For me, growing up and getting a job in a professional environment meant that I would have to change the way I dressed.
Before I graduated from college, I worked nights and weekends at a place that specified a white-and-black dress code but still allowed employees to express creativity with their clothing choices otherwise. I also worked days at a retail store that carried the perceived philosophy of “the funkier, the better.”
A couple months after receiving the honor of starting my career, I begrudgingly took out my eyebrow ring; changed out of my homemade T-shirt; cut my curly, tangled hair; and retired my giant hair bows. In their place, I wore slacks, cardigans and invisible bobby pins.
I survived for a while like this, wearing silk shirts and olive green pants, because that’s what I was supposed to wear. I bought clothes that I didn’t understand simply because they fit into the category of “business casual.”
This didn’t last long. While my young self once thought that I could get away with having an eyebrow ring forever, after sitting in a couple meetings feeling young and inexperienced, I quickly purchased a wardrobe that took away my preferred method of “expressing myself” in an effort to look more like an adult and less like an out-of-place 20-something.
But it just didn’t work for me. As someone who relies heavily on her outward appearance to broadcast her inner values and personality, this new way of dressing wasn’t sustainable. I needed a balance between “irresponsible college student” and “stuffy business woman.”
In my young career, my work-attire perspective has gone from “naïve and young-looking” to “over-analytical business casual” to “with all due respect, I’m going to wear what I like.”
When shopping, the question has changed from “Do I like these pants?” to “Would a news anchor wear these pants?” to “How do I style these leather pants in a way that gives the illusion of business casual?” From “Do these boots go with this outfit?” to “Can the definition of business casual be stretched in a way that includes boots?” to “Can I wear these vintage boots and still convince people to take me seriously?”
Sure, there’s a degree of appropriateness that one needs to consider before wearing an expressive outfit to work, but I am of the opinion that life’s too short to spend it wearing clothes you’re uncomfortable in.
For some people, this means not being cornered into wearing the latest trends just because magazines tell them to. For others, it means staying away from high heels and blazers. For me, it means transcending the slacks.
Don’t get me wrong — I still subscribe to the rules of business casual (i.e. no short skirts, no visible shoulders, no wrinkles), but I’ve now discovered that I can still look professional without sacrificing my own style. At this thought, I sigh a deep breath of relief.