Women@Work: Show me your battle dress and I will show you mine



I love every adaptation and variation of Sherlock Holmes. One of the more iconic moments made for TV happened in the episode of “Sherlock” in which Sherlock finally meets “The Woman”, Irene Adler. In anticipation of Sherlock’s arrival and the battle royale of strategy and wit that would follow, Irene is seen trying on various outfits as she tries to determine how best to disarm the enemy. Finally, the decision is made and her assistant, lounging by the door and watching, asks, “what are you going to wear?”

Kate: What are you going to wear?
Irene Adler: My battle dress.

My battle dress. I have never forgotten that. An outfit is the first line of defence… or attack.

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking alongside the legend that is Thuli Madonsela at an event to honour Felicia Mabuza, the first black woman on South African Radio.

What was an even greater privilege was listening to Thuli’s speech on what makes a great and successful leader.

She covered the concept of leadership delightfully comprehensively. After enlightening us on conscious leadership, high quality of work, ethical leadership and inclusive leadership among many other fundamental aspects, she came to how one dresses. You see, we would like to believe that what we wear doesn’t matter and that what matters is only our intellect and our ability to do the job. Unfortunately, as she illustrated, that is not the case.

She recalled one of the first reports detailing unethical behaviour that she presented (or attempted to present) to Parliament. It was a hard-hitting, well-drafted and comprehensive report on matters of critical importance to the government and the public at large. She was prepared and went toe to toe with the then president, Jacob Zuma, in a debate on the issues in Parliament. As her assertions started to gain momentum, the president turned to her and said in vernacular something that loosely translated to, “you and your bad wigs must stop this.” His comment caused uproarious laughter. The next day, the headlines were not that she had uncovered unethical behaviour in her investigations. They were all about her “bad hair.”

And so she learnt the uncomfortable lesson that in order to be heard clearly on the issues that matter, she had to eliminate the background noise and distractions created by things that don’t. Dressing badly drew attention away from the things of import she had to say.

Dressing well does not come naturally to me. If I let myself, I could be Frumpy McFrump and be very happy any day. At work though, I have always tried to be smart.  Not necessarily super chic or elegant. Just smart. That was until my 2017 performance review. At the time, I was just starting to feel my way into the role of Head of Legal. As with everything else, I was prepared. I had gone through every element ahead of time and assessed my strengths and weaknesses and I was prepared to haggle for maximum points. (In case you are wondering, the points determine your bonus so they matter).  I knew there was an element on “dressing” but I barely looked at it. I mean who cared when I had been an absolute beast when it came to my targets.

Turns out it mattered. It mattered very much. That element was my poorest score. I work in a company that allows smart casual so I was genuinely taken aback. Seeing my surprise, my boss, who is wise beyond his years, explained his assessment: your role requires you to look the part. You need to look like the in-house lawyer. It says something important about you and the work you do. To say I was skeptical would be an understatement but you know what my real strength is? Taking criticism really well and using it to adapt my professional strategy.

So ahead of my return to work from maternity leave in 2018, I sought help from friends who dress well; I watched countless YouTube videos on looking effortlessly put together, I spent time on Pinterest, I cleaned out my closet and learned how to mix the pieces I had so that I would only need to buy a few. Finally, I drafted and implemented a dress code for my department and I went back to work.

Turns out the man was right. This year I had to work less hard to be taken seriously immediately by new people. I received a lot of compliments all round but I couldn’t help noticing that majority of the time, the compliment was promptly followed by “you really look like a lawyer.” My colleagues also noticed my departmental dress code even though they were not aware of the policy. In fact, when I received a new employee as a lateral transfer, she surprised me by saying “before you say anything, I know I will have to dress up now that I am part of Legal. You guys are very serious.” Well, looky looky. People were making positive assumptions about my department’s ability, professionalism, and intelligence based on the  way we dressed. We really are a superficial lot, aren’t we?

Elaine Wolteroth disagrees:

I truly believe that getting dressed in the morning is about deciding who you want to be, what you’re saying in the world, and how you want people to see you. It’s so much more than superficial.

Of course I still had to back up the impression with actual substance but still, purely by dressing well, I had improved my starting position. Instead of needing to prove that I was actually smarter than people assumed I was first, my ability was now mostly assumed and I simply had to confirm it.

DISCLAIMER: Although I have had to generalise in order to keep this brief, I hope that I have managed to convey that dressing well is a form of good manners and we all need good manners. 

Finally, remember the style legend that was Olivia Pope? While discussing the challenges of dressing Kerry Washington’s character, the Scandal costume designer said her clothes were chosen on the basis that “Olivia Pope demands respect. This is not Sex and the City.” This quote could keep dinner conversation burning bright all night 😉


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