Thursday, October 02, 2008

Basic Black

A few weeks ago I had to acquire a new Outfit to wear for a Special Professional Occasion (SPO). Shopping for Outfits is one of the few things that inspires me to procrastinate, and I put off my shopping trip for as long as possible. It is probably best that I procrastinate about shopping, though, because if I went early, my tendency would be to make a feeble effort at some stores and then leave without getting anything, and then I would just end up shopping at the last minute anyway. With my typical method, procrastination actually saves me time; or at least that's what I tell myself.

This particular SPO involved my giving a Speech in front of a scientific group that is overwhelmingly dominated by men. This Speech has been given by someone every year for nearly a century, and although I am not the first woman to give it, I am one of very few. The reason I mention this is that it describes the environment of the speech, my feeling of not really fitting in with the rest of the group, and my uncertainty about what to wear.

So I went shopping, and I ended up in the type of store (and/or the type of sector in a department store) in which the saleswomen take an active interest in the customer's shopping activities. I don't mind this, but I found that in most cases my ideas about what I would want to wear differed greatly from those of the women assisting me. Perhaps I should have just acceded to their possibly superior sense of fashion, but most of the items that they suggested I try were too something (too frilly, too beige/pink, too sleazy, too ugly).

After I had rejected her suggestion of a low-cut blouse that looked to me like lingerie, one saleswoman said: Why don't you tell me about the special occasion that you're shopping for, and that will help me help you better.

So I said: Well, I have to give a sort of speech to a big group of scientists, most of whom are older men. It's kind of a traditional, formal event, but not too formal.

Saleswoman: I'm sorry, I can't help you at all. Maybe you should just wear black.

At the next store, after I rejected a suggestion of a cranberry silk crepe short jacket with merino cami (note: I could not have written that sentence before my shopping expedition), the saleswoman asked me to tell her about the places I would be wearing this outfit, so she could help me decide. This time I tried a slightly different angle:

FSP: Well, I'm going to a dinner for some distinguished scientists and I'll be giving a speech, so I'm trying to find something professional yet comfortable but not too businesslike.

Saleswoman2: Is it like what you'd wear to a wedding?

FSP: No.

Saleswoman2: A funeral?

FSP: Maybe.

Saleswoman2: How about this black dress?

So I found something (mostly black) eventually, and felt happy about that until I realized I needed New Shoes to go with it.

FSP @ shoestore: Do you have this shoe in black?

Shoesaleswoman: No, these only come in toasted pinecone. This is a really stylish color. You can wear these with almost anything.

FSP: I need to wear them with a black outfit.

Shoesaleswoman: Are you going to a funeral or to Europe?

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

You paint a very shabby picture of scientists to the rest of the world.....scientists and lack of fashion sense are not synonymous!!!! Most of my favorite teachers (male and female) have impeccable taste in clothing!!! I sense that in this post you equate female professorship with superiority in status!!!

Pagan Topologist said...

Toasted pinecone? I think one could buy those and paint them black with black liquid shoe polish and call it a day. I mean an outfit...

sarcozona said...

Buying new shoes always makes me very very happy. Hope you enjoyed your new shoes at least a little bit!

Maria said...

no fashionable female scientist friend to bring along? It may sound a little middle school, but they could probably be more helpful than the salespeople.

zoelouise said...

Actually, I love a little color in the shoe when on wears a black suit.

Did you get a suit? I feel best in a suit, but I never wear black. (Seriously. I own about 5 suits, none of them black, none of them involving pants.)

Most importantly, I hope you FEEL good in whatever you got.

Susan B. Anthony said...

I've always been a fan of creative color names (like in clothing catalogues), and I have to say that "toasted pinecone" is one of the better ones I've seen.

I hope your talk goes great! But remember, avoid using sarcasm on your unsuspecting victims. :)

lost academic said...

The 'or to Europe' comment is what really got me.

I have the same problem you do. I ended up buying a couple of good suits (not the kind with skirts that make me think secretary or flunky) and sticking with those. They're grey and black.

Female Science Professor said...

Me and hatred of shopping are synonymous though. I don't get your last sentence at all.

PhizzleDizzle said...

I'd say ignore that first Anonymous comment, it made no sense to me either.

Thanks for this post, it made me smile :). Though I myself love shopping and shoes, I have a few friends who are self-described bad shoppers, and this reminded me of them and brightened my day!

