What Diplomats Wore

The annual, global diplomacy-fest that is the United Nations General Assembly is in full swing in New York. On my first morning, as I was waiting in the main entry hall, I couldn’t help but notice with fascination the outfits people were sporting as they made their way to the assembly.

I realised there and then that I must present evidence that first of all, women are numerous at these meetings, and second, the stuffy old diplomat dress code (similar dark suits for both men and women) has largely been replaced by fantastic, bold and feminine choices.

As I am principally supposed to be working during my work trips instead of checking out people’s outfits (shocking, I know), the quality of some of the pictures is not as good as the subjects would merit, as I was snapping away in a hurry. Also I did not capture nearly all of the super intriguing choices, as photographing was not appropriate everywhere. However, herewith a small selection of what diplomats wore, the 2019 edition.

  1. Dresses

A dress was the choice du jour, a favourite all the way up to the highest political level. Among the Head of State -level dress-wearers I spotted at least the Presidents of Estonia and Slovakia.

This is an important signal to women in all stages of their career: a dress is a serious and appropriate workwear alternative. There’s hardly ever a compelling reason to wear a black trouser-suit to work, unless you work as a pallbearer.

First exhibit: The Austrian Federal Chancellor (the Head of Government).

Second: The Foreign Minister of Norway (colour-matching with her adviser)

Please also note the matching of tones for dress, shoes and handbag:

A classic with polka-dots:

The perennial workwear-classic: the wrap-dress!

2. Shoes you can actually walk in

Forget about any Sex and the City –related Manolo-fantasies of running around Manhattan in vertiginous heels. We are adults here.

My personal conference-day walking record is 14km. That is a very long way to walk in any shoes. Heels can be fabulous, but I would still advise to carry flats in your handbag. This is annoying, because it adds to the amount of stuff that needs to be schlepped around. But your feet will swell, making afternoons pure agony. Slipping into ballerinas or trainers will be a blessing by the time it’s 5pm.

Also, trainers have officially become appropriate footwear to high-level gatherings.

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3. Pattern

Mix, match and be bold.

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4. Uniforms

A woman’s workwear can also be a uniform. Herewith two different examples:

An official uniform:

A fashion uniform, in this case head to toe Gucci:

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Here you are. Quite a family-photo they would make together, the women above.

How to: When Everybody Leaves Town

As is characteristic to Brussels and the expat community the world over, people change jobs and consequently their country of residence in the summer because of school holidays and also it’s more fun in sweltering heat. Thus, ’tis the season of goodbyes and people trying to get rid of their house-plants and unwanted kitchen knick-knacks by smuggling them to office in the name of “circular economy”.

Continue reading “How to: When Everybody Leaves Town”

(Man)splanatory Notes

I needed a full week to reflect some of the events and discussions that took place during the week that culminated in Women’s Day. Suffice to say, everyday is not women’s day, so I hope you enjoyed the 24 hours. Did anyone else make a guilt-ridden exit from the office on Friday 8th with a rose in hand, self-flagellating because “again I had failed in explaining the concept of women, despite an international theme day dedicated exactly for this? The one day I’m given 5 minutes of uninterrupted time to explain why us women need to exist, and I fail to deliver?”

The good thing is that there is never a shortage of men doing this for us. 

Man, at an event focused on getting more women to speak in panels: 

“I’ve tried so hard to get women to speak at panels! Maybe there is indeed something that you women also need to assess. In terms of your availability, I mean.”

Man, interrupting a female panel moderator who was wrapping the session:

“I would still like to add something…”

Moderator: “We have to finish here, thank you all for…”

Man, grabs mic: “So I wanted to add that it is also important that women take their space in the panels.”

Man, at a seminar, requesting the floor, referring to a senior woman expert who had just put forward a question:

“What my colleague here wanted to say, was that…”

Man, (proactively) assessing my performance at an event on Women’s Day:

(In a mock-female voice) “Oh I’m just here reading out my pre-prepared speech! That’s what you usually do, I mean, being a multilingual parrot. But hey, some of these arguments you gave during the chat, I mean, that was not pre-prepared! I’m not into this feminism and all, but I think you did good!”

In all fairness, it is not just men requiring us to explain ourselves and coming up with constant advise on how to be. Many women have been more than happy to chip in. Lean in! Lean out! Do this, do that! Be more like a man, play by their rules! Accept the game! Be a good guy! Embrace your femininity! Embrace your hidden masculinity! Network with other women! Network with men! Don’t network! Be a laugh! Don’t be a laugh!  Pick a tribe: be a Girlboss! Bosslady! Powerwoman! 

