Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why do we need to dress well? Where is the line?


From late August to early September I was traveling for a family/business trip to the east coast including New York and the Washington DC area.  Our last stop was Alexandria VA, just across the Potomac River from Washington, where we attended a friend’s wedding.  As usual, I travel in casual wear.  The moment I stepped in our hotel, I started feeling like I was the most dressed down woman in the lobby.  The next day, when I went to Starbucks for my morning coffee in shorts and a T-shirt, I found myself in most casual situation again. Even guys were super dressed too.  There was a young guy, maybe barely 30, wearing a bow tie and sport coat ordering coffee in front me.  I don’t know if any of you share this feeling with me or not - when I am the least dressed women in a group, I felt very uncomfortable.  I started to think, what’s going on with this town?

Being as close as it is to the nation’s capital, many politicians and lobbyists live and work in Alexandria.  In the professional world, it should go without saying that dressing well is very important.  Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov said "First impressions are formed in less than a tenth of a second."

When you dress to project an authoritative image, people tend to listen to you more.  For ladies, my personal experience is, when you dress well, you get treated well.  Newsweek columnist Jessica Bennett said, "In this economy looking good isn't just vanity, it’s economic survival."  

Inevitably, dressing well can go extreme. So the question arises: in the professional field, how can one dress well while maintaining their own style?  Where is the line between stylish and fashion slave?  I’d like to share my thoughts.

1. Smile! - this is the best, most sustainable and easiest (no cost) accessory you can ever have. And also please take care of yourself, eat well and exercise! You can attract more bees with honey than vinegar! In virtually any professional setting, a smile and a good attitude will get you a long way.

2. If you are a professional, when you manage your wardrobe, set professional needs first and play needs second.   This is a very personalized topic, it depends on your professional goal and image goal.  For one example, make dressy slacks a priority ahead of jeans.  There are also shopping guidelines you can follow from my previous post.

3.  Once you have established your core wardrobe, you can use the looks within that wardrobe that work for you - you won’t need to “work for looks” any longer.  If you like to shop, work from the core wardrobe and add a few pieces each season along with the trend.  It is not necessary to become a fashion slave, to panic each new season, to overbuy and still feel like you have nothing to wear.  Well-selected, quality professional clothes should last for at least a couple of years.  Being organized and having a plan can help you avoid feeling lost.

The good news about my time in Alexandria was that I was simply visiting while the folks surrounding me were working and dressing to impress.  The “underdressed” impulse I felt was quickly followed by the realization that these people were here to work and I was here to relax and enjoy my friend’s wedding.  I enjoyed my time in Alexandria, and I did look good at the wedding - I just didn’t pack “wedding clothes” for everyday use!  

Do any of you have the same issues when traveling - how to pack when mixing business, pleasure and other activities?  Please share your stories and questions in the comment section.


  1. If you need help with how to smile (point 1 above), here is one of my favorite instructional videos:

  2. I'm reading this as I'm about to head out to run errands and to yoga class in shorts and a t-shirt. Hope that I don't spot any clients while I'm out and about ;-) I'm very interested in clothing that can look good when you are in the midst of a number of things in a day and don't want to have to change clothes. Not that I would wear yoga-type clothes to a business meeting, but some pieces that are flexible between errand-running and PTA meeting and yoga might be good to be aware of. Could we look for a potential blog post on this topic from you?

    1. It sounds like a good idea. I will look into it and see what I can come up with.

  3. My husband is currently working in DC. It has completely changed the way he dresses. I am much more aware of my clothes when I'm there. You can always tell the tourists, college students, and locals apart by the way they dress. Very interesting read. Thanks!

  4. I could definitely relate to the feeling of, "Oh no, I'm the most dressed-down person here." I like casual for its comfort level--there, I admitted it. The weather also effects me, so cool clothing is something I have to think about.

    And I just don't think the small fitted sweater jackets, that are all the rage now, work with my apple-shaped body. They just never look right on me to me.

    I'm also looking for "some pieces that are flexible between errand-running and" [for my case] meetups.

    1. Off the top of my head, I think a light weighted jacket will be good for Austin weather. For example:

      You can pair it with dark jeans, slacks as well as pencil skirts. And it will definitely give you a polished look.