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.
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.