Are We Over That “Dress For the Job You Want” Adage Yet? Rethinking Career Dress-Up|
Let’s play dress-up.
We’ve heard it over and over: “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.”
While this solid mantra has a foundation of truth, I believe it’s time we change it. Following this pillar could lead to a wardrobe that is all over the place-reflecting our current field as we jump from marketing to finance to startup. However, as we journey through our career, more important than the job we want is the woman that we seek to be.
Finding your mental mannequin
I remember the first time I saw a vision of the woman I wanted to be. She was elegant, charming and perfectly put together in a Carolina Herrera dress and Manolo Blahniks. But it wasn’t the labels that had me in awe, it was the way that her fashion choices exuded executive presence. Her image, wrapped in gorgeous clothing, projected intelligence and congeniality, but yet I knew within the walls of her office building… she meant business.
I took note of everything from the way she dressed, to the amount of makeup she had on, to the style of her hair and the color of her nails. I not only wanted to be her, but I wanted to one day master the dichotomous image that she had so perfectly managed to radiate: powerful yet welcoming.
Starting at the bottom-and making it work
But where does a girl only a few years into her career begin? Here’s a hint: the answer isn’t “on the second floor of Neiman’s.” Thankfully, becoming the woman you seek to be doesn’t have to start with major purchases, because more often than not, it is the little things that make all the difference. And the small changes are the easiest to experiment with before making major investments in your image-small tweaks like nail color.
There was a time in my life that I couldn’t go into the nail salon without picking out some shade of pink or red. It just seemed completely foreign and so “not me” to have any other color painted on my fingers. And those shades of flesh-colored polish always sitting on the far end of the rack? I simply couldn’t dream of why anyone would bother with OPI’s San Tan-Tonio or Essie’s Marshmallow.
Then, I began really thinking about the vision for who I would be five, ten, or even twenty years from now. That woman was not holding a business meeting with hot pink, metallic nails. So, during my next manicure I picked out a soft, nude colored polish with a hint of pink, somewhat resembling the color of a ballet slipper. I admittedly had resistance to this new hue, wondering if it really mattered what color my nails were. Turns out, I felt so great with the ease and professionalism of those once-”boring” nail colors that I’ve now dropped the sparkly neons for good. This, of course, is not as much a demand for every woman as it is what felt right for me.
While nail color may seem trivial, it actually had a big impact on the way that I felt about my look. Sometimes, the small things are often more important than the grand statement when trying to project a certain image of success, confidence and likeability. It’s a blend of looking both polished and authentic.
A perception game: How important is “dressing for success” to actual success?
Putting the “polished” in “polished and authentic” doesn’t have to mean always wearing a thousand dollar dress. Recently the Center for Work-Life Policy (now the Center for Talent Innovation) surveyed 1,000+ male and female college graduates working in the U.S. within large corporations about what they thought contributed to, or detracted from, “executive presence” at their firm. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the president of the Center for Talent Innovation, wrote a blog for the Harvard Business Review outlining that “women, in particular, believed that dressing the part was a vital factor in attaining success:
- 53% of them felt aspiring female execs needed to toe a very conservative line, avoiding flashy make-up, plunging necklines, too-short or too-tight skirts, and long fingernails.”
- Half of those women (as well as 37% of the men surveyed) responded that executive presence and appearance are intrinsically linked.
We’re observant girls with one eye ever-trained on the norm. We generally know when our neckline is too deep or our outfit is completely inappropriate for the day at hand. Not to say that we haven’t made wardrobe blunders or won’t make mistakes in the future (after all, we are not perfect and in the professional woman’s world there is much more room for error than the steadfast suit culture for men), but there is plenty of information all over the Internet and in company resources on how to dress for particular jobs. Anyone can do a little research and know the basic guidelines (The Levo League has plenty of content on how to perfectly dress for any interview).
Nailing the little details
Even if we have the basics down, though, the little things-the subtler details-often escape us. Do we pay attention to the little things: the length of our nails, makeup that’s a bit too day-to-night, or excessive accessorizing? Are the brands we’re wearing appropriate for our pay grade? Are we showing off? The way we dress sends a million messages, and many of them are picked up in less than five seconds by our colleagues in the office. But with an understanding of the messages these smaller details send, that aspect too can be controlled in a fairly low-touch way.
Once you’ve nailed the “small stuff”, the bigger task to master is how you become that woman you so badly want to be. I started with my nails because I felt good about the professional wardrobe I’d built in my early career of classic blazers and tailored dresses and knew I wasn’t ready to go out and invest in timeless, albeit expensive, labels. “One day,” I promised myself.
Eventually (and with much trepidation) as my career grew a bit more (and in television, no less) I progressed to an investment in my hair color, kissing my platinum-blonde Dallas hair goodbye for a strawberry look that reflected my natural features. And while hair overhauls can be expensive, it was the value I saw in people seeing me, not my bleached-out hair or my sparkle-neon nails (I have not, however, ditched the teasing comb).
Finding your inner neutral nail color
You, too, are on the path to becoming your best, most powerful self. Get a sense of where that path is heading-Who is that woman you want to be? With one waltz through Saks, I think we can all say “I want to be a woman who wears that and rocks those.” But who is the woman behind the perfectly tailored dress?
If you cannot have the Herrera dress and Blahniks now, think about what things will reflect your own personality and simultaneously work toward your vision of what you want to be in ten years.
Dressing as the woman you want to be, will eventually, in turn, get you the job you want, turning that original mantra on its head.
Maxie McCoy has a Bachelor’s degree and a Masters from Lehigh in Journalism and Media, respectively. She is the co-writer of Less Work More Money and has experience hosting for Fox Sports Southwest. Follow her @maxiemccoy.