Minister Annelies Verlinden about work fashion in legal and politics and power dressing
Minister Annelies Verlinden built a career after her Master's degree in Law and European Law as a lawyer by DLA Piper, specialising in administrative, environmental and public law. Annelies moved up to partner in 2011 and in 2014 to co-managing partner of the Belgian office of DLA Piper. In the meantime, She also pursued her political ambitions as Vice-Chairwoman of Young CD&V. From 2003 to 2012, she was a city councillor in Schoten, Antwerp.
On 1 October 2020, Annelies Verlinden became a public figure overnight when she was appointed Minister of the Interior, Institutional Reform and Democratic Renewal in the new federal government.
If you want to convey a very strong message or engage in dialogue, it can be supported by what you wear.
Annelies' definition of Work Fashion
Work fashion will of course be different for everyone. It depends on your personality, function and the industry in which you work. For myself, I find it important to find a balance between what you do and the responsibility you have - in this case I represent a number of people in politics and my role as minister - and on the other hand to wear clothes in which I feel good and which partly support what I want to do. Of course, the analysis and criticism is quickly made that clothing should not play a role at all and that it should not receive any special attention, and I agree. It should not be a distraction. It should first and foremost be about the message you want to get across, the cases you are working on and the impact you want to make. So in that case, appearance or style is secondary. But I do think it is a reality that it is underlined or supported. And from that perspective, it is relevant in what you do and how it comes across.
Moreover, in my family, both my grandmother and my mother have always valued the importance of looking good and dressing for the occasion. I still like the idea that when you have a party, people prepare themselves for it, because it's part of the ritual and part of the event. It is something that I have certainly carried with me into my professional career. I have sometimes thought that it would be a lot more comfortable to go to the office in jeans or trainers or to go to court. but I have never actually done that because in that case, I am representing clients and want to support the message. I have certainly always found it important, but I don't spend too much time and energy on it. However, because I am aware that it should not distract, it is a point of attention. And I certainly think that for women - whether in politics or in any other context - it is even more of a special thing than for men. Men get away with a suit and a shirt by default and more easily. With women, on the other hand, trends, and whether you are with them or not, are a more relevant concept.
When it comes to my own style, I've been wearing suits for a long time. It's something I continue to do now because I find it easy. If you can quickly pull something out of the closet in the morning, it does help in terms of time management, for a day when you really don't have any inspiration, or don't feel like doing anything creative at all.
Work fashion: legal industry vs. politics
Something that has taken over across all sectors is that there is more room for casual. In the old days - and certainly if you look at the old photos of parliament - everyone often came fully dressed in three-piece suits for the men and skirt suits for the women. It was the same with lawyers. In recent years, jeans and trainers under a toga have become more common in court. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that and I have no opinion about it. I did see it evolve and I see it now in politics and in parliament. Very different styles, which is just as well. That, too, probably supports the message of the person in question.
In both industries there is also a representative function. I would think that usually the legal profession is still a special world and that you see less casual there than in parliament, but there is not such a difference.
Since I became a minister, I sometimes get a remark about my clothes or people ask me where I bought them. I don't have a different style all of a sudden. I still make the same considerations as before when choosing my clothes, namely that I have to represent someone, be it a client in court or in a meeting during negotiations. When visiting a place as a minister, I do take into account certain practicalities - for example, visiting a worksite I don't wear heels, the agenda and circumstances.
As a woman in politics
Whether women are judged less on their leadership qualities than men and whether men are judged more on their political statements, women more on what they wear?
With knowledge and experience I can say that female politicians are also judged on their political statements. But of course it is true - if I can speak from my own perspective - that women seem to be addressed or judged more on their attire. Men often make a standard choice with a shirt and suit - and there is a difference in that too - with women, of course, there is more diversity and therefore more to say. Which also brings me to the fact that men who try to be more creative also get noticed more quickly. In that sense, it is not always pleasant for men as well when they try to be creative and then something is said about it. As we have unfortunately also seen in recent weeks and months, sexism is - even in 2021 - still a common phenomenon. Also on social media. It should not be a factor. Everyone makes their own choice and as long as it does not harm the dignity of what you do, that is all fine.
I myself hope to be judged primarily on my work and expertise and not just on how I look and how I dress. I always try to call myself to order - especially when you have a certain style and the other person's style deviates from that and is perceived as something new, unknown and possibly unloved. I do try to be open about it. You have to respect people's individuality and authenticity. As managing partner of the law firm, I did feel that we had to set the benchmark somewhere, precisely because of this representation function. Clients who consult a lawyer are represented and this should not distract them in a bad way and there must be a minimum of charisma.
Otherwise, it is also pleasant when people compliment me on my appearance and certainly when I can give a Belgian brand or shop extra visibility through it. That also contributes to community building. There is a down side, but definitely an up side as well.
Power in itself is a word that has been subject to the spirit of the times. I don't think many people get respect due to their power. This applies to women but also to men. Authentic leadership and authority have certainly become more important than power. I am absolutely in favour of girlpower and women like Hilary Clinton and Michele Obama certainly fit into that list. They give voice to female leadership, to authentic leadership, and from that position they have power. But to me, that is also in the context of supporting your message. Maybe I'm traditional or conservative in that respect, but if you want to deliver a very strong message, or you need to engage in dialogue, that can be supported by what you wear and it will make a difference whether you do that in a suit or in shorts or a t-shirt. Even though I think that should be possible, I'm never going to make a judgment on people who would do that, but for myself I would feel that it makes a difference, and I would feel a lot insecure if I didn't support the message in that way.