Mindblowing.

  8. Jophiel June 13, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

    Excellent and timely post, Miss Plumcake.

    Could you offer your thoughts on the “single piece of elegant fine jewelry”? I was thinking a ring seemed the simplest (middle finger, left hand for a righty who types a lot), but perhaps that’s too fraught with social significance?

  9. Ms. Amy June 14, 2012 at 1:44 am #

    Ah. I so appreciate your thoughts on this topic! I’m an Art teacher. Teachers are supposed to look professional at school. But, ahem, I see a lot of un-tucked Polo’s with a side of khaki. Argh! It drives me crazy; they are half-way there! Just.tuck.it.in.

    Anyhoo. I, along with the Phys. Ed. teachers, are permitted to dress slightly more casually as we deal with “messier” subjects. I can’t tell you how many times a day I hear “you have [this/that/the other] on you!” I handle it by wearing a lot of black/dark prints with a lot of tunics. If any black clothing gets stained (nickel sized area or smaller), I just color it with a permanent marker and earmark it as “for school only.” Lame? Yes. Necessary? Of course.

    Next week I have to attend a national education conference. I will also be presenting. The conference is at a Disney World resort. So, er, I was perplexed on how to dress. Truthfully, I just want to throw on some jeans and do this thing. However, my State Superintendent for schools will be in attendance, so, er, um, maybe not.

    I so needed this great reminder of how dressing sets a tone.

    So, at this conference? I’ll be the one in pressed black dress pants, starched white shirt, and a heavy, ethnic, free-trade, necklace (I am an art teacher after all!).

  10. Brigitte June 14, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    I agree fatness counts against us in the interview process, and for certain jobs, being a woman does as well. I’ve sometimes felt doubly screwed for being a fat woman; your tips are so to the point! Cheap clothes on big girls are just SO much cheap fabric, it’s difficult to ignore the cheap, low-quality image they give the wearer. Cheapness works in such a subtle way, too. People think others don’t notice the falling, badly turnes hem, or how that pleather purse, like, _totally_ looks real… except they do. They do notice the cheapness, except they don’t think your stuff is cheap, they think YOU are cheap.

    I work in sales, where image counts for a lot, and I wouldn’t be nearly as successful as I am if I didn’t compensate for my fatness in some way. I mean, it helps that I’m wonderful and a goddess and awesome at my job, but I do feel like there’s just that extra effort I need to give because I’m a big girl. Thankfully, it’s now almost second-nature, so it doesn’t feel like much of an effort. But I do remember being younger and I cringe at stuff I wore when I first started my carreer 10 years ago. Thank god I smartened up!

  11. La Petite Acadienne June 14, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    I completely agree with you about dressing appropriately for the occasion, but I think that many of us are in the minority, it appears. I got into a rather heated discussion on an online forum about this very thing.

    I had gone out to dinner a few years ago at a nice (not top-of-the-line, but still very nice) Greek restaurant while 7 months pregnant, and STILL pulled it together with a cute dress and kitten-heeled sandals. The “gentleman” at the next table was wearing dirty, paint-spattered, ripped shorts and a t-shirt, and Crocs!

    But when I expressed my distaste in that forum, I was basically told six ways from Sunday that I was superficial, judgmental, a snob, and that if people can afford to eat at any given restaurant, then they have the right to wear whatever they want. And that if there’s no dress code, that people have the right to wear whatever they want. I protested that dress codes only became necessary because some people have no freaking clue what attire is appropriate when dining out, but it fell on deaf ears. To their mind, no formal dress code = right to wear tattered shorts and Crocs. They were even defending the idea of wearing whatever they wanted to a FUNERAL, because if they show up to pay their respects, then that should be the only thing that matters — their attire should not be a factor.

    And yes, Plummy, I could hear you in my head the entire time, and you were using very unladylike language.

  12. La Petite Acadienne June 14, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    Seriously, it was depressing. These otherwise intelligent, articulate women were basically saying that everybody has the right to wear whatever they darned well please, where ever they darned well please, unless there is a formal dress code posted. Weddings? Wear what you want. Funerals? Wear what you want. Eating out at a nice restaurant? Wear what you want. It was as though the concept of “etiquette” didn’t even exist. And the idea of being thoughtful towards the other people present? HA! It was to laugh. If those other people didn’t like it, they didn’t have to look.

