How To Be Authentic Through Fashion At Work?

We know we’re supposed to be authentic, but for women, that can be tricky. There are different expectations about how women should look and behave in the workplace.

Today I want to talk about authenticity and what does this mean for women in the workplace. The ‘Utility’ in Utility Fashion stands for all the practical matters around fashion and this is one of them. 

How many of you have ever been told, directly or between the lines: “You have a lot of potential but if you want to move up in this company, you need to dress differently and you should start wearing makeup”? Well, here’s the thing. We have to differentiate between how we want the world to be and how the world actually is.

Legally Blonde What like it's hard

We live in a world where impressions matter, where appearance is highly connected to impressions (fortunately or unfortunately). Lots of research has been done on the way that humans automatically categorise other people. It’s instantaneous.  You see something and you categorise it.

And because of those connections, we automatically think “This kind of person is going to be more professional than this other kind”. If you happen to fall into the latter category, you may have some additional work to do to demonstrate that you are in fact professional and amazing. But that will come after that initial impression that you are not those things.

Jumping Into The Corporate World

When we graduate from university, our wardrobes mainly consist of a few pairs of blue jeans, some hoodies and a beloved pair of Converse. When I started my first job, I had to buy a pencil skirt and a nice jacket and a nice blouse. This “professional uniform” may feel uncomfortable and the opposite of authentic for many of us.  But something I learned throughout my career is that if you want to become part of management eventually, dress like management. 

This is what I call “being authentic in a new context”.

Me on my graduation day. A long time ago…

If I had shown up with those jeans and my Converse, I probably would’ve been embarrassed when I got there. Because no one else would’ve been attired in that way.

There Isn’t a “One-Size-Fits-All” Answer

Of course you always have the choice to be more authentic. Honoring your origins and your roots (for example, wearing your natural hair if you have textured hair, keeping your birth name in a new country although people won’t be able to pronounce it, wearing a bindi or a hijab). In those cases we have to weight the consequences.

If your hair or your oufit is authentic to you and you feel like you’re selling yourself out, conforming to a point where it makes you uncomfortable, then perhaps that’s not the best decision. But do understand that if you walk into a particular conservative corporate context, it may mean that you don’t get the job. The alternative is that you conform. But if that is going to make you feel bad about yourself, then maybe that’s not the best place for you to work

Now, I understand this is a very privileged comment. If you have to pay your bills, you’re straightening your hair, you’re going to cover up the tattoos, you’re going to get rid of the piercings…

Not Only Appearance

This is not limited to appearance. The way that we communicate (I’m Italian and can’t help speaking with my hands), our accents, the way that we even articulate anger, disagreement, conflict, for example, could be considered unprofessional in some settings.
Women experience significant backlash when they express anger in the workplace. We are expected not to show too much emotion at work. Even being passionate about something can be misinterpreted as being too emotional. 

In terms of authenticity, someone who’s closer to the beginning of their career than the end of the career, will have to try on different personas to see which one feels comfortable. Because the person who graduated from uni a few years ago probably isn’t going to be the one who thrives in any workplace, right?  We learn, we grow, we figure it out. We have to bump into a few things; and we find the right way forward for ourselves.

Legally Blonde you must always have faith in yourself.

I hope in the future as more millennials enter the workplace and with the gradual retirement of the older generation, that we can create a place in the workforce where we are all able to bring who we authentically identify ourselves as. And that our colleagues and classmates embrace that. Rather than trying to get us to conform.

Do you feel like your true self at work? Or is going to work like putting on a mask?

Source: Harvard Business Review, “Lead with Authenticity”. Feb, 2018

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