One of the questions I’m asked over and over again is, “What should I wear?” What should I wear to an interview? What should I wear to work? When should I dress up or down?
The answer to this question can be tricky. When I started my career in engineering, I wore a golf shirt, khaki pants, and steel-toed boots. As a project manager, I wore business casual most days. As a member of corporate management, I often wore a suit.
In a way, what you wear to work is as much a costume as anything else. It’s what you put on to be taken seriously each day. It’s what allows you to fit into your environment.
On one hand, you want to be yourself. On the other, your number one goal at work isn’t to make friends. It’s to get things done.
And, unfortunately, people judge you for what you wear. So, what should you wear?
When it comes to interviews, a good rule of thumb is to find someone on the inside to quietly ask in advance. If you’re interviewing at a corporation or traditional business, a suit is often the correct choice. Stick with neutral colors in your suit, your shoes, and your makeup.
But, if you’re interviewing at an advertising agency or a start-up, the full suit look could really turn folks off. Consider something slightly less formal, and with creative accents. Add a little more color than you would at a corporation to show creativity is part of your brand.
When it comes to day to day wear, it’s often best to take hints from those around you. In a creative environment, you will want your style to look more up to date. Similar to when you were interviewing, you’ll want to add in more color, more creativity, and more of your personal brand.
But, if you work at a corporate, beware. It may seem fun to stand out initiatlly. You may be known as the one with the interesting hair, crazy shoes, or big tattoos. But, it’s likely in a corporate environment that’s all you’ll ever be. That person with the unusual look. It’s less likely you’ll be considered for promotions or management roles if you don’t fit into the corporate culture.
It’s sad, but true.
Now, I’m not trying to tell you not to be yourself. If you have no career aspirations of moving up, by all means, wear what you feel the most at home in.
But, if you plan to move ahead, you need to consider your wardrobe carefully. Selecting the wrong “personal brand” for your environment can sideline you in a way you never expect, and may never know for sure. It’s rare that someone will be truly honest with you if your style is causing you to be overlooked.
Again, I’m not encouraging you to not be yourself. But, consider your environment and think of your goals. Remember you’re at work to make a living, not to make friends. Friends are a great bonus, but you also need to stay focused on your goals. And, sometimes, especially in corporate, part of reaching that goal is being able to fit in along the way.
If you do have a strong personal identity that clashes with your work, remember that you can always wear your favorite clothes at home, outside of the office.
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