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How Do You Dress For TODAY'S Success?

When I began my career many years ago, a woman in my company’s HR department who was mentoring me gave me a book to read. It was a book by John Molloy, Dress For Success, written in 1977. During the 80s it was a common practice for women to dress like men, only in women’s clothing. Meaning that we were expected to wear blue or dark-colored blazers, white shirt, tasteful, below-the-knee length skirt, and black or navy pumps. In order to be taken seriously, it was recommended to me by this mentor that I dressed as Molloy advised in his book, so I did. John Molloy wrote a sequel in 1996 to the original book called, New Women’s Dress For Success. In this book, many statistics were cited around how we are perceived based upon how we dress and were the same since the original publication, yet one change: apparently more vibrant colors other than blue, black and grey were ok to wear as well. While Molloy’s last book is nearly 25 years old, I believe judgments and decisions are still being made around how we dress for our work.

Much has changed since 1996 and certainly since 1977 when Molloy first wrote the book on the topic of dress expectations in the workplace. Many companies have elected to offer a more casual dress code to their employees and often a more casual attire is accepted today. It has actually become more confused about what is expected in terms of how we are supposed to dress for success.

Our clothing choices and how we dress provides an unspoken message to our work associates, superiors and clients how we feel about ourselves, and who we believe we are or strive to be. What is the statement you are trying to make? Are you serious about your career? Do you aspire to be promoted within your organization? Then you have to dress the part.

Expectations around dress are easier to nail down for men and a bit tougher as a woman. A man can wear a pair of khakis, a blue dress shirt with a collar, throw on a blazer and he’s done. Women have more options, but it’s not always clear what is acceptable and what is not. A more casual environment such as a marketing company, tech company, or start-up may call for a more creative look and there’s more flexibility. In these cases, pay close attention to how your peers dress, how your boss dresses…and how your clients dress. Imagine for a moment if the President of the United States wore a golf shirt to deliver the State of the Union Address, what would you think? I would think he didn’t care enough to dress for the tradition of the occasion and frankly I would have a concern that he didn’t regard his responsibility seriously. Conscious and unconscious biases abound around how people dress are prevalent and unfortunately, people make judgments often without us knowing what judgments are being made.

The problem is that if you don’t “dress for success” your superiors may draw conclusions about your motivation and drive to be promoted based upon the way you dress. If you want to succeed and be promoted, then dress that way. Here’s the thing: The people who matter in your career success rarely tell you when they believe you are dressing appropriately for your position or the one above you. When we dress for success, the statistics show that we DO get more respect, key assignments, and promotions. As women in male-dominated businesses, if you get it right, it’s one less obstacle to overcome in navigating your career.

My mother was promoted over and over at her company and I learned from her early how important the way we dress is to our advancement. She believed strongly that how she dressed helped her get promoted and I’m guessing it did. My uniform for so many years was, nice suit, jacket and skirt, nice cream-colored or white blouse and minimal and tasteful jewelry. In the early 2000 era, I was still wearing only jackets, suits, skirts….and the dreaded pantyhose. I was attending an industry function and one of my female contemporaries in the business said, “when are you going to start wearing pants like the rest of us, Susan”? I realized then that the way I had been dressing was ok, and part of my uniform, but it had become outdated. Women were not dressing that way any longer and I decided it made me look old-fashioned. I got rid of most of my skirt suits and began wearing pants and pantsuits since then. I don’t wear pantyhose (thank God) unless I am attending a formal event.  With a self-tanner, I don’t need socks to wear shoes.   

So the standards have changed a great deal since the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Often, but not always, work environments are more casual, more comfortable. Some of the opinions around employees’ motivations and drive related to dress have changed. Employees feel more comfortable in more casual clothing. Yet you have to be careful. You do not want how you dress to negatively influence how you are perceived thereby influencing your career trajectory.

Below are my 6 Tips for Dressing for Success:

1. Develop your “uniform” and your image or brand and choose clothes that fit in these.

My recommendation is to observe people above you and your peers…then choose a uniform that meets and exceeds what you see in terms of formality and conservatism. Dress in a conforming way with others in your company I believe it will pay off yet it does not mean you cannot incorporate your own unique taste---you should!

2. Dress for your company’s expectations and/or your clients’ expectations.

Your company has a culture, and you are expected to fit into that culture. Observe how women above you are dressing. Are they wearing sleeveless blouses? Open-toed shoes? Know what your clients expect around how you dress----and dress that way. It’s pretty common for me to be dressed more conservatively or formally than the clients with whom I meet. I think sometimes they expect it. I believe there are times they would be offended if I dressed as casually as they often do.

3. Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

It may be possible to overdress for the office, yet it is a good thing to dress how your boss is dressing. Take it up a notch. It will help how you are perceived at the office and the boss is more likely to take you with him/her on client meetings. Make sure if you buy clothing “off the rack” the clothing is properly fitting. Have a good tailor take in or let out clothing to get a good fit. Make sure sleeve lengths and pant lengths are appropriate.

4. Careful with denim.

It’s Friday, and its pizza and jeans day. But not for you. If you are a professional looking to advance in your career, wear nice slacks or khakis. Denim is the ultimate casual choice and belongs to you only during week-ends.

5. Tasteful make-up, jewelry, and accessories…light on the perfume.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, make-up should not be overdone with too much foundation or eye make-up. Limit jewelry to a couple of things, a necklace, earrings, and a ring. Make sure nails are well-groomed and shoes are in good condition. Light on the perfume—how many times have you gotten in an elevator and thought, Whoooa, too heavy on the perfume! There is no room for cleavage at work or short skirts or any sexy clothing whatsoever…..there, I said it. I’m guessing most of you reading this didn’t need to read this.

6. You can’t go wrong with a jacket or blazer.

Buy at least one. It’s a classic clothing choice that demonstrates seriousness, authority, and power. You can wear a dress which would be suitable for the evening or office, put a jacket on and now you mean business. Though Molloy’s stats are dated, the science is there, a blazer or jacket commands more respect. Keep one an extra one at your office in case it’s called for during the day.

Susan's Takeaway

How you dress matters—to your career success. It’s fun to choose your uniform then shop for your wardrobe. When you find your uniform, you are building your brand, what your work associates and clients will come to expect from you. The wardrobe you choose has to feel right to you, it must be authentic and you have to own it and make it part of the image YOU want to have. It can really feel good to walk into a room of industry people or meeting with a client and know you got it right and you are making the impression you want to make.

About LeadingShe

A podcast in which executive women who are leaders in their industries, companies, and most importantly...their lives, share inspiring stories about the obstacles they've overcome to succeed in a male-dominated world. Host & Creator: Susan Branscome

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