At its core, a brand is a promise. It’s providing a reason to choose. It’s about shaping perception. In the words of marketing guru, Seth Godin, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
In the same way a brand’s look or feel conjures up assumptions about a company, your style relays a message about your tastes, your world view, your essence. What you wear in the workplace serves as an instant, non-verbal language and the fit, length and colour can speak volumes. It’s a part of your own personal brand and it tells your story. Take shoes for example. They can indicate whether the wearer is practical, extroverted, conscientious or aloof. A tie (or lack thereof) can relay that a person is laid back, forward-thinking or a perfectionist.
That’s not to dismiss your capabilities or your education. But in today’s world where human contact is more-often-than-not virtual, what you choose to package yourself in when you show up in person can be as important as your resumé.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
As the influx of millennials into the workplace continues, the dress codes that were once predominantly “suit-and-tie” have gone to the wayside. These days, casual Friday has become more of the everyday norm with chinos and polo shirts replacing the traditional executive look.
Aaron Miller, director of presentation at Calgary’s prominent clothier Supreme Men’s Wear, is an expert on business-appropriate attire. He agrees that while the days of the three-piece suit being a uniform are long gone, even in a laxer business environment it’s critical to dress for success – and for your age.
Miller says there’s a distinct difference in what the age groups are shopping for and donning at the office. “Men in their 20s who are just starting out in their career are looking for clean, slim-cut suits as they start to build their wardrobe and their reputation. They’re also heavily influenced by who they’re watching on TV and in the movies. The younger guys tend to be a little more flamboyant and eager to kick it up with a loud accessory or tie.
“The guys in their 30s who are now sitting across from VPs and executives focus on looking professional and fitting in. They don’t want anyone to get hung up on their tie. They want their colleagues to get hung up on their words.
“As for the gentlemen in their 40s, they’re established in their careers and so they’re taking more risks when it comes to fashion,” Miller adds. “These guys are adding pops of colour, layering, mix-and-matching. They’re looking for versatility – vests, pocket squares, sports coats, jeans, etc.
“Men in their 50s are also gravitating away from suits and toward pieces like sports jackets. Because they’re travelling to their homes in different places and driving more than one vehicle, they’re really matching their wardrobes to their lifestyle,” he says. “These gentlemen are rocking killer cuff links with a French-cut shirt and white V-neck T-shirts with sports jackets and a pocket square. It’s all about attention to detail for this group.”
Despite the shift in culture away from formal business attire, businesses today still choose to enforce their own rules around dressing for work. Though the general rule of thumb is that it’s better to be “overdressed,” the culture can dictate how that’s defined. The rules that apply for a law firm, for example, are likely different than what goes for an engineering firm.
According to human resource experts, dressing appropriately can hinder or propel your career. Dressing your age can do the same. No – that doesn’t mean you have to stick out like a chaperone at the Miley Cyrus concert. It just means that even if the 20-something women in your group gravitate toward leggings, sweaters and loose oversized scarves, as a boomer it may be wise to avoid raiding your daughter’s closet and sticking to pieces with more structure, tailoring and intention.
“The youngest professionals in the workforce tend to dress more casual than older generations, but I don’t think the change in what’s deemed appropriate is because of them,” says HR professional Angely Vatcher. “Obviously, business attire is not black and white or a one-size-fits-all code. A high-ranking employee could wear jeans while attending a work-related lunch function and two hours later change into a suit and tie to attend an executive meeting. There is a time and a place to dress casual and a time and a place to dress business professional.”
Miller points out that the new generation is more intentional with their clothing, too. “I think millennials are now voting with their dollars. Because information is so quick, they see a look they like, research the product and materials, and then decide whether they want to purchase it. They’re socially conscious. And we love that,” he says.
The Influence of the Economy
It should come as no surprise that the financial times impact how individuals dress for the office. In an economic downtown, savvy shoppers park the plastic and splurge on office clothes that are versatile – mix-and-match pieces that toe the line between business and business casual.
Even more significantly, when times are a little tougher, career competition gets a little stronger. This means personal branding can play a bigger role in landing that job.
“First impressions last and matter,” says Vatcher. “For example, two individuals with similar credentials arrive at an interview for an eligible promotion. The first is wearing business attire and the second is in casual attire. When there is only seconds to make an impression without saying a word, the clothes and overall presentation of the first candidate stands out and is more memorable.”
The Unwritten Rules
• Regardless of your position or level of employment, getting dressed for work each day should be a well-thought-out process with an end goal to project confidence, drive and competence.
• Your personal presentation can affect both your superior and colleagues’ opinions, so you should strive to look the part of a leader with winning potential. “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.”
• No matter the season, no matter the trend, a good rule of thumb is to “follow the leader.” Be mindful of what the executives are wearing and take a page from their books.
• If it aligns with your brand image, for both women and men, there’s always a place for a well-tailored suit.
• It’s better to dress up than dress down if you want to get ahead, especially if you interact with clients. After all, no one was ever accused of dressing “a little too professionally.”
• When you’re going for a business casual vibe don’t focus on dressing up a casual outfit. Focus on dressing down a business look.
While there’s a lot more to creating a magnetic experience in the workplace, your outfit is the foundation. Remember to take a step back, consider how others may perceive you and cultivate a professional image that will garner the respect you deserve and help create rapport and relatability with colleagues, leaders and stakeholders.
Jobs come and go, but your personal brand stays with you throughout your entire working life.