Over the last several months, I received a number of emails asking me, why I haven’t been blogging. People seem to think that my new Manhattan lifestyle is just so fabulous and full of parties that I have foregone my purpose. Well, I would like to assure you that is not the case. Although my New York Life is indeed wonderful, I have been focusing, pretty much all my free time, on writing a book, which I just completed today. I have attached a draft of one chapter for those of you who are interested. Most of you do not fall into my demographic, as my target audience is young women, who are looking for guidance on how to navigate a career on Wall Street. Regardless, if you are family or a close friend, I will still be expecting you to buy the book when it becomes available.☺
Image is everything
The first project I did when I started at Merrill, would become one of the most important of my career. To launch this initiative, I scheduled a meeting to gather all the key stakeholders together and introduce the project. The co-head of Fixed Income Currency and Commodities was my champion, and together we were going to co-lead this meeting.
On the morning of the kick-off, I woke up with a touch of the flu. I had a terrible night’s sleep through fever and sweat – but sick or not, I was going to be at that meeting. I refused to miss the chance to present to such a senior audience. I knew that my ambition would carry me through, so I mustered up my strength and got dressed for success. And that day, “dressing for success” came in the form of my favorite outfit of the season: a black knit Missoni dress. It was very professional and demure.
I arrived at Merrill’s downtown headquarters just before 7a.m. I got out of the taxi and walked straight past the construction workers who were building the mecca that would soon become Goldman’s new headquarters. I walked into the Financial Center and passed by the long line of people that queue up at Starbucks for their morning jolt of caffeine. I greeted a co-worker who rode up the looooong escalator with me. I passed the security guards, and we exchanged our usual morning salutations. Then, I spun through Merrill’s turnstiles and into an elevator where a handful of people were already standing. All was well and completely normal, so I proceeded to my office on the 15th floor.
I spent the next several minutes pulling my meeting notes together, preparing, and meditating. Before heading down to the meeting, I popped into the ladies room for one last glance in the mirror. What I saw in my reflection was alarming, to say the least. My beautiful black knit dress that hugged every curve of my body was completely sheer from the waist down. I had forgotten to put on the slip that went under the dress and my black thong panties were fully visible. It looked like an outfit that Lady Gaga would wear to The Grammys.
I gasped, I gulped, and I skittishly kept turning around like a puppy chasing its tail, hoping that somehow the rest of my dress would miraculously appear. But it didn’t. I closed my eyes tightly, praying I was dreaming. I was not. My heart stopped, then it raced; I instantly felt overheated and nauseous. I quickly ran out of the bathroom and into my office, crisscrossing every step in order to keep my back against the wall, while my hands covered my crotch like two fig leaves. I crawled back into the hole I came out of and sat behind my desk. My mind frantically searched for a solution. What the hell was I going to do? The only obvious option was to have my boss step in and run this meeting on my behalf.
I frantically called my boss’ office. Half a second later, she stood in my doorway with a “Where’s the fire?” look on her face. I tried to explain, but the words were muddled with breathlessness and I was unable to articulate my predicament. She looked understandably confused. From her vantage point and with the convenient disguise of my desk, everything looked normal. I knew the only way to make her understand was show her, so I stood up and twirled around like a ballerina. She gasped, “Oh my god! Ok, ok!” Now she got it. Then another look washed over her face. She was questioning my wardrobe selection, as if I consciously chose this outfit. Hysteria and drama momentarily overshadowed her ability to reason, but when rational thinking returned, she realized that it was all a mistake and that something had gone terrible awry. We took several breaths, put our heads together, and came up with a solution. She would host the kick-off meeting, and I would stay hidden in my office. And so, off she went, literally leaving my behind…behind. I called my co-worker who was also my best friend, Wong. It was still early in the morning, and he hadn’t arrived at work yet. I tried calling his cell phone but there was no answer; I called incessantly – like every 20 seconds or so.
