You may think it shouldn’t matter what people look like. Newsflash, it does! Your looks present a part of who you are, to the world outside and your appearance translates into your performance, on a very subconscious level sometimes, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. In this lesson, we’ll cover what comprises ‘Formal Dressing’ and do’s and don’t associated with it.
In this business meeting, Mr. Ravi Agarwal, (the smartly dressed gentleman in the grey suit) IT Director of Agile Technologies is meeting Sanjay Rathore, (dressed comfortably, but not formally). and Rahul Joshi, (dressed in sharp formals) an Assistant Manager, who are representatives of an IT outsourcing partner firm.
We’re halfway through the business meeting, and it’s noticeably clear that Mr. Ravi Agarwal seems to be speaking directly with Rahul, soliciting his views and advice, to an extent where Sanjay is rather ignored.
At one point, something interesting happens. Observe.
I’d like to start the rollout of the tool you’ve built for us across the organisation right away. When is the earliest can you commence rollout?
Actually, Ravi, I recommend beta testing the tool in a controlled pilot phase for a fornight before launching it across the organisation. We’ve only tested the tool in a lab setting so far. This way we can tackle any unforeseen bugs and glitches that might come up in real world application. We might also be able to improve user experience, based on the feedback from the pilot control group. We can start right away. If all goes well, we should be able to release the tool across the organisation by the end of next month.
(Thinks for a bit, and shakes his head)
The end of next month? But we’re really keen on starting off with it now.
(Looks at Rahul)
What is the absolute earliest date by which we can rollout the tool across the organisation?
Ravi, I hear you. But we still recommend beta testing the tool in a controlled pilot phase for a fornight before launching it across the organisation. The tool hasn’t been tested in a live scenario. The pilot group will help us iron out any setbacks and improve user experience for the larger population without much inconvenience. If all goes well, we should be able to release the tool across the organisation by the end of next month.
Okay. Yes. That makes perfect sense actually. (Smiles) Patience is a virtue after all, isn’t it?
Here’s some context for you, given that we didn’t formally introduce you to Sanjay and Rahul.
Sanjay’s designation is Senior Manager -Planning, and Rahul is an Assistant Manager.
In the scene you just witnessed, who would you identify as Sanjay, and who would you identify as Rahul?
If you identified the gentleman with the blue suit as Sanjay, and the other gentleman dressed ordinarily, as Rahul, you’re part of the vast majority who would agree with you.
What if we told you that in actuality, this is Rahul, and this is Sanjay? Would Mr. Agarwal’s treatment of these two characters still make sense to you?
After all, there was nothing to suggest that Rahul had any more knowledge or self-assuredness than Sanjay did – his reply to Mr. Agarwal was exactly the same as Sanjay’s, and yet, Mr. Agarwal seeming had more faith in Rahul’s reply.
Truth is this scenario plays out almost every day, where people like Sanjay find themselves dismissed and ignored in very awkward, and seemingly unfair ways.
The question is, why does this happen?
Like it or not, you are being judged by how you look, how you dress—and, if you’re lucky, how you do your job.
Before a person has even spoken to you for the first time, they’ve already formed a perception of you, whether positive or negative based on what they see. And all of this happens in a blink of an eye which takes an approximate one-tenth of a second.
Chances are, one of the first things they see about you is what you’re wearing.
What your clothes say about you…
While there is no debate on how effective the visual stimuli of clothing can be to a situation, especially a corporate one – what does your style of clothing depict? This, by the way, has nothing to do with the brand you wear or how expensive your clothing is.
It is more about the fact that your clothing is synonymous to your personality. People subconsciously guess all kinds of information such as your age, income, status, political views and even competence- just by merely looking at your clothing!
There’s a very good chance that in the business meeting you witnessed earlier, this is exactly how Mr. Agarwal judged Sanjay and Rahul, and found Sanjay wanting. Mr. Agarwal’s actions – the way he interacted with each of them, was then coherent with his perception, Sanjay and Rahul’s designations notwithstanding.
