Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Dressing Down

The trouble with image consultants.

By Heather Heilman

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  Rebecca was a bright, ambitious, talented young lawyer, but she had a problem. Her penchant for wearing floral skirts, barrettes, and off-white flats was hurting her career. Her bosses were reluctant to introduce her to their wealthier, more powerful clients because she just didn't look the part of a powerful litigator. That's when her firm called in image consultant Sherry Maysonave to whip Rebecca into shape.

Rebecca was understandably a little pissed off when she found out her bosses wanted to make her over. But eventually she came around. She replaced her floral prints with good wool pantsuits and a chic haircut. Eight months later she was made a partner. Now, several years later, she is the head of her own firm. She has her own driver, gardener, and architect husband. Life is damn-near perfect, and it's all because she learned how to dress right.

Sherry Maysonave, the author of Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success, was at the Barnes & Noble at Wolfchase last Saturday to push her book and tell Memphians how to advance their careers by looking better. Casual Power is an update of Dress for Success, meant to help corporate employees interpret the sometimes confusing code of '90s "business casual" dress.

Much of Maysonave's advice was pretty unsurprising: Sleeveless shirts and leather pants are inappropriate for the workplace. Hard-soled shoes command more respect than sneakers or hiking boots. Choose dark, solid colors rather than prints. Women who wear tasteful, skillfully applied makeup at work earn 20 to 30 percent more than women who wear none at all. Men should shave their beard. Everyone should stand up straight. You can never overdo quality. If you look like you have money, you'll get more respect in the world.

"I'm not saying that dressing well in the workplace makes you a better person," Maysonave said. "But a well-dressed creep gets more opportunities than a poorly dressed saint. If you want to be a successful accountant, you have to look like a successful accountant."

Maysonave, an amiable fortyish woman who wore black pants and a royal blue jacket, addressed a small but enthusiastic audience of mostly middle-aged people. They were teachers, accountants, pharmacists, and all seemed more than familiar with the hard realities of corporate life.

Undoubtedly, Maysonave is right. People judge you by how you look, and I've often wished I knew how to present myself a little better. If dressing well or getting a good haircut can help you get ahead or make more money, why not?

So why did I find Maysonave's message soul-crushing? I've long outgrown my militantly nonconformist days. I no longer think I have to convey every detail of my highly unique personality through my clothes, or that if my appearance doesn't make people turn and stare I'm dull and uninteresting. I noticed long ago that everyone tends to "rebel" in the same ways. Every pierced and tattooed 20-year-old looks like every other pierced and tattooed 20-year-old. I still enjoy the aesthetics of unique and beautiful clothes, but my lack of funds and my habit of staying in bed until the last possible second in the morning, then grabbing whatever's at hand, means that on most days I wear khakis and loafers, just like every other drone out there.

Still, I like people who don't look like you think they should. I like the idea of a tough, wily lawyer whose flowered dresses throw her opponents off-guard. I like women who wear way too much makeup and women who wear none at all. I like gray streaks in long hair more than expensive dye jobs on tasteful bobs.

Also, Maysonave's advice seemed all too much of a piece of the total suburban Wolfchase experience. Mind you, I've mellowed since my early years in Memphis when I never went outside of the I-240 loop unless I was actually leaving town. I now realize there are good reasons to go to the suburbs. On the same afternoon I went to Maysonave's presentation, I did some banking at the branch of my credit union in Bartlett (none of the branches near Midtown are open on Saturday), ate lunch at the new Steak 'n Shake (I've had a weakness for Steak 'n Shake since my high school days in the St. Louis area), and went to see Being John Malkovich, a very cool, very bizarre new movie (only showing at the Wolfchase Malco).

But have you ever noticed how the whole theme of new suburban development seems to be about pretending to be somewhere else? (Just like much of Maysonave's advice seemed to be about pretending to be someone else.) Why are all of Wolfchase Galleria's advertisements set downtown? It's all about a fantasy of hip urban life. But you couldn't actually buy any of the advertised goods downtown since the suburbs killed much of downtown's retail business. Johnny Rockets and Steak 'n Shake are about pretending to be in a diner in the Fifties, Bahama Breeze is about pretending to be in the Caribbean, the Macaroni Grill is about imagining you're in Tuscany, and On the Border is about pretending you're in a real Mexican restaurant. The movie theatres look like they're trying to be Thirties film palaces. Barnes and Noble pretends to be one of the literary independent bookstores it killed off. The housing subdivisions seem either to eulogize the wooded hills and countryside that died so that they might live, or to offer an imitation of stately Midtown homes, only without the crime and the pesky freaks.

Why doesn't anyone want to be where they really are? Why doesn't anyone want to look like themselves, to be themselves with no apologies? Could it be that we don't like where we are or who we are? If we woke up to reality, would we have to face the fact that cancerous suburbs are eating up the whole country, and that many of us, maybe most of us, are caught in pointless, tedious, spirit-numbing jobs?

There's nothing wrong with wanting to update your image, but there are some problems even a great new suit can't solve.


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