News & Insight
May 2003

Getting Serious About Casual Attire in the Workplace

For many people, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. In the corporate world, it also marks the beginning of the season for "business casual" dress.

Dressing casually while maintaining a professional appearance takes more care, certainly, than dressing professionally, where tradition makes choices fewer and mistakes less likely.

"The truth is, the first thing people see is the last thing they forget," says Jillayne Stockland, a member of the WJM Associates coaching faculty who counsels executives on wardrobe and image issues. "There's no such thing as neutral clothing -- everything you wear says something about you."

It isn't that image is everything, says Stockland; it's simply that people tend to judge others by appearances, and if one's own appearance doesn't reflect his or her abilities, the abilities can be overlooked.

"Your appearance and your presentation equals your image," she says.

But it is possible to choose business-casual clothes that strike the right note: crisp, neat and polished. Some of the most common problems arise from people wearing clothes that don't fit their body type. This includes clothing that gaps or puckers, clings, or looks sloppy, and items left over in the closet from past seasons. Some of the most effective tips are also the easiest, such as wearing casual, tailored slacks rather than khakis.

One of the first steps Stockland recommends is a thorough review of one's current wardrobe, taking note of the items that have in the past instilled confidence and ease. These are the items that should stay, provided they fit, as clothing that doesn't instill confidence also does not reflect it.

The next step is one women have known about for years that's developing a strong following among men, given the clothing options now available in the workplace: Visiting an image consultant. It's a secret top executives have known about for years, relying on experts to create a wardrobe that communicates power, ease and confidence. It's not simply about dress, Stockland says; it's about taking care of one's health and fitness as well as appearance so one can concentrate on other things.

"Many successful executives realize early on in their careers that they should dress for the position they want, not the position they are in," she says. "You can be the brightest, most effective executive in the world, but if your appearance isn't appropriate to your abilities, it can all be for naught."

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