Dressing for the Job you Want

You have probably heard it said a time or two to dress for the job you want rather than the one you have. The wisdom of yesterday does not always apply to the climate of today, however. Is this advice still good and applicable today, or has comfort taken the place of fashion in today’s business world?

A Personal Experience

Let me begin with an anecdote. When I moved to Mesa, Arizona, in January of 2012, I did not own a car or bicycle, so I had to walk about town applying for work. Although it was about 70 degrees outside, I wore a bold red button-down shirt with black slacks a striped red tie, and formal black business shoes. Despite how uncomfortable I became walking under that Arizona sun, I didn’t waver. Over a period of a week, I walked well over 20 miles and turned in 50-60 job applications.

Two weeks later, I had attended half a dozen interviews and had more job offers than I could possibly accept, and by February, I was working 55-60 hours a week between two jobs. I have no doubt that my professional attire had a positive effect on my success. In fact, one of the managers who interviewed and later hired me said as much during the interview that my appropriate interview attire demonstrated my seriousness and professionalism.

Casual vs. Professional

Here’s the clincher: the jobs I was applying and interviewing for were retail and food service jobs. Obviously, dressing up for my interview to McDonald’s or Taco Bell was not necessary; if those companies only hired people who dressed professionally, they’d probably be severely understaffed. But if fast food is the level of job you’re dressing for, can you reasonably expect your career to advance beyond flipping burgers and taking drive-thru orders over a headset?

Imagine if you were applying for an office job at a major marketing firm. For the sake of simplicity, pretend that there are just two qualified applicants for the job. You show up for the interview wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers, whereas your competitor arrives wearing a knee-high skirt, button-up blouse, pantyhose, and high heels. Which outfit do you think would make a stronger first impression? Which candidate do you think would look more poised and professional? You can clearly see how a professional sense of dress would give the other candidate a decided advantage in the hiring process.

Certainly, not every job and situation requires formal dress or professional attire. When I was living in Idaho, I was working as a laborer, and I wore Wranglers, western-style shirts, and cowboy boots. This too, however, was dressing for the job I wanted. If you’re working as a carpenter or a roofer, expectations for your professional attire will be decidedly different than if you’re a manager at the local supermarket.

Choose to Dress for Success

If you visited an attorney and they were dressed in jeans and a turtleneck, you would be less than impressed. Dressing for success is critical in any professional setting. Even if your company permits casual attire, maintaining a professional appearance can go a long way toward making you stand out from the competition. Recent editorials for business magazines Forbes and Fortune discuss how important it is to dress up rather than down, especially if you are looking for a promotion.

If you have been trying to break into higher-paying jobs or working hard for a promotion that just doesn’t seem to be happening, try taking a look at your wardrobe. If you think it may be lacking, try wearing some more professional clothing. You may be surprised by the results.

Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a startup enthusiast and entrepreneur who provides insights into the world of Silicon Valley and beyond. As a former startup founder, Mark lends his expertise to aspiring entrepreneurs through mentorship and his incisive writing.