How to dress when moving up the ladder – includes a related article on designing a power image

How to dress when moving up the ladder – includes a related article on designing a power image – Career Management

Cassandra Hayes

Your appearance plays a greater role than you might think. Look like the leader you are for your flight up the corporate ladder.

LOOK IN THE MIRROR. WHAT DO YOU SEE? PERHAPS YOU’RE ONE OF those women still wearing tennis shoes with your power suit. Do you still iron your dress shirts . . . or worse, your suits? You’ve made strides along the management track but, sadly, your image is still entry-level.

Many mid-level managers and even executives remain trapped in a fashion abyss for years. The very same suits, hairstyles and makeup that helped launch their career years ago are sabotaging their image today. “Often, we don’t want to change because we don’t know where it’s going to take us,” says Gloria Respress-Churchwell, president of Churchwell Fashion Consulting in Nashville, Tennessee. “But a modern, upgraded look is going to add to your credibility.”

The same amount of time you devote to enhancing your public speaking skills and upgrading your technical know-how should also be spent bolstering your looks. Allowing your appearance to take a backseat for too long may, in fact, derail your career. Keep in mind that the image you project must reflect not only where you are but where you want to go in your career.

“In 30 seconds, people make judgments about you based on how you look,” says Charmaine McClarie, president of Image Design, an executive development and communications consulting firm in San Francisco. “Observe how your colleagues dress, not only in your company but in your industry. Ask yourself, What does a leader look like? Then study those leaders at networking events and in business and industry publications.”

Go for quality, not quantity. Those who have been in senior-level positions for years can spot it immediately. Natural fibers such as cotton, wool, silk and blends of these fabrics last longer and fit and wear better.

There’s no question that custom-made clothing is the norm for the executive suite, says McClarie, who consults with many Fortune 500 company executives and prominent attorneys. Deep, finished hems, hand-stitching and generously cut fine fabrics are the mark of quality clothing.

Fit is also essential. Few people can buy something off-the-rack that fits perfectly. If you do purchase a suit from a retail store, make sure you have it altered accordingly. “It makes a subtle yet powerful difference. Nothing looks worse than a man or woman moving up the ladder in a cheap, ill-fitting suit,” insists McClarie. For men, suit sleeves should have bound button holes, not faux ones with buttons sewn on top. Buttons should also be metal or bone, not plastic. You’ll be surprised how a simple change of the buttons can make a dramatic difference.

Just how many clothes should an executive have? According to McClarie, your wardrobe should be 60% accessories: ties, pocket squares, scarves, jewelry and shoes; and 40% major pieces: suits, blazers and dresses. An array of accessories offer different looks.

For example, a man should have three shirts and six ties for every suit. Put those ties on the hanger with a suit and remove them after each wear to avoid the “safe look”–that same outfit that everyone compliments you on every time you wear it. It’s also wise to keep an extra suit, shirt or blouse and a pair of shoes tucked away at the office for emergencies. Men should include a couple of ties with these items, and women, at least two changes of accessories.


A leader is a risk-taker. If you’re going to be high-profile, you’ve got to have a signature style–something that allows you to subtly stand out while still fitting in. “Don’t play it safe,” advises McClarie. “It says nothing about you except that you’re safe.” Yet African Americans, known for being vibrant and fashion-conscious, should keep that signature statement low-key and avoid anything too flamboyant.

As Robert T. Ross made gallant career strides along Merrill Lynch’s management track, he witnessed an interesting trend. Many at the top of the financial services industry shunned the bold colors and tapered cuts of Italian designers, instead opting for a more conservative button-down American or British style.

Ross, now a vice president and sales manager at Merrill Lynch’s Grand Central Financial Complex in New York, was quick to take the cue. “I had a wide selection of nontraditional colored suits in taupe, browns and greens and switched to navy suits, white shirts and red-toned ties,” he says. Despite adopting “the uniform,” Ross didn’t lose his style, which he accentuated with quality fabrics and cuff-links etched with his initials or the logo of his company or Morehouse College, his alma mater. “People expect a certain image, and you must maintain it if you want to look like the guy in charge,” says the 37-year-old Ross, who regularly conducts public seminars and has some 100 brokers under his charge. “I believe your first impression must be a success, otherwise you’re just behind the eight ball.”