While I waited for him to call me back, I replayed the morning’s events trying to figure out how and when, everything went so wrong. I recalled taking the slip of the dress off its hanger and placing it on my bed. Suddenly that picture was stomped out by the image of me getting out of the taxi and that’s when the horror set in. I thought about all the people that I saw that morning and all the people that saw me. The reel played through my head in fast forward: the construction workers, the people at Starbucks, the colleague that stood one step behind me on the escalator, the security guards, and the co-workers from the elevator. Oh my god, how many people saw me? And what exactly did they see? Did anyone even notice? Everything had seemed so normal! Was it possible that no one had noticed? Are people really that oblivious? I so wanted to believe that, but I had a hard time believing I was that lucky.
Suddenly, my office door swung open; it was Wong and he looked dazed and confused as ever.
“Yo man, whaz goin’ on? Why you keep callin’ like crazy woman?” He asked in a Brooklyn Chinese accent.
I tried to explain, but all I got was grunts of “Huh?? Wha???” and other half expressions that told me he had no clue why I was hysterically rambling on and on. So, I stood up and did the same twirl that I had done for my boss just a few minutes earlier. He stood silently for a moment. His eyes LIT UP and with a dirty little grin, he said, “Do that again.”
The point of this story is that wardrobe malfunctions do happen. They happen in real life to real people, not just to attention grabbing celebrities on TV. This situation was (probably) my worst case of accidental nudity, but it certainly wasn’t the only wardrobe glitch, that I’ve ever had in the office. Split skirts, broken heels, running stockings, button pops, and more; wardrobe snafus just happen. In the span of an entire career, you can guarantee they will happen to you as well. And when they do, just keep calm, and carry on. You may also want to keep an emergency kit in your desk that includes the following: a needle and thread, extra buttons, safety pins, safety pins, safety pins (I can’t tell you how many times a safety pin has saved my ass), a Tide Stain Removing Pen, a lint brush (although in a pinch you could use scotch tape), and clear nail polish.
Here is the ending to my story. I was able to get in touch with my Aunt who went to my apartment and brought me the bottom half of my dress. I stayed in my office until she arrived in order to prevent further damage. I considered myself lucky that I went to ladies room before that meeting, because if I hadn’t, this story would have had an entirely different ending. I shudder to imagine it.
Wardrobe malfunctions are accidental; as such, they are forgivable. But what is unforgivable are the conscious dressing decisions made by professional women that may display their lack of judgment. Poor fashion choices could result in being passed over for a job or promotion, so they are far worse than the unintentional glitch.
In business, it is important to look neat, well-groomed, and well put together.
A business suit is always a safe bet, especially if you are facing clients. But wearing a suit that looks like you slept in it doesn’t do much for your credibility. Make sure you wear clothes that fit you properly and that are well pressed and free of wrinkles and stains. Being neat and clean still counts when trying to make a professional impression.
Dress for the job you want, not the job that you have, but don’t take this too far. Don’t dress better than your boss, and try to dress within your salary range. If you are consistently wearing pieces that far exceed your salary range or are more expensive than what your boss is wearing, management will think they are overpaying you.
In one sense, women are lucky because our range of clothing options is much broader than that of men. Yet, while we have more dressing choices, we also have more room for missteps. If people are focusing on your clothes for the wrong reasons, then you are probably wearing the wrong clothes. Find a professional style in which you are comfortable, because it will give you the greatest degree of confidence.
The dress code on Wall Street is still conservative, even though most firms have implemented an everyday business casual dress code or casual Fridays. Casual dress opens a new realm of clothing options, as well as a whole new slew of possibilities for fashion faux pas. Summer is a particularly notorious time of the year when the formality of office attire tends to diminish. Always think about what your outfit is saying about you.
Casual attire aside, personal grooming is never acceptable in the personal space of a cubicle or on the trading floor. Personal grooming, such as clipping your fingernails or brushing your hair, should be done in a private space such as a bathroom, and only if it’s a mid-day touch up. If it’s part of your morning routine, then it best to do it at home before you come to the office.