    I wound up having to bow out of the debate, because there was just no reasoning with people who think that there’s nothing wrong with wearing a hot-pink minidress to a funeral.

  13. Madame Suggia June 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Do. Not. Get. Me. Started. On appropriate funeral garb.

    I had to attend a heart-wrenchingly sad funeral a couple of weeks ago. This was a Jewish funeral, not strictly orthodox, but still, y’know, a funeral. I saw cargo shorts, flip-flops, push-up bras, stripper heels, strappy sundresses, strapLESS tube dresses and one particularly hippy-chick congregant in a rainbow-colored. gypsy-style maxi skirt and a cropped, backless(!!!) camisole.

    In a synagogue. At a funeral.

    The deceased didn’t care, as he was of course, dead, but his grieving 80-something parents were terribly offended-it was as though their beloved son’s funeral was just a mid-day afterthought.

    I was always taught that ‘good manners’-and appropriate clothing is part of that-were about making other people feel comfortable and respected, but what do I know.

  14. Thea June 14, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    @La Petite Acadienne I’m so with you and Plummy on people who not only don’t know how to dress appropriately, but then try to shame others who do. It matters, it shows respect for others and the situation. When you flaunt that, either thru ignorance or arrogance, you insult everybody else else in the room.

    As I was told by a CEO once “We don’t tell people that they didn’t get the job because they dress like a moron. They just don’t get the job”

  15. SarahDances June 14, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    I am speechless at the thought of people who wear whatever they want to funerals. Funerals are pretty much at the top of the list of Events that are Not About You. It’s a matter of respect, and if you don’t respect the deceased enough to bother throwing on some modest, black clothing for one freaking day, then why are you even going? SHEESH.

  16. Jeni June 14, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    I have to go to court a lot for my job (social worker) and some of the outfits I see people come in are just mind blowing. I’ve seen men come in ripped up jeans, “wife beaters” (those white tank tops you I think you are suppose to wear UNDER your shirt…), dirty hair, and flip flops. I saw a woman come in wearing butt cheek falling out of her pants shorts and a tank top sans bra. I had no words that day…. I always joke I’m going to set up a little store next to the court house that will rent dress shirts, pants, blouses, etc. There is obviously a need! Don’t get me wrong I understand not having a lot of money. I’m a new college graduate with a huge stunt loan and a freaking social worker! Still make an effort it will help you, believe me.

    My office is pretty chill for a state agency, my boss thinks I should get my nose pierced and “dip dye” the bottom of my hair pink. Flip flops are common place and I am perfectly at home rocking my large hoop earrings and crazy manicure colors. HOWEVER, I think about what I’m wearing before I walk out of my house. What will the supervisors and director think? What will my clients or the judge think? Days I’m going to hold up in my office buried in paperwork I might be a little more relaxed but you will damn sure I dress professionally (and fun!) on days I’m heading to court or a meeting.

  17. Lilly Munster June 14, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    You would not believe how many interviews I have had where the person conducting the interview was dressed like a slob. I mean wrinkled, pet hair covered, ill fitting clothes (even gross sweatpants)and dirty athletic shoes. These women would manage to insinuate or come right out with their thought that I was overdressed. All of these jobs were in an office setting.

    How one can be overdressed for an interview wearing a A-line dress with a jacket or blazer and neutral pumps is beyond me. I think Tim Gunn said something about the “slobbification of America”. A great invention of a word, slobbification. Ha

  18. ZilWerks June 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    Tuck in that polo? Only if I must. My middle aged spread makes me look better with an untucked polo and khakis. Tucking it in mearly emphasises my “dunlops disease” – my belly dunlops over mah belt. The fact that polos come in solid colors does help.

    And for my fellow larger guys (and gals) out there: Who the hell thought horizontal stipes are a style for the big-n-tall(-n-fat)? Seriously, if it was not for bowling shirts (vertical stripes! yay!) most of those shirts would make me look huge. I know I am unstylishly large, but I still want to look good.

