“You act like how you’re dressed.” This was my mother’s famous phrase. She’d remind me to be crisp and tidy for church, festive for holidays, and sophisticated for job interviews.
Dress is an important dimension of an effective professional brand, and equally relevant for women and men. Important judgments are made rapidly in professional environments, and how you package yourself is another data point that conveys your credibility, tone, and intentions. Not valuing clothes is no excuse. You don’t have to value rain to carry an umbrella.
When I entered the job market in the mid-1980s, women were wearing men's clothes to work. Following my mom’s advice, I began investing in my professional wardrobe and was often directed to striped skirt suits, white shirts with bow ties, and plain shoes. I always knew that dressing like the guys wasn't authentic to me. I aspired to be a woman executive, but there weren’t any in my firm. Fortunately, that meant I got to set the pace.
Early in my career, I was insecure and needed confidence. Clothes became my armor, and projected my ambitions and commitment. With the help of talented retail salespeople, I began to find my personal style, and dress for the job I wanted. When I made my first presentations to senior audiences, I could see them smile and nod approvingly as I prepared to speak, offering me permission to proceed. I’d like to think my appearance created a first impression that cued them to take me seriously.
Every successful executive can tell you their “fake it till you make it” story from early on. But after you’ve made it, dress still matters. I know leaders who earn a considerable amount of money and are wearing the same clothes they wore 10 years ago. Their packaging is out of date, which can send an impression of being tired or stale. For more seasoned professionals, a lack of attention to dress can make others wonder about whether you’re open to change and curious about what’s current and modern.
Needless to say, no amount of well-tailored suits or designer shoes will compensate for a lack of talent. However, when you combine talent and impeccable dress, it creates an unstoppable package.
10 Rules to Dress for Success:
- Spend the money. You should dress as well as you can afford to, and then stretch that a little. In a subtle and tasteful way, dress slightly better than your audience.
- Keep up. While women’s’ fashion trends appear to evolve quicker than men’s, both change. If you can’t figure out what’s current, most good department stores will gladly provide stylists to guide you. It’s worth building that relationship to stay on top of trends.
- Choose a media fashion icon to model.
- Fit matters. Buying clothes off of the rack is usually not adequate. Take the time to have your clothes tailored. Even inexpensive clothes will look better when fitted properly.
- Bags count. Make sure your briefcase, backpack, messenger bag, tote, or handbag is of first quality and well maintained. They get a lot of use, and have the potential to undermine your whole look when they become worn out.
- Accessories take you from good to great. This is especially true in conservative professional environments where impact must be subtle. A well-made pair of shoes, your eye wear, or a fine scarf or tie can make a memorable difference.
- Grooming is the foundation. Even the finest wardrobe can be diminished in an instant by unruly hair, poorly maintained nails, or marginal dental hygiene.
- Solicit feedback and suggestions. If you see someone looking great, ask them about where they shop. If dressing well is challenging for you, ask for help from a trusted resource.
- Always be you. If a fashion trend doesn’t work for you, forget it. There is no shortage of options. Also, find some classic pieces that are always in style.
- No matter what the dress code of your organization is, dress for the job you want, not the job you have.