I’m 5 feet 2 inches on my tiptoes, petite with glasses, and I currently have two brilliant rows of silver brackets (yes, braces) adorning my sunny smile.
Needless to say that though I’m 25, I don’t look it. And, as is so often the plight of the pleasant and tiny, I am regularly perceived as, well, cute. Which is fine—I do cute really well. But, because real people don’t fit flat characters, “cute” is not sufficient for all that I aim to be.
Last year I worked as a newspaper reporter for a military publication, a job I took fresh out of undergrad. Moving to my first office job from a small liberal arts university meant that my wardrobe needed a bit of a makeover. But what I found harder to shed than my distressed denim and nineties plaid was an inclination to second-guess myself. I realized that when I was interviewing politicians and decorated officers, I was still hung up wondering if others viewed me as “cute” rather than “credible.”
As a happy-go-lucky sanguine inclined to the color pink, I have to make a conscious effort to take myself seriously in professional matters—and make sure that other people do, too. I have to wear a little extra confidence with my business casual. Luckily, in my pursuit to channel my inner “serious and successful” self, I learned that fashion is a really useful tool. I also learned that changing your style doesn’t mean losing yourself.
Give People More Credit
I realized that expecting people will think of me a certain way is a waste of brain power, because (a) they probably aren’t thinking about me at all and (b) if they are, they deserve more credit than to have me think that their thoughts are negative, restrictive, or apprehensive. If I walk into an interview (for a story, not a job) expecting someone to think I’m out of place, then I am probably going to act out of place.
But then it struck me: As a reporter, it’s my job to be out of place. Meaning, to go places I wouldn’t normally go and ask a lot of questions from people I wouldn’t normally talk to. That was the very best part of my job. I loved interviewing navy captains and air force pilots, war veterans and military historians. Sure, I was young and inexperienced and knew nothing about the military when I started out. But here’s the thing: No one actually minded, and the only person holding me back from being viewed as a “professional” was myself.
But coming to this realization took time. Along the way, I got a boost of confidence from a sleek pencil skirt, a fitted blazer, and a semi-gloss lipstick. This was the look that made me feel assertive. Along with a deep breath, eye contact, and a handshake my dad would be proud of, I got through many of those first fifteen seconds of nervousness just by knowing that I looked poised and ready. I couldn’t make myself any taller, but I could square my shoulders, smile, be genuinely interested, well-informed, and, of course, well-dressed.
Give Yourself More Credit
Shopping for professional clothes was a new experience, and I wasn’t very good at it initially. Instead of gravitating to vintage pieces and flashy trends, I forced myself to stick to the basics, such as button-up oxfords, simple sweaters, and neutral dresses. I didn’t get it right on the first try. There were definitely some “this is absolutely too short” or “orange might not have been the best idea” days. But as I began to build my reserve of business casual basics, I also began to rely on the uniformity they provided. With this simple and reliable clothing canvas established, I could throw myself into projects and really act the part. I associated my more serious clothes with being taken more seriously. I really did work better in my “work clothes.”
Style proved the perfect way to reinforce my newfound confidence and to ward off those creeping thoughts of being an impostor. Dressing like the young professional that I already was reminded me of all the big plans I had, of all that I hoped to accomplish. When I walk into an interview or present myself to an employer, I want that drive to be seen. Now, when I do one last mirror check on the way out the door, I don’t just see a cute girl in a great blazer, I see who I want to be—what I’m working for—even if I’m also balancing stacks of file folders and searching for my keys with a bagel clenched between my teeth.
It’s All About Appropriate
There is a freedom in being appropriately attired. An outfit, after all, has as much to do with the way you feel as it does with the way you look. As much as I love fashion (and I really do), I also love the career I am pursuing in journalism. When on the job, I don’t need a pair of pinching shoes to distract me from that.
When aiming for professional, I realized that function is a priority. It’s just distracting when a blouse is pulling at the buttons, a skirt is too short, or a dress is overly susceptible to the wind. Do yourself a favor, and send those pieces to textile heaven. That said, I’m not advocating for a boring or frumpy wardrobe. An outfit that is theoretically appropriate but you just downright loathe has no need to be justified. Don’t wear something just because it “works.” That’s a lie because if you don’t feel confident, it doesn’t work for you.
To keep up with my professional, can-do attitude, I found myself wanting outfits that were versatile. I committed to making sure I left the house wearing an outfit I would be happy in all day. When I got home at 8 p.m. after a ten-hour day, I was still happy with that morning’s style choice because it had been appropriate all day no matter where my job took me. Keeping that promise was difficult at times—like on a cold February morning when I just wanted to stay wrapped up in covers. But it doesn’t take any more time to put on a planned outfit than it does to put on an unplanned one—it just takes a bit of self-training (and maybe a closet consultation while you’re putting on your pajamas the night before). I found that if I could keep that promise to myself, my work days went much better.
Personal Style Is Still Important
Once I mastered safe office staples, I had to learn how to incorporate my own tastes while keeping animal sweaters to a minimum. It wasn’t about masking personal style; it was making sure I wasn’t carelessly contributing to a persona or perception I was trying to avoid.
These tasteful threads also made my newly graduated self feel more like a lady and, thus, an adult. Serious didn’t mean I had to cancel out my love for all things feminine. Eventually I didn’t even want to wear jeans on Saturday because my cycle of simple black day dresses, button-up blouses, and structured blazers brought with it a style ease that I embraced (secretly I loved feeling like Audrey Hepburn and Jackie O. all the time).
I didn’t lose my flair for eclectic styles. Instead, by keeping a mental “too-cute” radar, I learned what kinds of styles I actually really liked. Whereas before I would get stuck on catchy patterns and girlie hues, these days I opt for cat earrings instead of cat sweaters to keep my quirky style grown-up. You might describe my workwear style as J.Crew meets ModCloth—classic yet fun. I love mixing menswear-inspired and professional pieces with interesting accessories and bold colors. For example, if I’m wearing khaki slacks, I’ll cuff them at the bottom and slip on a pair of bright ballet flats or trendy loafers.
It might sound a bit cliché, but the biggest takeaway from my relationship with officewear was this: I don’t dress just to impress other people; I dress to impress myself. My stint in skirts and slacks taught me how I can use style to be taken seriously and to authentically channel who I really want people to see—which is me.
Photo Credit: Julia Hembree Photography