Dress fashionably…in a STEM industry?!
You’ve got the smarts and the experience. You even know how to deal with the locker room talk.
What you don’t have are all the cute clothes your friends in creative industries get to wear, because fashion and STEM industries just don’t mix. No one would take you seriously.
Because apparently, women can only be analytical or fashionable. They can’t possibly be both, because then the world would stop spinning and there would be a bounty out for any left-brained woman wearing lipstick and designer shoes.
Or so it seems.
You work hard, do your homework, and produce amazing results, yet if you reward yourself with something men deem frivolous – like expensive haircuts or a day at the spa – then you’re seen as frivolous and your efforts are discounted. Particularly in male-dominated industries like math and science.
Which is ridiculous when you think about it.
Because math and science created fashion.
What?! Plot Twist…
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) created every industry, and clothing was one of the first – right up there with food and shelter.
But for some reason, industries that appeal to women are seen as “less than” by most men.
Sci-Fi movies? Cool. Rom Coms? Fluff.
High tech cars? Sleek. High tech skin care? Silly.
Expensive watches? Drool worthy. Expensive handbags? Eye-roll worthy.
They’ll give us a hard time about our “girly” ways, yet what kind of women do they chase after? The well dressed ones with beautiful skin.
Now granted, you’re not going to work to pick up guys. You’re there to work with them.
Or, as they see it, to compete with them.
Which means you have to dress like it.
The first thing you need to understand is that while women tend to think in terms of nurturing and community, men tend to think in terms of power and hierarchy.
So while you’re trying to create harmony by getting everyone on the same page, all your male coworkers are trying to figure out how to leave you in the dust. Guys may want their romantic partners to be soft and feminine, but they’ll plow right over any competitor they view as soft.
Dressing fashionably in a STEM industry is seen as a weakness. That you’re “too girly” to be taken seriously.
So how do you get around that?
You have to out-think them.
Which means you have to know how they think.
In STEM-related industries, that typically means using left-brained functions like logic, facts, and sequencing.
If you start with that approach, you’re more likely to succeed.
How The STEM Industry Created Fashion
Let’s start with the basics.
Earlier I said that the STEM industry created fashion. Clothing, accessories, and beauty products would not exist without them. So let’s take a quick walk through fashion history to revisit some of those breakthrough moments. I’ll explain why when we’re done.
Weaving technology is in common use by this time in present-day Turkey, as woven fabrics recovered by archaeologists from this period can attest. There is also evidence of fabric dyes created from plants and roots.
Egyptians begin documenting crop production for textiles. Records show they have several types of spinning devices, and they use horizontal ground looms to weave fabric.
Egyptians use sea shells, pumice stones, and depilatories made from beeswax to remove all their body hair to stay cool and minimize lice. They also begin heavily lining their eyes with kohl to trap dust, repel flies, and reduce sun glare – like football players do today. Both customs quickly spread to India and the Middle East.
Silk production begins in China after it’s discovered that the cocoon of the Bombyx Mori moth is actually one long silk thread that when unwound, is nearly a mile long. Vertical looms are invented to hold the delicate thread for weaving. Silk becomes the most sought-after fabric in the ancient world, but the Chinese keep the secret of sericulture – and the Silk Road profits from it – to themselves for over 3,000 years.
The Phoenicians successfully create the first stable purple dye from the secretion of sea mollusks found only in the Eastern Mediterranean, near their port city of Tyre in modern-day Lebanon. Tyrian purple is so difficult and expensive to create that purple garments are forbidden to be worn by anyone other than royals and emperors. This rule remains in effect until the Victorian Era, or for more than 3,300 years.
The Greek sculptor Polycleitos writes a treatise on mathematical proportions called “The Canon,” in which he uses the head as a measuring module and declares that the ideal body proportion is 7.5 heads tall. Later Greeks propose an 8-head canon, which becomes the ideal body standard for sculpture, art, and dress.
The Roman Senate passes sumptuary laws regulating displays of wealth by Roman citizens. Jewelry, clothing, dinner parties, and carriages all come under scrutiny.
The “Age of Enlightenment”
After analyzing rainbows and exhaustively studying color, light, and prisms, Sir Isaac Newton develops the color wheel to help artists create appealing palettes by applying the theory of color.
Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin, which quickly and easily removes the seeds from cotton. It quadruples the output of cotton fiber and transforms the textile industry.
Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard invents a mechanical loom that uses punch cards to create complex patterns like brocade, damask, and matelasse. It creates consistent results from weavers of varying skill levels, and speeds up production of these luxury textiles. The Jacquard loom becomes an early prototype of the modern-day computer.
