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Authenticity in the workplace: what has fashion got to do with “just be yourself”

When Bozoma Saint Johns stood to present at the 2016 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, Twitter went abuzz, people listened. She presented as only she could, played Ghanaian music because that was her heritage, and embraced femininity on a stage where women, let alone black women, were a rare sight. Bozoma thinks that people listened because of her delivery, but also because of how she looked.

And how did she look? She had on a pink dress, a figure-hugging one, and matching louboutins. She had her hair loose in a curly fro and wore pink lipstick.  She was a masterpiece in power dressing.She had embraced authenticity in the workplace.


What is power dressing?

And that is what power dressing means. At least in our definition. It means to dress impactfully, to dress to communicate your message, to leave an impression. Modern power dressing, we believe, is a long long way far ahead of where it was in the 80s, when suited tailoring and shoulder pads modeled to not deviate from men’s fashion supposedly allowed women to project authority in the workplace.

Modern power dressing defies a uniform characterization, and escapes into ambiguity or nuance, depending on how you look at it. Writing about the spring fashion season for the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman observes that different fashion houses used the term power dressing to describe varied looks that included big shoulders, pinstripes, combat boots, culottes, and even cardigans. Gone are the days of easy conforming. And here are the days of self definition, of individual expression, of being who we are or want to be and of dressing the part.


Does authenticity in the workplace pay?

Do our individual expressions work? The jury is still out. Authenticity too is another term that escapes definition. Where proponents consider bringing your whole self to work a surefire way to getting ahead, opponents argue that the costs of authenticity could outdo the benefits in the working place. But opponents also seem to conflate authenticity with a severe lack of self awareness in which one refuses to identify and address weaknesses under the pretext that those weaknesses are who one is. 

We contend that the benefits far outweigh the costs for those of us who approach personal growth intentionally, who believe that who we are is an evolving set of strengths, weaknesses, and lessons. There is nothing inauthentic about framing negative feedback constructively because experience has demonstrated that such an approach works. 

Additionally, behavior is just one layer of the complex self that comes to work. For women, LGBTQ+ professionals, and black professionals and other people of color, not being oneself at work might require that one aspires to an impossible identity unnecessarily, mostly detrimentally. For how is one who is not to “become” a white straight male. 

No black hoodie could have disguised Bozoma’s color or gender. She could have attempted to blend in, to half-arse a presentation similar in presence and tone to that of a Silicon Valley tech-bro. She chose to be herself. It was the right decision.


Authentic dressing is the new power dressing

Some may find the term power dressing offensive for its gendered use. No one ever asked men to power dress, no one ever hailed Obama or Trudeau for power dressing in the same way they did Michelle Obama, Theresa May or Hillary Clinton. It’s an unfair standard. One that might have a century left in its lifespan. 

For as long as this standard is here, we can make it work for us, instead of against us. In the hypercompetitive modern workplace, in which personal branding and visibility count, blending in does not do you any favors. Doing yourself well does. Find that personal style that is you, and make it an accomplice in all the spaces you are about to claim.


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