On the Clock

How To Dress for Success

Company rules for dressing change quickly and often are unwritten. Our guide on the latest.

There’s a reason writer Gay Talese, who often worked from home, wore a three-piece suit every day: “Dressing up says you are proud of your work and your profession,” he once said.

It may sound old-fashioned if not simplistic to say, but dressing your part matters. Experts agree—and a whole body of science proves—that people form impressions quickly, and right or wrong, workers who look put together generally strike others as being caring and responsible. “Dressing well makes an impact if you want to be taken seriously and considered for more senior positions,” says Faun Zarge, a work-life consultant. 

“Just because jeans are the office go-to doesn’t mean you can’t improve on the look.”

It also can apparently have an odd effect on performance: According to a study by Columbia University and California State University researchers, entitled “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing,” more formal outfits lead to higher abstract thinking. Other outfits lead to better focus. And we won’t get even into the impact of certain colors. But the biggest issue is how your company’s culture will view you, all of which is typically unwritten and unspoken throughout executive ranks

Certainly a lot has been said on the topic, but longtime coaches say as millennials, with their own dress codes, become the largest workforce, the rules have never been so tricky. A few thoughts on looking your part without sacrificing style:

Follow the crowd.

One of the easiest ways to figure out your company’s dress code is to look around you. Now take it up a notch and assess which employee is working in which department. Do they get away with excess jewelry in accounting—but not HR? “You’ll know in five minutes of working there if it’s a jeans every day kind of place or more of a button-down shirt and jacket environment,” says Nancy Halpern, a career coach. “The easiest rule of thumb is to dress as most people do, but just a little neater or better.” 

Industries, of course, play a big role in this, as does location—Wall Street’s ties would look out of place in Silicon Valley. But just because jeans are the office go-to doesn’t mean you can’t improve on the look, in a subtle way. “Invest in some dressier jeans and accessorize appropriately,” Zarge says.

Your job level matters.

It’s an unspoken if not obvious expectation that people still mess up: The higher up the chain you are, the better your clothes should be. Even if it’s a Mark Zuckerberg-type style, spend time on the details: a better belt, a great haircut, a more sophisticated pullover. “As a leader, you’re a role model for your team, so looking unkempt can imply a sloppiness that doesn’t help your internal brand or your people,” Halpern says. 

Come up with a uniform that makes you feel your best.

The white shirt and boxy Brooks Brothers suit of old is no longer an answer, but a remarkable uniform of sorts is possible. If you’ve found black jeans and a blazer work for your office environment, or leggings with a tunic blouse make you feel ready for the day, then wear it often. You can mix up the uniform with the shirt—a T-shirt one day, a button down the next. Such an approach clears the mind and can build confidence. 

Have a signature piece.

People are quick to notice things that pop. Maybe it’s your commuter bag, or a piece of jewelry that’s a mainstay, like a watch or elegant necklace. Such pieces not only help you look put together and complete an outfit, but they can also be icebreakers for awkward elevator conversations or break-room chitchat. A bonus for older workers: It also could be a way to fit in with some of your millennial cohorts

Always wear good shoes.

Career consultants from coast to coast repeated this mantra. Good shoes matter because they’re almost always noticed and provide the opportunity to express your personality—regardless whether you’re in a buttoned-up law firm or a relaxed start-up. 

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