It doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, if you are a professional—like a CPA, investment counselor, or attorney—you are going to be judged on the basis of your appearance every day by clients, colleagues, and decision makers. This undeniable fact has been demonstrated conclusively by three decades of research conducted by image consultants and focus groups dedicated to helping people dress for success. What is less well understood, however, is that women suffer from this public reliance on image more than men; and this is because women have a larger variety of wardrobe items to choose from and there is a correspondingly greater likelihood that they will make significant mistakes, thereby diminishing their overall effectiveness on the job.
Becoming frustrated by these facts about the importance of image is not going to help change them. Many of our clients report that they feel prejudice directed toward them, especially as they age and gain weight. Although there is nothing that clothes can do to make you lose weight, it is without a doubt true that selecting the right wardrobe, hairstyle, and footwear can go miles toward helping you compete with younger colleagues; indeed, improving your image can also help you develop rapport with clients, especially those from the upper class and those who are high net worth individuals.
The information presented in this article isn’t opinion; instead it’s the result of focus groups, surveys, and in-person testing with a database of more than 18,500 respondents from across the United States and in seven foreign countries, including attorneys, judges, and other professionals. This research is what distinguishes Manhattan Makeovers from design houses and glamour magazines, which never test new fashions for effectiveness in the workplace. We’re proud of the fact that key decision makers rely on our advice because everything we recommend has passed the test of rigorous fieldwork investigation, a process which is ongoing; in fact, those wishing to contribute to this unique database may do so by taking our current short (and fun!) survey at manhattanmakeovers.com.
THE HAIRSTYLE YOU NEED
The first thing to focus on is your hairstyle because it is visible every day and is a subtle indication of your integrity. Believe it or not, subliminally, your hairstyle speaks volumes about your trustworthiness and integrity to your clients, and one of the biggest mistakes female professionals make is failing to realize that their hairstyle is sending signals that cannot be shut off since their hair will always be visible, unless it’s under a hat.
More than any other single aspect of your image, the appearance of your hair can be changed rather easily. Expert help can be found in many salons, where you can get a good cut, an effective color treatment, and appropriate styling. The important thing to keep in mind is that the way to look your best is to make sure that you do not adopt any new hairstyles, but rather select a conservative look.
As far as length is concerned, you cannot sport hair that is longer than shoulder-length if you wish to be taken seriously as an attorney. In general, excessively long hair says to clients that you are inexperienced and liable to forget important details of their case. This may not be true, but that’s what longer hair says on an unconscious level to clients.
For maximum effectiveness with all the people you will meet in the workplace, make sure your hair is shoulder-length, or a little shorter. Keep it neat, using hairspray or other products to ensure that there are no loose strands flying this way and that.
KEEP YOUR JACKET ON
The next most important thing a female professional can do for her image is make sure that she is wearing a jacket. This means that a simple blouse and pants combination is unacceptable, as is a dress. You need a jacket in order to project authority and competence.
“I feel women attorneys should wear whatever they wish,” says one misguided female judge in New York.
That’s easy for her to say since she wears a black robe every day and never has to concern herself with how people react to her in various different outfits. She evidently is on the wrong track since the overwhelming body of research indicates that female attorneys do better and are more successful in suits than in dresses or in a blouse and pants outfit.
It is important, also, to resist glamour magazines and frivolous television programs, all of which convey irrelevant messages about what is fashionable. You’re not concerned with being fashionable, you’re concerned with being effective. The distinction needs to be made, and made clearly, because so many young attorneys are seduced into wearing items they see in fashion magazines and on television.
In fact, it bears repeating that you don’t want to follow fashion; instead, you want a conservative look that has been tested for effectiveness. This means scrupulously avoiding the latest color trends, shoe styles, and hairdos that celebrities wear. You want to look like an attorney, not Lady Gaga.
It’s a serious mistake to remove your jacket at work since doing so immediately reduces your authority. When you’re alone in your office you can remove it, but keep it handy in case you need to take a meeting or talk with a client in person. This one piece of advice can significantly smooth the way people react to you, and can help you be treated like the professional you are.
YOUR WORK SHOES
One of the reasons female attorneys run into difficulties at their workplace stems from the wild shoes they wear. Without realizing it, they’re prejudicing their own case by wearing high heels or open-toe shoes. The only acceptable shoe for a female attorney is a closed-toe, closed-heel pump, with heels no more than two and a half inches. The shoe should be in a dark color: navy, black, or brown. It should not match the color of your outfit, but should be at least two or more shades darker.
In addition, these pumps should not have an overly pointy toe; rounded toes are more effective. Our research—conducted in the summer of 2013—reveals that 85 percent of executives disapprove of professional women who wear shoes that are too pointy. The same holds true for women who wear high heels to work, or—worse yet—boots. Even if your colleagues are wearing boots or high heels, you would be well-advised to avoid them.
You can’t always see the reaction of people to your outfits, but if you keep a diary and record what you wear and how people treat you, you will soon discover trends. When you wear conservative suits and shoes you’ll probably find that you’re treated better, you will be challenged less often, and your work day will go smoother with everyone you meet.