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How to dress for success

In a world of "Dress Down Friday," what's appropriate to wear to work? In many cases, there are no carved-in-granite rules so when in doubt, go traditional.
/ Source: Forbes

Mark Twain once quipped, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society."

Good insight. But in a world of "Dress Down Friday," what's appropriate to wear to work? In many cases, there are no carved-in-granite rules so when in doubt, go traditional.

"The most basic mistake new employees make is under dressing," says Randall Hansen, a professor of business at Stetson University in Deland, Fla. "If unsure, dress conservatively. The best way to avoid a problem is to understand the corporate culture."

To make the right impression at work, remember these basic points when assembling your wardrobe:

1. Presentation counts.

2. Casual shouldn't mean slovenly.

3. Dress as you want to be seen: Serious, professional, upward-bound.

When putting together your work wardrobe, take the most basic step first: Size up your office. If you want to be a manager, check out what the successful managers wear. Next, check out the office stars. Here's betting they don't show up for work in their weekend grubs.

If your office has a written dress code, your problems are solved. If necessary, go shopping with the dress code in hand and you can't go wrong. But many offices don't have written standards and it's up to you to get it right. So, here's a rule of thumb: Understated beats flash and trash five days a week.

For men, traditional attire includes:

  • A button-down shirt.
  • Polished black shoes.
  • A blue, black or gray jacket.
  • Slacks that complement the jacket.
  • You can't go wrong with a conservative tie. (This means no pink flamingoes or hula dancers.)

P.S. Don't forget the socks — buy two dozen pairs of black or blue socks so you can pick two at random from your drawer each morning and always have a match.

There is some wiggle room in this framework. Blue and white shirts have been around since time began, or so it seems, but there's also room for the occasional, yellow, pink or if you're an aspiring poet, black shirts. Tread lightly here because if you don't know what you're doing, you're likely to step in it.

For women, the traditional look includes:

  • A skirt that hits just above the knee, slacks and perhaps pantsuits.
  • Simple jewelry.
  • Just a hint of makeup. It's probably wise to skip the perfume, especially during a job interview or the first few days at a new job.
  • Polished flats or moderate heels.
  • Sweaters.
  • Pantyhose may be the office standard. Ask.

There will be regional differences because what's standard in the Northeast may be seen as stuffy and impractical in the Southwest.

Remember that you're not dressing to attract attention at a rowdy bar — you're dressing to underscore your professionalism and competence. Some don't understand the difference, or mix the two to the detriment of their careers. Getting it right is especially crucial when interviewing for a job or sitting down to a new one.

"Many recent college grads just have no understanding of a professional wardrobe," says Hansen. "Up to that point in their lives, extra money has been spent on party clothes. Some think because they look attractive when going out, the same clothes will work in a job interview."

Write this down, gentlemen: If you borrow a jacket for an interview, make sure it fits. If it's three sizes too large, you'll look like a miniature person. Non-verbal cues can speak volumes, especially to a job interviewer.

Like everything else at work, especially when starting a new job, you're being sized up all the time. Little things count. Some people, especially young workers, overlook this basic point and flub the obvious. How you dress will tell the boss how you see yourself and how you approach the job.

When dressing for your career, remember that you want to be noticed for the quality of your work — not the horrible miscalculation of your duds.

On your first day at a new job, it's better to over- rather than under-dress. If you dress too formally, a colleague will nudge you in the ribs and say, "Nice outfit, but it's not necessary unless you're calling on clients." That beats the boss thinking that you're fashion-impaired or, worse, that you don't take the job seriously.

Remember: Always dress for the task at hand. If you're a civil engineer headed for a construction site, jeans and work boots are fine, but that's not how to dress when making a formal presentation to the grand pooh-bahs at the home office.

Appearance can create credibility. You know this from your own experience watching TV interview shows. Think of the number of times experts from opposing sides of an issue have made good points, but you remember what one said simply because that person was better dressed and looked better on the screen.

Okay, kiddo, knock 'em dead.