Privilege Blog

How Not To Wear Cardigans To Bangkok

Let’s say you have a a new job. Let’s say you need a work wardrobe?

OK then.

Careers are won or lost to the 80% rule. In other words, focus 80% of your attention on the 20% that matters. Career wardrobes should be handled the same way.

Wardrobe recommendations often start with a general list of pieces to own. I believe this to be folly of the worst sort. What you don’t want is to end up where every outfit you own is 80% appropriate for what you have to do. Starting with a list of pieces puts you at risk for that outcome.

Instead, start with your Use Cases. What are use cases, you may ask? The concept comes from software design, meaning, instead of listing the features you want in your product, first document the actual use cases, i.e. user actions you will be supporting or user problems you will be solving. Fully solving. Not 80% solved.

For example, in one of my previous jobs, the list of wardrobe use cases would have read as follows:

1. Presenting To An Important Customer In Boise, Idaho
2. Defending My Product In Front Of Ed Zander
3. Speaking On SunTV
4. Weekly Product Team Meeting
5. Day In, Day Out
6. Skiwear (I Do Not Golf, But Large Companies Insist On Team Building)
7. Trade Show In Paris, Meeting With Thai Entrepreneur In Bangkok, Or, Foreign Business Of All Sorts

This methodology requires that you build your list of use cases, populate each of them with outfits that are 100% appropriate, and then, and only then, abstract out to the necessary pieces for the full wardrobe. The key use cases will make clear everything you need.

For example, (where would we be in life, without examples? Wandering a land of generalities and disappointment, that’s where. The particular always precedes the general.) here’s what I wore to visit the Thai entrepreneur.

Cultural Context: Asian country, women rare in business, status brand appreciation.
Special Circumstances: It’s HOT in Bangkok
Desired Impact: Power, professionalism, representing a leading United States technology company. (This was in 2001.)

Here’s what I wore to Idaho.

Cultural Context: Idaho is a conservative but not stuffy state.
Special Circumstances: I did not know the sales rep accompanying me but I bet he’d be wearing a blue shirt and I did not want to match.
Desired Impact: I am only here to represent my company and answer your questions. Trust me.

And here’s the weekly product team meeting. I had an impressive collection of cardigans in those days. My “brand,” if you will.

Cultural Context: They were software engineers. I was marketing. Need I say more?
Special Circumstances: Our particular product group had a history of non-productive engineering/marketing relationships. Our software engineering director had a very big personality.
Desired Impact: I am reliable, approachable, and flexible. Also, I come bearing free food.

If we abstract these out, we see that I needed:

  1. An impact jacket. I also wore it to Paris. Chanel is good for international business.
  2. A conservative suit with button-front shirt and belt.
  3. A host of mid-range trousers., one of which I could wear with the impact jacket. Not hard to find, that. Black is good.
  4. White tee-shirts, long and short-sleeved. Personal issue. I hate fussy tops.
  5. Cardigans in different colors
  6. Flat shoes in brown and black, with varying shapes and degrees of formality.
  7. A small amount of conservative but luxurious jewelry. Some vintage. Again, a sort of signature or brand.
  8. Technology.
  9. Food to bribe engineers.

And that list, as it turns out, took me through an entire decade.

Other industries present other use cases. Academic life, for example, has a completely different culture.

Make a list of the high-impact situations in which you expect to find yourself, and play career paper doll. Although this may seem like a lot of work, once you start documenting, you will realize that there are only 3-4 Arch Use Cases, and all others mirror those requirements.

By the way, it’s too hot, in Bangkok, for cardigans. Unless they’re cotton. But you knew that.

74 Responses

  1. Use cases! I like it. I also engage in a little User Acceptance Testing with trusted colleagues on the other side of the desk. My mentors, usually women 10-15 years older than myself, have been very good – particularly in my early working days – about sharing their impressions of my wardrobe. That advice was just as useful as the hard core work skills stuff.

    I’m going through my wardrobe now and appreciate reading of your approach. I have a new role that is a bit of a higher profile and things will need to be adjusted accordingly. Add in my husband’s new job (and attendent expectations of me), kids who like me to look nice but not really be noticeable, and my own interests, well, let’s just say I’ve started a spreadsheet. Biggest issue: being able to get rid of expensive items that no longer represent me appropriately.

