Authenticity. Such a complex word, and one that our closets don’t help simplify. We all aspire to be our “true selves” and yet the elusive, individualistic nature of authenticity makes it impossible to uniformly define. Knowing the self takes time, and dressing in a way that feels “authentic” is often complicated by context-specific demands, particularly at work. Business attire does not always reflect the self we most identify with, and yet we must find a way to reconcile our authentic selves with these social and professional demands.
It may seem counterintuitive, but embodying authenticity requires both experimentation and reinvention. And while it’s great to take calculated risks, there are recurring style traps that can undermine our efforts along the way. Here are five fashion traps and how to avoid them.
The Trap: Trend Frenzy
Whether at work or play, being a trend victim does you no favors. Not only does it require persistent attention to maintain each season’s fickle affinities — eating away at both your spare time and discretionary income — but it can also undermine your authority. Power is embodied through a tenuous balance of individuality and conformity. Uncritical allegiance to the latest style whims can demonstrate participation in a herd mentality. Not to mention the fact that trends know nothing of your particular body and circumstances.
Just because you admire an aesthetic does not mean you must — or should — embrace it. Yet turning a blind eye to every new visual interpretation can make you look dated and out of touch. Looking current also implies an up-to-date state of mind.
Antidote: Be Conservatively Contemporary
Exclusively embrace seasonal trends that complement your existing or aspirational look. Find a subtle way to weave them into your wardrobe, perhaps as an accessory or by shifting your silhouette. This fall, for instance, you might consider menswear-inspired oxfords or a midi-skirt. Not sure how much is too much? When in doubt, limit each outfit to one bold trend at a time to avoid over-saturation.
The Trap: Dressing in the Wrong Decade
You’re only as old as you feel, and age is just a state of mind — right? Well, when it comes to your clothes, it’s a bit more complex. Dressing in an “age appropriate way” should actually be less disparate amongst the decades than we might think, particularly in the workplace. Just because we are young and can “get away” with certain aesthetic choices, doesn’t mean it’s the most empowering professional choice. Nor does maturity mean we can’t afford to have a little fun (inspirational style icon Iris Apfel is a wonderful reminder of that life philosophy). Sometimes our internal vision of ourselves doesn’t match up with what’s reflected back to us in the mirror — but our goal should be to aesthetically meet somewhere in between and maintain long-term consistency.
Antidote: Exude Playful Professionalism
Be realistic about where you’re at in your life, but don’t completely toss out the “age is just a number” mentality. Regardless of your age, adopt a streamlined foundation that radiates maturity, then tap into your “authentic” core to find ways to infuse that more sober base with a bit of youthful whimsy. Think Brooks Brothers with a leopard belt, or your power suit with some patterned hosiery.
The Trap: Body Blunders
One glance at the runways tells you most clothes are designed for one body type — and chances are that you often feel it’s not yours. But that doesn’t mean you should hide behind your clothes. Losing your shape serves you no more than trying to squeeze into pants cut for an entirely different body. Self-knowledge is both a mental and physical endeavor. And just as our minds and emotions perpetually evolve, so, too, do our bodies. Check in with the way your body engages with clothing on a seasonal basis and think of unintentional changes as an invitation for transformation, rather than a bodily betrayal.
Antidote: Look Beyond the Numbers
Many brands have irregular sizing, so don’t worry if you aren’t always the same size and be mindful of rampant “vanity sizing.” Regardless of the numbers printed discreetly on your tags, identify your best physical asset and play it up — your waist, your legs, your shoulders, etc. Choose brands and silhouettes that work in service to those attributes and be consistent regardless of trendy tides.
The Trap: Audience Disconnect
Some professional clothing miscalculations seem like a scene from “The Office.” But as amusing as they can be, most of us have also missed the visual mark, to varying degrees, at some point too. We like to think we dress for ourselves, but our clothes serve as a public extension of our identities, which means we are first and foremost dressing for our audience. Knowing your audience is a nuanced art form and part of understanding “the other” for whom we perform and appear involves a familiarity with their particular aesthetic.
What is their dress code? How is the group’s mores woven into their material exterior? Style is a portal into a more substantive connection with your audience — and it pays to connect not only with who you are, but also the people with whom you work and live.
Antidote: Do Your Homework
Knowledge constitutes and anchors power. Take the time to research the people and context in which you’ll be operating. Familiarize yourself with the social norms and (unofficial) visual rules that govern the offices and communities in which you’re trying to thrive.
What is their style persuasion and symbolic lineage? Do they favor tradition (pearls?) or creativity (a studded belt)? And remember: It’s not a choice between authenticity or gratuitous pandering — we operate in concert with others and our sense of self is socially constructed and reflected.
The Trap: Tired Complacency
The path to your best self is not well-paved or direct. A claim to our higher selves is always morphing and always just beyond our reach. It’s a challenge we face continuously. And while we all want time off from following style rules and the pervasive pressure to maintain unrealistic standards of visual perfection, becoming sartorially complacent is a professional luxury most of us can’t afford. Perhaps more than any other fashion mistake, visually opting out is the trap most hazardous to your professional persona. If you’ve given up there, what else are you letting slip through the cracks?
Antidote: Look Alive
Even if you make a few missteps, looking like you’re still in the game resonates with your audience. Putting forth effort sends a message of persistence and pride — not to mention attention to detail — all of which positively reflects on the work you’re producing.
We are naturally attracted to those with an insatiable hunger for life — those who embody vitality not only in large actions and ideas, but also in the everyday minutiae of their existence. Taking interest in your personal appearance not only allows you to deepen your own sense of self, but also spreads to those around you. Caring, even when it seems self-directed, is contagious.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.