Counseling Today, Your Counseling Career

Dressing for success: Some rules never change

Amy Reece Connelly June 2, 2008

Is there anyone who doesn’t face each new season by opening the closet door and trying to determine what they have to wear for the impending changing weather? Similarly, is there anyone who has never stressed out — even a little bit — about what they’re going to wear? Take a couple of minutes to assess your current wardrobe. At this very moment, do you have in your closet an outfit that would be appropriate for:

  • A job interview
  • Lunch or dinner with a business associate
  • A funeral
  • A cocktail party
  • A sports outing (either as a participant or a spectator) with colleagues

Stacy and Clinton, Trinny and Susannah, and Mr. Blackwell all have their opinions about what will get you on the best-dressed list. Thanks to cable television, there are entire networks — with accompanying websites — that provide hourly input on the latest trends in Paris, Milan, New York and L.A. In this era of information overload, often-conflicting fashion advice can be overwhelming and leave those who are seeking direction feeling confused instead.

Dressing for success is less about fashion and more about dressing appropriately for your role and setting. In many settings, those in positions of authority came of age when the “old rules” regarding appropriate business attire were still in place. Many of those in charge are still scratching their heads and wondering how “business attire” became “business casual.” And this was before the “business” element was abandoned almost entirely and the “casual” side evolved into outfits that wouldn’t have been worn outside the comfort of the home in previous generations. 

Thankfully, because of today’s more relaxed rules, dressing for success no longer means wearing a navy blue uniform with a starched white shirt and a silk tie or bow at the neck. Some rules still exist, however, and are worthy of consideration by up-and-coming professionals. 

Dress for the position to which you aspire. John Molloy, who is often credited with coining the phrase “dress for success,” advised his followers to pattern their wardrobes after those worn by supervisors two or more levels up. Although his best-selling publication is no longer in the mainstream, it’s still good advice. Professional appearance invites professional treatment. 

Dress for your audience. It is a given that counselors need to relate to their clients on many levels. So it follows that it would be insensitive to dress in $1,000 suits for sessions if your clients are struggling to hover above the poverty line. But neither does that mean you should wear torn jeans, rocker T-shirts and flip-flops to relate to your teenage clientele. Projecting a subtle air of authority through your appearance can enhance the success you achieve with clients because it reinforces your credibility.

Dress the body you have now, not the one you had in high school. Shapes and sizes change over time (as do jacket cut, tie width, skirt length and pant rise). If you are legitimately wearing the same size you did when you walked across the stage in your cap and gown, congratulations. But the rest of us are better off wearing clothing that genuinely fits. If you fall into that latter category, take comfort in knowing that you’ll be more comfortable, and you’ll look better too.

Avoid the ‘toos.’ If it’s “too” anything, adjust. Too much color or pattern, too many accessories, too tight, too short or too much cleavage (some would say any visible cleavage is too much) can distract from an otherwise professional ensemble. And unless your job is modeling for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, too much skin — a bare midriff, for example — is a no-no in the workplace.

Invest in the classics and update with trendier pieces. Some clothing, such as wool trousers, blazers and A-line skirts in neutral colors (black, gray, tan or navy), withstands the test of time. The navy suit and the little black dress remain reliable wardrobe workhorses. High-quality pieces such as these that will endure for several seasons are at the center of a flexible, professional wardrobe. Buy seasonal accents to complete your look. 

A little attention to detail goes a long way. You don’t have to spend a small fortune to present a professional appearance. Maintaining a neat hairstyle, keeping nails groomed and making certain your clothing is in good repair will provide the polish expected of professionals.

Finally, if you want to know whether your casual ensemble is too casual for the office, try adding a navy blazer. If it doesn’t look out of place, you’re probably OK.