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Dressing for the job you want: Sound advice or outdated adage??

By Megan Collins | Apr 5 2011

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{Love the patriotism, but is the belly shirt too casual for an office setting?}

How many times has someone told you, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you’ve got”? The old adage about outfitting yourself up the ladder passes for conventional wisdom these days, but as workplace dress codes get more complicated, is the advice still relevant?

After all, we live in a world where Casual Friday is closing in on Monday through Thursday. Where a growing tribe of resourceful freelancers work from home in sweatpants. Where pajama jeans are a real thing. But while our culture continues trending towards the informal, I believe there’s still a case to be made for dressing up.

I’m not talking about showing up to the office every day in a three-piece suit if HR asks only for business casual. I just think that adopting a “better than the next guy” attitude towards your wardrobe can only help you at work.

Every office has a dress code – whether expressly imposed or just socially enforced. While you could get dressed in the morning thinking about what you can get away with, clothing-wise, it’s a low bar to aim for. After all, that’s not how you approach the rest of your workday, is it? If you’re invested in your career, you’re probably already doing the superficial things that telegraph the message, “I”m good at my job.” Things like showing up fifteen minutes earlier than your co-workers in the morning. Or keeping talk of any inebriated weekend exploits to a minimum (at least around your superiors). Dressing well is just one more simple action you can take that reinforces your competence. If you’re truly dedicated to excelling in your chosen career, cutting corners – whether it’s in your actions, attitude or attire – won’t get you very far.

Why bother, you may ask? Dressing up doesn’t make me any better at my job. True, but it is a chance to make a positive impression on those who have no idea how good you are at your job. Let’s say your boss’s boss sees you once a week, on the elevator, maybe, or at the far end of a conference table during a staff meeting. You’ve never talked to him or her, and they’ve never really seen you in action. How you look, then, is one way you can make an impression without saying a word. Don’t you want that impression to be a good one?

Of course, workplace dress codes can vary wildly from one industry to the next, so going above and beyond the “norm” may or may not be all that difficult. If jeans are a staple in your office, wearing a clean, well-cut pair (not the same ones you rake the yard in on Saturdays) may be enough to impress. If your office culture calls for an open-necked button-down, try a tie from time to time. Polish your shoes. Tie your shoes. Match your socks to your shirt. Wear a belt. Wear a pocket square. Any extra effort on top of what’s expected may go farther than you think.

At the end of the day, everything you do at work affects others’ perceptions of you, including those in the job you want. So how badly do you want to do well? Enough to show up early? Stay late? Work weekends? What about enough to wear khakis when you’d rather be in cut-offs? Your willingness to sacrifice – be it your free time or your casual attire – is telling. No, clothes don’t make the man, but they do help tell his story.