    –Zil

  19. Orora June 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    I’m a HR Manager who is between jobs. I’ve been on both sides of the interview table. What I’ve seen on both sides is horrifying. Even though I could wear jeans and tees to work, when I conducted interviews I would at least pair the jeans (no holes, no fading, well-fitting, not tight) with a nice blouse and shoes. The candidate should know that I respect their time.

    When going out on interviews I’ve seen some horrid choices: tattered jeans, gym shoes, flip flops, strappy tops. No no no! Even if the interviewer tells you to dress comfortably, nice slacks and a demure top are the most casual you should go. I had knee surgery a few weeks before a job interview. I’d been wearing yoga pants because they were comfortable against my incision. But when I went on that interview, I wore my interview suit. My only concession was to wear gym shoes because they provided the support I needed when walking. And you can be sure I told my interviewer about the surgery and apologized for my casual footwear.

    As for weddings, funerals, etc., no, it probably doesn’t *really* matter what you wear. It’s not like the function can’t happen because you’re in flip flops. But the idea is that you show your respect for the occasion by donning something special that might not be as comfy as your PJs. It indicates that you thought about someone besides yourself.

  20. Jezebella June 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

    @Evie, as you’ve no doubt discovered, the rules in academia don’t always match the rules in the rest of the world. I HIGHLY recommend you become familiar with Ms. Mentor’s book and entire column backlog at the Chronicle. She is the first person who said, in writing, that the rules of academia are different for women, and yes, how you dress matters, and this is what you need to do. A more recent addition to the mix is Karen at the Professor Is In blog, who is also an absolute gold mine of info for women who are in academia and want the treasured tenure-track job. Both address the issue of clothing at various points in one’s career – grad student, conferences, interviews, asst. prof, etc. Any woman who wants to succeed in academia has to dress the part, whether we like it or not.

  21. raincoaster June 17, 2012 at 1:55 am #

    There’s really nothing I hate so much as the idea that if you can afford the dinner, you can wear anything you want. When you’re at a restaurant, you are part of the landscape, and I prefer to be a pleasant addition to it, rather than a blot on it. God knows, my favorite garment is a sweatshirt that comes to below my knees, but I don’t take it into the Four Seasons.

    The Dress for Success books may be dated, but they are still an eye-opener.

  22. Angela June 17, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Not only did you dress to look as white as possible, you admitted to doing it. Very helpful.

    Wow.

  23. Miss Plumcake June 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    @Angela: Listen, I think it’s messed up too, but as long as being light-skinned is a social advantage (and again, I’m not saying it should be, I’m just saying I’ve been in Mexico long enough to know it is) I’m going to emphasize that. Social advantage = economic advantage. It’s just like being so tall is a social disadvantage, which is why I wore flats. Plus, I’m Swedish and Celtic and use MAC’s Face and Body in White as foundation, precisely how dark am I supposed to look?

  24. dcsurfergirl June 17, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    I am basically a casual dresser but I know my limits.

    I work in a lab. I wear dark jeans, solid color t-shirts in good condition (no rips or stains) and closed-toe shoes such as my plain black sneakers. For formal events or clubs I try to work with the available dress codes. I usually keep my color scheme dark and classic (OK, I have a mental block about colorful prints. I blame Lane Bryant). Lipstick, nail polish or jewelry are used for a pop of color.

    I know good quality plus-size clothing can be hard to find but you have to do what you have to do. I look for deals and watch for classic styles that will get lots of mileage. I spend on good bras and shapewear (yes, Spanx) because those make cheaper clothing look better. Good quality (read: well-made) accessories are a must.

    I make all this effort to look presentable to the world so maybe I will have less fat-shaming drama. I really wish more people also dressed thoughtfully. Maybe dress codes are the way to go to give guidelines for appropriate clothes.

    (sighs)

  25. dcsurfergirl June 17, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

    P. S. : The thought of curly hair not being socially acceptable is freaking me out beyond belief. How are all you curly girls dealing?

  26. Jophiel June 18, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Seriously, could some kind soul please explicate a “single piece of elegant fine jewelry”? Some of us are hopelessly ignorant. Thank you in advance.

  27. Miss Plumcake June 18, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

    @Jophiel: I’ll get to that as soon as my gimpiness allows!