Anonymous said...

I also hate shopping. My preferred method is to make an appointment with one of the personal shoppers provided by Nordstrom or Macy's. The service is complimentary, they'll arrange for alterations, and generally they've been terrific about paying attention both to my sense of style and the needs of the occasion. The sales associates know what the store has and do all the running around while I hang out in a dressing room.

Lisa said...

Ok, I have to know: Is "toasted pinecone" what you made up upon forgetting the actual color name as a sarcastic example of the type of name it was, or was the color of the shoes actually called "toasted pinecone"?

It just seems like a color name should hearken back to either either a) some clearly identifiable thing that is approximately that color (and sounds cool) or b) something that (though maybe not as clearly identifiable) has that exact color. What does the name "toasted pinecone" add to the shoe description? It seems like "toasted" is just a cool word for "darker", which would be fine, but "pinecone" wasn't exactly a specific color to begin with. And it's not like "toasted" really goes with "pinecone"--I mean, are there people toasting pinecones out there for some reason? Has anyone ever seen a toasted pinecone? I think a good marketer would have been able to make up something that sounded just as cool but actually had meaning.

Female Science Professor said...

I made that up, but the 'real' name of the shoe color was something like that. The shoes were brown.

Anonymous said...

I am thrilled to find such a funny story from another female scientist who hates shopping. I laughed out loud at the exchanges with the shop assistants.

Miz said...

What's wrong with a dark colored suit? You know what I would suggest, Talking to some upper management women in the finance sector. They have to dress up everyday and are always surrounded by men.

But also, what is wrong with wearing something feminine? You are a female, right?

Female Science Professor said...

Feminine is fine, but frilly is not; there are other ways to dress in a 'feminine' way. A suit would have been weird at this event.

miz said...

I'm confused. What kind of scientific professional event would a suit, or suit pants and appropriate shirt be weird? There's lots of clothes out there that are feminine but not frilly.

I don't know where you were to shop but White House/Black Market has a lot of clothes that fit very well, aren't too feminine, aren't too frilly, aren't too expensive and are more of a classic style so not too trendy. And everything is black and white.

chemcat said...

Personally I would be dead (rather, very poorly dressed) without Banana Republic. I love it. If one avoids the lingerie-type tops, it carries everything from casual to dressy. It's my one-stop destination. Plus, they were the first and only to give me a credit card when I moved here with no credit history :-)

Anonymous said...

I had a similar conversation with a salesperson at Talbots once. It was for a banquet honoring senior thesis students and their advisors. It was the sort of thing where some of the people were wearing very formal attire but not all. I was rather youngish at the time, but I wanted to look like my student's an engineering professor and not his date. I went with a black dress. Today, if I had to do it all over again, I'd go to Ann Taylor. I think they strike the perfect balance of elegance and polished professionalism.

You should consult with Dr. Isis on the shoes.

Anonymous said...

"It is probably best that I procrastinate about shopping, though, because if I went early, my tendency would be to make a feeble effort at some stores and then leave without getting anything, and then I would just end up shopping at the last minute anyway."

that's exactly how it works for me with writing!

maybe I'm saving time...

Fault Rocks said...

That first anonymous must be thinking of social scientists.
Anthropologists and psychologists are very good with the scarf/necklace which subtly evokes the ethnicity of their research subjects.

In an ironic parallel, as typing the sarcastic remark above, I remembered wear only jewelery made of interesting (non-precious) rocks. Mea culpa.

Megan said...

I feel your pain! I recently interviewed at Big Bay Area Biotech Company and was in a tizzy about what to wear. I ended up with a black jacket/pants from Ann Taylor in their triacetate line - they make separates in the same material in lots of different styles (and sizes!). I wore a red silk shirt underneath - felt very put together, conservative but not boring, and most importantly comfortable (it was a ten-hour day that included a 45-minute seminar presentation!). Can't recommend Ann Taylor highly enough...

If my interview doesn't work out mabye I'll just work for them. :-)

chall said...

A black suit/pants w jacket/skirt w jacket works perfectly imho, I usually refrain from a "real" shirt though, or the shirt can't be white (looks too much of a waiter on me).

