I’ve always really loved fashion. I don’t say this in an “OMG these latest Kardashian trends” way or a “wow this expensive handbag makes me look plush” way (though no hate for anyone who loves the Kardashians or wants to look luxe – you do you). For me, nothing is more emotionally powerful than connecting with art, all the more if that art is telling a personal, political or social story. Fashion takes this love of art to another, more practical level, as it is the art we carry with us through the world – on our backs, on our feet and on our arms. Through your personal style you can express a mood, a thought or an idea, and present yourself to the world in a way that makes you feel safe and comfortable, or challenges you and those around you. The power is in your hands, and there’s so much you can do and say.
My appreciation of expression through style reached new heights during my school days. I went to a private Anglican girls school (on an academic scholarship mind you) that forced us to wear maroon all day every day. I once got in trouble for having double-rolled socks (even though they’d fallen down on their own because of, you know, walking) that’s how strict our uniform code was. In my teenage life outside of school, I relished any opportunity to express this pent-up creativity. I wore platinum wigs, pirate vests, bright yellow stockings, fedoras, you name it. When I got dressed on the weekend I had fun with it and tried to express a different aspect of what I was thinking or feeling at the time.
To feel so constrained at school, yet so free in my own time, I began to construct a mental division between ‘serious’ and ‘creative’ spaces, but this wasn’t entirely my own machination. At school, it was always framed as though there was no place for free personal expression there. Academic success was constructed as being at odds with displaying individuality, as though the two couldn’t co-exist. But it’s not only my school that felt this way - it’s much of society.
For roughly the last five years of my life, I’ve chosen to shove all of my passion for creative expression into a tiny box and I locked it away. It wasn’t all eliminated at once though. As a young woman beginning my career, a lot of this loud, boisterous fashion still made its way into the office - but only subtly. Maybe I’d wear a patterned shirt, a beaded collar or a bright shade of lipstick. I wasn’t exactly rocking up in a glittery mini dress or a chicken suit, I was still wearing office attire (and always past the knee, because that’s just how I tend to be comfortable). Yet my colleagues always seemed to interpret these as extreme acts. People couldn’t help but comment on what I was wearing, be something as tiny as a scarf, or a clip in my hair, and then link it back to my age, gender and experience level. To scratch the surface, comments like “you’re lucky you are so young so you can pull off that look”, “men’s fashion isn’t as liberal as women’s”, and even “if you want to be a manager one day you won’t be able to wear that” were said to me.
So, I toned it down even more, to the point that I felt I had to be a washed out grey version of myself to be palatable in the office. Why is it that people seem to view creative expression and professionalism as being at odds with one another? Are fun and experimentation linked to immaturity, real or perceived? Or much like the natural afro hair issue, are notions of ‘professionalism’ in Western society largely tied to what old, straight, white, cis-gendered men think is appropriate?
I continue to put a lot of energy into building up a ‘credible’ professional profile, because I know to achieve the impact I want to, I need to be taken seriously. As a young woman of colour, that isn’t something people happily dish out – I have to earn it from every new person I meet who assumes I mustn’t know much because of how I look. Through all of my international experience, working with governments, the private sector and the United Nations, I’ve restricted my outfits to being completely bland, predictable, and devoid of most colour and life. Partially, this is because I expected people not to take me seriously if I did anything else. Yet I’ve seen many people, including women of colour, wearing fabulous and fun outfits in the same spaces, and remember admiring and respecting them – and wondering how they were able to do it.
Only recently have I realise how oppressed I’ve continued to feel, but now the only person enforcing this rule on me, is me. I am now senior enough and respected enough in my professional life not to have to worry so much about how I look (a very real prison many young professional women can find themselves trapped in). I’m extremely lucky to have found a way to combine my creative and intellectual passions, working in multimedia storytelling at the intersection of technology and social impact, so being seen as a ‘creative’ person more than a ‘serious’ person right now will probably only help me. I also can’t negate the impact of my current work environment, which is genuinely supportive of people expressing themselves however they feel appropriate. I know how fortunate I am for this, because not everywhere is as accepting (on paper or in practice). Now it’s time to find a balance and to stop stifling my own creativity. I’m going to get out there, do me, and own it.
This is the third post in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting over the next year. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
My name is Keeya-Lee. I'm American-born, Australian-raised, living in London. I work in the humanitarian innovation / tech / social impact space. You can follow me on twitter here!