Retail marketer Christian McKenzie shares how she decided to reinvent her work wardrobe to reflect her cultural identity.
This past summer I left my eight year corporate retail career to join a Chicago-based startup. One of the liberating yet frustrating parts of this transition is that I’ve had to adapt my conservative wardrobe to a more relaxed dress code. A “tshirts and jeans” policy was included in my onboarding paperwork. I felt like a kid who just graduated from prep school. I faced the reality that I don’t actually remember how I like to dress professionally because someone has always told me how I need to dress.
Now that no one was policing me, I wanted to reinvent myself.
I went hunting for designer jeans, button up shirts and pumps, which was a nod to the jeans requirement with a touch of my preppy style. After my first week, I noticed that no one was completely following the dress code. The marketing team wore gym or boat shoes, shorts and t-shirts. Operations wore summer dresses and cardigans.
I had room to find my own sartorial voice. I incorporated inspiration from my past. I wore large hoop earrings. I picked dark lipstick shades and wore an afro. I paired tshirts with long suit jackets and fur sandals. I started fantasizing about peppering in African-inspired prints and my Jamaican heritage into my clothes, like I’d done in grade school. Then I thought of all the designers that I’d followed for years that I was too afraid to wear for fear of being sent home to change (which has happened before).
I researched Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss. His Fall 2016 show was dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. Then I looked at the websites of Ikiré Jones and Brother Vellies. Ikiré Jones featured blazers with African prints in obvious or subtle places. Some jackets placed a print on the backside of the suit collar only, which I loved. Brother Vellies is a line of African-inspired shoes that notes Solange Knowles among its supporters. I didn’t think my boss would question my new look. But I asked around to prepare rebuttals just in case she did.
My friend told me a story about another friend who was interviewing with a Fortune 500 company and asked if she could wear a head wrap to work. She was told that she could. But once she started the job, her direct supervisor told her to stop wearing a head wrap unless she could prove that it was for religious purposes, which it was not. She then told her recruiter that if she couldn’t wear a head wrap for personal reasons, she didn’t want the job. The recruiter addressed the issue with the hiring company and the supervisor recanted her stance.
Her story showed me that I was the one limiting my wardrobe choices. I never spoke up about wanting to wear my hair naturally or wearing clothing styles that reflected my culture. I was being compliant. I don’t have to do that anymore. And now I know that I never had to in the first place.
Post by Christian McKenzie
Christian McKenzie is a retail marketer who has worked for Macy’s, Sears and NBC. Currently she’s an Account Manager for Pear, formerly Apparel Media Group. You can follow her journey on Twitter at @xian_mckenzie.