Often we choose our clothes based on where we’re going that day or on what’s needed for a particular event.
For example, a day at the office or a friend’s barbeque dictate certain apparel. But is that really the best way to feel comfortable and confident?
While attending a recent TEDx (a smaller-scale TED Talk), I had the opportunity to hear from Stasia Savasuk, a personal stylist who advocates the power of wearing clothes in congruence with who we are.
At first, this concept seems fairly straightforward. However, the plot thickened as Stasia told a story about her five-year-old daughter, who continually pleaded to wear a button- down shirt and tie instead of dresses.
Stasia was concerned as she wanted her daughter, who already had physical differences, to fit in – not stand out more.
Once her daughter was allowed to wear the clothing that aligned with her inner self, she proclaimed, “Mommy, mommy look, I can jump higher and run faster!”
Instead of seeing her daughter hanging her head and feeling uncomfortable in a dress, Stasia observed her daughter standing tall, able to show up in the world the way she felt inside.
If we listen, children can remind us how simple adjustments can be game-changers. As the stylist coach put it:
Change your pants, change your life.
When I worked as an analyst for an IT market research firm, I had a strict protocol for attire: typically a button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes.
To class things up a notch, we were supposed to add a sport coat. If a high profile client were meeting on site, we’d wear a suit and tie.
This differed from my previous work chapter in the fashion-forward NYC digital advertising industry, where comfort and a touch of flare could be infused into my everyday outfits.
A combination of jeans, untucked button-down, and casual shoes was my go-to, while I’d add a sport coat or suit jacket if I was feeling fancy.
Ironically, the addition of a tie crossed a line: you would be identified as a rookie (not good if you are selling virtually anything).
As I transitioned from Mad Men to enterprise IT, the protocol called for more formal business attire.
As a desk jockey, I took brisk walks around the building and enjoyed running up and down the stairs (note: I employed a safety first mindset so I didn’t scare or plow into colleagues).
At lunch, I would go to the gym for weight-training or cardio sessions. Having an internal thermostat already on the warmer side, I’d sweat bullets each time.
This was the case despite taking a shower and blasting the A/C on the ride back to the office. In fact, even on non-training days, I would soak through shirts.
While I had good energy and was engaged in my work, the clothing I wore made me uncomfortable. I needed to change my pants…or in this case, my shirt and shoes.
It may sound silly, but I have always struggled with the stuffiness of a tucked shirt and leather dress shoes. Just wearing long sleeves feels constricting, so I constantly roll them up.
In hindsight, I attribute this up to my passion for fitness, the outdoors, and endurance events. During non-business hours you’ll find me training at the gym, running, practicing yoga, hiking, weight-training, and obstacle course racing.
Through a bit of research, I found performance button-down shirts with breathable synthetic materials. My favorite brand is Onward Reserve, although these are not inexpensive shirts, especially with the additional $15 altering job required for the ideal no-tuck look.
It took over a year, but I finally switched to having fewer, better performing shirts that I can tuck or not tuck as I see fit. Coincidentally, The Wall Street Journal recently had a piece on the tuck versus no-tuck debate.
The performance dress shirts that I’ve come to appreciate actually mirror the rest of my wardrobe pieces that support running 5Ks, hiking 4,000-foot mountains, and competing in Spartan Races. Even when I’m relatively inactive, you’ll probably find me wearing technical material of some type.
I also struggled with congruency with my footwear. Despite the $300 price tag, my Johnston and Murphy shoes limited my pace of movement and because of my prior Achilles surgery, they became legitimately painful to wear.
Eventually, I borrowed the look and comfort from my advertising days and donned my Sketchers. Some may say it was simply a decision to go with function over form.
While I didn’t look like the other kids per se, it was not necessarily a bad thing. It sparked conversations and helped build rapport with colleagues, clients, and conference attendees.
I received numerous compliments for my “hybrid” shoes (Skechers, $60) which were ten times more comfortable than my proper dress shoes (no picture, donated to Salvation Army).
A few people commented on the more friendly and casual vibe I gave off through my attire. They were comfortable with me; I was comfortable with myself.
Admittedly, freshly-pressed cotton or wrinkle-free dress shirts look sharper than the wicking material of performance shirts (at least for a few hours), and snazzy polished leather shoes may also give a richer aesthetic.
However, I am OK with these trade-offs and will adjust if an event has actual clothing mandates.
Back to Stasia’s presentation…
Unwittingly, I apparently have been working my way towards congruence, where my inner self is expressed outwardly by my clothing.
Now, if you’re a rock climber at heart, the decision to sport hiking shorts and a synthetic tank top to your Wall Street gig may result in a mandatory day off or a pink slip.
However, a more subtle move or two that provides a touch more comfort, freedom, or authenticity could go a long way. For me, it was about movement and not overheating.
You may power-up your workday with an eye-catching red pocket square, or a vintage Boba Fett t-shirt.
Balancing your inner self with work culture is no simple equation.
The notion of inner and outer congruency is an individual one. Meanwhile, each industry operates by its own written or unwritten rules.
Even companies operating in the same industry are known to maintain unique identities. This makes drawing the line between what is acceptable versus being “that guy” a bit of a high-wire act.
Like Stasia’s daughter, I’ve found that allowing my clothes to reflect my inner self has been invaluable.
By taking elements of who I am and injecting them into my work attire, work itself becomes more manageable–dare I say fun (yes, I’ll use the F-word).
For those execs and human resources managers who mandate a strict employee uniform, I’d argue that allowing latitude for individualism can boost morale and performance.
Sure, some people will push the limits and potentially spoil it for everyone.
On that note, even if it’s Friday, please don’t be that guy who wears a t-shirt, ripped cargo shorts, and beach flip flops to the office, because you may ruin it for the entire office (true story).
Individuality can be wonderful, but not at the expense of your team. This begs the following questions:
What if you wore clothing more congruent with who you are? Would there be trade-offs? Perhaps most importantly, would it be worth it?
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!