Is there anything wrong with that? After all, you probably aren't aware that I spent much of my earlier life living in rural and northern communities where fishermen's boots and snowmobile jackets were not only the style of the day but were plain necessities for that kind of lifestyle. In fact, when I moved south I didn't know how to wear high heels, I kept dollars and change in my jacket along with spark plugs for my snowmobile and I wore a traditional Canadian tuque on my head for warmth. I didn't own a single co-ordinating shirt and blouse set. And I didn't own an outfit that sported a beautiful broach on the shoulder like Sarah Palin or Queen Elizabeth for that matter. I owned a parka! After all, where I lived at the time required that I be practical.
I remember clearly my experience in moving to Winnipeg. Believe me, it was culture shock. I would always forget to lock my house and car doors. I would forget my purses wherever I went. My eyes blurred when I went into a mall and saw all those clothes and their raging colours hanging on the racks. I felt claustrophobic from so many things to choose from. I was used to going in a boat across the lake to the Northern Store where I had two outfits to choose from. Other times I would sit and glance through the Sears catalogue wondering what to buy, what size was appropriate and what it would cost for shipping.
When I moved to Winnipeg I was a single mom with two children in tow. I had few financial resources but thankfully creativity was a strong suit. I bought a wonderful book on how to dress for success. The photos showed large examples of colour and style and taught me to take one clothing outfit and through mixing and matching with a few additional items, turn this outfit into practically a whole new wardrobe. Believe me, the low cost Nygard outlet store and I became good friends.
But what I remember the most about my dress for success strategy was my "city hat"....you see, when I had to toss off my tuque because it wasn't appropriate for city life, I went and bought my first "professional/formal" hat. I wore it all one winter until one of my colleagues confronted me and demanded to know why I was trying to make myself so different from them. Here I was, first year in the city, being accused of being elitist, of being snobby and trying to make myself look better than my fellow workers. I was devastated. I was really hurt, because in my mind I was just trying to keep my head warm! I didn't realize I was breaking a style code and/or attempting to create my own personal brand.
That's why I can empathize with Palin. She was plucked out of a northern style of life where the focus for clothing is warmth, comfort and practicality. She was thrown into a fashion lifestyle that is in complete contradiction to what she was accustomed to and what she typically dressed for. Her new environment was not only southern but also extremely elegant, fashionable, elitist and consists of a lot of families with a lot of old money who think nothing of dropping a few thousand dollars on a single suit. She was entering a world where impression and looks are everything.
Sarah's campaign advisers knew that a candidate and family prancing around the country with their snowsuits, snowmobile helmets and fishing boots just wouldn't do. They knew that a vice-presidential candidate needed to look presidential and that means Sarah's comfortable wrinkle free, blue jean pant suit that had lost a bit of its shine had to be thrown aside.
Her advisers knew they had to dress the family for success southern style because the whole world is looking. They also knew that Sarah's pearly whites, smiling eyes and friendly winks were folksy attractions but that success really requires looking like a million bucks. And, not only must a presidential candidate look like a million bucks, so must their family members!
So the advisers went about outfitting the family in clothing that would be acceptable to the mainstream society and attractive to voters. While it might have been the right thing to do, the strategy required money -- $150,000 ,so it's been reported. But instead of achieving the dress for success strategy, Palin and her family were made fun of and exposed to national ridicule. Instead of success, she was painted as a "country bumpkin" in camouflage.
At the same time, we heard very little about the behind the scenes dress for success planning for the male candidates and their families. Do you really believe these candidates co-ordinated their own shirts, ties and socks with the wardrobes of their spouses and children? Do you really believe their adviser didn't seriously consider where each candidate was travelling, what speaking forum was expected and whether formal or informal dress code was acceptable or not? Do you really believe that any one of the male candidates was parading around in anything less than a $1,500 Hugo Boss suit? I don't think so.
In terms of looking like a million bucks, the Palin dress for success plan worked. But unfortunately, she and her family were ridiculed for the cost of the strategy. However, the entire situation serves to emphasize just how important the dress for success model continues to be in our society. In fact, image consulting is now an industry unto itself. For myself, I've gotten over the horror experienced years ago when I was accused of being elitist. Instead, I look at dress for success and my own personal brand as a means of feeling good about who I am.
About the author
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She is also host of the weekly BowesKnows radio show and is the author of Resume Rescue and Taming the Workplace Tigers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org://www.barbarabowes.com
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