Owning identity and dressing for yourself.
Root & Seed is just as much about what we want to take forward, as it is about the past. In this spotlight, our community member Winnette Sampson shares how reclaiming the way strong female role models from her upbringing dressed helped her bring her true and whole self to the workplace. Looking into the future and the next generation, she also wishes for her daughter and others like her to feel an openness and pride in dressing for themselves.
A Life Rooted In Colour
Winnette identifies as a Black Trinidadian woman, and looking back at her early life, she recalls how that culture and growing up surrounded by strong Black women, and the kaleidoscope of colours in the clothing they wore, has influenced her. Images of her mother in her colourful clothes particularly stand out as she worked as a salesperson
“I remember my mother’s orange suit … … Wearing colour is not a statement, it's not a testimony. It's simply the colour that you wore that day.”
Navigating the Workplace
These bright images of what a career woman could look like shifted when Winnette immigrated and began to build a life in Canada. As she entered the workforce in the mid-2000s, Winnette found herself extremely conscious of the White Gaze and this resulted in her muting her Blackness as she tried to assimilate.
“In Canada, you're Blackness is first … I felt the societal constructs around being Black more in Canada than I did in Trinidad … I wore my hair straight. I wore neutrals, and black, and browns. I was pretty conservative in my dress back then.” Her strong cultural ties were not something she often shared at work when she first entered the workforce
But when her daughter came into the picture in 2010, the deep divide between Winnette’s true self and work life began to close. “She was an inflection point in my career.”
As a child of three cultures (Trinidadian, Barbadian, and Canadian), Winnette wanted her daughter to understand the many facets of her identity. Winnette began a journey to reclaim her roots.
“My husband and I went home (to Trinidad and Barbados) for four months of our parental leave and that was fantastic. My daughter met all of her grand and great-grandparents who lived there. There's a picture of her with three of her great-grandmothers which I will always treasure..”
Returning to the office afterwards, Winnette started wearing her hair naturally. “I had made a decision that I would wear my hair in its natural state so my daughter would see: at home a mom who loved her hair and wore it proudly to the workplace. It’s just hair, but it means something deeply personal to me.”
A Presence In the Boardroom
Years later, Winnette’s approach to work would be impacted further by the pandemic and murder of George Floyd. "I always wrapped my hair with cloth in vivid African-inspired prints (a tradition tied to her African ancestry) in my private life, but that merged during the pandemic when the office was suddenly in my home."
However, when she returned to the office she continued to wear them and still does today. “It makes me happy. It connects me to that part of myself … I was like, why don't I wear it here?”
She also thought of her mother’s orange suit. “Why the hell wouldn't I wear an orange suit? … I needed JOY, and wearing more colour was one way of bringing joy into my life. I literally got rid of most of my black and brown and beige clothes … I was dressing to fit in … I think that was the biggest thing. I started dressing for myself and not for another person.”
Raising Up the Next Generation
After sixteen years, Winnette feels comfortable expressing her true self at work. But for her daughter and other young women of colour, she hopes for more space to be made so they feel free to be themselves.
“I hope it does not take my daughter 16 years to not feel that she has to be “buttoned up” … There are trigger words for me, like when people say, “Oh, it's not ‘professional.’ What does that mean? … Why would her showing up in a burnt orange suit or tiger print shoes be seen as, “Oh, that's artistic”? Why is the reflection of her personality, which may be in her clothes, devalue her intellect and what she brings to the work?”
For Winnette’s part, she continues to live by example and admires role models who also dress and how they wear their hair to express who they are. There are political figures like Michelle Obama and Michaëlle Jean that Winnette looks up to, but she sees inspiration closer to home too — like the way her mom and aunts dress beautifully in colour, first for themselves.
How do you show your identity in your professional life? Let us know in the comments below.