Whatever you’re thinking it’s probably wrong. But I don’t care.
Actually, that’s a lie. I do care.
I’m writing while listening to the radio, to a woman who’s CEO of Lloyds of London, ‘the world’s specialist insurance market’. Globally important, founded in the 17th century and for centuries a male preserve – who’d have thought such a thing possible, even 20 years ago?
Inga Beale’s her name and she’s recounting a formative episode. A party to celebrate a cricket series in the West Indies. Office walls decorated with Jamaica tourism posters – sunshine, smiles, women in bikinis and … women not in bikinis, just wet t-shirts.
Days later, the posters are still up. She asks if they could be taken down. Next day they’re down – but now they’re decorating her desk.
She walks out – and buys a round-the-world-ticket.
Ms Beale’s story took me back to late 1980s London. In particular, to a sunny summer’s day and my office in London’s Mayfair. I was working as a ‘communication consultant’.
From the window I could see a Chez Gerard restaurant (delectable, thin greasy fries, like hot little worms) and ‘Blondes’.
‘Blondes’ was a wine bar owned by legendary footballer, womaniser and drinker, George Best. We occasionally went there for a celebratory drink, because the company I worked for (run by men) had corporate membership.
I respected and liked our MD. Intelligent, good-humoured and fair, he was a twinkle-in-the-eye kind of bloke, who plainly liked women of a certain type (not mine). One of our most important clients was fronted by a friend of his and I was the account manager.
This friend of our MD friend was Important. So we always had three-tiered meetings: the MD, a director and me. I was note-taker, the two men talked and listened.
Friend-of-MD’s office was in a glamorous building within sight of St Paul’s cathedral. On his wall, unusually among our clients, was ‘art’.
One image in particular stays with me. A slender woman with long, wide-apart legs, one knee bent, her stilettoed heel threaded through the crotch of her bathing costume.
I’d taken an instant dislike to the man, even before I saw his office walls.
The images made me uncomfortable. Made it clear what my place was in his world – or would be if I fitted the sexy, anonymous-faced profile before me.
Would I want to look like that? No. But it made me feel as if I should in some miserable kind of way. I knew this man would never treat me as his equal. What’s more, I didn’t think I was.
The other contact we had there was a different matter.
Cherubically plump and dark-haired, he dressed like no-one else. Wore a sweatshirt instead of a jacket. Was sparky, vivid, thought out loud.
I liked and respected him. And on this hot summer’s day, it was his opinion I wanted.
I remember exactly what I was wearing. You know how it is, those days when things feel as if they’ve changed forever – and you remember every detail?
It was a dress I’d made myself. Cotton. Sleeveless, v-necked, v-backed – but far from risqué. Just a summer dress. With a belt. And a flared skirt.
I rang the cherubic client – which took nerve. The boys always did the talking, even to deputy top-dawg.
He was interested, happened to be free. Suggested I grab a cab, head over, we could talk about it.
I told my director … who told me to wait.
He and MD would come with me. Or rather, I would go with them.
I popped to the loo and thought I’d dab on a drop of cologne. Chanel 19.
The bottle slipped. A deluge. Nothing I could do except wipe at my skin with wet tissues.
We flagged a cab down opposite ‘Blondes’. My boss opened both back windows to their fullest extent. Asked me what the perfume was.
Did I blush? Probably. Was I mortified? Certainly. Did I find out what I wanted from our client? I’ve no idea. All I can remember is embarrassment – and irritation at having my pitch invaded.
Not long afterwards I was invited for a rare ‘chat’ with a female director who occasionally wafted in from abroad, borne on exotic credentials.
Perhaps I should consider more formal clothing? Suits, for example?
Pretty summer dresses were hardly appropriate.
It was my wet t-shirt moment.
My dress sense hadn’t held me back so far. I knew my clients valued my work. But I couldn’t afford a round-the-world ticket and I wasn’t ready to leave. Yet.
I bought some new clothes. Not navy blue suits and striped shirts, but fitted dresses and belted jackets.
It was the heyday of the shoulder-pad. I embraced them and tottered around on high heels. The height made me feel good.
I wore bold, unusual jewellery.
I never adopted the corporate look and I think it actually helped my career. I stood out against the suits. But I never felt confident in myself. I acted.
I was a sham.
Inga Beale turned down a promotion, didn’t feel she could do it. She was sent on an assertiveness course.
Each participant made a collage of images cut from a magazine that they felt represented themselves. Inga did hers – and then the others described how they saw her.
The contrast changed her life.
Recently, I had a bad experience. A person in a group took against me, accused me of things that weren’t true. I was really upset.
Then a nice person from the group wrote to me, about me, ‘you should see what I see’. And told me what he saw.
I’ve never before felt as I did when I read that – it was a mini-version of Inga Beale’s epiphany.
It hasn’t stopped me caring about what people – even people I don’t respect – think of me.
I know. What a waste of care.
But I’m working on it. In jeans. And a crumpled linen shirt. And a big, turquoise necklace.
You always struck me as being far and away more confident than me ,goes to show you must be a good actor !
I am. A boss once told me I was the most confident person he’d met – ha ha ha ha ha!
Really liked this one.
Strange in life that the image people project is not what they feel inside about themselves. I think it explains an awful lot about a lot of people, especially those who go out of their way to compensate.
You always exude confidence, even if I do know the reality is a little different.
Being an Englishman in Paris made me feel very conspicuous, dress-code wise. Being in the U.S., I feel constantly over dressed. Even when I’m just wearing clothes that are simply not ill-fitting.
Hello Dr Citizen-of-the-World and thank you. Good to hear from you and hope it’s going well … Look forward to unique USA observations in due course.
Ha ha I love your comment about yourself and clothes. If you feel like that in NY state think how you would feel in Texas!
It seems I do conceal the insecurity well (except to those who’ve spent plent of time with me in stressful and off-piste kind of situations). My sister has just commented that she thought I was more confident than her. Perhaps we feel we have to project that which we are not but which we feel is a good thing to be? Or is it just a protection mechanism? And as for going out of the way to compensate, I have to say that many people I have met doing PR – that most outgoing of jobs – are shy and insecure… Humans, eh?
What a tale of the times. We’re conditoned I think to be aware of what others are thinking and doing around us in relation to our appearance and behaviours, to avoid collisions. My Dad taught me when driving a 3 point visual- ahead, side then rear view with focus on ahead, and that’s how I live, others opinions in the periphery.
Being a child of the 60’s and my Dad being a mechanic I grew up around workplace garage walls decorated with semi-naked babe calendars and girly mags… and as I got older there were passing fashions in the country towns I lived in for pub entertainments involving topless barmaids, jelly wrestling and so on. And then later, I met a young woman who was so proud of her girly mag career. I think back, sadly shaking my head, that although not as common, the culture refuses to die because of a suspect naive glamour via which it attracts some.
Apparently having had a previous life as an actresss, I have retained a mutability for roles and dressing accordingly -and the ability to act confident & competent even when believing myself otherwise- but in my mid twenties, in the early ’90s, I quit a job as I was told my work attire must be a skirt or dress during a visit by the global marketing manager from the US, a female, who believed women should not wear trouser pants.
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HI D, thanks for commenting and good to hear from you. I love your 3 point analogy – others’ opinions in the periphery. I wasn’t planning to write about this – hadn’t thought of it in years. Then I was listening to this woman on Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4) and there she was, amazing job you’d never in a million years expect a woman to get – now why should I think that in this day and age? Anyway, she went on to describe how she was just like many oher women (altho she did come out as gay and yet now is married to a man) – she didn’t think she was good enough, put up with how things were – then – wham, wet t-shirts! She took off round the world, worked in Oz for a while, went back, got a job in the same old same old but then turned downa promotin and was sent on this blinding flash of an assertiveness course. As I tbought about that this experience came back to me. I wish we would all have been sent on similar! I’m not sure I had a previous life as an actor 😉 but like you, I did something of a chameleon thing to suit circumstances – but being told how to dress just flipped me. I thought no, I will not wear a uniform. Of course men do that and as a result life is so much easier, so I suppose that was counter-productive. I remember the days of girlie posters in garages – somehow that didn’t seem as bad as ‘art’ on the walls of a high-flying businessman’s walls because it was expected – good that it now isn’t. And it was still pretty intimidating. I did once go to a press trip in Paris and they organised a trip for us in the evening to a girlie show – one other female journalist and I boycotted it and went and had dinner and a great evening getting to know each other better! I’m very impressed that in your 20s you were able to reject the dress code – I had it easy when I was a journlist in my 20s – but I was well into my thirties before I really started to dress in business how I felt not how I felt obliged to. It’s odd, isn’t it, how we are talking about acting and role playing as if those jobs weren’t really for us … Hope what you’re doing now is proving a lot more fulfillng?