  2. Great practical information useful to anyone in any field – just change the circumstances, analyze and outline!! Since I was in a creative field, these types of rules did not apply (we were expected to be rule breakers), but I can see a myriad of occupations and postions where they would!!

  3. What an absolutely delightful post, with a concept that makes *prefect* sense, “use cases” has lots of merit when it comes to the wardrobe issue.

    All of the style boards are wonderful, I love the classic, timeless ensembles. BTW, I have a couple of linen cardigans, I wonder if they would work in steamy places like Bangkok?

    Sending you a smile Miss Privilege,

  4. The food is so important. No important meeting at which you ensure that posh sandwiches will be served on three-tier plates will ever fail to go your way. Little cakes are good too, especially for women in pearls. There must be some other percentage rule there – success is 50% food, 50% hard work and talent, and 100% pretending that it’s absolutely nothing to do with the sandwiches.

  5. So, this is odd: right now I am wearing almost an exact copy of your Team Meeting outfit. My shoes are quilted ballet flats, otherwise the same. You really can’t go wrong with trousers and a good cardigan.

  6. I am with you all the way…

    I love white tees too….do you have a favourite brand?

    Those flats with the snaffle look like my new MeeToo NY…

    Congratulations to your clever daughter. She will be asking your advice on some other matters no doubt…with all your experience you will be a great source for her.


  7. Wow,
    Use cases and free food — you must be the best marketing person Ever in a software company.

    I loved the post.

    Maggie da Geek (a computer programmer)

  8. this is brilliant! and very useful for those of us who are 20somethings still finding our way in the working world. what is your style motto when it comes to professional dressing? the old adage ‘dress for the job you want, not the one you have’ i think is true and false. aren’t there delicate politics in the workplace that hinder how ‘well’ you ought to dress? (ie: never dress better than your boss, etc). i’d love to hear your thoughts – or feel free to email me as well :)

  9. I just looked up Ed Zander on Wikipedia. Now I have a better understanding of the testosterone you needed to muster. Props!

  10. Dear Lisa, I twitched when I read ‘use cases’ as in my recent past I have chewed many pills of panadol on use cases, and then requirements for large computer projects. However, you are exactly right (as usual). We do have to be precise about what image which we wish to project, understand our environment and interlocutors perfectly and plan appropriately. It is only when we faff about indecisively that we find ourselves lugging suitcases full of clothes which as you say only 80% meet our as yet unarticulated use cases. We often miss the mark and then beat ourselves because we did not take the time to think clearly about what we wanted in the first place. Excellent post. Thank you. Lindaxxx

  11. I never realized this was called “use cases” but it has been how I build my wardrobe for many years. Now I understand why lists and collections of mix and match peices that could maybe work for a given event never made sense. It is backwards!

  12. I was at Sun in the late 90s, I appreciate how well trousers and a cardigan can serve in the go-go patriarchal hyper-competitive world of technology. I thought your inclusion of cultural context was critical: same use case from one country to another or even one company to another can require completely different wardrobes. For example (I know you love them) at a predominantly male company like Sun, flat shoes, conservative clothes, and classic sensibilities make sure you blend in, whereas in a predominantly female company, such as the technology-focused PR firm that shall remain nameless where I ended up a few years later, fabulous high-heeled shoes, fashion-forward clothes, and a too-generous display of cleavage was de rigeur. It’s all about context. So glad you pointed it out.

  13. This was an excellent post. I hope you do more of these, perhaps drawing from different professions and different age groups. Thanks so much. I was having a wardrobe panic attack over the weekend and now I’m feeling less overwhelmed.

  14. I am going to have to get some marketing tips from you! I loved how you applied your outfits to the audiences, locations, and circumstances. They are all so classic and crisp…yet perfectly applied to each task you wore them to. Loved this post!

  15. I love this way of thinking about work wardrobing.

    I also love business formal dress, and I have a collection of suiting separates that I keep handy for Important Meetings.

