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How to dress the part

Britain’s leading image consultant, Mary Spillane, says in 'Presenting Yourself' that ‘a poor image is self-defeating; it gets in the way of you projecting your true qualities and abilities. Many of us wish this wasn’t the case, that we should be assessed only on our achievements, not on any additional, superficial factor, such as appearance’. But, she insists, how we are packaged speaks volumes about how we value ourselves and respect others, about our sense of quality, creativity, and professionalism. Appearance matters for aspiring executives - and the following provides some useful introductory advice...

1. Know why we are reluctant to look the part.

According to top US image consultant Susan Bixler, most aspiring executives fail to maintain a polished professional appearance for four main reasons:

  • Self-consciousness: many feel they would give the impression of being dressy merely to cover technical deficiencies.
  • Cost: most believe looking good would be expensive. It doesn’t. In fact, you can’t afford to dress badly.
  • Time: most erroneously believe they’re too busy to spend time on their appearance.
  • Lack of fashion knowledge. The literature and the store advisors can help here.

Successful people, Bixler says, counter such views to upgrade their appearance - their most visible credential.

2. Dress appropriately.

There is near unanimous agreement among experts that dress codes do exist and that, as a rule, they filter down from the top of the organisation. Even then, ‘appropriateness’ focuses on a variety of factors, including:

  • Your industry. ‘Creative’ businesses such as film and advertising want to show flair and creativity, so their people wear bright colours and trendy, bold styles; bankers prefer subdued, high-quality, conservative clothes; real estate agents want to look approachable and favour casual styles.
  • The occasion. A real estate broker may dress very differently when showing an apartment to an investment banker than when accompanying a rock star.
  • The geographic location: The dress code of a legal firm’s lawyer in Darwin may be far more relaxed than that of a Melbourne colleague in the same organisation.
  • The message you want to send. Artistic, elegant, conservative, reliable, wealthy, approachable, solid, trendy, male dork, or female bimbo? To create an impression of trustworthiness and reliability, for example, consider conservative business wear, nothing trendy or extreme; simple quality accessories; well-cared-for polished shoes; impeccable grooming, showing attention to detail; regularity of pattern in tie or prints; discreet jewellery and minimal makeup for women; men, clean shaven.

In Executive Essentials, Mitchell Posner concludes that, for success in business, ‘stay with a conventional look that will not offend others, but will make them notice your good taste, your understated elegance, and your appreciation of fine quality’.

3. Buy smart and within your budget.

Fortunately, a moderate budget does not preclude looking good - any more than a generous budget guarantees it. The secret is to use your resources, however limited or abundant, wisely. Instead of selecting classic, high quality, coordinated pieces, most people waste much of their clothing budget on such mistakes as:

  • a style so trendy that, next season, it can clearly be labelled ‘last year’s’
  • discount store purchases that fade, shrink, hang poorly, or don’t last
  • mark-downs that don’t quite fit - but ‘I’ll lose a few kilos!’
  • fabric that is stiff, itchy, shiny, or cheap
  • an unusual colour that coordinates with nothing or makes the wearer look drab, tired, or lit up like a Christmas tree.

In 'Executive Style', Jean Woo advises you to shop wisely - by selecting the right store, keeping your objectives in mind, knowing your budget, setting aside enough time, avoiding sales, being realistic about weight loss or gain, putting function before fashion, and favouring conventional garments rather than trendy ones.


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