September 24, 2010

Physical comfort is overrated



I recently came across an excerpt from Tim Gunn's book, Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work, and was struck by number 3:

"3. Physical Comfort Is Overrated

Some people think of dressing up or being polite as a burden. They think having to wear a tie or use the right fork or send a thank-you card is a kind of shackle. To these people I say: Getting out of bed is a shackle. If you feel that way, stay in it! Invest in a hospital gurney and wheel yourself around on it when you need to go out.

I get very impatient with this whole "comfort issue" with clothing. Yes, you don't feel as comfortable in clothes that fit as you do in your pajamas. That's a good thing. You're navigating a world where you need to have your wits about you. If you're in a lackadaisical comfort haze, you can't be engaged in the world the way you need to be."

If you don't know Tim Gunn, he has been the designers' mentor on the show Project Runway for eight seasons, and is a former instructor and chair of fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design. I must say, I'm not surprised to hear someone from the fashion industry eschew comfort in clothing. I mean, these people make a living selling women 4-inch heels, skinny jeans and Spanx.

But Tim's comment made me think, and that's a good thing.

I'm a comfort nut. I don't own heels over an inch and a half, and sometimes that's even too high -- I'm all about my Dansko clogs. I prefer a soft t-shirt and shorts pretty much any day of the week. I don't wear wool -- too scratchy. I don't wear suits -- too restrictive. Most of my clothes have a hint of stretch. Tights? Maybe in the dead of winter, and the waistband has to fall somewhere around my hips or I will asphyxiate from cutting off the circulation around my stomach.

I get Tim's point, however. There's something about being in a jacket and button-down shirt, in slacks and dressy shoes, that makes me feel the need to sit up straight, watch my language, and act like a grownup. This is not a bad thing, especially when standing on stage in front of an audience.

A client mentioned the other day that she had watched video of herself after one of her few speaking engagements. She had worn a button-down shirt, untucked (as is typical for women's shirts), with the cuffs left unbuttoned, and a pair of black trousers. She had dressed to look nice, as well as for comfort.

When she watched back the video, all she could see was how sloppy she looked. She hadn't anticipated her outfit coming across like this when she got dressed. But on stage, every little flop of her sleeves was noticeable.

As speakers, we are not dressing for high fashion. We are dressing appropriately for whichever audience is attending our presentation. This could mean a sweater set with a skirt, a collared shirt with nice pants or khakis, or a suit. It completely depends on your audience and how they will be dressed. So, is it possible to look nice and be comfortable? Should we give up the idea of comfort in order to keep our wits about us, as Tim suggests?

I don't wear clogs or Tevas to speaking engagements. But I do wear these. Tim Gunn would probably find them hideous, but they make standing on my feet for three or four hours straight a piece of cake.

I have a collection of jackets and sweaters that are comfortable and appropriate in design and color. I have tailored pants that are comfortable enough not to cut off my circulation or show every detail of what's under the fabric. My presentation clothes are not shapeless enough to put me in a "lackadaisical comfort haze," but are comfortable enough to get through several hours of training without pain or irritation. Keep in mind that, if you are uncomfortable or distracted by your clothing, it's likely the audience will be, too.

I think I've found a good balance between comfort, style and professionalism. How about you? How do you balance your comfort with clothing that's appropriate for your work? Do you think comfort is overrated?

5 comments. Please add yours! :

Anke Tröder said...

Important post!

Comfort zone versus sloppiness versus posture. Endless topic in seminars and trainings.

As you say: Appropriateness is the magic word. There is a wide range of choices between looking sloppy or like a business cliché.

TJ said...

The important thing is to dress in a way that meets your audience's expectations and doesn't distract. If you are Tim Gun and yo are worried that Anna Wintour is going to rip you to shreds, then sure, forget comfort. but for most business speakers it is entirely possible to be comfortable and project the exact image you want.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thank you for your comments.

Anke, I especially like this: "There is a wide range of choices between looking sloppy or like a business cliché." Dressing appropriately also means being yourself. You don't want to get lost in a sea of matching suits and ties. And that's true whether dressing for comfort or not!

Spontaneous Combustion said...

What I think is crazy awesome about your blog is the fact that its about speaking to audiences. I'm taking a class solely focusing on our presentation of a topic of our choice and whether our presentation is in written or spoken form, appearances, impressions, and style is key. Thanks for your awesome tips!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, SC. No one has ever called this blog crazy awesome before. I love it! Enjoy your class!

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