After several attempts by different inventors to modernize looms, Englishman Richard Roberts develops a mechanized loom that is so easy to set up and operate that a child could monitor six of them at once. Commercial textile mills spring up all over the world.
Engineer Isaac Singer patents the sewing machine, which creates consistent stitches and speeds up clothing production. It revolutionizes the clothing industry.
Eighteen year old English chemistry student William Perkins accidentally creates a synthetic purple dye while trying to make synthetic quinine. He repeats the experiment with other colors and succeeds. The market for natural dyes collapses as the cheaper synthetics become readily available.
Tailor Ebenezer Butterick creates scalable sewing patterns – patterns of varying sizes that could be easily scaled up or down – and begins selling them by mail from his home in Connecticut. Prior to Butterick, patterns are only sold in one size – adult – and seamstresses had to do all the calculations themselves to make patterns smaller for infants, children, or anyone who didn’t fit the pattern size. Butterick’s patterns are so popular that by the end of the first year, he moves his company to New York City to find experienced help. By the 1890s, the two biggest names in fashion are Charles Frederick Worth (the father of haute couture) and Butterick patterns.
San Francisco dry goods merchant Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis receive a patent for blue denim trousers reinforced with rivets at the stress points on the pockets and crotch. The rivets and heavy denim make the “waist overalls” more durable than any trousers on the market, and they became a favorite of cowboys, miners, and other laborers. Today, blue jeans are the most popular garment in the world, and the only one designed in the the 19th century that remains virtually unchanged in the 21st.
The Modern Era
The DuPont Corporation creates a synthetic “miracle” fiber they call nylon, which they intent for use for parachutes. They soon realize it has multiple uses, including as a cheap alternative to silk stockings. Nylon stockings are introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair and are an immediate hit.
After years of conducting various experiments on how people respond to clothing, Connecticut school teacher turned clothing salesman John T. Malloy publishes Dress for Success, which teaches men how to dress to be successful in Corporate America. It’s a runaway best seller, and inadvertently leads to the Yuppie movement of the 1980s when those who follow his advice succeed in creating a new class of worker: the well dressed, well educated, upper middle class.
Yuppies and corporate greed are blamed for the stock market crash of 1987, and the backlash is swift and long-lasting: people start dressing down. Tech-related companies begin wearing t-shirts and jeans to show they’re the antithesis of Corporate America, and profits skyrocket. Other industries quickly follow suit, but with much less success.
Why all the fashion history?
For a few reasons:
First, it’s easy to mock things when you have no skin in the game.
If any of the men you know had discovered silk, invented the loom, gone diving for sea snails, or created nylon, they wouldn’t call fashion frivolous; they’d call it their livelihood, and be delighted they had such a hungry market.
Secondly, it’s easy to understand why you’re drawn to fashion and beauty products – especially if you’re in a STEM industry: because of the fascinating technology behind them.
Weaving, dyeing, cutting, and sewing took thousands of years and tens of thousands of people to perfect. Then there’s perfume, makeup, and other grooming products that were invented without benefit of labs, centrifuges, or the periodic table. How did they do it? Just Google “The history of (your favorite product)” and you’ll be amazed by the backstory.
Finally, I wanted to get you into an analytical mindset. I listed plenty of applied math and science breakthroughs, but I also talked a little bit about behavioral science – for a reason. Because in order to dress fashionably in a male-dominated industry, you have to use both applied science and behavioral science to get the attention and respect you deserve.
Think Like a Man
Again, to out-think men, you have to know how they think.
So let’s look at how men dress, because it will give you some insight into their mindset.
Depending on the industry, standard male business attire typically looks something like this:
Clean lines, simple colors, very functional.
“Pushing the edge” fashion-wise might look something like this:
Expensive leathers, unusual sweaters or jackets. A masculine “cool” vibe.
Going super trendy or complicated means losing the average male.
This is fashion “dandy” territory. Effeminate. Most straight men won’t go there.
So how does this translate into female clothes?
Clean lines, simple colors:
Feminine “cool” vibe:
Very trendy or girly:
All clothes in this section courtesy of StyleBop.com
See what’s going on?
When you’re too trendy, you’re seen as being more interested in fashion than in work. If you’re too girly, you’re seen as weak and incapable of doing the job.
But when you add fashion elements men themselves enjoy – like cool jackets, scarves, or shades – then you’re speaking their language: functional, appropriate, and largely devoid of frippery and frills.
This is the kind of stuff most STEM industry guys can get behind because it’s fun. It’s sleek.
Which is precisely where you find the types of left-brained women most STEM guys would give their right arm to work with.
Uhura. Ripley. Trinity. Katniss.
