Dressing for Success at Work – Irrelevant or Essential?

Dressing for Success – I first suggested a Dress for Success course for executives in the US and was met with scorn from HR. What would people think of their organisation if it was deemed more important for their executives to look good rather than achieve? I ignored this advice and sent the group to an experienced personal shopper in Bloomingdales. The result was transformative.

As a psychologist, I firmly believe that confidence is inside out- that we need to get our thoughts and emotions aligned before we can look confident. However as humans we have a feedback loop which informs us that when we look good we feel good. And so this also contributes to confidence.

Dressing for success can be a sartorial minefield for women it . Men have a limited repertoire of clothes and apart from making obvious mistakes, like wearing cut – off jeans when all around are clad in Hugo Boss, life is pretty simple. Not so with women. The height of a neckline, the length of a skirt, the shoes, the colours- a veritable minefield of potential inappropriateness. Even when senior men are a bit crumpled themselves, they still see fit to comment on the women around them deeming them fit or unfit for promotion dependent on how they look.

We’ve all read advice that suggests we should dress for our next promoted post but when you are a woman holding together job and family, the time for shopping and available funds are limited. And what do you buy? I was doing a business presentation recently to a public sector body and was confronted with a group of 12 women who were adjudicating. As I cast an eye round the table I was able to spot the leader in a trice. She sat to my left wearing a crisp well cut shirt and a beautifully tailored black skirt. She dressed for success. The rest were clad in frumpy, ill- fitting, flowery ‘frocks’. Tailoring looks purposeful, organised, confident, executive.

Of course, this is not just the preserve of women. I was invited to coach a senior microelectronics executive. The company wanted to promote him but his daily work attire of track bottoms and a sweat shirt stopped them. He was adamant he wouldn’t change as ‘he was a man of the people’ and wore his casual dress as a badge of honour. A couple of sessions, discussing where these beliefs came from and how they could be holding him back, were sufficient for him to at least try on the Giorgio Armani suit I took him to view. He became a different man in front of my eyes. I think he had feared he would look silly. Au contraire he looked executive. When he returned to work- wearing the suit- he brought the company to a halt. This story even reached the ears of the BBC who filmed his ‘before and after’ transformation.

Similarly for the executives who went to Bloomingdales. They all returned with at least one major work item each and wore their buys to a final presentation on their Leadership Course. They looked fantastic. Their previous tendencies to wear Birkenstocks and cut- off jeans were replaced by good quality suits, dresses, shirts and jackets. The invited dignitaries hardly recognised them and talked constantly about how confident they looked. Oven ready for promotion I thought. And they were, the majority becoming Vice Presidents.

The thing is, we are compelled by the visual. Employees can change in skills and expertise but the challenge is signalling that change. Dressing for success delivers that.

So the takeaways are:

  • Spend money on one major item like a suit or a dress. Accessories can be inexpensive
  • Wear with panache at every opportunity
  • Think and feel like an executive….and then deliver of course.

Ros Taylor Company is a corporate leadership and coaching consultancy that will change the way you do business.

Through a series of monthly sessions or a shorter programme of master classes, our Key to the Boardroom course helps transform a business’s most prized assets ; namely its people.