Without advancing a stereotype, I’m the first to admit that despite having a fairly comprehensive wardrobe (ranging from sloppy t-shirts with kitschy sayings to blouses nearly crisp and starched enough they almost cause physical injury), there are days when I stand in my closet and haven’t the faintest idea what to wear. Now in my mid-twenties, I find myself naturally straying further away from the casual wear, leaning more toward more basic colors and silhouettes. This has also carried over into my now-growing professional wardrobe, which I’m being more cognizant of now that I’m out of school. Just today I made my way to the store, picking up some more career pieces.
In “Dress for the Job You Want”, Hewlett mocks one Swiss company’s (UBS), attempt to address work dress code, in a 43-page how-to of sorts, covering protocol on things like high heel height to hair coloring and makeup application expectations. Though excessive, undoubtedly, research conducted by other outlets reveals a true need in addressing corporate fashion and dress code.
Women, in particular, believed that dressing the part was a vital factor in attaining success: 53% of them felt aspiring female execs needed to toe a very conservative line, avoiding flashy make-up, plunging necklines, too-short or too-tight skirts, and long fingernails — exactly the sort of sartorial no-nos UBS spelled out. Indeed, half the women surveyed and 37% of the men considered appearance and EP to be intrinsically linked; they understood that if you don’t look the part of a leader, you’re not likely to be given the role. Far from imagining that appearance is a personal matter, they perceived that looking well-turned-out engenders self confidence, a trait they considered the bedrock of authentic leaders. (“Dress for the Job You Want“, Sylvia Ann Hewlett)
Looking professional and executive is struggle enough, but what about one’s sense of identity and personal style? As the article suggests:
The research also revealed, however, that it is one thing to grasp the importance of looking professional, and quite another to interpret the ever-shifting notions that define a professional appearance. Women, certainly, struggle more than men to achieve the look of leadership, a factor that contributes to their overall stall in middle- and upper-middle management. On the one hand, they’re told to conform; on the other, they’re advised to stand out. They’re told to downplay their sexuality, but warned against coming off as too mannish and threatening. They know they will be judged on their appearance, perhaps unreasonably so. (“Dress for the Job You Want“, Sylvia Ann Hewlett)
What’s the message here? It depends on who you ask and what you’re willing to put into practice. Unless and until organizations communicate the dress code expectations required of their employees, it’s inevitable that a fashion faux pas or two may occur. UBS may have been a little heavy handed in their expectations, but ultimately, employees should know what is appropriate and tolerated and what simply isn’t. Personal style should only be incorporated into the workplace so long as it aligns with the organization’s image. That said, when in doubt, ask! If you’re unsure what may or may not be acceptable, asking for a refresher on the dress code isn’t out of the question, nor is doing a little research in the event you’re hesitant to ask. When in doubt, go the conservative route and think basics. And if you’re a girl, like me, who needs a pop of color in her life, a tasteful, colorful accessory will probably keep everyone satisfied.
For more resources on corporate fashion, check out the 20 Best Fashion Blogs for Professional Women.