Identity and Style – Part 1

In recent days bloggers have taken up the topic of online identity, or identities, as the case may be.  Lisa at Privilege launched the discussion last week with this post about authentic self in the online era and materfamilias followed up with some thoughts of her own about how one manages multiple facets of identity, depending on audience. Both are fascinating reads and quite thought provoking.

Identity, in a more quotidian context, has been on my mind recently.  We most of us juggle multiple identities depending on the venue: worker, parent, spouse, in addition to whatever online identities we may have carved out for ourselves. And each of these identities may have her own dress code.

Nowhere do I struggle with this more than when it comes to work wear. Probably 80-90% of the time that I spend outside of the house is spent at work, so office wear necessarily occupies most of what I buy and wear. Once upon a time, when I was climbing the corporate ladder, that meant suits, or at least tailored separates. Which meshed nicely with my identity at the time, as I saw myself as Someone Who Was Climbing the Corporate Ladder. I was a Company Gal. I worked long hours (even after petit monsieur came along), I did well at my job, I learned to manage up as well as down, and it paid off.

The workplace has changed in the last decade, but so have I. The dress code at our office in stages became more casual and then mostly disappeared altogether, and at the same time, my own identity slowly became unhitched so that my work was what I did, not who I was.  Which may be why traditional business wear, even casual business wear, isn’t feeling right for me anymore.

Take for example this jacket:

This style of jacket elicits a knee-jerk swoon. I keep saying that I need more jackets that don’t look mannish or boxy or like half a suit. Earlier this week, I spotted the above Lafayette 148 jacket at Nordstrom, marked down substantially as part of their pre-season sale. It was the fabric that caught my eye first, a beautiful tweed in browns, olives and rusts, my perfect colors. It fit like a dream. It was incredibly flattering on. And yet…it felt like wearing someone else’s clothes.

And I realized that while my identity has moved on, my notion of “proper” work wear got stuck in the mud a mile back on the road, and I barely noticed. I keep spinning my wheels trying to dress the self I was in the past. This doesn’t mean I’m not still enjoying and committed to my work, it just means that I’m still in the process of refining a “professional” wardrobe that dovetails with my authentic self as it exists today, in the workplace as it exists today. Both are less rigid and structured, more fluid.

Have you struggled to merge your style with your evolving identity? Is there one sphere of your life where find it harder than others?

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  1. What an interesting post. I’ve always had quite disparate sides anyway, I either dress very glamorously or no make up, hair pulled back, couldn’t care less. I’ve never had a problem with this but when I was single many men who met the “glam” me hated the the slouchy natural me but it was a good litmus test for finding a man who wasn’t preoccupied by how a woman should look – I can’t bear that.

  2. What an interesting post. I’ve always had quite disparate sides anyway, I either dress very glamorously or no make up, hair pulled back, couldn’t care less. I’ve never had a problem with this but when I was single many men who met the “glam” me hated the the slouchy natural me but it was a good litmus test for finding a man who wasn’t preoccupied by how a woman should look – I can’t bear that.

  3. I continue to struggle with this. Although a sahm, I keep buying things that I tend not to wear once home. I did realize that some of what I was buying was really geared for office or work wear and I was just buying it because I liked it.

    I also have a problem with visually being drawn to prints and bohemian, or ruffles, lacy items. While I like the way they appear on the hanger or in pictures, the reality is what really suits me are solids, knits,fitted to suit my X shape in neutral or earthy colors, by designers like Eileen Fisher or Theory. I could kick myself for continuing to buy prints and ruffles when they don’t look good on me. Maybe one day I will learn.

  4. My academic work environment allows me great latitude in dress and I generally have fun playing with my front-of-the-classroom persona. I miss that somewhat when I’m working from home in the research/prep weeks (and for the prolonged research leave I’ve just had) — in fact, I have to be careful about buying clothes in the summer, because many of them rarely get out of the closet, demanding a bit more sense of occasion that reading on the front deck. . .
    I don’t think I’ve quite got to the heart of your question in my answer here, nor have I merged it enough with my own musings on identity and my blog, but I’m carrying the post through my day — you’ve got me thinking, again.

