Dressing for success means dressing for your audience
Dressing for success means dressing for your audience

Dressing for work: Clothes tell a story, make it a good one

CHOOSING the right attire for your working environment can be a struggle - striking just the right balance between personal style and professionalism. But what you choose to wear will make an impression so it's important to be judicious about your choice of clothes.

Today, casual wear reigns supreme, in and out of the office, and, sadly, very few professionals still subscribe to the Don Draper (Mad Men) standard of style.

However, many companies still prefer a more traditional approach. Rebecca O'Hagan from Madison Recruitment says the professions (accounting, law et al) usually require staff to adhere to classic standards.

"Business attire is expected in most corporate environments, particularly if you are client-facing. However, it's not uncommon to see a suit jacket without a tie," she says.

Whether or not there is an expectation of business or casual wear for the workplace, there are little things that can make a big difference. Grooming, hygiene and hair all play a role in how we're viewed.

"No matter what the work environment, there will usually be an expectation of smartness. This will include hygiene and little things like not having chipped nail polish or unbrushed hair."

When it comes to applying for jobs it's vital that you put a lot of thought into what you wear. Clothing can make a real impression on a potential employer, so it's best to err on the side of caution.

"First impressions count," says O'Hagan. "Dressing inappropriately for an interview could have an impact on your prospects."

O'Hagan also says many work places have a dress code. She says that it's a good idea to investigate what these are before becoming too adventurous at work.

"It is critical to get an understanding of the company and their dress code as every organisation is different. If you are unable to get this information, then dress to impress! It is better to be overprepared and more formal, than too casual."

Joan Watson, a human resources professional, says standards of clothing have changed dramatically over time. "Typically now you would find suits worn only in your legal and large accounting, consultancy firms," she says. "Smaller New Zealand firms have very much adopted a smart casual for five days a week, not just Fridays.

"Some jeans are more expensive than dress trousers now, and often you will see these worn with a smart jacket instead of the suits or dress trousers for females."

But she says that while many companies allow casual dress, issues can arise when employees take the word "casual" too literally.

"I do hear complaints from older employers in office environments who think jandals and torn jeans, bare feet, are not appropriate office wear."

Watson is a strong believer in dressing appropriately. She has had to intervene in a number of situations where managers felt staff had stretched the limits of taste too far.

"I worked with one middle manager who always wore very low necklines. A manager she worked with said he had to stand up and find an excuse to write on the whiteboard whenever she came to his office because when they worked across the desk from each other he was looking at her cleavage all the time," she says.

She believes people wanting to make a good impression at work should adhere to a basic standard of dress. Clean and ironed clothes are a must, but there are other simple ways to make a good impression.

"For women it's best not to have skirt hemlines too high, or to wear clothes that are too tight or too low-cut. Showing the midriff is a no-no for both males and females," she says.

She says general grooming and hygiene are also important. "I get asked to help with issues around personal hygiene, as managers find this really difficult to address. It is easier to ask people to wear different clothes than it is to speak to someone about their personal hygiene."

A good haircut and clean hair creates a more professional look, as do appropriate accessories. "Shoes complete an outfit -- they should be clean and not too scuffed."

Watson says it's also very important to choose the right clothes for the right occasion. When she's networking, she wears bright colours as it makes her stand out from the crowd. "Bright colours help people remember me, as nearly everyone else will be in black," she says.

And she says the reverse is true for meetings that are of a more serious nature. "I choose to wear darker clothes for such meetings, as this helps to convey and reflect the seriousness of the situation."

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