From pictures of Einstein to Che Guevara to the green eyed Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic, the lone protestor of Tiananmen Square to Marilyn Monroe with her skirts flapping round her waist we can all think of iconic pictures that have had an impact on the world. Such pictures are a metaphor for their subject - without the use of words.
Similarly as we stand in our own skin in front of our world - potential clients, existing clients, the people we already work with - we are each a metaphor for what we do. You don't have to have opened your mouth for the people around you to have already created in their minds a list of what they think they see before them. It's based on the fight or flight syndrome which is inherent in all of us - residing in the reptilian part of our brains and carrying messages from many years past to keep us safe. Within seconds people around you will have quite unconsciously decided how trustworthy you are, what your social status is, your educational background etc etc. It's the responsibility of each of us to manage the impressions we create so we create the one we want people to receive. I also know that impression management is like speaking a foreign language - some of us are really good at it, other not so good and some, like me, pretty hopeless. It's how we're wired.
Increasingly I get clients telling me how difficult it is to know what to wear at work. The rules about what to wear to work have changed dramatically in the past decade. There was a time when you could get out of bed and knew what your uniform for work was and it usually included a jacket. Whereas there used to be very clear standards that fit across most industries, things are much more flexible now … and much more confusing! Looking put together doesn’t just come down to wearing a suit. There are still important standards to be maintained and as they say, the devil is in the details. So I’ve created a few helpful pointers and listed some sources at the end as a means of getting you started.
The most important things to remember are:
- A collar automatically makes an outfit more formal — whether it is on a jacket, blouse or cardigan.
- Softer, lighter fabrics make you appear softer and often, less credible.
- Darker colours look more authoritative than light ones which create a more approachable look or bright colours which create a more dramatic look.
- Plain fabric is more formal than patterned.
- Accessories make a huge difference: matching your shoes, belt, gloves, and bag is very formal. Any mix and match automatically lowers the formality.
- The more skin you’re showing, the less formal you are.
- Jewellery has different levels of formality - depending on how 'fussy' or shiney it is. What kind of workplace do you belong to? If it's one of the newer more creative industries you're likely to be able to be more creative with your dressing.
- It’s worth noting that in some of the more formal, city based industries certain colours are more acceptable than others. For instance, I’ve had clients in finance tell me they couldn’t possibly wear brown! It’s worth checking to see what others do and find your own way of creating something appropriately distinctive.
If you’re a woman:
The most formal look you would ever wear is a three piece suit, but who wears that nowadays? If you’re working in a formal industry, you’ll most likely wear a two piece suit, a dress and a jacket, or a skirt and a jacket with court shoes. Taking off the jacket automatically makes it less formal and a cardigan can be a less formal replacement of a jacket. Cardigans which are half cardi, half jacket are everywhere at the moment- often less informal because of the fabric (boiled wool, wool, cashmere or a mix) but retaining some formality by having a collar or making them more casual again with no collar.
If you’re looking for a good middle of the road look, try a shirt with tailored trousers, and incorporate some patterns and accent colours. You can do this even in a fairly formal way by using a pattern that’s woven into the fabric of your clothing or by choosing accessories in accent colours.
One important little tip for women: wherever a garment ends it creates a line and that line can add width. Watch where hemlines, cuffs and any other such details end! If a hem ends adjacent to the thickest part of your calves they'll loook chunkier. Sleeves adjacent to boobs - similar effect!
Makeup and grooming is incredibly important for women in the workplace, but it’s also important not to glam up so much that people don’t take you seriously. A minimal make up look can be achieved with a brand such as Bare Minerals which gives a finished look but doesn't make you look made up! Try to go for a 7 on the glamour scale — enough to stand out, but not enough to lose your credibility.
If you’re a man:
The three piece suit is also your most formal option, but a two piece suit is much more common, even in quite formal industries. A good middle of the road option is a shirt with trousers and an non-matching jacket, along with loafers or brogues. To dress it up a little, match your belt and your shoes; to dress it down a little, mismatch them. You can also add a touch of formality with cufflinks, or tone it down by losing your tie.
A few important things to remember:
You need to have a baseline style, but you also need match your outfit to the environment in which you’ll be working. If you’re going to meet with investors, then of course you’ll want to dress more formally. If you’re going to meet with people in a very relaxed industry, showing up very formally dressed could make you appear out of touch.
The little things matter: ensuring hemlines are ok, shining your shoes, not going out with clothes with stains or holes in them makes a big difference in how you come across.
No matter what industry you work in, there’s some room for negotiation. Even if your workplace insists on you wearing the same colours as everyone else, you can always find clothing with patterns woven into the fabric, wear a bright scarf, or get a bold tie. So there’s no need to wear the same thing over and over again — get creative with your fabrics, patterns, accent colours, and accessories.
Places to Shop –Because I am space limited, this is not an exhaustive list and it’s fairly standard – as in classic – style wise. When I create Pinboards of clothes for clients, I use a variety of online sources which have more to offer than actual stores but here are some worth a look. Remember that concessions in stores may have less pieces than the brand’s own store. It depends on what a store’s buyers decide to buy in:
Trousers: Jigsaw, Phase Eight, Gerard Darel, Jaegar, James Lakeland, Piazza Sempione (the list might be slightly different for summer wear). I’m fussy about trousers. The more expensive brands listed here are ones that I continually go to for a proper fit for clients – especially if you have a bum and tum! Don’t skimp on trousers.
Tops (jerseys, blouses, shirts): Jigsaw, Hobbs, Gerard Darel, White Stuff, Mint Velvet, Jaegar, Anna Fontaine, Pink, Marella, Pure, Brora, Wrap, Poetry.
Dresses: Hobbs, Phase Eight, Marella, Michael Kors, Pied a Terre, The Jersey Dress Company, Onjenu, Toast, White Stuff.
In the coming weeks I have blogs coming out on some of the latest trends – especially trousers which are particularly varied this season – how to manage and review your wardrobe, preparing for a shopping trip, tips for bringing life into a wardrobe with which you may be bored and more. See you soon!
Trying to make a good impression at work but not sure how well it’s coming off? Check out my personality styling tool at my website: firstname.lastname@example.org.. Email me at email@example.com to book a free, no obligation discovery session. I’d love to help.