  5. I also find myself with the conundrum — unsolved – of how to dress for work when a) I am the oldest employee b) I am high-ranking c)I work in a casual, young marketing agency d) it is located in a third tier city. My current thinking is to shop Eileen Fisher including some of the edgier designs now a part of EF offerings. I need someone else to edit my taste and judgement for me – as lame as that sounds. Any suggestions are welcome!

  6. Excellent subject! I never have fit in to the neat, perfectly groomed and tidy model. Maybe because my hair is sort of wild, my coloring ethnic/ mixed and I’m a size 12. So, as I get older (63), I find classics with a twist; scarf, large earrings and loose sweater are better. I love beautiful linens, wools and comfort.
    I also feel sexier when I have a certain movement in my hair and clothes.

  7. I have this quandry right now! I have 4 kids, but not tinies anymore. My work involves growing and selling flowers and silversmithing, all fairly grubby endeavours! And I am 42, an inbetweeny age I am finding, don’t want to dress older than my age, but don’t want to look like I’m trying to be 25. But I like looking stylish, I enjoy clothes and obviously jewellery. I feel like I need to change clothes about 4 times a day, I wish I could find a look that would do school run, lunch out, workshop (gardening might be pushing it!). Can you advise? Bx

  8. Pseu, great post.
    I feel fortunate in that the outfits for my office identity are the easiest to put together, since my clothes are just a background for my jewelry.

    Also, I still feel a need to dress for success when I’m at work and at social functions. That doesn’t mean the old matchy business suits from the early 1980s but choosing outfits with a certain amount of simplicity, quality and polish. I believe that how we dress can affect how we are perceived by others.

  9. My workplace attire is not quite coherent.

    The first twenty years of my work life was spent in jeans and t shirts. When I changed careers I began to dress more office-like, but I didn’t work in a corporate setting. My first office job was university/arts oriented. So I dressed in proper office attire with a little bit of artsy flair. Then I worked in university marketing/events, where people were more conservative – we all looked like an Ann Taylor catalog (probably because there was an AnnTaylor Outlet down the street).

    Now I’m at a public employer, vaguely arts oriented.

    I am aware that it’s advised you dress one station above your own, if you want to be promoted. But my office ambiance is clearly back-of-the-house loading-dock, so dressing up too much is both jarring and impractical.

    I also have a junior colleague who wears sweatsuits to work — really!

    So my practice is to dress to my calendar – if I have appointments out of the office, I dress up more. If I have client visits, I dress up more – although, oddly, many potential clients come in dressed very casually.

    It’s confusing.

  10. Very thoughful post, thank you. This is where I am in my journey also: “less rigid and structured, more fluid.” I am enjoying it, but it does take some extra consideration. The old work “uniforms” were easier in their way.

  11. I enjoy these posts, your thoughts and then your commenters thoughts- it is food for thought.

    I work in a secured office w/no in person public contact and there is no dress code other than “no short shorts”. That is it! And only that rule because we once had a dispatcher trainee come in wearing a tight pink angora sweater and black leather short shorts w/black nylons and black boots. She was soon let go for multiple reasons. Most of us wear jeans and Ts or sweaters. During “business hours” we tend to dress a little nicer because the Chief might come up or a tour might come through. I feel lucky to not have to maintain two separate wardrobes/identities, but I still struggle with the age thing.

  12. I found that the suit thing in my occupations looked OK, but just didn’t feel like me. I felt very constrained and limited. I experimented a bit so that I could be a little more individualistic and creative. I just found that to be my most confident and professional, something a little more “bohemian” yet not sloppy was the answer. My outfits then made me feel happier and more relaxed during the day.

  13. As I struggle with this, it was one of your earlier posts,, that helped me to pinpoint my problem.

    People often get a bit stuck in the fashion era in which they felt and looked their best. For me that was the go-go eighties when I just started my career. I love pencil skirts, silk blouses and heels. Wearing them helps me to feel confident.

    Enter your working it out post. You look great in that outfit and very of the moment.
    The items you incorporated into the basic skirt and top combo (tights, short boots, unstructured jacket, higher hemline) make a huge difference.
    Seeing your outfit, I realized my beloved work uniform no longer looked fresh. They were the pieces that 20-somethings of my time used to set the fashion. I needed to start incorporating some of what today’s 20-somethings are using.

