The Commuter Curse

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One of the greatest things about my new job is taking public transportation. I know you must think I am crazy to say that, but I love the People Watching (a sport that deserve to be capitalized), and I love the interaction. For years I have lived in my car, alone on my rush hour commute and then alone in my office or cubicle for the majority of the day. Often I would spend a day never speaking to a soul outside of a hello when passing a coworker in the hallway. Now I get to read, listen to music, and be surrounded by my fellow humans. It's pretty great… until I am assaulted by the hideous fashion of the Woman Commuter.

I too am a female commuter, and I understand why so many fellow women end up getting the Commuter Curse. It is so easy, so comfortable, and you think no one will notice.

Well ladies, though we may pretend that the sweaty mouth-breather may not be pressed up against us on the subway, we are not invisible. Think about your next commuter – try as you may to hide behind your New York Times Bestseller and iPod, you are aware of those around you. If you are aware of them, they are aware of you.

The Commuter Curse is when women (I hardly ever see a man succumb to this curse) begin to let certain elements of style slide. They feel that no one will notice, or justify it based upon cost or comfort. As someone who walks about a mile each day from her car in the commuter lot, through the Washington DC subway system to her place of employment, I too look for that which makes that trek the most comfortable and easy. The thing is, you are able to be a comfortable and organized commuter and not get The Commuter Curse.

Some steps to be cured of The Commuter Curse:

vests1. Don't ever think swag is appropriate fashion. This means fleeces embroidered with your company logo, or microfiber messenger bags with silkscreened designs. It seems the higher up the corporate ladder (or the longer you work for a government agency) the more conferences and workshops you attend. With every workshop there seems to be at least one item with a logo on it: a travel mug, a tote bag, a polo shirt. These are great things to wear and use for your company retreat, to wear for your next conference or even to carry your groceries in, but they are not appropriate fashion.

2. If you must have commuter shoes, treat them with respect. I am starting to have knee problems, and realize it is due to me walking down so many stairs in subway stations while wearing heels. My commute home has me walk down five separate escalators, most that are out of service. I am looking into a pair of flat shoes I can tuck in my bag and put on just for my trip home.

This doesn't mean I will be strutting around the Nation's Capital in white Reebok Classics with black hose. Modern technology has given us many styles of footwear that are just as comfortable and supportive as a pair of tennies but look far more stylish. Every day I see women in gorgeous coats over stylish suits and outfits and then clunky sneakers ruining the whole look.

Nor will I be wearing a pair of old, scuffed and run-down flats that have been in my closet for a decade. These types of shoes are even more prevalent than the foot marshmallows. Yes, they have been molded to fit your foot perfectly after all these years, but they look disgusting and totally ruin your entire look. This also includes newer yet cheap flats that have lost their shape, been permanently stained or torn. They may be cute little yellow suede ballet flats, but they have a grease stain down the side, the sole is peeling from the shoe and you have walked on the back so much they have morphed from flats to slides.

I never understand it; many of us walk blocks and blocks passing hundreds of people in such monstrosities, and then get to the office, put on our nice shoes and then hide behind a desk all day, the only person seeing the fancy footwear is the receptionist or the one coworker in the kitchen when you went to grab your morning cup of coffee.

3. Don't wear your bed linens to work. Yes, it can get quite cold, and it is silly to wear a cute jacket and chance frostbite or illness. However, this does not mean you need to walk around town in a down comforter with sleeves. Don't get me wrong, I have a black quilted knee-length coat that I wear on blustery days; I am talking about the really puffy coats, the ones that fall to your ankles with a huge hood, fur trim and no shape. I am talking about the thick fleece and wool coats that look like bathrobes.

Again, modern invention have brought us wonderful materials such as Thinsulate, Gore-Tex, and Windstopper that are thin yet keep you warm and dry.

Keep in mind that your coat will be worn more than almost any other item in your wardrobe. It is worth the time and money to find the right style that will flatter and properly fit your figure, compliment your clothing collection and still keep you toasty.

short4. Have your pants hemmed to match your shoes. I understand that a commuter shoe is flat and an office shoe may have a heel, however it is never acceptable to peg or cuff your work trousers to keep them from dragging on the street or spend the day in highwaters. If you feel a flat commuter shoe is a necessity, you may have to suck it up like I have and adjust your office heel height. Every day I see beautiful, well-dressed women in pants that are dragging, cuffed awkwardly or above the ankle bones. No point in spending good money on trousers if they make you look like Pee-Wee Herman.

4. Know you are never invisible. Often we women feel we are invisible when we have a less-than-perfect body, average wardrobe or what we deem as ordinary features. We think no one will notice if we go a day without brushing our hair or have our pants too short. We’re not important, right?

Wrong. You are never invisible, and you are important. Think about yourself when heading to work; don’t you notice those around you? Do you ever start daydreaming, and wonder about that person on the seat across from you? What is she reading, what does she do for a profession to warrant her attire? If you do it about another, be sure it is being done in regards to you.

