I don’t own a suit. Never have, likely never will.
I feel like a forced caricature of a “business lady” when I step into pantsuits and skirt suits alike. Granted, I don’t have a typical 9-to-5 job, but even when I present to large corporate audiences or work with conservative clients, a suit is not part of my visual vernacular. Yes, nearly everyone in those rooms is wearing one — and I’m not saying they shouldn’t — but I choose to exempt myself from that particular variation on the professional uniform.
Why? Because I dress for the person I am, not the job I want. My philosophy (which has served me well so far) is that dressing in a way that radiates my personality and feels true to my identity will resonate with my audience and work in my favor. But successfully executing this strategy is not without its pitfalls. So while I encourage you to challenge the conventional wisdom that you should “dress for the job you want,” there are three caveats.
1. Demonstrate that you get it. Otherwise known as “common sense,” demonstrating that you understand the unwritten dress codes and larger ethos of any given context is the first rule of successful self-presentation. But here’s the tricky part: There’s a difference between knowing the rules and following them. Your audience must always understand that you get it — that you’re aware and savvy enough to fully comprehend social expectations and norms — before you can subvert them. (This isn’t relegated exclusively to your style of dress, but fashion is no exception.)
So if you don’t want to look like an office clone, how can you rebuke the rules and look more clever than clueless? Keep just enough of the conventional uniform to exhibit your know-how, then strategically defy the rest. Keep the suit jacket, but trade in the sensible pants and heels for a long skirt and cowboy boots. Or wear the skirt portion of your suit with a chunky vintage sweater and some patterned tights.
Working in certain industries has a distinct advantage here when it comes to just how far you can take the rule-bending. Creative fields and startups have more of an “anything goes” mindset, which means that dressing too formally can actually work against you. (“Isn’t she original enough to come up with something other than a black pantsuit and pearls?”) More traditional offices, like legal and financial firms, on the other hand, start to develop a rash when something too out-of-bounds inserts itself into the mix. Nonetheless, there’s space even in the strictest contexts to exercise knowing nonconformity.
2. Connect with your audience. We like people who are like us. Study after study demonstrates this truth. Surrounding ourselves with people who are similar to us validates our choices and fosters ease in communication (at least in theory). And perhaps most importantly: We believe someone who is similar to us is more likely to like us. This means that finding a way to connect with your audience — even if you want to show how different you are — extremely important. Bottom line: It’s about degrees of deviation, not completely separating yourself from the pack. No one wants to hire or listen to someone who isn’t registering as a team player, so make sure your image communicates that message while you champion your individuality.
The first step: Know thy audience. Who are they? What do they care about? What motivates them? Dressing in a way that offends or threatens those things will not do you any favors. Even if it’s your idealized look, it likely won’t get you hired or promoted, and it won’t win strategic allies. Dressing for yourself instead of the job can be hip and noble, but it demands a little compromise. If your audience is more conservative and buttoned up, express yourself in small details — like a studded belt or a luxe silk scarf with a subtly subversive design, like barbed wire. Whatever it is that feels like you, make room for it in a way that your audience can appreciate.
3. Exude confidence. This is the big one. Do not attempt to embrace this philosophy if you don’t believe in your own mojo. You can tell yourself you don’t care what anyone thinks and wrap yourself in your funky interpretation of professional attire every day of the week, but unless you do it with the utmost confidence and have the skills to back up that swagger, no one’s buying it. You better believe you’re worthy of that sartorial freedom, or abort mission.
Simply knowing how to rewrite the rules — or wanting to — isn’t enough. You must believe your style and the skills it represents are top-notch. And if you do, the cookie-cutter trend-victims and corporate drones won’t have anything on you.
When it comes to being a style original, there’s a fine line between sloppy and badass. Truly owning it demands in-depth knowledge (of your context and audience, as well as your own body), some nuanced style savvy, and a hefty helping of confidence. It's the full package — not just a preference for comfort — that gives you the license to dress for yourself.
So be honest with yourself (for your own sake): Is this you? Can you pull it off? The good news is you can do it — maybe today, or maybe after a little fine-tuning. It may take time to mentally and visually arrive. But once you’re there, everyone in the room will know you’re there.
Killer high-top kicks can command the room as much as (or more than) power pumps. So dress for yourself — but lace up those sneakers with caution.
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.