    Which brings me to the beautiful jacket. It is stunning but classic, structured jackets are getting less and less wear from younger folks and so by default they can make those of us in our middle ages look a little “middle aged.” (Interestingly, a slim 19 year old could make that look great with a pair of jeans, but when we try that it looks a little forced.) Anyway I think you are on to something with your skirt, tights, boots and sweater look. I encourage you to keep moving that direction. Women who tastefully incorporate the day’s major trends seem to me to often look the most youthful.

  14. As another Anonymous said at 9:20, the issue is that the world “ages” and so do we. Wearing business-y outfits when I started in academia in the early 1990s was a way to signal that I actually was a “grown up”–and that was important, because I was a VERY youthful looking 30 and sometimes mistaken for an undergrad. Now, almost 20 years later, wearing those same outfits would create a “I haven’t gone shopping in 20 years” look and, much as I love, love the jacket you feature, I do think that it’s Chanel-esque features just aren’t trending at the moment. So while a 25-year-old (especially with that model’s coloring) can wear it and look “oh! grown up,” on us it actually has the wrong effect. Maybe that “other person” you felt like in the jacket is the you of 20 years ago?

  15. Cue the Twilight Zone music: I just had this very conversation with a friend the other day. We’re both attorneys, she in a large, prestigious firm; I’m an administrative law judge. I did my time at Big Law in the ’80s, wearing navy suits and silk tie-front blouses. Now in my mid-50’s, I can’t even see the point in buying suits anymore, unless I plan to wear them as separates. My style now has shifted to cashmere/pima cotton sweater sets (depending on the season), beautiful scarves and accessories that express my eclectic personality, and pencil skirts or tailored slacks. By contrast, my friend’s wardrobe has remained unchanged; she still feels wearing jewelry takes away her effectiveness as an attorney. Chaque a son gout….The evolution in my style has reflected my level of self-confidence and a certain freedom I’m allowing myself, having survived 30 years in practice. Reading the post and the comments here, seems I’m not alone!

  16. So many pieces to this. Our circumstances change, our bodies change. For example, just as I’ve entered an era where my circumstances allow for casual, my body seems to cry out for a little more structure. I think that, like many things, sometimes we let it ride, sometimes we stop, and consider. Most importantly, I think, is to feel joy and anticipation, rather than dread. If we can.

    And thanks for reading, and continuing the discussion. So a rich part of my life, this blogging crowd.

  17. Such an interesting topic.

    I still struggle with this – my former “corporate” self (and the wardrobe I cannot bear to discard), my “French” self (my most favorite wardrobe variation of all, and oui they certainly do intersect), and my “writer self” who will work in tatters, in shorts, in anything at all… and the wardrobe budget that goes along with the freelance writer part (i.e., dreadful).

    How I miss the opportunities to wear my clothes that help me feel confident and competent.

    And identity? Such an evolving thing…

  18. This post is perfect for my current stage of life as well. I have a new job that has no real dress code. I have been experimenting with looks that feel comfortable, modern but not too young and still look like I am the one in charge. I have to admit it is a struggle. I, too, “grew up” professionally wearing suits and mimicing the look of the tv anchor as part of my climb to the top. Now I seem to be lost. I am looking for a new “uniform” but have yet to find one that hits all the right notes. I can’t wait to read other comments on this post AND would love to read your future posts on your own discovery. Thank you for this topic.

  19. Not really on subject, but I think that jacket would look great on you, paired with dark jeans. It has the look of a Chanel jacket, and those look great with jeans. Wear it open with a tee underneath. I don’t think it’s too business like at all – well maybe if it were with slacks, yes, but that’s not how I would wear it. May go to Nordstroms today!

  20. Oh yes…dressing the body as it ages and changes shape is a challenge.
    I hope that the message I am sending out with my choice of clothing says that i still care and have not given up to the frump that I still want to have FUN!

    I think that jacket would be a great addition to your wardrobe.

