How to Dress the Part

Britain's leading image consultant, Mary Spillane, says that a poor image is self-defeating; it gets in the way of you projecting your true qualities and abilities. Many of us wish this wasn't the case, that we should be assessed only on our achievements, not on any additional, superficial factor, such as appearance. But, she insists, how we are packaged speaks volumes about how we value ourselves and respect others, about our sense of quality, creativity, and professionalism. Appearance matters for aspiring executives - and the following provides some useful introductory advice.

1. Know why we are reluctant to look the part
According to top US image consultant Susan Bixler, most aspiring executives fail to maintain a polished professional appearance for four main reasons:
  • Self-consciousness: many feel they would give the impression of being dressy merely to cover technical deficiencies.
  • Cost: most believe looking good would be expensive. It doesn't. In fact, you can't afford to dress badly.
  • Time: most erroneously believe they're too busy to spend time on their appearance.
  • Lack of fashion knowledge. The literature and the store advisors can help here. Successful people, Bixler says, counter such views to upgrade their appearance — their most visible credential.
2. Dress appropriately
There is near unanimous agreement among experts that dress codes do exist and that, as a rule, they filter down from the top of the organisation. Even then, 'appropriateness' focuses on a variety of factors, including:
  • Your industry. 'Creative' businesses such as film and advertising want to show flair and creativity, so their people wear bright colours and trendy, bold styles; bankers prefer subdued, high quality, conservative clothes; real estate agents want to look approachable and favour casual styles.
  • The occasion. A real estate broker may dress very differently when showing an apartment to an investment banker than when accompanying a rock star.
  • The geographic location. The dress code of a legal firm's lawyer in Darwin may be far more relaxed than that of a Melbourne colleague in the same organisation.
  • The message you want to send. Artistic, elegant, conservative, reliable, wealthy, approachable, solid, trendy, male dork, or female bimbo? To create an impression of trustworthiness and reliability for example, consider conservative business wear, nothing trendy or extreme; simple quality accessories; well cared for polished shoes; impeccable grooming, showing attention to detail; regularity of pattern in tie or prints; discreet jewellery and minimal makeup for women; men, clean shaven.
In “Executive Essentials”, Mitchell Posner concludes that, for success in business, 'stay with a conventional look that will not offend others, but will make them notice your good taste, your understated elegance, and your appreciation of fine quality'.

3. Buy smart and within your budget
Fortunately a moderate budget does not preclude looking good—any more than a generous budget guarantees it. The secret is to use your resources, however limited or abundant, wisely. Instead of selecting classic, high quality, coordinated pieces, most people waste much of their clothing budget on such mistakes as:
  • a style so trendy that, next season, it can clearly be labelled 'last year's'
  • discount store purchases that fade, shrink, hang poorly, or don't last
  • mark downs that don't quite fit—but I’ll lose a few kilos!'
  • fabric that is stiff, itchy, shiny, or cheap
  • an unusual colour that coordinates with nothing or makes the wearer look drab, tired, or Iit up like a Christmas tree.
In “Executive Style”, Jean Woo advises you to shop wisely—by selecting the right store, keeping your objectives in mind, knowing your budget, setting aside enough time, avoiding sales, being realistic about weight loss or gain, putting function before fashion, and favouring conventional garments rather than trendy ones.

4. Don't forget those accessories
Carefully selected, high quality accessories make a statement. For a woman, it may be her jewellery, scarf, and hosiery; for a man his tie, socks, braces, and handkerchief. For both sexes, it might be the watch, the card case, glasses, briefcase, wallet or purse, shoes, belt, or pen. And the literature provides a wealth of advice e.g.
  • Your tie must reach your belt buckle
  • Avoid watches if made of plastic, rubber or diamonds, or more colourful than your tie, or if they make noises or bleep
  • Avoid wearing matching earrings and brooches
  • Confine disposable pens to your desk. Use fountain pens for signatures or high-quality ballpoint pens
  • Avoid clunky bangles or noisy charm bracelets
5. Seek expert advice through the literature
Today, many publications offer expert advice on personal appearance and image. Serious image makers can consult books and magazines for detailed and intricate analyses of such wide-ranging topics as:
  • body types, the images they project, and the clothing they require
  • the colours and patterns of shirts, suits, ties, and dresses that flatter you, and those that make you look drained or ill
  • collars that flatter the shape of your face—and those that don't
  • single breasted v double-breasted suits - you'll be told why
  • a beard in business puts people off
  • blue is a good shirt colour for 'warm' men with blue eyes, but should be avoided if you have brown or hazel eyes
  • you might consider wearing glasses with clear lenses to look more intelligent, authoritative, even older
  • you shouldn't attempt to disguise a balding scalp by combing the remaining strands across it
  • the larger the face, the larger the earrings; the shorter the neck, the shorter the earrings
  • women in business who don't wear makeup look unpolished and unprofessional
You will even be introduced to 'sensitive topics’ like hairy noses, stained teeth, bad breath, receding hair, body odour, fluctuating waistlines, and makeup.

In our culture, what you wear is a significant element in your self-definition. We are taught to value individuality. Therefore, your clothes should give the impression of being made for you alone. If  your clothes are consistent with your own sense of personality, a feeling of security and wholeness results.

Don’t forget
When choosing business clothing….
  • See clothes as an investment. Choose quality over quantity, natural fibres over synthetic.
  • Keep in mind the expectations of those around you. Avoid overdressing to impress.
  • Avoid clothes that do not complement your body style, skin tone, or hair colour. Seek expert advice if necessary.
  • Keep your career goals in mind. Upwards movement will require an authoritative, professional image. 
Research says
The television program 20/20 recently investigated the effect of 'appearance' in the business world. Well-groomed men and women were placed in identical situations with less polished individuals who had neglected their appearance. Every time, the better groomed person got the job offer and the higher salary.

Ask yourself
A pair of high quality $100 trousers could be worn once a week or 50 times yearly. If they last for three years, each of the 150 wearings would cost 67 cents. By contrast, a $40 bargain trouser of cheap synthetic fabric loses its shape and develops 'pills' in stress areas in as few as 10 wearings — a whopping $4 per outing! Which item is the true bargain?

  Back to Starting work


and you want access to 100’s of other HR resources for your business then…

Contact us


This document does not constitute human resource or legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. It is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You should contact the HR Help Desk or seek professional advice before acting or relying on any of the content. © Wentworth Advantage Pty Ltd 2017