Before I started my first real job as a college grad, I realized one minor problem: I had nothing to wear. And I promise this wasn’t even one of those cinematic my-closet-is-jampacked-but-alas-I-have-nothing-to-wear moments. The weekend before my first day, I stood in front of my closet staring at a bunch of free college t-shirts, ripped up jeans, crop tops, and one generic little black dress that I used for every single interview.
I realized with a sigh that my wardrobe was very much still stuck in school.
I proceeded to furiously research what kinds of looks I needed to mimic in order to be a real working adult in the real working world of Seattle. I knew the basics: no cleavage, nothing above mid-thigh, no bold patterns, and nothing too tight.
But I also knew the restrictions: rain proof (ahh…the great PNW), a thrift shop budget, and hopefully pieces that I could still incorporate into every day outfits. If I wasn’t to be become a monochrome, waterproof nun, what were the options?
In Los Angeles, my campus job as a barista allowed for creativity in what I wore. After all, our particular cafe was (in)famously known as the hipster, alt-whimsical hotspot, both with our drinks and drinkmakers. There I was able to play with hairstyles and those grungy-chic, LA earth tones that went over well because it was contextualized - I am making your soy vanilla latte and yes my glasses are fantastic and no I’m not wearing too much jewelry, my look said. Or at least my look could say. But when I headed to my first internship, I knew the alt-barista-look that was so fetishized in college coffeeshops was probably not going to fly in an office setting.
Queue scene change: I’m at my first day at my first internship at an environmental non-profit in Northern California, realizing our office is literally in the middle of redwoods. Behind us flows the Lagunitas creek. The executive director biked in wearing cargo shorts and an old t-shirt; I (unsure of office culture) came in dressed in that little black dress with a blazer and heels. During our orientation, I note that our supervisor mentions that we can wear whatever feels comfortable and I turned slightly red. And that experience, ladies and gents, builds my now permanent habit of asking what the office culture looks like before I come in to a new job, each and every time.
The problem with that however, ensues when they respond with “business casual” because honestly, what the heck does that even mean? That’s 1) incredibly vague and 2) I feel the need to point out that it’s literally an oxymoron. Growing up as a transnational family, my immigrant parents' blue collar jobs often didn’t require a dress code. In his life, my father has been a mechanic, a construction, worker, and now a farm laborer. Most days he goes to his job in overalls (and he looks damn good!) but the one time I gave him a tie, he laughed and admitted he had not idea ‘how those things work’. My mother on the other hand is the hardest worker I have ever known but as the jefa of the house, she doesn't have a mandatory dress code either.
As the first to graduate from high school, let alone college, I didn’t really know what I was supposed to wear. I learned enough from teachers, magazines and others to get by in an interview but actually dressing the part every day was a challenge.
It wasn’t till after graduation that I had to develop a business wardrobe. So here I was… the weekend before my first day and I was clueless.
Commence googling ‘business casual’ and getting a lot of mixed messages from the internet. At my first real job at a medical non-profit, I still felt unsure of appropriate work attire. When I thought of professional fashion, I imagined sleek designs and powerful international women with boss pantsuits. Back in Seattle after college, I saw a lot of Patagonia and attire that could be mistaken for hiking gear. If I was going to work in an office and do the 9-5 grind, I at least wanted to look good doing so, goddamnit.
Fortunately, life provided another opportunity and I transitioned into a position that allows me to dress boldly and comfortably.
As I’ve progressed with my short time here in the adult world, I find myself developing a sense of an individual style. Though I’m still learning and finding my own signature look, I’ve come to recognize that fashion can be a tool of empowerment and has been in my personal experience. Recently, I ran into this piece [http://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/tv/a48078/dressed-like-cookie-from-empire-for-a-week-essay/] on imposter syndrome and how fashion can affect our understanding of our own identity.
Seeing other women of color talking about their fears, especially in the professional world, in a mainstream publication like Cosmo really encouraged me to feel comfortable with feeling beautiful. So often, we as women are shamed for being confident. We are called vain and arrogant if we post too many selfies or if we're just feeling ourselves. But in a world where we make half as much as men (or less!), if the heels make the difference, then you bet I’m going to wear them every chance I get!
Although fashion choices are personal and many people opt for natural looks, during the work week I find myself wanting to look a very specific way. I want my look to convey that I am intelligent, hardworking, and, yes, very confident in my body! I like how I look and feel in show-stopping dresses. I like using eyeliner as a warrior paint that says, I am a guerrera woman, proud and confident in my female power. I enjoy playing with different hairstyles and receiving compliments. Because, yes, I did put in more time this morning.
If my body is my temple that houses my spirit, then I can take pleasure in decorating my temple in a way that showcases the strength of my body, what it can do, and what it means in the context of a white, straight, Amerikkka that doesn't want me to be safe in my own skin, let alone proud.
While I am in the beginning stages of my professional career, with all its struggles, I’ve found joy in this stage of my life. It’s allowed me to reinvent my external appearance to match my internal politics and to relish in the beauty of my body. But fashion is also incredibly malleable. It's an evolving tool that changes with time, culture, and personal taste and needs. I know that what makes me feel powerful today, may not work tomorrow and what works for me, may not work for others.
For now however, I’ve discovered that fashion as my weapon of choice has led me to feel more decisive in and out of the office. I believe that dressing the part, can be yet another part of our ritual in fighting the patriarchy, racism, and the host of other social systems that we fight on the daily. And, even wearing killer waterproof boots, you better believe I’m feeling like Seattle’s jefa.
by Esmy Jimenez
Bio: Born in Mexico but raised in rural Washington, Esmy is a formerly undocumented mestiza writer, organizer, and leader. After graduating from USC in Los Angeles, she moved to Seattle where she is currently an apprentice for the Seattle Globalist and on the staff at the non-profit Puentes: Advocacy, Counseling, Education where she mobilizes mental health resources for immigrant communities. When she’s not running around, you can usually find her talking about eating or eating while talking.