  21. Deja Pseu, I am a taller version of you, five feet 8 inches tall, but with a similar figure. Add to that, I don’t have a career, but do accompany my husband to conferences and events where I need to look professional and well dressed. All of this leads to a quandary at times. I need a varied wardrobe and I am struggling to match my wardrobe to my needs.

    I’ve learned so much from all the blogs I read. Currently, I am loving dresses(DVF, SOME Eileen Fisher–see her black trumpet skirted dresses both sleeveless and three quarter sleeves ) as long as they are long enough to look like the right proportion for me.

    I have a few “go to” ensembles that seem to fit any occasion.

    I’m sure if I had a career, I would have the same struggles you are dealing with.

  22. Bourbon & Pearls – in my mind, you’re always glamorous. But yes, that’s a good litmus test. (When I first met my husband, I was in a silly Morris Dance kit and sweaty from dancing, so he’s definitely seen me in less-than-glamorous state!)

    Reflections and a Latte – yes, it’s almost harder having *no* guidelines! I’ll be continuing to explore this and sharing my hits and misses.

    kathy peck – yes, that’s how I imagined wearing it too, yet even with jeans it just didn’t hit the sweet spot. That whole Chanel-esque obsession of mine is something I’m going to explore in Part 2…

    Julianne – I wonder if there’s a part of you that is drawn to the more boho styles that isn’t getting expressed. What about accessories? Maybe a leather wrap bracelet or some natural stone jewelry?

    materfamilias – I always think that my innate style would work well in an academic rather than a corporate setting. I envy the greater latitude with style that you have. I get what you’re saying about summer items never getting much wear.

    Anonymous@7:25 – I’m right there with you, and yes, those Eileen Fisher pieces have really become the backbone of my work wardrobe.

    Anonymous@7:43 – yes, movement!! and good fabrics! I like your style as you’ve described it.

    Belinda – oh, that’s a challenge! I feel a Polyvore coming on… look for something in the next few days.

  23. Belle – I agree that how we dress affects how we are perceived; if that weren’t true this wouldn’t be such a minefield! The circles you travel in, the right wardrobe is definitely important, but I think you have the right idea to keep the clothes simple and accent the gorgeous jewelry.

    Aunt Snow – yes, if one dresses up too much it can be jarring. Our workplaces are so diverse these days, it makes a single standard of “dress for success” obsolete.

    Patti – exactly! I’m still a believer in uniforms, just working out a more updated version.

    denise:) – aren’t my commenters just awesome though? I think the jeans-and-t-shirts office is becoming more the norm. There’s always one or two who have to push the few boundaries that remain.

    Anonymous@9:16 – yes, “bohemian yet not sloppy” is where I find I’m most comfortable.

  24. Anonymous@9:20a – yes, that ensemble definitely hit the “sweet spot”. You make a great point about that the structured jackets can be aging.

    Anonymous@10:13a – great point! “the world ‘ages’ and so do we.” Love that. Yes, we don’t need the help anymore to look “grown up.”

    Anonymous@10:50a – I love what you said about self-confidence and allowing ourselves a bit of freedom. Haven’t we earned that by now?

    LPC – yes, joy and anticipation. That’s always how I approach these style conundrums. Discovery is fun. And thank you for continuing to be such a guiding light and for sharing your perspective.

    Big Little Wolf – what I observe with my younger co-workers is that they don’t feel the need to juggle multiple selves. What they wear to work is what they wear…almost everywhere else. My “French” self is my favorite self is definitely my favorite too. What about wearing the clothes that make you feel confident and competent while you write?

  25. Susan Tiner – I’m afraid my post isn’t as cerebral as LPC’s and mater’s! I think that “no distinction between work and play wear” is definitely where the world is trending, and maybe I just need to adjust. I think the scarves you’ve been making will definitely add some fun and I’m looking forward to seeing you wear them.

    hostess – I’ve really been inspired by your wardrobe choices, how you keep it simple and elegant but always have something fun to show us. I’m afraid the jacket, lovely as it is, just isn’t speaking to me anymore.

    Susan – I want to be a taller version of myself! ;-p I have a harder time with dresses than anything else, maybe because there are so few designed for petites. But I’m glad you’ve found some that work for you, as they’re definitely a great and simple option.

