I am a young professional starting my first major job at a large company. I was fortunate, in my early 20s, to invest in nice designer pieces. Most of the clothing is inconspicuous, but the shoes, and especially the purses, are obviously designer goods. I don’t want to send the wrong message to my colleagues or bosses, especially as someone low in the pecking order. But I already have this nice stuff that I’d like to get use out of. Plus, I’d have to spend even more money to buy items I really don’t need if I can’t wear the ones I already have. What should I do? — Elizabeth, Chicago
It’s true that after periods of economic crisis, signs of conspicuous consumption often feel uncomfortable and inappropriate. After the Great Recession of 2008, for example, there were rumors that Hermès shoppers were carrying brown bags instead of bright orange ones, and that the wealthy were holding secret shopping parties so not to flaunt their ability to spend. Identifiable luxury logos were definitely out.
Then, of course, the logos came roaring back, which means that anybody who has been buying fashion over the last decade probably has some highly branded stuff in their closet — stuff that may seem even more like a red flag today, given the increasing focus on the wealth gap in the United States and the deep pain many families have experienced over the last year, with lost jobs and homes.
At the same time, saving your money, thinking deeply about your purchases and investing in a few responsibly and well-made pieces that you will keep for decades (and maybe pass down to your kids) is exactly the kind of shopping we should all be doing if we possibly can. It’s better for the environment, for our own long-term economic stability and for building a sense of personal style. It is not something to be embarrassed about or to eschew.
But it’s not as if you can walk around your new job with a bubble floating above your designer bag explaining how and why you acquired it.
And while I’d like to say that the bag you carry or shoes you wear doesn’t matter in the context of your job — all that matters is the work you do and the results you deliver — that would be naïve. I’ve heard too many stories about women going in for salary negotiations and the subliminal judgments that ensue, often based in part on how they dress.
So what to do? I called two experts who have deep knowledge of the semiology of dress in the corridors of power: Ikram Goldman, the Chicago retailer who has outfitted Michelle Obama and Mellody Hobson, and Joanna Coles, the producer, author and former Hearst supremo who used to hold an annual Power 100 lunch.
Ikram made the point that in any job, confidence is key, and your clothes can go a long way to bolstering confidence. Presentation in the workplace matters for everyone, whether we want to admit it or not. (That’s why often-unspoken office dress codes exist.) If you feel good, people can tell, and if you feel insecure, that will come through, too.
Presumably, however, you bought these pieces because they gave you a certain assurance and poise. And in that case, Joanna said: “You should use them every day and very much enjoy them! You can always dress them down with jeans and T-shirts or sneakers so you don’t appear to be screaming ‘designer.’”
Indeed, there’s a difference between owning one or two designer bags and carrying them every day, amortizing the price over time, and owning a Kardashian-sized closet of Birkins and carrying a different one every day. That would raise a few eyebrows.
So if your investment pieces make you feel strong and ready to do your job, great. But if you are spending time worrying about how others see them, that’s time taken away from what you are doing. Which is, after all, why you are there.
The calculation is simple: Your clothes should work for you. Do they?