The focus is constantly on how women should be, in order to be right.

I thought about this a lot, especially because I heard the following arguments during so many discussions last week:

– It is our (us = women) responsibility to explain gender equality to men. We cannot expect our cause to be taken seriously unless we make ourselves understood to men. (Non-threatening) dialogue is important.

– Power structures (financial, political) will change on their own (as they so often do), and there’s no point in demanding a change through quotas, for example. Demanding is such an ugly word! We should aim for dialogue instead. Also, quota is such a charged term. No woman wants to be the quota woman. Quotas are discriminative per definition, and we want no part in that.

Eventually every discussion focused on how us women should be, and what should become of us. As if the equality of opportunity is taking its sweet time to assess whether we qualify, before letting us grab any of those high-hanging fruits. 

I was wondering whether we might be in danger of over-analysing ourselves to the point of losing the focus. More metaphorically, has the journey (of self-discovery) become more important than the destination (reaching gender parity)? 

In the future there will be more women in power, I’m sure of that. Being a sexist asshole will become as rare a thought as contemplating driving one’s kids around in a car without children’s seat and/or seatbelt on. Before that happens organically on its own (don’t start holding your breath just yet), it is a pity if the only legitimate public platform to make noise about this issue is once a year: on or around the 8th March. 

It is also a pity so many women feel that they do not have the right to demand. This is not the women’s fault, though. It is a huge, historical ship to turn: for the first 19 centuries it was a seamless, universal 100% men, 0% women quota for economic, societal and political participation. That gave men a rather comfortable lead to put together structures that reflected the constitutional quota of 100% men, 0% women. 

It is hallucination to think that this is something that will be rectified overnight.

So is thinking that women were given any rights without those before us demanding them.

It’s not all bad, though. The entertainment industry has taken great strides during my lifetime already. I recently happened upon some of the earlier seasons of Married With Children and The Nanny. The only explanation I can come up with for wasting air-time on re-running such  horrendous, sexist, misogynist, stereotyping, women-shaming, racist shit is to remind the Belgian audience of how far we’ve come already.

Case Study: Cotton Poplin Dresses

Twas a tough year, January, but what seemed impossible, did finally happen, and we’re now firmly into February. February is good. It marks the lunar New Year and the Chinese New Year. I do not have strong feelings for either, but January always is bit of a test case, so I’ve taken to start my actual New Year in February.

As we embark on a new year, some with Marie Kondo, some with dry January and me, with hibernating for one more month before February, one starts craving for freshness. Satin-y conference pyjamas in rich jewel-tones no longer seem right for the season. Enter cotton poplin dresses.

Dresses in general are brilliant workwear. No hassle with buying coordinated tops and bottoms. No stress in finding the said items in the rush of the morning. A guaranteed pulled-together look. Sceptics say that one needs to have lots of dresses in circulation as opposed to having a couple of tops and bottoms to mix and match. Yes and no. I have observed male colleagues’ packing habits for work trips. They often make do with just one suit, with a daily change of shirt, for trips as long as five days. It is nonsense to think that women should change their entire garment daily.

Cotton poplin dresses are very easy,  the only downside being that they tend to crease more than silk jersey and wool. Generally this is not the end of the world, though. The stripy dress below looks OK even when it’s not freshly ironed (also because it features drawstrings at the waist). I wear this dress a lot, and while it is not necessarily the most flattering shape ever, it has everything a proper dress needs to have:

marimekkopariisi

Photo: Heli Sorjonen

1. Length

I have a selection of Diane von Furstenberg wraps that hit the knee in my closet  – the length du jour in the early 2010s. It inevitably looks too short and dated now. I’m keeping the dresses because what goes around will surely come around, but the above mid-calf length is something I’ve come to really like. It’s flattering, and I can wear the dress both with and without tights. 

2. Pattern

The pattern and colours are very subtle and classic, but I hesitated for a long time before going for something so white. The good thing is that the dress is easy to combine with almost everything. While the pattern might be a bit meh, it also comes across quite timeless. 

3. Shirt collar and proper cuffs

These both make the dress look dressy and office appropriate, but also add to the versatility. I rarely wear the sleeves down, office or not. Buttoned cuffs are important. It is maddening to see how often proper cuffs are replaced by simple seams in women’s shirt dresses. 

