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:
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.
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!
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.”