One of the lessons that I have learned in my career is that if you want to move into more senior roles, you need to look the part in order for people to take you seriously. This clearly is different depending on the industry that you are in, but I think that everyone knows what I mean. A new grad tends to dress differently than a manager, and a manager tends to dress a little differently than a director and so on up the chain. If you want to be able to fit in on that next ladder rung, you should already look like you belong there. Watch and learn to see what you should look like. The rules are relaxed a bit in smaller companies, and sometimes the chief executive is the worst dressed person in the company. However, with the way the economy has changed the business climate I’m definitely seeing more of a shift toward more formal business dress. Sloppy t-shirts and jeans are definitely the exception in the management ranks these days.
As a woman, I find that creating the wrong appearance is fraught with peril. A lot of times there aren’t role models to learn from. I’ve been in companies where there weren’t any senior women leaders. What do you do then? For men it is so easy. Business casual is a pair of khaki pants, a polo shirt, a nice belt and a pair of loafers. Done. A guy can get away with that, even if it is a little rumpled. Formal business dress is standard – a dark suit, starched shirt, tie, and dress shoes.
For women there are so many questionable areas.
Hair and makeup:
- Don’t wear too much makeup or constantly touch it up.
- Hair needs to look well-groomed and well cut, but you don’t want to look “high maintenance”.
- Nail polish – I tend to vote no on this – too distracting unless it is very neutral. It also looks horrendous when chipped or dull.
- Don’t show too much leg or cleavage.
- Too tight is bad – don’t want to look like a stuffed sausage casing now do we?
- Too loose is also bad – that comes across as sloppy.
- Sandals may or may not be appropriate. Some industries still expect pantyhose – and that is a rat hole a mile deep in itself!
- Boots? Are they ok with a skirt? Depends on your industry. If they are fine leather dress boots with a heel they are probably ok. No Uggs please!
- Heels or flats? Too high is too suggestive. Too flat is not a “power” look.
- What about sleeveless blouses? I think Michelle Obama finally put that one to rest – thank goodness! If you have the arms to pull it off – go for it. I happen to love a sleeveless blouse in hot weather.
- Pants or skirts? Pantsuits finally are mainstream – thanks in part to Hillary Clinton’s standard garb. I really don’t like skirts in the winter – too cold. For casual business: dress pants and a nice fitted sweater or blouse always look put together.
- Beware – business casual khakis and polo shirts sometimes come off looking like soccer mom gear. No you can’t just dress “like a man”. You are always better off with a pair of dress pants.
- Jewelry is necessary for a polished look, but too much or too big or too loud is distracting.
- If you are going to wear a suit, make sure it has some personality in cut or appearance. If not – add a colorful blouse or an interesting pin or scarf. Women are expected to look a bit more pulled together even in a suit.
The bottom line is that you don’t want to come off looking “too young” or “too sexy” nor “too old” or “too frumpy”. There is a fine line here and it is so easy to teeter off of it one way or another. Image is everything. There are a lot of people who can’t look past someone’s outward appearance when doing business. It is a reality that the care you take in making a good impression is noticed.
Sadly, this also extends to your physical attributes. Overweight people are treated differently in business. This is especially true of women – there is a double standard here as well. Your clothing choices are extremely important. If you can, get your clothes tailored to fit your body as best as possible. If you are heavier on the top or the bottom, buy for the larger size and get the other piece adjusted! This is back to: too tight is bad, and so is too loose.
Older people, if they are not extremely well put together in appearance also are treated differently in business. You don’t want to look like a has been. Get a good stylish haircut that fits the times. There are too many older women who still style their hair like they did back in high school or college. That will date you faster than your wrinkles do! Don’t wear that 10 year old suit – especially to an interview. Styles really have changed. We all remember those behemoth shoulder pads from the late 80s – ok, well at least I do. You wouldn’t catch me dead in one of those old suits.
My inspiration for this post came from the article: Appearances Matter from the Wall Street Journal.