Appropriateness is an underrated quality these days. Be it speech, manner or dress, it is important to be appropriate to the occasion. But it’s the latter of these – appropriate dress – that I want to sew up now.
The fashions we select may convey symbolic messages, the potential influence of which shouldn’t be overlooked. This summer I saw “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection,” a traveling exhibition of part of Albright’s impressive assortment of costume and fine jewelry, including antique items. The collection will be on display at The Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte into September, when the Democratic National Convention arrives in town. Albright, the first woman to become U.S. Secretary of State, was known for choosing pins and brooches to convey messages of diplomacy. Many of her pins were animal-shaped; turtles, for example, sometimes signified that diplomatic negotiations were moving at too slow of a pace. Butterflies were metaphors for transformation.
For most of us, our fashion choices don’t really play out on the world stage. But Albright also appreciated jewelry for its ability to connect generations within a family to one another. There was the Bohemian garnet set she’d received as a wedding present from her parents: earrings, necklace and bracelet of rose gold and garnet. Or the trio of sailboat pins purchased to represent her three daughters. We can all identify with the sentimental value a person perceives in a particular piece of jewelry.
My favorite jewelry in the collection was Secretary Albright’s gold-plated mesh, glass, rhinestone and simulated pearl suffragette pin, circa 1900, in green, white and violet – the colors symbolic of the women’s suffrage movement. The letters G, W and V form an acronym for “Give Women the Vote.” The pin is a reminder to me of a time in history before the 19th amendment’s passage in 1920, when women could not exercise the right to vote, and to avoid taking that right for granted.
Fashion might have an effect on our audience, even in our ordinary daily encounters. I remember a supervisor complimenting a skirt I wore one day some years ago while interning in the Career Services office at a community college. The outfit, she thought, was just right because it struck a good balance of formal but approachable. Her complimentary remark made me think. I was aware of problems dressing too informally in the workplace could pose, but what I don’t think I had given as much thought to was how a counselor being overdressed might affect clients, who were college students. That it could signal social or economic status differences or just make a person seem unapproachable, possibly hindering forming a connection. Usually, of course, we were in a position of suggesting greater formality in dress for students when it came to preparing them for career fairs or successful employment interviews.
These days I am not seeing clients, but am more likely to be found climbing through someone’s garden on a dewy morning for an interview on a freelance writing assignment. On such occasions, I don’t mind breaking out the jeans and garden clogs. It is all about being appropriate – even if there are no foreign policy matters at stake.
Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina