None of us New Yorkers want our colonoscopy performed by a lady wearing a plunging Roberto Cavalli leopard-print silk-chiffon caftan. When a medical professional is advancing upon you with a needle or a probe of any kind, you expect that person to be wearing confidence-inspiring garments, such as those designed by Eileen Fisher or Ann Taylor. High fashion and medicine simply do not mix.
War is another story. After watching Anderson Cooper’s intrepid reports last week, I am totally convinced that there is room for style on the battlefield. Somehow or other, Gloria’s handsome lad, while dodging bombs in Lebanon, became a style icon. Damn him! He looks so wickedly handsome and au courant! His preferred garments—a cobalt-blue sports shirt under a matte-black top-stitched bulletproof vest—have a definite whiff of the Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons or vintage Helmut Lang about them. As a result, Mr. Cooper gets my fashion-in-the-face-of-adversity award.
Before you upbraid me for focusing on such a superficial aspect of this terrible crisis, let me remind you that fashion has always played an important role in wartime. During the darkest hours of World War II, Winston Churchill was known to wear a Turnbull & Asser custom-made velvet jumpsuit in teal blue. I have an almost unsavory familiarity with Winnie’s one-piece garment. When I worked at Turnbull & Asser in the early 1970’s, one of my most important duties was to make sure that this relic was appropriately fluffed up in a display case. (Being somewhat large, it tended to sag.) When the moths ate it, I had the workroom whip up a replacement. None of the tourists who made the pilgrimage to marvel at it were any the wiser.
While kicky jumpsuits clearly have their place on the battlefield, the same is not true of Wall Street. Last week, I was charged with explaining the rules of business attire to a group of Ivy League alumni at the legendary Penn Club on 44th Street. They had come to hear me spew tips on dressing for success. From the look on their freshly scrubbed, optimistic faces, I could tell that the gals were anticipating a wealth of nuanced fashion-insider info. Which Marc Jacobs bag was office-appropriate? What degree of blouse transparency was credibility-damaging? Earrings: dangly ethnic or diamond studs? It was obvious that these bankers and hedge-fundistas were poised to start spending some of that easily earned cash at Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman.
Instead of the anticipated fashion nuggets, I gave them the cold, unvarnished truth. “There is,” I intoned from the lectern, like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, “only one way for financial professionals to dress. You must attire yourselves with absolute totalitarian restraint. You must dress like prison guards. No ball fringe! No rickrack! You must dress so as to make Rosa Klebb look like Dolly Parton.” I explained that nobody in their right mind would ever hand over their money to somebody wearing a decadent georgette Rochas cocktail frock. Fashion, in other words, while credibility-enhancing for Winston and Anderson, is the great credibility destroyer as far as Wall Street chicks are concerned.
During the Q&A period, one young lady asked me how she might pack for an upcoming trip to Miami, where, after a long day of negotiating and deal-making, she planned on meeting friends at a “hot club.” “What do you think wigs are for?” I screeched back, adding: “Young lady, you have an obligation to disguise yourself. If your client spots you dancing on a table or otherwise flaunting yourself, it could destroy your deal.”
Another Penn alumna told me that, at her place of employ, she enjoyed the advantage of “business casual.” Why is being permitted to waddle the corridors in moderate sportswear seen as a perk? (Dockers and golf shirts! And that’s just the women!) It seems less of a reward and more like something an employer would inflict on minions in order to punish them for being naughty or unproductive. I told the young lady that she would be much happier—and more successful!—wearing severe, monochromatic tailored suits (Jil Sander) with masculine fitted white shirts (Piazza Sempione), and that a bankeress dressing with anything less than Washingtonian stringency would not succeed in getting her paws on the Doonan shekels.
As I schwitzed my way home, I contemplated Fashion’s power to annihilate credibility in some situations and enhance it in others. Lawyers are an interesting example: For most simple legal transactions, J. Crew or Banana Republic are about as fashionable as it should ever get. Nobody wants his or her will drawn up by someone in a folkloric Miu Miu dirndl or a Tsubi skinny jean.
For a major trial, my lawyeress could be fashionable, but she would have to be careful to pick the right designers. A classic Chanel power suit—think Gloria Allred—would signify previous effectiveness and financial success. I would never want to find myself in the dock watching my attorney trying to save my ass while dressed as a giant topiary. (See the recent Dior couture collection.)
Dermatologists have, for some mystical reason, much more fashion flexibility than proctologists or lawyers, e.g. Dr. Lisa Airan, one the most stylish broads in New York. And then there’s Dr. Pat Wexler, she of the booming practice and skin-care line. I ran into Lanvin-lovin’ La Wexler last week at Allure editor Linda Wells’ Southampton clambake and used the occasion to ask her if her fashion addictions had ever had a negative impact on her perceived credibility. She pooh-poohed the very idea, shrieking, “I wore red patent Blahnik spikes even back when I was in infectious diseases!”