    Unfortunately, it seems every place has gone business casual, and if I wear a full skirt suit, I am overdressed. So the blazers sit in my closet unworn and the lower halves get worn with my usual office blouses and tees and pretty cardigans.

    I am bored with business casual.

    Maybe I need to find a job that takes me on international trips. :)

    On my last trip to Boise, I was overdressed in my cardigan!

  16. I love your “use cases” approach. It really is much more useful. But I do disagree with Bangkok: without a cardigan it’s way too cold inside airconditioned office buildings. Trust me, I’ve just spent weeks working there. And when you get out on the street, it’s so hot even your legs sweat – so never wear tight pants. And when it rains (and it will), everything you wear gets soaking wet – there is no escape.

    Bangkok is tricky.

  17. What a wonderfully simple concept. I love this idea of approaching wardrobe building. It’s great to keep from being overwhelmed at the thought of starting from scratch. Great post!

  18. You can’t go wrong with cookies and cardigans.

    This approach is great. My wardrobe manages to be all right, but this may explain why I own the wrong shoes for every occasion. :) My affinity for tango and oxford inflected heels does not match well with my use cases, all of which seem to involve being on my feet for hours with a bunch of my fellow geeks (presenting research, hiking around campus, going to networking cocktail hours…) On the other hand, I don’t want to resort to wearing boring clogs all the time. As a wise person once told me, “you should always wear interesting shoes when working with geeks, it may be the only part of your outfit they ever look at.”

  19. I love the idea to use different cases as a jumping off point when building your wardrobe! I just hate style books that dictate the “core pieces” for every wardrobe. Those pieces don’t work for every wardrobe, and certainly leave holes. Not to mention not everyone looks great in certain “core” pieces. I love how you can apply business strategy to wardrobe choices! :)

  20. Food to bribe engineers.

    Sadly underemphasized (not emphasized at all, actually) in business school is the proper role of food and specifically chocolate in achieving those results for which one is frequently held accountable but rarely given the authority to demand.

  21. Really loved this post….I’d never heard that ‘80% Rule’ but it makes perfect sense! So many of us stand at our closets wailing “All this stuff, and I’ve got nothing to wear!”
    Best wishes to your daughter, and with style advice from a mom like you, she won’t go wrong!

  22. The thing about Asian countires is that they are BOILING and humid outside but Arctic with cold air con inside! So I say embrace the cardy! or pashmina!
    Happy Easter Skye Peale x

  23. I love this post! But my biggest problem with building a wardrobe isn’t choosing the right pieces but thinking about frequency and rotation. Say I have a meeting with an investor so I wear my impact jacket. Then I have an update meeting with that investor every quarter – should I wear the same jacket? Or the suit and then keep alternating between jacket and suit? Or can I dress down for future meetings and wear a cardigan? Because these meetings are infrequent, I worry that impact pieces will be very memorable and hence not repeatable. Any advice, please?

    1. Yes, I had exactly the same thought. I pop into the office that manages me about once a fortnight and they’re all women so I think it’s a bit obvious that I’ve only got about three smart outfits. Last time I was there for two days in a row, I wore the same dark purple skirt twice ‘cos it was my nicest piece. But I can’t afford to buy (or store) heaps of different clothes.

      I think part of it is a really good look at what I have and how I can jazz up some of it and/or use it in different contexts. I think I’ve got too much black and white, to start with…

  24. This is a great post.

    I just had a meeting with the people I will be working with at my new office (I start next week – eek), and it appears most of them are dressed in a similar style to which I am used to. (Thank goodness – I don’t need to shop too much.)

  25. I’m so glad to have a name to apply to the way I have gone about creating my wardrobe. Now I also finally understand why I never had something like a navy blazer, when it seemed like something that should have been part of a classic working wardrobe.

    As for Cginnyc, you need to have more than one impact jacket if it’s truly memorable. But in my experience most people will not remember what you wear, so if you don’t wear the same thing every time and change it up a little when you repeat, you’ll be okay.

