Womenswear in the Workplace: How to Own Your Style in the Professional World

By Sydney Jean Gottfried

A video featuring Australian Today Show host Karl Stefanovic made its way around the Internet last week. The video shows Sefanovic wearing the same navy knock-off Burberry suit every day for a year, changing only his shirt and tie. In the same year, his female cohost, Lisa Wilkinson, only repeats an outfit on a handful of occasions.

When questioned about the experiment, Stefanovic said he got the idea after his co-host did a segment on viewers that had criticized her wardrobe. He hoped to draw attention to the unfair emphasis placed on women’s appearances. He told The Age newspaper, “No one noticed; no one gave a s—. Women are judged much more harshly and keenly for what they do, what they say and what they wear.”

Unfortunately, television isn’t the only workplace in which women are judged more harshly than men on their appearances instead of their actual work. This phenomenon occurs in most work places. A study published in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment recently found that how a person dressed for an interview, in addition to beauty, had a consistent influence on interviewers’ perception of employability, especially for women.

Another study conducted by the International Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management found that employers consistently rated more conservatively dressed women higher on dimensions of intelligence, confidence, trustworthiness, responsibility, authority and organization when compared to less conservatively dressed women.

Implicit appearance standards act to limit women’s professional clothing choices and increase pressure to have well-styled hair and makeup all the time, but you can choose to derive power from the way you dress in the workplace. All workplaces differ, but the general rule of thumb is if you have to question it, you shouldn’t wear it. So you may be wondering, “How can I dress in a way that makes me feel confident and keeps the attention on my ideas instead of my gender?”

We’ve got a few tips.

#1. Invest in good tailoring.

Clothes that fit well give off an authoritative look. Dan Lawson, costume designer for The Good Wifesays, “If you want to project power, your clothes have to fit you. It has to look like you command the clothes, not that the clothes are commanding or wearing you.” You don’t have to be rich to look authoritative. Good tailoring can make an inexpensive outfit look like it’s worth much more.

#2. Pay attention to length and height.

Take notice of how long your skirts and dresses are and how high your heels are. Keep hemlines close to the knee. That way, if you need to sit down, you won’t need to worry about anyone seeing up your skirt. This will also keep attention off of exposed skin and onto what you’re saying. Similarly, make sure if you’re wearing heels, that they’re of a reasonable height. The heels you wear in the workplace should generally be lower and more professional than the heels you’d wear out to a club.

#3. Keep patterns minimal and colors subtle.

Bright colors and flashy patterns can be distracting. But that certainly doesn’t mean you need to stick to black and white. Creams, light pinks, rich purples, chocolate browns, and charcoals can be attractive alternatives. If you do wear a brighter color, stick to one bright item, like a blazer or a statement necklace.

#4. Keep make-up and hair simple.

In a professional setting, it’s best to keep make-up natural. Like bright clothing, bright hues of lipstick or eye shadow can be distracting. As can extravagant hairstyles. In the workplace, keep hair simple, clean and tidy to keep focus on the face.

#5. Use a professional handbag.

It’s important to use a sleek, well-structured handbag in the workplace. This doesn’t have to be an expensive handbag, just one that will keep your belongings organized and contained. Make sure your belongings don’t fall over or out of your bag when you put it down. In addition, handbags with minimal metal and details tend to look the most professional.

#6. Wear a smile and use a strong handshake.

Professional clothing and a nice hairstyle are no substitutes for being personable and using a strong handshake in the workplace. It’s important to combine all of these aspects to present a powerful professional image. It can be difficult to nail the right professional image off the bat, but dressing for the workplace is a science that gets easier with experience and time.

Keep these tips in mind as interview season approaches. At the end of the day, just be yourself and own your style! Good luck!