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What Are You Wearing?

There have been a couple of interesting articles lately in the Wall Street Journal on the topic of dress. One had to do with how appropriate business clothing is defined differently in New York and Los Angeles and the other had to do with how Thomas Barrack, CEO of Colony Capital dresses when he’s in deal-making mode.

Choosing the right dress and adornment is a communication skill. If we’re smart, we can use our clothing choices to send important messages. Chief among them is that we fit in, we belong. According to the WSJ article, Mr. Barrack is meticulous when dressing. For example, he wears pocket squares in London but doesn’t wear an overcoat in Paris, where men don’t wear them. In New York, he ties a scarf one way and in Italy, another so as not to be seen as an outsider. The article also mentions Donald Trump who tries to mirror what other people in a given situation are likely to be wearing. His aim seems to be to eliminate distractions.

A professor of mine in graduate school characterized dress and adornment as all the things you weren’t born wearing. All the choices we make from the shoes we wear to the color of our hair fit into the category. And it remains so darn confusing. I can remember a time when it was very clear what to wear to work: men wore suits, usually blue with white shirts and a striped tie. Shoes were polished and hair was cropped and neat. Women, as they always have, had many more choices, but suits were de rigueur and the main choice was whether to wear a skirt or pants.

Today, choosing what to wear varies widely from workplace to workplace and from location to location. Businesses want the clothes their employees wear to reflect the company values and services. For example, the creative fields (PR, advertising, publishing) have always allowed workers to dress a bit less formally and a lot more stylishly. This tells clients that they are daring, willing to test limits, not look like everyone else. This is what clients expect and want from such creatives’ work. Investment bankers’ choices tend to skew conservative. Even on casual days, the choices are limited to khaki pants and a button-down shirt. This type of dress says “safe” or “stable” just like clients’ investments. Likewise with attorneys, the keyword this time perhaps being “trust.”

Technology workplaces have still a different sensibility. Torn Ts, jeans, purple hair, nose rings. Sort of like creatives on steroids. Of course, that’s mainly the engineers and programmers. This type of style communicates intelligent, even cerebral, and unconcerned with surface issues. However, even at a technology company anyone who has to call on clients has some decisions to make. Can you show up for a high level meeting with the CIO at Deloitte wearing the types of clothing I described above? I don’t think so.

Then we get to leadership dress. I work with a lot of people, on the cusp of big leadership roles, who I have to send to a stylist or a personal shopper. The fact is, to look like a leader and to be seen as such both internally and externally requires a certain careful and polished style. For example, every business leader I know – man or woman – is well dressed. It isn’t cheap. Their dress and adornment, however, sends certain important signals: ready for serious business, strength and, frankly, success.

Bottom line, we should want to make a statement when we walk into a room, before we utter a word. That can go a number of ways. What statement are you making with your dress and adornment?

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman.  All Rights Reserved.

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