Dressing to Lead: The Dark Side

There are many, many benefits of dressing to lead. When you stand in front of people wearing the structured, tailored clothes of a leader, they act like a picture frame, showcasing your abilities and enhancing your credibility. That’s why people in positions of power, wealth, and influence often wear structured clothes.

But there’s a dark side to dressing to lead: criticism.

When you step into positions that allow you influence and lead others, you will always have detractors. ALWAYS. Regardless of where you go or what you do, SOMEONE will dislike you. They may even want to see you fail. And one of the easiest ways to discredit you is to pick on your clothes.

That thought came to mind this week as I watched various reports about Sarah Palin’s “Fashion-Gate.” The Republican Party has apparently spent nearly $150,000 on the Vice Presidential Nominee’s campaign wardrobe, and it’s got a lot of people hollering. Kind of like Jacqueline Kennedy’s campaign wardrobe did in the months leading up to the 1960 Presidential campaign. For every person yelling about the expense or the source of funds, there’s one trying to copy the Governor’s hair or wardrobe.

Now I have to say I find this love/hate dynamic fascinating from a cultural studies viewpoint. When you have someone who stirs up THAT much controversy with her clothes, you know you’re watching history in the making. From Amelia Bloomer denouncing corsets and Katherine Hepburn wearing pants to the current uproar over Governor Palin’s suits, you know one thing for sure: for as often as it’s dismissed as being superficial and unimportant, clothing DOES have an impact. And it can be HUGE.

But you don’t have to be in the national spotlight to court controversy by influencing people with your clothes. In fact, the venue can be very small.

Quick – who was the most popular girl in your high school? Do you remember? WHY was she popular? Was she pretty? Outgoing? Well-dressed? Think back.

The most popular girl in my high school was Kathy H. She was a senior when I was a freshman and I found her absolutely mesmerizing. Pretty, outgoing, well-dressed and funny as heck, she was everything I felt I wasn’t at age 14. She’d hear your name once and remember it forever. She related easily to everyone and lit up every room she walked in. Wherever she went, she had a little entourage of adoring fans following in her wake. And of course, whatever she wore became THE thing to wear.

But she also had her detractors.

Namely, the nuns.

While some of the teachers at our small, all-girls Catholic high school had fallen under Kathy’s spell, there were several nuns who didn’t like her. They never came out and said it, of course – they were nuns after all – but you could tell from their tight-lipped expression whenever Kathy was around that they did not like how she influenced others.

Why not?

Well, aside from that fact that her socializing and duties as Student Council President left her little time for that pesky little thing called school work, Kathy was a bit of a fashionista. Which was fine — except that we wore uniforms. Light blue button down blouse, navy skirt or navy pants, and a cardigan sweater. That was the uniform.

But Kathy made it look hip. She’d flip up the collar on that blouse, push up the sleeves to her elbows, don some bright burgundy lipstick, and slip into her Candies’ slides. With her big Stefanie Powers/Jennifer Hart hair (it was 1979), nice figure, and outgoing personality, she looked amazing. No one had her panache. Many tried, without success.

Which is pretty much what upset the nuns. Not only did they dislike that the entire student body was so enamored with a C-student, they hated that in trying to imitate Kathy, the other girls kept pushing the limits of the dress code. Bright lipstick? High-heeled sandals? Excessive hair ornaments? That wasn’t in the student handbook! Or at least it wasn’t until the NEXT school year, when those items were expressly forbidden.

See what a difference once person can make?

Being a leader has as many benefits as it does disadvantages. You can play a visible role in guiding people or implementing change and garner all the glory that goes with that. But if you fail, the blame is yours.

The same goes with how you dress. If you step into the spotlight but don’t dress appropriately for your position or various situations, you’ll be ridiculed. If you dress TOO well, you’ll be criticized.

Jacqueline Kennedy knew this well. Today she’s hailed as a fashion icon, but “back in the day,” her French couture wardrobe garnered plenty of bad press during the 1960 presidential campaign. Women liked how she dressed – young, fresh, chic – but they were appalled by how much she spent to do it.

Yet as First Lady, she stimulated the fashion industry and got the nation thinking about personal appearance. Revered like a Queen both in the States and abroad for her trend-setting, one-of-a-kind Oleg Cassini pieces, Mrs. Kennedy’s wardrobe became a national and international obsession. People waited in breathless anticipation to see what she would wear next, and her clothes were reported on in great detail after every appearance. Hat and glove sales flourished. Store mannequins were made in her likeness.

But she was frequently criticized for the excess and expense. For as many women who copied her hair and wardrobe there were just as many who condemned the time and money she spent to look so good. Sound familiar?

So what does all of this history have to do with you?

Look and learn.

If you want to keep criticism from your detractors to a minimum, take the time to critic-proof your wardrobe. Learn what’s appropriate for your industry and for various occasions. Don’t let your clothes become discrediting fodder for your enemies.

If you think a little controversy makes things interesting and you’ve go the stomach for it, then take the expected wardrobe “up a notch.” Try interesting textures or silhouettes. Use unexpected color for impact. Try eye-catching accessories. Then wait for the comments to fly, because they will.

Dressing for success means knowing what’s appropriate when. If you don’t know that, you’re going to be criticized. But if you master it, you’ll get attention off your clothes and put it where it needs to be: on your abilities and getting the job done.

Need some help in determining what’s appropriate when? Download a copy of OCCASION MAGIC to see how easy dressing well for any occasion can be,

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