  26. lisa, what a wonderful post! a much more sensible approach to wardrobe building. this advice would have served me well when i left my last job, which required suits everyday, and downshifted to a job that required the occasional suit and casual business attire. a week into my new found freedom, it was clear that i had formal business well-covered and jeans/going out clothing well-covered but nothing in between.

    suits, suits everywhere and not a stitch to wear.

    as i continue to revise and refine my closet, i’ll be bearing your sage words in mind. thank you!

  27. Marsha – If you’ve got expensive clothes in good condition to get rid of, aren’t you tempted to go to eBay? Or have a blog sale? I’m too old and timid, but I see it done all the time. And UAT is a great way to go. I know that if a younger woman and I worked together, and she said to me, “Do you mind if I ask you about my outfit?” I’d like it. As long as she was doing good work, of course, it’d be a bonding moment.

    quintessence – Your use cases were all about fashion!

    TPP – Thank you. Linen would be perfect for places like Bangkok. The problem with cardigans is tight arms, when one has to remove them and put them back on all the time:).

    Mise – Your percentages are the new guidelines.

    Julia – I’m not surprised. Especially working with technical people.

  28. Lori – Thank you. My career life does sound interesting from a distance:). At the time, it just seemed normal. The tech bubble of the early 2000s was kind of crazy.

    hostess – I have liked Petit Bateau – they are thick enough to provide coverage. People have told me they are best on the broad-shouldered and modest of chest, like me. Just to be clear, Mouse, although a brilliant young woman, isn’t my daughter:).

    Maggie da Geek – Welcome! I was not so great at copy writing, but as a product manager, well, yes. That was my shining moment:).

    Marianne – Thank you. I think that when I write about work the testosterone rises up and renders me more pithy than usual:). Oh, and as I’ve said, Mouse is a friend:).

    Miss Sophie – In short, I think you should dress as well as you can at the price point your job level supports. If you do your job well, a good boss will appreciate your wardrobe skills too. If you have a bad boss, dress to attract a good one:).

    1. thanks for the sound advice! makes sense to me…but the tricky issue is regarding handbags. is it appropriate to carry an expensive handbag (albeit one that is affordable at my job level) if my boss doesn’t carry one (or carries a lesser version…)?

      1. If your boss doesn’t do the fancy bag thing, I surmise that what she would hate is a logoed bag, or one that is overtly “designer.” But, for example, Bottega Veneta, or the PS1 wouldn’t bother her, as it’s unlikely she will recognize their provenance. I would avoid Chanel, LV, or the Dior bags.

  29. Susan – Thank you very much.

    Danielle – Yes. It was a routine meeting. But stressful nonetheless. I had to sit on a stool in the middle of the room, the execs in a semi-circle around me.

    Linda – Ah. We share something very important. Large computer systems, built onto a legacy, can be seriously frustrating. I was fortunate in that much of my work involved new products. And in that scenario, use cases are pure joy to create.

    DocP – :). And of course you did it this way already. Diagnosing from data.

    KBG in DC – I feel we should fist bump:). It is all about context, and prioritizing. My priorities at work were job performance first, personal aesthetics second. That said, I would have been in trouble at the PR firm, as one cannot display what one does not have.

  30. SSG – It was as much my audacity in overt bribery as it was the cookies:).

    Katherine – Thank you. I will have to call upon others to help for other professions. I’ll see who I can muster.

    Kalyn – I love nothing more than to give advice:). Thank you. The classic and crisp bit is my personal aesthetic, so it was nice to be able to have it show through.

    ms. Givens – Thank you! Thank heavens for logic:).

    jj – I agree. Love its shape.

  31. rb – Thank you. I find I use my statement jackets with jeans now. And I agree, I think it’s only lawyers who now wear skirted suits. And maybe only lawyers in the South.

    Anna – Yes, I thought of going into detail about Bangkok and air conditioning. I prefer to wear a jacket in heat like that because I find them easier to take on and off than cardigans. Cardigan sleeves always cling so. But more importantly, did you eat well? I thought the food in Bangkok was the best ever.

    Danielle – Oh, that’s a story indeed. I will try to muster up the memories.

    Laura – Thank you. Overwhelm is best kept at bay, I find:).

