Wardrobe Wisdom for Men and Women

Most business professionals recognize that the expression,"You don't get a second chance to make a first impression" is true. The simple fact is that in and out of the business world, people are judged on their wardrobe. The clothing you wear can have an adverse affect on your career. 

There used to be a time when the basic business suit was the norm for men and women in workplace situations across America. But more businesses have adopted "business casual" policies, so knowing the proper articles of clothing to buy is critical. 

It's increasingly important to understand what this term means. What is "business casual" to some may not be acceptable with others. The clothes you wear can vary depending on your situation as well. Even at trade shows, conventions and other meetings, there is a fine line between "business casual" and "business no-no." 

Perceived Image Is Everything

The image a professional presents should make prospects and clients feel comfortable with who he or she is. Often you will be working in their offices, interfacing with their company personnel. There are three areas of professional presence; the "three V's": Visual, Vocal, Verbal. They are the communication signals we send to other people. The visual is what we look at: dress, body language, facial expression. The vocal is your voice. The verbal is the words you choose. 

What is most interesting is that these three signals are far from equally weighted. The visual component has the most initial impact. Think of it as the packaging. Would you buy a bar of soap that has the wrapper torn? Remember that the next time you are dressing for an interview or meeting. 

How you look can color what people hear you saying. Many companies today have "dress-down" and business casual days. If you are an outside professional visiting a firm, this does not necessarily apply to you. Unless you are requested to wear business casual attire, come dressed professionally. You are representing yourself as well as your company.

Your Basic Business Wardrobe

Do your clothes help you project the image you want? Each person should develop a style that reflects his or her own personality and individual taste.

Women can wear the following as traditional business attire:

  • Black or gray suit
  • Dark burgundy or navy suit
  • Contrasting jacket and skirt
  • Two-piece dress
  • Several white, off-white blouses
  • Solid color blouse; may be pastel
  • One pair gold, one pair silver earrings
  • Scarves that pick up colors from the suits
  • Black pumps; navy or taupe pumps
  • Neutral or taupe hosiery
  • Black leather handbag
  • All weather coat
  • Black, brown, or burgundy briefcase
Basic business wardrobe options for men are:
  • Solid-color navy and gray suits (one each color) 
  • Five pairs black socks, two pairs navy socks
  • Pinstriped navy suit, same in gray 
  • Four burgundy/red print or striped silk ties, two patterned silk ties
  • Charcoal-gray suit 
  • Two navy/mauve ties
  • Navy sport coat with gray trousers 
  • One black leather belt
  • Six white cotton shirts
  • A blue or pinstriped shirt 
  • Leather briefcase 
  • One pair black slip-on shoes, one pair black lace-up shoes
Proper Wardrobe Options For Business Casual 

Today's employees appreciate having casual dress policies because they more closely match their own personal values states a July 2000 study by Bright Horizons Family Solutions and William M. Mercer Inc. Responses from more than 450 employees nationwide found that 90 percent of companies surveyed allowed some form of casual dress. While some firms had casual Fridays, others allowed workers to dress more informally during summer months. Still other businesses had adopted year-round casual dress policies.

Some offices may have a business casual dress standard from one to five days a week. More companies are having "casual Fridays" or are relaxing the office dress code. But dressed down doesn't mean sloppy or shabby clothing.

Instituting dress policies that are business casual without defining what this term means is the main problem. A neat, clean, conservative and well-groomed businesslike appearance applies when a business casual standard is in place.

When you have a client meeting scheduled, clients come first. When meeting with clients out of the office, regular business attire is appropriate (e.g. suits, ties, tailored dresses), unless the client has a business casual policy and invites you to participate in their policy. For meetings in the office with clients, dress should be appropriate to the client's expectations (i.e. if a client dresses in business attire, so should you.)

Women have the following options for "business casual"

  • Casual skirts, slacks or "skorts"
  • Neatly pressed chinos or corduroys are acceptable
  • Cotton shirts in solids, prints, or muted plaids
  • Sweaters (not too tight)
  • Blazers look good over slacks or casual skirt
  • Low-heeled shoes or boots - wear stockings or socks
Men can wear the following as acceptable "business casual" 
  • Chinos or "Dockers"-type trousers
  • Sport shirts with collars or banded necks
  • Polo shirts (with collars)
  • Sweater or sport jacket
  • Casual loafers or lace-up shoes
A survey of 3,500 executives nationwide, released February 2001 by Management Recruiters International, found that more than one third said business casual has become too casual.

Appropriate business casual attire never includes the following:

  • Jeans (of any color)
  • Athletic wear (e.g. sweat suits)
  • Leggings
  • T-shirts
  • Bare midriffs (low-cut garments, front or back)
  • Any kind of workout clothes, running or gym shoes, sneakers or sandals
  • Hats, caps
  • Ripped or tattered clothing
  • Extremely tight-fitting blouses, short skirts or other suggestive clothing
The image presented to clients, whether in their office or yours, is of utmost importance. If you are in doubt about whether a garment is appropriate, it's probably not.

Should You Buy It?

Before making a purchase, men and women need to answer "yes" to these seven questions. If you are in doubt, don't buy the item. Clothes should look and feel good. 

1.  Did you try the garment on?

2.  Did you check the fit in the front and the back?

3.  Is the suit jacket long enough to cover the buttocks?

4.  Are the button holes sewn tightly?

5.  Can you move around in the garment?

6.  Does the item feel comfortable? Check for pulls, bulges or bunching of the material.

7.  Do you like the item? Buy a garment because you like it, not just to add to your wardrobe.

Click here to find a career you can be passionate about
by Marjorie Brody,

Marjorie Brody, MA, CSP, CMC, is author of 15 books, including her new book, Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move?, Speaking is an Audience- Centered Sport, and Professional Impressions . Etiquette for Everyone, Every Day. She has appeared on CNBC several times, Fox-TV, Oxygen Network, and been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, People, Glamour, BusinessWeek, Fortune and many other national publications. Her Jenkintown, PA-based training corporation, Brody Communications Ltd., connects people to potential by offering customized seminars, coaching and keynotes focusing on communication, presentation skills and leadership. Visit www.BrodyCommunications.com or call 800-726-7936.

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Article copyright 2001 Marjorie Brody and Brody Communications Ltd. 
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