Style is the dress of thought.
—Samuel Wesley, poet
All offices have a uniform. It is usually dictated by the industry, geography, and the boss. The most formal are banks, accounting firms, and law firms. Technology is much more dressed down, and creativity in dress is often required in the arts and entertainment.
The media has kept a refreshing air of formality, perhaps because the networks are based in New York City. When you are a guest, and, perhaps most especially, if you are a brilliant college dropout with a mega-million-dollar software company in Silicon Valley, California, wear the coat and tie. Shirts should be bought to go with the suit and the belt and socks should match the shoes.
The difference between bosses and their heir apparents should only be in the expense of the fabrics, which reflect higher salaries.
The question is more what not to wear. At a recent public relations business breakfast I went to, a young woman showed up in Capri pants and a sheer top. Her name tag announced her as simply, Jennifer. It was no surprise when we learned she had come to sell insurance.
At one Chamber of Commerce event at a ranch in Malibu, I decided to eschew my corporate duds in favor of a cowboy hat, boots, a silk shirt, and jeans. One man came up to me and said, we have a bet that you're in real estate, selling the really expensive houses. Never is it more apparent that you don't get a second chance to make a first impression than with your choice of wardrobe.
In the art of winning friends and influencing people, it is suggested, at first, to make no impression at all. That's because people are most comfortable with people they perceive to be like them. Over time, of course, your uniqueness will enhance the relationship, but you won't be perceived as so different at first as to be an impossible friend. The same is true with business attire. Seek first to follow the rules that will make you appropriate to the occasion or dress code. In time, you will know how to break them.
To stand out from the background in media and personal appearances, or even show up in color photography, a woman should wear color. Clear, bright, solid color. At the next State of the Union address, notice which senators and congresswomen stand out from the crowd on television. You'll see them in suit jackets of solid red, peacock, turquoise or cobalt blue, Kelly green, or purple.
Notice the president's tie. Although solid red or very small-patterned red ties with white shirts and navy suits are very popular in Congress for their obvious theme of red, white, and blue, did you notice President George W. Bush's choice of ties after 9/11 and throughout the war with Iraq? He chose a series of sky-blue ties that seemed to be an antidote for the fear and hatred of war. A red tie would have merely inflamed the situation, although red is thought to be persuasive in other situations.
Before getting dressed for television, squint your eyes at your wardrobe choice. If the small dots or stripes "dance" before your eyes, avoid them for they will strobe on camera and distract from everything you are saying. Large pictures or patterns, as well as prominent plaids or stripes, which will overpower you, should also be avoided.
Because business attire, as compared to business casual, is still very much a uniform, a man's tie is his signature statement. For a woman, it's her jewelry. Is it antique, delicate, and small? Bold and contemporary? Arty? Expensive? Interestingly, these are the two areas where a personal compliment is appropriate in a business situation. Anything else is too personal.
Like it or not, the uniform for both men and women is still the suit or a version of it for women in a jacket and pants, skirt, or dress. Nothing takes the place of a jacket in looking really professional, on camera or from a podium. To soften the look on certain occasions, women may choose a sweater jacket or sweater set to seem softer and more nurturing, perhaps in a human resources role.
President Reagan was fond of wearing brown suits, which many believed was a subtle way of reducing the intimidating power of the office for a would-be folksy president. A navy blue suit is thought to radiate sincerity while gray is the power color. The darker the gray suit, the more power. Black is usually saved for funerals and Las Vegas. The key to giving an impression of environmental consciousness is khaki or breen (brown-green).
Like the Presidents, use color to subtly accomplish your goals. A pale blue or striped dress shirt is friendlier. If you are young or unsure of yourself, wear a crisp, professionally laundered and starched white shirt to add intimidation to your demeanor for a presentation. If you can afford or need custom shirts for fit, opt for subtle initials on the right cuff if you are aiming for the presidential suite.