creating agency

It’s tax season.  I cook but don’t blog about it, because my weeks stretch out 50ish hours and I’m lucky if I’m awake enough to conjugate a verb by Saturday at 4, let alone ponder the world of food.

Yesterday was not much different, but it started with a delightful business breakfast (@The Potholder Cafe) and a random encounter with an acquaintance I haven’t seen in seven or eight years.  The last time I saw her, I was still in Frumpy Mode, with a wardrobe full of ugly, ill-fitting attire usually eschewed for Mom Jeans and shapeless sweaters.

I was wearing a swanky A-line dress, cable knit bolero and low-heeled sandals, which came from a closet of similarly-classy attire.  My hair was styled and I had makeup on.  Granted, I felt feel like death; I have a low-grade fever, racking cough and possibly an ear infection from a cold that has hung on for the last month.  I only spent 30 minutes scraping myself together, from turning on the shower to walking out the door.  But I looked sharp, and it drove the initial part of the catching-up, since my acquaintance was in FM.

Commence interrogation.

Do you dress like that every day?   Well, yes, unless I have a specific reason to dress down.  Like, it’s a Saturday night and I have to drive to work to find out why our server just went offline.  (I think I scared the shit out of the janitorial crew.)

Is it comfortable?  I wouldn’t be wearing it if it wasn’t.  Trendy-not-comfy is a young woman’s game.  I’m an old broad; I have myriad sins to hide and high muckety-mucks to interact with; looking like I’m on top of things is key, even when I feel like death.  A-line dresses from Nordstrom Rack and Clark’s shoes on clearance are what I live in.

Well, I work in the parole office and I’m not management, so I tend to dress down.  

[insert change of subject here]

What we didn’t get into was why I made the transition from Frumpy Mode.  In truth, it had nothing to do with my managerial position (after 18 years, I can get away with FM) nor my interactions with HMM (my primary dealings are with a client demographic is similar to hers).  About four years ago, I made a decision that I wanted to be taken seriously by everyone with whom I interacted, regardless of circumstance or reason.

Not a function of conceit so much as an interest in creating agency, influencing the way I am perceceived by others.

I was a huge fan of MAD Magazine back in the 80s. One of the old cartoons is germane, and came up in a similar conversation I had with The Dude last summer.  The cartoon showed the progression of a chap through the corporate world, as he worked his way up from mailroom clerk to CEO.  That mailroom clerk is then shown in a number of styles (Young Executive through Senior VP), looking more well-heeled with each move up the ladder.  Then the cartoon’s final frame showed the CEO – and older, grizzled version of the mailroom clerk.

The Dude logs enough air miles to enjoy a bump up to Business Class on any number of airlines. His typical look is unshaven, casually dressed, rumpled, hair askew and zero fucks given.  He’d look perfectly at home sitting against a wall in Skid Row.   Yet, he also looks perfectly at home flying Business Class in all his rumpled glory, according to a flight attendant with whom the subject once came up.  According to the FA, folks would simply assume that he was some IPO whiz kid, worth a billion dollars on paper and unconcerned with (and unbeholden to) the perception of others.

The Dude can get away with that.  There was no female version of the MM cartoon, because that’s not how psychology works.  He can rock the Neo-Lumberjack and be perceived as an UberMale, if the surroundings suggest CEO rather than mailroom clerk.  Females do not get the benefit of creating agency by osmosis.  Hence, Coco Chanel:

Dress shabbily, they notice the dress.  Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.

Fair?  No.  Reality?  Yes.  And that’s okay.  If thirty minutes in hair/makeup/wardrobe can do the heavy lifting, and I can get through 10-hour days in comfort, that’s completely okay.

Today will not be a 10-hour day, thankfully.  But it starts with a early networking/power breakfast, so it’s time to go pick an outfit and trowel on the war paint.  Still feel like death, but I’ll be the most stylish corpse in the cemetery.