13 January 2007

To show toe or not to show toe? (pt. II)


In this town, you see all kinds of them. Chunky ones, spiked ones, kitten ones, and if you catch yourself in the establishment with the lemon yellow awning on M Street between 18th and 19th, you'll even see six-inch Lucite platform ones.

So I've heard.

The stretch of ConnAve from K to R is flush with females who work in conservative, traditionally male-dominated fields like law, lobbying, defense, real estate, broadcast journalism, academia, and everyone's favorite misogynistic den of iniquity: the U.S. Government.

Weaving among these navy and gray pinstripe suits are the other DC women, the women who work in places where laxity and creativity are as commonplace as being up to date on knowing which vixen caused the breakup of Justin and Blech-face Diaz. Members of this more casual club include, among others, aestheticians, restaurant hostesses, retail saleswomen, bartenders, personal trainers, graduate student interns, and I-just-want-to-help-the-world-sing non-profiters.

With such a variety of office settings and office standards, how can there be one set of rules for what heels are and aren't appropriate to wear to work?

The short answer is, there isn't.
So as not to stray from the scope of this blog - professional DC women - I will be speaking strictly to that first group I described. I'm sure there are fashion do's and don'ts when it comes to how one should dress when serving a $14 martini at Dragonfly or when standing outside my office building "saving the world" (eyeroll) one clipboard at a time for the Human Rights Campaign, but to be honest, I don't know enough about those worlds to give authoritative advice on the subject.

As I always say, the most fundamental style rule is to be keenly aware of your audience and dress accordingly. Now this doesn't mean you should stifle your inner Kate Moss every morning to be a follow-the-leader Eva Longoria. Not at all. But it does mean you need a healthy recognition of the fact that you can't win all your workplace style battles, nor should you aspire to. Familiarity with your battleground and knowing where the boundaries are will allow you to arrange your forces effectively. One of my best friends, a Pentagon reporter for a major news organization, chose to fight a major battle years ago when she implanted a tiny diamond stud in her nose. Because of her unorthodox and permanent accessory, she knows she can't wear bright yellow stilettos like those at left (Jeffery Campbell Cutout heel, $69.99 at urbanoutfitters.com), even if they are an inoffensive heel height and are nearly invisible underneath a floor-sweeping wide-leg trouser.

For the majority of us who still have risk chips left to cash, one of the biggest and most reliable payoffs comes in the form of a great pair of work heels.

As is the case with any outfit component, if you go flashy in one area, to maintain respectability you must show restraint in all those remaining.

If there is one blanket rule I follow and endorse for any woman who works in an office with a high male-to-female ratio, it's to never reveal any side-skin. D'Orsays like the Charles David Tickets at right ($198 at zappos.com) are out, pumps with side-panel cut-outs are out, and for me, unless paired with trousers, even slingbacks are out. The reason behind this is that I've found men in this town are alarmingly distracted by even a tiny peek at a woman's arch.

And by distracted, I mean...distracted.

Some believe there is an unspoken, across the board rule for acceptable heel height as well. I've heard anywhere from two inches up to three and a half inches. As controversial as this statement may sound, I say there is no rule -- let women be as tall as they want. In my view, DC is a man's power town, and women should be allowed to do anything they want, style-wise, to make themselves feel more confident and yes, more powerful in professional situations. For some women, their poison is a power suit, for others it's a power coif, but for my kind, the style accoutrement that transforms us is into a just-try-me analytic force is a high heel. Obviously, none of these - a suit, a haircut, or a pair of shoes - should ever be used as a tool to distract from or compensate for a lack of talent or hard work, but someone please explain to me where the harm is in letting women not only feel a bit bigger but actually be a bit bigger when faced with a room full of arrogant, Brioni-clad men.

What constitutes a "great" work heel is completely subjective. For one of my friends, it means a no-higher-than-three-inch-heel black pointy-toed slingback similar to the Kenneth Cole High Slungs pictured above right ($175.50 at zappos.com). A much more petite friend of mine, however, works by the motto, "the higher the better," as evidenced by her impressive collection of four and a half inch plus Stuart Weitzman pumps of which the Platbracelet (at left, $280 at zappos.com) is but one of several she decides among each morning.

Both women work in defense-related, academic industries where they are just as likely to find themselves in the middle of a last-minute client briefing as they are writing at their desks all day. In short, because of the serious nature of their work and the potential they face everyday to be singled out to represent their offices, neither can afford to take the chance on a teal patent leather round-toed pump (conservative cut, risky material, risky color), a black satin peeptoe (risky cut, risky material, conservative color), or a red faux croc D'Orsay (risky cut, risky material, risky color).

And then there's me. Though the nature of my work is equally as serious as my friends', I work in my own office in a very laid-back, very predictable, very young, very style-acceptant environment. It's a heel lover's dream, and I take advantage of it with a number of peeptoe styles in muted browns, tans, and blacks, and closed-toed pumps in vibrant colors with accents like the red Steve Madden Bellona at left ($149.95 at stevemadden.com). Because I'm a risk taker with my shoes, I realize I have to be less of one when it comes to my clothing. This is my biggest challenge, because as my friends well know, I'm of the opinion that life would be so much more enjoyable if "cocktail fancy" was the permanent dress code du jour. I love fitted skirts, dramatic necklines, and evening makeup; I love simple clutches in primary colors, tops with keyhole exposures, and minidresses in rich fabrics. All of that is fine and well, but I also have to remember I'm a military analyst working in DC, not a fashion magazine editor in Manhattan. I do what I can to satiate my style hunger while still respecting the professional environment in which I work, but it's difficult, because there are very few black and white, wrong and right rules guiding me when I stand in front of my closet every morning.

What convinces me to choose the closed-toe pump over the peeptoe when board members are in the office, is that at the end of the day, these people gave me my job and have the ability to take it away. Just like Nicholas Cage doing a Jerry Bruckheimer film, Christina Aguilera performing at a Bat Mitzvah, or Tara Reid hosting a New Year's Eve party at a Marriott in Illinois, I too, have to suck it up and do what's necessary to pay the bills.


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