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What, exactly, is “appropriate” business attire? That’s sort of like asking, “How long is a piece of string?” It’s not a “one size fits all” proposition. It depends on your line of work, your corporate culture, and your audience.
If you have strong skills and you get the business attire right, the “sky’s the limit” in your field. But if you fumble on the dress code-even if you’re technically competent-your climb will slow considerably, if not stall completely. How you look will open (or close) the door to opportunity; what you know will keep you in the room.
Here are the basic things you need to consider when putting together the best business attire for you:
Your Line of Work
Traditional businesses like law, banking, finance, accounting, high-level corporate, etc., require traditional business attire. The message: authoritative, conservative, and competent.
If you’re interviewing with a company and don’t know the dress code, you can’t go wrong with traditional business attire.
People businesses like teaching, real estate, sales, medicine, social work, etc., call for business attire that both conveys expertise but is non-threatening. The message: trustworthy, approachable, and knowledgeable.
Artistic businesses like advertising, art, fashion, writing, entertainment, decorating, etc., call for-or dare I say it? -expect a more expressive mode of business attire. The message: creative, unique, and contemporary.
Your Corporate Culture
The next thing you have to look at is your corporate culture.
While one company may have a very strict business attire code, another company in the same field may be much more relaxed. If you adapt your wardrobe to “fit in” with your company, you’ll succeed much faster (in terms of promotions and/or getting staff compliance) than if you simply resign yourself to the notion that everyone is either over- or underdressed, in your opinion, and you’re going to march to your own drum.
Who is your audience? The people who most influence your paycheck: your clients, potential clients, management, colleagues, staff, students, etc. You’re dressing to:
If you intimidate your clients, embarrass your manager, or have people look you over from head to toe in disbelief, you probably haven’t dressed for your audience. You also aren’t going to get very far. You need to dress how they’ll feel most comfortable doing business with you.
Imagine if you were selling a $300,000 harvester to a farmer in rural Kansas. What would you be wearing to make the sale? Jeans? A button-down shirt? Work boots?
Now imagine if you were selling a $300,000 diamond necklace to a socialite in Kansas City. What would be appropriate? A suit? Polished shoes? A manicure?
Try switching the sales people. How would the socialite respond to a jeweler in jeans and work boots? She’d probably think him a crook and the necklace stolen.
What about the farmer and the suit? He’d assume the sales person had never done an honest day’s work in her life and that she didn’t know the first thing about harvesting.
Same dollar figure, probably similar commissions. Completely different audiences.
Okay, that’s an extreme example, but it’s told to drive the point home: to get what YOU want, you have to give people what THEY want. And what they want, at least initially, is someone they can relate to or someone who fits the perceived image of the role.
If you pass that test, then they’ll go to the next level of learning more about you. If you don’t, the ball stops there.
In a lot of ways, it’s almost like dating: if someone catches your eye, you might want to know more about him/her; if not, you pass right over.
So the next time you’re standing in your closet trying to figure out the most appropriate business attire for a given situation, think about with whom you’re going to interact that day, and dress for your most important client.