When you feel you aren’t important enough to be noticed, it is as though you have a neon sign blinking above your head saying “LOW SELF ESTEEM!” I am not saying one should dedicate her whole life to looking good to impress others, but give your body the same respect you hopefully give your home or your office. You should be clean, tidy, and look as though you like yourself. You have this body whether you like it or not, make the best of it. As you would jazz up an apartment with new drapes and artwork to make it look less like a sterile white box, so should you decorate yourself. You are noticed, every day whether you realize it or not. Give the right first impression, the one that properly represents the true you!

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I commute to NYC from Long Island every day (therefore I take the Long Island Rail Road and the subway). The latest “trend” that I have noticed is women using their reusable shopping bags as commuter totes! Ladies, those bags were not made to tote your laptops, lunches, etc!

  2. Allie I adore your other blog and just stumbled across this one. I work in Manhattan and most days lay out two pairs of shoes — the pair I wear to work and the pair I wear at work. I adore loafers and driving mocs for the cooler months and ballet flats for summer. I wait until the end of season sales to stock up on favorites in multiple colors.

    The real reason I’m leaving a comment is that your last point really hit home for me — so many days I feel invisible trudging from the train to subway, subway to sidewalk, all the way to my office, and back again. It just really made me feel like I’m not the only one who thinks/feels this way. And that really brightened up my entire week, which was desperately needed. 🙂

  3. I walk 5 blocks from my bus stop to my office and I wear my blue and white nike gym shoes and change into my heels at my desk. My view on it is that I am shleping my gym shoes anyway for my post-work workout so why would I want to carry ANOTHER pair of shoes with me to work? I thought about this today as I was walking in with my sneakers on and admiring other people’s outfits with matching shoes. But in the end, I decided that I dress for me, not the other women on the train/bus. If they judge me, so be it. I figure that they probably realize I am not planning on wearing my marshmallow shoes around all day anyway. Oh, and regarding your comment about not cuffing up your pants while wearing your commuter shoes, well you can’t have it both ways, really. I wear commuting shoes because I like to wear heels at work. If I were wearing flats at work, I’d wear them to walk in too.

  4. ethidiumbromide and anonymous, I agree, we all commute, but I believe Allie is referring to a special class or group of individuals, “The Commuters,” who take public transit to and from their 9AM-6PM professional attired jobs. Public transit usually means taking the bus, subway/underground, even a train. Because you are inside with a large, fairly set group of people, Allie’s point is that you should still be aware of your appearance.

    If you’re walking over a mile, then by all means wear what gets you there.

  5. I have to agree with EthidiumBromide – I walk 3 miles to work. Wearing the wrong shoes could actually cause me injury. Plus, I live in Chicago, where it’s so cold 6 months of the year that I’m wrapped up head to toe.

    Having said that, it really frustrates me that my clothing choices are either to look “frumpy” by keeping on my commuting outfit, or to look “professional” by changing into something completely different. I want to look like a lady, but it seems that “professional” clothing for women involves crippling oneself with heels. I hate that to fit in with all the other professional women, I need to wear shoes that slow down even a walk down the hall to get coffee. (Even comfortable medium heels are less practical than equivalent flat shoes)

    Yes, I know there are cute flats, which is what I customarily wear in the office, but it still seems that heels are the default.

  6. OMG, Allie, I took the Marc train in, and then the Metro, and I was afraid you were going to see me and use me as a style “don’t” so I made sure to look presentable today 🙂

    I’ve got a pair of black leather ballet flats that I wear in the winter for long schleps, and a tan pair in the summer (Lands’ End). The first poster might want to look into LE’s walking shoes – they’re unobtrusive and comfortable for a 2.5 m hike.

    Great post as always, Allie! You personally saved me from wearing a schlumpy too-long khaki skirt today in D.C. 🙂


  7. Trinny and Susannah from What Not to Wear had similar comments. For some reason, one of the moments of the show that stuck out for me was helping a woman find fashionable athletic shoes (rather than more worn out everyday sneakers) that would work for walking (and could fit in your bag when you get there). It helps you maintain that ‘professional’ look even when you need to be comfortable. I don’t fault anyone else for being comfortable, but I like to combine style and comfort when I can.

  8. It’s so true that we wear our grubby shoes to get to work and then put on our nice shoes to hide under the desk. I think I will throw away a pair of flattened flats when I get home today. 🙂

  9. I live in Ohio(car-to-door commute), and I was quite amused when I visited DC last year, to see women wearing nice office outfits with new balance gym shoes.

  10. I see absolutely nothing wrong with dressing for comfort above style when it comes to commuting. While your appearance may play a role in your productivity and success in the workplace, what one chooses to wear on the way to and from work has absolutely no bearing on the quality of work which is completed when in the office. I walk over 2.5 miles each way to get to work, so I always wear sneakers. Yes, there are flats out there, but I have yet to find a pair of cute flats that provides the support I need (I have severe back problems) so that I can walk pain-free. I would much rather make it from Point A to Point B pain-free and as quickly as possible in a pair of sneakers and then change to heels than walk in discomfort just for the sake of looking more fashionable during my commute. Sorry, but in my field, nobody is going to stop me on the street and fire/hire me because I’m wearing a pair of sneakers to get to work.
    It is certainly not because I think I am “invisible” that I don’t care, but because frankly, if someone is going to judge me negatively because I am wearing a pair of sneakers to walk 2.5 miles, then frankly I really don’t want to associate myself with them!

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