Dressing For Success

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After discussing the fashion issues surrounding running for president of the United States, I thought it might be a little more useful to address sartorial issues on the plate of the rest of us. How best to dress for moving up in your career.

While there are many kinds of offices, shops and other workplace venues, the general office environment is one that has universal resonance. So many of us head off to a traditional office day after day and finding something interesting yet appropriate to wear can at times be a frustrating exercise.

Cleaning out the Underperformers

I just went through an end-of-year purge and was able to dislodge a lot of clothes that had been busy taking up space in my closet. It turns out that I had been holding on to a whole bunch of shirts and sweaters – for years in some cases – hoping that someday I would rotate them back into service. Once I bothered to try them on and make an honest assessment, it was clear that they either no longer fit or were simply out of style. They had to go, and so they did.

Whatever your position, when you want to move your career forward it is important to do just that: look at your wardrobe with a new and very critical eye. Don’t be sentimental; be practical and honest with yourself.

Setting a New Tone

The Wall Street Journal ran an article recently about dressing to be CEO. It has a number of practical observations that can help most men get with the program and start looking like someone who at least deserves the opportunity to prove himself. Make a point to skim through it when you have a chance.

In fact, that right there is a good starting point. You first need to decide that you are in the market to be promoted, to move on, or to strike out on your won. However you want to look at it, this is the act of deciding that you want to be, and be seen as, a leader.

Before we go any further, and I can’t stress this enough, get over the “my clothes shouldn’t matter” argument. They do and people will pass judgment on you based on what you wear. Just accept it and move on to crafting your professional image.

Defining Your Message

Generally speaking, the executive look is fairly universal. It is polished, clean, well-fitting, color coordinated, simple and of a high quality. Its overall effect conveys an impression of authority. And this is true across any industry.

Sir Richard Branson, for example, may be a maverick billionaire who plays by his own rules, but his apparently casual style is well thought out and by no means slapdash. He has cultivated a trademark look – breezy and laid back – but it is executed in a very particular way.  It is in fact his CEO uniform, and no one would call him sloppy.

For most of us, the kinds of sartorial changes needed to develop a profession and polished look are not monumental. You don’t need to run out and buy a bunch of custom suits to start getting noticed. Many offices today are at least partially business casual, which means the focus should be a notch or two down from regular business dress.

Making it Work

In place of a suit, coordinating separates provide both flexibility and polish. Wear dress trousers with an ironed open collar shirt and sport coat or blazer. This combination can yield many variations in style, pattern and color yet you are really only dealing with three pieces.

When choosing a dress shirt that you plan to wear without a tie, make sure to avoid longer collar points. They tend to look as though you forgot a tie. English spread collars are a good fit with this look.  Also, you’ll want to choose shirts with a high second button stance. This will give it a fitted and finished appearance, again avoiding the “you forgot your tie” comments.

Presidential candidate Barak Obama made style news with his ability to carry off this casual yet professional no-tie look.

In place of a sport coat, you can also layer a sweater over the shirt. Polo collared sweaters are particularly nice with this look. Stick with more neutral colors like grey, blue, brown and taupe; let the shirt underneath provide the color or pattern.

For casual days, avoid the temptation of letting everything go to pot and acting like you’re back in college. It is in situations like these that your true sense of style and professionalism show through.

CEOs and senior executives, at least the good ones, know that how you dress is only part of the overall package.

Polishing you image is just the first step to success, however you choose to define it. You also should make an investment in yourself: study up on business and social etiquette, current affairs, politics and issues that affect your industry.

Because when it comes down to brass tacks, if you look good but have nothing to say, you might as well have stayed home.


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Chris Hogan, an association executive based in Washington, D.C., blogs at OffTheCuffDC.com. A lifelong interest in style and clothing led to sales and management positions at several Ralph Lauren stores and an active wardrobe consulting practice