How Power Dressing Moved Beyond the High Heel

When I was Editor-in-Chief of Seventeen, I was always wearing the “it” stiletto. But now, the symbols of success have changed.

Image by CSA Images/ Getty Images

The culture of work is changing, and with it, our office dress codes. As companies encourage staffers to bring their whole selves to work — and people embrace style repeats and “personal uniforms” in an effort to de-stress workwear — Thrive decided to take a deeper look into how what we wear to work affects our mental well-being, creativity, productivity, and authenticity. We welcome you to take a spin through our special section: The Psychology of What We Wear to Work

You know that funny old saying, “The bigger the hair, the closer to God”? Well, for me, coming up in the magazine business, it was shoes. The higher the heel, the closer you were to the C-Suite.

The first time I wore a pair of Manolo Blahniks, I was a mid-level editor who was just starting to feel my ambition in the business. I’d straightened my natural curls into a bouncy blowout at the urging of a media trainer who wanted to put me on TV and I’d graduated from the funky shoes that were eye-catching, but didn’t convey a sense that I could walk into a board room and own it. I was getting a clearer picture of my possibility in the world — and the style evolution that would come with it.

I’d been invited to a big industry schmooze-fest that was usually reserved for the top editors. I’d bought the Manolos at a sample sale — a tasteful kitten heel in creamy leather — and coordinated my whole outfit around those d’orsay pumps. I was seated at the same table as legendary Cosmopolitan Editor Helen Gurley Brown. I held my breath while she looked me up and down. When she declared that I looked “fabulous” I nearly died and went to magazine heaven! It was a transformative moment for me. For the first time I saw what it would be like to be among the top-top editors…and for the first time, they saw me too.

As much as we want to think our clothes or our shoes shouldn’t matter as much as what we have to say, the truth is your look can amplify — or undermine — your best ideas. Don’t get me wrong: Style is not a substitute for substance — you still have to have big ideas. But if you want to be seen as smart, or authoritative or creative — or whatever works in your business — your clothes should say those things about you before you even open your mouth.

I call this The Machine: The process that molds, shapes, polishes, buffs, and shines you to step into the spotlight of your own life. Once you’ve been through The Machine, you’re smarter, stronger, and more capable, and every single person you meet can feel your confidence from across the room.

I’ll admit that some of this focus on image was a function of the job — wearing the right shoes or carrying the “it” bag was de rigueur for magazine editors. But most of it was simply owning my place in the world: Feeling that I had earned the right to wear towering stilettos or that I deserved the fancy bag. And that belief in our worth makes other people believe it too — That is the key to success for us all.

A couple of years after that run in with Mrs. Brown, I became editor-in-chief of Seventeen. I led the brand for the better part of a decade — and I had a closet full of killer shoes to fit the job. The Machine had done its job.

It’s never really about the shoes, though. It’s about creating an outward reflection that matches the wonderful things you have going on inside. And with each big step in your career, that image has to change so others see that you’re the right woman for the job.

For me, the last few years have been about peeling away a lot of those old ideas as I’ve transitioned from magazine editor to author, speaker and entrepreneur.

The symbols of status have changed in the world, led by Millennial women who are redefining what it means to be powerful and successful, for everyone. The outward displays of power have shifted from a flashy show of money to something more meaningful. The dream of the C-suite office has been replaced by cool co-working spaces where you can incubate your side hustle into the next big thing. Those Manolos that kept us tied to car service and the cushy-carpeted office have been replaced by the Apple Watch as the ultimate status symbol of freedom—it says that you’re so important you need to be reachable anywhere.

I believe that we should all be more Millennial and to stay young, hungry and ambitious means dressing the part as well. As I shaped a new dynamic for my career, The Machine went to work again, refining the way I want the world to see me — and the way I see myself.

I have taken cues from the young women in my tribe: My towering stilettos usually stay in their boxes. My shoes are made for the hustle, not the car service. And my fancy bags have been replaced by a sturdy tote that doubles as my office as I jump from one meeting to the next. My look projects the roll-up-your-sleeves collaboration and sisterhood that are the backbone of my message for a new generation of young women. The symbols of success have changed, but the ambition — mine and theirs — is as strong as ever.

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More on the Psychology of What We Wear to Work:

7 Lessons from Jonathan Van Ness and DVF About Life, Confidence and Fashion

5 Fashion Tips to Get Out the Door 20 Minutes Faster

Rethinking Your Work Style After Maternity Leave 

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