Of all the charities that I have read about recently, there’s one that really captured my imagination. It’s called Dress for Success and its patron saint is my favourite comedienne, Jennifer Saunders (best-known for having written and played Edina in Absolutely Fabulous). The objective of this charity is simple: it helps women who have been out of work for a long time – and thus don’t have the appropriate wardrobe for a job interview, or the money to buy one – get back into employment by finding them the right outfits for their job interviews.
These outfits are donated by various companies and individuals as well as by several clothing brands, and women volunteers – including the British PM’s wife, Samantha Cameron, who often makes an incognito appearance – help their unemployed sisters to Dress for Success by choosing the right clothes for them and coaching them on interview techniques to build up their confidence before they hit the job market.
It probably doesn’t sound like much, and yet this simple mantra of dressing right for an interview and thus landing a job has transformed the lives of thousands of women. Just the act of putting on a business-like outfit, a neat pair of shoes, and a smart handbag boosts the confidence level of these women who have, over the years, come to think of themselves as worthless. They walk into their next job interview feeling more in control, more focused, and yes, more confident. And that new outlook often spells the difference between success and failure, between unemployment and a thriving career, between hopelessness and a bright and gleaming future.
And it all begins with the right outfit. Because, when you think about it, how we dress has a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves – and how other people feel about us.
If you spend all day at home schlepping around in a track-suit or a shapeless caftan, the odds are that you will feel lazy and sloppy. Dress up in a smart trouser-suit or put on a pair of high heels and you immediately feel ready to take on the world. Sometimes just putting on a slash of lipstick can lift your spirits on a gloomy morning. A bad-hair day can sink our spirits just as a brand new pair of shoes can put the spring back in our step.
Shallow? Perhaps. True? Undoubtedly.
But it’s not just about how you feel about yourself. People also judge you by the way you look, and that invariably boils down to what you are wearing.
Walk into a meeting with your shirt half-hanging out of your waistband and a suspicious stain on your tie (and no, it doesn’t matter if it materialised mysteriously a couple of minutes before your appointment) and you will be condemned as sloppy before you can even open your mouth. Dirty shoes will completely ruin the impression you’ve made with an immaculate suit. And don’t even bother putting on your makeup if your nails still look grubby.
Don’t wear trousers so low-slung that you show off your underwear when you bend down to pick up an errant pen (and that means you too, boys!). And don’t undo the third button on that shirt unless you are actively looking for the ‘sex symbol’ tag.
Yes, despite all that elevated nonsense about never going by appearances, we make snap judgements about the people we meet every day. And those judgements are invariably based on what they are wearing.
How many times have you passed a woman wearing an ikat sari, an over-sized red bindi, kolhapuri chappals and carrying a cloth bag – or a man in a colourful FabIndia-style kurta and an week’s growth of stubble – and thought to yourself ‘ah, NGO-type’? In fact, the look has even spawned its own description: ‘jholawallah’ after the cloth bag all these ‘NGO types’ carry.
Nothing says ‘sales rep’ as much as a short-sleeved shirt worn with tie (but no jacket). Traders can generally be recognised by their safari-suits and large gold rings. A white kurta with a dark waistcoat has become the hallmark of a politician. And unfortunately, in our lexicon, a short skirt or a skimpy dress still translates into ‘slut’.
But, how we dress goes even deeper than that. In a sense, every profession has its own ‘uniform’ as it were, an easily recognisable way of identifying someone as part of a ‘tribe’.
Those in the fashion industry take particular pride in dressing in an eccentric manner, wearing wildly-mismatched colours, avant-garde designs, and completely outrageous accessories. Journalists try to display their nonchalant, devil-may-care attitude by wearing dirty jeans and crumpled T-shirts everywhere. Anyone with a starchy, neatly pinned-up sari, and no-nonsense flats is in all probability a teacher. And if you see a man wearing an impeccably-tailored suit with a suitably sober tie even in the height of summer, the poor sod is probably middle-management in an MNC.
But quite apart from the messages people get from our clothes, how we dress is also a powerful way of projecting the image we want to convey to the world. We put on a colourful scarf when we want to project our playful side. We wear our highest heels when we want to feel sexy and powerful. We carry an expensive handbag to show that we have made it.
Yes, what we wear says a lot about who we are – but it also says a lot about how we would like to be perceived.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
From HT Brunch, December 4
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