Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
We have become a nation of very casual dressers. For some people, “casual” has come to mean that the clothes you wear to clean out the garage are ok to be worn to work. True, in some work environments that is acceptable. In ours it is not. What you wear, or how you present yourself, is crucial to how you are perceived by the client.
Many of you out there may say it shouldn’t matter how we dress as long as we are good at what we do (a notion from 1960’s that should be as long gone as those years). The reality is – it does matter, and here’s why: From east coast to west, a major complaint from managers is that homeowners and Boards don’t or won’t listen to them when they provide professional guidance, advice or suggestions. “I’m treated like a secretary, or a gopher!” is what we often hear, or say. Part of the reason for this is the larger structure of the industry (which we’re not going to get in to here), but part of that oh-so-common scenario is our own doing in that we sometimes fail to understand this basic tenet: How we present ourselves, personally, to the client has a major impact on how we are perceived, and thus how we a treated. So let’s consider several factors in how we should “present” ourselves to our utmost advantage, to put forth our utmost credibility and thus our utmost sense of professionalism.
There are three levels of “Business” attire in our business.
Level 1 “Business Formal.”In some very specific pockets in the country, or in specific management firms, our industry is held by strict business attire standards: Suits and ties for guys, skirt- or slacks-suits for women.
Level 2 “Business Casual”is where most of the industry really falls, and is a bitmore relaxed. In general, when we talk about “business casual attire” for the purposes of this article, for men we mean collared shirts, sport coats, ties, nice slacks and hard shoes, well-groomed hair and hands, no visible tattoos or piercings. For women, this standard is commonly nice slacks or skirts, well-pressed shirts with or without a jacket in more neutral colors (i.e., no loud prints), or a business dress with a jacket, hair in relatively subdued fashion, hard shoes (flat or heel), neat hands, subtle perfume if any, subtle jewelry and subtle make-up. No visible tattoos and only one piercing in each earlobe. 
Level 3 “Casual Business”In general, “casual business attire” means for guys a sport shirt or golf shirt, slacks or khakis, hard shoes or “boat” shoes (Sperry Topsider-types), still neat, no visible tattoos or piercings. For women, this standard is commonly slacks or khakis, nice casual shoes or leather sandals (if location appropriate). Please note the visible tattoos and no more than one (maybe two) ear-piercings are always the rule, even on casual business days. No T-shirts, tank-tops or flip-flops, ever.
What to wear when you are at the office is sometimes clear, and sometimes clear as mud. Always remember that how you dress projects volumes about your level of understanding the powerful communication tool that is presentation, and you want that at your disposal not only when you have to attend a meeting, but around the office as well. Here are some general guidelines:
Established Dress Code.If your office has a written dress code, make sure and review that code so you can at least get an idea as to what is and is not generally acceptable work attire. But I would venture to say that for the most part, management offices lack a written dress code. In that case…
How does the boss dress?(Or, the “look up” method of attire determination). If your office lacks a written dress code, take a cue from your boss. How does s/he dress? Is it business casual, or is it a suit? Jeans or khakis? Sport coat or turtle neck? You don’t have to imitate your boss, but emulating his/her level of dress (accounting for your gender, of course) can be a good place to start. If the boss always wears a sport coat and no tie, then you are likely in a business casual office, and can wear a sport coat, tie or no, and slacks. If the boss wears a golf shirt and khakis, then likely you can, as well. If the boss changes it up – jeans one day and a sport coat and slacks the next – always opt for the more conservative mode of dress. Are you still in doubt about what to wear? Ask!
Location. What’s appropriate Orlando, FL may not be appropriate in Fairfax, VA (trust me, very likely it’s not). Those who live and work in more casual locations, resort areas and warmer climes will often have a more relaxed dress code than those in urban areas. In San Diego, Tucson, and Jupiter, FL, khaki pants with a sport coat and open collared shirt may be as dressy as it gets for guys, and long dress shorts or nice capris and a summer jacket for women, even for meetings. Not so in San Francisco, Minneapolis, or New York.
Why it’s important to always dress well in the office. Why would you always want to look your best in the office even if you aren’t scheduled to attend a meeting or have an appointment?
a) You never know who will be stopping by the office unannounced, or what meeting you may be called in to unexpectedly;
b) You always want to present and project an image of professionalism to yourself and your co-workers.
