To suit or not to suit?

Since arriving on The Corridor as a member of SLT, I spend a lot more time with people dressed in suits. Not just men, I hasten to add. For example, the other day, I realised the that I was the only person in the room not wearing a suit – and it wasn’t that I was the only woman. This has been bothering me and I am not really sure why.

White trainers
My white trainers

I guess part of me still equates suits traditionally with power and being in a leadership position, particularly in “serious” jobs. My prejudices here and bias irritate me and so I then intentionally choose not to wear a suit so that I do not to conform to that stereotype – “hey look at me you can be a leader and not wear a suit”. But then a lack of self confidence kicks in and I worry that I am not showing due respect to the role or responsibilities but not being besuited or I am not taken seriously enough. “How do you expect to be a serious leader if you do not dress like one?” my irritating undermining inner voice nags at me. Or, “goodness me, look at you not dressing respectfully enough in your white trainers and jumpsuit, who do you think you are?” is another version of this voice.

I remember a few years ago, at a women’s leadership development event being utterly demoralised by one of the keynote speakers, a woman, saying that they used to dress more vibrantly and unconventionally but then they felt they weren’t get anywhere and so cut their hair and put on a grey suit. That seemed to be so sad that they felt they had to eschew who they were to “fit in” at senior leadership level in a university.

Admittedly what senior leaders wear is more diverse than perhaps I am giving credit to. There are definitely a lack of ties and since the pandemic I have noticed that many of us are keeping on with our informal footwear. There are more great dresses and flowered shirts. The other day I wore a pair of shoes that I had not worn since 2019 and then I remembered why. My feet were so sore and uncomfortable by the end of the day that the shoes went straight into the charity shop pile!

Anyway, I digress. Should it matter what we wear? And should this determine how we are received by others? Instantly, I want to say no. And on many levels of course, no. Of course we should not be subject to judgements based on our clothing. We should be free to dress how we see fit for the occasion and within our means. But … but … but lets be honest, this is not how things play out. Does it matter if you turn up in trainers to an important meeting if you can still demonstrate that you are respectful and well prepared for that meeting? Perhaps for some of us, trainers are all we have access to and so they have to do. Those trainers may cost way more than “smart” shoes or in terms of social mobility its important that we are mindful that our students, for example, may not have access to a whole plethora of traditional “business attire”. There are now many role models of more casual dress at senior levels in many sectors, think Steve Jobs and his black roll neck for example.

Part of my issue with suit expectations is that I just don’t feel comfortable in a suit. I always feel that I am wearing my mum’s jacket. I have narrow shoulders and a small frame and jackets just make me feel awkward and clunky. Then I am not relaxed and feel like I’m encumbered by clothing. Never good. But then my inner voice chirps in unhelpfully with some imposter syndrome type comment about not being comfortable in a suit as I’m not a “proper” leader (whatever that is) and so we go around the loop again.

I think Caitlin Moran nails this when she talks about her conversations with her teenage daughters around clothing. This is something I can equally empathise with – that tension between wanting to support your daughter’s right to express her individuality through clothing and wear what she likes, and the sad inner knowledge that we do not live in a “feminist utopia” (as Moran calls it in More than a Woman) and that going out in ripped tights and a mini skirt will undoubtedly end up in cat calls and frosty looks. Whilst I might not turn up to a work meeting in my version of ripped fishnets, I do hold dear the right to dress in a way that works for me. Moran talks about wearing clothing that is “jolly and comfortable”. I love this. This can be interpreted in so many different ways. But if you feel jolly and comfortable, you will be happy and at your best – able to be professional as you are not worrying about your sleeves getting in the way or feeling like you are in fancy dress (in my experience of jackets).

So I think I just need to accept that whilst suits may not be the leadership attire for me, I can still be jolly, comfortable and professional! Testimony to this is that I chose to chair Senate wearing my beloved white trainers. I might have been the first woman to chair Senate, certainly the first in the last 6 years. And I was definitely jolly and comfortable 🙂

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