French Twist

I received a fun email from a former colleauge who commented on my post  A Cup of Coffee with a Real Mad Man.

Celesta was one of the early females in the ad agency world. She was — and still is — gorgeous, strawberry blond and curvy (evoking Joan, the Sterling Cooper office manager, on AMC’s Mad Men).

For women careerists, gaining an aura of authority is a learned and deliberate skill. Your voice and visuals play a role in how people heed and interpret what you are delivering from your brain. It’s about dominating the space you occupy and transmitting in the appropriate parlance.

If you are tall and brunette with a deep alto voice, you have some built-in heft in the context of male counterparts and the space they occupy.

Celesta had etherial beauty and worked as an art director — the more subjective creative side, as opposed to the business-oriented account management side of client representation. She shared some recollections for other brainy glamour gals whose beauty might be distracting to some men in the workplace:

  • I’ll never forget how any time I wore my hair up in a french twist he’d comment on how organized I was and put together, but never say a word if I wore it down.
  • Any time I wanted him to buy my concept I’d wear my hair up and he’d like the idea. If I presented an idea with my hair down it would be an uphill battle to convince him that the idea worked.
  • Easy fix. Always present with hair up.

In the mid-1970s, a man named John Malloy wrote a book Dress for Success. It was adopted as a bible by many women who were migrating to newly-available, higher-paying career opportunities in previously male-dominated sectors.

It spawned a number of forgettable male-imitative ensembles: Bow-tied scarves. Navy man-suits with white buttoned-down shirts. Big shoulder pads. But it also delivered millions into the coffers of Liz Claiborne, who pioneered a fashion brand focused on stylish but professional apparel for working women.

Now, the dilemma is demography-focused. Mature women want to look fresh and current in a competitive career arena. Young women want to advance and be taken seriously.

A friend and I were perusing the sale racks at our favorite store. A young Asian women approached us for a second opinion on a purchase she was considering. She was a medical student interviewing for a role at a prestigious center of excellence. Teeny-tiny and doll-like in appearance, she was under 5 ft. and 100 pounds.

We immediately rejected a light grayish pant suit. It was in a flimsy, tweedy fabric. Too light in color and weight. She was on the right track with a darker suit, but it was too boxy and looked budget-priced. We directed her to a fabulous, near-black ensemble with a nipped-in jacket; the salesperson brought in some tall heels and an understated white tee.

WOW! It conveyed a powerful first impression — the perfect fit for a critical audition, as it put the emphasis on her, not the fashion. She needed some visual gravitas.

Some closing comments from Celesta:

  • Another couple of things that always worked were, in no particular order:
  • Wearing a red or black suit. Not carrying a purse.
  • Immediately taking off suit jacket in a boardroom, putting it on the back of a chair, spreading papers widely infront of that chair but staying standing until I was the last one seated.

All almost invisible power plays, but they work.

Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.

(The more things change, the more they remain the same!)

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Copyright © 2012 Nancy Keene