Your appearance matters greatly even to other staff members because as you appear, so shall be treated, and as importantly, so shall you act. Remember, you always want to look the part of polished, credible professional, whatever the established dress code is in your office. If you are ever in doubt, always, always choose the more conservative line of dress.
Outside the office
Walk-throughs. Most “walk-throughs” (or, “drive-by’s”) entail a comfortable pair of shoes, and that’s about it as far as deviation from your normal office dress as is needed. Unless you are intending on climbing roofs, ladders, walking in the pond or some such nonsense that most managers really don’t do (often) – what you are wearing in the office will work with a pair of comfortable shoes that can be changed upon your return. I know many managers will resist this but think of it this way: Walk-throughs afford a lot of opportunity for you to interact with homeowners whether you want to or not. You want to look the part of the knowledgeable professional that you are and avoid looking as if you just finished mowing the lawn at home. Presentation = credibility.
Meetings with anyone. Your best office attire (meaning whichever level is worn in your office) should be worn to any and all meetings, including meetings with vendors. Yes, vendors. What, are they chopped liver? The point being a professional look breeds professional demeanor and the perception of you as a professional. Be mindful that you may be in a position to negotiate contracts with vendors so when you dress appropriately you will be considered ‘serious’ when undertaking that task, or any other. Vendors also appreciate that respect for them as much as you appreciate it when they appear at a homeowner’s house looking neat, clean and doing a professional job in a timely manner.
Trade shows, conventions, educational seminars, golf tournaments, etc. For some reason, many of us equate attending an industry trade-show or other function, even a national event, with a vacation and dress accordingly. NOT! The next time you are at an industry event, take notice of what others are wearing, and especially take notice of what the industry leaders are wearing (the “look up” method again). Chances are it is a suit or a modified suit (business casual or casual business – Level 2 or 3), or if it’s even more casual, pressed khakis or slacks and a collared shirt (also pressed). If it’s golf tournament, appropriate golf attire. In other words, professional or casual professional will fit these events. Generally, you will not see industry leaders in flannel shirts, jeans, frumpy or dirty slacks, very low-cut dresses, 4” heels or T-shirts. Why is this? Our industry leaders understand the power of personal presentation, and how it promotes their professionalism (and their rise in the ‘ranks’). My number 1 rule is: Always look your best at industry functions. You never know who may be sizing you up for your ideas, a promotion, or a new job.
Formal or semi-formal evening industry functions.Your presentation matters in context of your professionalism even when you have a cocktail in your hand. For men it usually means a dark suit and tie or a tux for a formal event, or a business suit for a semi-formal event. For women, an evening business suit or business party dress is appropriate. Notice the word “business” in front of each of those choices: This means not too much skin, not too low cut, nothing you have to continually tug up or pull down or mystery is over. Yes, it’s a social event, but what you wear to that event can affect how you are perceived the next day – or well beyond – when you have your “real” clothes back on. Ladies: A good place to get an idea of the type of appropriate business party clothing is at www.talbots.com, in their “special occasion” section. When it comes to attending a formal, or semi-formal evening industry function, I have learned over the years that the operative phrase to remember is: It may be a party, but it’s still work.
Things you may not think about
The Age Factor: How old are you? Very, very un-PC and I am sure to get letters and emails about this – but – the younger – or younger looking – you are the more conservative your mode of dress should be, maybe even more conservative than your more “seasoned” co-workers. Why? It’s a perception of credibility issue and as we all know, perception is reality for our clients. Younger people tend to dress even more casually than their older counterparts, taking their cues from celebrities and fashion trends as opposed to plain old boring business clothes from Macy’s. I sympathize, but I advise getting over it. Being taken seriously from the get-go by your Boards is far more important than any fashion trend. Younger folks do have options: Hipper business attire is available at such stores at Banana Republic. Remember, your job is a day-to-day reality that feeds, houses and (ironically) clothes you. Don’t sacrifice credibility for the sake of a fleeting fashion trend.
Do my clothes (still) fit? On the other end of the spectrum… We’re all getting older. Some of us are getting a little more … settled. Is it time to ask ourselves (ladies…) if that size 10 pair of pants still fits, even though we can button the top button only if we remain standing all day? Or (gentlemen…) that 34” waist fits but only if it rides down real low under the belly? Or, really, is that shirt supposed to ride up over our tummies?
