Thursday, January 24, 2008

double-edged swords: fashion

I winced through a recent presentation by a fellow female speaking coach, who addressed a small lunch group in a conference room. Her outfit was stunning, and perhaps a bit too distracting in terms of color, cut and distinctive jewelry. But at eye level throughout her talk -- at close range in that intimate setting -- was a gap in her buttoned blouse, far too revealing for the audience's comfort (and not a professional asset in her line of work).

I'm not alone in noticing these issues. The Wall Street Journal takes its second look in two weeks at fashion issues for powerful women, prompted, of course, by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. This week: The pantsuit's examined, and as the article notes at the start, when we say "pantsuit" we know who we're talking about, since men just get to wear "suits" with their pants. In the comments section, one reader noted a practical reason women speakers wear pantsuits: "Women in politics, including wives, have found pantsuits to be more modest attire, particularly when sitting or standing on a lifted platform or stage."

And there's one of the double-edged swords of fashion for women speakers. Women enjoy more options for color, fabric, cut and style in their clothes than do men; that makes the choices more complex, purely on a logistical level. More important, women's fashions focused on attractiveness often send mixed signals in work settings, including speeches--yet few women want to adopt something less stylish when they move out in public. We could all head to Project Runway and toss our hats in the ring right now...or start thinking through business outfits and their ramifications when you speak in public.

Speakers need to consider a range of issues in the dressing room, particularly fit and appearance when in motion. Lift your arm above your head--as if pointing to something on a chart or slide--and check where your jacket shoulder, hem and button placket wind up. Bend forward to pick up a pencil and watch your neckline. Consider where you'll be in relationship to your audience: on a stage, with your feet at eye level? Standing amidst a group seated at a conference table, with your torso at eye level? Most of us check our look in a mirror and focus on our head and shoulders; speakers need to do more, and move more, in the outfits they choose before heading to the lectern.