What to wear when you work in a whirling vortex

Few opening lines are as addictive as the one novelist Leo Tolstoy created in the late 1800s: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  

Strangely enough, it’s a sentiment that inverts when modern-day work environments are involved; it turns out that dysfunctional workplaces are so alike that consultants make enormous sums measuring them against standard “winning to woeful” markers.

Some might think the majority of vortex workers are those whose positions involve high levels of danger, literal life-or-death decision-making, or lots of time with the vulnerable or suffering. Surprise! Frustrated, confused, fearful, and stressed workers can be found in all types of organizations.

Assessing Whether You’re in the Vortex

Worried you may be in the vortex? See if Gallup’s findings on US employees’ health and productivity resonate with you:

  • “The more hours per day adults believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect.”
  • “Being engaged in an activity at a deep, natural level can result in a lack of the sense of passing time, and indicate a level of engrossment that is consistent with strengths usage. So, apparently, time not only flies when we’re having fun, but also when we are using our strengths—both act to reduce a person’s chances of feeling stressed or worried about the present or future, and make life feel meaningful and productive.”

If those statements represent your current attitude about work, congratulations: you inspire both envy and hope in others. If you’re mystified by the research results, see if you identify with any of the below scenarios…and read on if the answer is “yes.”

  • Truly senior leadership doesn’t exist, because all the high-level players come and go quickly—as do their initiatives.
  • Departures are no longer mentioned in organizational missives, because the quantity is so high it “leads people still here to wonder why they’re such losers.”
  • Workers are openly told “like it or leave,” but somehow the directive never shifts to “like it or leave with this 6-month severance package and paid-up health care benefits that will help you weather a dismal job market.”
  • Colleagues are escorted out immediately upon axing, and managers don’t address the fact there and then with the remaining team. [Though a half-eaten scone may sit on the ousted one’s desk all day to serve as a poignant reminder of life’s randomness.]

Dressing for Days in the Vortex

Set your boundaries, be they wide or narrow. If variety energizes you, spend more time dressing for work and thinking up combinations that bring you delight and liven up the visual landscape. If less is more, though, there’s no shame in a low-key, grab-and-go “uniform” that works for your environment.

5. Whether drawn from real-life touchstones or escapist fantasies, incorporate items that have positive associations.

You may not be able to run free with 50 yards of silk like the powerful and dynamic Cyd Charisse, but hey: why not choose a scarf with movement, something worn on a day filled with happiness, or socks/underthings/clothing in your favorite athlete’s colors? It’s an easy way to keep in touch with the qualities you like in yourself or admire in others.

Tip 5a: Dress in a way that lets you channel a role model (here, a scarf very loosely inspired by the bold and free Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain)

Tip 5b: Pluck an item with pleasant memories from your closet (here, a blouse worn to visit Vancouver BC gardens)

4. Soothe your senses by minimizing color combinations and maximizing the Pajama Alternative Factor.

From knit-on-knit action* to whisper-soft Ts, shirts, and scarves, comfort-food dressing can make long days more bearable. [Despite the examples below, there’s no need to avoid color-color.]

Tip 4a: Find your slanket alternative (here, a grey cashmere sweater and black knit separates)

Tip 4b: Never underestimate the joy of repetition or the power of comfort-food dressing (here, my standard monochromatic trousers/sweater combo with a cozy velvet scarf)

3. Send subliminal signals by dressing for offense/defense.

The opposite of number 4 above, for days when you know it makes sense to show you’re as serious as a heart attack. There’s a reason for the clichés about power suits, ties, and colors. However despondent the game makes you, gird your loins and protect your hide.

Tip 3: Invert tip 4 on days you anticipate needing a good offense/defense (here, protecting my hide with a leather blazer and girding my loins with a multi-chain belt)

2. No matter how low morale and how casual your workplace and/or your Fridays, beware of looking too relaxed, ratty, or whimsical.

Do you really want to be wearing a sweater dress with missed patches of cat hair, a Hello Kitty sweatshirt, or wrinkled clothes when the CEO drops by to announce more strategic “reworking”—especially in case it’s you being cut?

Tip 2: At minimum, play in your organization’s nicest end of casual to avoid feeling worse when the Powers That Be drop another bomb (here, none-too-trendy dark wash jeans + blazer)

1. Stock your closet with whatever passes for interview wear in your region and industry.

Naturally your CV, accomplishments, and references are updated and ready to go….

Tip 1: Keep your closet stocked with the right stuff for interviewing in your industry/region (here, a black pantsuit + black shell + collared, blue/grey leopard print silk shirt + bold shell ring)

* Déjà Pseu of Une Femme d’un certain age has a flair for this type of dressing…and as it turns out we have sibling grey/black knit-on-knit outfits

12 Responses

  1. What a wonderful unique perspective you have! Love all the ideas!!

    • Someone—

      Thank you! My tongue was semi-planted in cheek but one can only take so many serious stress-reduction articles, right?

  2. Thanks for the mention! Yes, you’ve definitely covered the bases here. And the Cyd Charisse-inspired scarf is fabulous. I agree about not being too whimsical on Casual Fridays (or any other day for that matter).

    • Pseu—

      You’re welcome for the mention. We stretch/movement lovers have to stick together, and you bring such a sophistication to your looks. I love whimsy in the workplace, actually, but it can strike a jarring note when serious news is flying fast and furious.

  3. And I’m sorry that your workplace seems to be falling into the Vortex category…

    • Pseu—

      You know how I love my plausible deniability, so let’s just say that I was playing Brenda Starr, intrepid reporter here and that if I *were* in a vortex workplace, your thoughts would be much appreciated.

  4. Great post! I particularly enjoyed you idea of power dressing! I’m so happy being a student at the moment. Lots of work places here are in the vortex category!

    • Hi Kaffe/Tine—

      Thank you! I’m glad you’re sheltered a bit by being in school, even though your program sounds demanding.

  5. Although late to the party, I’m glad I didn’t miss this post entirely. What a great topic ~ and as I walked away from a vortex job last year, I can totally relate. I was nodding my head at so much of what you said here, but loved all the outfits too.
    Love the idea of comfort dressing, especially your pants/sweater/velvet scarf combination. And of course, the suggestion to have interview clothes ready is something many of us overlook when we’re caught up in vortex misery.
    Sending you hypothetical hugs for your hypothetical workplace environment…

    • Hi Pauline—

      You know I always appreciate when you stop by, whenever that is! Since you’ve BTDT with a vortex job, glad it resonates. Thanks for the hypothetical hugs, too. [Truly!]

  6. Hi Heyvix!

    I’ve taken the liberty of nominating you for the Liebster Award. Your blog was the first I started to follow, and I’ve loved every post you’ve written, and enjoyed all your fantastic photos!

    You can read about it on my blog, and it’s completely up to you if you want to take part or not – but I hope you will, because you’re such a gifted writer as well!

    • Hi Tine/Kaffe!

      I know you got my emailed response so I’ll just say a quick “Thank you so much!” here. I’m excited to say I have some big, positive changes going on right now that are limiting my online time but stay tuned!

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