For years, women have been seeking alternatives to the power suit, with its big shoulders, wide sleeves and boxy torso that mimicked men's suiting. The matched crimson suit—once deemed essential for a female executive—reflected an era when women tried, often clumsily, to fit into male molds. There was also a militant element to that office apparel. At Procter & Gamble in the 1980s, where a woman worked as a financial analyst, she was informed by a boss that only the "secretaries" wore dresses.
Career women have long added bold colors to gray or black suits. But it's now common to see them wearing pink and other soft hues, and even mixing them together. The new look carries a higher degree of difficulty and may be harder to pull off than a plain matched suit and white blouse.
But all this freedom is not without risks. In general, women still have to be dressier than their male counterparts. Low-cut blouses and short skirts remain off limits for the office.
Executives themselves have led this trend. Now more well-established in the workplace, women have been seeking more choices. Even designers who made their names with seductive party dresses, like Pucci's Peter Dundas and Zac Posen, have recently veered toward professional-woman looks, with suits and eveningwear that could be appropriate for a chief executive.
However, there is one problem that career women face that often goes unaddressed. It is what it means to be wearing the right clothes.
A woman’s wardrobe is an essential component of her presentation. It is as important as her handshake, her eye contact and her attitude. All these women, instead of sending the right message they are signaling to those above that they are not a team player, that they are not ready for promotion.
The faux pas many women make is that they believe their wardrobe is a reflection of who they are. They are attempting to project their distinctiveness and their individuality. Others prefer to wear what is comfortable thinking that this is appropriate since they’ve noticed others in the office also dress this way. And then there are those who want to be known for their style and creativity. They want to stand out from the crowd.
The mistake is that they don’t view the clothes they wear to work as their corporate uniform.
If you’re like most women, this is eye opening. Don’t lose the point that the real purpose of “the uniform” isn’t for erasing your identity; its purpose reflects the symbolism that “you’re part of the team.” It creates a visual representation of a common goal and a shared purpose.
In the corporate world, the business suit is still viewed as the uniform. This means that, when its leaders are representing the firm, others are not distracted by what they wear but rather the intent is to keep them focused on the message.
Sources: The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2012 and “When Doing It All Won’t Do: A self-coaching guide for career women.”