    Aleatha – HA! Yes, that’s true. Also they will comment on your shoes. I was once asked why I wore witch shoes. The toes, apparently, were too pointy.

  32. Princess Freckles – Thank you. Finally, the MBA has a useful application.

    The gold digger – Exactly. It wasn’t as though they had to do anything I told them. BTW, I love your husband.

    SouthernWASP – I will say, applying this approach, I never wailed in front of my closet. I could get dressed in a flash. Thank you for your kind words.

    FF – I hate air conditioning with all my heart. Here in California we don’t even have to have it in our houses. Best thing ever.

    Cginnyc – In your situation, I’d say you need a couple of impact jackets to rotate with a suit. People don’t remember everything you wear. But if it’s always the same, eventually they notice. To cardigan or not to cardigan depends on the people and place of your meeting. You have to make the call in context. Another option is the cardigan with an impact blouse. That can substitute in a lot of scenarios.

  33. Buckeroomama – Amazingly useful, no?

    irisira – Thank you. Congratulations on the new job. I hope the culture is as good a fit as the dress code seems to be:).

    MJ – Exactly!

    Danielle – Always happy to do so, but giveaway what, in this case?:)

    girltuesday – Thank you very much. Your situation is much like mine entering retirement. One must reconsider:).

    1. Ha ha, I was trying to reply to Marsha, and her wardrobe conundrum (I saw that she has a blog)!

      But if you wanted inspiration for a future giveaway, hmm, maybe something related to Bangkok, and your travels there?

  34. I can’t believe you survived Bangkok in that Chanel jacket! I would have melted.

    I was debating wearing a jacket to an interview today. It was of a well-known guy speaking at a university, so I wasn’t so sure about the formality. But Hong Kong’s heat and humidity — even in late April – are already so bad that I went with a cream-colored Brooks Brother cotton cardigan instead. I was already sweaty from running an errand that morning, even in just a blouse.

    It turned out fine. The guy himself was just in a white dress shirt. I think HK is less formal than Japan (where black suits seem to be required) but more formal than Singapore (where short-sleeved dress shirts seem OK for both men and women). I’ve never done work in Bangkok, though.

    I wear cardigans all the time here. Jackets are just desperately hot in the summer. Plus, as Faux Fuchsia points out, people blast the air con in these parts to the point that everyone is uncomfortably cold inside, so I need something light that I can easily take on or off all the time.

    God knows why they blast the air con so much. It’s such a waste of electricity.

    1. I just find I can take jackets off more easily than cardigans. The air con drives me berzerk. In California we almost never need it, so I’m spoiled.

  35. So helpful. I always find myself at a loss. Casual office. Male-dominated profession. Younger than most yet in a position of authority. My clients range from get-your-hands-dirty working men to older public servants to corporate big wigs who would rather schmooze over whisky and golf. It’s challenging to find myself prepared or appropriate, but this “use case” approach may really help. Thank you. I’m in the process of rebuilding my wardrobe (expensive, conceptually challenging) but this is an excellent way to start thinking about things.

  36. Somehow I missed this post when you first put it up, but it is one of your most helpful ones ever! After quite a few years of trying to follow those “classic pieces that everyone needs” lists, I’ve found that I repeat the same 3 work outfits way too much: now I see it is probably because they are the only ones that 100% fulfill the needs for particular work situations, and those things I’ve bought from the lists languish in my closet because they don’t fit the bill. If you ever want to branch out and talk about academic work environments that would be fantastic! Believe me, between the crunchy granola wear and the “dressing to fit in with male intellectuals/geeks” phenomenon, it’s a minefield out here!

  37. Interesting thoughts about Bangkok. My brother lives there, and he would only caution women not to wear anything too tight or revealing. Revealing would mean arms and shoulders or skirts above the knee. A t-shirt would be too revealing if the jacket was removed.

    Black is also controversial; things have changed somewhat but many Thais consider it funereal.

    I love the idea about cookies!

  38. Love this post! Didn’t see it first time ’round as I’m a new follower. What a great idea. Sending to daughter in markeing immediately, along with bag of cookies.

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