I was reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about women in power finding balance in their wardrobes. Yes, they were all there, Hillary Clinton in color on the first page in the Home & Style Section (where women belong?) and the others in a large, black and white photographic layout on page D7. Besides Hillary, there were three others in pansuits (German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, basketball coach Tera Vanderveer), and four in skirts (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice, PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi, EU antitrust chief Neelie Kroes) and a headshot of Ceridian CEO Kathryn Marinello that leaves you wondering what she was wearing. According to the article:
“A style misstep can be career-limiting. Yet paying too much attention to one’s appearance risks accusations of frivolity–which is equally career-limiting.”
As I’m reading the article, I’m reminded of an earlier one in Fortune Magazine about Jim Buckmaster, the CEO of Craigslist who wears bluejeans and sandals to work. He also makes a lot of money. This statement from Shore Communications is typical of what is said about the clothes he wears:
“It may not make for the most impressive show at a conference like the Information Industry Summit, but if your blue jeans tell the story well enough people will respect the success that you wear.”
When I was a very young child, I saw a man with a brown paper bag folded neatly into a hatlike creation on top of his head walking down the main street of the little town we where we did our shopping It impressed me so much I asked my father about him. I was told, that man is the richest man in Lake City, and when you’re that rich you can dress like you damn well please!
Not long after I’d moved to Las Vegas and moved into a posh side of town called Summerlin, I remember getting ready to take a morning walk with the dog. I was dressed in one of my favorite stay home outfits–jeans with a plain white cotton kurta topped by a quilted vest/jacket.
The kurta had long-sleeves and came to just above my knees, but the vest was only hip length. This is the way the outfit is worn in India. But, just as I was leaving the house, I remembered to grab a windbreaker because, even though Las Vegas is nearly always warm, the strong Spring winds can make you feel very cold. The windbreaker was waist length, and knowing me and my dislike of wind, I probably pulled out an ill-matching wool hat to plop on my head. And of course you never take a dog out for a walk without a handful of plastic bags in which to collect dog poop.
I walked to the little side street that made a nice short-cut to the park through the next neighborhood over, a slightly posher one than we lived in. In the last house on the right side, just before turning onto the walk to the park, I saw two women walk out of a house towards a car parked in the driveway. They couldn’t have missed the fact that I was coming from the neighborhood one street over.
I missed part of their conversation, but managed to hear the end without even trying hard, ” . . . I have no idea, but she looks like a bag lady.” Since I was the only person around besides them, I have to assume they were talking about me. Now you can hardly blame them. Any woman knows you don’t wear a blouse that hangs below your vest, and you don’t add fashion insult to injury by wearing an even shorter windbreaker over the other layers! The plastic bags didn’t help either.
Apparently they didn’t give me the benefit of doubt, since it was clear from the fact that the neighborhood I’d come from was less expensive than theirs, so I must have dressed dreadfully, not because I was rich enough to dress the way I damn well pleased, but because I was unsophisticated enough to know better, therefore deserving of the worst fashion insult any woman can hurl at another, a bag lady.
I can’t help thinking about the rich man wearing that brown paper bag hat. I don’t know if that man was married, but I’m pretty sure if he was, his wife probably wasn’t given the same fashion freedom that he enjoyed. Whereas the town’s people happily overlooked his style, referring almost reverently to him as essentric, I’m pretty sure his wife would have been laughed out of town, out of the women’s club for sure, if she’d tried to get away with it.
Not once have I seen a whole article about men in power or their fashion sense in Wall Street Journal or any other newspaper. Yet 50 or more years later, the message for women is reinforced over and over. Whatever it is we try to do, we have to do it twice as well as men while we work twice as hard, plus we have to dress right, have the right hairdo, learn not to show too much emotion, and–should we ever make it to a position of power–the number one thing everybody will notice about us, and the press will write a feature story about, is what we wear and whether it’s appropriate.