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Professional appearance is all about appropriateness


Fifty years ago, even forty years ago professional appearance usually meant a business suit, more often than not with a tie for men. There were also mumblings about women wearing trousers…The pandemic has caused a further change as people got used to dressing more casually at home, even if they were usually more formally dresed.

Where we have come from

Many would say it was easier then, you didn't have to think much about what to put on each morning. Take out a suit and a clean shirt/blouse – job done! It saved time on shopping too as little imagination was really required in terms of which items were needed, their colour or their shape. Clothing shapes tended to be very classic unless you worked in a more creative industry such as fashion and colours were almost certainly fairly dark and subdued in terms of suit and a shade of white for the shirt/blouse. The result was a standardised look for anyone working in a business context.
Even writing this bores me! Doesn't it sound wholly devoid of imagination and individuality? On a positive note though, there were very definite standards and expectations were clear. Although I am not saying that this means personal image was always positive. 

The challenge today

Nowadays, this expectation of formal business suit for a professional appearance only remains in certain sectors and even then not all of the time – sectors such as banking, legal and accountancy. For other sectors, it very much depends and is usually only related to client meetings. This has created a couple of difficulties:

  1. For organisations – they didn't set out what the expectation was if it wasn't a business suit. The term ‘business casual’ or 'dress for your day' are widely used but can have many interpretations. This often means that team members dress far more casually than an organisation ever had in mind and it is difficult to reverse that, even just a little. Also, do you always know what to expect from your day. Last minute client meetings come up.

  2. For individuals – whilst some definitely enjoy the increased freedom and choice, for others it makes getting ready for work more challenging and the potential for getting it wrong is increased. It also means there is more scope for judgement from others, as there are more options to choose from. Some people actively enjoy dressing for work and with hybrid working, dress more formally to go to the office. 

What this means

This is where my ‘A’ word comes in as it is absolutely essential to decide what is appropriate dress for the day ahead. It might be the business suit but more often that not, it isn't. So here are some key considerations for you that need to be weighed up in conjunction with one another to decide whether the business suit is the answer:

  • The sector you work in – what do clients expect of someone that does what you do?

  • Your company's culture - what is the expectation when just in the office?

  • If you are seeing clients on any given day – thinking of what they expect but also how they are dressed. You should certainly never be more casually dressed than them but you also should not be too overdressed as it will hinder engagement. Slightly more formal than them is ideal.

  • Whether you need to have authority – the white shirt and dark suit which defines the most formal business wear projects authority. It is of course possible to project some authority using a similar contrast without the business suit but it’s really important to consider whether authority or approachability are required for the day ahead. To give you an idea, more structured, neutral plain clothing communicates greater authority; approachability is communicated by the opposite - of course an outfit doesn't have to be all one thing or the other.

  • The environment you are going to be in – going to a breakfast networking event at an associate’s office may require a slightly different approach to evening drinks in a bar organised by a less formal networking group. In a video meeting, you need to think about what will be visible and what is appropriate.

Why being appropriately dressed matters for a professional appearance

  • To engage with those you are meeting – positive personal image. A negative image is a distraction from your expertise and experience being heard. Read more on why your personal impact matters.

  • To create rapport

  • To feel comfortable in yourself – when you are inappropriately dressed you will feel uncomfortable and will not perform to the best of your abilities

  • To be remembered for the right things, a negative personal image is not a good memory to leave with someone – ‘the bloke who was under-dressed.’

  • Except where it really is appropriate (according to the considerations above), a formal business suit can come across as a uniform (the least thought option) and communicate that you lack imagination and are fairly junior.

So when you reach for more formal workwear, really think about whether it is right for your day ahead! It may well be but remember to think it through. Undoing a negative first impression is a lot of work – up to 7 positive occurrences to do so…Make it easier for yourself to showcase your experience and expertise.

Your professional appearance helps to reinforce, or not your personal brand, read more on that topic.

Personal impact is just one of the nine skills needed for career success, sign up below to read about the other eight.