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.

Glamour (South Africa) - - Contents -

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.

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