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Dressing for Success

Part One: General Rules

Cracking the Unwritten Company Code

Every company, big or small, has its own code of dress. A fashion magazine will expect you to wear the most up-to-date fashions, while an investment firm may expect traditional blue suits.

Even within each company there are different clothes cultures. Programmers may all wear one thing, while graphic artists are allowed more eccentricity.

Dick Cappon, president of a career management consulting firm, says, "My best advice is: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. With good judgment and common sense you should be able to make good decisions about what's appropriate dress."

Take a look around at the people in your company and find the rules. Be sure to check out what colors are encouraged, what fibers, what kind of shoes, what kind of hair. One good way to think about this is to study the dress of people you admire in the company. What do they wear?

There's an even easier way to find out. "Just ask," Cappon says. "If you're new in a company and you notice people dress pretty casually, ask them about it."

Dress for the Position You Want

Generally speaking, word processors don't dress like CEOs, who don't dress like graphic artists. One good way to decide how to dress at your company is to ask yourself, what job do I want?

Andrea Van Neys is a human resources consultant at The Focus Group in British Columbia. She says, "When I was working at Canadian Pacific, the rule was to look to the next level to get your cues about dress." Ask yourself, what do the people who are successful in that position wear? Take a good look at what people in the positions above you are wearing, and try to model your standard on them.

When in Doubt, Dress Up

On the whole, it's better to be overdressed than underdressed. Even in casual offices, you don't want to get the reputation of being the worst dressed person on the job.

It's a good idea to keep your wardrobe flexible. If you wear a suit and a tie, you can always take off your tie or your jacket if you want to appear more casual. Or keep a good cardigan sweater on hand to help you dress up or down during the day.

What Image Are You Shooting For

Decide what image you want to project. Professional? Coolly competent? Artistic? Cutting edge? Then look at clothing and jewelry before you put it on and ask yourself, what does this say?

Dress for Your Audience

Next time an election rolls around, watch how political figures dress. Giving a speech at a barbecue in ranch or farm country, they wear jeans and cowboy boots. Talking to dock workers they'll roll up their sleeves and loosen their tie. The same is true on the job. If you have to meet with different kinds of people, dress for your audience.

Regional Differences

Television, air travel and multinational corporations have made western business clothes more uniform, but there are still regional differences in dress. The average woman in New York is probably wearing way too much make-up for San Francisco. Businessmen in Wyoming, where even bankers wear cowboy boots and hats, will feel silly wearing them in Chicago.

If your work involves traveling you might want to do a little research before you go. There's nothing like landing in a new city and finding out everything you packed is inappropriate. Ask for advice from people who have been there, or call ahead and get tips from companies in the area you'll be visiting.

Don't Irritate Anybody

Unless you have a definite statement you'd like to make and are willing to possibly lose advancement over it, it's safer to stick with the standard for your company and the world at large.

"Wanting to make a statement is one thing, and you may want to do that at a local watering hole," says Cappon. "But the corporate world is probably not the place to make it."

Squeaky Clean

You have to look freshly scrubbed and clean on the job. No one likes to be around someone who looks, well, a little grubby. Or dishevelled. And let's face it: being known as a lovable slob is never good for a career. So make sure your hair and nails are clean.

It's also important that your clothes are clean and pressed. Be assured everyone will notice that "tiny little spot that you can hardly see." And it's pointless to wear a great suit or dress if it's rumpled, so make sure your clothes are ironed and look as fabulous as you do.


Scents are very personal. What one person likes makes another person gag. Many people are even allergic to perfumes.

You're probably already slightly scented since your shampoo, skin soap, body lotion and laundry detergents all have smells. Frankly, that should be enough. If you simply have to wear additional scent, use eau de toilette, which is less potent than perfume.

It's better to wear too little (or none at all) than too much. If your co-workers or supervisors don't like the scent, they can't hold their noses all day: they're forced to live with it. So be respectful of other people's noses.

Speaking of Scent

Be aware of what your clothes are made of. Natural fibers like cotton and wool breathe well. Some synthetic fibers don't, so if you begin to sweat (and who doesn't sweat a little?) they can acquire an "off" smell.

Cool Shades

No matter how cool your sunglasses are, take them off. Eye contact is absolutely crucial to good interaction in the workplace.

Hire an Image Consultant

Image consultants are the experts on clothing and the statement they make. They take into account your build and coloring, your career, your cash flow and your preferences. Then they help you build a wardrobe and appearance that helps you achieve your goals.

Image consultants, though expensive up front, say they save their clients money in the long run by building a flexible and sensible wardrobe. Before hiring a consultant, ask for references or for lists of former clients so you can see if you like the results they've achieved with others.

Part Two: Specific Wardrobe Dos and Don'ts For Both Men and Women

Shoes : The two things that people look at are -- surprise! -- your hair and your shoes.

Jean Bieder is an image consultant in the San Francisco area. Like everyone else we spoke to, Bieder is adamant about buying the right shoes.