Smart. Sexy. Sassy.
These women know their job and they look good, but fashion seems like an afterthought. The work comes first.
As it should for you.
Here’s What You Need to Do
So am I saying you should revamp your entire wardrobe to look like some sort of Sci-Fi vixen?
Of course not!
Use Sci-Fi’s leading ladies as a source of inspiration.
The sleek lines, high-tech accessories, and precise grooming.
Because when you look tough yet chic, you feel tough and chic. It boosts your confidence. It gives you swagger. A real plus when you’re working with men who are as ambitious as you.
Just don’t go all-pleather and morph into Trinity overnight. That will do more harm than good.
No, start with the basic uniform for your industry. If you don’t know what that is, take a look around at the top performers in your department, company, or STEM industry. Again, it will probably look like one of these:
Once you determine your industry uniform, don’t stray too far from it – especially if you have a lot of public contact, like as a spokesperson, sales person, or day-to-day customer contact. Your goal is to up the “cool” factor of your industry uniform, not rewrite it. Think tweaks, not overhaul.
Opt for clean lines and simple silhouettes. Think minimalist, not fashionista.
Clothes should fit correctly, but not be revealing or body-accentuating. You want your male co-workers to check out your brain, not your body. If you aren’t a college student, ditch the schlumpy t-shirt and hoodie in favor of more professional attire.
Make sure anything you buy goes with at least three other items in your wardrobe. Your goal is to build clothing capsules of mix-and-match pieces that you can wear in a variety of ways.
If you work with chemicals or animals or are in some other position where your clothing and accessories are frequently soiled or damaged, make sure they can stand up to frequent washing or is inexpensive enough to replace. Never wear your good stuff to do dirty work.
Next, make sure your grooming is “up to snuff.” Get a hairstyle that’s current and easy to maintain. Wax those brows. Make your skin soft and supple. If you wear makeup, keep it simple – no overly-dramatic eyes or unnatural-colored lipstick. Keep nails trimmed. You want to look polished.
Next, slowly begin adding some fun, inexpensive accessories, like scarves, shades, or practical-yet-quirky shoes. Nothing overly trendy, girly, or fussy.
Then observe how others respond to you.
Your Own A/B Split Test
If you treat your wardrobe like an A/B split test and observe how others respond to you, you’ll find the elements that get the best and worst response.
That’s what Dress for Success author John T. Molloy did back in the 70s, and it transformed millions of lives. It will do the same for you.
Next, depending on how others respond to your previous wardrobe choices, think about adding some other, more expensive pieces, but make sure they’re in line with your income. A cool watch, nice leather jacket, or sleek briefcase will turn heads and garner compliments.
Finally, remember the levels of formality so you can dress accordingly for all the different activities in your life.
If you typically wear casual clothes, keep a neutral-colored jacket in your office to slip on for meetings with managers or visiting colleagues. Ever socialize after work? Keep a selection of cocktail pieces at the ready. Are you asked to do a lot of speaking? Keep suit pieces handy.
Again, think organized, efficient, and minimalist when working or socializing with colleagues. You can dress however you want after hours – in sweats, high heels, or head-to-toe flowers – but keep it sleek and simple for work.
Always remember: your male colleagues aren’t interested in harmony and Kumbaya. They’re looking to discredit you and take you down so they can take over your bylines, office, or lab space.
Think I’m joking?
When a young, attractive female engineer appeared in a recruiting ad for her Silicon Valley software company in August 2015, male critics were quick to say that she was really a model and that she was “too sexy” to be an engineer.
Which then quickly spilled over to other male-dominated industries, like #ilooklikeasurgeon:
Dr. Jane Eggerstedt
Associate Dean of Academic Affairs
Louisiana State University
See what you’re up against?
A lot of these guys will run roughshod right over you if you let them.
So don’t let them.
Disarm them by mirroring the types of clothes they typically wear paired with a few select cool accessories they’d like to have. It will befuddle them and have them re-thinking your place on the department hierarchy. If you beat them at their own game, the only place to go is up.
Oh – and the next time someone tries to tell you that fashion is superficial?
Just smile and say, “Actually, it’s mathematical and scientific.”
Then share one of the fashion history tidbits from above.
They may never look at you the same way again.
Disclaimer: Again, this information is aimed primarily at women who work in male-dominated STEM-related industries, like science, computers, engineering, or academia. If you work in finance, law, or banking, do NOT wear leather jackets or skirts to work. Stick with silk and wool and I’ll address your needs in a later article.
Diana Pemberton is an image consultant and author of Signature Style Blueprint. Need some help learning which styles suit you best? Signature Style Blueprint can help.