Power Business Dress for Women
There are 4 levels of business dress:
1: Formal Business
3: Business Casual
4: Casual Business
As a matter of strategy, I recommend that you choose the highest level of business dress appropriate for your business and clientele. You generally cannot make a mistake by dressing a level or two above the style of your clientele, but you certainly can sabotage your success by dressing a level or two below your clientele.
Here’s a brief summary of business dress levels.
1: Formal Business. This look is appropriate for absolute power, authority, credibility and elegance. The skirt suit is dark, cold and neutral, and worn with a white shirt.
2: Business. This look is appropriate for a business environment where creativity or individuality is desired. There is flexibility in styles, colours, and patterns of the suit and top.
3: Business Casual. This look may work for a sporty environment. A jacket is still worn, but it’s not part of a matched suit.
4: Casual Business. This is an extremely casual look for business. It is ‘sans jacket’ – just a an appropriate top and skirt or pants.
At any level, the more your use from Level One, the higher your image. Below are guidelines of what is acceptable for a more powerful business dress look.
A sharp-looking suit or jacket is the easiest and most effective business dress to portray power and authority. The most formal suit is dark, cold and neutral – which means navy blue, charcoal, or black.
The suit should be made of fine wool; I usually look for wool that’s rated at least ‘Super 100’. (The number indicates the number of fibres per inch.) Invest in the best quality suit you can afford and that is practical for your business.
The most formal suit is solid in color, but a pinstripe pattern is also acceptable. The more obvious the pattern, the less professional the image.
A formal business suit is classic and tailored. Lines that are straight, sharp, and severe hold the most power. A skirt is more formal than trousers. Knee-length is the most professional, and a pencil-straight style has more power than a flowing style.
The higher the contrast between the top and the suit, the more professional and formal the effect. A white shirt is the most formal. I suggest choosing a shade that complements your personal colouring, perhaps ice white, soft white, ivory, or cream. The darker the shirt, the less ‘business’ the look.
If you choose a collared shirt, you need to make sure that the collar of the top does not conflict with the collar of the jacket. You could also choose a shell. Keep in mind that the lower your neckline, the less professional your impression.
Make sure your shoes are immaculate and in good condition. They should be made of leather, and reflect a classic, yet updated, style.
A pump – closed toe and heel – with a medium height heel is the most formal choice. Important: The shoe should match or be darker than your hemline!
If a belt is worn, it should match the shoes. A formal belt is made of smooth leather, and features a classic (as in “not distracting”) buckle.
For a higher professional business dress, wear sheer hose to match your skin colour. For a more relaxed or ‘evening’ look, you may wear hose that tones with your hemline. If you wear trousers, tone your hose to the trousers.
The jewellery with the strongest professional image is made of gold (yellow or white) or platinum. Jewellery should be moderate in size, classic, and simple. You may wear a watch, up to one ring per hand, a simple bracelet, and stud earrings.
To the extent that jewellery moves away from this look, the more relaxed the look.
If you require a briefcase, the narrower it is, the higher your perceived status. Choose good quality leather. Do not carry a handbag and briefcase at the same time.
When you pull out your pen, it must not be an 89-cent plastic ballpoint! The pen doesn’t have to be extremely expensive (although that certainly doesn’t hurt), but it should look elegant. Metal has a higher image than plastic.
Wire frames are professional-looking, whereas plastic frames tend to look sporty or casual. Use non-reflective and non-tinted lenses. Make sure your eyewear is updated, and gives you the competitive edge in terms of appearance. The eyewear you choose can make you look outdated and passé … or credible and savvy.
Formal hair styles are sleek and controlled. Hair that touches the shoulder projects a more casual image. As a general rule, slightly shorter is best for Level One. Go to a reputable hair stylist on a regular basis; you want your hair style to be current and flattering. Of course, your hair should be neat, clean and in good condition.
If you colour your hair, bear in mind that natural colours are going to be perceived as more credible than unnatural colours. Leave the fuchsia hair for your personal time. Make sure your hair colour harmonizes with your natural colouring. You will send a conflicting message if your hair is warm and your natural skin and eyes are cool. If you have not had a personal colour analysis with a professional, you may want to consider this before investing in a change in hair colour.
The general rule is that all makeup should be neutral in tone and natural-looking. There is, however, an important exception to this rule: Women who wear red lipstick get listened to more than women who wear any other colour. Of course, you must make sure that the shade of red you choose – whether it’s cherry red, soft red, scarlet, or brick – harmonizes with and complements your natural colouring.
I recommend that women have a makeup lesson once a year to keep their look fresh and updated.
Having a manicure every week or two can keep your nails attractive and in good condition. (A pedicure once a month is also a good idea.) You don’t want hangnails, broken nails, ragged cuticles, or chipped polish. For a formal corporate look, a clear polish or French manicure is appropriate. Shellac nail polish is more durable than regular nail polish.
A nice white smile says ‘success.’ A consultation with a cosmetic dentist can help you decide whether there is work to be done.
Cleaning your teeth on a regular basis helps keep your teeth healthy and your breath fresh. Here are my top three tips to assist with fresh breath:
- Drink water with lemon – the lemon helps kill bacteria.
- Eat dark green leafy food, such as parsley.
- Use an oral breath strip.
Grooming and Hygiene
Shower and use a deodorant. Avoid fragrance in business, as it can be distracting, unprofessional, and inconsiderate. Many people are allergic to fragrance.
“Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.” — Richard Feynman
Karen Brunger is a Certified Image Professional and President of International Image Institute Inc.