To the Nine-to-Fives
Wardrobe Consultant Says ‘Business Appropriate’ Is the New Workplace Standard
“When in doubt, don’t wear it.”
Among the many pieces of advice offered by Mary Lou Andre, founder of dressingwell.com and author of Ready to Wear: An Expert’s Guide to Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe, it’s those words that she underscores the most.
“Clothes should flatter your figure, but also your personality,” said Andre. “And if clothes are stressing you out, something’s wrong.”
That could be because many professionals do, indeed, carry a measure of doubt about their clothing choices and those of their colleagues.
New styles — from stain-resistant Dockers to skinny pants — create new challenges, and relaxing dress codes across the country also foster confusion. Ask what, exactly, ‘business casual’ is, for instance, and you’re likely to get more than one answer.
“Today, dressing for work can definitely throw us,” said Andre, “especially with all of these new terms being thrown at us. The best course of action is to think not in terms of business formal or business casual, but simply business appropriate.”
Buckle Down and Button Up
Andre speaks nationally on the topic of professional dress and organization — and did so at Bay Path College’s recent Women’s Professional Development Conference. Her Needham, Mass.-based company serves as a resource for individuals as well as corporations, and she says that when dressing for work, both men and women at all levels must look past trends and lingo, and instead develop a strategy that works for them, while also satisfying the unique requirements and tones of their workplaces.
She added that, while dressing for work can seem like a small aspect of life when compared to the other tasks that create the busy schedules of professionals, it is nonetheless a topic that many companies have spent countless hours addressing, in the form of corporate dress codes.
“Especially in recent years, human resources departments have become the fashion police,” she said. “It’s not just jeans vs. khakis on a dress-down day they have to think about. Now, they’re evaluating how appropriate Capri pants, city shorts, and gauchos are. They’re looking at different styles of corduroys and deciding which ones are casual and which ones are not.”
Even footwear is getting a second look, said Andre, noting that in many offices, open-toed shoes are being outlawed for both hygienic and aesthetic reasons. “Some people just don’t like to look at feet,” she joked.
But on a more serious note, Andre said those increasingly complicated dress policies make it all the more important for employees at all levels to take charge of their own wardrobes and appearances.
“People need help defining the different types of business attire so they can adhere to their company’s policies,” she said, “but they also need help creating their own, personal dress codes, so they can dress for work in a way that makes them feel comfortable and confident.”
Skirting the Issue
In fact, Andre said dressing professionally is actually less about clothes and more about achieving a look that reflects personality as well as respect for one’s career, workplace, and goals for the future.
“It’s about achieving a style that is the look of a leader, and also makes you feel your personal best,” she said. “Think of the connections you can make at your personal best.”
Andre added that employees’ appearance in the workplace is a sort of visual résumé, which translates a number of subtle messages. Someone who is consistently pulled-together and polished, for instance, is generally seen as confident, trustworthy, organized, and credible, while those who are often disheveled can be perceived as lazy, unprofessional, or untrustworthy.
Those realities add some weight to the notion of dressing well on the job, especially among young professionals who see dress as less important.
“People who reject professional dress often think they are losing a bit of themselves or their personality, when really it’s not about the clothes so much as it is helping to create a respectful, appropriate environment in which everyone feels safe.
“It’s not just about you,” Andre cautioned. “It’s about the other people in the office and allowing them to feel comfortable. When you go to work, you have no idea what people’s hang-ups are.”
That said, Andre was quick to note that improving business dress does not necessarily translate to spending thousands of dollars or to tossing an existing wardrobe.
“Connect with what’s on the inside, and then just step it up a bit — we don’t all have to be beauty queens or fashionistas.
“And, it’s also about communication,” she added. “When someone is dressed in a way that doesn’t reflect their company, it is distracting, and they are less likely to be heard as well as seen in a positive way. I have a client who is a news anchor, who told me once, ‘I know I’m well-dressed when people call not to comment on my outfit, but on the stories I’ve reported.’”
Through her own research, Andre identified three ways in which people form impressions of others — through verbal (word choice), vocal (voice), and visual (appearance) channels. She said visual impressions are generally made first, and weigh most heavily on a person’s assessment of another person — about 55%.
“That’s not all about clothes, either,” said Andre. “That includes body language, such as someone’s posture, smile, and use of eye contact.”
She added that even with terms like ‘business casual’ and ‘resort formal’ muddying the waters, there are a few rules of thumb professionals can follow to make dressing for work easier, and they start with rejecting the lingo altogether.
“Today, professional image is more important than ever,” she said. “When in doubt, forget trying to fit your wardrobe into classes, like business formal and business casual.”
From there, Andre suggests remaining mindful of professional goals when choosing clothes.
She begins with the old adage of ‘dressing not for the job you have, but the job you want,’ and expands on that idea.
“Dress for your day,” she began. “Ask yourself what you’re going to be doing that day — will you be in the office, or traveling? — and try to dress appropriately and comfortably.”
Andre said another reason why ‘business casual’ can lead to wardrobe misfires is because it discounts the effect and versatility of a standard workplace staple — the suit.
“Suits are still a very powerful garment,” she said, “and they are an excellent way to incorporate ‘capsule dressing’ into a wardrobe — a few pieces, which can be worn many different ways.”
When capsule dressing, Andre said pieces in neutral colors such as black, brown, navy blue, and gray are more versatile, and having a few foundation pieces rather than a wide array of outfits that cannot be diversified leaves more time and money to go the extra mile in terms of achieving that polished look. Sleeves and hemlines should be altered for the best fit, she said, and tops in many colors can be used to change the look of an outfit and to add flair.
“The details matter,” she said, listing a few touches that pull a professional look together.
“Get one good tote, and outerwear, like a trench, should not be an afterthought. Think of tops as accessories, and think of shoes as investments. People notice your shoes — always put your best foot forward, even when commuting.”
Finally, Andre suggests taking clothes for a test drive — “in the morning, 10 minutes before work, is not when you want to be trying something on for the first time” – and keeping closets organized at home.
“You should make your closet look like a store,” she said. “Group shirts, pants, dresses, and suits together, ironed. That will add some peace of mind to the process of dressing, and dressing well.”
Ensure that zippers, buttons, and snaps are all functional, said Andre, and in time, a professional style can appear effortless to others.
“The details matter,” she said. “That extra attention creates a look that fits in, while allowing you to stand out in a positive way. But if you’re wearing something that doesn’t make you feel secure, comfortable, and powerful, there’s a good chance that it’s the fit or the style.
“In that case, put it back.”
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]