    Wendy B – It’s funny, I really miss the *idea* of suits. Just not the reality.

    SheWhoAccessorizesWell – I imagine that retiring brings a whole new set of wardrobe challenges. I look forward to seeing your jackets! And having lived in a small town before the internet era, I hear you about shopping. It’s tough when selection is limited!

  26. I love how LPC’s post lead to Mater’s and now yours. Interesting stuff to think about.

    In my case, business wear in a high-tech engineering position was so casual that there really was no distinction between work and play wear. It seemed great at the time, because it was so comfortable and worry free that I could just focus on working long hours :-).

    At this point in life, that wardrobe seems too boring an not very flattering. I want to have a little more fun.

    I love that jacket!

  27. This hits home for me. When you retire your whole world changes. I cannot say that I have it all figured out, but I am trying. My old workplace was business casual and what I have left of my work wardrobe is what I am trying to figure out how to make it work now.

    I love jackets like the one you pictured. As a matter of fact, I have several for fall and winter that are similar. I don’t feel old in them at all and I love wearing them with jeans. I think it makes a great casual look. Hopefully, I will be showing how I wear them later this year on my blog.

    I have been thinking that how we dress is also tied to where we live. If you live in a bigger city on one of the coasts, you have access to more stores and can try lots of different looks. Those of us in the middle would have to spend a fortune on shipping to try a lot of different clothes.

  28. Great post. I like to make an effort, and that mans dressing relatively well, even at home. But my career has changed since I first started out, and it’s rather sad to feel way overdressed when everyone around me is wearing shorts and hairy legs (the men, thanks very much) and Polartec or tee shirts and Keens, sometimes with socks. High Tech Glamour. I dressed for me but also for other women (much more so than for other men), and I am the only woman in my smallish company who even wears makeup. I don’t war tons, but I do make a small effort every day, and I find myself missing the days of deciding what I’d wear, not only the outfit, but the accessories to go with it: the scarf, jewelry, shoes, belt, handbag or tote or briefcase … I have all that stuff packed away, and I doubt I will ever need it again, but I do still love jackets and wear them with jeans. I wear jeans a lot these days, something I swore I’d never do, especially to work. Oh, well. I guess my identify now is comfort, practicality, and efficiency. But I do try to give it a little edge.

  29. You know in spite of multiple identities, I like to believe that my core is somehow intact and that astute, interested folks in any of my walks of life would be able to identify the real thing about me…but I’ve had tremendous fun in the past year playing with the way clothing can affect identity and studying the way people respond. I keep my two suits in the closet, just in case, but it is tremendous fun to simply play with identity. I’m not ready to “dress the age” in the way the culture might dictate.

  30. I too just had a version of this discussion with a friend….how interesting that we’re all grappling with this! Makes me feel less alone, which I appreciate.

    A practical note re: the jacket. It looks stodgy and somewhat dowdy to me. Chanel jackets (either the real thing or the knockoffs) need to be carefully fitted, a la couture. Over in the sewing blogosphere, I’ve seen some remarkable versions, both good and bad. It takes a very good tailor or sewist to get it right.

  31. This is also an issue for the newly retired, like me. Though not a fashionista, in my work years I made the effort to put a look together every day and focused my efforts and dollars on my work wardrobe, dressing very casually and practically off the job. That off the job wardrobe now leaves me feeling a bit dowdy and frumpy.
    I need a style for more casual, home based living. I live in the country, am a foodie and an enthusiastic gardener. I’m a minimalist and want casual, comfortable clothing with some style (no cutesy gardening outfits or appliqued aprons)but I haven’t quite figured out what that is. I’m taking inspiration from a prior post where you mention finding your style by paying attention to your fashion sweet spot (those days when what you wear feels just right and reflects your personal style) and not buying anything until you figure out just what it is that works for you.

    Talking to other retirees, I find they experience the same thing.

  32. When we enter the workplace, we look for ‘the map”, watching older women, especially superiors. There is usually a formula one can adopt. (If unwilling to adapt to the norms of a specific workplace, it’s a clear signal to leave.)

    The there is the middle period, where you begin to tweak and allow elements of yourself more play, still within the expected attire for the role.

    Also, by now times have changed, so you usually have more leeway, less formality.

    (I’d say you are in the late middle period.)

    There is never a real end to some degree of conformity in a serious business environment. Even though my friend Clare can rock purple shooties as a SVP in a global bank, she cannot show up in a tank top and flip flops.

    Then one day you retire (or go do something else) and have freedom; “the rules” need not apply unless you still like those clothes very much. (I have a friend who wore Celine suits when she worked and still does, she enjoys them.)

  33. My workplace has actually become more formal in recent years. This summer I’m working on a special project that requires “grungy” wear, but this fall I’ll need to get back to a more professional wardrobe.

    It’s going to be an adjustment, because I’ve gotten so used to just reaching for the jeans in the morning.

    Another adjustment I’m making is in my makeup. I’m a makeup lover and although I’ve never worn heavy or garish colors, I do enjoy experimenting with bright lipsticks, etc. But lately I’ve felt the need to tone it down a bit and to go with a more neutral look. It feels a bit strange to look at all the new collections coming out and to realize that I don’t really need any of it.

  34. I miss the days if suits, because I always knew what to wore, always had the right shoes, and could mix and match like nobody’s business. As the companies I worked for got more and more casual (nothing is more casual than a company that makes computer games–we had people who did not wear shoes), my wardrobe got more and more hodgepodge. In the last two years I have worked from home and I would not even dare to call what I have a wardrobe–it’s just a bunch of clothes hanging in my closet together. Lately I have felt the need to do something about this, but I am still not sure what. All the terrific style bloggers out there help, though, and I especially loved your color for fall capsule wardrobe. Gorgeous and wearable!

  35. Zuzu’s Petals – thanks! I know what you mean about not wanting to be overdressed/overdone compared to everyone else. Sometimes being creative with style is harder when things are casual!

    Terri – your style explorations have been very expressive, and you do seem to be having a tremendous amount of fun. I wonder if “dressing the age” even has much meaning anymore? I think we have a lot more freedom that even our mothers did at this age.

    Ms M – that’s really interesting that your workplace has become more formal. How did your co-workers take to that? I think more natural looking makeup generally looks better the older we get, and it’s true, one really doesn’t need a bunch of new things each season.

  36. Jean S – I think your right about the jacket (at least for me) and the more I look at it, the more I’m glad I passed it up. Jackets are SO hard to get right, both the style and fit.

    Carolyn from Oregon – did you see Lisa’s post over at Privilege earlier this week? She put together a few ensembles for those who no longer go to a workplace. I’m putting together something for next week and will link to her post as well. It IS challenging dressing more casually yet stylishly.

    Duchesse – I’m probably the oldest, and one of the most senior woman in our office, so I feel a bit of responsibility to set a tone. My boss who works in a different location (at the “main campus” so to speak) favors Eileen Fisher and Chico’s, so I don’t feel off the mark with the direction I’ve been going with the work wardrobe.

  37. Chico’s is an interesting store in that it caters to women in their 50s+. I have to say that I CAN find things there—sleeveless cotton shells/t-shirts for the summer, blue denim jeans for knocking around (seems to fit my 50+ body perfectly), some comfortable knit tops for running errands and a casual lunch with friends.

    I do think that, like Talbots, the quality of Chico’s fabrics is not great–and some of the colors/prints are bordering on obnoxious.

  38. I’ve enjoyed all these comments and your responses. On Tuesday (Jul 26) I’m gonna post on retirement dressing b/c your post unleashed more thoughts than I should post here. As usual you are so inspiring.

    I sense an undercurrent of dread for anything that “looks aging”. What fear and loathing we have of aging!

    As for “not looking out of style”: If we buy good quality clothing and change it within 5 or 6 years (unfortunately, there’s no magic best-by date in clothes) we will be fine.

  39. Although I have moved from suits to classic separates as I wind down my career, I am by far the best-dressed (and oldest) person at my firm. While business casual (heavy emphasis on casual) is the dress code here, I prefer to remain well-dressed and polished. This is my personal taste, and ensures that everyone remembers that I’m a woman with valuable experience, not just a grandmother of two!