Dress’ Speak n., often cap [United States, colloquial] (1978):
a phrase used to express how clothing and the way it is tailored and worn translates into a personal statement

The way you dress speaks volumes about who you are as a person and as a business communicator. Let's face it, clothes talk. Whenever you enter a room for the first time, it takes only a few seconds for people you've never met to form perceptions about you and your abilities. You don't have to utter a word; people peg you one way if you're dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, slacks and a sports coat, and yet another if you're wearing a bow tie and seersucker suit. Regardless of who you really are, your clothes and body language always speak first.

First Things First

Some of the perceptions people can form solely from your appearance are:

  • Your professionalism.
  • Your level of sophistication.
  • Your intelligence.
  • Your credibility.

Whether these perceptions are real or imagined, they underscore how your appearance instantly influences the opinions of strangers, peers, and superiors. Being well dressed in a corporate setting can influence not just perceptions, but also promotions.

The Basics

So what's right and what's wrong?

First, there is no single set of rules that will work for everyone; sometimes the only written rules are expressed in your organization's dress code, if it has one. But there are a handful of characteristics that most successful business communicators share when it comes to dress and grooming.

This article will focus on general principles of business attire along with some specifics of more formal attire. It's a common sense guide for almost any businessperson.

Fashionable or Foolish

Your corporate culture and the role you play in it should guide your choice of business attire. Some organizations still expect top male executives to wear a dark gray suit on Monday and a navy suit on Tuesday with an understated tie and starched white shirt.

However, more and more businesses are moving to full-time business casual at every level in the organization. Some just have one or two days each week that are casual. And the definition of business casual varies, ranging from jeans to blazers.

Just as in business communication, business dress requires you to know your audience. You need to gauge what attire will be right for the audience and the circumstance. This all hinges on the norms of the culture of the industry, region, company, division, department, and function.

While your attire can be a vehicle for personal expression, you can pay a price for violating the written and unwritten codes of your culture. Always know the price before you pay.

Dress for Business, Not Pleasure

Business attire is different from social attire and tends to be more formal. Determining just how formal can be as slippery as satin. What's one person's floor is another's ceiling.

But one thing is certain: the parameters that cover business attire are narrower than they are for social attire. For example, social attire can be more suggestive or flashier or make more of a statement, while business attire should be tuned to the needs of the business circumstance.

In business, your clothing and grooming should not distract. Rather, they should direct attention to your face and particularly your eyes. When you connect with someone else's eyes, they tend to listen. But who can stay focused on eyes when your manager has her fingers manicured with lavender polish and 10 bolts of silver lightning striking her cuticles, or your purchasing agent has a copper ring pierced through his nose?

Typical formal business attire has an advantage because it can easily direct listeners to your eyes. A light shirt under a closed dark business jacket forms a “V” that opens toward the face. A contrasting tie can heighten this effect. Wearing some red in the tie can help draw the eyes of your audience to your own.

In contrast, a flashy belt buckle can draw the eye to the waist. Bright buttons, shiny tie tacks, colorful lapel pins, big metal watches, or other conspicuous jewelry can also draw the eye. The same goes for clothing that is tight, shiny, or loud.

Dress to Fit Your Audience

When you're in front of a group giving a presentation, making a speech or just plain talking, you need to choose your attire to match the event. For example, you will typically want to dress one notch of formality above your audience. That means if they're wearing slacks and shirts, you may want to add a sports jacket to your outfit. On the other hand, wearing a suit and tie in front of an audience in jeans and T-shirts is rarely a good idea.

Regardless of what you're wearing, make sure it works. Make a thorough assessment of how you look in front of a full-length mirror. And don't hesitate to get a second opinion. Are you sure if you know what clashes or goes together? Check not just for fashion sense but also for fit. Nothing sends a worse message than a poorly tailored jacket.

One common offense is the wrong sleeve length. The jacket sleeve should end at the middle of your wrist bone, with the shirt sleeve extending three eighths of an inch beyond. Since almost everyone has one arm longer than the other, make sure the tailor checks the length of both sleeves.

If you are not wearing a long-sleeved shirt under a sports coat, the jacket length should extend to the end of the wrist bone. This will preserve the visibility of your hands without calling attention to the bareness of your forearms. Conversely, your jacket sleeve should be shorter if you wear French or double cuffs, to better display the cuff and links.

Pant legs should reach the tops of your shoes, forming a single break a little above the point of contact. Socks should cover your calves—this will help you avoid showing leg hair every time you cross your legs. And as long as we're down to your feet, let's add a word about shoes.

Look Down

The great American dancer, Fred Astaire, who wrote the book on popular dance, said this about footwear: “If you want to know if a fellow is well dressed, look down.”

Business suits take simple lace-ups, not slip-ons. Save the tasseled loafers for casual attire. Reserve patent leather for formal black- or white-tie affairs. A proper shine on smooth leather will not only polish the upper, but also eliminate any bare or dull areas along the edge of the sole or the heel. A professional shoeshine should include edge dressing and “heel black” to address these areas.

Speak Tight, Dress Right

Business presenters need more than a professional look. They need to be able to move in their clothes. Tight pants or form-fitting jackets restrict movement.

To capitalize on large body gestures, be sure your clothes are tailored so you can move. And make sure they really fit. If you gain or lose weight, admit it and proceed immediately to your tailor. There is no excuse for ill-fitting business attire. If it doesn't fit, you must tailor it.

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If It Wrinkles or Clings, Wrap Your Food In It

Even on laid-back dress down days, dress communicates an important message. Think of it this way: if it clings or wrinkles, it's not really your wardrobe, it's Saran Wrap and you'd better think twice before wearing it to work.

Even when casual wear is part of the corporate culture, think twice before choosing to wear linen or tropical wools at work. They wrinkle like a Sharpei dog. New technology allows manufacturers to create special weaves and treatments to tame some fabrics that traditionally wrinkle. The best ones seem to be the heavier weaves, but shop around, there's a lot out there.

“Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three”

Here's a simple test you can take before choosing attire for an event that puts you in the spotlight. Ask yourself:

  • What's appropriate for this audience? This event?
  • What image do I want to project?
    • For my company?
    • For my department?
    • For myself?

Reprinted from PS for Business Communicators®, ECG's client newsletter.