It’s no secret that people often evaluate each other by their clothing – even from across the room, it’s usually not hard to tell the lawyer from the startup guy and the drummer from the investment banker. Some people ignore sartorial concerns, deriding the whole concept of “image” as shallow. And others obsess too much, fixating on which brands are the “right ones” to be wearing. (If you’re in the fashion industry, that may be a legitimate concern; for everyone else, you can probably relax.) But for professionals in every industry, it’s important to at least think through how your wardrobe is affecting your personal brand and how you’re perceived by others. Here are four ways to dress for success in your career.
Err on the side of dressing up. Why does Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie get so much attention? It’s not a big deal that he dresses down among his colleagues; plenty of startups feature casual dress codes. Instead, it’s the fact that he refuses to dress up even for big moments, like meeting with investors: his clothing is a sign of disrespect. If you’re meeting with others, show consideration by dressing well. And for younger workers, it may pay off with new opportunities. When I was an intern during college, I quickly learned that the interns who eschewed Nikes and ripped jeans were taken more seriously. They were offered plum assignments because they were viewed as “more mature” and “more professional” – and when exciting moments arose, like the opportunity to accompany a staffer to a client meeting or press conference, it was the presentable interns who were tapped.
You don’t have to dress expensively. You may want to accent your wardrobe with high-end staples that are well constructed and will last a long time (Brooks Brothers blazers and Birkenstock’s indestructible dress shoes are two of my favorite picks). But the idea that executives need to enter some kind of sartorial arms race is ludicrous. Italian suits aren’t mandatory and you don’t need to purge your closet every season – maybe if you’re a model, but certainly not if you’re a professional businessperson.
Buy styles that compliment your build. You’ll make your life easier if you find one or two “go-to” stores whose fashions you like and whose clothes usually fit. One executive coach told me about a client whom she discovered wasn’t viewed as sufficiently polished by his colleagues because his clothes were too baggy. If you have trouble finding clothes that work, don’t be afraid to pay for tailoring. It’s a minor expense that can make an ill-fitting outfit look great.
Find a signature item. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come naturally to you – but if you have a passion for bowties (like TV commentator Tucker Carlson did in the past) or brooches (former Secretary of State Madeline Albright was a fan) or multicolored socks, go for it. The days of conformity are over; what people are likely to remember about you is how you’re different and unique.
How you look, for better or worse, is an important part of your personal brand. But dressing well doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or take up that much time. You just have to think strategically about what works for your figure and your style, and go for it.
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on April 5, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.