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Posted: September 12, 2013

Chef Laura: Project Jet way—a fashion experiment

"Project Runway" meets "What Not to Wear"

Laura Cook Newman

School Pictures Day:  The morning when fashion battle lines are drawn.

One of my daughters happily wears her prettiest dress and Mary Janes.  She insists that I weave not one, but two French braids in her hair.  She twirls around the kitchen asking “How do I look, Mommy?”  Totes adorbs.  Perhaps I’m biased.  

Girl #2 rolls out of bed and throws on sweatpants a la George Costanza; a telltale sign one’s given up on life, according to Seinfeld.  She tops those with an Angry Birds t-shirt selected from the boys department of Kohl’s and slides her feet into a pair of Chucks.

Weighing my parenting options, I gently ask, “Um, Sweetie, do you know it’s a special day?”

“Yeah, I know” she replies, clearly not understanding where we’re about to go with this debate…er…discussion.

After a little friendly fire, she boards the bus in Outfit 2.0 and is free to change into her comfy clothes post Glamour Shots.

Aside from getting a mug shot for the mandatory employee ID badge, what if work had its own version of School Picture Day?  Even though a sheet of wallet-sized pics aren’t in your future, every day at work is School Picture Day. 

Jeans and polos, once exclusive to farms and golf courses, have snuck into boardrooms.  And suddenly it’s appropriate to wear flip-flops 365 days a year…in Colorado, of all places.

On the one hand, as long as we do our job, who cares what we look like? 

On the other hand, uber casual fashion faux pas may be inhibiting our ability to climb the corporate ladder.  Have you been in a promotional rut lately?  Maybe you forgot to heed  Mama’s advice: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”

I didn’t intend to do a scientific experiment of “Does your attire affect how you’re treated?”  But over the course of several business trips, the results unfolded before my eyes.  With the airport as my laboratory, and the jet way as my fashion runway, here’s just one day in the life:

Flight #1 – Denver to Philly.  Once wheels touch down, I must go directly to a meeting.  So I look like “Business Barbie” in a conservative dress, heels, fresh makeup and coiffed ‘do.

Flight #2 – Philly to DC.  With zero time to change after a culinary event, I’m sporting my (mostly) spotless chef uniform of: black pants, shiny clogs, monogrammed/logo’ed chef coat, neckerchief, hair pulled back, and minimal Clinique.

Flight #3 – DC to Denver.  During a layover, I pull a reverse Clark Kent and change into mufti.  With a bathroom stall as my phone booth, the cape-less superhero that emerges is Average Jane:  jeans, cardigan, and…flip-flops. 

Any scientific experiment worth its salt eliminates variables for clean data.  The controls are: 1) It’s me every time.  2) Same roller bag. 

The variables are everything else: time of day, city, people, weather, etc.  Pavlov would be appalled with my scientific method, but you get the idea.

Quiz time:  On each leg of the journey, rank the travel treatment from Non-existent to Rock Star.  And by “treatment”, it was the experience with everyone: service employees, fellow passengers, on lookers, and so forth.

Last place – flight #3.  I didn’t bother anyone and they didn’t bother me.  I flew not only to DIA, but also under everyone’s radar.

Runner up – flight #1.  Men offered to help me with my luggage, flight attendants gave me false smiles, and weary moms dragging strollers and diaper bags looked at me longingly. 

First Place – flight  #2.  Food Network celebrity treatment.  Upgraded to first class (coincidence?).  Pilots joked with me.  Passengers were chatty and intrigued.  Truth be told, it was almost a little too much.  Except for being bumped to first class – that was awesome.

Hypothesis: You are treated differently based on how you look

Conclusion: You are treated differently based on how you look

In honor of the final day of NYC’s Fashion Week, today’s experiment is: “Could a refreshed wardrobe this fall help advance your career?” I await your Nobel prize-worthy findings.  

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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Readers Respond

What a great read and so very true! Dressing for success is lost on the younger generation.......and slowly but surely I think my generation is giving in to the trend. By J. R. Redou on 2013 09 19
Teach, thanks for sharing your results with us. I'm glad to hear your stylin' appearance is setting the right tone with your boss, peers, and "employees" (students). And thanks y'all for making me laugh. Because of you, I can't shake the image of Rachel Ray in a Batman suit wearing Crocs. When we need her help, what does that Bat Signal look like? By Chef Laura on 2013 09 16
*Your not "you're." Darn autofill! By The English Teacher on 2013 09 15
I really enjoyed this one. So fun and cheeky! Funny timing on this topic, and I agree with you're findings. This year I reflected on what made my job so different from before I moved to San Diego from New England. The first thing that came to mind is attire. People in education in the East tend to dress more professionally, as it is the expectation. I've traded in my Pumas, Khaki's, and school logo supporting T's and lanyard for Rockports, slacks, button up shirts and vests (a tie would just be too much, else the other teachers might form a riot against me). I've so far observed that my administrators tend to notice me first when I raise my hand (yes, we still do this) and the students are maintaining a respectful boundary that has been missing the past few years. My professional appearance has them treating more as such. Imagine that? Who knew it could be that simple! By The English Teacher on 2013 09 15
I knew a little girl who once complained that a boy tried to kiss her in kindergarten because she "wore a dress to school." By Pater Familias on 2013 09 13
I'm glad this article made no mention of crocs - which should be banned. period. By Ta Tee on 2013 09 13
“Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” - Where can I get a Batman suit? By X men on 2013 09 12
So did you wear a Chef Hat on the flight? That might have something to do with it. Also the fact that you look like Rachel Ray. By Scooby Doo on 2013 09 12
Your "controlled" experiment with a sample size of one is all the evidence needed to prove that one can dress for effect! By Minerva on 2013 09 12
Laura, you are right that as a mom, I always gave the fashion advice about "the next job." It's been fun to watch my adult children go from grunge to groomed - and watch them advance up the professional ladder. Keep up the great work. By Andi Pearson on 2013 09 12
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