The Workplace

Why I Dress the Way I Do: The Real Corporate America

By: Charlene Chinn

It’s 5:30 am and the workday begins. After I take time to pray and meditate the next thing I focus on…what to wear? Sometimes before I even get out the bed I am already mentally scanning what I have in my closet and dresser drawer to create the best outfit.

Sometimes I think to myself “How am I going to build off of what I did yesterday.” “ What color combination can I put together today?” “ Which statement necklace have I not worn in a while that I could wear today?” “ Flats or not? “ “Heels or not? “ All of these questions flow through my head before I have completely laid out my outfit for the day. I know…it’s a lot.

“Charlene you are always so put together.” “You’re so fashionable”. “I love how you dress. “ “Love that necklace Charlene.” “Your hair is always so put together.“ These are just some of the compliments I may hear on a given day which primarily come from my white counterparts. I smile and say thank you of course.

As much as I appreciate the compliments they will never truly understand why I take so much pride in how I look. By no means is it because I am so into myself. Never that. There are not many women of color at the asset management firm where I work. Currently, I am only one of three women in my department. Needless to say I stand out primarily due to the fact that I am black.

My company has an unspoken rule…dress to impress. There is no shortage of buttoned up suits and designer heels. I have even seen a few red bottoms and Jimmy Choos walk through the office floor. On the flip side there are definitely those who come to work on the more “casual” side.

This is especially noticeable in my department. Naturally, those in senior leadership are typically wearing suits, much more on the formal side. For those that fall into the junior-mid career level where I fall I see the biggest difference in appearance.

The white women I work with seem to take the casual route with their basic white buttoned up collared shirt layered with a colored sweater of some kind. Depending on the season you could probably see them in cropped pants and possibly a pair of flats. Their hair is usually down and flat. No body no volume. This is the norm.

The mediocracy is accepted because they are not me. They do not have to put much emphasis on how they will be perceived because they are white. As a black woman my appearance equates to the fact that I will be perceived on how educated I am. Can she speak well? Can  she articulate her thoughts? Basically, do I know what I am talking about. They say first impressions are everything, well for a black women this is even more true.

My coworkers will never understand that I take so much emphasis in my appearance because this demonstrates my seriousness to excel in my career as well as my own life. I have been taught to dress for the job you want not the job you have, and that I will have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have. That, ladies and gentleman is my reality and I am sure the reality of many other black women.

Yes, we like to look nice and dress accordingly, but deep down there is a deep reason for our attention to detail with respect to our attire. I noticed the discreet “surprised” looks when they see a well-dressed, and articulate black women put together. I hear the responses when they see black women in interviews who can clearly and succinctly articulate her thoughts.

Several weeks ago a black woman came into our office to interview for a very senior level Investment Director position. Her skill set and capabilities to do the job were of course discussed. What I found interesting was the number of times her hair and overall attire were referenced. I have to admit myself, her style was impeccable, but to hear the amazement and almost utter shock over how well put together she looked you would have thought they had never seen a black woman dressed let alone a black woman at all.

I have accepted the fact I will have to spend that much more time and effort on how I look because that effort translates into much more than “Oh Charlene you look so put together”. The time and effort into every creased shirt and ironed pair of slacks, from keeping every strand of hair intact to the most appropriate shoes to wear, equate to me being a woman that understands I will have to work that much harder to get to where I need to go. In the end I know I am more than my appearance.

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