Don’t be a “Business Casual” Casualty

True, you can’t judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to style: Your appearance is how you brand yourself.

In Austin, where “business casual” is the prevailing dress code, it’s important to know how your style translates into the everyday norm.

My first job out of college was at a money desk in North Dallas as the sales operation supervisor. We worked in one of the nicest buildings in the city, on the top floor, where our sales people solicited for jumbo deposits (CD’s for $100K or more). We were high-rollers.

I’ll never forget the day the sales manager announced we would be allowed “casual Fridays.” Up until then, we wore, what was considered at the time, typical business banking attire – suits and ties – for both men and women. Women also wore stockings and closed-toe shoes.

That first Friday when we were allowed to come “casual,” one of the sales associates showed up in cut-off jean shorts and a t-shirt. All he needed was a pair of flip-flops, and “casual” may have well been an understatement.

So, allow me this question: If you had seen this man in his t-shirt getup walking thorough your building and knew what he did for living, would you trust $100K of your money to him?

Needless to say, he was asked to leave immediately to go home and change.

Later, while living in Austin during the tech boom, I saw “business casual” (or rather, “casual” minus the “business”) enter the daily workwear mainstream. What shocks me is how many chose to dress down (vs. up) for a position to which they hope to be promoted.

After years of keen observation, part of my business today is to teach others how to become more recruitable in the work place. This often requires a shift in their mode of dress for future success. I hear more complaints about “business casual” than any other.

In my research for this article I found myself opening a can of worms when it came to the vast array of “business casual” wear we see today. “Business casual” is a loose term in corporate America, so I will choose to focus more on dressing for success with a “relaxed, but classy look.”

Welcome to “Casual Style 101.”

Currently, over 50% of workplaces have what is termed “daily business casual.” Also important to note, about one-in-six businesses today are owned by women, so we are still operating in a male-dominated environment. As women, we are trying to maintain both our business edge while keeping in step with constant evolving styles and budget constraints. Consequently, we fall victim to dressing improperly for the jobs we desire.

Lesson one: It’s imperative that we not confuse social dress with business casual dress for most workplaces. We can still stay feminine without giving up our power to impress upon others our capabilities in the workplace.

In today’s economic crisis, you may wonder, “How can I afford to buy new clothes when I’m barely paying my bills?” Or, “Is a stylish wardrobe still possible with a minimal budget?” Absolutely! Here’s how:

Budget Style

First, canvas your closet. Select a couple of nice leather belts and use them to belt some of your jackets, dresses and tops; Divide sweater sets and skinny-belt oversized cardigans. Consider cropping a couple of jackets with long sleeves to a 3/4 length for a fitted jacket that is fashion forward. Layering clothes also speaks volumes. Take advantage of every season by wearing cotton, lightweight wools and silk blends as layering pieces now, then use them as separates in the spring/summer. These pieces layer nicely with a cardigan or jacket during the cooler climate, and leggings can be worn under sundresses with a belted jacket or cardigan. Above all, make sure your clothes are altered to fit your body, which is the best way to currently update your wardrobe and make you look sleek. Pick-out a key piece of jewelry that is tasteful for the workplace, such as pearls, simple dangly earrings or a long gold-chain pendant. All are simple, fashion-forward ways to extend your current wardrobe and maintain style on a budget.

Smile Style

Another way to update your look is attitude. Coco Chanel tells us that, “Elegance is not the prerogative of those who have just escaped from adolescence, but of those who have already taken possession of their future.”

It’s about a sense of style that comes from within. We must find a way to communicate from the inside out. Researchers Daniel Hamermesh of The University of Texas at Austin and Jeff Biddle of Michigan State University found that people who are perceived as attractive or good looking earn higher incomes in general, from blue collar factories to white collar corner suites. One would expect this in visual industries such as fashion or the arts, but it was interesting to discover this same result in occupations like construction as well.

The study also revealed these same people showed an increase in productivity when interfacing with employees or customers on a regular basis. What the researchers labeled as “attractive” was not centered on the small percentage of our population that seems to have natural beauty, but rather on those who presented themselves in the best possible light by enhancing their most attractive features, positive attitude included. We must never underestimate the importance of the moment you walk into a room and a first impression. You communicate plenty about yourself before even saying a word. This includes your smile, a simple, but easily forgotten asset to our day-to-day routine. A positive attitude doesn’t get more budget-friendly than flashing your pearly whites!

