Professional attire: just how important is it to your career?
While you ponder that question, let me tell you a story:
Several years ago, a woman I know who frequently publishes in her field wrote an article that was particularly well received by her peers. As a result, she received several speaking invitations. Since each of the offers included an honorarium, she was thrilled to have stumbled across what she believed would become a lucrative second income. After making those first few speeches, however, the offers abruptly ceased.
She never knew what happened. While she shrugged it off like it was no big deal, it was obvious to everyone around her that the whole episode was not settling well. Unfortunately, in spite of numerous hints, she refused to believe it was for the simplest of reasons, and one that could be so easily fixed: her professional attire.
At 5'9" and about 180 pounds, with large bones and an unruly mane of naturally curly hair, she was a formidable presence. Had she opted for clothes that visually reduced her size-like dark colors, vertical lines, and appropriate jewelry-she would have garnered both attention and respect in classic professional attire.
Instead, she dressed to please her husband: high heels, short skirts, long hair, tight fit. Most of her clothes were too small; none were expensive or well made.
The whole look so clashed with her age (mid-forties), her income (mid-$50's), and her position (Executive), that when meeting her for the first time, people often stared openly.
It spelled a quick end to her speaking career. She looked great on paper: competent, well-educated, and obviously knowledgeable about her field. But in person, she looked ridiculous. Her audiences expected professional attire; what they got was a cross between Scarlett O'Hara and an Amazon. Regardless of her background, experience, and writing ability, she lost credibility because of the way she looked.
Unfair? Perhaps. But given her education, profession, and social position, she knew better. All of her peers dressed more conservatively than she, and several of them had told her straight out that she needed to wear more professional attire. But she wanted to do what she wanted to do: march to her own drum, and have everyone else to follow suit. When they didn't, she blamed them.
Now obviously this is an extreme example, but in many ways, not all that uncommon. What's remarkable is that she made it as far as she had without professional attire--a true testament to her abilities. Most women would never have passed the $30,000 a year income mark, unless they had spent years with the same employer (as this woman had).
The truth is, I've seen more careers either stall or derail over the issue of professional attire than I care to recall. Most of the violators fall into three categories. They feel that:
1. They don't have enough time or money to dress nicely.
2. Appearance is superficial and unimportant.
3. The rules don't apply to them.
If you see shades of yourself in any of these descriptions, you're probably not making as much money as you could. Here are some classic signs that your lack of professional attire may be hurting your career:
1. A superior has flat out told you that you need to wear more professional attire to be considered for another position.
2. Someone in your office always feels compelled to remind you to
"dress nicely" for special events like meetings, presentations, or other
3. A co-worker with equal or lesser skills but nicer wardrobe was
promoted over you.
4. On those odd days that you do take a little extra time with your professional attire, your co-workers want to know if you're going for an interview.
5. You keep asking to be considered for a more visible role in your
company, but all you get is management "runaround."
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, your lack of professional attire is having a negative impact on your bottom line. Whether you like it or not, whether you want to hear it or not, you're going to have to make some wardrobe changes in order to move ahead.
You see, dressing for success isn't about having the "right" suit, the "right" watch, or the "right" haircut; it's about dressing to successfully RELATE to people with whom you want to do business. It's about being a chameleon. About blending in.
People want to associate with people like themselves. If you don't look enough like them in terms of dress, manner, or position, you'll be perceived as an outsider. They may never feel comfortable enough to learn anything more about you, let alone do business with you.
Now you can reject this, condemn the small mindedness, and proclaim yourself above it all...and be eternally frustrated that people don't always treat you how you expect or deserve. Or you can use this knowledge to your advantage and make it work for you in your professional attire costuming.
Let's say you want to be considered for a promotion. How are you dressing? Like the people at the same level as you? Or the people on the next step up? By dressing for the job you want, you'll enable your superiors to better see you in the role.
Now I'm not talking about spending a lot of money for a complete makeover. Save that until sometime after the raise hits your paycheck. Instead, look for the small things you can improve upon immediately with very little expense, like polished shoes, appropriate makeup, or even a more suitable hairstyle.
Study the hem lengths, jewelry, and manicures of the group you wish to join. If you do need to add clothing, consider shopping your local consignment shops, Junior League charitable shops, or factory outlets.
You don't have to do a lot. A little change can make a big difference in your professional attire. Look at your budget for ways to make it happen. It doesn't require a lot. Brown bag it more often. Skip a few movies. Drive by the drive thrus. Yes, it's THAT important. A short-term reallocation of funds will go a long way, as you'll soon discover. Once you become adept at mirroring your prospects' and superiors' appearances, you'll be astounded at the doors it will open.
True, some people do advance singularly on merit with no regard to dress, but more often than not, it's into positions that require little or no public contact. If they begin to meet with department heads, customers, or prospects, a dress code usually appears.
So am I saying that you should work harder on looking good than on being competent? Of course not. If you don't know what you're doing, no amount of costuming will disguise that fact. Looking the part OPENS the door; your skills and abilities keep you in the room. You should adapt your professional attire so that people will respond to you and in turn give your competence the consideration it deserves. Otherwise, you may simply be regarded as a work horse and never be given the attention of a thoroughbred.
Appearance plays a significant role in how you're perceived, as countless studies will attest. People who take care with their professional attire are regarded more favorably than people who do not. I've seen better-dressed people advance over more competent people time and again, particularly into positions that require a more public role. I've also seen poor appearance cited as a reason for keeping competent people locked into positions their superiors do not want them to vacate.
Unfair? Perhaps. Now you can discount it or rant against the unfairness...or you can try sprucing up your professional attire for a couple of weeks and see the difference in how people respond to you. It could even have an impact on your income.
How much? Let me put it this way:
Remember the outrageously dressed woman I mentioned earlier? The few speeches she did get in averaged an hour talk every two weeks with an average honorarium of $1,000. Had she continued at that pace, she could have increased her income by at least $25,000 that year. A 50% increase in income for less than a week's worth of work.
But it didn't happen because she didn't think that her professional attire was anyone's business but her own.
So could your appearance be hurting your career? Take a good look in the mirror and judge for yourself.
About The Author
Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of "Wardrobe Magic," an ebook that shows women how to transform their unruly closets into workable, wearable wardrobes. Visit her online at www.fashionforrealwomen.com.
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