I have been asked, by a young South Asian woman, whether I’d care to address the question of corporate style for women of color in certain traditional industries. High WASP style, even. Well. OK then.
I was tempted to toss this one like the proverbial hot potato. Fast. But I’ll grab on tight instead, since I was asked. I’d never even think of addressing this question without an invitation. We’ll go slowly.
Let’s revisit the question of why corporate attire might have a relationship to High WASP style.
Many US industries and corporations grew up in the era when the High WASP man walked the corridors of power unaccompanied by measurable diversity. That dress culture set US corporate iconography. Although the High WASPs rule very little now, the artifacts of their culture send reassuring, almost mythical signals to the higher ups in traditional industries.
Should corporate America lag the many changes in our society? One can argue it should not. Does it happen anyway? Difficult to deny. One could fight the larger war on the sartorial battleground but I prefer to focus my energies on other issues. Things like racism and sexism and childcare and healthcare.
Since I have been asked, here is what I say from my High WASP background and my corporate training.
Everyone has to balance following the rules with showing up as an individual. Here’s what’s different for women of color. When the blond and blue-eyed wear, as I did once, a blue suit, a blue shirt, and red round the neck, we look confused and anxious. Too costumed. Dressing, perhaps, in our fathers’ clothes.
Red suits make women of my genotype look like we’re running for office or supporting our husband as he does so.
For women of color, ethnicity contributes sufficient divergence. You can embrace blue. And extend the welcome to red. (Of course, you can do anything you like. This guidance holds if you want to leverage dress code biases to your advantage.)
So on to general aesthetic principles.
Aesthetic Principles Of High WASP-Influenced Corporate Dress
- Rely on a familiar silhouette, based on a man’s suit, i.e. jacket can have some variation around the lapel, or waistline, or pockets.
- Wear straight-legged pants. You don’t see men’s suits with flared trousers. But skirts can be anything from pencil to pleated and fuller. After all, even High WASPs come in female.
- Make use of the concept of a sports jacket. No sports required, thank goodness.
- For casual, yes, the Jimmy Carter/Alistair Cooke cardigan.
- Blue is your friend. Gray is OK. Black is OK. Other colors may work, but you have to scout out the territory first and see what your corporation has adopted.
- Colors found in the American flag are quite reassuring.
- For shirts, blue, white, blue, pink, and yellow are OK, gray and green not. Those are scary. Might be worn by someone who would try to strike too hard of a bargain. (I know the cultural baggage around ‘bargain.’ I apologize. The origin is medieval. So, perhaps, the remains of the aversion.)
Remember, corporate aesthetics always act as a signifier for assumed behavior.
What Social Signals Does High WASP-Influenced Corporate Dress Send?
- Participants know the 3 key levels of rules. 1) understanding 2) mastery 3) advanced breakage of just the right bit.
- We will be reasonably polite, but direct and impatient because we are masters of the universe.
- Respect hierarchy, but believe there is a time for underlings to voice respectful disagreement.
- The shared code of conduct will not involve intricate, scary bargaining. Disciplined negotiation is OK.
- The code of conduct trumps one’s personal family network.
- Pushing all these boundaries at the margin indicates there is an individual in there. A smart one.
- In finance, wear a pants suit. No flares.
- Blue button-front underneath as first default. Stay away from greens.
- Black, elegant flats.
- In marketing, pull out the red. We think marketing must be creative because it involves emotions and who in the world understands those pesky things?
- I included an Hermes scarf above, but these should not be worn until you hit Director level. Not to worry. The world is not suffering from a shortage of scarves.
- Classic Ferragamos. Nobody cares if your toes show a little bit, as long as they aren’t painted.
- Pull back your hair in a braid with a tortoiseshell fastener.
- Lipstick verging on vivid is OK with the blue suit. You’ve shown you know the rules, now assert your right to diverge. If you’ve gone red, take the makeup down, down, down.
- Wear grandmother’s earrings with pride. Heritage is heritage, and there’s nothing High WASPs like better. With pants, let the earrings dangle. With a flowy skirt, better to balance with an ornate post.
- Never forget to demonstrate a rock solid skill set. And don’t worry one bit about any stereotypes involving ethnicity and math or science. Rock what you dominate. If you’re the most creative advertising genius since Don Draper, take that to the bank.
In sum, the High WASP, and the traditional corporate higher up, both want to know two things. First, do you know and respect the rules we spent generations trying to establish? Because if you demonstrate that you know the clothing rules, we assume you know and will subscribe to our code of conduct. And much of American business relies on that code. See contracts, for example.
Second, do you have enough confidence and skill to break the rules? Break the rules without breaking the Rule of Thirds? Break the rules and maintain a certain proportion and balance? The West likes its rectangles. Anything too curved makes us nervous.
This is not what I hold in my heart to be good, only what I have found in my experience to be true. And should I ever do business in Asia again, I hope one of you will take me aside and give me a similar briefing.