What’s the Best Professional Dress for Professional Women?

"What's the Best Professional Dress for Professional Women?" Businesswoman in Suit
November 29, 2016
73 / 100

~by Rachael Murphey~

John T. Molloy has written several books on professional dress, including Dress of Success for Women. Women trying to be taken seriously in business need to take a critical eye to any standard advice you see in the media, even if it is based on actual research and not mere opinion. Although Mr. Molloy’s books and advice are based on research, not opinion, there are things he got wrong.

Flaws in the Research

One of the tests they did for their book was walking a model past a group of people to see which coat read as “wife of important executive.” The first two tests went so poorly, they wondered if they had chosen a model who was simply too young. But when they put a long enough coat on her, it finally got read as “wife of important executive.” 

Please note that they did, in fact, hire a very young model for this test. Furthermore, they were testing specifically if she read as the wife of someone of importance, not as someone of importance herself.

There is a big difference between getting read as important in your own right and getting read as the lady of an important man. Being extremely young is no barrier to being the lady of an important man. If anything, “trophy wives” are a standard trope.

So this test alone has at least two flaws in the testing: It is supposedly testing for how women can “dress for success” — presumably in their own right, in their career — but it is actually testing how women can signal they married well. Second, the choice of model inadvertently just plays into cultural stereotypes in a way that makes it impossible to tease out important details and make sense of them in a way that is useful to actual career women.

The Advice to Look Like Current Employees

The book advised that if you want a job, you should seek to dress like the people who already work there. This advice has become oft-repeated and is now viewed as common sense.

To his credit, the author openly admitted that women and minorities face special challenges in trying to “look like” current employees given the status quo of workplaces dominated by white men. It is not really possible for women or minorities to successfully pull this off, at least not without introducing other serious problems.

A better standard to promote would be to look like you would fit in there. This doesn’t necessarily mean dressing exactly the same as other employees. It is a more flexible standard that can help bridge the gap between how people of a particular social class dress, whose traits differ from current employees, and how current employees currently dress. Signifying that you have something in common with the existing culture is really the important part here.

For many professions, a standard of looking like you would fit in is much more useful advice. It does require a bit more savvy to implement than just trying to copy an existing look. But if you can’t copy that look exactly anyway, it is actually less problematic and far more useful to frame it this way.

For certain professions, looking like you fit in isn’t even the best standard. For example, for bankers or real estate professionals, it is better to shoot for looking respectable, trustworthy and approachable. These tend to work for customer facing roles where what your customers think of you generally matters far more than internal office politics.

The Importance of Quality

The sad truth is that women’s clothing is very often simply inferior in quality to that of men. The book acknowledges this fact, but vastly underestimates how serious the issue is and how deep it runs. It remains true to this day.

As a simple example, men’s undershirts are generally far better quality than underclothes or t-shirts aimed at women. They are typically thicker, cheaper, and overall more durable (see offthecuffdc’s article on the evolution of the undershirt). So, there may be cases where it would make more sense for a woman to seriously reconsider her use of undershirts. 

It unfortunately remains the case that if you are a woman and wish to dress well, it helps to be a little handy in minor ways with old fashioned sewing skills or to be willing to spend money on a good seamstress. Even more expensive clothing often has poor details that could use a small improvement.

If nothing else, learn all the signifiers of real quality. No, this does not mean brand consciousness. It means seams that are well made, reinforcement of pockets, good quality closures that can be relied upon, and other details that will make the piece fit well and be durable. As a rule, natural materials like cotton, wool, leather, and silk are better than synthetics like polyester. They breathe better, among other things.

The good news is that trends are becoming more unisex. This is making it easier for women to borrow better made items from the men’s department, such as those undershirts mentioned above.

Other Cultures

Molloy researched what worked in America. He did not look to other cultures for inspiration. This is a huge oversight, as there are other cultures with a history of having powerful women. Those cultures can be a wealth of inspiration for how to signal “success” and “power” for a woman, even in America.

Generally speaking, powerful women have historically borrowed clues from how powerful men dressed. Men in power dress pretty conservatively, in a manner that does not show off their body. This basic concept is easily borrowed, even while wearing women’s clothing.

If you want to be taken seriously as a business woman, cover your cleavage. This is a standard dress code at many large companies, one that is often rather cavalierly violated by lower ranking female employees. Sometimes they can get away with it at that level. But higher ranking women cannot, and they dress accordingly.

This is not different from the male dress code. Men don’t display their chests at the office either. So, this isn’t actually some sexist double standard. If you wish to be taken seriously, dress conservatively, not sexily. 

Longer coats, long pants, longer skirts, button-down shirts and other covered up options also make sense. Flashing skin may be fine for movie stars, but it is not fine for people in conservative professions who need to prove they are trustworthy and professional. 

If you are careful with how you interpret it, you can take cues from successful or powerful women in other cultures and then interpret it through American fashion norms. Europe, Asia, and even parts of the Middle East have cultures where women have served as heads of state and in other important roles. How they dressed can serve as clues to how modern career women should dress to signal they are in authority and expect to be taken seriously.

But Molloy did not explore or test any of that, even though fashion borrows from other cultures all the time. In fact, the American “melting pot” is fabricated entirely from other cultures. America is a country of immigrants. So it would make enormous sense to go ahead and test which ideas from foreign cultures can be readily adapted to American culture in a way that signals you are dressing for success.

What Molloy Got Right

The single most important thing Molloy did was to actually test what worked. This is part of why his work endures, in spite of its shortcomings. This is a tip you can borrow. You can test what works.

A good way to do this is to keep a journal. Ideally, take photos not only of favorite pieces, but of you actually wearing them. There can be a big difference between how something looks “in theory” — on a hanger — and “in practice” — on your actual body.

