Getting dressed down: Working women need to be be careful with clothing choice

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Women who want to put their best foot forward should be careful what kind of shoes they're wearing. And they should pay meticulous attention to the rest of their wardrobe.

Nothing sets a job candidate apart from the crowd like a well-turned-out appearance, say Brenda Harper, a career counselor at Southeast Missouri State University and Nancy LeGrand, professor of business, also at Southeast.

"With the job market the way it is today," Harper said, "you can have a 4.0 GPA, a master's in business and a dynamic resume. But there are 150 people exactly like you" applying for the same job. "You have a short time to sell yourself and you really have to make that short time frame count."

LeGrand adds, "You should always look your best because someone might see you only one time in their lifetime."

For men and women equally, clothes matter.

Take, for instance, red leather pants.

Harper works with seniors in the business school, coaching them on their resumes, job-seeking skills, and making that first impression. She recalled one student last year who had a perfect grade point average, outstanding resume and references, and had impressed 13 potential employer enough to request an interview with her at a job fair in St. Louis. She showed up in Harper's office for her practice interview dressed in a black sweater and red leather pants.

"I told her that was something no employer wanted to see her in," Harper said. "She called again before she got up there and asked if the red leather pants were totally out."

She wore them anyway.

"She did not get one job offer," Harper said. "She had landed 13 interviews, but her appearance put them off. It really makes a difference."

It's possible that if the student had landed a job in an office where the employees dressed casually, she could later have worn the red leather pants. But to make that first impression, Harper and LeGrand both stress that job applicants must dress as well as the person interviewing them, or even better.

That means a dark-colored conservative suit or a dress with a jacket. No cleavage visible. Sweaters are not acceptable. No big jewelry -- for women, no dangling earrings and for men no chunky chains. For women, no open-toe shoes -- "they're not conservative," she said -- and always wear sheer hosiery. No sleeveless dresses. Skirts should end at the knee, not more than an inch above the knee. For men, long-sleeve white shirts with a conservative tie. Men like to wear black or dark shirts with a white tie, Harper said. It looks nice, but it turns employers off.

Both women agree that the only part of the body that should be pierced are the ears. Harper says one piercing is sufficient; LeGrand accepts two. No more than that. Any kind of jewelry stuck in the eyebrows, nose or tongue should be left at home. And as for tattoos: Cover them up. The business world just isn't ready for those.

Businesses are requiring their employees to dress more conservatively, Harper said. Casual Friday is out.

"It got so out of hand," she said. "Like with everything else, a few people ruined it for everybody."

Some employees condone casual attire, such as khaki slacks with a tucked-in shirt, or short-sleeved dress shirt. Pant suits are acceptable for women. Once an applicant has been hired, it's appropriate to ask what style of dress is acceptable for that business.

"It's better to be dressed a little too professionally and let them tell you can dress down a little," Harper said.

Dressing professionally goes beyond just looking good. LeGrand requires her students to dress like professionals whenever a speaker comes to class. Being dressed up seems to put them on a higher level, she said.

"When they asked a question, they stood up, identified themselves by name and where they were from, and addressed the question," LeGrand said. "It affected their attitude. I had a student last year who never owned a suit before. He went to a place in the mall and bought his first suit. He said he never knew he could feel so empowered by clothing."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: