Business Basics: Formal Attire is on Its Way Back

Twenty-five years ago, I was married to a dairy farmer living 50 miles from the nearest city. I could milk cows, tell you when the crops were ripe, drive a tractor and deliver a baby calf. Image and dress for success didn't matter. I was just happy having clean coveralls.

My other job in those days was as an instructor in the small business development programs at the local college. I taught classes four evenings a week and it was a 100-mile round trip daily. It did not take long to discover that it took more than substance and knowledge in my fields of expertise to be perceived as a credible professional.

Image mattered. I had to dress up and present myself at my personal and professional best.

Fast forward to 2006. There was a big learning curve along the way, and now I am recognized world-wide for my expertise as an executive coach and professional speaker on impression management, etiquette and ambassador skills.

And here is what I learned along the way: image counts.


There are a lot of smart people languishing in the lower echelons of companies, and one of the main reasons may be their lack of understanding the importance of image, personal presentation and effective communication skills.

Companies place a premium on dress, manners, effective body language and the subtle rules of knowing precisely what to say and do in any given situation. Clothing covers approximately 90 percent of the body in most business situations, so it is inevitable that what you wear makes a statement.

As companies scramble to break into new markets and win contracts, image has become the key that opens the door. The demand for skills that enable people to perform appropriately in business and social circles has skyrocketed.


Key players in the business arena are masters of communication. The truly successful are aware that everything about their personal presentation must be coordinated and polished to project a message of congruency. This means clothing, car and accessories.

Professional posturing and positioning is taking place at all levels within companies. People need to be aware that they are an ambassador for themselves and their company.

Companies spend millions of dollars packaging their products. Packaging can make the difference between success and failure. Each package must say something special about the contents and each product must be packaged appropriately for the target market.

This same concept applies to you. Each and every day, you have the opportunity to showcase yourself, your products and your knowledge. Think of it as a product launch.

You may have more talent and ability than anyone else in your industry, but unless you have packaged yourself effectively, you may be limiting your success potential. Successful people generally look successful. They wear clothing that looks attractive on them. They are well groomed, speak well and exude confidence.

People form a negative impression much more rapidly than they form a positive impression.

We all have an image, whether we design it consciously or not. How we look and feel about ourselves is heavily influenced by our childhood experiences and our self-image as an adult.

Clothing and appearance are among the most important criteria we use to judge people. Clothing in a business environment covers 90 percent of the body, so it is inevitable that it makes a very powerful statement.

Successful people generally look successful. If you feel confident about your clothes, hairstyle and personal presentation, you will send out a positive and confident message.

Clothing and presence is a silent and powerful language, a visual shorthand. Is your personal presentation a true reflection of you at your best? Your personal image is your calling card to success.


Each and every encounter gives you another opportunity to "wow" your customers, associates and friends. The first 12 words out of your mouth, the first 12 steps you take into a room and the first 12 inches of your body are your chances to make a good first impression.

Packaging matters, but style without substance just won't work. You can't just create an identity; you must constantly reinforce it.

Here some key tips on making a great first and lasting impression.

  • Smile. A real smile starts in the heart, shows on the lips and then around the eyes. What you thought were your wrinkles are really your positive attitude indicators.
  • Shake hands. A good handshake consists of a full handclasp, shaking three or four times up and down. No bone crushers or limp handshakes.
  • Use good direct eye contact. It adds to your believability.
  • Show sincere interest in the person you are meeting.
  • Remember names. A person's name is the most important word he hears, and it instantly captures his attention.
  • Think, act and look happy and successful.
  • Think, act and behave like a winner.
  • Dress to impress.

The better your exterior looks, the more confident you become.


Classic business colors are black, grey and navy. Business cuts in the garments are clean, straight lines with plain fabric rather than patterned garments. These will always have a higher level of business perception.

Formal attire is coming back. You can have a competitive edge by dressing well and/or better than the competition or your colleagues.

Dress trousers, long sleeved shirt and tie would be a basic look for business. By adding a jacket, the look is a higher level of business dress, and then wearing a suit is another level up in dressing authority.

Women have a greater challenge as they tend to follow "fashion" looks throughout the year rather than dressing for business.

Darker-colored clothing will give you more visual power, presence and credibility.

To look taller and thinner, use the one-color dressing technique.

For more powerful body language, use smooth gestures and decisive movements.

Dress smart every day. If you can wear the garments you have on to the ball park, to the grocery store or on a casual date, the garments are probably not appropriate for work.


Dress better and spend less. Buy fewer garments of higher quality. They will look better longer.

If the garment has belt loops, you need to wear a belt.

Consistency counts. Look business like and professional each and every day. Don't buy the times because they are "in fashion."

Purchase timeless, classic looks in colors that are flattering to your skin tone and in styles that suit your body, your job position and your lifestyle. Accessories also count. Select your watch, shoes, briefcase/handbag and accessories with care.

By following these basic guidelines, you can dress for success.

Your clothing can be the competitive edge in today's casual society.

Gloria Starr is a professional speaker and executive coach on impression management, etiquette and communication skills. She can be reached at 704-596-9866; e-mail: