let’s talk clothes.

By August 28, 2015 37 Comments

There’s something I wrote the other day in my post about authenticity that I want to come back to. This:

And don’t get your hair blown out straight for the big professional event, and don’t wear the uncomfortable thing you think you should wear. Talk and look like the real you when you show up.

I cut those lines from the post and added them back in at least a dozen times. I worried they might be too off track, or too superficial.

Every time I tried to cut them, they insisted, “Keep us.”

So they stayed.

I wrote those words, at heart, as instructions for myself. I would like to stop wearing the uncomfortable thing. I would like to wear less of the uniform.

You see, there’s an odd thing I do when I have a big speaking engagement – particularly one in a corporation. Somehow (and it’s a bit of a mystery to me how), I end up wearing a suit. And often, I end up wearing it with rather uncomfortable shoes, and – to be frank – body-shaping undergarments.

If I felt great in all that, it would be no problem. But I don’t. I find the getup uncomfortable and hard to breathe in. And it doesn’t feel like it reflects me. I’m presenting something more conventional, corporate, and secular – yes, secular – than I want to.

So how does it happen? Somewhere in between my initial intention to wear something I adore and the speaking event itself, a familiar mental weather pattern descends. Fears about giving the speech get funneled into concerns about looking good, looking “professional.” There is hurried, harried shopping. There is body image b.s. And then, a few days later, there I am, packing a suit-ish outfit in my, well … suitcase.

Why does this matter?

Because, how free can we feel – or be – if we restrict our very bodies, by our own choosing?

Because I’m doubtful that women who can’t take a deep breath, and whose underwire is digging into their ribs, are able to give their full energy to what they feel called toward. What would we do or say differently if we could move more freely?

It also matters because in a thousand ways, women conform to and compete within a system that we did not make and that was not made for us. Professional dress is one tangible reflection of this.

Our dress – and more broadly, how we present our physical selves – takes us into some important territory — women’s bodies and images of womanhood. When it comes to work clothes, we are reinforcing, or redefining, notions of what “professional” or “successful” or “lawyer” or “professor” or “leader” look like. Does the Superintendent wear a sari? Does a professor have a woman’s body adorned in exuberant, cheerful colors? Can the CEO look like a priestess from some other time?

Dress Revolution

If we are brave, dress can be a vehicle for slaying old ideas about who does what, and how. Because it’s visual, it busts stereotypes on an unconscious level, making it particularly potent.

Dress also matters as a metaphor. We are faced with the same choice in our dress as we are in so many other aspects of our careers:

How much do I want to do the conventional thing to fit in, and how much do I want to push the envelope?
How much do I, as a woman, want to succeed within the system as it is, and how much am I here to change it?

We all have to do both. We pay attention to the codes, the norms, the standard career routes, the culture. By doing the conventional thing, we get to play in the game.

But then there are the moments during the game when we ask: is this a time when I want to depart from what’s conventional? Is this the place I choose to be an agent of change?



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Join the discussion 37 Comments

  • Sherold Barr says:

    Tara – I so value each article you write. We need to break old patterns of what we think we need to be and look like and be ourselves. Thank you for leading the way.

  • Rebecca says:

    Yes, yes, and yes!
    Thank you, Tara, for an honest, vulnerable post. How we as women present our physical selves is an indication of how we think of our bodies. It’s taken me a looong time to wake up to this. I know I’m showing up as myself when the clothes I wear fit, flatter, and feel like pajamas! Than I can focus on who I’m with and what I’m doing — in other words, be present. Not sure I own a suit, but slowly curating a small collection of sacred apparel.
    For the past ten years I’ve been in the process of learning to love, admire, and celebrate my body. Finally, I’ve come to see my body as my home. http://rebeccawaringcrane.com/my-body-my-home/

  • Linda Krantz says:

    Tara, thanks for this….especially acknowledging that we have to play in both courts: within the cultural norms (so we get invited to play) and within the “home” court (the one where our individuality lives). It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. When it comes to dress, there are times when we have to go along to get along..and there are still ways to express our individuality. I find that a great blouse or tank in crazy colors or in a fabulous print (under the suit jacket) can do this, and of course, jewelry can speak volumes. My jewelry has always given the nod to my individuality, my creativity, my inner artist. Even a great hair clip – picked up from a local artisan – lets people know that I am more than this conventional suit. And, when I know it’s cool to bend the rules, then my clothing expression goes from subtle hints to full expression!

  • Natasha says:

    Related to how we dress—I am going to stop coloring my hair and it feels risky and a bit scary to me right now. Of course, none of my male colleagues dye their hair, and grey is considered distinguished on them. For me this is “the place I choose to be an agent of change.”

  • Shahidah says:

    Your article seem to come at EXACTLY the time I need it. I often feel the hair game torment–wear my natural curls or blow dry? or the ethnic dress game anxiety–suit or African print dress? Thanks again for speaking right to the heart of ancient dilemna for those of having a woman experience and trying to play big!

  • Denise says:

    That’s the key, isn’t it? Finding a way to straddle these worlds, and still breaking it open to let people see who you are. That’s pretty hard to do when you’re physically uncomfortable, due to the aforementioned underwire or “shaping” foundation. I am a woman of considerable size, so just showing up in beautiful clothes that fit is, in itself, being an agent of change! 🙂

  • This was amazing, Tara and divinely timed. I recently started a graduate program at a really prestigious university and while on the one hand I feel like I should show up and look “professional,” I’ve realized that I have my own idea of what professional looks and feels like to me. I’ve decided to own my personal style because it makes me feel a) physically comfortable and b) emotionally empowered. I used to listen to a lot of male opinions on what professional-looking should women wear and now I realize how detrimental that was to my personal identity and confidence as a woman. I like goddess-looking headbands, fancy purses, high heels, and sporty-luxe looking outfits. Pantsuits are great if you enjoy them and feel good in them, but they are certainly not the only mark of professionalism. I want to be a game changer in my field and my style is a reflection of that. Like you said, I’m already in the game so now I can afford to push some boundaries. Thank you so much for “Playing Big.” It changed my life and I recommend it to every woman I know. <3

  • Denise says:

    My favorite thing to speak in is a pantsuit and flats. I once let an event coordinator convince me to dress more casually to facilitate a two day meeting of over 200 leaders, mostly men, whom she said wouldn’t relate to me if I looked too professional. I heeded her advice and didn’t even pack a suit. I felt awkward,unprofessional, and inauthentic the from the time I stepped on stage. Dressing to an audience matters, but as you say, one MUST be comfortable and authentic to truly shine and be in service. I wrote a post some time ago when I was aghast at the attention paid to stilettos worn by the head of the IMF. Women have had the bra burning movement. I say we do the same for torturous shoes. I hope you like this one. http://www.brillianceinc.com/an-unnecessary-disadvantage/

  • Jeannie says:

    I think I’m in bondage of my standards which have been set by growing up 1943 through now, yes, a young 72. I have always been a clothes horse, and living in FL now (from up north), every place you go is casual (not my style), so I’m always a bit overdressed.
    . What I have noticed is; the people that like you have great things to say about how I dress & those that don’t say ugly things. So you might as well do whatever you feel comfortable with because no matter what you do or wear, some will like you & some won’t.

  • Alexandra says:

    So agree leave the man outfit and embrace the divine outfit where you feel the energy of the fabric move with you. It’s Time Goddesses.

  • June De Sena says:

    Great, great piece, Tara!! And we thought our hippy generation got everyone into Berkies! Well, we did for a while but then WOMEN bought into the vision of spiked heels again. What a shame.

    So, how’s this for a different view: Every time I see a woman in those insane shoes, I know that she isn’t really free. I know her feet hurt and that she cares more about what people THINK than she does for her own body’s comfort. A quick register, not meant as a judgement. I see Ellen in sneakers; I see an independent woman. I see Oprah in red soled heels: I see a woman run by society.I understand both, but can only know what I want for my happiness.

    Johnny Depp once said that he loved old people cause they dressed as they wanted. He’s right…just take a look. Well, unless they are still being run by society, which some are. Those that value their own comfort, feel free to dress as they like. As does a 7 yr old child.

    For years, I played the corp image game. My feet hurt more than normal as they had been injured in a sporting accident years previous. As the years slipped by, they got worse and surgery was looking me in the face. For 6 months, I had to wear a boot cast on one leg….up to my knee.I was horrified. How was this going to work in my world of business? I was a CEO and sure my career was over. Guess what? It took 3 months before anyone noticed! Why, I asked myself? I have no idea, except that perhaps my brilliants was so bright? lol I doubt that was the reason, but it taught me a lesson: Be myself, walk tall, say what is required to get the business done. People notice what is important: what I was saying and doing. Talk about being freed!

    Keep up challenging society’s restrictions, which really are our own!!

  • Kim says:

    Loved your post. So spot on. Can you post a pic of what you would have preferred to wear to your speaking event? I started in the workplace in the 90s when suits with skirts and hose were just starting to be retired. I got my child late in life and at that pt, my workplace was pretty business casual except for client meetings and events. As a mom in an urban city, I realize there is now a whole mom uniform of stylish athletic clothes, yoga pants, sleeked hair in pony tails with aviator sunglasses when hanging out a park or picking your kid up from school. I don’t think the message is comfort as much as I am athletically fit . As I think about it, there have been norms and messages if you wanted to fit in with a group since I could pick the shoes to accessorize mt catholic school uniform. present day I like color, texture and comfort without looking frumpy. I like interesting jewelry by artists that has a story. Comfort is critical especially in shoes when hauling through airports. I presently prefer jeans to yoga pants.

  • db says:

    Much as I would love to follow your advice and dress as I want, I think you are giving people the wrong advice here. Unfortunately, people still judge us by our appearances and by advising people to dress as want, they may miss out on some big opportunities. We all want to hear this because it ain’t the truth.

  • Gorgeous, true words and perfect timing. I think it is absolutely possible, and adviseable, to exercise more authentic creativity “even” (perhaps especially?) in the professional domain.

  • Catherine says:

    Dear Tara,

    Welcome to the EIleen Fisher years! Molly B. in Berkeley has elegant loose clothes that layer. Looser, layered, comfortable but elegant sandals and artistic jewelry. I think it actually commands more gravitas than little suits.


  • Yes! By recognizing the fact that how we dress is a metaphor for all other aspects of our lives, we have the ability to empower ourselves to really show up as who we are, whether it be in our personal or professional lives. Really delving into the why behind feeling the need to show up in something structured and confining, when you are longing to feel the ease of free flowing fabric,or bold patterns and color, or whatever it is that feels more authentic to you could potentially free an aspect of yourself that has yet to show up in your work. What we wear is an often overlooked opportunity for authentic self expression, that I believe has the power to transform not only our work, but how we show up in our lives.

  • Janelle says:

    I go with the power is in my ‘Presence’. To be truly present I must be comfortable, be me! At the same time I am so for ‘professional’ which has a strong element of belonging. Thus dress to the audience, the occasion still rides. I like a softer approach to suits. Comfortable trousers NICE top/shirt and cardigan…I little twist of feminine influence in the mix and away I go. Comfortable present without being too out of it. I like the nice pantsuit idea. And I definitely go for the skirt version on the days I Feel like it. Great post as always.

  • Jean Vaux says:

    Isn’t it interesting how women have dressed more like men to gain the professional nod and men have gone more casual and colorful? My mother was one of the first in her generation back in the early 50’s to ditch the blocky tie shoes (that are coming back in style) for pointy high heels. She was very stylish. I remember that she only had a few outfits at the time, but they all were top notch. She taught me how to mix and match classic clothes that leverage your budget. But later, she had the most crippled toes with arthritis I’d ever seen. So I’ve never been a big fan of high heels. They end up giving me ankle cramps in the night. I don’t do well with flats either. So, I indulge in well-arched, cushiony, more-expensive shoes each season and do really well. When my feet are happy, my whole body and soul are happy. Another thing that has proved to be a good investment is enlisting the help of a good stylist to put together outfits for me. I found a store I really liked and the manager helped me immensely. It helped me part with things in my closet what weren’t serving me well and made room for things that I feel awesome wearing.

  • Ariane says:

    As a very colorful CEO myself, I am cheering this post, Tara, and the exhortation that we find what is true for us, comfortable for us, expressive of us and wear & be that. Here’s to bringing everything that we are, unapologetically, fearlessly, to everything we do! xoxox

  • Sharon says:

    Great post Tara
    It is only having the confidence to be more of ourselves that things can change… for all things to change first we must change.. bringing more of who we are to our lives benefits all around us.

  • Kate McIvor says:

    Thank you Tara — great post. I have been mulling a similar post for my blog. I recently started taking Bikram hot yoga. I’ve taken a lot of yoga, but never hot yoga, and never with mirrors. The class is so hot that I wear short shorts and bare my midriff. During the first few classes, I marveled at how strong and flexible I looked in the mirror, AND I felt mortified by how fat my belly was. I was tempted to mention to the other women in the dressing room how embarrassed I was of my tummy. But, then I thought, what is my body for? It’s for carrying me from place to place, and bending and stretching. I suddenly no longer cared what my tummy looked like. Tara, your ideas are strong enough to counteract any judgement of your belly! And if not, who cares!

  • Love this! Ever since I was in high school, all I want to wear is jeans and a white t-shirt.

    I’m now in my thirties and a (very) new mom. I’ve told myself that once I go out and get some new, post-baby clothes, that’s all I am buying. Whiter tops for nicer things and dressy jeans when needed – but jeans and white t-shirt is my new uniform!

    I am just sorry it took to getting to my thirties to finally have the confidence to just own it!

    Your post is a nice reminder to follow my heart on how I feel most comfortable!

  • Kathie says:

    Tara this is a great point. I was a weather reporter on a newscast for years and wor those hateful suits….sorry about the strong language….but they were so ugly and uncomfortable and made me feel constricted and restricted inside and outside.
    Since moving on from that job to another on-air position, I began to develop a personal style that really reflects how I feel and who I am. My sister-in-law did a Stacey London makeover with me years ago and helped me step out of the suit zone and into current fashion, which I now love. I recommend that women get to know how to dress for their shape and for their age…then I encourage you to express your best self through your clothes…..love yourself enough to take good care of yourself and your dreams. You deserve all of it.

  • LauraM says:

    I agree that we need to be ourselves, but before that time comes where we are the boss, we should dress for the position we want. I’m in a conservative industry and happen to be a curvy & attractive woman. I cannot dress the way I do outside of the office because I would not be taken seriously. Be free, but be smart about it!

  • Anouk says:

    Beautiful blog! I think you’ve got a point here, a big one for many of us. Being professional is not being yourself, is what this is all about. Reading your blog made me think about myself: how do I do this? Fortunately I can’t wear high heels, so I don’t. I hate tight and uncomfortable clothes so I don’t wear them. I don’t even wear jeans because of that! So what’s left then? Mostly comfortable clothes and my ideas of what looking professional is. Clothes that reflect you and make you feel good so you can shine. For me looking professional also means clothes with no stains, having a clean face and hair, not so difficult for us, I guess. And I also think there are differences beween branches and maybe between our cultures (I’m Dutch), could be.

  • Anouk says:

    Wow, I love your story! Enjoy the yoga and your body!

  • Jalene Case says:

    Great post. I’m learning about “dress” from an interesting perspective. My husband and I are 3 weeks into a 2-year trip on our motorcycles from Canada to the tip of South America. Since I have very few clothes packed for the trip, I’m free from the fashion chains. It’s strange. I feel like I’ve dropped out of a game in a way. I like it more and more every day for many reasons.

  • mary goretti katusabe Ssemwezi says:

    Tara, this is a good article but like db says the way the advice is given can be misleading and especially so to young career women.

    Yes i wear what makes me comfortable including suits and high heels, my jewellery is never missing because i love it and it gives me a lot of energy and good feeling.

    When i choose the African print i feel great. It brings out my inner self of artistic expression. I think we should interrogate the status quo wisely otherwise we can be thrown through the window. The way we appear has a lot to do with how we are received. We must keep the fight but must measure what we can take at a time. We must take position to be able to aim and shoot.

  • What a wonderful piece on the ongoing social dilemma women face each and every day.

    As an artist, writer and SAHM, I’ve gone through many clothing changes. Dress for success for the mantra in my professional career, yet, I never bought into it in my heart and my true creativity came out in adding a pink piano key tie or quirky jewelry. As a SAHM, I once again, balked at the stereotype of sweats. Now as an artist, there is yet another clothing and appearance stereotype, no make up, dull baggy clothes or clownish, theatrical clothing.

    Now, I’m at a point in life where another stereotype creeps in and as with them all I’m uncomfortable with ‘the granny look’.

    I like clothes. I like to look up to date and classy. I like nice jewelry, makeup, fragrance and hairstyles. I also like comfort and practicality and freedom to look attractive and, yes, pretty.

    And yet, I still find myself in your shoes, dressing to fit in on the outside while rebelling within. It is an ongoing challenge.

  • Anne Coleman says:

    As a Muslim woman living in America, I was very heartened by Tara’s post and the variety of responses. Because I am wearing a headscarf and a long coat over my clothing, I have the freedom from many of the professional and personal stressors that have been shared.
    Under my coat and headscarf I wear casual professional clothing, jewelry, and shoes; I keep my hair natural.. Both garment layers are comfortable for me, but I do recognize that may not be the case for everyone at my workplace.
    Thank you, Tara for your continued presence in my life.

  • Genevieve VenJohnson says:

    For God’s sake , when can we have coffee??!!:-)
    Tara, the hair on my arms is standing up, because all this week, I have been asking myself how much I can push that envelope. As I prepare for another corporate engagement this week –I have been fretting about uncomfortable shoes, and wondering how I could subvert the established dress code of a somewhat conservative firm, without undermining myself.This conversation MUST continue. Thanks for revisiting the topic!

  • Julie says:

    As a graphic designer creating identities I work with this a lot; for myself and for my clients. My mantra is – how do you want to negotiate the spread? The “spread” being the difference between who you are and what that looks like, and who the audience you want to attract is and how they look. It is what I enjoy the most about my work.

    I will also add that I am fortunate enough to live in the Middle East where women in every walk of life – business and personal – are encouraged to look like women, and particularly have her own unique style. This is seen as truly being potent in biz and life. Contrary to what I was encouraged to believe in the U.S., my daily encounters are with empowered, beautiful, outwardly feminine women building businesses and lives they love. I do hope all of us (my U.S. sisters) being/dressing as our true selves, if even slightly, start inching our way toward having all of society recognizing and displaying the power of the feminine in all areas of life.


  • KW says:

    I disagree, to a large extent. Let me try to explain, why.

    Critically evaluating the messages we are sending by our clothing/style/dress i think is vital – but to suggest that dressing authentically will bring us authentic success is perhaps a false promise for many, in my opinion.

    We are ‘safe’ in the online world. But humans by nature make assumptions based on appearance. Evidence suggests that the effort and attention you give to your appearance has a direct relationship to how much effort/attn you will give to your work. Your signature/personal style might convey something that distracts/attracts people away from/toward your work. Society is filled with examples of misinterpretations of dress as indicating a particular identity. It can be risky for people to dress authentically true in a judgmental work setting.

  • Candy says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post. This theme must be ‘In the air’ right now. I had just put the finishing touches on a blog post where I’ve discovered how freeing it is to not dress in the conservative up tight suit for some corporate meetings I recently attended. Tara, I love your thought provoking communication. It’s another step for us all to continue growing our awareness and to make conscious choices about how we want to show up.

  • PM says:

    I think this is a great post for different reasons.

    I believe authenticity comes from within. Dress is a large part of expressing who we believe ourselves to be but not every event we must attend can and will facilitate what we feel is authentic to us. Actually, I am my most authentic self in a business suit (and in more than one type of outfit) but I also understand there are times when my dress must resonate a desire to connect with the people I will engage with and express humility and willingness to partner with them.
    We have about 30s to create a first impression and our dress is a compelling part of those first moments. I think we can use dress to be authentic about our intentions and invite those we need to play with us to come and play.

  • Dear Tara, what an awesome post. Before I became a coach I was a lawyer. As a woman of African heritage, I bought into the notion that i had to have my hair chemically straightened, in order to ‘fit in’. I cut my hair off and went natural 18 years ago. The most senior woman in my organisation saw me shortly after my haircut, admired it and told me she would do the same when she no longer had any ambition! Interesting how women are often the guardians of unhelpful and sometimes harmful traditions that prevent other women from being their best selves.

  • […] “Why does this matter? Because, how free can we feel – or be – if we restrict our very bodies, by our own choosing? Because I’m doubtful that women who can’t take a deep breath, and whose underwire is digging into their ribs, are able to give their full energy to what they feel called toward. What would we do or say differently if we could move more freely? It also matters because in a thousand ways, women conform to and compete within a system that we did not make and that was not made for us. Professional dress is one tangible reflection of this.” let’s talk clothes – Tara Sophia Mohr […]

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