Most of us know that we should dress professionally when we’re in the spotlight — as we are during a job interview or presentation — but it’s not always easy to calibrate just what that means.
So even though my expertise is in public speaking, not style, my corporate clients often ask me to cover professional demeanor and dress during speaker coaching sessions with their high potential employees.
Here’s the type of advice I give them:
Style Is Like Public Speaking. Ask: What Does “Dress Professionally” Mean to This Audience?
The common sense rule for professional appearance is to look appropriate.
In other words, don’t wear pajamas to a presentation. Don’t die your hair magenta for a job interview… usually!
But beyond that, dress codes vary widely. So think about the setting you’re going into — and then apply the dress code that seems to fit best.
Code #1: How to Dress Professionally for Old School or Mainstream Settings
It’s still 1960 in many corporations. So if you’re interviewing with, or presenting to, an old line firm or company, think conservative. In these mainstream environments, your appearance should proclaim your success without calling attention to itself.
- Men, wear it short and neat.
- Women, keep it tamed, whether in a French twist, with barrettes, or in a short (but not too short!) style. And of course, keep the color mainstream.
- Conservative workplaces tend to frown on “ethnic” styles. If you have dreadlocks or extensions, twist them up or pull them back. Keep your Afro or Jew-fro short. Men, avoid fades or designs.
- Make sure that your hair products, if any, are light. Your hair should look clean and have a mild smell.
- Men, stick to dress shoes in conservative colors (black, brown, navy); and don’t forego the spit and polish.
- Women, you can never go wrong with pumps, but heels over 3″ aren’t “corporate.”
- Men, stick with a ring, a watch, cufflinks, and/or tie clips. No chains!
- Women, keep your jewelry small, simple, and of good quality; save the costume jewelry for after you’re hired. The exception (as I write this in 2014) is a signature necklace. Large, even chunky necklaces are in style right now; if you’re going to wear one, pick a piece that looks high-quality and is flattering to you, not distracting.
- Visible tats or piercings? Not even.
- Men, make sure your clothing is of good quality and fits you well, and for interviews, keep your shirt buttoned up. If you’re speaking, you can roll up your sleeves and open one button, but stop before you hit chest hair.
- Women, cleavage isn’t “corporate,” and if you’re giving a presentation, no short skirts. (You don’t know how high that stage is going to be, do you!) Also, make sure your clothes aren’t too tight; this isn’t what you want people to remember about your interview or presentation. Conversely, don’t take the stage wearing a shapeless outfit, an overly severe suit, or anything that smacks of “unisex.” Wear your femaleness with pride — and class!
- For both men and women, pastels and classic colors are your best bet. Go easy on the patterns, and make sure that something you’re wearing is conservatively cut.
- Men, none!
- Women, keep it light, in neutral or classic colors. No black nail polish, white lipstick, or glitter eyes unless you’re speaking at a gala dinner event (and then, just the glitter!).
- No heavy aftershaves or perfumes. Some people love them, some people hate them. Why take the chance, especially for an interview?
- Be sure you smell fresh. If you sweat easily, or are speaking or interviewing on a hot day, bring a washcloth, wipes, or even clean clothes so that you can freshen up when you arrive.
Code #2: How to Dress Professionally for Relaxed or Creative Settings
These rules are more like guidelines. They’re for more relaxed audiences, or for interviews with companies in fields like film, PR, or event production.
- Neat, clean, and not distractingly offbeat. The hairstyle shown here would be fine in New York City; in Iowa, maybe not so much.
- Men, you get lots of leeway here. But before you put on sandals, think: Do you really want to show off your feet?
- Women, I know that some of you are gonna wear 5″ heels no matter what I say; but if you do, at least bring some comfortable flats to wear afterwards.
- The relaxed audience is the best of all possible worlds when it comes to personal adornment, but go easy! It’s great if your interviewer or audience thinks that you look interesting. But if they can’t think about anything except how you look? Not so great!
- Start with a “Casual Friday” approach, then spice it up.
- Items like torn clothes, safety pins through your ears, push-up bras with see-through blouses, “wife-beaters,” etc. are going too far!
- Men, still none unless your audience is very advanced.
- Women, stay well on this side of Noomi Rapace in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (pictured).
- The same as for mainstream.
Code #3: How to Dress Professionally for Hyper-Casual Settings
Strangely, a hyper-casual workplace can be governed by a dress code that’s just as strict as the Old School or Mainstream code.
Don’t believe me? Look around.
Is everyone wearing flip-flops? Cargo shorts? Spiky hair?
That’s a dress code!
On the other hand, if you detect no dress code — if everyone looks gloriously different — then you should, at least theoretically, be free to wear anything you want when you interview for a job or give a presentation to that company.
Personally, I’d start with magenta hair.
How Do I Tell if My Audience is Conservative or Casual?
Do your best to find out! Among the things you can do to research this are:
- Ask a contact;
- Pose the question on Twitter;
- Visit the company’s website; and
- If you live nearby, drive past the parking lot at quitting time.
Still not sure?
Follow the route that offers the least possibility for offense: BE MORE RESTRAINED THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO BE.
And whichever code you follow — watch out for those “wardrobe malfunctions”!