Business Couture & Professional Aesthetics

Colleague: I don’t know… they’d probably tell me that wearing this printed shirt isn’t business casual.
Me: It’s not. It’s Business Couture™.

Yesterday, at the Center for Inclusivity, we had an engaging discussion about Vocation & Identity. We discussed how the word ‘vocation’ were different from ‘job’. We shared how we decided which work was worth our time and effort and how our identities intersected with your work.

These days, I call myself an interdisciplinary bridge-builder. I’m deeply interested in the work of writing, the creative and performing arts, higher education, emerging adulthood, and faith & spirituality. I’m interested in finding connections toward holistic visions of success and social justice. 

Yet, my understanding of vocation / work does not just include what I do. It also includes my professional aesthetic. My choices in ‘professional’ dress reflect more about where I’ve been and who I am than what I’m doing.

On Following Her Footsteps, Amina Doherty explains:

 

“We exist in a world where Black women’s bodies are contested spaces, where our fashion and style choices are heavily policed, where we are told what to wear, how to wear it, for whom to wear it, how much we should cover (or uncover), how much we should spend – how to ‘be’ everything but ourselves. We exist in a world that privileges thin, white, heterosexual bodies”

Michael Riley, Stylist and Higher Education Professional says, “As persons of color, we are often read as inherently unprofessional“.

Michael Riley

Michael Riley & I, posin’ in our Business Couture.

Thus, the way I practice, reframe, and re-mix “professional dress” or “business casual” into Business Couture allows me to push the confines. Stated simply, Business Couture is anything that allows me to come to ‘werk / work’ and slay. It is a theory that I’m living into each day. Here’s what that looks like for me, these days:

You’ll notice my favorite crop top from the last style post! As a card-carrying member of #TeamCurves, I’ve often been discouraged from crop tops. However, in my visions of Business Couture, this piece is a staple for me to get the lines that I want.

I have significantly less hair than my previous post! This has really amped up the role that accessories play in communicating my professional identity (and saved me a lot of prep time in the morning). In the first picture (far left), I’m wearing my “A Lil Bougie” pin from Tees in the Trap. (Yes, I absolutely do wear that to work). It’s a lighthearted and subtle code-switch, and my students always launch into discussion when they see it. However, it is also a reminder to think about class privilege, explain the references and / or jargon that I engage when I’m doing my work, and to check in with those who keep me accountable to the work.

The wooden earrings (center pic) were obtained at the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia, which “celebrates the coming of another year for African Americans and Africanized people around the world”. They can be a bold choice for the office but… #unbothered.

Business Cotoure 1

Glitter, sequins, and bedazzled shenanigans are absolutely a part of my professional aesthetic. In an older piece, titled “For Colored Gurls Who Consider Blogging & Glitter When Chronic Illness Gets Too Real…”, I explained that allowing my body to be bejeweled allows me to experience pleasure & “luxury” in my body, given the chronic amounts of sickness that are also in my body.

Business Couture means making space for things that aren’t quite casual, aren’t quite formal, aren’t quite… anything… and making it all work. This is something that I’ve had to do with my own lived experience: curate comprehensive works, aesthetics, initiatives, plans, from a variety of places, contexts, and needs. Pictured above is my Lauren Conrad bedazzled shirt and skirt (total cost around $25, as I got the pieces on clearance), and my Clarks knee boots (good for living with chronic plantar fasciitis in both feet while looking fly).

Palazzo pants and V-neck shirts are a part of my aesthetic. Again, as a curvy woman, I’ve been told to stay away from things that “attract attention” (**eye roll). This was discouraged both in secular systems and in “sacred” spaces. Yet, my ethic and aesthetic of Business Couture acknowledges two things:

1) It is the responsibility of others to practice self control and to refrain from sexualizing the frame that I inhabit.

2) This particular body that I inhabit is temporary (I know it sounds a bit mystical, but I’m going somewhere). Things can change at any moment: if I fall ill, my skin color can dull. If I cut my hair, it has the capacity to grow back at this point. There are a variety of factors that determine the amount of space my body takes up at any given point in time. My body is temporary. Understanding this has allowed me to a lot spend less time agonizing over what others believe I should be covering and hiding, given my current weight / shape / frame, etc.

Let me be clear, the way that I experience gender discrimination, given my aesthetic, is not the same as someone who is trans*.  I would be remiss to exclude the understanding that my cis-gender privilege is real, and that this must be worked through in a variety of ways (that could be an entirely new post).

My hope, then, is that this conversations on who gets to be read as ‘professional’ is built upon, remixed, and re-interpreted for a variety of contexts and lived experiences. The concept of Business Couture is something that I’m still working through, wrestling with, and exploring. It is a concept that, I believe, must be lived into and is likely flexible enough to take however it is lived into.