What you wear does matter
Marisa Bate thought caring about how she looked at work was shallow. Until she realised it might be the thing holding her back.
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, sometimes, sort of, know what I’m doing.’ Something about the arrival of the S-word on my email signature changed what I wear to work. Shabby dresses and second-hand sequins have been replaced with black, sleek lines. The blazer, tailored trousers and monochrome flats spell out ‘responsibility’. As a journalist, I’m always trying to persuade somebody to do something, and after 10 years, I’ve learnt 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 vintage stores, I graduated with an
earnest determination to be judged on hard work and talent alone. I should be respected for who I was; chipped nails, faded sequins and all.
In some ways, it’s strange that I had that mindset. I’d grown up watching my mom use her working wardrobe to carry her higher along. Working in finance, she wore Diane von Furstenberg-esque dresses with smart shoes and blazers. She smelt of Chanel N˚5. Her lips were glossed and her handbag was a mini-manifesto for being a successful woman: stylish, organised and smart. “Clothes are 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 on a Sunday night, like a commander strategising plans – I joined the workplace as an editor’s PA with the most dangerous attitude. 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, making lunch reservations and stuffing envelopes. I could get away with looking like I was popping to the shops for milk, hungover on a Sunday (to be fair, at that stage, I probably was hung-over. It just happened to be a Thursday). I lived in ripped, baggy jeans and tatty tops.
When I landed my first full-time journalism role, working on a new TV show, I found myself at a launch event, surrounded by many of my journalism heroes. Looking around the room, knocking back a glass of free Champagne, I was starstruck. “Can I take your coat?” someone asked. 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 left home 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 an old floral dress that was torn at the seams and scuffed brown boots hadn’t been ‘defiantly me’ – I’d let myself down. Not looking the part meant looking like I didn’t care when really, I did care.
But 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. Last December, a hotel came under fire after demanding that staff shave their legs. So who are we looking appropriate for now? Therein lay my epiphany. I began
/ Look sharp
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 meetings, at conferences. Somehow, in the cut of their trousers, the sophistication of their ankle 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 and properly lined coats said they took their jobs and themselves seriously.
No wonder opportunity came their way: looking impressive says you know what you’re doing. First impressions go a long way when you are walking into a meeting or auditorium. 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. Their smart trench or chic 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 look the part, look like you care, and that you’re prepared, capable and responsible? It’s respect for yourself, your ambitions, your career.
“When I began to take myself seriously in how I presented myself to the world, the world started to take me seriously in return.” – Marisa Bate “I should be respected for who I was; chipped nails, faded sequins and all.” – Marisa Bate
Gradually, as I rose from writer to reporter, I discarded clothes that were not doing me justice and invested in clothes that told the world I was serious, such as crisp shirts and smart 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 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 as if 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 about how I presented myself to the world, the world started to take me seriously in return. Now, here I am with an S in my job title and hard-earned confidence when entering a room or meeting. I don’t overspend, but I do make sure everything is ironed and in good condition. My hair is washed and I always feel comfortable but, crucially, smart. I feel senior.
Clothes are my armour and my feminism hasn’t gone anywhere.
Shoes are everywhere in Marisa’s house.
Taking a note from her mother’s book, Marisa plans outfits the night before.
Nothing says confidence like a tailored designer jacket.