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 black leather, another if you're squeezed into gold lamé, and yet another if you're sporting a classic 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. These companies expect female executives to wear a dark, skirted suit with a solid, light blouse.

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 blouse under a closed dark jacket forms an area of brightness near the face. A contrasting scarf can heighten this effect. Red in the scarf can help draw the eyes of your audience to your own.

In contrast, a flashy belt or belt buckle can draw the eye to the waist. Light hose and shoes draw attention to a woman's legs. Bright buttons, bulky broaches, or other conspicuous jewelry can also draw the eye. The same goes for clothing that is sheer, shiny, or clinging.

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 or blouses, you may want to add a sports jacket to your ensemble. On the other hand, a formal suit 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. Check not just for fashion sense but also for fit. Nothing sends a worse message than a poorly tailored jacket. One common offense is sleeves that hide your hands.

Hands speak worlds about capability. They also reinforce your words. Hiding them can send a subtle message of incompetence. The jacket sleeve should reach the middle of your wrist bone, with the shirtsleeve typically extending three eighths of an inch beyond. Since almost everyone has one arm longer than the other, make sure the tailor or dressmaker checks the length of both sleeves.

If you are not wearing a long-sleeved blouse under a jacket, the jacket sleeve 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 or just plain big cuffs, to better display the cuff (and any links). Formal pant legs should reach the tops of your shoes. 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.”

Couturier Diana Vreeland, renowned in women's fashion for wardrobe development, said: “First, I'd put money into shoes. No variety, just something I could wear with everything. ... Whatever it is you wear, I think shoes are terribly important.”

Good, unscuffed leather adds to a look of professionalism. Stick to simple colors. The best shoes for business are closed-toe with a high enough vamp to allow you to walk securely. (The vamp is the section of the shoe that covers the top of the foot; a low vamp makes for instability and may show some toe cleavage.)

Formal attire requires heels; these should be typically 1½ to 2 inches (we're talking Ferragamo's not 6-inch Manolo spikes). Avoid little bows or buckles; these tend to distract and do not connote serious business.

Speak Tight, Dress Right

Business presenters need more than a professional look. They need to be able to move in their clothes. Narrow skirts, tight pants, or confining jackets restrict movement.

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

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.