"No matter what else you're wearing, the single most important thing you can do is invest in really good shoes," she says. You can skimp or find bargains elsewhere, but go for the very best quality you can afford when it comes to shoes.

Once you own them, keep them up. Keep them polished and take them in to be fixed before your heels get run down or scuffed. Wear red high-top sneakers only at your own peril.

Hair: Your hair, regardless of gender, should be neat, clean and professional.

"Go to a good hair salon," says Bieder. "In haircuts, you really do get what you pay for." If you've colored your hair, be sure to get it touched up before an interview: two-toned hair is very distracting and unattractive.

Color: Unless you have money to burn, build your wardrobe around a basic color. For people on a strict budget Bieder recommends black because, she says, "It's very forgiving. Bad tailoring, material that's not the very best from Italy -- they all look better in black than in other colors." Other traditional colors to build on are navy, brown or grey.

For Women Only

Shoes: Bieder suggests a "a good quality, black, medium-heeled pump." It goes with just about anything and can be worn with a classy little black dress or a conservative business suit. Do not wear high spiky heels, especially to an interview.

Hair: Beider advises you "get a versatile haircut, one that you can tie up or leave down so you have several different looks."

And restrain yourself. Hair that looks great on a date (curled, moussed, pouffed, teased or sprayed with glitter) is not the look you're going for on the job. Many hairstyles feature wisps of hair falling over your eyes or into your face. This may look cute on a date, but it's just an annoyance on the job, so pin back your hair or avoid this kind of cut altogether.

Pantyhose: Stick with basic colors that match your shoes or your skirt: browns and black. Bieder thinks flesh-colored stockings are a mistake: "They cut you in half. If your stockings match your skirt, people will look up into your face." She also has a favorite manufacturer: "Donna Karan. They're expensive but they last forever, so it's a great buy in the long run."

Dresses: Plungy little sexy numbers are not appropriate for work. On interviews, a suit in a classic color like blue, grey or black is still your best bet.

The nice thing about suits is that they can look totally different if worn with different accessories. Blouses, scarves and pins can dress a suit up or down allowing you to go from super professional to casual. Once you're on the job, take your cue from the office standard.

Make-Up: Less is more. The idea of make-up, theoretically, is to subtly enhance your natural features. Let's emphasize the word "subtle." Bright, dramatic lipstick or several layers of multicolored eye shadow are just not appropriate for work, unless you work in a tattoo parlour. Blush, a medium-colored lipstick and some eye shadow is okay, but after that you're into overkill.

Jewelry: If you're on an interview, and unsure of the company's style, less is better. Tons of jangling bracelets, a ring on every finger, and big dangle earrings are not appropriate for most work settings; they're definitely bad for interviews. Wear small earrings, one ring, and a maximum of one other piece of jewelry. The third piece can be a small pin (stay away from wacky ones), a bracelet, or a thin necklace.

"The size of the jewelry really depends on the proportions of the person," says Bieder. "If you're little, don't wear big jewelry, and if you're big, no tiny jewelry." She recommends medium-sized hoops in gold and silver, pearl studs, and maybe colored studs, "to bring out the color of your eyes."

For Men Only

Shoes: Remember, get the best shoes you can afford and keep them polished and in good shape. For men, basic black oxfords are your best bet.

Ties: When in doubt, go conservative. Here's a strange thing about ties: people find ugly ties really disturbing. And there's no telling what they'll find ugly. So while you may think your bright yellow Mickey Mouse tie is great, others may be harbouring fantasies of setting it on fire so they never have to look at it again.

Small stripes or diamond patterns in muted colors are best for conservative firms and for interviews. Jokey ties are out. No, they won't think it's cute. Trust us.

Suits: Yes, you have to wear a suit. Even casual firms expect a suit now and then, and they're the standard for interviews. Again, the traditional colors -- dark blue or grey -- are best. Suits are a lot like shoes: you should get the best suit you can afford. And if you buy off the rack, have it altered by a tailor so it hangs better on your frame.

Hair: Styles keep changing. Your safest course is to go with the standard: not too long, not too short, not too bizarre a haircut, and definitely no dyed green streak. There are some places, depending on where you live and the company you're with, where executives have ponytails or shave their heads. If you feel strongly about your hair, go for it, but be warned that you're taking a risk. No matter what your hairstyle, make sure your hair is washed and neat and looking its very best for an interview.

Jewelry: Here is all the jewelry you can wear on an interview: a watch and one ring (and it can't be a pinkie ring). No bracelets, no neck chains, and no earrings -- not even a tasteful little one. The traditional taboo against men wearing earrings is changing rapidly, but if you're not sure about the company (and how could you be?) leave it at home.

Once you're with a company, test the waters and look around to see what's appropriate. Keep in mind that even if lots of men in the company wear earrings, the people who are in a position to make decisions about your career may not.


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