Along with contracting gastro and dripping bin juice onto exposed flesh, I dread being particularly under or overdressed. I can endure a few hours being cold, or the odd sweat patch – but a part of me dies when I realise I got the dress code wrong.
I know I’m not alone here, as I’ve been to black tie weddings and pitied the poor bloke who missed the memo and thought he’d road-test a camel suit, or velvet jacket and jeans (there’s always one). And the transgressions live on for years on Facebook, Insta, and Whatsapp group chats.
The potential for this type of ridicule gives me hives. And I’ve found myself in similar circumstances recently, so the humiliation is fresh and raw.
My faux pas transpired last month when I was at the local park with my children. We’ve recently moved from a hipster neighbourhood in the inner north to a leafy, picket-fenced suburb in the south-east and I failed to properly register the customs of our new locale.
In my old hood, parents would roll out of their homes to congregate around swing sets wearing whatever the day had in store. Occasionally there would be someone in Ugg boots and PJ pants, or chambray shirt with evidence of leaky boob (c’est la vie!). Nevertheless, we’d wearily stand around saluting each other for the five or six collective hours of sleep between us. It was very much a culture of “you do you, baby”, and as long as you accessorised with a keep cup rather than the environmentally execrable cardboard variety, you were good.
Nine kilometres south of the river, though, the playground dress code is very different. I debuted with the kids wearing my regular weekend uniform of black track pants (Bassike), cream fluffy windcheater (toasty one from Assembly Label), black Asics cross-trainers (the running kind) and a top-knot (moderately greasy). When I’m not at work, I love nothing more than to luxuriate in the kind of drawstring pants and sloppy joe jumpers that are so amenable to keeping up with a couple of high-octane ankle-biters. And admittedly, given that the Bassike tracksuit pants cost $300, I’d convinced myself they were dressy.
Back to the park – as I shepherded my youngest over the wooden swing bridge I casually surveyed the tanbark enclosure. Firstly, I was the only mother actually “on” the play equipment. And second, I was surrounded by a necklace of yummy mummies with bouncy blow waves and belted Moncler jackets. Neat pencil jeans and Isabel Marant ankle boots. Make-up. Jewellery. Very clean prams. Pale-pink manicures. Tidy eyebrows.
You get the picture. That Karl Lagerfeld quote rang in my brain, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants.” I’m meant to be a sometimes-fashion columnist for Chrissakes. Instead I felt very much like a stray dog in a stadium full of pearly-white, coiffed show poodles.
Yet the converse – being overdressed – is just as bad.
I remember presenting to a job interview in my early career, wearing an expensive dark navy Hugo Boss pantsuit and patent-black court shoes. Channeling Gail Kelly at the Businesswoman of the Year Awards, I would have been about 19, and the role was an entry-level position where my main duties would include running errands and tidying the stock cupboard in a fairly casual office. The interviewers wore black jeans and Converse trainers, so needless to say my Gordon Gekko threads were a little ambitious. I didn’t get the role.
And let’s not discount the associated crime: trying too hard. So often we’re going for an “effortlessly chic” look, but when the truth comes out that you’ve actually spent half a week’s pay and umpteen hours striving look like Gisele’s less attractive cousin, there's definitely some shame attached.
Again, I speak from personal experience. Around the same time in my life as the power-suit fail, I was grappling with an addiction to spray tans. This was back when the formulations were particularly tangerine, and there weren’t any quick-dry options: you had to marinate in the pumpkin paste for around eight hours before showering.
It was a boiling hot Saturday in December, and I’d been comprehensively basted at the local Tan Temple before driving a couple hours to a family Christmas lunch in the country. It’s never good when relatives all greet you with a “Whoa! You been in the Bahamas?” and the situation worsened when our alfresco meal was interrupted by a sudden and torrential downpour. Before I could reach shelter, the deluge reacted with the tan, and rivulets of brown liquid cascaded down my limbs and face. My country cousins looked on in horror as my complexion morphed from Ibiza to Ireland, and I was herded to an outdoor shower and loaned an old T-shirt for the remainder of the day.
The moral of the story is just common sense: always check the weather, and be yourself. And if you do happen to make a shocking judgment call, then learn from it and have a giggle about it later. Stay tuned for next month’s column where I'll be unpacking what dress codes all really mean – from “white tie” to “lounge suit” – avoiding misnomers at all costs, as we head into the festive months.
Michaela Davis has worked for global brands including Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy for over 10 years, and is the founder of Recommendle. She's also mum to a couple of high-octane ankle biters.