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How To Dress For Power

How To Dress For Power



When I was in law school people thought I was crazy. I always wore a jacket and tie and often a suit. Even for exams, when no professor was present, I dressed that way. “Geez, don’t you ever relax?” one of my classmates joked.

I didn’t care what they said. I wasn’t there to make my classmates happy. I was there to achieve one goal and that was good grades. In my opinion, it helped to dress well. In effect I was learning to dress for power. When I became an image consultant, of course, I put what I learned into practice, but I also discovered that there are actually two main objectives for a professional when it comes to wardrobe: you can either dress for credibility or for power.

On days when you need to explain something and have people believe you, high credibility combinations of navy blue and beige, or navy blue and gray test well. Those colors improve credibility mainly because they are recognized as familiar and people are more likely to believe someone who looks familiar. But for days when you need power, such as when you’re meeting an important client or speaking in front of an audience or congressional committee, this article will summarize, in abridged form, what we have discovered about how to achieve that goal.



Admittedly it’s not always fun to wear a starched shirt and a wool suit, but once we understand the importance of a power wardrobe we may be more highly motivate to wear it. In essence it all boils down to the value of looking the part. One of the cardinal rules of ethics that attorneys adhere to is that they should avoid impropriety and even the appearance of impropriety. In the realm of dressing, we follow a similar maxim, that is, never to give the appearance of a lack of professionalism. Power is professional, and dressing for authority communicates on a nonverbal level about your honesty, integrity, and professional competence. The value of doing so needs no further elaboration.

Professionals who dress for power don’t have to be power hungry, bossy, demeaning, or strict; instead, their outward appearance will reflect what has evolved to be the expected look of a professional in Western society. That look is simultaneously functional and a social construct, which, incidentally, changes at a glacial pace. Semioticians have described this construct as a series of locations where meanings above the level of contemporary style reside, and they have underscored the fact that wardrobe and ancillary image elements, such as hairstyle and accessories, encode significance and communicate it whether or not we are consciously aware of what these styles are saying. When we crack the fashion code through testing and fieldwork, as we have done over the past several years, we can explain how to dress according to contemporary style and also according to the way the code has evolved to allow us to convey the appropriate impression.



The power colors for a male attorney are blue, gray, beige and shades thereof. Green, brown, and yellow suits do not work. Pastel colors do not work. The power colors are the ones you will also see in banking and accounting, although there are some important differences with each profession regarding what is most effective. Short attorneys do better in darker shades of the power colors; blue pinstripe suits, for instance, are very effective for them.

Although female attorneys do well in the three power colors, they also have a wider palette to choose from because they can also achieve an authoritative look with colors that a male attorney cannot wear, such as burgundy, plum, and chartreuse. They can be expected to lose authority and power, and will be challenged more often by men, if they wear pastels; darker colors, deeper tones, and richer hues with more saturation yield significantly more power.



Male attorneys are more powerful in suits that are cut conservatively. They lose power and authority the further they stray from the Brooks Brothers look. Brooks Brothers, by virtue of its tradition and careful buyers, is the benchmark against which to test any suit style. Thin lapels or short jackets will cause male attorneys to lose power. Jacket length is easily tested: if it fits into the curl of your palm when your arm hangs straight at your side it is the correct length. This same test works for women’s suit jackets.

Our fieldwork consistently reveals that female attorneys are perceived as most powerful in skirt suits; however, our most recent data, collected during 2013-2014 from 246 attorneys reveals that 72 percent of female attorneys prefer wearing pants suits. Six percent of men are threatened and, counterintuitive though it may sound, 53 percent turned on by women in pants suits; neither is a reaction calculated to enhance a woman’s authority in the workplace. It is easier to understand that excessively feminine details, such as frilly hems, lace, and big bows diminish authority in a female’s suit.



Only two shoe styles test well for male attorneys: cap-toes and wingtips. The cap-toe is slightly more formal but both are exceptional choices for court appearances and meeting clients. The most powerful shoe color is black. These styles are inoffensive and highly effective, nevertheless 92 percent of male attorneys in the conservative Northeast fail to wear the most effective shoe styles.

For more than twenty-five years, the one thing that hasn’t changed in our recommendations for female professionals is that the most powerful shoe is the closed-toe, closed-heel pump in a color two tones darker than her outfit. When wearing navy or black suits, black pumps are most effective. A black pump will even work with light-colored outfits, including white or ivory dresses and suits.



I have a friend who likes to flash a gold cigarette case in front of my nose every chance he gets. When we go to lunch he puts a legal pad on the table and drops his 18 karat gold Cross pen on it and pushes them across the table and asks me to write some notes. He does this because he is power hungry and he wants me to see that he’s using a power pen. Keep in mind that cheap plastic pens speak volumes about who you are: they say you’re nobody. Investing in a gold or silver pen and a thin plain wristwatch will give you the classic marks of power and authority.

Jewelry should be tasteful, elegant, and understated. Avoid anything that could be considered gaudy and you’ll increase your power profile. In the final analysis, if you have the right pen, watch and jewelry you won’t need that gold cigarette case.


Michael Christian on Email
Michael Christian
Michael Christian
Michael Christian is a former trial attorney and president of Manhattan Makeovers, which conducts research about effective attire for professionals. Writing as William Cane he is the author of eleven books. His firm provides image consultations and makeovers for attorneys from all over the world in their New York and Los Angeles offices.


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