Impression management is a requisite to performing on the social stage of life. To possess a keen sense of style provides the ability to wield power across settings by keeping an impeccable image. Author John T. Molloy asserted the importance of dressing for success in his books of similar name, outlining nearly fifty years ago the necessity of adorning for your desired post as opposed to your current position. His how to dress for success books have provided insight into the art of subtly for generations, making him “America’s first wardrobe engineer” according to Time magazine.
But if Molloy was the first American wardrobe engineer, Edith Head was the first American wardrobe architect. “You can do anything you want in life if you dress for it,” says Head in How to Dress for Success, her book eight years senior to Molloy’s Dress for Success.
For several years, I worked for a nonprofit of similar title to Molloy’s books, everyday partaking in the transformational nature of clothing. Though “We suit the woman from within” became the tagline expressing the need for a menu of programming that included workforce development, employment retention, financial literacy, health and wellness, and leadership, supporting a woman wherever she stood in her employment journey, the truth of the matter is that the organization’s divinity lay in the boutique, where women stood taller at their reflection in a three-way mirror affirming their newness in the clothes they’d just been provided.
Garments as an expression of love is Biblical. One of God’s first acts of care and mercy after Adam and Eve sinned was to provide clothing. (Gen 3:21). God took care of the Israelites during the exodus by causing their clothes not to wear out (Deut 8:4; 29:5; Neh 9:21), and Israel loved Joseph above all his other sons and gifted him a coat of many colors. To express her love, Hannah gave Samuel clothes (1 Sam 2:19). And the highest level of love in the Bible, that God so loved the world He gave His one and only Son, came with a prophecy about Jesus, ‘They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots’ (Matthew 27:35).
“This is where the magic happens” the organization’s longest serving CEO would tell potential donors and guests when leading them on a tour of the space.
I recorded a video for that organization about my “power piece,” a derivative of “power dressing” popularized in the 1970s and 1980s–assisted by Molloy’s books– and modernly rooted in the 1920s by Chanel suits consisting of tight skirts and collarless button-up jackets, usually with braid trim, metallic buttons and fitted sleeves, both pieces in wool. For me, a power piece typically means one thing:
It started many years ago with my mother, who had her own definition of power dressing:
And while mom may have preferred sequins, toile and fox slings, she was business first, and that is how she dressed her only daughter starting in pre-k. In fact, one of my childhood nicknames was Nancy Reagan.
From Chanel to Zara, Gucci to St. John and Saint Laurent, and beyond; at galas and in cluttered offices, on sets and in boardrooms, train stations and living rooms, at homecomings and The Rock, I’ve been wearing blazers ever since.
For women, the practice of deliberately establishing authority in a professional and political environment traditionally dominated by men sometimes goes beyond the blazer. Such was the case of my first job at the MacDonald golf course in Wichita, Kansas as part of the city’s summer youth program.
I experienced all the typical formalities of a first job—responsibility and commitment, learning to work with various personalities. But I also discovered the important role wardrobe choice plays in conveying a message within the workplace.
There were three youth summer workers: thirteen-year-old me, my fourteen going on fifteen-year-old brother, and a sixteen-year-old guy.
All the other employees were adult males, and with the exception of one black, they were all white.
Locker room talk was the culture, and one employee, Steve, was the worst of them all. “Hey man, my sister is in here,” my brother reminded Steve, checking the tan white man with slanted bright eyes.
Not only was I the only girl in the place, I was actually the first girl to ever work there.
Everyone’s job was to maintain the course under the superintendent Randy, who was quite considerate and professional, despite the toxic work environment.
My days typically consisted of carrying around a bucket of what was referred to as “chicken feed”—grass seeds— and filling in divots. A golf cart would have made the job easier, but none of the youth workers were allowed to drive, so we had to shlep. It was hard work–we were in the hot sun doing manual labor all day. But I really enjoyed earning money.
I outworked and outlasted both my brother, who ended up having an allergic reaction to a row of trees he and I trimmed, resulting in is head swelling about twice its normal size, giving him the appearance of an alien, and the sixteen-year-old, who quit a few weeks in.
This left me without the shield of my brother and the only youth worker among the golf course broskis. I was more than a little nervous about going in, but as the saying goes, “My mama didn’t raise no punk.”
There was a popular sketch-comedy show created by the brilliant Keenan Ivory Wayans airing at the time called In Living Color, a show launching the careers of several people including his talented brother Damon Wayans, as well as the incomparables Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx, and even Jennifer Lopez, who was part the show’s dance troupe, The Fly Girls.
One of the most popular skits was about an ex-con turned silly clown called Homey D. Clown. Homey D. Clown would go to birthday parties and kids would ask him to do things like, “Can you slip on a banana and fall?”
Homey would answer: “Fall down, bust my skull open and have my blood and brains ooze out on the carpet so you can get a couple of cheap laughs, huh? I don’t think so.” Then he’d smack the child over the head with a sock and say, “Homey don’t play that.”
Or they’d asked, “Can I smash this pie in your face?”
And he’d answer, “I think you’ve got it reversed.” Then he’d smash the pie in the child’s face and say, “Homey don’t play that.”
Oftentime Homey would give sound advice to the kids, especially about dignity. But just when you thought Homey had turned tender in his wisdom as the child asked for a hug or to sit on his lap, he’d remind them and the viewer that under no uncertain terms does Homey ever play that. In short, Homey D. Clown is a militant, Afrocentric, anti-establishment clown who responds with “Homie don’t play that” when he is asked to do something beneath his values. “Let’s get something straight, kids. Homey may be a clown, but he don’t make a fool outta hisself.”
I found my power piece in the basement washroom. I don’t remember who the shirt actually belonged to, but I took it up to my room as I prepared for work the next day. I would wear a Homey D Clown t-shirt to my premier as the lone youth worker on the job.
And just like that, I solidified a new nickname: Homey. All day, the broskis randomly read aloud the tagline on my shirt: “Homey don’t play that!”
There was a high school English teacher who moonlit at the course every summer particularly amused; only the widely read would notice his subtle smirk. Dare I say he was impressed.
That shirt shifted the atmosphere to a level of comfortability that inspired me to work even harder than I had when my brother was around. Randy the Supervisor invited me to stay beyond the program deadline, until school started, so I was able to earn extra money. “You come back anytime; we’d love to have you,” Randy offered on my last day, the Friday before the new school year began.
I thanked Randy, genuinely grateful for his consideration. And though I had the sense to be appreciative for the opportunity and to hold my tongue, in my mind I let him know: “I don’t think so. Homey don’t play that.”
My take away is respect me as a human being. I have dignity that I stand for and wouldn’t let anyone bring me down.
My power piece is heels and a suit. Work and church. It sets a tone. Life has so many challenges and you must keep abreast.
I may have to wear what some people might term a clown’s suit to accomplish a goal I have, but it has nothing to do with who I really am on the inside.