Look, I get it, it happens to the best of us. But if at this point in time your pants look as if you just came from the Oscar Mayer sausage stuffing factory (and you’re the sausage) – it’s time to go a size (or two) up. Tight clothes don’t make anyone look thinner – in fact just the opposite – unless you are a size 2 or a 28” waist. As our bodies’ changes, let’s just admit it and take time look for clothes that make us look professional and fit well. Besides, why put yourself through that agony?
Am I out of date?Those of us more… seasoned… (or, as I prefer, “classic”) may have Another problem… We were trendy once, but that time is long gone and… We’re still stuck there. If you have the same hairstyle you did during the Reagan administration, it’s time to take a good, long look in the mirror. Out-of-date clothing, (even if it still fits), hair that’s permed with big, poofy-poodle bangs, mutton-chops, comb-overs or glasses so large they look like the back of an AMC Pacer are the first things folks will see when you walk in the room. If you just can’t see your own fashion statement, ask your grown kids, they’ll be more than happy to tell you.
You may be saying “Hey! The wars are over and no one cares how I look, so it doesn’t matter.” Yes, it does matter because we are not an ageist industry: You can excel in this business whether you start at 25 or 55. But if at 55 you look as if you haven’t made appropriate clothing or appearance decisions since “Rock the Kasbah” was on the charts, you may not go as far as you would like.
Grooming. Always, always, look your best. This means hair cuts at regular intervals, styles that are relatively conservative and business-like, no sloppy pony-tails for men or women, and no wildly colored hair. I once had a candidate that, unbeknownst to me, had a large red chunk dyed into her otherwise blonde hair. She was very experienced, but couldn’t land one in three job interviews I sent her on. Finally, one of the interviewers told me about the hair. I called her with a “What were you thinking?” and of course, she said “Hey, that’s for me, that’s for my personal life and has nothing to do with work.” Uh huh. Shortly thereafter she got rid of the red and found a job. In this case, Presentation = Credibility = Employment. Good, conservative grooming always works in your favor in the business world.
Guys, a word: If you are losing your hair on top, growing more on the bottom (a “skull-et”) and sticking it in a ponytail doesn’t make you look as if you have more hair, in fact, just the opposite. Go with the inevitable, cut what you have short or shave it. It looks great, and chances are will make you look – and thus feel – more youthful. I say this as a career counselor and as a female.
Good business clothing choices don’t have to be expensive
No, they don’t, but you do need to make a few key purchases that may be a little “spendy” but will last you for years. For example, I have a black silk summer jacket that I purchased 20 years ago for $150 that I still use. I’ve had the lining repaired once, it is always dry-cleaned, but it was an excellent investment. I have found over the years that key investments in shoes, handbags (for women) and key pieces of clothing – jackets, black slacks, white collared shirts that are classically styled can be mixed and matched with all sorts of less expensive clothing and work great.
Business clothing is not a luxury; it is an expense that you must consider a necessity. Ignoring how you look is at your own professional peril. For help on affordable business clothing, there are numerous websites available that will help you determine a course of action.
So, Presentation DOES matter
As hard as we may fight it, or just not want to think about or deal with it, presentation does matter. I know this from my own successes and failures, the successes (and failures) of my candidates and other industry professionals that use professional presentation for job seeking, promotions, contract negotiation, presentations and Board meetings. Professional presentation in all aspects of our professional life is not only essential for our upward mobility, it’s essential to our basic quest, as an industry, of being treated as professionals. If we look the part, we act the part, and others respond to us in kind: We are professional and credible. To quote:
“Successful people believe their success is attributable to a pattern of mutually beneficial interpersonal relationships, as much as it is due to technical skills or business knowledge. Your communication and the image you present create the first impression – often the lasting impression – on the people you meet.” 
 You will note that more information will be presented about women. This is because in the business attire world, there are far, far greater choices for women, and far, far more ways for those choices to go wrong.
 Of course this is, again, location dependent. If you are in the desert southwest and are required to wear a sport coat in the office, taking that off and wearing a clean, pressed golf shirt would be appropriate.