How savvy businesswomen dress for success

While we all know how to dress in our time off and for special occasions, often times appropriate dressing in the workplace can often be a bit of a “grey area.”

The question “How should I dress at work?” comes up at every women’s conference I address.

Sharon Stone is a fashion stylist and personal shopper based in Dallas, Texas. She has a flair for style that’s made her a top pick of celebs like Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen DeGeneres. I asked her advice.

Carol Kinsey Goman: There are many different types of workplaces ranging from open creative offices to more traditional corporate environments. Do you have some general guidelines about appropriate dressing for a professional woman?

Sharon Stone: While we all know how to dress in our time off and for special occasions, often times appropriate dressing in the workplace can often be a bit of a “grey area.” The basic guidelines to follow are simple: proper fit, classic style and neatness.

  1. In general, a proper fit goes a long way towards a professional look. This may mean updating your wardrobe if you’ve changed sizes, as we all do, or if you haven’t replaced your wardrobe in a while. Dated and faded attire bely your professionalism.
  2. Keep it simple. Trends are great and lots of fun to follow, but the workplace is an environment where the understated is more appropriate. In such an environment it is better to have your great performance command the attention, not your wardrobe.
  3. Cleanliness and neatness are always in style, and never more so than in a professional environment.
  4. Do some research on Pinterest, Instagram and online for business dressing for inspiration. Or if you have the ability to work with a personal shopper, take advantage of that objective opinion.

Goman: I’ve presented my “Body Language for Women Who Lead” program at several of the most successful firms in Silicon Valley – and I am amazed at the array of low-cut necklines I see on women in the audience. What are your thoughts about this?

Stone: The workplace should be a cleavage-free zone. While there is absolutely a time and a place to embrace a plunging neckline, the workplace is definitely neither of those. It is a distraction and unprofessional.

Goman: I’m all for women dressing in a fashion that makes them feel attractive and confident, but I also advise women to take themselves (and their professional reputation) seriously. When I talk about “dress for success” for women in a leadership role, I mean dressing in ways that build, not diminish, their credibility. Women in managerial positions who dress in sexy attire (low cut tops and too-short skirts) are viewed as less intelligent. Even other women take them less seriously.

Many workplaces have embraced a “casual Friday” look all week long. Does this make it easier to dress for success?

Stone: While it is important to be comfortable at work you also want to make sure that your look is a polished one. Unless you happen to work in the fitness or sporting goods industry there is absolutely no reason that “athleisure” should be present in a professional workplace. Slacks, pants, skirt or dress are the basic wardrobe from which to choose. When in doubt, a wardrobe consisting of a variety of simple black slacks paired with various blouses, sweaters, jackets, etc. and some simple well-placed jewelry, is the perfect go-to formula.

Goman: Thank you, Sharon, for these great tips.

Let me add that, as with every other piece of nonverbal communication, you need to consider first what “success” means in a particular context. Appropriate dress is a way of expressing respect for the situation and the people in it. Therefore, your look may change depending on the business circumstances.

For example: Teresa is a management consultant – and a master at dressing for the role. She loves to wear hot pink, turquoise and fire-engine red silk dresses with stiletto heels and lots of bling to work in her New York City office. But the moment she has to meet with a conservative client, or one who is going through difficult times, Teresa transforms herself into a prim professional whose outfit matches the way she wants to be perceived. (In her words, “The success I dress for is that of my client.”) One member of her staff recalls meeting Teresa at the headquarters of a nonprofit religious organization where they were to conduct focus groups. The staff member barely recognized her stylish boss. By dressing more like the client, Teresa fit right in. She looked like one of the nuns.

I know it’s superficial, but in a job interview, and indeed any business meeting, you are being evaluated, at least to some degree, by your appearance, clothing and grooming. If you want to be judged as a consummate professional, you need to dress the part.

Clothing has an effect on both the wearer and the observer. It has been proven that people are more likely to give money (charitable donations, tips) or information to someone if that person is well dressed. And if you ever watch actors go through their first dress rehearsal of a play, you’ll see firsthand the amazing transformation that happens when the actors are in costume.

Experiment with your appearance. Notice how you feel and how people react to you when you wear certain colors or styles. Then, based on those reactions and your career goals, you can make an informed decision about what dress for success means for you.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s the author of “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt How You Lead” and creator of LinkedInLearning’s video series: “Body Language for Leaders.” For more information, visit CarolKinseyGoman.com.