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Do You Still Need to Dress for Success?

Would you win an award at work for “Best Dressed?” Or are you more likely to fade into the background in company pictures? Being a flashy or sharp dresser doesn’t necessarily determine your work performance, but it can affect how you’re perceived at work.

Here, we ask career coaches what style choices to keep in mind when dressing for success, and if that concept is even relevant in today’s individualist, employee-focused workplace.

Area and industry standards

A fashion designer in New York City will likely dress very differently from a plumber in Kansas, not because of their personal style, but because of dress norms tied to their professions and company locations. Brian Carter, co-author of the forthcoming career advice book, “The Cowbell Principle: Career Advice on How To Get Your Dream Job and How to Make More Money,” says, “It really depends on the industry and situation – I’ve seen engineers wear button-up collared shirts but no suit coat. I’ve seen digital marketing, Web design and social media people wear T-shirts with suit coats. But often executives are still dressing for success. It also depends on your culture – in the U.S., the east coast still dresses up more than the west coast. In some niches, wearing full traditional formal clothing shows you don’t ‘get it’ and don’t belong. It’s just as bad to overdress as it is to underdress.”

If you’re unfamiliar with following fashion trends and current styles for work, look to managers, C-level executives and receptionists for their wardrobe choices. You can get a good starting impression of what works for your particular area and work in your own style preferences. Unless, of course, you have a dress code or uniform policy that mandates what you wear for your role’s function.

Focus on company culture

While there are industry and area trends that highlight wardrobe standards, it can often be easiest to determine what your boss expects to see you in based on how he and other high-level managers dress. “Dressing for success is always important, no matter what you wear,” says Jason Nik, a life and career coach. “However, what dressing for success means differs from one place to the next. It’s not necessarily industry-specific as it is company-specific.”

But do you have to dress just like everybody you work with? No, Nik says. “It’s important to note, that no matter what company you work for, there is always an opportunity to highlight personal expression. It can be big or small, from a tie that highlights you to a watch. It comes down to what the culture of the company you are working at expects. I had a client who has sleeve tattoos, so a lot of companies wouldn’t hire her, because she didn’t match their company culture. I helped find her a job for a company that has no problems with tattoos. She dressed for success every day, not hiding her tattoos, and has since been promoted to general manager of the company. It’s always important to dress for success, but make sure that success matches the company’s culture.”

Style and dress code tips

Amy Bravo, assistant dean of career services at New York Institute of Technology, gives the following style advice for career success:

  • “Most companies have dress codes or guidelines on what is not permissible in the workplace. Stay within those guidelines while being who you are.
  • “Dress in the role you want, not the one you have.
  • “Be neat, clean and generally reflective of your work scene. If you have long hair, brush it. Avoid jeans that have holes in them or that fall below your hips. If you have a nose piercing, the size and style should fit in to the office tone. There is a difference between a small nose stud and an inch round hoop connected to your ear by a chain.
  • “The black or blue suit is not for everyone. Don’t be afraid to mix, match and use color. If you don’t know how to pull looks together, stores like Nordstrom offer free styling [and] shopping services. Other places like Stitchfix.com will ship outfits to you each month after you complete a style assessment. A personal stylist is assigned to you and you pay for only what you keep.”

No matter what you wear or how people in your industry or at your company dress, your work performance and personality will still play a primarily role in determining your career success. As Bravo says, “In my opinion, confidence, ability and a good personality trump dress.”

Susan Ricker researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder.

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