Then again, I am in the section of women who was taught not to wear skirts but rather pants with the jacket... and now, I hear that that is "hiddeous". I guess I might have (more than) a problem since I'm not interested in showing cleavage or being "sexy woman" when giving a talk.

I also refrain from keeping my hair down since I know that means I will play with it - not profesional.

but i'm not a professor, who I think can be more 'normal' and true to oneself.

Shoes always spice up a black piece of clotheing. Good luck!!

usagibrian said...

What Not to Wear. And Tim Gunn's Guide to Style starts season 2 tonight on Bravo. Really, I feel your pain (36 short jacket size, 7.5 men's shoe--toddlers usually have more selection than I do when I go clothes shopping), but dressing yourself (day-to-day or special occasion) is as much an acquired skill as writing (or learning a language). There are plenty of resources available to teach you how to do it.
Believe me, it's worth investing the time to learn (and the time to do it properly, especially when the occasion calls for it). While you could certainly spend years on the finer points, the fundamentals can be mastered quickly (and for any of the other issues about the show, WNTW is not a bad guide to the learning process). Learn what silhouette works on your body shape, what colors you can carry off, and what you feel comfortable in.
"Knowing" you from your writing here, it seems a pity to just settle for a black outfit to participate in what sounds like a major event when you could give a brilliant speech and look effortlessly stunning while doing it.

rj said...

It was the "in Europe" question that got me too!

Most women's business wear tends to be black, navy, charcoal or grey, possibly dark brown - but the black and navy staples are the a major part of my suit options. At least 50% of the shoes in a shop seem to be black!

I knew it was time to stop being a lawyer when I looked at my closet and saw that more than 50% of it was black, lightened up with a bit of navy, and some white shirts.

The thing about American shops which stunned me was the variety of colour in the shops, and the sizes - 3 pants leg sizes, multiple colours, clothes, clothes everywhere!

The abundance of choice was quite something - all those outlet malls, and the clothes were so cheap.

Ironically, shopping in Oxford St in London would have been easier as there's less colour, and less choice, and more black shoes!

kt said...

This brings me back to a previous post you made about hairdressers. Readers: THERE IS A MARKET. We need a one-stop shop for professorial hair/clothing/shoes. Someone who knows science but feels fashion would be more fun needs to start a service!

Sure, there's no one idea of female professorial fashion, but it is hard to find that elusive point between frilly, flirty, feminine, and frumpy. I can't show cleavage and be taken seriously. I can't take myself seriously in ruffles. I'm young enough that I look like I'm playing dress-up in some suits. I'm old enough that dressing like my students just looks terrible. Can't wear a sharp suit in mathematics or I'll look like a finance refugee; can't wear sweatpants 'cause I'm not quite brilliant enough. And etc.... Someone set up a website for stylish science clothes and I'll be there!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I rejected a suggestion of a cranberry silk crepe short jacket with merino cami

I'm no fashion expert, but that sounds like it would go nicely with pants.

ScientistMother said...

That jacket sounded very lovely, but I get you lack of enthusiasm for shopping. I love to shop and enjoy going with female friends who do not. There is something about helping them find an outfit that is comfortable to them, appropriate for the event and stylish too. When I read toasted pinecone, I immediately thought of the beautiful bronze gold shoes I recently purchased.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Now falling into that bin of old gray male scientists myself, I think that black slacks and black blouse have the simplicity and elegance that befit a special scientific talk. And that notion of 'going to Europe' fits also--every scientific event, where the minds stirs, we could regard hopefully as a little like going to Europe.

penelope said...

Hooray on your choice! Black is always in style (hence, "X is the new black"). And I loved your invented color! Toasted pinecone, indeed. (Wouldn't it be fun to have a job as a color-namer? Wonder how one acquires such a thing.)

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

"or Europe?"

Wonderful! Yes, indeed. When I have to dress up and play Female Professor for such occasions, I usually have on basic black on. And I own couple of pairs of flat, black, comfy Ecco shoes that match everything.

I have found, however, that a spot of really flashy color (cranberry sounds yummy) goes a long way for having people remember me. I often have the case (actually, just yesterday at a reception) of people thinking they had seen me at function X because there had been another blonde woman there. I just nod....

There are some stores now in Europe that cater to the, um, hefty business woman. I just love their stuff - a nice black skirt and jacket, elderberry blouse with an astounding necklace as a tie symbol look stunning.

