The M Dash

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Why Professional Women Are Dressing Like the President

In a Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis, Barack Obama said: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

You might not be the president (yet), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim to dress with POTUS-like efficiency.

Of course, men have it easy: Gray or navy suit? Blue or red tie? There are only so many combinations to consider. They have a uniform, and they stick to it. In many cases, this uniform has been passed down from generation to generation, with fathers teaching their sons everything from ideal pant length to tie-tying tricks. Women face a much more nuanced sartorial puzzle. In many industries, there is no clear precedent for how we should dress. And while our array of options might feel like freedom of choice, it’s actually a recipe for ongoing confusion and early-morning angst.

Our solution? Look like a lady, but dress like a dude. In other words: Get a uniform.

Karl Lagerfeld has his uniform down.

Karl Lagerfeld has his uniform down.

A uniform? That sounds oppressive!

Fair point. Back in ’70s and ’80s when women were fighting to get a foothold in the corporate world, many of them adopted what was the equivalent of a feminized men’s suit. This is not what we’re advocating when we say you should create your own uniform; nor are we suggesting that you break out the old prep-school kilt. An effective uniform is merely a means of streamlining your many options and refining your style story, and there’s scientific evidence that explains why this is a smart strategy.

Have you heard of the chocolate experiment? In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper randomized individuals into two groups: The first could choose from six types of chocolate, while the second could choose from 30. In the end, those with 30 choices ended up being less satisfied with their decisions than those who only had six options. Whether it’s chocolate or pencil skirts, too much choice leads to stress.

Anna Wintour, fashion's most powerful woman, wears a uniform of sorts.

Anna Wintour, fashion’s most powerful woman, wears a uniform of sorts.

Everyone’s doing it.

Many of the world’s most celebrated professionals have adopted a uniform of sorts. Steve Jobs became notorious for his black turtleneck and dad-jeans, and Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is also a black turtleneck devotee. But even some of fashion’s most powerful figures—people who could wear anything—elect to keep their looks consistent. Karl Lagerfeld always wears a black suit with a white shirt, black tie, and his infamous sunglasses. Anna Wintour is most often seen in a prim shift dress accented with a classic cardigan or jacket. These folks don’t dress this way by chance. Like Obama, they dress this way to minimize decision-making so they can actually get to work. You should too.

For more advice on how to outfit yourself for the office, check out Wear to Work: A Guide to Building Your Ultimate Professional Uniform, from which this post was excerpted.

Illustrations by Iga Gawronska

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