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Dressing the part critical to success

Being successful in business requires many things, including intelligence, tenacity and…a good wardrobe? As odd as that may sound at first, there’s simply no way around the fact that a professional wardrobe is critical, no matter what your gender.

“Any woman business owner or leader has to be assertive, confident and savvy,” said Sunshine Nance, owner of Miss Fancy Pants, a personal shopping service. “What better way to present yourself as such [than by dressing well]? Dressing professionally as a business woman not only helps build a woman’s self confidence from the inside out, but it is also a form of non-verbal communication — telling clients and the outside world that you are confident, well put together and professional.”

“When people meet you for the first time they form lasting impressions about you based on your appearance alone, so it is incredibly important for women business leaders or owners to dress professionally,” said Kelli Collins, owner of L’acquisto, an image consulting service. “We as women want to be taken seriously in the work force, so we must portray an image that implies just that.”

But using the words “professional” and “business” when referring to wardrobe choices does not mean that women have to load their closets with masculine-looking suits, or start wearing ties to work. Dress codes have relaxed in many industries, allowing for more choices.

“We are in an era where business casual has really become the ‘norm’ for organizations’ dress codes,” said Collins. “This has caused a great deal of confusion when it comes to getting dressed each morning. In my opinion ‘professional dress’ should be attire that gives your audience — your clients, co-workers, supervisors — a positive foundation upon which they can build their opinion of your abilities and skills.”

“These days, particularly in the Northwest, it’s acceptable to be casual if you are professional,” agreed Nance. “Dressing professionally should include clean, pressed clothing, a neat, groomed appearance. An example of dressing professionally for a banker or sales person could be nice slacks, matching shoes and a dress shirt or a wrap dress or a pencil skirt and blouse with low pumps. While professional for a remodeling contractor could be showing up at your door with a pair of Dockers and a logo’ed polo shirt.”

In fact, these days deciding what is or isn’t an appropriate wardrobe choice depends a lot on one’s profession.

“Professional dress most definitely varies by profession,” said Collins. “Just today, as I was explaining to my dental hygienist what I do, she cringed and said, ‘Oh, great…look at how I’m dressed,’ but for her profession, she looked fabulous. All the staff at my dentist’s office wear scrubs, so she was abiding by the dress code.”

“For many years I worked as a National Talent Scout, traveling the US looking for models, actors, and so on,” said Nance. “It was acceptable and encouraged to wear fashion that was ‘in the moment.’ We wore heels that were as high as they came, fitted, and sometimes revealing, shirts under our perfectly tailored designer suits…This same wardrobe would be intimidating and inappropriate for a pharmaceutical sales rep who deal with doctors and professionals in the medical field. Bottom line is clean, crisp, and relative to your industry. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes.”

Regardless of industry, both stylists agree that all professional women should have a few wardrobe basics, including a good suit, a dark, preferably black blazer, a simple black dress that can be dressed up or down and an assortment of accessories, such as scarves, belts, shoes and jewelry, which can be mixed and matched with wardrobe items to create different looks with a few key pieces.

“Whether it be an important interview or a speaking engagement, it is important to be prepared for the unexpected,” said Collins. “If you choose your suit wisely, you’ll be able to mix and match it with other items in your wardrobe to create different looks with a very small number of items.”

Both women emphasize that clothing that is too tight, short or revealing is never acceptable and can only deter from a professional image. Items on the “do not wear” list include tank tops, halter tops, shorts, skirts more than three inches above the knee, anything made with more than 5 percent spandex and shirts that expose midriffs.

The theme here: exposing too much skin, particularly cleavage or leg, is never a good idea.

“As a woman, I don’t want to see other women’s cleavage — at least not at work,” said Nance. “If you’re outside of work — show it off, girl!”

Ultimately dressing professionally means making smart choices about clothing that fits well, suits your work and conveys confidence.

“People interpret many things from your appearance,” said Collins. “They will judge what you know about your industry or the attention that you will give to your job, based on the image that you are portraying. If you look sloppy or under-dressed, people are going to assume that you are not good at what you do, that you are just as sloppy with your work. If your clothes are ill-fitting, they will assume that you don’t pay attention to detail in your work. This is why what you wear to work is so important. You are the face of your company.”

Maura Hallam Sweley's picture
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