By Lauren Herber, Co-Editor
On Monday two Thunderbird clubs, the Women’s International Business Club and the Business of Fashion Club, teamed up to host an informational event on dressing for the workplace. The event, called “Dress for Success,” featured guest speaker Maria Houle. Maria graduated from Thunderbird in 1987 and is now the program director of the SHARE Fellowship. She has spent her entire career in positions dependent on image, whether that meant selling luxury goods or working with wealthy donors and clients, at companies like Salvatore Ferragamo and Esprit. She emphasizes, however, that issues surrounding workplace wardrobe aren’t limited to only those who work in the fashion industry; on the contrary, work attire concerns women of all levels and industries. With her extensive professional experience in the fashion industry, Maria wanted to offer us nuanced, detailed information on how what we wear influences our success.
Back in the 80s, when Maria graduated, career fashion tips for women often consisted of various ways to dress more like a man. Maria recalled going to her first job interview dressed in a suit with padded shoulders and an unflattering cut. “It felt so stiff,” she said. “It just wasn’t me.” Now, Maria aims to instruct young women on how they can embrace their personal style and femininity and look professional. Her general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t wear anything that will be distracting. You want to draw attention to your ideas, not your outfit. With that being said, she offers 7 guidelines for dressing in the workplace.
Rule 1 is “Don’t give your male colleague the advantage.” This tip has to do with the differences between men and women’s professional attire. Men’s clothing has certain advantages: it doesn’t attract the wrong attention, it enables them to walk faster, and it’s formal enough to meet unexpected clients. Men’s suits command authority, and they have their origins in military garments. The main point is that this difference in clothing can potentially allow men to do things on the job that women can’t because of restrictive attire (think ill-fitting skirt suits, high heels, etc.). It’s important to be aware of these distinctions so that you can build your professional wardrobe in a way that doesn’t inhibit you. The goal, says Maria, is to craft a look that isn’t distracting but is also more than weak adaptations of the male wardrobe.
Maria then discusses Rule 2, which has to do with uniforms: “All organizations have a uniform, and a uniform needs three pieces.” Even though a company’s uniform might not be blatantly stated, every company has one. It will take time to learn what each company’s “look” is, and one way to go about your research is to study what the successful women wear at various companies. A uniform is, at the end of the day, a reflection of a company’s culture. Maria’s word of advice is that every uniform needs three pieces. This provides the structure and authority that men get from a suit. Maria suggests pairing pants or a skirt with a jacket or sweater and a scarf or statement necklace. You can have fun with this! There’s a high degree of variety, and the third piece of the uniform is a great way to let your individual style stand out, which gives you an even better opportunity to be more memorable.
Rule 3 addresses Maria’s rule of color: “Simplify your life and create your look with color.” Maria demonstrated this rule to us with a personal anecdote from her time working at Ferragamo, in which her boss told her she was sabotaging her success by wearing wildly different colors every day. Her takeaway from the experience was this: choose two main colors and stick with them. This allows you to shop more easily, get dressed more quickly, and to generally simplify your life. It also helps you to build your look. Why does having an inconsistent wardrobe potentially sabotage your success? “Think of it as developing a personal band,” suggests Maria. “Now the focus is ‘What ideas does Maria have today?’ instead of ‘What is Maria going to wear today?’” Allison Skabrat (MAGAM ’17, US) loves this tip: “Planning my clothes takes way too long sometimes. I’ll definitely be implementing the two color rule.” While there is flexibility in the colors that you choose to be the foundation of your personal brand, Maria reminds us to be aware of cultural norms and traditions concerning color when working in other countries.
Rule 4 concerns a struggle that plagues us all: how to navigate the boundary between feminine and overly sexy. “Keep the attention on your ideas, not your look,” advises Maria. You don’t have to dress unattractively, but you also don’t want your outfit to be distracting. Keep a safety pin on hand for any unexpected wardrobe malfunctions and beware of clothes too tight or transparent. This rule is also highly impacted by the cultural norms of different countries; be cognizant of these changes and adjust accordingly. In sum, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Rule 5 delves into the topic of accessories: “Your opportunity to be individual and feminine, but keep it neat!” Accessories can be seen as investments: you’ll be wearing them frequently, and good accessories can add a high-quality touch to the rest of your look. Maria advises to keep it classy and quiet—no noisy, distracting pieces. Concerning your carryall, go for a bag that is structured rather than slouchy. Two straps (one short and one long) are better than one, as this style of bag enables you to have your hands free to shake hands and accept gifts. Make sure you keep your bag neat with everything you need accessible so that you’re not fumbling around in a meeting or interview.
Rule 6 covers Maria’s favorite topic: shoes. “You need to be able to walk… quickly and silently!” Whatever style you prefer, make sure that you can walk well in them, and try to choose shades that complement your two chosen wardrobe colors. Maria’s insider tip for those who live in areas where the weather often includes snow or rain? Take your shoes to the tailor and add a rubber sole to the top half of the shoes’ soles and the tips of the heels. This will keep your shoes from making a loud clacking noise as you walk down the hall as well as give you extra stability. For those that walk to work, a comfortable pair of walking shoes, like ballet flats, is a good investment; just make sure that they are elegant and flow with your look.
Rule 7, the final rule, gives some general guidelines for interview outfits. Maria’s rule of thumb? “Know the company’s culture and go a step more formal.” The interviewer is trying to picture you at the company and see if you fit, so you want to look like you already work there. If you feel uncomfortable about your curves, Maria suggests going with a structured jacket, which will give you more control over the shape of your body. She also advises taking advantage of your local tailor; a suit that fits just right can increase your confidence, potentially resulting in a more successful interview.
At the end of the day, women’s business attire has some inherent disadvantages to men’s. But with tips like the ones Maria shared, transforming your professional wardrobe and making it work for you (instead of the other way around) becomes that much easier. While your skills and work ethic are what matter most in the work place, knowing how to dress can convey a positive message about your competence and confidence.