Dress for Success

In the 1980s, “Dress for Success” was in vogue for people (although, it seems, primarily women) who wanted to achieve status in the world of business. There were books about how to dress for success, as well as seminars and other related products. My (then) employer enrolled me, along with other female executives, in a Dress for Success seminar, where we spent a day learning about the colors that accentuated our appearance, how to conduct ourselves in meetings, and generally, proper attire and etiquette in our professional lives. Once again, thanks to my mother, I was miles ahead of the other attendees. Mom had forced, and I do mean forced, me to attend a modeling class in my teen years, where I was subjected to far more than the world of fashion. In this class, as well as the dress for success class, I learned how to sit properly, how to walk properly (instead of loping along, with my shoulders slouched), and in general, how to ensure my appearance was appropriate for every situation in which I found myself. Therefore, when I attended the dress for success seminar, once again, not at my own volition, I was reminded about all of the things I learned years before. Now that I have been working in a professional capacity since earning my Ph. D. in social psychology in 1984, I realize the importance of dressing for success in everything I do. Believe me when I say I have never, ever, worn anything except a conservative skirt suit, in black, navy blue, or charcoal gray when I am selecting a jury or otherwise inside a courtroom. And, only once, when it was bitterly cold in the northeast, have I worn a pantsuit, instead of a suit with a skirt, during a mock trial. I save my numerous pantsuits for speeches and client meetings, but they, just like their skirt suit counterparts, are very conservative in appearance. While it is true that my clothes, hairstyle, and grooming do not make me more intelligent than I already am, they convey, even to the casual observer, that I “mean business.” Take it from me: Leave your Alice Cooper t-shirt home any time you want to make a good impression. As much as I love t-shirts featuring Alice Cooper, The Beatles, and, to keep it current, Disturbed, I am not going to impress any clients while wearing anything other than a business suit. I dress for success, not failure.

Reflecting on the attire of past job candidates who showed their inability to dress for success at their interviews is telling. There was the heavyset young man who showed up for his job interview wearing a shirt (partly untucked), tie and dress slacks, sweating profusely. Okay, it is Florida, and it was hot, but the jacket he announced having left in the car because it was hot would have covered the sweat stains, and perhaps, the untucked shirt. Another candidate flew into town for her interview and again, because it was hot, decided to wear flip flops with her suit to the interview. Two down, how about 1 more? The young lady who showed up in a mini dress actually looked okay wearing it, but it was so short that there was no graceful way for her to sit down for the interview without revealing more than, we think, she intended to reveal. Who knows? But, what most people know is that the opportunity to make a good first impression only happens one time. There is an appropriate “costume” to wear in a business setting. Perhaps it is possible to overdress for a business encounter, but it is better, in my opinion, to over than under do it. It is not easy sometimes guessing what the “dress code” will be for certain meetings. Melissa and I recently attended a meeting at a beach side hotel where we had to balance a probable casual environment with a serious business meeting. We took the safe route, but some of the others with whom we met were very much dressed down. But, that’s okay given the nature of the meeting. I think of business attire as the costume of business. If you want to project a professional appearance as a lawyer, doctor, banker, or business person, the initial choices are pretty clear. That said, in today’s often casual business environment, the acceptability of casual attire has grown. I welcome the comfort this brings, but despite having meetings at law firms in fancy offices, at which some of the attorneys will be dressed in jeans and golf shirts, I play it safe. I remember hearing from an attorney client many years ago that he had learned never to wear suits when visiting with his architect or engineering clients – they were used to being on site and did not wear suits and he learned to “blend in.” I think it is the “blending in” that becomes important. But, dressing down for comfort, a desire not to conform to social norms, or whatever reason, is inappropriate until one determines the norm for the environment.

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