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How to dress the part

1. Viewpoint

"In our culture, what you wear is a significant element in your self-definition. We are taught to value individuality. Therefore, your clothes should give the impression of being made for you alone. If your clothes are consistent with your own sense of personality, a feeling of security and wholeness results."

Priscilla Grumet in 'How to Dress Well'.

2. Don't forget

When choosing business clothing…

  • See clothes as an investment. Choose quality over quantity, natural fibres over synthetic.
  • Keep in mind the expectations of those around you. Avoid overdressing to impress.
  • Avoid clothes that do not complement your body style, skin tone, or hair colour. Seek expert advice if necessary.
  • Keep your career goals in mind. Upwards movement will require an authoritative, professional image.

3. Research says

The television program 20/20 recently investigated the effect of ‘appearance’ in the business world. Well-groomed men and women were placed in identical situations with less polished individuals who had neglected their appearance. Every time, the better-groomed person got the job offer and the higher salary.

Cited in The New Professional Image, by Susan Bixler, Adams Media, Holbrook, Mass, 1997, p.16.

4. Ask yourself

A pair of high-quality $100 trousers could be worn once a week or 50 times yearly. If they last for three years, each of the 150 wearings would cost 67 cents.

By contrast, a $40 bargain trouser of cheap synthetic fabric loses its shape and develop ‘pills’ in stress areas in as few as 10 wearings - a whopping $4 per outing!

Which item is the true bargain?

5. Ask yourself

Selecting the appropriate clothing for business starts with knowing your outcome and the context. In this regard, consider the following questions:

  • What do I want my appearance to communicate?
  • What don't I want it to say?
  • With whom am I dealing?
  • What is the situation, and what is the environment?

Dress to suit your context.

6. Worth reading...

  • 'The Winning Image' by James Gray Jr., AMACOM, NY, 1993, 214 pp.
  • 'The New Professional Image' by Susan Bixler, Adams Media, Holbrook, Mass., 1997, 262 pp.
  • 'Executive Style' by Jean Woo, Prentice Hall, Sydney, 1997, 161 pp.
  • 'Presenting Yourself: A Personal Image Guide for Men' by Mary Spillane, Piatkus, London, 1993, 174 pp.
  • 'Presenting Yourself: A Personal Image Guide for Women' by Mary Spillane, Piatkus, London, 1994, 157 pp.

7. On the nose

Nose rings may be a fashion statement but they may lose you a job. In an online poll conducted by 'The Australian Financial Review BOSS' (July, 2002), readers were asked whether they would give a job to someone sporting a nose ring. More than 62 per cent of respondents said 'no'.

8. The importance of dressing for the part

One day there was a fire in the main tent of a travelling circus. The fire spread to nearby fields of dry grass and then began to burn ferociously towards a village in the valley below. The ringmaster yelled: 'Someone must tell the people about the fire! Tell them to run for their lives! Someone has to get down there and tell them that they've got to evacuate right now!'

A clown, still in full costume, heeded the call. He jumped on a bicycle and rode down into the valley to sound the warning.. He pedalled up and down the streets yelling at people: 'Do something! Run for your lives! The fire's coming! There's a fire coming this way! Your town is in the path of the fire! Run for your lives!'

Unfortunately, the people just stood along the side of the road and applauded the clown. The more he screamed, the more they clapped. The more he yelled his warnings, the more they cheered him. They didn't take him seriously - after all, he was dressed like a clown.

The way you dress is important, isn't it?

9. The dress factor

According to professional speaker Steve Epner, he uses his appearance to 'lessen the intimidation factor' of his presentations on computer and technology issues.

'On the platform,' he says, 'I need to look like a consummate professional - the expert the group is paying good money for. But I make sure the suit-and-tie-guy isn't the first impression the group gets of me.'

'I make a point to arrive at the conference the night before. I mix and mingle in the halls and at the cocktail party. For those events, I dress just like the participants, even if that means jeans and a plaid shirt. They begin to see me as a regular guy, someone who can make complex topics understandable and usable and someone who relates top them easily.'

10. Practice makes perfect

'Despite the commonly held myth that stylish men are born, not made,' says Alan Flusser in 'Style and the Man', 'dressing well is an acquired skill.'

'Becoming proficient in matters of self attire is much like honing the talents needed to become a great golfer. While playing frequently can improve your game, until you start practising the correct technique, your potential will always remain unfilfilled,' he says.

11. Follow the lead

Observe the way others in your profession or corporation dress, suggests James Gray Jr in 'The Winning Image'. Look around you at the people who are succeeding…

What is the style of dress of corporate officers?

What does the manager wear?

Although dress codes are not enforceable legally, is there an unwritten dress code for those who get ahead?

Respect corporate or professional standards, he advises. If top level executives most often appear in navy and grey flannel, take the hint. It's a conservative environment and you will do well to follow the standard.

12. Clothes are a statement

Give your choice of clothes some time and thought, says Mitchell Posner in 'Executive Essentials'. But good taste usually requires some education, he adds.

'In general, if you feel comfortable in a particular style and it is well made and suits you physically, you will look good, no matter what the fashion. But remember: Clothes are a statement, a means of expression. If you wear the latest Italian fashions you will certainly stand out. If that is your intention, fine; many do this with good results. However, if you feel that a flamboyant or flashy appearance is a risk you'd rather not take, stick to the guidelines.'

13. Remembering you later

'A successful image is not about people noticing your snappy suit or being dazzled by your accessories. It is about people noticing you first, almost unable to remember what you were wearing after you left, but having the impression that you looked professional, attractive and successful.'

Mary Spillane, Presenting Yourself: A Personal Image Guide for Women.

14. Decide to make it easy for yourself

Someone once said: We are born and we die and, in between, we wear clothes. We can choose to deal with our appearance easily, efficiently and cost-effectively, or we can allow it to become a form of crisis management.

Why shouldn't we apply the organisation and planning expected of us in the work environment to our selection and wearing of clothes? asks Jean Woo in 'Executive Style'.

15. People packaging

Should people dress down for work to look modern and innovative or should they dress up?

John Lyons, chairman of Marketshare, says, "Like it or not, dress is the most significant non-verbal communication of who we are and the values we hold. People packaging is just as important as product packaging."

Acknowledging that dress is an emotional and personal issue Lyons says, "People's perception of what is stylish in casual dress varies enormously. The potential for staff with the best of intentions to send the worst of signals is immense."

In considering dressing-down vs conventional dressing-up, Lyons poses three questions from a marketing perspective. They apply to schools as much as they apply to other workplaces.

  • How important are staff in portraying your image and reputation?
  • What is your corporate reputation now? What do you want it to be?
  • If you go for a dress-down policy what other measures will you use to create an image of quality and consistency?

16. Face it: You'll also need a head for success

While it may not win you that promotion, having a pretty face will help you receive favourable treatment in the workplace.

An overwhelming majority of employees who responded to a survey about appearance believed looks do determine how well you are treated in the office. About 62 per cent of respondents to the Monster.com.au poll of 2000 workers said that attractive staff were definitely favoured whiled 33 per cent said it 'does happen at times'.

Attractive people are certainly very pleasing to the eye in the workplace, but after the initial impression has worn off, we are usually drawn to such people because of their personality, talent or expertise.

The bottom line is that, while beauty can help to make a good first impression, there will always be some pretty ugly people at the top who get there for reasons other than their face!