Attitude Dressing

Business casual was designed to increase employee morale and productivity. Uniforms command respect – worn by an airline pilot, a judge or a football player alike. Each is required to wear something designed to allow them to concentrate on the task at hand while retaining respect for their position and profession. “The subconscious aspects of our psyches influence, drive and control us to an extraordinary degree.” says Sherry Mays Nave, author of Casual Power. So how does one command respect while dressed casually? Carefully consider the image your dress, hygiene and actions reflect yourself, your work ethic and attitude.

Think about the first impression the main character Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) makes in the movie Legally Blonde, dressed in her classic pink skirt at Harvard on the first day of Law School. Barbie? Whether we are aware or not, humans make instant assumptions based on dress with everyone we meet or see. We don’t necessarily mean to be judgmental. We just make assessments about one’s capabilities as part of our innate nature. First impressions matter and once made, it takes a lot to change that impression. Though Elle’s outfits were designer fashions – expensive and fashion savvy – her packaging detracted from what she needed to communicate most about herself—her capabilities at law school. Unlimited budgets, though helpful for most, do not necessarily mean a wardrobe that provides a powerful edge to getting you where you want to go in your profession of choice.

Tim Blanks, a fashion veteran, once said, “When you keep your body together and streamline your silhouette, it broadcasts the illusion that you are a disciplined individual in control of your own enjoyment.” So how does one communicate, “I’ve got it,” “I have it under control,” or “I can do this job”? Dress the part.

Putting It All Together

Here are some starters for building a basic outfit for the work-place:

Basic Wardrobe for Business Casual
one suit with skirt – black, navy or dark gray – jacket must be tailored to fit your body; sleeves should hit two finger widths past your wrist bone; (jacket can be used separately to create other outfits)
two tops – one in a solid color to match your suit color and one print with suit color in pattern. Both must be long-sleeved; with pointed collar or jewel neckline; could also be a nice knit in a solid color
one pair of slacks that matches your suit fabric
one white shirt
a second jacket that looks good with your suit selection
belt that matches suit color
scarf that has suit color in it and should be long not squared
pair of low heel shoes (flattering to all body types) that is are well-maintained
two pair of opaque hose to match suit color
earrings and necklace that show your personality yet appropriate for the workplace and match the metal in your belt buckle

As budget allows, add another straight skirt and a pair of slacks that will go with both jackets, as well as solid colored T-shirts that are pressed and not pilled or stained. If you wear jeans, they need to be pressed and not faded, frayed or with holes, regardless of what they cost you and must fit well. Walking shorts need to match your suit jackets. Keep in mind that the best way to look coordinated is to make sure that at least two pieces of your outfit are the same color and darker colors should be worn on the bottom. The list above will give any woman a taller, slimmer look as well as convey that she cares about her professional image whether she is a receptionist or an executive.

Also, not to miss: good fit. Regardless of your shape or size, all skirts and pants should fit well – no gaps at the waist, if pleated they should be flat; if they have pockets (I recommend that the front ones should be sewn down since gapping pockets are never flattering). Also, panties should not show when sitting, and you should never look like you have been stuffed into your pants – buy the size that fits your body and remember, no soft pants in the work place. Stay away from garments that are too tight, too short, ripped, frayed or ragged, reveal bare arms, out-of-date, too baggy, girly prints or cheap fabrics. Buy the best you can afford.

And don’t forget: Grooming is a vital component to maintaining your look. Hair should be cut and well kept. Nails should be filed and painted tastefully (think natural French or ladylike red) since this conveys an attention to detail. And one should wear a natural palette of makeup.

Lastly: look in the mirror the next time you’re about to walk out the door. Rate yourself on a scale of one-to-five, with five radiating the most self-confidence and happiness within and one being the least. Everything you have in your closet and that you use to brand your look should nonverbally communicate no less than a five at any time.

Dress for the job you want to have and remember: “One can never go wrong with simple elegance.”

The Art of Packing Lightly

Diane Von Furstenberg once said, “If you manage to pack lightly … you manage to live lightly.

Today we are faced with many restrictions which force us to rethink how we pack
and what we pack when traveling.

In the midst of these decisions, most women are still concerned about the image they project at their destination, be it for work or pleasure. The wonderful news is that fashion does not have to be compromised to meet security regulations. Paring down is a daunting task while trying to maintain one’s sense of self and fashion, but savvy travelers can accomplish these objectives by “capsuling” their wardrobes.

African Safari or Mission Trip?

