Sarah Stebbins, additional reporting by N. Jamiyla Chisholm
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Dress = Success?
Anyone who owns a power outfit knows that the right clothes can be a big confidence booster. There’s even proof: In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects who donned doctors’ lab coats scored higher on attention-related tasks than did those who did not. And while an employer should really be focused on your brilliant ideas, it helps to have the whole package. According to a survey of business leaders published this year by the Center of Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania, two-thirds said that when it comes to getting ahead, image makes a major impact. Curious how your work look measures up? Real Simple consulted human-resources professionals, executive coaches, and style experts for the new office-wear do’s (flashy colors!) and don’ts (flashing skin!).
Jennifer Baumgartner, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, author ofYou Are What You Wear($16,amazon.com), and the owner of InsideOut, a wardrobe-consulting business based in Washington, D.C.: Designer labels are connected to financial success. And we tend to directly correlate financial success with the characteristics that help achieve prosperity, such as discipline, hard work, and intelligence. Due to these subconscious associations, we may give the person we believe to be successful a higher salary or more opportunities.
Kat Griffin, New York City–based former lawyer and founder ofCorporette. com, a fashion and lifestyle blog for lawyers, bankers, M.B.A.’s, and consultants: It shows a commitment to your job if you buy quality items. That said, for young women, starting out of the gate with an Hermès bag can signal that you don’t need to work. You have to overcome that impression to show you care.
Roshini Rajkumar, Minneapolis-based executive coach and author ofCommunicate That!: Your Toolbox for Powerful Presentations($13,roshinigroup.com): You may want to scale it back at times if you dress more extravagantly than clients or coworkers. I’ve coached executives who won’t wear their Italian leather shoes when they visit their factories. They want to be a “regular guy.”
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If Your Look Is... A Conservative, Timeless Suit
Griffin: These days, wearing a suit daily is pretty much just for lawyers and politicians. But I advise women in any corporate environment to wear one for big meetings. It makes you look put-together, competent, and trustworthy.
Rajkumar: Make sure you show some personality or you’ll miss an opportunity to stand out. A cool necklace can be a conversation starter.
Nancy Connery, tech recruiter and founder of Connery Consulting, a San Francisco consulting firm for technology companies, including Dropbox, Twitter, and Lithium: At most technology companies, if you wear a suit, they’ll wonder if you can relate to the casual culture of the industry. Nowadays, as long as you wear nice jeans, you’ll fit right in.
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If Your Look Is... Sloppy Genius
Rajkumar: If you’re a financial planner and you look like you don’t care, clients will think, She’s going to be sloppy with my money.
Griffin: Men can pull off the eccentric-genius look, but I haven’t seen a woman do it successfully. I have a theory that it’s one of the last gender boundaries.
Linda Koch Lorimer, vice president of Yale University and a member of the board of directors for the publisher McGraw-Hill: There is no dress code for successful women professors: You’ll see a woman in casual chinos who is a nationally regarded scientist and another with an Hermès scarf who is a leading humanist. I do know a couple of women, including myself, who when appointed college or university president were given a few tips to improve their attire and presentation.
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If Your Look Is... Trend-Tastic
Michelle T. Sterling, image consultant and founder of Global Image Group, an image-consulting business headquartered in New York City: The perception is that you spend a lot of time keeping up with trends, so it seems like you care more about clothes than about the job.
Baumgartner: When I dress professionally, my clients feel comfortable putting their trust in me. Yet when I was a high school teacher, my students related to me more when I wore trendy items. Depending on your field, age, and audience, your best outfit will be different. Understanding this can be a valuable tool.
Aliza Bogner, vice president of human resources for Alison Brod Public Relations, in New York City: People think that working in a creative office means they can embrace every trend, but that’s not always the case. If you want to take risks, do it with accessories versus a whole outfit.
Griffin: I wouldn’t wear harem pants on Wall Street. And if platforms are affecting your gait, they’re a no. Try out trends using colors and prints. It’s with shapes that people tend to go wrong.
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If Your Look Is... Young and Casual
Griffin: Someone in comfortable clothes comes off as relaxed and easy to talk to. But dressing that way can prevent you from moving up. It seems like you’re not willing to put in the effort.
Bogner: I have a love-hate relationship with jeans. They’re OK with heels and a jacket, as long as you look polished.
Lorimer: Looking young is no bar to performance. For example, Ruth Turner, who was an aide to Tony Blair [the former UK prime minister], is one of the most youthful women, with her long hair and bangs. Yet she’s also one of the most powerful, effective people I’ve met.
Connery: Casual attire is more accepted on the West Coast than on the East Coast, which is usually more formal.
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If Your Look Is... Sexy and You Know It
Griffin: If you’re dressed provocatively in court, you’re conveying something about yourself instead of about your client, whom you’re supposed to be representing. I’ve also witnessed male bosses—and females, too—who don’t want to be seen with the lady in the plunging dress. You’ll cut yourself off from mentorship opportunities.
Bogner: Skirts and dresses that hit midthigh are OK, provided that they aren’t tight. It’s safer to pair them with opaque tights.
Baumgartner: Ask yourself, “If I were going to a nightclub after work, would I have to change anything?” If the answer is no, you’re dressed inappropriately and probably wearing too much makeup.
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If Your Look Is... Severe Schoolmarm
Baumgartner: People worry about age being a liability, but the issue is really about seeming disconnected or behind the times. If you’re working on something innovative and you’re wearing a double-breasted suit from the 80s, the question becomes, Does she have enough of a handle on what’s current to pull this off?
Griffin: Playing it safe may be boring, but a judge is never going to rule against you for being frumpy.
Sterling: Classic clothing, if worn properly, looks appropriate and dependable. This is what business attire is supposed to be. However, if garments fit poorly, it’s the same as looking sloppy.
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If Your Look Is... Rainbow Brights
Bogner: As long as it looks polished with the right shoes and accessories, it can be great.
Griffin: When I worked on Wall Street, there was a man who was known for his bold suits and colorful ties. It spoke very clearly: “I take risks.”
Sterling: Be mindful of the psychological effects of colors. Some studies have shown that yellow represents positivity, and blue, trustworthiness. Red is good when you want to appear assertive, but don’t wear it if you’re firing someone. Green, the color of empathy, is better.
Rajkumar: For TV appearances, I tell clients to wear a red or purple top that lights up the face, not black or white, which can wash you out. This works for everyday life, too.