When I am facilitating my presence or etiquette workshop one of the topics that I present is professional dressing/wardrobe. This is one of the brightest segments as I sense the energy of the audience come alive in this module. Clothing interests everyone, even those who find discussing it as frivolous or overrated.
Just like we have never had a class in school for listening, most of us have not been taught how to dress and we instinctively do it wonderfully well. In fact, for each one of us, our outfit is not just about looking good but also a way of expressing ourselves. As professionals I do believe how we choose to dress is important as it is a part of our behaviour.
I had this participant in a training program, a young boy. He asked me a question as to why he had to wear a uniform to office? Then he mentioned since he wears a uniform which are formals he feels restricted and does not like it. He then mentioned that while he was in college he had the freedom to wear what he wanted, it felt vibrant and free while participating in festivals and studying. He wondered why all industries don’t have the same rule as some popular software companies in the US, where they are allowed to wear what they want. “Anyway, how does it matter what we wear? Our work is important isn’t it?” He said. He had spoken for a whole five minutes about how it mattered to him.
I think the uniform gives a snapshot of the atmosphere of a company. I feel when one is wearing a uniform, patterned with the name of their company, it enhances their sense of belonging and responsibility. The uniforms are designed in a way that they send a message to the viewer “I am at work and mean business”, and that sets the tone of the environment. Also when the entire organisation is wearing the same outfit it encourages cooperation and reduces feelings of disparity. While I shared these insights, the young gentleman looked thoughtful, but not very convinced. Let me share more as to why your work clothes matter.
As Professionals, how does what we wear matter?
I believe as professionals, it matters how we dress as it impacts our behaviour and relationships.
It impacts our behaviour as it affects our state/mood. I remember during school days when I wore a pretty dress to school on my birthday or a festival, I used to feel very different, relaxed and distracted. I could never really get my attention on the school work. The lace, the rustle of the fabric, my Cinderella shoes used to take me to a different world. Many of my clients mention that at work they want to wear what makes them feel comfortable, relaxed and good. I guess we all want that. But comfortable clothing and feeling comfortable are two different things. You may need other resources such as focused, confident, attentive, energetic while working. Also feeling comfortable at work and comfortable at the beach or on your home sofa watching television cannot be the same. When I train or coach I make sure my clothing is comfortable. But how I want to be in a workshop will be different than in a one on one session and hence I choose accordingly.
It also impacts our relationships as how we dress affects people’s perception of us. One student once told me “Mam, I don’t judge people on their clothes, I would like to give them more credit than that”, which is wonderful, and though we can choose to be aware of not judging people based on their appearance, whatever they wear does affect our perception of them at an unconscious level because each one of us is driven by our values and beliefs. When I walk into an air-conditioned office, where the company culture is formal and meet an executive having a stubble, wearing a shirt that looks unwashed and stale, I definitely begin to doubt his quality of work while we speak though he sounds very encouraging.
It can distort your message. At work, we want people to pay attention to the discussion and listen to what we have to say. However, if our appearance is distracting it can affect our effort to be engaging and build rapport. What looks lovely or stylish out in a pub or at a party can seem very distracting while having a business conversation across a table. Sometimes the beautiful shade of lipstick, the bright nails and the shimmer in your huge danglers can dim your presence. A worn out collar, wrinkled shirt or a T-shirt with a slogan at work can hijack your message.
So, how do we dress?
Each one of us has certain values in clothes, a self-image, beliefs about how one should dress and that guides our choices. These define our individual preferences. So, if I believe I need to look smart as it will help me in being successful, and standing out is important to me then I will select my wardrobe accordingly. When I say, simplicity, being comfortable is the best way to be and looking like everyone else in the industry is what I want, then my choices would be different. Here are a few pointers to think about when you get ready to go to work.
Our life is frittered away by detail... simplify, simplify. - Henry David Thoreau
As a Professional, do give a thought to this when you plan your wardrobe and then watch how easy it becomes to choose from your assigned wardrobe.
- What is the Industry I am working in? Creative Media, Fashion & Lifestyle, Manufacturing, Banking, Construction etc.
- What is the work environment in my organisation? Formal, Artistic, Relaxed & easy going?
- What is the occasion? Respect the occasion.( Client presentation, conference, vendor meet, exhibition, training)
- What message do you want to convey to the people? (Authoritative, Approachable, Discipline, Cooperative)
- How do you want to be with them? ( Confident, Assured, Firm, Easy going, Friendly)
While you consider all these parameters individually and collectively just remember each item of clothing (clothes, shoes, bag, socks etc) speaks a language of its own. So choose consciously, as ultimately we want people’s attention to be on our face and not on what we are wearing
How we dress matters but the person inside matters even more, so let us give appearance sufficient importance, not more. And, whichever way you choose to dress, make sure you wear that smile too!”