Before I trained as an image consultant, I spent more years than I care to remember in a corporate environment. I worked in recruitment, sales and channel management so I know how important the way we present ourselves can be to our professional success. Rightly or wrongly, people form opinions about our character, professionalism, socio-economic status and authority based on what we wear, so it’s important we dress in a way that coveys the right messages.
As women, we have considerable flexibility regarding what we wear to work – multiple styles and colours of skirts, tops, dresses, jackets, trousers. This is fantastic because it means that we have the ability to create a personal brand that is professional, authentic, memorable and effective; to create a signature style, if you will. Unfortunately though, with so many options, there is also more scope to get it wrong and inadvertently sabotage our personal brand and impede our professional success.
Below are some guidelines you might find useful to help you develop a flexible capsule working wardrobe.
Keep it professional
Different professions and companies have different dress codes of course but, as a rule, the office is not the place for high fashion, low necklines, short skirts or bare legs/shoulders. You want people to focus on what you’re saying, not to be distracted by what you’re wearing.
Suits/Jackets, skirts and trousers
Four suits or a combination of four jackets and skirts or trousers in the best complementary neutral colours from your palette – navy, camel, pewter, chocolate, black etc. This means you will be able to co-ordinate them with each other and a number of other colours to create different looks. Make sure that they work with your body shape and buy the best you can afford as these will form the backbone of your wardrobe
Six to eight shirts, blouses or knitwear items are a great the way to add colour and personality to your outfit and ring the changes day to day. A white shirt can look very crisp and professional but beware of wearing it with black or you may look more like a waitress than a business woman. Cream or ivory can be a more flattering alternative on many women. A top in one of the season’s key colours will inject some personality into your outfit and make you look both current and professional. You don’t always need to go for the classic shirt or blouse. A fine gauge knit jumper with a scoop neck also works well and gives a clean, uncluttered look. If you keep skirts, trousers and jackets plain, a top is a good way to add some pattern and interest to your look.
Dresses can also work well for business as an alternative to skirts and tops, so substitute one for a suit if you wish. Go for something tailored that can be worn with a jacket for more formal occasions or a neat cardigan day to day. Avoid flounces and floral prints to keep the look professional. It’s generally best to keep upper arms covered (although this does depend on the formality of your office environment).
You will need two or three pairs of formal shoes. When it comes to footwear, platforms and sky scraper stilettos don’t really have a place in a formal office environment and neither do open toe sandals or flip flops. Shoes should be comfortable and stylish. You can’t go wrong with a classic court shoe with a moderate heel in black, brown, navy or nude. Hosiery can be nude or co-ordinated to hemline and/or shoes.
A good quality overcoat or raincoat is a wise investment. Again, choose a neutral colour, preferably in one of the darker shades from you palette to avoid the need for constant dry-cleaning. You will be wearing this day after day so invest in the best you can afford.
The bag can be a bit of a dilemma for the working woman. These days there is so much “stuff” we need to carry around – laptop, mobile phone, make-up, lunch, notebook, purse etc. You could invest in a briefcase or large tote bag. I would go for something that can also accommodate a small clutch bag containing your purse and make-up essentials. Matching bag colour to shoes is considered a bit passé nowadays. If you can afford two quality bags, I would go for one in a neutral colour and one in more of a statement colour which will add interest to an otherwise understated outfit. (I used to have an apple-green bag which was much admired and co-ordinated beautifully with a surprisingly wide range of colours).
Try to avoid carrying a handbag/shoulder bag plus briefcase as this looks cluttered and makes shaking hands rather problematic. If you really can’t fit everything in to a tote bag, or your bag is very heavy, you could always consider a small suitcase on wheels.
Jewellery is generally best kept fairly discreet in the working environment or limited to one key statement piece. A good watch is a “must” as you will wear it every day. Go for gold or silver depending on whether you have warm or cool skin undertones or a leather strap in one of your neutral colours. These days people are also prone to make judgements on you based on your phone, so it’s worth updating your mobile every couple of years too. Also, make sure you have a good quality pen.
Perfume and Make-Up
There is a school of thought which says that fragrance is inappropriate in the office as you are going to work, not on a date. If you do choose to wear it (and I must admit that I always have) do apply sparingly as colleagues will be more aware of your scent than you are. Make sure it’s a light day-time scent and try switching from a perfume to an eau de toilette to help you avoid overkill.
Studies have shown that women who wear make-up have a professional edge over their bare-faced colleagues so I would always advise wearing at least the basics – lipstick, mascara and a touch of blusher. Do keep it natural looking though. The office is not the place for a dramatic, fashion-forward make-up which you constantly need to re-touch.
If you are in a client-facing role, ensure that you are at least as smartly dressed as your clients; it is a mark of respect and will reinforce your credentials. Also, dress for the job you want rather than the one you already have so that when senior management are looking for someone to promote, it will be easy for them to envisage you in the role.
If you would like help in developing an attractive, credible and authentic professional image or have staff members who would benefit from some advice, I’d be delighted to help.