Cleaning Up Nice: My Many Uniforms

polka-dot-police-women

London police women, circa 1970; photographer unknown

When I was in college, the business department offered a series of lectures designed to help you get a job in your years after college.

There was one night devoted to learning the art of networking. Their suggestion: don’t be afraid to approach people; be open and friendly and make eye contact; and practice your elevator speech. If you’re unfamiliar with a networking elevator speech, it’s the 30 second explanation of who you are and what your experience is, explained in the time it takes you to ride an elevator.

My elevator speech: Hi, my name is Meredith. Don’t you like this eye contact I am making? I got my degree in clothing design, and my Masters in Visual Culture, but I’m currently working in IT mostly for reasons that rhyme with death-by-student-loans. On a scale of 1 to 10, I am 10 open and friendly! It’s been an amazing learning opportunity, and I’m eager to see where I can expand those skills moving forward. Is this where the eye contact ends?!

My suggestion for networking: try your very very hardest not to be an introvert, or fall back on nepotism if you can.

There was another night dedicated to resume building. In general, turning “professional bucket washer for a flower shop” into “assisted in the day to day process of flower shop things….in the process of doing flower shops….in the process of flower shop-ing.” Or something. It doesn’t matter. The flower shop was bumped from my resume a while ago.

Keep it one page, guys. I remember the rules.

One of the more memorable career lectures was a fashion show devoted to appropriate clothes for the workplace.

That night, groups of young women gathered in a small, beige auditorium. It was the same auditorium where I learned how to properly fire marshall my residence hall. Where we sat watching the fireman instruct us to shoot the extinguisher at the base of any flames, everyone in the audience wearing shiny, plastic fireman hats, the real reason anyone volunteered to be the dorm’s fire marshall.

It was the same auditorium where I belted out “Time of my Life” at the campus Dirty Dancing movie night surrounded by girls in their pajamas and campus event fundraiser t-shirts, doing the same. But the night of the fashion show, we were going to learn to be grown-ups. Or at least functioning, almost-grown-ups.

One by one, students filed out in “dos” and “don’ts.” Do wear clothing that is modest and well-tailored, as exhibited by a young woman wearing a slate grey skirt and jacket paired with a pale blue collared shirt. Don’t wear ostentatious jewelry like this young woman wearing a business suit with large hoop earrings and an electric-pink multilayered necklace.

Do present a clean look. Iron your clothes, and make sure your hair is under control. Don’t wear noisy shoes or jewelry. Basically, leave the bells and whistles and actual bells at home.

Even at the time, I recognized that this fashion show was catered towards a very specific job market. I was also struck by how everyone looked the same. It was a uniform. At the time, it was the uniform of the grownup.

Nine years later, I’ve never owned anything in slate grey; every outfit I own has at least one coffee stain; my hair is always some degree of shambled; and I have a special section of my closet for only the noisiest necklaces. I’ve never been the person from that fashion show, but I have had uniforms.

Uniform 1: The actual uniform

Two years after that fashion show, I graduated, and the country was about one year out from the height of the recession. Things were improving, but the job market was not yet healthy. After steadily applying to jobs and hearing nothing in return (I made so much eye contact! I talked to everyone on elevators!), I applied for a retail job at the gift shop of a historic home. I needed to get out of the house, and if pushing ceramic roosters and Santa ornaments with your name on them is what it took, so be it. Gimme that rooster.

As a new sales associate, I didn’t need to worry about noisy necklaces or modest clothing because I had a set uniform. Black pants, black vest, white collared shirt, all of it thick polyester. We had to wear black shoes, and I chose heavy, black Dansko clogs. I’m still not totally sure why. Imagine walking with bricks tied to your feet. The song of my people was the heavy scrape of the clogs because it was too my energy to lift my feet any higher.

The one piece of flare that we were allowed was a long, checkered scarf. There were no rules around the scarf. But that’s ok, there were rules about literally everything else.

 

How you stand. How you clean. How you greet the guests. How you call customers “guests” and not “customers.” How you hand the guests the pen instead of placing it on the counter in front of them when signing receipts.

I once received feedback from my boss that I needed to improve my pen-handing technique. She phrased it as if I’d been throwing it at the guests’ faces, which to her credit, I was thinking about doing to her.

It was an incredibly strict environment, but I had my scarf.

I could wear it as an ascot; I could wear it as a bow tie; I could wear it as a head band; on the days where I was responsible for monitoring and refilling food samples, I could wrap it around one of the straps of my apron.

They never questioned my scarf, and it was my one act of rebellion.

That and huddling behind the jewelry counter discussing clothes with a friend as we both straightened the animal-shaped jewelry boxes that were only big enough to hold one small necklace. They were straight. It was fine, but I needed to not be folding t-shirts.