Perhaps you’ve dreamed of taking off to Africa. This dream became reality for two of my clients, whose excitement turned to anxiety when they learned they could take no more than 40 pounds in one approved, carry-on bag. One client, Michael Norris, is embarking on a three-month mission trip. Her allowable 40 pounds must include clothing as well as protein foods for everyday, toilet paper, a supply of feminine products, a mosquito sleeping hut and other necessities. Another client, Cindy Howard, is headed for a resort-style safari and will be stopping in Madrid and London as well. Both travelers present their own unique challenges: Cindy desires to be stylish the whole trip and Michael wishes to feel womanly, yet understated, given the tribal community she will be working with while in Sudan. Michael also chooses to take articles of clothing that she can leave there for the women in the village.

Packing for these trips is a challenge, yes, but I am excited to report: it can be done!

Weekend in Las Vegas or a Week’s Work + Play?

A group of women at the Junior Austin Woman’s Club recently enjoyed a fun style show demonstrating how to select styles for a weekend getaway to Las Vegas or Chicago; a week’s skiing in the mountains; and a week of work and play in San Diego – all without having to check a single bag. Each traveler had plenty of fashionable outfits, stayed within weight restrictions, and left room to bring home a few souvenirs.
At the show we were able to prove that one could take 14 wardrobe pieces, including two ski outfits, and have at least 24 outfits to wear while there; including two pairs of after-ski boots, slippers and another pair of shoes, as well as foundations, pajamas and toiletries. The weeklong trip to San Diego featured 16 wardrobe pieces, including two belts and three pairs of shoes, to assemble more than 27 outfits.

There was a day when women could devote an entire bag to packing shoes. You can still choose do so, but it will cost you – and it might cost you a lot more if that bag doesn’t make it with you.

One of the wonderful things about being a wardrobe consultant is walking away each and every time with a satisfied customer. Packing for a trip shouldn’t be daunting – it should be filled with excitement about your trip and a sense of relief that you will have all that you need once you get there. What you are going to wear should be the least of your concerns, especially if you are headed for a jam-packed trip combining business and pleasure. One client, Chris Hester, a realtor specializing in high-end real estate, was headed to a luxury home event in Miami. We spent just two hours determining exactly how she needed to accommodate casual occasions and several cocktail events as well as workout sessions. We wanted her to feel fashion-forward and convey a sense of professionalism while staying in Miami’s trendy resort area, South Beach.

It Pays to Weigh

In addition to considering how much our clothing and personal items weigh, we also need to rethink how much our luggage weighs, so keep that in mind if you are considering buying new luggage any time soon. One of the best options is a wheeled duffel bag; these tend to be lighter than traditional luggage, roomier, and have the convenience of being easy to transport. There are also duffel bags that can be converted to backpacks, which is what my client Cindy is required to use for her African safari trip. Standard luggage comes in a variety of sizes, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) no longer allows any bags to be larger than 62 inches in length, width or depth. However, I have found that if you take a bag larger than 53 inches, you will almost always overpack.
As for carry-on bags, we are now limited to no more than 40 pounds, and many airlines have restrictions of no more than 22-by-14-by-9 inches for these bags. Also, when traveling with connecting flights, determine ahead of time if any plane you will be on has limited cabin space and will require you to check your carry-on bag at the cabin door prior to boarding, as this may affect any fragile items you’ve packed.

There are also duffel bags that can be converted to backpacks, which is what my client Cindy is required to use for her African safari trip. Standard luggage comes in a variety of sizes, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) no longer allows any bags to be larger than 62 inches in length, width or depth. However, I have found that if you take a bag larger than 53 inches, you will almost always overpack.
As for carry-on bags, we are now limited to no more than 40 pounds, and many airlines have restrictions of no more than 22-by-14-by-9 inches for these bags. Also, when traveling with connecting flights, determine ahead of time if any plane you will be on has limited cabin space and will require you to check your carry-on bag at the cabin door prior to boarding, as this may affect any fragile items you’ve packed.

Helpful Sites
(They list other carriers and their charges.)

Professional & Personal Image: Power Up Your Look!

Do you sometimes hide behind your imperfections or perhaps hide your image altogether? Some may sneak behind sunglasses or long bangs; others may be wearing boxy clothing regardless of their size. Some hide behind the ala natural look. Regardless of what keeps you from presenting your whole self to the outside world, you can power-up your look by focusing on your strengths.