I have a male colleague who wears very colorful jackets. He looks very good in them, and he says: I can come late to any function, make my way once through the buffet and leave early - and everyone has seen me.

Maybe they have cranberry graph paper blouses somewhere?

Michelle said...

I actually made my sister go shopping with me this week to pick an outfit that was not a suit and not boring but simultaneously professional. I apparently have lost all fashion ability working in a lab for too long! Her advice? No low cut tops, and wear cute earrings. The advice I would give to you is don't wait until the very last minute and buy your shoes online at zappos.com. The customer reviews for most styles are so detailed that unless you have really oddly sized feet you don't need to try them on. You can sort by color, style, heel height, etc., and they have a way better selection than any store. They ship for free both ways so there is no risk!

Chris said...

Ha.
My girlfriend has put off buying a suit for a little over a year now.

I could really stand to get something that doesn't look like "out of college for my first interview" myself, too.

Teresa said...

I had no idea American women didn't wear black. You can never go wrong with black. Black shoes, black suit, no one can say a thing, anywhere, for any reason.

physicienne said...

'or to europe', that's great! i'm a grad student, and i try to dress well (flattering, non-jeans-and-random-t-shirt type clothes - and frilly is definitely out) but i wonder if it has any effect on how seriously people take me. i'm also paranoid that someone's going to chide me somehow on what i wear when i teach. then again, another guy here teaches in jeans with holes big enough that you can see his boxers, so... (he is, however, male.)

i really enjoy your blog, btw!

NJS said...

I have two suits: one grey, one black. Then I have multiple colors of a nice t-shirt. Boring, I know, but it was relatively inexpensive (grad student budget), is comfortable, and I can wear the same shoes for all of it.

I could improve the variety, but then I'd have to spend time trying on clothes that mostly don't fit once I weed out the items that cost more than I am willing to pay. (Can you tell I'm not a fan of clothes shopping?)

zenfreckle said...

I just discovered your site and I love it. This post is particularly hilarious. I often find myself what to wear when meeting with my all male committee etc!

i.didnt.say.this said...

Black is probably out. You will be on a stage next to a slide show or power point presentation or whatever.

The presentation will be the main source of light. If you wear black you will be invisible.

You also do not want to visually compete with your own presentation so a bright yellow Hillary-style pantsuit is also out.

You want to be visible, but you also want your audience to look at your data, not at you.

Very bright or very dark colors are a bad idea. Neutral earth tones in contrasting colors will let your audience see you without drawing attention away from the presentation.

Also pay attention to the colors in your slides: you don't want them to fight with the colors in your clothing.

Anonymous said...

If Europeanfemalescienceprofessor can share what stores in Europe cater for a hefty professional look!!, I'd love to know as I am currently working in Europe for a while and I don't even know where to begin shopping!

drdrA said...

Uuuugh. Shopping. Somehow when I'm forced to go shopping for something specific (as in your case)- I can never find anything that seems right. I'm thinking Ann Taylor- or personal shopper at Nordstroms... they are awesome.... and the shoe people in Nordstroms will look at the outfit that you bought and bring out about 20 pairs of shoes that they are hiding in the back that they think will work..they can be very helpful that way.

spotty girl said...

If I were you, I'd wear something slightly eye catching and modern, like a body-hugging black PVC dress and black leather boots. Then you'll get the men in the audience (who will outnumber the women) to pay some attention!

g.bee jayne said...

My fiancee sent me this link as I have done personal shopping for some female computer engineers who don't like shopping ether. Besides, I've hung out with lots of chem grad students and professors, so I have an inkling of the type of people that would be there.

As soon as I read the post, I had an idea of what I would have suggested: I'd have taken a nice tweed skirt (very in this season)with a raglan button shirt or a nice shell and then have thrown a chunky long sweater over it. Grey and brown would have been the main color palette.

Anyways, that's my $0.02.

Ms.PhD said...

LOL for the post.

Not so happy about comments lately, but it's not just the ones on my blog. Not too impressed with the ones here, either.

Beth said...

I second the personal shopper! I call, tell her about the event, show up, and she has six or seven outfits complete with shoes. It takes 30-45 minutes and I am back on my way. Everyone should try it once.

zeynel said...

So, how did the talk go? Did anyone notice what you were wearing?