So, it’s finally happened. Someone has given me the ‘S’-word. My job title is now senior editor, which roughly translates to: ‘I occasionally, sort of, sometimes, know what I’m doing.’ And there’s something about the arrival of the S-word on my email signature that has changed what I wear to work. The second-hand sequins and shabby dresses have been replaced by black, sleek lines and ironed dresses. The blazer, the tailored trousers and the monochrome flats spell out ‘responsibility’.
As a journalist, I’m always trying to persuade somebody to do something, and after ten years, I’ve learnt that I have to use every weapon I have. ‘Looking the part’ can be one hell of an arsenal.
But ‘looking the part’ is a phrase I used to wince at. After four years of studying Sylvia Plath and rummaging through Brighton vintage stores, I graduated with an earnest determination that I should be judged on hard work and talent alone. I should be respected for who I was; chipped nails, unwashed hair, faded sequins and all.
In some ways, it’s quite peculiar that I had that mindset. I’d grown up watching my mum use her working wardrobe to carry her further and higher along. Working in Westminster, she wore DVF-esque dresses with Russell & Bromley shoes and Jaeger blazers. She smelt of Chanel No5. Her lips were glossed and her handbag was a mini-manifesto for being a successful woman: stylish, organised and smart. “Clothes are an armour,” she’s always told me. They gave her strength when she was the only woman in the room.
Yet, despite seeing those outfits for years – often a week’s worth planned out on a Sunday night, like a commander strategising battle plans – I entered the workplace as an editor’s PA with the most dangerous of attitudes. I thought I knew best. I would be defiantly me – shabby dresses and all – and that was the proper, feminist thing to do. My job involved making tea, booking lunch reservations and stuffing envelopes. I could get away with looking like I was popping to the shops for a pint of milk, hungover on a Sunday (to be fair, at that stage, I probably was hungover. It just happened to be a Thursday). I lived in ripped, baggy jeans and tatty tops.
And then when I landed my first full-time journalism role, working on a new TV show, I found myself surrounded by a lot of my journalism heroes at the launch event. Looking around the room, knocking back a glass of free Champagne, I was starstruck. “Can I take your coat?” someone asked.
But I declined. All the women looked professional, knowledgeable and impressive. They looked smart. Of all the places in the world, it was here I wanted to be taken seriously, but that morning I’d run out of the house looking more like someone who’d offer to braid your hair at a festival than someone destined for the top of the career ladder. Wearing
my very old floral dress that was coming away at the seams with a scuffed pair of brown boots hadn’t been ‘defiantly me’ – I’d let myself down. Not looking the part meant I looked like I didn’t care – and, boy, did I care.
And there’s that phrase again. What does looking the part in 2017 actually mean? Once, it meant looking ‘appropriate’, and more often than not, appropriate was a byword for keeping women in their place – they must look maternal, wifely, respectable. But now we’re shouting down the policing of women’s clothes in the workplace. Last year, there was outrage when a woman was sent home for wearing flat shoes to work. In December, The Dorchester hotel came under fire after demanding that staff shave their legs. While some offices have workwear codes, we also have discrimination laws, ensuring the issue is smartness, not sexism. So who are we looking appropriate for now?
Therein lay my epiphany. I began to learn to dress for me, not in spite of everyone else. And the people who taught me I needed to look smart in the workplace to get ahead were the women around me – at that launch event, in office meetings, at conferences. Somehow, in the cut of their trousers, the sophistication of their Chelsea boots, their immaculately ironed shirts, looking the part wasn’t about being appropriate; it was about being confident, keen, and respectful. Their chic hairstyles and unchipped nails, their midi skirts with cashmere jumpers, and coats without a torn lining said they took their jobs and themselves seriously.
No wonder opportunity came their way: looking impressive says you know what you’re doing. Walking into a meeting or auditorium, first impressions go a long way. These women had everyone on their side before they began to speak. In the hyper-codified world of work – be it an office or a theatre – we need all the help we can get to navigate our way through. Their Paul Smith trench or Cos shirt-dress said they knew exactly where they were going.
That was my second epiphany: what could be more feminist than that? Giving yourself enough respect to bother to show up and look the part, look like you care, look like you’re prepared, that you’re capable and responsible? It’s respect for yourself, your ambitions, your career.
Gradually, as I rose from writer to reporter, I began to fill bin liners with clothes that were not doing me justice – my hole-ridden jeans, my old, bobbly jumpers – and invested in clothes that told the world I was serious, such as crisp shirts, chic jumpsuits. My hair was brushed and styled, my boots clean, not scuffed. Then I landed an interview for a deputy editor role, and I wore a grey dress from Whistles with a zip down the back. That was the sort of journalist I wanted to look like – and when I walked into the interview I felt in control, I felt like people were taking me seriously.
Soon came my first appearance on-stage, conducting an interview in front of 800 people. I bought a white shift dress that felt like me, but the best me – the sort of me who knew how to hold my own in front of all those people. I can’t say that one outfit got me my dream gig, but I will say that when I began to take myself seriously in how I presented myself to the world, the world started to take me seriously back.
And now, here I am with an ‘S’ in my job title and hard-earned confidence when walking into a room, a meeting, or an interview. I don’t overspend, but I do make sure everything is dry-cleaned, ironed and in good nick. My hair is washed and I don’t wear nail polish during the week, to avoid chipping. I always feel comfortable but, crucially, smart. I feel senior. Clothes are my armour, and my feminism hasn’t gone anywhere.
Five women’s workwear hits
1. Emma Watson’s first UN speech, 2014
The actress had a touch of Jackie O as she called on men to join the fight for equality, launching the HeForShe campaign. The hourglass-silhouette dress paired with clean, modern hair and make-up was
a fresh look for 21st-century feminism.
2. Katharine Hamnett at a reception with Margaret Thatcher, 1984
Wearing her own T-shirt emblazoned with “58% Don’t Want Pershing” as a protest against American missile plans, the fashion designer used the t-shirt to make a political statement in front of the then-Prime Minister.
3. Michelle Obama’s final state dinner, 2016
Talk about going out with a bang. The First Lady said goodbye to the White House in an Atelier Versace dress that reflected both her love of fashion and what seemed to be a dazzling celebration of the significance of her time as the first African-American First Lady.
Putting the issue of racism on America’s most-watched stage, Beyoncé’s dancers were a nod to the Black Panthers and the fight against racial discrimination.
5. Sharon Stone at the Oscars, 1996
She was the actress on everyone’s radar, especially after playing the leading lady in Casino, but Sharon Stone defied everyone’s expectations. When she attended the ceremony of the year wearing a Gap turtleneck and a smart long-sleeved coat, she proved that actresses don’t need to wear slinky designer gowns to go down in Oscars fashion history.