4. Pockets

Don’t buy clothes that do not have pockets. Pocketless clothes are an anti-women conspiracy. Trousers, jackets, dresses and skirts must have pockets, otherwise they are totally pointless. Where else are we supposed to keep our hands? Our mobile phones, tissues, lip balms and coins? If there are no pockets, where are we to put the stones, if we were to walk into a river à la Virginia Woolf

5. Material 

Cotton poplin is a very carefree material. Washes easy, irons easy (though must be ironed) and has a nice 50s vibe to it. The white colour of this dress means that especially the collar gets easily smudged with makeup. This can be taken care of as a separate exercise without having to wash the whole dress every other day – I use natural stain removers and hand-wash/rinse only the collar-area regularly (you will want to do this quite regularly, because makeup is literally oil and it can leave permanent stains when left unattended). 

The green/white striped dress in the cover picture (and the zoom below) is also cotton poplin and by the same brand Marimekko

Where I Store My Stuff

Remember the bit in the Sex And the City in which Carrie told Miranda that she stores knitwear in her oven? And how that was supposed to be hilariously outlandish?

Dear reader, herewith a rare view of my fridge:

storing-cosmetics

Those with excellent eyesight might spot an actual item of foodstuff there. Yes, that’s Angostura on the far left. 

This might seem excessive and bizarre, even. It very possibly is. However, as much as I enjoy trying on new products and usually do not hesitate spending big monies on them, I cannot stand waste and things going rancid ahead of time. This includes perfumes that start turning. 

Therefore masks and perfumes that I do not use regularly are kept in the fridge. I also find eye-masks and under-eye patches to have much more firepower when they are cold when applied. 

I do not hoard. I likely have amassed a collection of skincare that exceeds what’s considered the bare minimumfor any individual, but I still don’t like stuff piling up uncontrollably. To avoid this from happening, especially as regards makeup, transparency is the operational word (it’s also a great principle for running states, international organisations and media operations). I store things in transparent containers so that I can see what I have. Unfortunately even this has not prevented me from purchasing several vaguely lavender eyeshadows in the last 6 months. 

I get most of my containers at Muji. They do good quality boxes and travel packages, which brings me to the next sub-topic: if you travel regularly, be prepared at all times. I have written extensively about work traveland its various perils. Unless you have a glam-squad or a herd of ladies in waiting, you likely have a job, a life and do your own packing. You want to focus on your meetings, presentations and after dinner G&T’s, not panicking whether people will notice the absence of your deodorant because you forgot to pack it in the mad rush before scooting to the airport to catch the red-eye. 

Just because you’re travelling for work does not mean you suddenly must start relying on toiletries the hotel might (or might not) provide. If you want to do that, knock yourself out. My experience of work travel is that it ain’t no picnic, though, and any stress that can be minimised in advance, must be done. I suggest you pack all you need. I’m willing to make an exception with shower-gel, though (hotel shower-gel is perfectly passable).

You will likely only be able to take carry-on, so take this into account. Get a bunch of containers for shampoo and conditioner, body cream, lotions, moisturisers, facial sprays, masks, scrubs, everything. Buy little pill-boxes for vitamins and meds. There’s no time, ever, in this universe for you to amass all the required bottles the night before your trip. Have them ready.

This is not being crazy. This is ensuring your face does not suddenly flare up, or hair do something inexplicable. These are not the biggest worries in this world, I do recognise that. However they can easily take the edge off your work performance. We’ve all been there – a ladder in tights. Emergency tampons ​nowhere to be had. Stressful interview or presentation, and no powder within the blast radius to blot away a shiny forehead. Life happens also when we are traveling for work. 

storage3

As you can see, I also keep my makeup in a see-through bag. The one above is airtravel-approved, and frankly also makes life easier when items need to be fished out in sub-optimally lit circumstances, such as from handbags. 

I keep skincare samples that come in decent sizes (such as the Diptyque-samples on the right). They can be used for overnight deals or office (although in all honesty, I’ve never had any use for them at the office). You are not alone if you’ve ever found yourself crying frustrated tears in a hotel bathroom, trying to jinx open a tiny, slippery shampoo sample-bag – I don’t even know what material they use for this purpose other than it’s evil. EVIL. Avoid. You are worthy of a cosmetics product that comes in a container that does not require you to attack it with your teeth.

Some sample body washes and facial cleansers are ideal for cleansing makeup brushes (I’m yet to buy a designated, special cleanser for this purpose. Also I almost never wash them, which is disgusting.)

So here we are. This is where I store some of my stuff. At regular intervals I also keep food in my fridge, so no need to worry.