“Now for the biggest question. What on earth should I wear?” That was my forever friend and colleague, Una, sitting on the sofa across from me, just finishing the final prep session before an interview with the search committee for Head of School. The question followed other ones like, “What is your vision for greater equity and inclusion? How would you go about generating ancillary income? What is your process for hiring and firing employees?” She nailed all those. Now though, WHAT ON EARTH TO WEAR?
Back-in-the-day (you are officially old when you introduce a memory this way), I interviewed for a Head of School position at Girls Preparatory School (GPS) in Chattanooga, TN. I spent months preparing. I read books and articles, gathered horrifying national statistics, stalked websites, visited schools, watched “The Piano” and “Norma Rae.” By the time October rolled around, I had my unique vision mapped, my passion tapped, and I was ready but for one thing: WHAT ON EARTH TO WEAR?
“Whatever you do, don’t do what I did for my GPS interview,” I told Una. “I may as well have worn a hoop skirt,” I said. Fact is, I wore a cream-colored skirt, a navy and cream polka-dotted jacket, navy pumps, big fat pearls, PLUS too much makeup, too curled too blonde hair and too much apricot lipstick. Barbara Bush meets local nightly news anchor. Not the look I was going for of course. I was thinking Sheryl Sandberg, southern version. I wanted to be smart and feminist while fashionable, fun, and feminine, someone who’d connect easily in Chattanooga (and raise enrollment and financial support for the school).
In moments of presumptive and internal over-analysis, I can take stuff I’ve read, really good advice, and turn it on its head. I could blame Ellen Lubin-Sherman who writes in her book The Essentials of Fabulous that “fabulous people have flair,” hence the polka-dotted jacket. I could blame Daniel Pink who, in his book To Sell is Human, summarizes a report on mimicry called, “Chameleons Bake Bigger Pies and Take Bigger Pieces.” Unfortunately, at my interview with GPS, everyone else had on pantsuits. I picked the wrong look to imitate. Oops.
Are you cringing while reading this? If so, is it because you, too, have miscalculated what to wear and blamed your failure on your outfit, or is it because you are feeling the same vulnerability I did when I stood in my closet and over-analyzed my options?
My husband is showered, dressed and almost out the door when he says, “How long are you planning to stand there and look at your clothes?” “Hush!” I say, “I’m being thoughtful!” He laughs and leaves for work, dressed exactly as he was yesterday, the day before, and the day before that.
“I’m being thoughtful,” I say. Yet, if I studied the amount of time I stand in my closet analyzing what to wear as it relates to the emotion of a certain day, no doubt there would be a positive correlation between time spent and the level of vulnerability I feel.
Closet Case Study: a.) 3 hours. I’m traveling to Dubai for the first time, and I want to be thoughtful of their culture, so I need to pack carefully. Subtext: I don’t know enough about their culture, and I’m afraid I am going to offend someone or end up looking stupid. b.) 2 hours. I’m promoting my artist, Kelly Brewer, at SEWE, the largest wildlife exhibition in the country, and I need to dress in continuity with her brand. Subtext: I know less about art than I wish, so what I wear will make me look and feel more like the expert I want to be and I want others to think I am. c.) 1 hour. I’m headed to a client school in Ohio for the first time. How do I dress so they trust me? Subtext: I am nervous about how little time I have to develop an effective working relationship with people I’ve never met.
Every blouse I touch, skirt I hold up then return to the rack, hanger I flick to the left as I look for the next option, this is an exercise in vulnerability.
Out of the Closet Case Study: a.) 5 minutes. I’m off to the lake where my age-old lake clothes live. I don’t even pack a suitcase. Subtext: The only thing I fear there is the pressure washer. b.) 30 minutes. It’s my fifth visit to Wheeling Country Day School, one of my favorite clients. Wham-Bam, suitcase slam. Subtext: I know them, they know me; we’re a happy fam-i-ly. c.) 15 minutes. Dinner with friends. Subtext: My only consideration is which pair of jeans are clean.
“What on earth to wear” is a big question because it represents the unanswerable uncertainty of making a good impression. We can have all the answers prepared for “what is your management style,” or “what is your philosophy of education,” or “how do you motivate faculty?” but no matter how prepared we try to be, we have no real control over how someone will perceive us in those critical first moments.
First impressions are formed very quickly, within 7 seconds, according to “Psychology Today.” Most impressions are formed through non-verbal signals, and yes they can have a lasting impact. What on earth to wear is just one consideration in preparing for that great first impression, and unfortunately, it does matter. Other impression factors include facial expressions, eye contact, the tone of our voice, body language, and believe it or not but so much more. As much as I want less time in my closet, impressions are impactful and matter as we work to market ourselves, to stand out as something special, as the person you should trust more than the other guy.
Yet, at the end of the day, can apricot lipstick and big, fat pearls tank you? As much as I’d love to blame my “hoop skirt” on not getting the GPS job, that’s just a funny, slightly hyperbolic story. The woman who got the job at GPS was more qualified. Her black pantsuit vs. my polka-dotted jacket was not the tipping point. Her experience vs. mine is what made the difference.
I’m not suggesting we spend more or less time in our closets. That’s for each of us to decide. What might be helpful is to recognize why we are there and hone in on that moment of hanger flicking to learn something about ourselves. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” Traveling somewhere new, interviewing for a job, taking any step outside your natural comfort zone requires courage, and drumming it up might just take a few extra minutes in the closet, metaphorically speaking. I’m giving us permission to celebrate why we are hanging out in there in the first place.
So Una got the job, thank goodness. She was undoubtedly the most qualified candidate, and she was one hundred percent prepared. She wore her signature black pantsuit with a small, houndstooth scarf, her personal pop of flair.
Parting words of wisdom: When in doubt, pick the black pantsuit.