I’ve worn a lot of navy over the years. Especially at work. I’m blonde and blue-eyed so I look best in blues. And pinks, but pink would have been troublesome at work. Although I did wear a killer, blindingly pink, linen blazer during my first pregnancy. But I digress.
Navy. The meaning and story of navy.
I went to business school in the early 1980s, having previously worked for a) Cameron Mackintosh Productions in London b) Circle Repertory Theater in New York c) a consulting company run by a former McKinsey partner who used primal therapy techniques in corporate strategy sessions. This is all true.
Upon graduation, I took a job with Air Products and Chemicals, located in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Outside of Allentown, in case you are not familiar with the booming metropolis of Macungie. There were very few women in the company, excepting secretaries. One might imagine my astonishment at the culture of large corporations, what with the academic family and theater background. It was rather like emerging, blinking, onto an African veldt, following a long Finnish childhood.
We all wore skirted suits to work. I tried to buy one that was navy blue. Fail, as they say. I came home with a grotesquerie in heathered blue. Can we all shout, “Dowdy!” loud and proud? The day I wore that suit with a blue shirt and a red tie was the day I found myself dressed like 3 men in my department, and the day I vowed never to repeat the ensemble. The day Finance sent us a missive jokingly asking why the women in corporate strategy were all so flat-chested was probably the day I decided to get out of headquarters as soon as I could.
I moved from Macungie back to California. Out of corporate strategy and into sales. Where what mattered was results. And I sold well. Largely due to my enormous terror at the prospect of failing. I would come home from a day of cold calls, and lie, stunned, on the sofa, eating M&Ms, hoping to recover. I turned 30 round about the time it dawned on me that while I could sell, I had no hope whatsoever of lasting in the profession. For my 30th birthday I bought myself a dress. A broad-shouldered, wide-belted, 1980’s, navy blue shirtdress. I felt so powerful, like I was making a statement about conformity, achievement and self-confidence. I was a child. But a child in a blue dress that was telling me the truth.
I got pregnant. Goodbye wide belt. Nice to have met you. I gave birth to my daughter. I quit work. I gave birth to my son. I stayed home for a few more years. I returned to work, consulting. And suddenly I was in front of groups of adults, telling them what to do.
I bought a navy blue suit, needless to say. Pants, this time. Ever since I had been introduced to the corporate VP as a leading sales rep, only to have him pay more attention to my legs than my handshake, I had worn mostly pants to work. I earned that right. To this day, the suit of my late 30’s remains one of my favorite pieces of clothing of all time. Vestimenta, no longer in business. Man’s tailoring, but the fabric was a fabulous crepe-ish kind of wool. Draped just so. Worn with a white button-front, and delicate black Ferragamo loafers. I felt impeccable, credentialed. I took a job at Sun Microsystems, where I swam with real corporate sharks for the first time. Rode a private jet to Europe with a mad German entrepreneur. And on to a dot.com when all around were losing their minds and millions of dollars of venture capital. Those were the days.
I spent a non-navy year at the dot.com. If I remember, I wore wide-legged, low-waisted brown corduroys and outre shirts. It’s all about context. They made me VP.
In my last job, the one where I had to spend time in New York managing large, argumentative, financial institution accounts, I bought my last navy work outfit. By now the arguers were also women. By now I was 50. By now I knew what I could do well, and where my shortcomings lay. I bought a knit, but structured, Armani jacket, and wide-legged navy blue linen trousers. Fit conservative parameters, just. Some ruffle, some flow. Worn with quilted black Manolo flats. You walk around a lot in New York City.
These days, as I continue my job hunt, I’m still in navy, if we count jeans. Let’s count jeans. Looks like I may have the opportunity to work in a startup with a technical colleague. A technical colleague whom I like and respect. At a pace which allows me to keep blogging. We shall see.
Being in one’s 50s isn’t so bad, if you’ve managed to pick up enough experience to become useful. I don’t know if I’ve really needed to worry so much about what I wear, but given my upbringing, it was unavoidable. There’s no way to predict, at 22, exactly what will happen over the next 30 years. No point at 53, in chastising your younger self for missteps, bad suits, naivete. The only absolute I know is that you have to pay attention. Things reveal their meaning later, and if you haven’t paid attention, your chance to understand is lost forever.
*I’ve told much of this before, here and there, with less detail. Just seemed to warrant a retelling. When you’re older, you often appreciate a retell. But twice is enough, I promise.