Friday, 14 September 2012

Do I need to wear expensive clothes to work?

Recently I did a post on how to get tailored suits at knock down prices and effectively get a free trip to Asia.  I thought I would follow that up with a post on a topic that many people seem to ask: Do I need to wear expensive clothes to work?

At the very start of this post I should point out that I am not a fashionista, nor am I particularly interested in fashion per se.  However having worked a professional context for several years now I have come to realise that the clothes you wear do make a difference and people do notice what you are wearing even if it is only subconsciously.

This post will obviously focus on those environments where professional attire is required.  This advice does not apply across all industries.  For example a friend of mine who is a well respected web developer was telling me that clients of theirs do not expect to see them dressed up.  There perception of what makes a good web developer and the clothes that fulfil that perception are very different to that of an accountant, lawyer, investment banking or other professionals.

Perception is everything

As I indicated above - perception is everything.  People in certain industries are expected to look certain ways.  Think about it from the point of view of a client - if you are going to a lawyer - do you want them to look successful, moderately dressed or down at heels.  Even though they may all have the same skill level and competency what would you think of them.

When you are relatively junior and working your way up the hierarchy in the organisation this perception becomes even more important.  You want more senior staff to take you under their wing - being well dressed is.

At a very minimum you need to be adequately dressed.  For men this means that your suit needs to be in good condition (i.e. get rid of any suit that begins to get that shine that suggests it's been to the dry cleaners one too many times) and your shirts need fit well. 

Do people really notice when you wear expensive clothes versus less expensive clothes

In a word yes.  It actually amazes me how much people actually notice.  Some of the things I understand while others just baffle me
  • Tailored Suits vs off the rack: Trust me you notice when a suit is tailored.  You can actually see the difference.  Also cheap suits you can spot a mile away - this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.  You do not need to spend a lot of money getting a tailored suit.  I have done a post before on how you can get decent priced ones in Asia.
  • Have a small collection of good ties versus a large collection of ordinary ones:  The extent to which people notice quality ties actually baffles me.  I used to have a large collection of ~$50 ties which I really liked.  I once received a $250 tie as a gift which I thought looked nice but not noticeably different but the comments I received (even in the workplace) was noticeable
  • Cheap versus mid range versus expensive shoes: Sorry females but I'm only going to be talking about shoes from the male perspective - I don't really understand the rules for females.  But guys you should NOT be buying cheap chunky shoes.  I one black and one brown mid range pairs ($100 - $150 a pair) every 2 years and keep them in good condition with regular polishing and repair when necessary.
  • French cuffs versus button cuffs: This depends on the country and environment you work in.  In Europe and Australia french cuffs with a nice set of silver cuff links are not over the top.  I've heard that in the US it is seen as over the top and should be avoided if you are junior
  • Shirt cuts:  Having lived all of my life in Australia I was used to everyone wearing the standard European shirt cut and was amazed when I went to America and saw shirts that were very loose.  I think that no matter where you work that you should go for a European cut (if you can fit into it) - they look better and normally cost the same amount.

Subtle is under-rated

Perhaps I should have put this earlier, but even if you are buying expensive clothes you do not need to go over the top.  What you are trying for is to wear clothes that suggest that you are professional and in the top tier of your profession without screaming that you spend a lot of money. 

When you are starting out do not do all of the above - it will cost too much money at once

While you eventually want to get a wardrobe which has all of the above characteristics (and more) you do not need to get there straight away (especially if you are just coming out of college or university).  You can build up your collection slowly.  A great way to start is by doing the following
  • You only need 2 suits when you start: One navy and one charcoal - off the rack is fine but make sure you get it altered to fit you (avoid black - it's too limiting)
  • You only need 1 pair of shoes: Black (this goes with both the navy and charcoal suits)
  • You need 6 shirts: And ALL of them should go with both your suits (i.e. whites and blue bases with red or blue on them will go with almost any suit).  All European cut.
  • 1 tie if you don't need a tie for every day use or 3 ties if you do:  Most work places do not require you to wear a tie to work every day (only when meeting clients).  If this is the case you only need one good tie - make it a navy with red on it. This will go with all of your suits and shirts.  If you have to wear a tie every day get one navy base, one red base and one light blue.  These can mix and match with all of your shirts and suits.
I'll probably do another post on where you can pick out your first work wardrobe for good prices.  If you have any suggestions in the meantime please post them below.

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