Catalogue of Sorts

What I wear, when I wear it, and how it works on my bike

Wednesday, Volunteering with PPILAct

Event Banner

Event Banner

I had some trouble choosing what to wear tonight to volunteer at PPILAct’s 40th Anniversary of Roe event. (Of course, as noted elsewhere on the internet, we don’t live in a Roe world, we live in a Casey world).

The instructions are “business or cocktail attire”. To my mind, these are not the same thing and certainly, what would be perfectly appropriate in the latter setting would not be in the former. Of course, as a volunteer, I should err on the conservative side, but I suspect that one of my cocktail suits would be every bit as over-the-top as something very slinky. Because my role is event support (and because the list of things a volunteer must not do at an event where there will be an organized protest), both the cocktail suit (with its connotations of either power or privilege) and the slinky cocktail dress (with its connotations of sex or frivolity) are the wrong image to project.

I’ve been pawing through my closet since Sunday, trying to decided what to wear and eventually decided on the basic Tika merino dress in red with some “statement jewelry”. It’s lowkey, but festive, and certainly comfortable and warm for 2 degree weather. I rejected a St John cocktail dress as too showy; an H&M metallic sweater dress as too casual; a black cocktail dress as too sexy; a leather accent cocktail dress as too unflattering; a fuchsia cocktail dress as out-of-season; a BCBG wrap dress as too business-y. I think my choice is completely comfort over impact, but I’m okay with that tonight.

Edited to add: I changed my mind. I pulled out a huge stack of clothes and tried on about five different outfits before choosing a black long sleeved bodysuit (from Calvin Klein in the 90’s), my mother’s glam sliver metallic cardigan (from a department store in London at the beginning of the 70’s) and a black wool skirt with pleating details. Some women arrived in very showy cocktail dresses and a few younger women arrived in party dresses, but most of us were in some measure of “I was at the office half-an-hour ago, but I changed my shoes/jacket/jewelry”. I think my outfit suited that vibe well.

Clothes have physical function (warmth, protection from rough surfaces, protection for delicate body parts) and social function. The overlap, honestly, is minimal, despite arguments that a topless woman at the beach is somehow wearing clothes less physically appropriate to the occasion than a topless man at the beach.  So one has to look upon clothing first as physically appropriate to the circumstance (i.e., no sandals in the snow; no turtlenecks at the 4th of July Barbecue) and then socially appropriate to the occasion (no dress that upstages the bride at a wedding, no holey jeans in court).

But the social rules get terribly subtle. When I’m at a fundraising cocktail reception at a multi-millionaire’s home, do I dress in a way that acknowledges how low my nonprofit salary is, which carries the risk of conveying that I don’t belong in the surroundings and carries the risk of failing to make a connection with the people I’m appealing to or do I try to signal that I’m one of “you”, despite the economic disparity between donor and donation-recipient?

When I’m at a fundraising event as a volunteer, in a party room at a bar, how do my clothes impact the guests’ impression of the event? Of the organization? Of me, if I attempt to make either a personal or professional connection with someone I meet there?

It’s bound up not only in how I actually look in terms of fit and flatter, not only in where my clothes fall on the continuum of sexiness or the continuum of formality, but also in the conclusions people draw about my decision-making capabilities in choosing these clothes, the assumptions people make about my personality in choosing these clothes, and the inferences my clothes project about my income, my priorities, and the effort I put into being here tonight.

It’s enough to make you want to stay home.

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This entry was posted on January 23, 2013 by in Volunteering and tagged .

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