My current hippy-nanna-domestic goddess role doesn’t have a dress code… most days I don’t even wear shoes 😉
Ha – perfect!
We have just had a new code of dress drawn up (this is I think the third time in my long years at this job). It seems people were complaining about the off-the-shoulder, above-the-knee, clinging outfits sported by some of my younger (female) colleagues – though they’ve never worn anything that made me look twice and are generally an elegant gang. Of course the dress code has had to be applied to the men in the job as well, all very ‘equal’, the lads a little irritated that they may NOT ‘wear a sweater in preference to a jacket’. But I looked through the draft code and smiled wryly to see that in all the careful prescriptions regarding women’s wear there was not a single reference to trousers! Just skirts and dresses. What does that say about my senior management team?? Have they never considered trousers for women? I live in trousers!
An inadvertent raising of the veil to show that there are some attitudes that haven’t shifted in a while in spite of an outward pretence, it threw me right back to the start of my career when my immediate superior greeted me one morning with the compliment that I looked particularly ‘bedworthy’ that day!
Wheels grind about as slowly as teeth, don’t they? 🙂
Hi Steph, good to hear from you. I thought you had semi-retired….? Here we are again, yes, grinding our teeth as the wheels do grind exceeding slow. And I can see that smile as you noticed the absence of trousers! Then again I wonder what they would say? Not too tight? No diamante? No slashed jeans??? Like you I hardly ever wear a dress or skirt – in fact I am currently facing a dilemma – where to shop for clothes that are smarter than what I wear for work (ie at home). Department stores seem to carry only samples of clothes these days and I get so fed up with slogging around shops to find that I have to order online anyway. I want to try on clothes that I see that I like! But back to the prescriptive approach to our clothes – it is sometimes a little akin to the ‘don’t dress provocatively if you don’t want to be raped’ thing isn’t it? My dad got around this at his school by making all the staff wear gowns – remarkable what an effect it had on how the men and women looked and how the young lads regarded them. But perhaps I’m being a tad hypocritical myself – I tut whenever we go somewhere like a decent restaurant and all the women around the place have dressed up and accessorised while all the men have made a major effort to show up in clean t shirts, casual trousers and trainers! Maybe they can’t find anything in the shops between that and ‘suits you sir’… 😉
Part time is, I can assure you, not a bit like semi-retirement, especially when you’re still in charge of a Junior School scheme of work and one of the languages in a faculty!
You hit my buttons with a couple of comments there, so some answers for you…
1) I absolutely feel your pain about looking for smarter-than-work clothes. I have a tendency to wear something in between smart and casual – comfortable unobtrusive I guess – for work, with sloppy (my Buffy and Red Dwarf t-shirts!) reserved for weekends. Department stores used to be a staple but are useless for me now. This week I’ve actually been investigating upmarket charity shops in Chester and although I haven’t made any purchases yet to match the gorgeous evening dress I picked up at a more local one, I’m encouraged by the variety and quality and the fact that trying on is a simple affair, rarely involving long waits or supercilious assistants.
2) We all wore our gowns when I first started work. Even the 6th form prefects wore mini-gowns when on duty, so there was a strong sense of authority there. And, for a wary débutante in the role, attire comparable to that of Batman makes one look reassuringly taller and wider. Facing down adolescents a foot taller than you becomes a lot easier. Also, in those days there weren’t any strict prescriptions on file, just a common sense attitude. I wore multicoloured accessories, socks and legwarmers without stirring an eyebrow, but was quietly and politely dissuaded with a gentlemanly word in the ear when I tried smart jeans or a see-through top!
