Dressing for Others’ Expectations – Or Not

The Atlantic article on female lawyers highlighted the gendered scrutiny that professional women come under for their dress choices. It speaks of a standard to which we are held, and roles to which we are ascribed (with varying degrees of awareness about what they are doing in the mind of the ‘beholder’). In many senses, it boils down to the very human habit of prejudging and using stereotypes to inform how we assess others around us.

With this being the case, there is arguably a strong role for using how we dress to intentionally guide and shape others’ view of us. It becomes another tool in nudging our careers, meetings, and networking towards our desired outcomes. With this said, we recommend a review of How to Dress for Success by Edith Head, a stylist and costume designer for Hollywood’s elite (including Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor; view a video of her process here).

Written in the 1960s, and with such advice as “1. Decide what kind of man you want. 2. Find out what kind of girls he likes. 3. Know what kind of fashions please him. …. 7. Choose your wardrobe to please him and to suit his way of life. … 10. Look reasonably enticing in the morning – better at night”, one might simply dismiss this book as outdated and even offensive. However, in a world that in some fundamental ways doesn’t seem to have stopped projecting certain requirements onto women, some techniques from this book may still come in handy. (And if not that, some of the advice on building a wardrobe, analysing your figure, and using colour successfully is priceless.)

Take for instance: “Before you are interviewed for the job you want, try on the complete outfit you intend to wear. Look at yourself in the mirror from every angle, including sitting down which is the way you will look most of the time to the person who will make the decision. Ask yourself these questions: (a) Do I look well groomed? (b) Do I look neat? (c) Do I feel comfortable and at ease? (d) Does my skirt ride up too much? (e) Have I worn too much (or too little) make-up or jewellery? (f) Does this outfit really fit the image of the position I hope to fill?”

You may decide that you don’t wish to kowtow to others’ prejudices or projections at all. On the other hand, in certain situations, you may feel that there is a value to ‘meeting people where they are’.