When I started my first full-time job fifteen years ago, I wore a tailored pantsuit to work every day. I was the youngest in my department, young in my field nationally, and after a very brief time away, I'd returned to the university where I'd been an undergraduate; I knew I was going to fight an uphill battle to be taken seriously, and clothing was part of my arsenal. Though no one else in my office really wore suits at the time, doing so made me feel a little more grown up, and helped me--or so I thought--to convince other people that I wasn't a student any more, despite the fact that I probably still looked like one; in hindsight, I suspect I was trying to convince myself, too. I was frugal, choosing conservative colors and styles, investing in a few high-quality pieces from respectable brands, rather than picking up a new wardrobe every season. Black, brown: I was the university administrator equivalent of the corporate executive. (And don't think that the fact that these were pantsuits is lost on me; I'm sure there are issues of gender and body image to unpack here, which I will leave for another day.) I remember once gaping at a friend's walk-in closet overflowing with multicolored fabric and leather, like a visitor from a third world country who had just stumbled into Whole Foods.
The same went for footwear. I owned three, maybe four pairs of shoes: sandals, sneakers, heels from Payless, and a pair of mid-calf black boots--different ones as the previous year's specimens wore thin--that I referred to fondly as my "ass-kicking boots." I never wore the heels, because the boots, like my suits, made me feel powerful. They offered up a solid thunk, thunk, thunk as I strode across campus, pounded out determination and purpose. I was a woman not to be crossed. (Never mind that I wore said black boots with suits that demanded brown. That was irrelevant.)
Under the boots, though, were the socks. My true colors. Wacky, bright, daring, colorful, and unmatched to everything else I was wearing. They were the "if only you knew" part of my wardrobe, the secret that turned the corners of my mouth upwards in the more boring meetings. The warm and interesting and creative part of me that made me a good fit for my work in the first place.
Sometime in the late spring, before I was hired at my new job, thinking that my professional future wasn't looking terribly promising, I purged my closet. Some of the suits--the ones that no longer fit quite right, or that hadn't been worn in a while, or that went out of style years ago, even with my generous "style" window--went out with many of the books from my graduate school years, finding new homes in other people's closets or in the windows of local consignment stores. Mostly, I kept the socks.
When I got a job in July, I took a deep breath and bought two new conservative suits, and few other things at an upscale local consignment store under the approving eye of a good friend, and figured I was done.
Except then I noticed that people weren't all wearing suits to work every day. And that I wanted more variation in my wardrobe than the cloak of my former ambitions allowed. Suddenly, what was in my closet was no longer enough. Moreover, it was fall, and I realized that summer clothes really weren't appropriate for colder weather. I didn't want to spend a small fortune dry cleaning my wardrobe every week. And my old suits--the ones I hadn't purged--really were pretty old.
I bought a deep purple long sleeved dress with a daring v neck. Some uber-comfortable flowy black Wearever machine-washable pants from J.Jill. An olive-colored soft tee, which I haven't been brave enough to de-tag yet, feeling like it was a little too much. A scarf, which I taught myself how to tie in a few different ways. And today, knee-high brown boots--the first ones I've ever owned. My side of the (non-walk-in) closet is back to full--even if it does have two season's worth in one place--with less consistency than ever among the styles and fabrics on the hangers. Unlike in those early years of my professional life, someone looking at it wouldn't be able to identify my personal style at all. Though it's not clear that in those years, the style was mine to begin with.
Still, I find myself--a little guiltily--browsing in the consignment store, trolling for a new skirt or two. An interesting jacket. It's like playing with costumes to find a skin I'm comfortable in. And what I'm comfortable in isn't the same every day. There's a little of everything, sort of like there was in the salad I made this weekend: warm and cool, "crunchy" and tailored, sweet and tart, fruity and nutty. It's a different kind of powerful entirely than in those first days of my first job.
How does your wardrobe express you? Your ambitions or your contentment with where you are? Do you feel like you have a style?
Roasted Kale Sweet Potato Salad with Toasted Farro and Maple Dressing
I came up with this lightly dressed salad by playing with a few different recipes after the final installment of CSA kale and sweet potatoes this week, looking for something different to do with color and texture. It tasted like fall.
2-3 medium sweet potatoes, cubed
2 teaspoons grape seed oil
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
salt to taste (and pepper if you like)
1 large head kale, center ribs removed, chopped
1-2 apples, peeled and cubed (you can roast these for a bit too if you like; I prefer them cold and crunchy, to contrast with the kale and potato)
1 c. cooked farro
pumpkin seeds, toasted
Garlic Maple Dressing
3 T. apple cider raw vinegar
1 1/2 T. maple syrup
2 T. olive oil
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 cloves garlic, minced
Toast the pumpkin seeds until golden (I use a toaster, but you could also do this in the oven or in a hot pan).
Preheat oven to 400F and set aside a baking sheet. Spray lightly with cooking spray.
Add sweet potato, oil, cinnamon, salt on baking sheet and toss with your hands until everything is well-coated.
Roast for 30-35 minutes (stirring and rotating halfway through) or until the sweet potatoes begin to caramelize (this is important to deepen the flavor of the salad, so be patient). When the sweet potatoes are about 5 minutes away from completion, remove from the oven, place the chopped kale on top. Return to the oven.
Meanwhile, combine vinegar, maple syrup, garlic, and mustard in a small bowl. Pour in the olive oil, whisking as you go, and set aside.
In a skillet, heat 2 t. vegetable oil. Add the farro in an even layer and
cook over high heat, stirring once, until toasted, about 5 minutes.
When kale and potatoes are done, transfer to a bowl; add apples, farro, and toasted squash seeds, and dress lightly. Serve warm.