3) Big admission – unless it’s a hugely special occasion I don’t dress up for meals out, or the theatre, or the opera. I refuse to sit and socialise while feeling uncomfortable, in much the same way as I won’t do my job when feeling uncomfortable. This is an attitude born of the utter freedom of maternity wear, but the twinges of oncoming arthritis are a very good rationalisation nowadays, if ever I needed one! 🙂
4) I bet there are many men who despair of the lack of smart casual in shops. My best beloved has been looking for a respectable, wearable jacket which isn’t a blouson or half a lounge suit for a very long time. I wonder whether it’s to do with being a middle aged and slightly portly individual. Son no.2 is a clothes hanger and looks amazing in anything (it’s being 6’3″ – it helps, ask your other half), while son no.1 always made Primark look stylish in his uni days.
Ah – part time, not semi-retired, sorry!
I did another shop this weekend (L was working) and bought some lovely tops in Monsoon. Interesting that on my previous visit I had bought a pair of casual floppy trousers but hadn’t tried on any of the tops, thinking the hippy-esque ethnic vibe was not for me. It is! I love the things I’ve bought. Can recommend it – and the shop assistants are pleasant too. In fact I was discombobulated (SP?) by the security guard whom I overheard describing a crocheted dress as being like a mermaid’s tail – it was.
I know what you mean about feeling comfortable and I am much less dressy at concerts and meals than I used to be, I just like to wear something that’s not everyday and to accessorise it, to make it feel like a special occasion. Then again unlike you I spend most of my time in the house as I don’t go out to a workplace but work right here.
Yes, you don’t need to tell me about tall and fashion, you’re right! And I really have to stop eating the same amount as he does – he eats plenty yet it never seems to show. And I think he’d agree with you about smart casual – he ends up searching TK Mxx for quirky things – but to also occasionally finds things in Debenhams and M&S. He does like to dress smartly for work and has been buying online for a while now, jackets and shirts and trousers.
Well, that was fun! Girlie talk! 😉 Best to you all x
I am gratified to find you. You comprehend the reality of a time much more clearly than I did during those days. I find I have gown in to myself as I have escaped the expectations I couldn’t articulate while I resisted them. I feel I’ve grown in to self-confidence, too. Do you see that in yourself?
Hi Sue and good to meet you via KL’s blog. I’m afraid that whatever I’ve grown into, self-confidence isn’t it! I manage to convince a few people I’m super confident but it’s a veneer, mostly. I found Slickwrite (or whatever it is called) for example utterly dispiriting till I thought about putting some work of good published authors in. I’m in the revision stage of a book and every day I feel hopeless at the thought of adverbs and adjectives and passive voices 😦 I do see what you mean about escaping expectations though – I hadn’t thought of it as an escape – now I will! I love the title of your blog.
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Thanks! I think you chose to defy the program and test it because regardless of the dispiriting judgment it slapped you with, you questioned its worth. I’d say that’s pretty gutsy. I’m finishing the “final” edit of a YA Scifi that my writing partner and I are finally ready to re-submit to a requesting agent. Of course, she still has the option to pass, but we have a short list — that can still grow — of other agents we think might be perfect matches for us. I say, yes, avoid passive voice unless you need to put a buffer between your character and the reader. As for adjectives and adverbs, they’re only words. Don’t fear them. Use them when they make an important difference, but don’t let them take over! 🙂 I look forward to reading your work when you’re ready to share. 🙂
🙂 I like your interpretation. Thank you!
I’m writing in first person present tense … sometimes regret it. But first draft over and much editing done I’m not giving up now.
Great to hear you have had your work requested by an agent.
And thanks for saying you look forward to reading it. At the moment it’s sulking in the corner! 😉
First person is tricky. I admire writers who can do it well. Best of luck ushering your sulky manuscript out the door! If you need a beta reader, let me know, okay? 🙂
Be careful, I might take you up on that! Sorry for the delay replying, I am currently bewildered at the world and trying to work out how to cope 😦
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I really would be honored to beta read for you if you decide you’d like to extend the offer, no care needed on my part.
What sort of changes will you be faced with under this new world order? Do you anticipate they’ll be personally drastic, or rather more like falling back into the way things were before?