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The Messages Your Fashion Choices Are Really Sending — And How To Make Sure You’re Always Commanding Respect

Alicia Zweben Cohen  |  September 16, 2019

Like it or not, our work wardrobe affects how we’re perceived. 

Remember the beginning of “The Devil Wears Prada” — watching Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) epically fail at her new job at the fictional fashion publication Runway Magazine. (C’mon, you know you’ve seen it at least a dozen times.)  Remember how on a daily basis her simplistic fashion choices would elicit glares from her boss, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). And remember how Andy is almost ready to quit her job when she has an epiphany — cue the inevitable movie makeover montage — and goes from from ridiculed to revered, courtesy of a pair of thigh-high boots and a flat-iron? 

Yes, it’s a great scene, but it’s also sigh-inducing. In a perfect world, our outward appearance would always come secondary to the words we use and the quality of our work. In the real one, our clothing still tells a story about who we are. Dressing for the workplace is part of curating your colleagues’ perception of you, and deciding which messages you’re going to send, explains Rebecca Fenner, a VP of merchandising for major fashion brands who has spent 15 years developing products for career women. “I personally know that how I dress impacts my attitude, and impacts the perception of both me and my work,” she says. 

Mitchell Travers is a costume designer for film and television, who recently worked with Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling in the film “Late Night,” which features the women at different stages of their careers. Travers’ advice to women on being judged by their wardrobe? “Lean into it,” he says. “I prefer when women accept that it’s a reality they have to face, and use it to their advantage.” 

Here’s a look at the keys to dressing in a way that gives the right impression and lets your confidence shine through. 

Wear The Right Outfit For The Right Occasion 

Would you be tempted to dress differently if you have a meeting with your boss vs. a lunch date with a client? If your answer is yes, think again. You should always dress well when you know you’re going to have a conversation with your boss, as it shows you are taking the conversation and your role seriously, Fenner explains.  

By the same token, “a meeting is always smoother when you respect a client enough to understand how they will dress, and you dress accordingly to match their level of attire,” she says. In other words, if your client always wears jeans and a t-shirt, feel free to ditch the dress and wear something like a nice blazer with a classic pair of dark wash jeans and heels. When in Rome. 

Know What You Want To Convey 

The next time you catch powerful political or business women on TV, take a look at their attire. (Whatever you think of Nancy Pelosi’s politics, the woman knows how to rock a coat!) You’ll probably notice that very few of them will be sporting overly busy prints or patterns, Travers explains. Instead, they use bold splashes of color and keep things simple with solids, which more readily allows people to focus on the words they’re saying, rather than the fabric they’re wearing.  The same trick will work for you. If you have a big idea you want to push through at your next team meeting, go bold, with crisp lines and solid colors. Also, keep in mind that when you “soften” your look with things like ruffles or a cozy sweater, you can inadvertently soften your message, Travers says. “Prepare your clothes for a meeting the same way you prepare your work,” he says. 

Don’t Overlook Fit 

Fit to fashion is like location to real estate — it’s everything! A poor fit can make even the most expensive outfit look terrible, while a great fit can elevate less expensive items. (No, not even a DVF dress is going to convey class if it’s two sizes too small and you’re tugging at it all day.) If you’ve lost or gained weight, or just want to ensure that you have a sharper look, consider investing some time and money into having your work clothes tailored by a professional. 

“One thing I see in my film career is that women don’t separate themselves from fit. While a male actor will just hand back a jacket and say, ‘This doesn’t fit,’ a woman will say, ‘I have to lose weight,’” Travers says. “They take responsibility for it not fitting,” when they should simply just request some tailoring, or work with the items in their wardrobe that already have the right look. 

Also, keep in mind that fit affects both your body language and your posture, which will play a role in how you are being perceived. “I will fully admit that when I’m uncomfortable in what I’m wearing, I spend the whole day fidgeting, which results in everyone knowing that I’m uncomfortable,” Fenner confesses. 

Invest Time In Understanding Your Wardrobe

There’s nothing worse than waking up in a panic not knowing what you’re going to wear to work. Planning your wardrobe for the week can alleviate a lot of stress, but you’d be wise to take things a step further, and “spend a Sunday going through your closet,” Travers says.”Try your work wardrobe on in front of a mirror. Play some music, take photos and keep a gallery on your phone — make it a toolbox for yourself professionally.” The next time you’re unsure of what to wear, just take a scroll back through the wardrobe album on your cell phone, and snag an idea or two. 

Once you have an understanding of what items you have, how they fit and how they can work together, you’ll be ready for any meeting or presentation thrown at you … And no, your boss probably won’t invite you to attend Paris Fashion Week, but you will definitely be commanding respect. 

In the immortal words of Miranda Priestly, “That’s all.” 

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