“Are you going to wear that?” How many of us heard our mothers ask this question when we were younger? She asked because she knew something important: first impressions matter. Even before you speak a word to someone, how you dress — and what you wear, specifically – can impact both the initial impression you make on others and their subsequent expectations about you. While your style alone cannot guarantee success professionally, it can help shape outcomes of business meetings, networking events and job interviews, for better or worse.
Details Matter (Especially to First Impressions)
Imagine two candidates arrive to interview for a position at your company. The first one appears neatly and cleanly groomed, wearing a well-fitting suit with a nice tie. The other candidate also appears well groomed and wears a trendy suit, but it’s wrinkled and paired with an outdated tie and scuffed shoes. Without knowing anything else about them, who would you want to represent your company?
Your outward presentation influences how others interact with you and their assumptions about your credibility and qualifications. When you dress well, you provide preliminary evidence that you care about making a good impression and are detail-oriented, responsible, on top of trends (important in certain industries) etc. This signals to colleagues, potential employers or new contacts that there’s a strong likelihood you’ll carefully represent them, their companies or shared interests well. While certainly you can (and should) show these sought-after qualities in conversation, why start off on the wrong foot and have to overcome a negative impression based on how you first presented yourself?
In addition to choosing clothing that flatters your body type, avoid wearing anything that’s wrinkled, ill-fitting, stained or worn out (signs include pilling, ripped seams, frayed cuffs, cracked buttons, faded fabric etc.), which shows lack of care and distracts from the message you want to convey. Breaking the bank for a new wardrobe every time a key meeting is approaching is not necessary, but with a little effort, you can ensure that you wear something that makes positive first impressions. Of course, planning is key, especially for a high-stakes meeting or event. Plan out what you want to wear (including shoes and accessories) a few days ahead of time, particularly if you need to fit in a trip to the dry cleaners. The extra day to ensure you’re pressed and polished from head to toe can make a difference the overall impression you make.
Know The Environment
What you wear in specific situations can have a lasting impact. Always endeavor to find out the dress code beforehand, whether preparing for a job interview, conference, meeting or industry networking event.
An interview outfit can make a strong impression on a hiring manager. In addition to inquiring about a company’s dress code, as part of your preparation, try to learn a bit about the culture too. While it’s great to have personality and your own sense of style, it’s also important to keep in a manner that fits within the overall environment and culture of the organization. Generally speaking, people tend to gravitate towards others like them and want to hire those who’ll fit in, figuring that they’ll be accepted more easily and therefore hit the ground running faster. This doesn’t mean you have to give up being yourself, but sticking out may hurt your chances of landing a position (depending on the industry and role itself).
However, if company culture is casual, with employees wearing jeans and sneakers, this doesn’t mean you should arrive to an interview in jeans and sneakers. Go at least a step up or two (business casual shirt and trousers, for example), but don’t go overboard with a three-piece suit either. Dressing too formally in a clearly casual setting may backfire, raising questions about your compatibility and lack of due diligence researching the organization.
If you’re attending a conference or reception and are unsure about the dress code, ask a fellow attendee who’s been before or the event organizers. The last thing you want to do is to walk into an event in a golf shirt and khakis while everyone else is in suits and ties. If you’re noticeably under-dressed for a particular setting, the inevitable preoccupation with your fashion faux pas may cause you to lose focus on your goals for attending in the first place. If the environment is one in which you’re meeting people for the first time, you especially want to ensure that others’ first impression of your personal brand is a strong and positive one. No one wants to be known as the person who dressed inappropriately.
Industries and functional areas have different standards about what is an acceptable/appropriate dress code as a starting point; this can vary by company and geographic region too. Again, you’ll benefit from doing your homework and planning ahead. If you’re meeting with the Director of Development at a leading university, for example, you shouldn’t assume the casual dress of the college in general applies. Development offices are often quite corporate, and so your outward presentation should reflect that. Similarly, consider the regional impact on internal meetings. What you wear at your home office in Chicago may be very different from what your colleagues wear when you’re meeting with them in the San Francisco office. When you’re trying to build rapport with new contacts, you might be able to play off standing out as a conversation starter, but in the end, it may be a barrier to cultivating relationships.
Subtly Show Your Style
While there is some leeway to display your unique sense of style in a professional environment, aim to do so in moderation. Elements of flair should accent your overall look, not dominate it and be a distraction to you or your work environment. For example, show a hint of personality with colorful socks or pumps when wearing a conservative suit, or pair a bright scarf or tie with a more muted shirt. (These examples aren’t meant as strict guidelines; the point is not to go overboard.)
You can display personality with accessories too, but be careful about items that are noisy or flashy. Large bangle bracelets, for instance, might clank together too loudly for an office meeting or presentation (and definitely should be avoided during an interview). Similarly, eye-catching, sparkly jewelry (oversized earrings, rings on every finger, ornate watches etc.) might distract others from focusing on the substance of what you’re saying in an important meeting.
Dress to impress, but not to overwhelm. Wearing things purely for impact and the “wow” factor may work against you, leading others to believe you crave attention and are too self-centered to fit in well with the company culture. In addition, consider underlying messages that certain brands can send. For instance, if you have an interview at an early-stage nonprofit with a small budget, it may not be the best time to don your new luxury designer handbag or flashy watch. If you want to make a statement about your style, do so subtly and with keen awareness of your surroundings.
Dress The Part
The way you dress can communicate status, therefore your choices should reflect your professional level and age. In some companies, the culture suggests that everyone dress similarly, regardless of your level, while elsewhere there are clear stylistic differences separating the executive level. If you’re part of an executive team, dress the part. Sometimes senior leaders want to fit in and dress like their junior colleagues, but seeking camaraderie by dressing down can negatively impact the respect others have for them (though of course there are exceptions). In general, leaders should set an example for others to emulate, not the other way around.
The notion that you should dress for the job you want, not the one you have, holds truth as well. If you want to up-level your career, look at how people at your target level present themselves and adapt your style accordingly. Dressing for the part and the environment can positively influence how others will perceive you.
If you have a public or client-facing role, e.g. in business development, account management, sales or public relations, taking extra care in how you present yourself is important to relationship cultivation, sales success etc. As a direct representative of a particular brand, product, service, team etc., the impression others have of you helps shape the impression they have about whatever you represent. By extension, if you’re interviewing for these kinds of roles, expect additional scrutiny in an interviewer’s evaluation of your outward presentation/style. The same applies if you’re seeking any job, strategic partnership or business opportunity in industries where image is important (fashion, beauty, luxury travel etc.).
Also, consider how you represent yourself (and your company) both inside and outside of the office, accounting for what different circumstances dictate. Even places with very casual dress codes may require a more elevated style at times. For example, if you’re the CFO of a tech company with a very casual workplace, but you’re now seeking a board role, you might consider dressing up a notch or two for a key evening networking event.
Dressing well and appropriately for the environment can boost your confidence and self-esteem. As the old adage goes, “Look good, feel good!” You’ll yield better business outcomes when you’re self-assured versus self-conscious. Dressing poorly or inappropriately for the setting may shake your confidence or, worse yet, raise doubts in others about your judgment, preparedness and qualifications. Putting care into how you dress sends a clear and confident message that you care about your professional life and take your work seriously — and makes for stronger, positive first impressions. By showing you’re invested in yourself, in response, your clients, prospective employers, strategic partners etc. will be more likely to invest in you.