When people say, “Dress however you want and don’t listen to the rules,” they are not referring to “the rules” of proportions, color balance, lines, and symmetry. They are referring to “the rules” that are expected from you because of your gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and social status. 

These are the rules that have prevailed for a very long time, yet they are so hard to break because we keep inheriting them from one generation to the other, thinking that following the rules is the right way to do things because this is the way we have always done them. 

Mark Bryan wearing printed high heel shoes, neon green hosiery and a striped shirt. Image Courtesy of CR Fashion Book. 

What rules?

There are preconceived ideas about who we are based on our background. (gender, race, age, sexual orientation). What jobs can we aspire to get, what rooms are we allowed to walk in, and even what kind of stores should we feel confident walking into to mingle or not? 

Many times, we absorb and inherit these preconceived ideas subconsciously, limiting the places we can see and the people we can meet. But it is important to unravel these questions in order to better understand the way we think, why we think that way, and how much of this information is actually true based on what we have witnessed or experienced. 

Image Courtesy of Dior

For example, a woman of color might be hesitant to walk into a high-end store because all of the sales associates are white, the visuals and window displays are all white models, and her close friends and family members have never gotten clothes from this store. From this woman’s perspective, there is no precedent of people of color she knows buying clothes from this store. However, this woman ignores the strong sense of curiosity that she has in herself to visit this store and explore different kinds of clothing that match her style. 

Many times, it is not a store that we are not allowing ourselves to visit. Sometimes, it is a color, a print, a silhouette, a type of neckline, or a type of jewelry that we think “people like us” are not meant to be using. It is important to question where these thoughts are coming from and why we are thinking this way. 

It’s not about going against the tide just for the sake of being an opposing factor. It is about questioning the way we are thinking and why we are subconsciously feeling that we are not welcome in a store or why we shouldn’t wear certain clothes. 

Image Courtesy of Vogue

We are not making this up

Many fashion stores train their retail employees to be on the watch for retail theft (a very understandable instruction for sales associates). But many of these trainings come with a biased opinion, creating presumptions and assumptions of people of color who walk into the stores and that, according to the managers, either don’t believe people of color have the money to pay for the clothes and are just looking and wasting people’s time, or are potential thieves. 

These preconceived ideas translate into employees alienating certain kinds of customers (mostly people of color). It is not just that places and groups of people are not inclusive; they are truly segregating marginalized groups, creating and encouraging division when we have a premade idea of who the person is simply because of their race. 

So, it is completely rational to feel unwelcome at certain stores and public spaces. There are preconceived ideas that come from a place of discrimination and translate into behaviors that exclude customers of color. 

Image Courtesy of British Vogue.

But as long as you feel safe walking into these stores and conversations, there is no reason why you should prohibit yourself from trying all these different styles available in a democratized fashion industry meant to make fashion more accessible for everyone around the world.

If you have the money to pay for that dress and you like it, you should walk into the store and try it on. There is nothing off or wrong about this, despite the merchandising, the kind of models, or the attitude that associates might give you as you walk into the store.

The Political Statement of Dressing as You Please

Image Courtesy of Vogue.

The world is in desperate need of a diverse group of leaders to be the heads of corporations, organizations, and governments. We need women, people of color, people of all ages, identities, and backgrounds to truly represent all of the people who wake up every day to get to work and bring something to the table. 

Along this process, there is pushback. There are so many excuses to undermine qualified candidates who are people of color to be the lead in these positions. Whether it is that they are “not qualified enough” or they are not fully “what the profile of the position is about,” there are a number of reasons why people of color are not selected to be the people who are making impactful and decisive actions that could create significant change in a company, city, industry or country. 

This is when the phrase “dress for the job you want, not for the job you have” comes in. Wear a shirt that is the same color and style as the one Roman Roy from Succession wears if this is the aspirational status you are searching for. Put on those high heels that Emily in Paris wears to walk to work. It doesn’t matter if you don’t look like Emily or if you are not in Paris. It is a matter of giving ourselves the courage to be the person that we want to become, and sometimes, we need these visual elements to give our brains a little push and get started. 

Muxes, a recognized third gender for the Zapotec people in Oaxaca, represent that it’s possible to acknowledge diversity and everyone’s identities and live cordially in a community. Image Courtesy of Mexico. 

Fashion is not the enemy

It would be very easy to blame the fashion industry as a whole for every time we have felt welcomed to a place, for every magazine cover that does not represent who we are, and for every model walking down the runway who maintains ideals of beauty that are far from inspirational for people in today’s world.

But there are fashion designers, activists, bloggers, merchandisers, advocates, entrepreneurs, and models who are pushing for an inclusive fashion industry that represents all of us. Let’s continue searching for each other and supporting each other to make this journey a little bit less challenging.