Business Clothing – Basic Rules, Part 1

Do you ever wonder where all the rules of dressing for business and professional activities have gone? Depending on when and where you are on any given business day, the words “distant past” might come to mind.

It’s difficult to decide if people just don’t know what to wear to work, or for their entrepreneurial and professional pursuits, or if they have lost sight of the relevance and importance of their visual appearance to their level of professional success.

The Queen of England is reported to have told Prince Charles, “Dress gives one the outward sign from which people can judge the inward state of mind. One they can see, the other they cannot.” Clearly, she was saying what many people remain reluctant to recognize; that people judge us by the way we dress – that first component of our Total Image, the Visual impression.

In all situations, business and social, our external visual image sends a message.

Try going to a busy restaurant at lunchtime. Look around you at what people are wearing and see if you don’t make judgments about who they are, their line of business, their personalities and their competencies. Think about how you feel when you are dressed in your usual business attire as opposed to casual dress. Your choice of business apparel speaks to your professional behavior and credibility.

It is important to understand how to dress for business if you intend to represent yourself and your organization or business in a positive manner.

How you dress can be affected by four major factors:
1. The industry in which you work,
2. The job you have within that industry,
3. The geographic area in which you live;
4. And most importantly, what your clients (current and potential) expect to see.

Professional Dress for Men

In men’s clothing, fashion does not change significantly from season to season but business attire is about being polished and professional and not necessarily about being “fashionable”. It’s about presenting yourself in a way that makes your clients feel comfortable and confident with you. Dressing for success is still the rule. The professional businessman should keep in mind these important points when deciding what to wear to work.

Choose a conservative, well-fitted suit in navy, black or gray (for those with “cool” or blue-based coloring), or in dark brown, warm navy, or khaki (for those with “warm” or yellow-based coloring); either a narrow pinstripe, a subtle plaid, or in a solid material. The quality of the material speaks as loudly as the color and can make the difference between sleaze and suave – since men’s fashions do not change as often, plan to invest a little more in your suit and let your shirts and accessories vary with personality and fashion trends.

A solid white or blue dress shirt with long sleeves offers the most polished look. The more pattern and color you add, the more the focus is on your clothing, rather than your professionalism.

Ties should be made of silk or a silk-like fabric. Avoid the cartoon characters, musical ties, and those with lights and movement – go for simple and subtle if you want to enhance your credibility and keep you and your expertise the focus instead of your clothing.

Socks should be calf-length or above. Make sure they match not only what you are wearing, but also each other. A quick glance in good light before heading out the door can save embarrassment later in the day. Check for holes as well if you’ll be going through airport security and removing your shoes.

Taller men (or those with longer legs) should be especially careful of purchasing socks that are functionally long enough. Pulling your socks up throughout the day (or appearing at a meeting with your socks bunched around your ankles) is not good for your overall image or for making a polished and professional impression.

Shoes should without question be conservative, clean and well polished. Lace-up shoes are the choice over slip-ons, and definitely avoid flip flops unless you are at the beach. Don’t think for a minute that people don’t notice shoes. Many people will look at your feet before your face, and a shoe with a run-over heel or scuffs will reflect negatively on your entire visual image.

Belts need to match or closely coordinate with your shoes. Once again, quality counts.

Keep jewelry to a minimum. In a time when some men still sport gold necklaces and bracelets and some wear multiple or very large single earrings, the business professional should limit himself to a conservative, high-quality watch, a wedding band and maybe his college ring.

A tie bar or tie tac can be considered part of your jewelry / accessory wardrobe, but be careful not to end up with too many total pieces in your ensemble. When in doubt, leave it out!

Personal hygiene is part of the success equation. Freshly scrubbed wins out over heavily fragranced any day of the week. Save the after-shave for after hours, but never the shave itself.

The finishing touch for the business man is his choice of off-the-body accessories: briefcase, portfolio and pen. When it comes to sealing the deal, a well-tailored, good quality suit, a silk tie and a good pair of leather shoes can lose their beneficial effect when you pull out the ball point pen you picked up in the hotel meeting room the day before!

While some may feel that it’s superficial to judge by appearances, when meeting someone for the first time, we can only begin with the visual impression they make. The visual impression makes up the majority of your first impression, and people will spend the rest of their relationship with you trying to justify that first impression, accurate or not. Once your credibility has been established, it’s easy to relax a bit, but be careful – one overly-relaxed encounter can seriously damage weeks of developing a positive and solid impression.

The more conservative the industry, the more emphasis is placed on classic and understated good looks versus a up-to-the-minute fashion-forward image. Professionals in creative industries like marketing and advertising have a little more leeway and flexibility, but remember that business is always business.

Stay tuned for part two of this article which will cover professional dress for women.