  28. Jophiel June 20, 2012 at 2:38 am #

    Thank you! I’ve been wracking my brain on the subject.

  29. Jophiel June 20, 2012 at 3:02 am #

    Point of interest: I’m about to enter a professional master’s program in a very male-dominated field (think 5:1), so the politics of

    1.) Will any ring make a distracting statement to colleagues about marital status?
    2.) Will fine jewelry clash with the student-poverty ethos? And,
    3.) Will jewelry of any kind cause me to be dismissed as “too girly” and therefore “not smart enough”?

    are foremost in my mind. It’s stupid that these factors should be concerns, but that’s what this column is about, which is why I appreciate it so much.

  30. Grace June 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    @Jophiel, I wouldn’t dream of competing with Miss Plumcake’s sage style advice, but here’s my two cents on a ‘single piece of fine jewelry’ – find a quality, distinctive piece that you love, and wear it. I am an attorney who is pretty well-known in my niche field of specialization, which has lead to frequent speaking opportunities. I don’t spend a lot on my clothes (mostly I’m in pieces from Talbots and Macy’s, but carefully selected), but I’ve built a very deep collection of silver jewelry, mostly from Mexico, and often big, statement pieces. If I followed the guidance that they give to female attorneys on what to wear, most of my jewelry would flunk the test, as it’s often large and attention getting. However, I don’t wear a walnut-sized amber ring at the same time as a heavy silver collar – I wear one statement piece, and mix in other smaller pieces that complement, and don’t clash with the main piece I’ve chosen to make the focus.

    I have been pleasantly surprised by comments from co-workers and colleagues about my style and my jewelry. In one case, I went back for a second interview, and the first thing the (male) interviewer said when I walked in: “another gorgeous necklace!” My jewelry made me memorable to him, but beyond that initial comment, it wasn’t raised again at the interview. Had I worn a tasteful little string of pearls, or a tiny pendant on a silver or gold chain, I would have made less of an impression.

    But that’s me – I’m comfortable wearing big pieces of jewelry. If you are comfortable wearing smaller pieces, wear that – your jewelry should make you feel better about yourself, not self-conscious of how the jewelry wears you.

    I don’t think wearing rings of any kind raises questions about marital status – I know a lot of women (and men) who don’t bother wearing wedding rings of any kind, and a lot of women who wear an ‘engagement-style’ ring who aren’t engaged. As for a wearing a ring making colleagues think you’re ‘girly’ and ‘not smart enough’ – if they are dumb enough to think that, they’re not smart enough to best you. Don’t waste time worrying about it. Law is still a male-dominated field, and if any male colleague has ever thought that my jewelry suggested I was not smart enough, I dispelled that impression the moment I opened my mouth.

  31. Jophiel June 24, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    @Grace Thank you for the input! It’s definitely helpful to have some points of reference, and I’m glad to know that the effect of quality jewelry isn’t limited to a particular conservative style (your collection sounds divine – I’m a little more punk myself :)). There are a couple of fine details for which I’m holding out for Miss Plumcake’s advice:

    1.) Grad school: Talbot’s is at the level of my budget right now, and the only deep collection I’m looking at now is varieties of ramen noodles (they last forever, right? Like diamonds?). After school, yes, but for school itself, it’s just not the right time to collect: it’s the time to carefully select one or two versatile pieces to go from class to the dream interview (in which the Talbot’s comes out.)

    2.) Stature: I am in total agreement with you that in the real world, my accomplishments are going to speak for themselves, and frankly, any coworker who makes the mistake of underestimating my abilities based on appearance is going to save me the trouble by kicking himself for that miscalculation. However, However, IN a small grad school, getting along in small teams is vital to the networking/post-grad opportunities you get, so I’d rather go in advantageously than indifferent. Also

  32. Jophiel June 24, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    (Sorry, wrapping up here), while I agree that law is still a male-dominated field, the ratios are nothing compared to engineering. While my cohort has found ~ a 50:50 ratio of law school students by gender, It’s quite likely that I’ll be the only woman in half of my classes. As with law, that ratio will get worse the closer I get to the top. So a reputation for “girliness” is a bigger problem.