Understanding Business Dressing and the First Impression

Do you remember the movie Working Girl? It starred Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill, a bright, ambitious, hardworking woman on Wall Street who just couldn’t get out of the secretarial pool. There were lots of things holding her back: She had few connections, sexist superiors, and no MBA. But her most noticeable liability was the way she looked. Her skirts were too short, her tops too tight, her hair too big. Even her patterned hosiery was too much for the ultraconservative finance industry. In short, she simply didn’t look like management material.

Enter a perfectly attired, immaculately groomed new boss (Sigourney Weaver), who immediately lays down some sartorial ground rules: I consider us a team and as such, we have a uniform simple, elegant, impeccable. Then, quoting French fashion designer Coco Chanel, she pronounces, Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.

Taking this advice to heart, Tess sheds the downscale duds belying her potential and makes herself over into a stylish-but-serious-looking executive. Soon, she and her abilities are getting looked at in a whole new light, and by the closing credits, she’s landed herself a position in management, an office with a window, and an assistant to boot. Another happy ending courtesy of Hollywood.

As much as we might like to think otherwise, this story is no fairy tale. Despite the Cinderella elements (on her way up, she also snags a successful businessman played by Harrison Ford), the underlying premise of the movie that you’re judged as much for the tailoring of your clothing as your talent is an unfortunate reality.

The good news is that it’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle. Like changing the slipcovers on a couch or repainting a room, making alterations to your appearance needn’t be a full-time job or necessarily an expensive endeavor we’re not talking about cosmetic surgery here. Once you know what you’re doing, it might even be fun. In any event, the payoff is too big to ignore: With the right tools (and as hard as it may be to think of suits, ties, and shoes that way, it’s an accurate description), you too may find your career flourishing or at least being re-charted on a steady, upward course. Consider this scary statistic: It takes less than 10 seconds to form an impression of someone. That’s just slightly less time than it takes most of us to tie one shoe. Even worse than the speed with which we form impressions is the time it takes to change them. You know the old saying, a first impression is a lasting impression. Seeing is believing.

According to those who study this kind of thing, more than half of the initial assessment we make of someone is based on appearance a person’s age, the length of her hair, and how he’s dressed. All this information is gathered and processed, before a word is ever uttered.

Now clearly, this is a flawed system. Judging someone based on a few visual clues can be dangerous. It flies in the face of all the best advice particularly the old adage, Don’t judge a book by its cover. And yet it happens all the time! A VP who looks young for her age gets mistaken for the department secretary. A casually clad sales rep is thought to be a messenger. Oh, the indignity of it all!

Yet sometimes, especially when you’re first starting out in the work world, those in the position to hire you have little else to go on than a résumé and how you present yourself. Or, in their haste to squeeze in a quick lunch between applicant interviews, they simply may not take the time to see that you’re not just some average Joe or Jane that you might be the next Bill Gates or Mrs. Fields. Only you’ll know how talented you are, and you need to give potential employers and their hiring agents reason to take notice. And make no mistake: Clothes speak volumes.

Of course, looking spiffy doesn’t ensure your skills as an accountant or account executive just because you can put yourself together with ease doesn’t mean you can write a good sales pitch. But all things being equal, it can certainly help you get your foot in the door. A professional presentation can set you apart from the competition, and when it comes to forming impressions, it signals that you’re on a fast track in the jumpstart-your-career department. Indeed, a professional appearance shows that you recognize something very important that the exterior tells someone a lot about what’s inside.


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