By Ashley Welch
On Monday, May 2, 2011 I had the amazing experience of interviewing Penn’s very own Dr. Afaf Meleis. As Dean of the School of Nursing, Dr. Meleis is one of the most respected members of the University of Pennsylvania community. As one of the friendliest and most fashionable people on campus, it was an honor to converse with her.
Ashley Welch: How would you describe your personal style?
Dr. Afaf Meleis: My personal style is international. I like very much to buy clothes and to put together different pieces that come from different parts of the world. It’s really important to reflect the different fashions and the different ways women, professional women, dress. I enjoy that very much.
My style is colorful. I like colors. Purple and mauve are a big core of it.
AW: You described your style as international. What nations in particular?
Dr. M: Global. My clothes come from Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland, Sweden, Pakistan, Egypt, Copenhagen, and Brazil. And it is not only clothes. It can be the shoes; for example, when I went to Italy I bought sandals. The fun for me is to be able to match, like I did last week, a dress that came from Hong Kong, with a coat that came from Thailand, and a pair of shoes that came from the United States. People look at it and say, “Did you buy these to all match?” and I say, “No, I just happen to be speaking somewhere and I take about ten minutes and go shopping with my colleagues there.” It’s really about connections with people; it’s not only the clothes. It’s about the connections with my colleagues in other countries. Shopping gives me a chance to know their tastes, and it gives me a chance to know where they spend time. To really get to know the country is through fashion.
AW: What are your essential fashion items?
Dr. M: Suits. I am a suit person. And hats. Hats are definitely a part of my wardrobe. Today I have a hat. In fact, I always have a hat. I do not go anywhere without hats. And fans. I have fans from all over the world. And shoes. Hats, fans, and shoes are my trademarks.
AW: What are your favorite stores, and especially what stores in Philadelphia do you like?
Dr. M: I do not shop much in Philadelphia, but probably Saks. On Walnut, there are a couple of stores where I have seen some nice things, like Ann Taylor and Jones New York. Really, my favorite store has been Nordstrom. I am from California and there Nordstrom was my store. I had a personal shopper who helped me, but since then I have not had that. I have been here ten years now. Other than that I have shopped in other parts of the world. But here is the trick. Fashion for me is about keeping yourself healthy: exercising, eating-well, and connecting the body and the mind. So I do have a very extensive wardrobe, only because I can wear the same suits that I bought thirty years ago. They are classic and I just keep adding to it. So, I have an extensive wardrobe because I believe in wellness and being healthy. That would be my advice to the young women that you need to make sure that you really pay attention to your body and mind. They are very much connected to you exercise program, so at five o’clock this morning I was at the gym.
AW: Where do you look to for fashion inspiration?
Dr. M: Flowers, colors, and nature inspire me. Even with my evening clothes, I think about how I will feel at the podium wearing this dress or that suit. I think of clothes as uplifting. When I think of putting together an outfit, taking the time, even though it shouldn’t take up that much time if you are organized, uplifts me. I know that if I am delivering a speech, and people are looking at me and I am wearing something really colorful in addition to the presentation, I affect people’s moods.
I also pay attention to fabrics. I like silks very much. I am very partial to silk and cashmere.
AW: You are a very busy woman. How do you stay on top of your physical wellness and your style, despite your many commitments?
Dr. M: That’s a really good question. Physical wellness is so important and it is really the basis for all of that, and it comes from being a professional nurse, but I don’t think about it only in terms of body wellness. I think about it in terms of how it relieves stress and how it makes me have a positive outlook on life. I actually think of problems as more of opportunities. That’s what physical exercise does and that’s what eating well does. So this is extremely important, more important even than the clothes. Then with it, I think about what I am going to be doing that day in relationship to the clothes. I match actually what I am planning to do that day, with the clothes that I am going to wear: if I am going to be standing with a large audience and it’s going to be a huge auditorium, or if I’m going to be in a small group. I match also in terms of colors, to the event or the occasion. So sometimes, I want to make a statement related to being very professional, but sometimes I want to make a statement as being more fun loving, whimsical, yet still put together. I don’t agree that professional women should be wearing dark colors only, or tailored suits only. I think being a feminist and feminine, for me, go together. It’s not an either or. It doesn’t detract. I also match the season to the clothes that I am wearing. Around Christmas, I am in lots of reds. Around St. Patrick’s Day, you will find me in lots of greens. In Fall you, will find me in lots of oranges and tans. I plan my wardrobe a week in advance too, because I have my schedule a week in advance. It makes it easier.
AW: And one last question; a lot of Penn students will be interning this summer. What advice can you offer, in terms of dressing in a professional environment, to young students entering the corporate environment for the first time?
Dr. M: Find your sense of fashion and the colors that you like. You have to put it on and feel that you are on top of the world and that you are really empowered by it. You should feel that you really make a point with what you are wearing. Becoming in touch with that is extremely important.
I suggest finding the colors that look the best on you. There is actually a book called Color Me Beautiful. It gives you a sense of the palette of colors that are best for your complexion. I give it to so many of my colleagues before shopping, and they immediately zoom in on the colors that work for them.
AW: Well, thank you for your taking the time to interview with me!
Dr. M: This is a very new topic for me. Maybe professional women in leadership positions don’t want to talk about fashion because it might look like it takes away from their power, in terms of being in a leadership position. But I think that this is another aspect that we need to nurture and leverage to use it for the best and make a difference.