We have Silicon Valley to thank for the recent trend towards casual dressing at work. If the most successful firms in the world can ditch the suit and tie, why can’t yours? Even the starchy world of finance isn’t immune – JP Morgan, no less, recently allowed business casual for all but their investment bankers.
You might want to hold off before swapping your Oxfords for plastic flip flops, however. While strict dress codes might be on the wane, there’s another trend that may make looking sharp more important than ever: personal branding. The principle’s simple – brands have more value than commodities, you want to have more value in the labour market, so market yourself like a brand.
Not everyone buys into that idea, but so long as dressing up is associated with professionalism, competitive pressure will always reward those who pay a little bit more attention to their image. When you add to that the solid evidence – summarised nicely in this article by Scientific American – that sharp dressing results in superior abstract thinking, fewer mistakes and more successful negotiations, it would be unwise to ignore it.
Alas, knowing there’s a problem is only the first step in finding a solution. Taking a long look at the sea of easy-iron Primark shirts in my wardrobe, I realised I might need some professional help. Enter Lizzie Edwards, personal stylist, image consultant and personal branding coach.
1. Find your message
‘What do you want people to know about you when you walk in the room, before you’ve opened your mouth?’ Asks Edwards. We all know first impressions count, and despite our best efforts we all make judgements about people based on unconscious biases.
But giving a good first impression is difficult when you don’t know what impression you want to give. Do you want to be seen as more sophisticated, authoritative, creative, dynamic? Are you aware of the messages you’re currently sending?
‘I’ve had people from HR departments saying they don’t send someone to meetings because she doesn’t dress right. If you’re career’s being blocked without you even knowing about it, you’re doing yourself a massive disservice. Be a bit more self-aware, and ask for feedback.’
2. Ignore the slob sitting next to you
‘But we all wear shorts’ just won’t cut it if you want to get ahead. Be mindful of those higher up the career ladder looking for potential rising stars. ‘One of the signifiers of people taking their position seriously, who are engaged with their job and who want to progress is how they show up for work,’ says Edwards.
Even if you don’t have client-facing role or meetings scheduled that day, it pays to look like you’re ready to go. Who knows what opportunities you could be missing out on by looking unprepared? ‘Dress for the job you want and don’t be concerned about those around you. If everyone else is slobbing out, you’ll definitely be the one who stands out,’ adds Edwards.
3. Don’t take it too far
So you want to stand out from the crowd. Okay. A crushed velvet suit and an electric blue Mohawk will probably do the trick, but that doesn’t make them a good idea. Your image has to be appropriate to your organisation and role, or it could be distracting.
Navigating between being bland and being distracting can be tricky, says Edwards, but there is a good guiding principle. ‘When it comes to personal branding it’s important to be authentic. It’s not about pretending to be somebody.’ This is why it’s also important to be consistent. ‘If you were to bump into someone from work at the supermarket on Saturday, you don’t want them to say "oh my God I didn’t recognise you".’ Put the clothes that aren’t ‘on brand’ in the charity shop pile.
4. But be prepared to splash out
Quality counts. Even if you’re a casual dresser, people will pick up on the little things. ‘I’ve had senior people in creative industries say they could wear jeans and ballet pumps like the girl who’s just graduated, but they’re on the board. The difference is they should have much better quality jeans that fit them properly and don’t have rips, and have a nice shoe from a better brand. Even with that you will differentiate yourself.’
None of this is quick or cheap, of course. But focusing on the costs is short-sighted, argues Edwards. ‘You can’t expect a six-pack if you never go to the gym. It’s an investment in your career.’
How much you want to invest is clearly a matter of taste. No return is guaranteed, and indeed not everyone is in a position to do it. But being mindful at least of the image you want to give could make the difference between a progress and stagnation. With competition in the rat race being what it is, perhaps we’d better get browsing.