About three years ago, I had one of those typical Monday mornings that many women have experienced. With a fairly important meeting on the horizon, I started to try on different outfits, lacking any real direction or plan. As an art director at one of the leading creative advertising agencies in New York, I’m given complete freedom over what I wear to the office, but that still left me questioning each piece that I added or subtracted from my outfit. “Is this too formal? Is that too out there? Is this dress too short?” I finally chose something I regretted as soon as I hit the subway platform.
As I arrived at work, my stress level only increased as I saw my male creative partner and other male co-workers having a “brodown” with the new boss as they entered the meeting room—a room I was supposed to already be inside. I just stood there—paralyzed by the fact that I was not only late, but unprepared. And my sweater was inside out. I had completely stressed myself out, and for what? This was not the first morning I’d felt this unnecessary panic, but that day I decided it would be the last.
The frustration I felt walking into that meeting late remained with me. Should it really be this hard? I knew my male colleagues were taken seriously no matter what they wore—and I highly doubted they put in as much sartorial time and effort as I had. But gender issues aside, I needed to come up with a solution to simplify this morning struggle.
I have no clue how the idea of a work uniform came to me, but soon, the solution to my woes came in the form of 15 silk white shirts and a few black trousers. For a little personal detail, I remembered my mother loved to put bows in my hair as kid, so I chose to add a custom-made black leather rosette around my neck. Done. During the colder months, I also top my look off with a black blazer. I shopped all the pieces in one day. It burned a hole in my wallet to say the least, but in the long run, it has saved me—and will continue to save me—more money than I could imagine.
To state the obvious, a work uniform is not an original idea. There’s a group of people that have embraced this way of dressing for years—they call it a suit. For men, it’s a very common approach, even mandatory in most professions. Nevertheless, I received a lot of mixed reactions for usurping this idea for myself. Immediately, people started asking for a motive behind my new look: “Why do you do this? Is it a bet?” When I get those questions I can’t help but retort, “Have you ever set up a bill for online auto-pay? Did it feel good to have one less thing to deal with every month?”
More distant co-workers have even asked if I was in some sort of sect—religious or otherwise. However, those types of comments ended abruptly when Mashable published the widely read, “Why Successful Men Wear the Same Thing Every Day.” It came out almost two years after I had started wearing my uniform, and to some extent, it was a relief. My work ensemble didn’t come off as a mystery anymore. On the downside, I couldn’t help but notice that it appeared as if I needed a male authority to legitimatize my choice of clothing in order for others to truly accept it.
Other than the burning, “why?” the most common question I get is whether or not it gets boring in the long run. It’s a reasonable question that probably has a lot to do with the fact that office style is commonly informal in my industry. We have been given the opportunity to reflect our true personalities in everything we wear, every day—to extol our “creative spirits” in everything we do.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, let’s add to the mix the extensive pressure on women to uphold a flawless appearance. Here, we ultimately end up with an unscalable mountain of high expectations. No wonder many people walk around feeling that the world owns them, when it really should be the other way around.
The thought of reclaiming the driver’s seat can feel overwhelming, but even small changes can make a huge difference. The simple choice of wearing a work uniform has saved me countless wasted hours thinking, “what the hell am I going to wear today?” And in fact, these black trousers and white blouses have become an important daily reminder that frankly, I’m in control.
Today, I not only feel great about what I wear, I don’t think about what I wear.
In light of the popularity of Kahl’s story, her office held a “Dress Like Matilda Day” on April 23. See the photos here.
Follow Matilda Kahl here.
Plus, Kahl answers more questions about her work uniform here.