From Sweats To Suits

You've earned your academic credentials. Now learn how to dress for professional success.

the setting-a construction site. “My client [a builder] was wearing Wrangler jeans and a short-sleeved shirt!”

Deciding what to wear can be a dilemma for the up-and-coming professional. On the one hand, you need to look confidently put-together so management, colleagues and clients will pay more attention to your potential than to your age and relative inexperience. Then again, you don’t want to stroll into the office or a meeting wearing an outfit that does not fit the environment-or your personality. What do you do?

Forget about buying the latest fashion magazines. “Most of them are for entertainment, not real life,” maintains Andre. “Your best bet is to take cues from the industry in which you’ll be working.” For example, conservative fields, such as investment banking, favor more traditional types of dress than, say, graphic design, which is likely to be more fashion-forward.

As a business reporter for The New York Post in the heart of New York City, Lisa Brownlee’s field definitely falls into the latter category. “Newspaper folks don’t usually stress over getting dressed up every day,” says Brownlee, 27, who covers entertainment, media and telecommunications companies. If she has to interview a prominent source outside of the newsroom, she’ll wear a suit to work. “But when I’m tied to my computer all day, I’ll wear something more casual, such as a dress.”

The foundation of a professional wardrobe for both men and women is a dark suit, a traditional shirt or blouse and black lace-up shoes or pumps. While this may seem boring, it does present a simple, polished look. “Unfortunately, people who don’t know your abilities use what you wear to determine whether you’re competent,” says Brownlee.

Bell concurs. “In fact, as a minority, you have to look better than everyone else.” Thus, at the beginning of your career, it’s better to lean more toward the conservative side.

“Boot-cut pants and midriff-baring tops scream ‘adolescent’ and just won’t fly if you want to be taken seriously in the office,” declares Andre. Starting out, you should have two great suits that can take you from your desk to a lunch appointment to a board meeting in style. Women, who have more flexibility, can also create professional looks with separates-twinsets, slacks, skirts, blazers and dresses.

  1. Stick with solid, dark, neutral shades such as black, navy, gray and chocolate brown, and choose clothes in year-round fabrics such as wool crepe or wool gabardine.
  2. Save experimentation with different fabrics, styles and color patterns for your blouses or shirts.
  3. Err on the side of simplicity.

“Almost nothing I own is patterned,” she says. And while she likes dresses, she’ll only wear those that “have a classic, tailored look and are cut a bit above the knee.” Goodman primarily wears suits, but she finds ways to break up the monotony. “In the warmer months, I’ll wear sleeveless shirts, so I can take off my jacket and still look professional,” she says. “When it’s
colder, I wear turtlenecks” instead of the typical conservative blouse.

For many men, getting dressed for work isn’t as discretionary.

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