How you arrive at work leaves you open to all sorts of judgements and interpretations, and none of them are really positive. How you prepare for work directly translates in people’s minds into how prepared you are for the job and how serious you are about the position. It also speaks to your sense of reliability. Coming to the office with wet hair doesn’t give me the impression that you are putting your best foot forward. It gives me the impression that you overslept and are running late for work, which leads to all other kinds of judgements. When I see women consistently putting their make-up on in the bathroom, I can’t help but to think to myself, “Girl, get it together.” But worst of all it doesn’t give me the impression of someone who should be considered for a promotion.
I also frequently see girls changing their hairstyles throughout the day. In the morning, their hair is down; by lunch, it’s in a ponytail; by 3 o’clock, it’s in a bun with a pencil sticking out of it. Do your hair once, and then leave it alone. And please, do not play with your hair in meetings.
You don’t need to read a company manual to see what is and what is not appropriate to wear to work. When dressing for the office, the culture of the firm usually sets the standard for the attire, so assess your work environment carefully. When I worked at JPMorgan, it was a very conservative bank with a buttoned up culture. Merrill was more lenient about what was acceptable. As such, women pushed the envelope a bit more, which resulted in inappropriate comments and subsequent lawsuits with charges of harassment. The lesson there is that how you dress will tend to dictate how you are treated.
Here are some common fashion blunders seen around the office:
Too much cleavage –The most common fashion mistake made by women is showing too much cleavage. Showing any cleavage isn’t really appropriate, but too much cleavage is an absolute no-no. If your bra is showing or your boobs are pouring out of your outfit, that’s too much cleavage. You may want to strap the girls down. Cleavage in a business environment is distracting. Actually, cleavage in any environment is distracting, but in business, it’s unprofessional as well. So, unless you work at Hooters, cleavage is never an appropriate accessory for the office.
Too much leg – Skirts should be knee-length or longer. Mid-thigh is too short for the office. And if you wear a short skirt, be mindful of your movements; no one wants to catch a beaver shot.
Too much skin – The bare midriff is inappropriate for the office. Tank top sleeves are up for debate and depend upon the culture of your firm, while spaghetti straps and strappy dresses never make the cut, so save those for the weekends. Keep in mind that the more skin you show the less influence you will have.
Too much make-up – Make-up should be used to highlight your features not draw attention to the fact that you’re wearing make-up. You don’t want to come into the office looking like you’re ready to turn tricks.
Too much bling – There is a certain kind of bling that is acceptable on Wall Street, and it usually comes with a marriage proposal. Jewelry should complement your outfit, not overpower it. Remember, you’re not Beyonce.
Exposed tattoos – Tattoos have grown enormously popular, and it seems like people are more likely to have them than not; however, in a conservative firm they are still unprofessional, so keep your tats under wraps – especially the tramp stamps.
Inappropriate shoes – Shoes fall into a grey area, and defining the margin of what is considered appropriate depends upon the culture of your firm. Shoes that are too sexy or risqué are inappropriate for work no matter where you work. The grey area comes into play with the open toe. Some cultures frown on the open toe, while others deem it to be acceptable. Most experts agree that flip-flops are unacceptable for the office. In a speech given to the JPMorgan training program, professionalism expert Marjory Brody offered the guideline that if you do wear open toed shoes, your feet should be pedicured and your toes should be polished. I happen to agree with Ms. Brody on this one and believe that there is nothing less appealing than a pair of un-pedicured feet.
Equally as important as the condition of your feet is the condition of your shoes. Shoes that are scuffed with heels and soles that are beaten or worn generally make a poor impression and speak to your attention to detail. Most Wall Street firms have shoe shine guys that work right on the trading floor, so having unkempt shoes is truly inexcusable.
Shoes are an enormously important fashion accessory and more people than you know pay close attention to your shoes. I remember the Head of Sales once called me after a meeting and asked me if the Gucci boots that I was wearing were new. I was taken back, mostly because the question was inappropriate on several different levels, but I was also surprised that he paid close enough attention to recognize the designer.
If none of this interests you and you still believe that the clothes you wear don’t have an impact on your role, then you are probably making some missteps that are limiting your career without even realizing it.