When women entered the workplace in the 1970’s and 1980’s in greater numbers than ever before and began to move into positions which had traditionally been held by men, many of them believed that they needed to imitate the business attire of their male counterparts. Widely publicized books from that era – like “Dress for Success” – did not promote individuality or dressing to fit one’s personality or body shape – everyone was expected to wear the same garments and dress in the same ultra-conservative manner.
The result? Women started showing up at the office in skirted suits or coordinated skirts and jackets with tailored blouses, finished off with an accessory item that looked very much like a man’s tie. None of this did very much for women’s self-esteem and self-confidence, and it did very little to enhance their credibility or help women be seen as valuable and intelligent players in the business world.
Happily those days (for the most part) are gone. While the business woman may now wear pants to work, she does it out of a desire to retain her professional appearance and at the same time enjoy the flexibility and comfort that pants offer over skirts.
Her goal is no longer to mirror her male colleagues, but to apply the ‘rules’ of business dressing in a way that enhances her visual image, harmonizes with her personal style and personality, and supports her business purposes and goals.
The same overall rules apply to women’s work attire as apply to men’s. Business clothing should not a slavish reflection of the latest fashion trend – in most industries, trying to follow the trend of the moment can cause a businesswoman to lose credibility and project a less-than-serious image. A woman should be noticed for who she is and her professional skills rather than for what she wears. Her business wear should be appropriate for her industry and her position or title within the industry.
Start with a skirted suit or pants suit for the most conservative look. A skirted suit is viewed as the most professional look, and the most universally accepted across multiple industries. With a few exceptions, dresses do not offer the same credibility unless they are accompanied by matching jackets – adding a jacket brings an extra level of polish to every outfit.
Skirts can be knee-length, just slightly above, or below. Avoid extremes – mid-thigh is not an appropriate length for business as it will likely be seen as too sexy and not business-ready; A skirt more than two inches above the knee raises eyebrows and questions. A skirt longer than calf length will cause most women to look shorter and wider than they might wish, in addition to adding age to the wearer. Despite the recent popularity of television shows like “Mad Men”, the “wiggle” dress or skirt – so named because they were so tight around the legs that a woman had to adopt a walk that was more of a wiggle from side to side than a comfortable stride moving forward – might result in a less-than-professional impression that puts more emphasis on your physical assets than your professional prowess.
Pants should break at the top of the foot or shoe, and clear the ground or floor at the heel in the back. Walking around with frayed hems or extremely dirty hems on your pants because you’re wearing pants that are too long will negatively affect your visual impression.
While Capri pants and their fashion cousins that come in assorted lengths from mid-calf to ankle are an enduring trend, they are out of place in the conservative business environment – think law, banking and insurance just to name a few.
Blouses and sweaters provide color and variety to a woman’s clothing, but they should be appealing rather than revealing – no transparent or sheer clothing if you want to be completely business-ready. Inappropriate necklines and waistlines can give the wrong impression, as can clothing that is too close-fitting and which reveals aspects of your anatomy (or your undergarments) that should be kept private.
Women need to wear pantyhose or stockings in the business world – bare legs are still considered more casual than business-like, even if no one mentions them. Neutral or flesh-tone stockings are the best choices. Never wear extremely dark hose with light-colored clothing or shoes – this is a place where high contrast is not the most flattering look. Keep an extra pair of stockings in your desk drawer unless the hosiery store is next door or just down the street from the office.
Faces, not feet, should be the focal point in business so chose conservative shoes, leaving extreme height, unusual heel shapes and excessive toe cleavage for other occasions. Remember – we’re talking about conservative industries here – creatives will have a little more leeway, and someone working in the fashion industry will be expected to keep their look fresh and current at all times.
A low-to-mid height heel is more professional than flats or very high heels. In spite of some opinions in the fashion industry and the current rage in shoes, which includes very high platforms, open toes, and unusual fabrics – these shoes are not traditionally office attire. Not only are sandals, very high heels and open toed shoes a safety hazard, they suggest a certain unofficial agenda.
When it comes to accessories and jewelry, less is once again more. Keep it simple: one ring per hand, one earring per ear. Accessories should reflect your personality, not diminish your credibility.
Business attire is different from casual, weekend and evening wear. Investing in a good business wardrobe is an investment in your professional future.
For those who think it’s not what you wear but who you are that creates success, give that some more thought. Business skills and experience count, but so does personal appearance and that all-important first impression. Don’t set yourself up to start a business relationship with questions about your credibility or skills because you preferred to follow the trend of the moment rather than keep the focus on your expertise and accomplishments.