For Pam Cross, weekend anchor and reporter at News Center 5, WCVB-TV in Boston, scarves and pins became her signature piece. “Since I’m seen mostly from the waist up, it was important that I find one item that could be my trademark.” Cross, who has been in the business for 20 years, knew that the way she looked had to have as much impact as the news she delivered.

By employing the services of Respress-Churchwell, Cross got more than fashion advice; she got more free time, something foreign to today’s fastpaced professionals. “She went to the store ahead of me and laid items aside. I got an honest opinion about how I looked without the pressure of a salesperson,” adds Cross.

The relationship didn’t stop there. Respress-Churchwell periodically called Cross to offer suggestions and give feedback on her on-camera appearance. “A personal shopper was something that I never thought of, but the cost was well worth it.” At $35-$175 an hour, depending on the consultant and where you live, investing in a personal shopper and image consultant can be a wise move. It may also be a tax-deductible business expense. If you’re a high-profile executive, your company may also absorb the cost.

Whether you get help from professionals or do it on your own, be open to change. Each season, assess what’s in your closet and determine if it’s representative of your position as well as your goals. A little wardrobe building, updating or upgrading, may do a lot for your career and your personal life.


* Keep your shoes shined and maintained. “It’s the worst faux pas to be well dressed with worn-down heels or scuffed shoes,” says McClarie. If you travel often, note that many hotels offer free overnight shoe shine services.

* Change your briefcase or handbag if it’s worn or scuffed.

* Be conscious of your weight and how your clothes fit. Have them tailored as your weight fluctuates.

* Change your eyewear. Old frames look dated and are boring.

* Buy a new all-season trench coat-you’re not Columbo. A pilled, shapeless coat compromises the clothes underneath.

* Stand up straight. Not only is it good for you but good posture connotes power and poise.

* Keep your nails neat. Hands attract attention, so both men and women should consider getting professional manicures.

* Keep an “emergency kit” in your desk drawer. It should include a sewing kit, hand lotion, toothpaste, a toothbrush and breath mints. Women should also have an extra pair of pantyhose and nail polish remover.

* Wear appropriate jewelry. Don’t overdo it on rings and cumbersome noisy bracelets. A wedding band (or college ring) and a watch should more than suffice for men.


* Update your hair and makeup. If you’ve worn the same hairstyle and lipstick for more than three years, it’s time for a change.

* Have your shoes custom-made if you have problems finding ones that fit. Finer shoemakers offer this service; the cost is not that much more than the standard product.

* Invest in top-quality handbags and totes. They will accent the wardrobe you’ve worked so hard to create. Ditch the old department store shopping bags.

* Pregnant? Invest in maternity wear even if it’s only a few outfits. Don’t try to continue to wear your regular clothes as your body changes. It looks bad and is uncomfortable.

* Have at least five evening outfits. The more successful you are, the more you’ll be called upon to attend formal business events.


* Have your shirts custom-made. If you’re moving from a mid-level to a senior-level position, make the transition to cufflinks. “Nine out of 10 of the executives I know wear them,” says McClarie. Stay away from faux French cuff shirts with buttons.

* Consider a bow tie. Make sure to learn how to tie it, never use clip-one. If that’s not your style, then try ties in different colors and patterns. Cuffed trousers and suspenders have a classic appeal. Also, make sure your socks are not too short, and replace them if the bands are worn and don’t stay up.

* Always wear an undershirt. It’s very unprofessional to see skin or the wave of hair under your shirt, says Respress-Churchwell. “At all costs, leave the short sleeve shirts at home for the weekend. They should not be worn to the office, no matter how expensive,N she adds.

* Keep your hair in check. Visit the barber regularly and keep facial [including nose and ear) hair well groomed. * Invest in a tuxedo, and consider having it and the shirt custom-made. You don’t want to be at the mercy of a rental company should you need one on short notice.


Wardrobe Strategies for Women by Judith Rasband, Delmar Publishers, Florence, Kentucky (800-347-7707); $32.95 paperback.

The Elegant Man: How to Construct the Ideal Wardrobe by Riccardo Villarosa and Guiliano Angeli, Random House, $35 hart/cover.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group