My first job out of college was one of those elusive Real Jobs, the kind that required me to be somewhere from 9-to-5, with a one-hour lunch break, and paperwork and clunky computers with outdated operating systems. I interviewed for the role in my one and only suit: a houndstooth Michael Kors skirt suit purchased on deep discount at a Loehmann’s in San Francisco. The skirt had a slit in the back that came uncomfortably close to my butt, and the jacket was double-breasted, equipped with a fierce pair of shoulder pads. The shoes were suede, low-heeled, pinchy in the toes, leaving blisters on the back of my heels that hurt for days after the fact. Looking in the mirror, I told myself that this was what a professional wore. I It remains the most uncomfortable item of clothing I’ve worn to date.
I got the job, though I’m not sure it was because of the suit. Perhaps they smelled the eagerness I exhaled, or took pity on me as I shifted in the chair. Maybe they saw the simmering panic behind my eyes, and could read that I thought I was going to be stuck serving mediocre cappuccinos to Marin commuters at Peet’s Coffee for the rest of my life. Maybe there was a glimmer of something on my résumé. Whatever it was, I got the job.
The offer came with elation and a quiet panic. First, I had to take a drug test—in retrospect a comic affair that involved a trip to a head shop on Haight Street to purchase a beverage that promised to flush out the minimal amount of celebration weed I had smoked the night before. I had to buy an entirely new wardrobe, purchased one Sunday at Old Navy, consisting of ill-fitting pants and blouses. Each item I put on felt like I was play-acting, pretending at being something that I really wasn’t.
Seven years and just as many jobs later, I’ve had the luck to work at places where the dress code is decidedly casual. The trappings of sartorial professionalism make me deeply uncomfortable. I know I should own a blazer, a well-tailored pair of pants, a blouse that doesn’t gape at the chest, but whenever I’m knee deep in the sale section at H&M, I pass right over the kinds of clothing that I should have on hand, and instead stride up to the register with a clutch of floaty sundresses or oversized tees. These are professional, I tell myself as I purchase them. They are professional because I am a professional.
When I have an important interview, or am starting a new job, the one thing I worry about most before whether or not I’ll excel, or find good iced coffee on the way to the office, is what I will wear. I’ve been lucky enough to work in environments where the standards for what is considered appropriate are very low. I worked a 12-hour day in my house cutoffs and a tank top that I later figured out had a hole in it because I knew it was going to be a long day, and because I wanted to be comfortable, and no one said anything to me. Near the end of that job, when things were bad, and the company felt like it was held together with spit and Post-its, I was certain that I could simply put on a pair of shoes, grab my bag and come to work in my pajamas, without anyone noticing.
Clothing should be irrelevant to a productive and successful career. I will do my best work if I’m comfortable, not if I’m wearing a pantsuit that I bought on sale that makes me feel like a television lawyer or accountant for hire. The old adage “dress for the job you want” is something that people still say, and I understand that the right clothing can imbue you with confidence. The lucky blouse, if worn to a big meeting or a special event. If I work from home in pants with no discernible waistband and a sweatshirt that has what might be hummus on the left sleeve, is the work I produce of any lesser value? Creating the right work environment is a tricky arithmetic. Add a beanbag chair here, some floating holidays there, sprinkle the hallways on the way to the printer with KIND bars and pizza Wednesdays. Wear these pants only on these days. Navigating the modern workplace is tricky enough without having to worry about whether or not HR is going to pull you aside and gently tell you that you should really be wearing slacks.
I am adult in many, many ways—I pay my own bills, I grocery shop, I appreciate a quiet night in and have begrudgingly found that I can’t abide a loud bar. These things aren’t markers of being an adult—they are simply the way that my life has evolved. Wearing a suit to work every day is decidedly adult. Owning a blazer and wearing said blazer to work, on a Tuesday, when I don’t have a meeting is extremely adult. Showing up at my job, asking for a raise, doing good work and answering most, if not all my emails, in a timely fashion, while wearing things I feel good in is the most adult of all.
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.