The New Business Dressing Game
By Diana Kilgour
Small changes for Men. An Image Minefield for Women.
Business Dress has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and yet what does remain predictable is that men wear suits, pants of a uniform length, shirts that button down the front, and a similar size of necktie. And no matter what happens to the colour of choice for a suit, a man's suit remains a very defined garment.
But consider the fashion minefield that a woman has to negotiate in selecting a wardrobe. The choices include suits, separates, and dresses. A suit may have a long or short jacket which may have long or short sleeves, which may be set-in, raglan, cuffed or puffed. Colour ranges in women's clothing exclude nothing. Patterns include -- as well as the plaids, checks, and stripes familiar to men -- dots, florals, geometrics, and abstracts.
Add to the confusion of choices the time and money constraints of the average person. No wonder it's hard to look like a successful, attractive, competent, and serious business woman. If has become so much more complicated now that the dress for success rug has been, if not exactly jerked, at least moved. Without the rigid rules, there is a much greater chance of not even knowing when the bounds of good taste have been exceeded.
Some women have made it easier on themselves by becoming the boss. Other women have chosen to work in fields where creativity and individuality are prized instead of suspect. After all, we don't require our fitness coach to look like a banker. We even expect her to wear clothes that show off her toned shape, her energy and vitality. Wash and wear practicality and brighter colours would be appropriate standards for a teacher's or artist's wardrobe, not a stockbroker's.
A useful guideline to dressing now is to consider who or what one is dressing for. All around us are women who have arrived and who exercise brilliantly their right to dress for themselves, with the awareness of the effect they are creating. It is dangerous for both men and women to dress unconsciously, for our choices always broadcast our level of success, taste, social and business savvy. We may, indeed, be many different people in life but a serious goal-oriented career woman had better not bring too many different personas into the workplace. Looking like a vamp on Monday, a kitten on Tuesday, a preppy on Wednesday, and a cowgirl on Thursday communicates that you can't be counted upon on Friday.
Consistency and assertiveness in dress, with some sense of being appropriate to the surroundings, gives one a much clearer, focused image. Straight, tailored lines and neutral colours are still the safest for the most conservative and traditional fields, those dealing with people's finances or futures such as investment or law, or the most critical events such as job interviews. We generally associate rounded lines and brighter or pastel colours with more social or creative types of dressing, such as leisure or evening wear.
Now, what about the chic and powerful looking executive in the bright red dress? By the old rules she would be placing her career in jeopardy. If she is coming across as both chic and powerful, she has learned to play the new dressing game. She is almost certainly wearing a garment of high quality, at least one that is in a natural fibre and well-cut. Her hair and make-up will be beyond reproach and her accessories will be chosen to make a statement, something that matching red plastic or enamel will not. Another example of a savvy business look would be the woman in the softly cowled knit dress, in charcoal grey or deep-muted purple. The same outfit in pale pink would be pushing-it-sweet in all but the softest of industries (cosmetics or catering).
It isn't any longer a matter of certain colours or styles being good or bad. It is more a matter of balancing the safe with the adventuresome, looking confident, not silly or out of place.
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