The Fascinator Effect
One of the first business leadership books I ever read, way back when, was The Woman’s Dress for Success Book by John T. Malloy, originally published in 1977. Admittedly, before I went to MBA school, I spent five years as a fashion designer on the west coast. How I dressed, and how I helped others dress, has always been of great importance to me.
While I was attending graduate school and preparing for job interviews with major consulting firms and Fortune 100 companies, Malloy’s book became my bible. I read it over and over to make sure I picked just the right style and color business suit, coordinating blouse, pumps and tie for any given business occasion. Yes, back then professional women wore an ascot or a bow tie to complement their day-time business suits. I must have had several dozen ties, and I still have some of them … although they haven’t been out of the drawer in years. I do believe John T. Malloy’s book wins the prize for “The most-read book by Deb Boelkes”.
I have to admit, I’ve gotten pretty used to receiving compliments, over the years, for the way I dress. Although the lessons from Malloy’s original Dress for Success Book are quite outdated now, I still tend to over-dress rather than under-dress. Maybe some of that comes from my upbringing with very proper British grand-mothers, or maybe from my unrelenting IBM dress code days, when employees were pretty much required to wear a suit, tie and white shirt (although women could wear a colored blouse).
Fast forward 40 years. We all dress quite differently these days. Long gone are the days when we dressed up to fly on an airplane (although I still have this nagging gremlin constantly reminding me, whenever I travel on business, I am representing my company). I still feel the need to look like an executive when I travel.
Heaven knows, back in the day, I routinely travelled in a conservative tan, grey or navy blue business suit and high heels…jacket always on. I can’t begin to count the number of times someone would stop me to ask for directions to Gate C-39, thinking I was a flight attendant as I hurried through a big airport like Dallas or Chicago to catch a connecting flight.
I do tend to dress more comfortably these days whenever I fly somewhere, at least most of the time. But on one trip a few months back, I had reason to dress up way more than usual for a flight and found the reactions to be quite interesting. Why? Well, I’ll share this little story about that flight.
Last year I served as President of our local Newcomers Club, a women’s organization with about 750 members. As President, I presided over each general membership business meeting. Such meetings took place at monthly luncheons. The December luncheon was to be my last meeting as President, before I formally turned over the gavel to the new, incoming President.
In planning for this event, the Club Board decided to hold a British-style High Tea instead of a regular luncheon. Because it was near the holidays, they thought it would be fun for all the attendees to dress up in proper British High-Tea attire. They even encouraged all members to wear a fascinator (those fanciful little toppers British ladies wear to teas and weddings). When I told my board I didn’t own one, they gave me a cute little fascinator one as my “unofficial” outgoing President’s gift. I felt obligated to wear it to the High Tea.
The day of the High Tea happened to be the same day my husband and I were to fly to California to attend the wedding of a young man my husband had mentored for years. The groom was almost like one of our sons, so we wanted to show up at the wedding dressed properly. It was to be a formal affair, so I figured I would wear the fascinator my board had just gifted me to the wedding.
The challenge was, due to the tight schedule, I would have to head to the airport as soon as the High Tea event was over. There would be no time to go home and change clothes, and honestly, I didn’t have a good way to transport the fanciful little fascinator without damaging it, other than to wear it. So … talk about over-dressed … I certainly was when I arrived at the airport in an elegant black day suit, high heels, and fascinator atop my head.
As much as I like to dress up, this was way over the top, even for me. It was almost embarrassing. But I played the part as though it was something I did every day.
We had a little bit of time to wait in the lounge before boarding the plane. My husband left me for a few minutes to buy a magazine, so I stayed seated to watch his belongings. No sooner did he leave my sight than the lady sitting across the aisle from me (wearing jeans, a t-shirt and athletic shoes) leaned over to grab my attention and said to me, “Excuse me, but I just have to tell you, you look stunning.”
I politely replied “Thank you”, with a slightly embarrassed Mona Lisa grin. She went on to say, “It’s so unusual to see anyone dressed up in an airport anymore, but you look beautiful. I feel a little under dressed sitting here like this. I’m going to have to dress better next time I fly.”
With that, a middle-aged gentleman dressed in typical business-casual attire leaned over and said to me, “I’ve been thinking that same thing. You look stunning. I feel like I should have worn my fedora.”
I replied with another “thank you” and told him I thought he looked quite fine, just as he was. He then replied, “No, really. It’s so refreshing to see someone dressed the way you are. Everyone else should be dressed like you. You really look classy. Imagine if everyone else looked as nice as you do. It would be great. I’m going to wear a suit next time!”
I really didn’t intend to change the world with my fascinator, but who knows.
When it was time to board the plane, I could see I was being eyed from head to toe by each of the gate agents. The female gate agent who scanned my boarding-pass leaned over to me and said, “I love your outfit” as she waved me through.
As I boarded the plane, the female flight attendant, just inside the jet-way door said, “Wow, you look gorgeous. How nice to see someone dressed up for a change!”
Once we were in the air, when the flight attendants commenced the beverage service, I decided to order a glass of wine. Since we were not in first class, I started to reach for my purse to grab my credit card as I stated my beverage request to the flight attendant. She immediately waved her hand in a “no, not now” sort-of way, and said to me, “This is on us, Ma’am.”
That flight was quite a learning experience. I have made it a point to dress up for each flight ever since, at least more than most people, although not usually with a fascinator. But honestly, I do seem to get better, more friendly and polite service than the others around me. It’s been worth it, from my perspective. And I now make it a point, in the rare event I happen to see anyone else waiting for a flight and looking particularly well-dressed, to smile at them, shake their hand, and give them a compliment.
It seems to brighten the day for each of us … and just maybe it makes others feel better, too.