UK: VITAL SIGNS - Just listen to that suit.

UK: VITAL SIGNS - Just listen to that suit. - VITAL SIGNS - Just listen to that suit - What you look like is shouting so loudly that people can't hear what you're saying.

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

VITAL SIGNS - Just listen to that suit - What you look like is shouting so loudly that people can't hear what you're saying.

Clothes are business language. They speak volumes. Any intelligent headhunter would be idiotic not to look you over and factor your kit into their assessment, along with your professional skill-set, the Social Skills Index and the Psychological Inventory.

I have colleagues who reckon they can work out most things about someone from the non-verbals they throw off on the 10-second flightpath from door to desk. For one, it's shoes - he can spot a PVC sole or poor stitching from 20 yards. For another, it's ties. 'Anyone with one of those novelty animal prints starts from zero with me,' she says. (Women worry about this sort of thing already. They know clothes matter. How much visible thigh is a staple of women's magazines.)

From a man's work clothes, I'd reckon to get a good steer on occupational type or training; his peer and 'reference' groups; social and political sympathies; some life-stage experiences, and what he does and doesn't know about.

It's not that difficult. If one knows the culture of a social or occupational group, you know at an almost instinctual level what they would and would not wear. Thus a middle-aged man with cropped hair, a black suit, grey-wool shirt, no tie and wire-rimmed specs has to have been at an art or architectural school between, say, 1969 and 1977. He would never wear the striped suit and oval gold cuff links that his second-cousin (Kleinwort Benson, 1971-1989) sees as a natural uniform.

From there I can speculate usefully on who they will know, admire and defer to, and in which milieus they will work most comfortably. Black-clad Bob will understand the language of design and some of the language of marketing. James will feel comfortable with City-speak types and younger Tory MPs, and have sympathy with the Countryside Alliance.

I've picked pretty obvious stereotypes to illustrate a key problem: that your clothes may be saying much more than you want them to - that, to misquote Thoreau, what you look like is shouting so loudly people can't hear what you're saying.

It's not difficult to imagine whose hackles will instinctively rise at the sight of Bob or James. So they should be sure they're targeting the right supportive colleagues and potential employers when they go round like living sandwich boards.

Take no comfort in articles about dress-down Friday or the 'peacock' trend to strong colour. It absolutely doesn't mean life is getting easier and anything goes - it means the plot is becoming more complex and one can lose it more easily.

Appearance matters more now because there's no job security, and we are assessed constantly. It matters because managers move around so much more, from familiar to strange corporate cultures. It matters because there's more pressure to lead, communicate, pitch and sell. Research shows that presentation determines 80% of an audience's response to an individual's performance and content 20%. The pressure is on for managers to look the part. There are visual languages to learn and more to go wrong.

Uniforms, overt or covert, are relatively easy to learn. Basic black-tie was a great leveller, until they introduced those naff brocade waistcoats and pre-tied bows that make their wearers look like office boys. When simple dress codes give way to more subtle judgments, the visually inarticulate are really vulnerable. Greater design awareness means you can't get by in senior management with a few Suit Warehouse suits and a pair of £40 cardboard brogues with synthetic soles.

The fact is that in most corporate businesses the people who really matter, the ones who extract the greatest rewards, are those who command relationships - who 'own' employees, customers, clients. Their clothes say they understand the big worlds they move in; they know the visual codes Serious Money adopts in their neck of the woods.

Clothes must start by saying: 'I'm at your level. I speak your language. We can do business'. When you're at the top table, there's something distracting about anyone wearing a Mafia-style white-on-white shirt, or moccasins with lacquered brass trim. How can this man meet the City, or sell design-led products in Europe, or speak on trends with high net worth customers?

All of this sounds snobbish and profoundly non-PC. That's why it's so important. If dress codes and small behaviours can affect your career chances, then it pays to learn the language.

In the meantime, don't die in a ditch for a tie-pin.

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