The morality of whether people should be judged on their clothing or not is open for debate. The point we’re making here though is that if you know you’re being judged either consciously or subconsciously on your clothing, among other things, why put yourself at a disadvantage by ignoring this aspect?
Here’s something else you should know.
Your mindset is affected by your outfit…
In April, 2012 – The New York Times reported an experiment called “enclothed cognition” undertaken by a bunch of scientists.
The objective of the experiment was to observe how clothing affects the cognitive abilities of a person.
Their control group was divided into two, with one group asked to wear a doctors coat and the other asked to wear street clothes. Both of these groups were asked to undertake the same test.
The group wearing the doctors coat made less errors as compared to the other group in street clothes.
A host of other studies also prove that wearing the suited clothing, seeing yourself in and feeling the clothing on your skin, like slipping into a crisp white shirt and a slick business suit is a powerful influencer of one’s psyche.
By dressing sharp, you’re taking care of two critical things at once – influence other’s impression of you to your advantage, and influencing your own morale to your advantage.
Is Corporate Clothing a feasible choice?
Come on! Things are different for people in a metropolis, no? Who wants to suit up and jump into a crowded train, metro or bus? By the time you arrive at work, you’ll look like you’re ready to leave for the day!
Take Rahul for instance. He lives in the suburbs and travels downtown daily to his office. His gets rush hour both ways. Travelling fully dressed in public transport is just asking for trouble, and Rahul knows it.
Here is what Rahul does. He travels in comfortable casual clothes and sneakers and carries his formal clothes in his bag. His formal shoes, he leaves in office. As soon as he gets into office, he changes into formals. And he’s ready to face the day ahead – big clients and all.
Formal clothes aren’t reserved for the higher-ups in organisations.
Everyone in a corporate setting, without exception, must dress appropriately for the job. This is especially true for people in client facing roles. Remember, whether unfair or not, it’s the perception of your competence on the line. You don’t want to find yourself in Sanjay’s position, do you?
We’ve all had our fair share of doubts about what to wear at work and yet while some corporates write it down in stone, there exists a good amount of ambiguity when it comes to workspace clothing for most of us.
But formal clothing is expensive, isn’t it?
You’re probably thinking about how you’re going to foot the bills for tailoring or purchasing formal work clothing for work. That’s a fair concern. It’s true that formal clothing can be pricey, especially the premium ranges. But there are ranges of formal clothing that suit every budget. That said, go for the best you can afford. A good business suit will last you for years, and you’ll love slipping into it. A mediocre or bad suit will last you for years too, and you’ll kick yourself for not knowing better.
Also, no one expects you to go all out and buy your complete formal wardrobe at one shot. Start with the basics of formal wear, like good, crisp white shirts, for instance. Look around for season-end sales and good bargains. Ask around for good tailors who charge reasonably for bespoke formal wear. If it’s built to fit you, you’ll look good in it. Period. It won’t be long before you’ll have an impressive formal wear collection you’ll be proud of. Here’s something you should know…the best dressed people in the business have accumulated their formal clothing treasures over years.
What constitutes as formal clothing…
Now that we’ve agreed on the importance and relevance of formal business clothing, let’s talk about what constitutes business formal clothing.
For gents you’ve got a few choices:
1. Suits: The standard ‘Formal wear’ for corporates is a fully matching business suit. Fully matching simply means that your jacket and dress pants need to match in material texture and colour. Try to stick to the darker shades and keep it classy! Given our tropical weather, which is generally anywhere between hot to warm, many corporates have moved away from the suit to adopt a more practical style of formal clothing. It comprises of formal shoes, trousers, a shirt, and a tie.
2. Trousers: Trousers best kept slightly below ankle length. Fashion experts recommend tailoring bespoke trousers, if you have that option.
3. Shirts/button downs: The shirt should be lightly shaded, self- coloured, full sleeved and with cuffs. You’ll never go wrong with white shirts in your wardrobe.