Many of us struggle with an inner voice constantly trying to recreate reality to suit our own personal preferences. Statistics tell us however, that as a rule, people will both believe and invest in you if you first believe and invest in yourself. It is not just about what you wear; it is about demonstrating through nonverbal communication what you want to say about your inner being to the rest of the world. And it’s not just about clothes and accessories. It’s also about the way you walk into a room, the way you hold your head, the expressions you make, or even the way you sit. And finally, it is about how you wear your clothes and how you complete a look. It’s about giving yourself a competitive edge when needed.

This image is something you convey without telling others a word about yourself. So, who are you? And how do you get there? Consider a few of my favorite questions to ask oneself from Robert Pante’s Success Checklist:
• “Do you always feel like you are dressed appropriately?”
• “Do you feel comfortable around people who are well-dressed?”
• “Is the daily act of getting dressed a pleasure?”
• “Is every item hanging in your closet something that makes you feel good about yourself?”
• “Is your physical presentation working for you in attaining your goals?”
• “Do you feel that you have put 100% in every area of your presentation? Hair? Makeup? Grooming? Body? Clothing?”

Each of these questions is important when it comes to helping one power-up their inner being through their physical presentation. CNN did a survey and found 81% of responders take a person more seriously when dressed in business attire. Now add that 81% to another study that showed that women who apply makeup in a tasteful manner receive 20% more income over all and that people perceive them as being happier and more competent. And further, that a woman that wears no makeup is perceived as having low self esteem. Now are you ready to get an edge up and truly power-up your overall look?

If you have ever put something on and thought, “no one will notice that stain”? Or, “It really should be cleaned but maybe just one more wear won’t matter … ”? Or how about, “Surely no one really cares if I ironed the wrinkles out?” Or “If I don’t sit down in front of anyone I’ll be fine?” Ever thought, “What I wear should not be more important than how I perform?” Consider those you know that are always dressed well … does it seem fluid or effortless on their part? And consider what you are thinking even now about that person. All they did was dress to influence your mind in a positive way and so obviously succeeded. They don’t go through the day wishing they had worn something else, dreading if a client stops in unexpectedly or the boss wants them to go to lunch or stand in for him in a meeting. They are ready to tackle whatever business challenges come their way without wasting time on what their outward appearance is portraying. They know they are conveying authority and confidence.

To power-up your look, make a list of the following questions:

• What upcoming meetings do you have?
• What do you expect those you are meeting with to be wearing and what may their expectations be of you?
• What community activities do you have in the near future where you may be making business connections?
• What social events?
• What do you want to achieve out of each of these occasions?

“First know what looks project power for your career … and what is appropriate in your workplace,” says Sherry Maysonave, one the most quoted In today’s economy, the stakes are even higher to keep up an edge as well as the need to make wise investments when making a purchase. First make a list of what you truly need by doing a closet audit. Then, compile a budget, decide which stores will best fit your need (as well as your budget) and then always buy the best quality you can afford. The best quality is not always attached to a pricey tag. Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is made to become unfashionable.” What is important is that you develop a sense of individual style that speaks to who you are within the confines of your work environment.

How to Develop a Power Look

• have a black or navy suit made of quality fabric that is tailored to fit your body
• select blouses that do not convey a social attitude – no gap at buttons, no sleeveless tops if you will be removing your jacket, collared blouses are best
• jewelry should be tasteful and not noisy when worn
• shoes must be well-maintained and should be closed-toed
• handbag and briefcase should also be well-maintained and handbag should complement what you are wearing … it does not have to match your shoes (however if wearing a belt, it must match your shoes!)
• a good haircut that you can style and maintain
• cover your legs and wear hose! (This is a tough one especially in Austin in the heat of the summer.) If you disagree with this one, refer to the questions we asked above and think about what outcome you are expecting. Then ask yourself, “In that environment, would a man wear socks?” Bare legs communicate a different social connotation, so keep in mind what you are trying to accomplish. Then ask yourself if without them are you presenting yourself in the most powerful light?
• Foundations – if you have lost or gained 10 or more pounds, you need to be refitted. The bonus is when foundations fit correctly, it can make a woman look like she has lost weight! It most certainly makes your clothes look more presentable on the body.

Although many of us here in Austin do not work in what could be termed a “more formal” work environment, the need to keep your look powered-up still applies. We have definitely entered into what is also termed “business casual” in most work environments, so we will explore this world further in February, discussing how to wear business casual and still maintain a power image.

And always remember: “Less is sometimes more. One can never go wrong with simple elegance.”