How many of us heard our mothers ask this question when we were younger? She asked because she knew something important: first impressions matter. Even before you open your mouth, how you dress -- and what you wear, specifically -- can impact both the initial impression you make on others virtually and in-person and their subsequent expectations about you. While style alone doesn't ensure professional success, it can influence outcomes of meetings, networking events and job and board interviews, for better or worse.
Picture two candidates interviewing for a position at your company. The first one appears neatly and cleanly groomed, wearing a well-fitting suit with a nice tie. The other candidate also appears well groomed and sporting a trendy suit, but it's all wrinkled. In the absence of any other information, who would you want to represent your company?
Outward presentation affects how others interact with you and their assumptions about your credibility and qualifications. When you dress sharply, you demonstrate that you care about making a good impression and are detail-oriented. This signals to colleagues, potential employers, companies on whose boards you'd like to serve and new contacts that you're capable of carefully representing them, their companies or shared interests. While you should also show these sought-after qualities in conversation, why start off on the wrong foot and have to overcome a negative first impression?
In addition to choosing clothing that flatters your body type, avoid anything that’s wrinkled, ill-fitting, stained or worn out. It shows carelessness and distracts from the message you want to convey. While some of these things are harder to notice on video, they are certainly noticeable in-person. Breaking the bank for a new wardrobe every time a key meeting is approaching isn't necessary, but with a little effort, you can wear something that makes good first impression. Planning is key, especially for a high-stakes meeting or event. Decide what you want to wear a few days ahead of time, particularly if you need to fit in a trip to the dry cleaners. Having an extra day to ensure you’re pressed and polished from head to toe can make a difference the overall impression you make.
What you wear in specific situations can have a lasting impact. Endeavor to find out the dress code beforehand, whether preparing for a job interview, conference, meeting or industry networking event, so you prepare a look that befits expectations.
An interview outfit can make a strong impression on a hiring manager or someone who plays an important role in board recruitment. In addition to inquiring about a company’s dress code (helpful for both virtual and in-person interviews), as part of your preparation, try to learn a bit about the culture too. While it’s great to have personality and your own sense of style, it’s also important to keep in a manner that aligns within the overall environment and culture of the organization. This doesn’t mean you have to give up being yourself, but sticking out may hurt your chances of landing a position (depending on the industry and role itself).
However, if company culture is very casual, i.e., employees usually wear jeans and sneakers, don't take that as a cue to interview in jeans and sneakers. Go at least a step up or two, such as a business casual shirt and trousers, but don’t go overboard with a three-piece suit either. Dressing too formally in a clearly casual setting may backfire, raising questions about your compatibility and lack of due diligence researching the organization.
If you’re attending an event and are unsure about the dress code, ask participants who have attended before or the event organizers. You don't want to log on or walk into an event in a sweater when everyone else is in a suit. If you’re noticeably under-dressed for a particular setting, the inevitable preoccupation with your fashion error may cause you to lose focus on your goals for attending in the first place. If the environment is one in which you’re meeting people for the first time, you really want to ensure that others’ first impression of your personal brand is a strong and positive one. No one wants to be known as the person who dressed inappropriately.
Industries and functional areas have different standards about what is an acceptable/appropriate dress code. This can vary by company and geographic region too. It can also vary if the company is doing business in person or only virtually. Again, you’ll benefit from doing your homework and planning ahead. If you’re meeting with the Director of Development at a leading university, for example, you shouldn't assume the casual dress of the college in general applies. Development offices are often quite corporate, and so your outward presentation should reflect that. Similarly, consider the regional impact on internal meetings. What you wear in Chicago may be very different from what your colleagues wear in San Francisco. When you’re trying to build rapport with new contacts, you might be able to play off standing out as a conversation starter, but in the end, it may be a barrier to cultivating relationships.
While there is some leeway to display your unique sense of style in a professional environment, do so in moderation. Elements of flair should accent your overall look, not dominate it and distract you or your colleagues. For example, show a hint of personality by pairing a bright scarf with a more muted shirt or wear a button down with an interesting pattern or in a unique color.
You can display personality with accessories too, but be careful about items that are noisy or flashy. Large bangle bracelets, for instance, might clank together too loudly for a meeting or presentation (and definitely leave them off if you have an interview). Similarly, eye-catching, overly sparkly jewelry might distract others from focusing on the substance of what you’re saying.
Dress to impress, but not to overwhelm. Wearing things purely for impact and the “wow” factor may work against you, leading others to believe you crave attention and are too self-centered to fit in well with the company culture. In addition, consider underlying messages that certain brands can send. For instance, if you have an interview at an early-stage nonprofit with a small budget, it may not be the best time to don your new luxury designer handbag or flashy watch. If you want to make a statement about your style, do so subtly and with keen awareness of your surroundings.
The way you dress can communicate status, therefore your choices should reflect your professional level and age. In some companies, the culture suggests that everyone dress similarly, regardless of your level, while elsewhere there are clear stylistic differences separating the executive level. If you’re part of an executive team, dress the part. Sometimes senior leaders want to fit in and dress like their junior colleagues, but seeking camaraderie by dressing down can negatively impact the respect others have for them (though of course there are exceptions). In general, leaders should set an example for others to emulate, not the other way around.
The notion that you should dress for the job you want, not the one you have, holds truth too. If you want to up-level your career, look at how people at your target level present themselves and adapt your style accordingly. Dressing for the part and the environment can positively influence how others perceive you.
If you have a public or client-facing role, taking extra care in how you present yourself is important to building relationships, sales success and generating referrals or coverage. As a direct representative of your company, the impression others have of you helps shape the impression they have about your company too. By extension, if you’re interviewing for a public or client-facing role, expect additional scrutiny in an interviewer’s evaluation of your outward presentation/style. The same applies if you’re seeking any job, strategic partnership or business opportunity in industries where image is important (fashion, beauty, luxury travel etc.).
Dressing well and appropriately for the environment can boost your confidence and self-esteem. As the old adage goes, “Look good, feel good!” You’ll yield better business outcomes when you’re self-assured versus self-conscious. Dressing poorly or inappropriately for the setting may shake your confidence or, worse yet, raise doubts in others about your judgment, preparedness and qualifications. Putting care into how you dress sends a clear and confident message that you care about your professional life and take your work seriously -- and makes for better first impressions. By showing you’re invested in yourself, in response, your clients, prospective employers, strategic partners etc. will be more likely to invest in you.