Two decades ago, when I entered the workforce, there were very distinct rules on what was considered appropriate business dress. Your level of professionalism and many times the very position you had acquired was measured based on the number of pieces of clothing you donned each day. Attorneys wore three-piece suits. Sales professionals were always in suit and tie, college professors were often seen in sport coats and ties, etc.
Women in the 1980’s workplace fought for pantsuits. Even though the pantsuit became popular in the 70’s, it was considered inappropriate in conservative business environments until the 90’s. On my first professional job out of college, pants were not allowed at all.
With the adoption of “business casual” in the 90’s, which is how we got our pantsuits approved, came no formal guidelines as to what this “look” could consist of and still be acceptable in the office, business meeting, or corporate workforce.
I’ve worked for companies that have tried to define it, stating such things as “no jeans.” That certainly leaves a lot of leeway, doesn’t it? And for those companies that have tried, there is still a wide gamut of what is acceptable and what is not.
So how does a person, especially a woman business executive, decide what is appropriate and what is not? Lately, I’ve seen a lot of things and thought, “what is she thinking?” So today, I’d like to lay down some guidelines for those who may be interested in what I consider “appropriate” business wear and why I believe the way I do.
First of all, I just want to get men out of the way. This issue is not as big of a deal for them because they don’t have nearly as much to choose from when it comes to fashion. For the most part, men simply need to consider their client, or who they are meeting with. If you’re Steve Jobs, you can get away with wearing jeans pretty much anywhere. The rest of you need to consider where the meeting is being held and how your client will be dressed. A three-piece suit would be rather hot on a construction site and steel-toed shoes might not go over well in the courtroom. I have not witnessed many offenses lately by men so this article will be directed toward women. I’m not saying that men never dress inappropriately, it’s just that there is usually a woman around who will point it out to them rather quickly; “You should have worn . . .”
So here we go ladies, how to dress appropriately in today’s workplace.
Consider the environment. If you’re going to a meeting at a client’s site and it’s a hospital, are the people you’re meeting with going to be in business suits or scrubs? This is an important thing to consider because if you dress too casually, you’ll come across as not taking the account seriously, or not having respect for those with whom you are meeting. On the other hand, if you dress “over-the-top,” you could intimidate the decision maker or lose the account out of pure jealousy. Remember, You’ve Only Got Three Seconds, how do you need/want to come across?
Don’t try to be sexy. Trying to prove something that should either be obvious, or not, makes you look desperate and weak. Sure sex sells, but serious business people want to do business with people who are capable. While being attractive helps in all walks of life, if you look like your last job involved a street corner, you need to scale it back a bit. And with so many of today’s decision makers being women, who might be required to wear scrubs or a construction hat, strutting into the room in stilettos and a mini-skirt might not get you the decision you wanted. Even if the decision maker is male, he might not be interested in your toned thighs, and would you need to be doing business with him if he were? Be careful here. Most of the time, trying to play the “sex sells” card backfires – big time! What I have personally witnessed in this area, is that a woman who tries too hard to be sexy in the workplace ends up alienating her female co-workers and potential allies, while getting laughed at behind her back by men. Sure, they might want to date her, but they are not going to trust her with a million-dollar account. So like I said, be careful how you come across because that’s exactly what you’ll get in return.
Think “balance.” If you’re the least bit uncertain about how the client will be dressed, go middle-of-the-road. A pantsuit with a nice blouse and 2-3-inch business-like heels is almost always appropriate. A nicely balanced look, not too dressy, not too conservative, not too casual should never offend anyone. If you’re overdressed they’ll tease you, if you’re underdressed, you’ll know for next time, but in the meantime have not represented yourself or your company poorly.
Think “power.” Remember, the point of dressing appropriately is to get your prospect’s mind off of what you’re wearing and on to your abilities – what you can do for them – which is why you gain their business. If you design, produce, and sell widgets, you need to look like someone who is capable of designing, producing, and selling widgets. Your point of power is in your abilities; does your style of dress represent that?
Plan your wardrobe. The “I have nothing to wear,” excuse is not acceptable in the workplace. You know what your job is and how you need to appear. (If you didn’t before, hopefully you do now after reading this article.) I find the most efficient way to shop for work clothes is to sit down with a catalog and buy outfits or things that will work together. Otherwise, when I go to the department store, I end up buying casual outfits or just whatever they have that particular weekend. It is best to take stock of your current inventory and create a list of items you need to complete that great look. Then go shopping, browse a catalog, or go online.
Now, some specifics.
Wear hose. “Bare legs, even tan and perfectly smooth, are unprofessional; period,” said a friend of mine recently and I agree with her. If you’re like me and don’t like to wear pantyhose in the summer, wear pants. There are other cool options besides bare legs.
Leave the wild things in the closet Monday through Friday. “Zebra stripes don’t look good on anybody’s derriere,” says my friend Melinda and she’s right. It’s fine to show your personality in your clothing, but keep it to one, small piece. A pin, a blouse that’s mostly covered by a jacket, earrings, necklace, you get the drift.
When in doubt, don’t. You know when you are appropriately dressed. If you have to ask, you’re not. Be five minutes late to look good. You and everyone else will be glad you took the extra time. Of course, if you take my advice and plan your work wardrobe at least one week in advance, you won’t have to be late.
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This post was written by Debra Moorhead, Motivation, Education, Inspiration on August 31, 2007