Dressing For Success - Or Are We?

Riding home from work, listening to NPR, (yes, I am in my 50’s and listen to public radio), the topic was “Power Suits: How Dressing For Success At Work Can Pay Off” (read article).

My immediate memory went to myself decades ago as a high school and college student where dressing up on exam day was standard procedure…I felt that if I looked better, I performed better.

When Quadras was in its infancy, and Sara (the other half of QI's presidency) and I were in our 20’s, we over-dressed for every situation – big heels, power suits, lots of jewelry, and even a fur coat in winter. It made us feel, and we believed look, mature, sophisticated, smart, and capable of handling someone’s advertising needs as well as managing their budgets. Maybe it was the clothes, or maybe it was our sheer determination, but it seemed to work.

As the business matured and we grew up, we learned to assess circumstances, dress, and present ourselves accordingly when making presentations. Would the potential client prefer me of Sara? Would they be impressed, or put off by our fashion sense? Which would suit the customer and the presentation better – black leather or khakis?

We have also dealt with a casual business environment in which we have had to tell employees that t-shirts with profanities written on them, bare midriffs, and booty shorts, are not work attire, and have, on occasion, had to request tattooed legs be covered, or that an employee revise “their style” in the presence of clients. At one point in time, we wanted to have employee jumpsuit uniforms. This idea was not joyfully embraced.

So while these were my initial thoughts that I wanted to blog about, I also thought my views might seem outdated, and thus wanted to hear how one of my "millennials" would relate to the article. Here's what she had to say:

"Dressing for success – it’s a phrase I heard echo out of my mother’s mouth time after time. Dressing for success was a second religion to me- I didn’t want to go ANYWHERE without believing I would be the best-dressed person in the room. (I once wore a pencil skirt and 5 inch heels to a normal day of classes in the 9th grade). That tradition carried into the first year or so of my work life – where I would also wear unbearably high heels most days, and on a “casual day” I would at least wear a pressed, dress shirt.

However, I think the perspective of things is changing in our work culture. I believe that my generation is far more casual, not just in dress, but in so many areas of life. We’re casual in business, we’re casual in communication, we’re casual about relationships. We’re much less focused on what a person is wearing when we first meet them, rather than what they can bring to the table. We’re growing up in an extremely self-aware age that is, despite older generations believing this or not, much more real.

Everyone seems to think that our generation centralizes around narcissism, when in reality – the selfies, the online mingling, it all relates back to finding people who are being so open about their personal lives that we can easily relate to them. While all of that may seem off topic – it isn’t. It all relates back to how we are presenting ourselves – which is totally real. We’re put off by flash and “power mongrels”.  We’d rather meet and work with genuine people who show up as they are, people we can relate to, instead of trying to command a presence with their attire. The people who have the most social followings online are the ones who share their embarrassingly real stories, not the ones who look like they have totally perfect lives. And so – in a new work environment, we’d rather meet people we feel we can relate with and connect to, than people who seem so calculated or stuck up in their appearance.

The older I get, the more of a truth this becomes, not just in our generation, but the generation after mine. The tricky part is- we’re not always dealing with our generation. At this age, I mostly deal with the generation before me – who still wants to be wildly impressed by “how mature we seem”. They genuinely value a well- dressed person and I believe, equate that with success – whereas so many successful people our age are typically dressed in jeans and hoodies, sitting behind a computer drinking coffee most of the day. We’ve just learned to measure things differently.

That being said, I think it’s important as a young professional to understand both sides of that. If I know I’m going to be meeting someone older than me, someone who thinks differently, I know what I need to do to make them see me as powerful, or full of potential. I need to dress up. I need to wear that pencil skirt, that dress shirt. I need to make them see me as an anomaly- a young person that has their life together. I have to set myself apart from the crowd. The understanding of that type of thinking can’t be dismissed. It would be foolish to try to. Impressing those people is so important because they run so much of our world. But the reality is, I’m sitting in those meetings – looking smart, and focused – but my mind can’t stop thinking about getting home and putting on pajamas. The thought of kicking off my stilettos is dominating my mind – rather than the actual work I’m doing.

When I’m comfortable, when I’m in “athleisure” as this article put it – I’m crawling on the ground organizing things just so. I’m running from the front of the office to the back of the office in 2 minutes flat instead of wobbling down the hallway trying not to sprain an ankle. I’m ready for the next eight hours of work, or even ten hours some days, because I’m at ease. I can move. I can relax. And I can let my brain focus on what it really needs to, without fabric starch getting in the way.

That being said – I think that there is a time and a place for both, and it’s so important to take into account the age group of people you’re dealing with, as well as the type of encounter (a job interview, etc.).  It’s hard for me to really pick a side to this argument because I’m caught between the two worlds."

Interestingly, we both came to somewhat the same conclusion, which is to dress for the audience and the circumstance, although I still believe that pants without a zipper lead to weight gain, and sloppy appearance equates itself with sloppy work…. Just sayin’.