4. Ties: The tie is mandatory for a formal attire. Solid fill ties are the best options but if prefer a patterned tie – keep it plain and simple. Learn a few basic knots. The windsor knot is a classic, and there are plenty of self-help videos online to help you learn. The length of the tie is also important – the tip of the tie should end in the middle of your belt buckle, when you are standing in your natural posture.
5. Footwear: Shoes are essential with a suit or the shirt/trouser/tie trifecta. Leather shoes will do you good but always in dark colours. Oxfords are a classic choice. The colour of the belt and shoes should match and socks should match the colour of the trousers.
On the other hand, females have more options:
1. Suits: The business suit for females comprise the jacket, the button up, and the dress pants that can also be replaced with a formal skirt of the same material. Darker shades are preferred. A great fit and tailoring are absolutely essential. Ensure that the length of the skirt is below the knee.
2. Blouses/shirts/button-up: Women have the option to choose from a wide variety of blouses and button-ups. Pastels, dark shades, light print, pin-stripes, solids are all perfect. Stay away from loud colours and jazzy prints.
3. Skirts or Slacks: Females could dabble in both skirts and slacks. Skirts, as you know, should necessarily stay below the knees and the slacks should preferably be ankle length.
4. Sarees: A bordered silk or cotton saree with a very formal looking blouse, well draped is the perfect Indian formal.
5. Formal cuts and well-tailored shalwar-suits in solid sober colours, or light prints is also acceptable as business formal. And this ensemble can really look flattering. If in doubt though, you should check with your HR team if shalwar-suits are acceptable as formal wear in your organisation.
6. Footwear: Formal footwear for women includes heels, flats and pumps. Avoid very high heels as they tend to be uncomfortable to walk in. However tempting and comfortable sandals may seem, you’re courting disaster if you wear them to a formal occassion.
A Note on Accessorizing…
Within reasonable limits, it’s perfectly acceptable to personalise a formal look by adding accessories to our ensemble.
Some common accessories for men are:
1. Watches: Your watch doesn’t have to be a luxury Rolex but steer clear of smart bands and casual watches. A dark suit is best matched with a classic dress watch with either a steel or leather strap.
2. Cufflinks: Again, not a mandatory option but if you’ve never tried them, you’re missing out on compliments from people who notice details. Cufflinks can be worn with suits and jacket outfits. Keep it simple and classy.
3. Belts: Do you find yourself adjusting your pants or trousers at any given point in time at work? Invest in a good formal belt. It’ll save you the embarrassment and keep you in vogue. Belts of darker shades are best suited. Black and tan brown are the people’s choice. Remember, with formal clothing, the belt should match the shoes, so pick your belts accordingly.
For ladies, choosing from a vast variety of possible accessories is mind boggling. To avoid this, here are some pointers:
1. Bags: A shoulder bag compliments business wear. Ensure the bag has a firm structure. Bags that crumble to the ground and slouch look shabby. Keep the shades monochrome like the blacks, navy blues, browns, and it should be an appropriate size to hold all your belongings.
2. Watches: Keep your watches dainty and simple. Clunky watches are a big no-no, especially when paired with suits and dress skirts.
3. Jewelry: When it comes to jewelry, elegant and minimalistic is the look you want to go for. The dainty kind of earrings are the best. Studs and hoops are your friends as long as they don’t jingle when you walk around. As for rings avoid anything clunky and which draws attention. Clunky bracelets or even bangles tend to be noisy don’t fancy being a source of distraction at a business meeting.
4. Make-up: As with jewelry, if you must wear make-up, keep it elegant and minimalistic. Avoid glittery or gaudy coloured lipstick, fake lashes or too much mascara. Make sure the shades of your make-up match your skin tone and complement your outfit well.
Formal corporate clothing is for everyone, even if it’s your first job. You run the risk of being consciously or subconsciously sidelined, given that people make judgements on your competency based on what you wear. A day might come when people are no longer judged by the clothes they wear, or the way they present themselves at work. But until then, be smart and take advantage of the extra brownie points you can score with the right business formals. And remember the psychological effects a good formal outfit has on you, the wearer. So go ahead, get formal and get ahead. Good luck.