Does What You Wear Matter?

There’s a move you can make to better position your personal image and brand. No matter your age or title, you can step up your dress. Most people do this pretty well, but there are a lot that don’t and may not even realize it. It’s a sensitive topic that doesn’t get talked about often.

I started my professional career in the 1980s when Marco was run by two former IBM leaders. All the men wore dark suits (usually pinstripe), a white finely pressed shirt with a red or blue tie and wingtips. It was the uniform of the day.

image015When I dress it up these days, you’re more likely to see me in a printed button-down shirt with a sport coat. Suits are still common—and expected—in some sectors (namely for financial, healthcare and higher education) and for some positions. But most workplaces have shifted to a more professional casual look. I prefer it personally, but it does complicate what to wear each day, doesn’t it?

How you present yourself can impact your career. We all have an image, and part of that is our physical appearance. We need to stay contemporary. Practicing self-awareness in our dress and our physical appearance (hair and makeup) can be just as important as knowing our strengths and weaknesses.

From my perspective, here are a few tips to help you navigate fashion changes and present yourself well in today’s workplace:

  • Make sure it fits well.
    Choose a fit that matches your body shape. The clothes you wear to work shouldn’t be too tight, too short or oversized. Some people are masterful at this, but many don’t realize that their clothes don’t fit properly. It’s always good to ask a friend or family member that you can rely on for honest feedback.

  • Mind your style.
    I think this is the most important part of your image and the first impression people have of you. Following the fashions of the day is important, but it doesn’t mean you need to look like a New York runway model. Watch for the sustainable trends. For men, that means no pleats or cuffs on pants. While there are shirts design to be untucked, I still recommend that men tuck in their shirts in the workplace. There are a variety of services that can help with clothes selection, from retail professionals to clothiers who come on-site to online services like Stitch Fix where they ship outfits to your doorstep based on a profile you provide. Another area of opportunity, especially for guys, is shoes—don’t forget to keep those looking good too.

  • Recognize generational differences.
    When I say contemporary, I don’t mean wear what the youngest people in your office wear. I shouldn’t dress like my son. My dress needs to be age appropriate, but never old school. Styles will vary by generation a bit. If you’re “more seasoned” in your career like me, you probably can dress about 10 years younger easily. Likewise, millennials often benefit from dressing about 10 years older—or for the job they hope to have in the future.

  • Maintain modesty.
    Fashion trends—including accessories and body art—can become borderline inappropriate. While we have a lot of freedom, it does not mean we need to exercise it. Fashion can feel subjective and even get opinionated. Exercise moderation. People can lose respect by crossing “the line.” Many workplaces have become more accepting of tattoos. I’m pretty liberal on this one, but not everyone is. My suggestion is to be mindful of your audience. The rule of moderation also applies to accessories, hair, make-up and patterned clothes. If you want to make a statement in the workplace, I don’t recommend you use fashion to do it. It’s not a promotable behavior.

  • Coordinate your colors.
    While some may believe this is up for negotiation, I recommend professionals take a more traditional approach to the brown and black debate, especially when it comes to shoes. Don’t wear black with navy or brown. Don’t wear brown with black. Coordinate your belts and shoes (black shoes with black or grey belt, brown shoes with a brown belt). If you want something different, check out cordovan, it can be worn with both.

You can change your image with your dress—and it can happen fairly quickly. We feel and act differently based on what we wear. How we present ourselves also sends a message to the people around us. Is the way you dress presenting the image you want to portray?

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Topics: Professional Development