Get Their Attention
We all want to fit in at work, but we don’t want to blend in so much that we’re overlooked. In fact, a new Harvard Business School study finds that wearing “unusual” clothing can actually boost personal status in the eyes of onlookers.
But looking like you belong, while also standing out sartorially, can be tricky business. Is every unexpected touch beneficial? When does unusual just communicate cluelessness?
Standing out strategically is an art form because it is often a fine line between distinguished and awkward. Here are five ways to get noticed for all the right reasons.
Don’t Be Afraid to Be Yourself
One of the biggest concerns my professional clients have is how to integrate their personality into their work wardrobes. They often feel that most traditional professional attire stifles their individual expression, yet feel pressure to visually conform. It is possible to find a balance. Every outfit should feel like you, while also staying true to your company culture and overarching aesthetic. Going too far in either direction will not work in your favor.
Visually complying demonstrates that you are observant enough to understand the rules and are part of the team, while working in your own sense of style will positively distinguish you — without looking like a threat to your coworkers. Focus on unexpected details (i.e. the lining of a jacket, a statement necklace, or colorful hosiery) or anything with a slight twist or small pattern. Perhaps it will become your signature flair, or maybe you will change it up slightly each season. But whatever your approach, try to wear at least one piece that feels like “you” everyday.
Focus on Fit
We often talk about the importance of fit in communicating professionalism, but we also underestimate how radically the way something fits can distinguish the entire look, beyond the item itself. Remember that finding an item you love that’s context appropriate is only half the battle — it must then coordinate with your body.
Most of us can’t afford a closet full of custom pieces, and yet off-the-rack selections often leave a little to be desired in the fit department. There are some key areas to focus on: Note pant and skirt lengths — unlike men’s pants that offer multiple lengths, women’s options are usually one-size, despite the fact that we are anything but one height. So, hem skirts and pants to a length that suits your frame. For those of us with a curvier backside, many pants, skirts, and jeans will gap at the back of the waistband. Give that area a little tuck to make the entire item fall in a more flattering way. A jacket or blouse that skims the side of your torso and waist will offer striking lines, so take extra care in tapering as needed.
Professional consistency communicates reliability and a sense of focus. Sometimes we forget that this also extends to our appearance, which serves as a visual representation of our core competencies. Looking disjointed can confuse your audience — whereas letting them know what they can expect builds trust and audience investment. This is the fundamental premise of Robert Cialdini’s infamous “consistency principle” of persuasion, which argues that people want to be seen as consistent with their personal commitments. Always delivering on time — or having a predictably polished sense of style — demonstrates that you’re making an “active, public, and voluntary commitment,” which is influential amongst your peers.
Work this consistency into your professional wardrobe by streamlining your look and narrowing the scope of your workplace fashion options. Build on a foundation of basic pieces in neutral colors that flatter your figure, and swap out accessories to mix up the look. Don’t be afraid to repeat your best go-to looks — those that feel and look effortless. Your peers will merely think you are confidently consistent.
You are an object in motion — not a two-dimensional photograph. You have curves and daily physical demands, all of which must factor into your sartorial choices (not just the outfit’s appearance). And not only are you on-the-move, but you also have a limited amount of time. Regular touch-ups and wardrobe adjustments are not practical for most professional women. That’s why minimizing fuss is one of the best gifts you can give yourself with respect to your clothing — and it’s one of the most effective ways to visually distinguish yourself.
Fidgeting preoccupies you and draws your attention away from other more important tasks at hand — not to mention the visual focus it pulls from those around you. Ever watch someone adjust their clothing in a meeting or while giving a presentation? It consumes you, leaving the meat of what they’re saying in their clothing’s agitated dust. Commit to being fuss-free: When you need to present or have an important interview, wear the fewest number of pieces possible, in the simplest format possible. A one-piece dress with a single statement piece is a great place to start. Make sure it’s an item that doesn’t bind or limit your range of motion in any way, and if it clings or rides up, eliminate it immediately. Looking effortless will put both you and your audience at ease.
Be Impeccably Groomed
We’ve all seen that enviable woman with the perfect blow-out and the fresh manicure — but do you remember what she was wearing? Possibly not. Chances are, she could be wearing a sweatsuit and still look sharp. Grooming is the single biggest variable capable of elevating or diminishing everything from thrifty threads to designer duds.
By the time we’ve sorted out our perfect outfit, it can seem overwhelming to then dedicate time to hair and makeup, but if you practice consistency in dress, you can free up some time for these other key areas. However, even then, the best way to not feel like a slave to your grooming rituals is to work with your body’s natural tendencies.
Curly hair? Learn to tame it and embrace your curly locks, rather than spending hours fighting the waves and damaging your hair everyday. And when it comes to makeup, develop a signature minimalist look and replicate it daily. Don’t try to incorporate new colors and techniques into your daily makeup routine. Become a pro at applying particular products that highlight your best features and repeat daily.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.