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Should you still ‘dress for the job you want’?

March 19, 2015, 5:04 PM UTC
business suit
man straightening his tie
Photograph by Adrianna Williams — Getty Images

Dear Annie: Can you help me out with my spring work wardrobe? I’ve always heard the saying, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” But is that still true? I’m the leader of a design team at a marketing firm, and everyone at my level (and below) comes to work in very casual, sometimes downright eccentric, clothes. Our higher-ups, however, meet with clients more often and want to convey a certain image, so they dress in more formal, though usually super-fashionable, business wear — suits and ties or, for the women, skirts or dressy pants and heels.

The thing is, on days when I’ve dressed the way they do, I’ve stuck out like a sore thumb, especially since my coworkers have made remarks like, “Have you got a job interview lined up somewhere today?” Should I just ignore them and dress up anyway? — Fashionista

Dear Fashionista: In a word, yes. “It may seem superficial, but clothing makes a statement about who you are and where you want to go,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and author who heads up the Protocol School of Palm Beach. She often advises executives who want to polish their image. “Personal style has always played, and still plays, a crucial role in the career trajectories of leaders.”

Since people tend to judge us (consciously or not) at least in part based on how we look, why not look as if you’re ready for a promotion? Dressing well, however, “doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a suit and tie every day,” Whitmore adds. Sometimes subtle details can make a distinct impression, especially on fashion-conscious folks like your bosses.

Above all, choose quality over quantity. Whitmore recommends a few good outfits in “lightweight, breathable fabrics like wool or wool blend that don’t wrinkle easily,” in “colors, like taupe, black, and navy, that are professional and travel well.” Then showcase your personality by adding “a pop of color with your accessories” — a vivid tie or scarf, for instance.

Other accessories, too, are part of your visual brand. Here, the devil really is in the details. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how well dressed you are if your accessories look shabby,” says Whitmore. If you have a briefcase, for example, it does more than just hold your stuff — it expresses “clues about your professionalism and your personality,” so it’s worth investing in a good one.

Buy “the best-quality shoes you can possibly afford,” Whitmore suggests. She calls these “your most important accessory, because good-looking, polished shoes convey, among other things, your attention to detail.” One more way to telegraph your taste to your “super-fashionable” higher-ups is to scrap your Bic and “carry a quality pen,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should look attractive.”

It might interest you to know that, when CareerBuilder polled 552 senior executives recently, the survey included questions about clothes. About two-thirds (67%) of the CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and senior vice presidents in the survey said they usually wear “business casual,” while 18% “regularly wear jeans or shorts to work.” Even so, the executives favored conservative colors. Black was most popular, chosen by 32%, followed by navy (31%), and gray (10%).

“The CEO and other senior leaders should set the tone” for whatever happens at work, including how people dress, says Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s human resources chief. “So it’s fine to emulate your higher-ups. But don’t get caught in a ‘who wore it better’ situation. Showing up in the exact same Brooks Brothers suit the boss just wore could be perceived as sucking up, or simply creepy.” True.

You can’t go wrong, she adds, with “a classic black suit,” or pantsuit, or little black dress. “Adding interesting accessories like jewelry, scarves, or ties creates a look that’s both professional and reflects your own individual style.”

The best reason to ignore your coworkers’ comments and dress for the job you want is what Whitmore tells the managers who attend her seminars.

“If you like to dress up, dress up. Take pride in looking your best, and don’t worry about what your peers think of you,” she says. “At the end of the day, they’re not the ones handing out promotions.”

Talkback: Do employees and senior management dress differently where you work? If so, which style do you follow? Leave a comment below.