Uniform 2: Leggings as Pants

I applied to graduate school at New York University with the goal of expanding and building on the knowledge I acquired during undergrad. And because polyester doesn’t breath. And really, ceramic roosters sell themselves.

I was nervous when faced with the prospect of moving to New York. I pictured Bill Cunningham’s city, full of glamour and taxis and perfectly coiffed hair.

I have medium-coiffed hair at best.

While my corner of the city had shades of that world, I quickly fell into the uniform of “library chic.” Yoga pants, a flannel shirt, a puffy vest or denim jacket depending on the season, a large chunky scarf, and a larger tote bag I used to lug my laptop, my books, a liter bottle of water from the corner bodega, and a tupperware container full of almonds, grapes, a couple pieces of beef jerky, and slices of Unexpected Cheddar from the Trader Joe’s cheese section. Add a large iced coffee, and that was my uniform for two years.

 

I realized it when I was riding the subway uptown to meet a friend, having come directly from the library, books about Scottish folklore haphazardly poking out of my bag, and looking across the subway car, there was my mirror.

 

It was a young woman, wearing yoga pants, a navy down vest, a green plaid flannel shirt, and a bag in which I could see a macbook pro, a large water bottle, and a pile of loose papers tucked into a textbook. She must have already finished her iced coffee.

 

It was all I could do not to say to her, “I think you’re doing a great job,” as I jumped off the subway car at 86th street. Grad school is hard, guys.

 

I’d later learn when I moved to the Midwest that this look is called the “Coastie,” the uniform of all young women from the East Coast. I’ve also learned Midwesterners will dress up as Coasties for Halloween. Does the costume include crushing debt?

Uniform 3: The Desk Job


I came to the Midwest for an IT job. When I was preparing to travel to Wisconsin for the in-person interview, I was instructed to wear what makes me comfortable.

I read that line of the email, and immediately thought of that night in the auditorium, watching the dos and don’ts of appropriate job attire for more conventional industries, and immediately, and exhibiting a very special paranoia fostered in the unemployed, thought this was a test.

You can’t fool me! I’m going to wear the quietest shoes! You won’t believe how quiet my shoes are!

Three and a half years later, I can tell you. They mean it. Wear what makes you comfortable. You don’t even have to wear shoes! We’d all like for you to. Especially in meetings, and especially in the campus cafeteria. But sure. There is no dress code.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a uniform.

The software company is mostly broken into three major departments. Developers, testers, and the ones who talk to customers. And while there are exceptions, and no one really pays much attention to the hoard of normals in jeans and a t-shirt, uniforms-of-sorts generally fall on department lines.

The ones who talk to customers, probably the ones who make eye contact and talk so much on and about elevators, tend to feature ties with embroidered water fowl, a backpack for carrying gumption and 3000 business cards, and most importantly, shoes on their feet.

When they’re not experimenting within the many parameters of the cargo short and cartoon-related graphic tees, it’s safe to bet on the developers forgoing footwear.
That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. I’ve also seen someone pair a fur cape inspired by Game of Thrones with cargo shorts and a ninja turtle graphic tee. I’ve seen someone attend a meeting in an Eeyore onsie. I’ve passed someone wearing a three piece suit decorated with American flag appliques.

You know! People wearing what makes them feel comfortable! You do you, kids!

I’m running short on appliqued suits, but I tend to fall into the crowd of the “not particularly noteworthy” which has manifested itself as a uniform in its own right.

Jeans and a t-shirt. Jeans and a sweater. Reverse it! Knee-length skirt and denim shirt. Different knee-length shirt and different denim shirt. Reverse it! Jeans and another t-shirt. And just so many shirts with horizontal sailor stripes.

It’s not your conventional work environment, and every year, we hold a conference for our customers where everyone at the company is required to dress business casual. And every year, the company posts fliers in every break room of what exactly that means. The dos and don’ts.

 

The pendulum between acceptable and not has a bigger swing these days.

 

I once had someone telling me to iron my clothes and do my hair. Now I have someone telling me not to wear jeans. Not to wear t-shirts. Leave the Game of Thrones capes at home. And before you ask, electric-pink multi-layered necklaces are still not allowed!

I guess you do learn how to choose your battles as you get older.

It does strike me as odd, however, that nine years later, I still have people telling me how to clean up. How to be a functioning grown-up, if only for two weeks a year.

Don’t they know I’m already mostly functioning? I have the best pen-passing technique in the game; you put out fires by shooting at the base of the flame; and I almost always wear shoes. I think I’m doing fine, dummies. I’m having the time of my life.

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