When I look at a rich woman, I see the miracles that money can work on someone's appearance. I see the luxury of being able to set aside time just to relax. I see a lifetime of acquired knowledge, lessons gleaned from saleswomen and stylists in the course of pursuing a life that contains that sort of person. I see the pressure that the stylish ones must feel to be beautiful, to be perfect, to only ever be messy in an ethereal way. I see women who think that they are casual and unadorned and I think that they do not know how much they still look as though they are chasing beauty because a lifetime of eating vegetables, even a month of eating vegetables, does wonders for one's skin. I see rich women and I see elegance and low blood pressure readings. I see healthy hair from years of good nutrition. I see all the little subtle things that scream "I have not recently survived on coffee and toast for a solid week."
People recommend things to poorer women trying to break into the professional world, like buying on clearance or finding a charity to get a suit. These people, while well-meaning, seem to miss the point. You see, it does not matter what I wear. If you took a woman who looked similar to me but came from a background with money in it, and you sent us to the same stylist for the same look, people would still be able to tell which of us was which. Because I would need thicker makeup to cover my pores and blotchy skin than someone who hydrates properly, rests well, and doesn’t get their steam facials from cleaning the fryers. (Believe me when I tell you that a daily regimen of a face full of steam laced with vegetable oil isn’t the best idea as far as skincare goes.) I would stand differently, because my muscles are constantly knotted and my shoulders slump from exhaustion. I would not display confident self-assurance and a sense of entitlement to the space around me. I would forever be adjusting this or that, but I wouldn’t have the smooth fluidity of unconscious motion that you get after a lifetime of repetition. My hair, while beautifully done, would have a chemical rather than a natural shine to it. I would be obviously self-aware, in the way that you are when you are out of your comfort zone. I would still smell of cheap soap. In short, I would send all of the unconscious signals in the universe that this was not where I belonged.
It is a rare person who doesn’t look respectable when they have showered and dressed in a clean suit and groomed themselves. But I know that I still do not make a good subconscious first impression amongst the successful, because I do not radiate success. I radiate noble poverty wearing my one good suit, which is nonetheless shabby compared to the suits I see around me. When I am amongst wealthy people in a professional setting, I feel like a character from a Victorian novel who lives in a boarding house and is posing as a recently orphaned merchant’s daughter and must worry about being discovered as a farmer’s daughter, thus being ruined socially just before she schemes her way into a position as a governess. I can wear the trappings and uniform of success and not embarrass myself, but that is different than being at ease. It’s different than being confident. It is distracting, and it stops me from doing my best work, because part of my brain is taken up with worry about whether I have just committed a faux pas or whether the condescension I see in the room is a figment of my imagination. I never know whether people are questioning the validity of my opinions on their own merit, or whether it is my merit that is suspect.
I know that it is unlikely that at any given moment my class is showing and that is working against me. I know that the vast majority of people who are affluent or successful are also decent people who are perfectly aware that talent and drive come from all classes, and value what someone has to offer over what someone simply has. But I know that it is possible at any moment that someone will doubt my judgement because I haven’t shown sufficient good judgement to simply not be so poor, and so I can’t let it go. If I were maybe a little smarter or more hardworking or luckier, perhaps things would be different. If I am intelligent, why haven’t I been able to make a go of it? If I am hardworking, why haven’t I been able to amass anything? If I am properly frugal, then why am I holding a toy? If I am driven, then why don’t I prioritize better? These are the things that we are afraid people are wrestling with when we talk to them. We know that we are not simply paranoid because we read the opinion columns too, and we see these things discussed. Putting a nice suit on doesn’t erase class markers, and it doesn’t make us less aware of them. It can mean the difference between getting a job in an office or not, but it is not magical armor or an effective costume. It’s simply a nice suit, so that we can look respectable.