Make notes about what you wear and how you get received by people in a business capacity. If you start noticing patterns, you can adjust how you dress to do less of the things that seem to not work and more of the things that do seem to work. 

With so much change happening in the world, what worked only a few short years ago may not be all that relevant. If you are breaking new ground in terms of your career, you may not have any role models available. You may just have to make it up as you go.


Meet the Author: Rachael Murphey

Rachael Murphey is a writer and entrepreneur. She has written for HostReview.com, Kraft Law, Success at Eagle, and DreamsTime. She currently lives in Denver, CO with her dog Charlie.

Categories

More Posts:

The Power of Women-Owned Small Businesses

     Women-owned small businesses are on the rise, and their impact is undeniable. In fact, in 2019 alone, women-owned nearly 12 million businesses that employed nearly 9 million people and generated over $1.9 trillion in revenue. From retail to technology to finance,...

Occupational Hazards That Come With an Office Job

Working in an office can be a great way to make a living, but it also comes with certain risks. Sitting at a desk for long hours and staring at screens can lead to physical ailments that not only cause discomfort but could eventually lead to more serious health...

Careers That Let You Make a Social Impact

Are you often frustrated by the state of society and angered by social injustices? If you wish you could have a bigger influence on society, consider switching to a career with more social outreach and influence. Here are a few careers that help you to make a lasting...

How to Help Employees Get to Know Each Other Better

When your employees know each other better, there is more camaraderie in your workplace. Because they are more familiar with each other and more invested in each other’s lives, the quality of work—particularly group work—improves.  To be a more effective company, you...

7 Essential Tips for Maintaining a High Standard of Health and Safety in Your Organization

Workplace health and safety is a legal obligation that all employers must adhere to. But apart from ensuring compliance and avoiding legal issues, maintaining high health and safety standards can come with a number of benefits for your business as well. With the right...

How to Feel More Confident When Restarting Your Career

Are you considering restarting your career? If so, you're not alone. Many people feel the need to start over at some point in their lives. The good news is that there are things you can do to make the process easier and more enjoyable. Here are a few tips for feeling...

Women’s Fitness Tips: How to Make Time for Exercise in Your Super-Busy Schedule

We’ve all gone down the social media rabbit hole during a lazy Sunday afternoon. Among the sea of influencers, we’ve also probably seen one that seems to have everything – the dream job, the perfect home, and, above all, time to fit a workout into her super-busy...

How to Catapult Your Productivity with Business Certificates

Investing in updated certifications for yourself and your employees will do a great deal to increase your business output. Existing employees who don't have the time or flexibility to go back to school even part time can improve their skills by getting new...

How to Plan a Mid-Life Career Change

Moving into a different career can seem like an overwhelming challenge. However, if you have realized that you are no longer satisfied with your current role, making the switch can mean the difference between long-term happiness and long-term misery. Changing careers...

7 Proven Ways To Get A Head Start With Your Career

Every young professional wants to get a head start with their career. It takes you a step ahead of your competitors and ensures you reach your goals and milestones as expected. Whether entering the job landscape after high school or university, it always helps. Either...
Careers That Let You Make a Social Impact

Careers That Let You Make a Social Impact

Are you often frustrated by the state of society and angered by social injustices? If you wish you could have a bigger influence on society, consider switching to a career with more social outreach and influence. Here are a few careers that help you to make a lasting...

How to Help Employees Get to Know Each Other Better

How to Help Employees Get to Know Each Other Better

When your employees know each other better, there is more camaraderie in your workplace. Because they are more familiar with each other and more invested in each other’s lives, the quality of work—particularly group work—improves.  To be a more effective company, you...

All Categories

Business Operations

Entrepreneur Interviews

Marketing, Networking, & Social Media

Self Care & Personal Development

Working Moms

Business Software and Technology

Entrepreneurship & Small Business

Organizing Tips

Sales

Career Building

Family Businesses

Inspiration

Starting Your Own Business

Work-Life Balance

Communication

Hiring Help

Management & Leadership

Time Management & Priorities

Women in Leadership

Recent Posts

What to Do When Your Vehicle Lease Comes to an End

What to Do When Your Vehicle Lease Comes to an End

As your vehicle lease reaches the end of its term, you are presented with three options: return the car to the dealership, sell the lease or buy it outright. Each choice obviously has benefits and drawbacks that must be weighed before making a decision. In this...

The Power of Women-Owned Small Businesses

The Power of Women-Owned Small Businesses

     Women-owned small businesses are on the rise, and their impact is undeniable. In fact, in 2019 alone, women-owned nearly 12 million businesses that employed nearly 9 million people and generated over $1.9 trillion in revenue. From retail to technology to finance,...

Nyago Michael Emmanuel

Nyago Michael Emmanuel

We invite many people who can invest in our Akiba Ya umoja community benefit savings and investment group of Uganda to enable us expand our operations in Uganda

Soe Tun: The Copy Doctor

Soe Tun: The Copy Doctor

Autistic kid finds out that he’s unemployable and doesn’t enjoy most social settings. Decides to be a pro copywriter as a result.

Annie Anderson – Business Strategist & WordPress Creator

Annie Anderson – Business Strategist & WordPress Creator

Annie Anderson is the owner and digital creator at Midnight Rebel Digital Co. With over 25 years experience in design and development and more than 15 years experience with WordPress, Annie is a great person to have in your corner when it comes to websites, tech, and systems.

How Startups Can Ensure Health and Safety at the Workplace

How Startups Can Ensure Health and Safety at the Workplace

Everyone, including the owners, management, and staff, is responsible for ensuring workplace safety. All parties must take the proper steps so that no one is harmed while working. If you are looking for ways to keep your workplace safe, here are ten tips to help you out.