Why professional style is important and how to find yours

by Liz Benson

Most full-time women have a ‘go to’ outfit (or two or three) reserved for certain occasions. For many of us, wearing certain clothes for certain occasions is a deliberate choice.

We reach for the outfit that help us feel confident when we’re heading to a job interview. We pick the clothes in which we feel comfortable and empowered for a first date. We select the fabulous ensemble that makes us feel glamorous for special celebrations.

Part of why we choose to wear certain outfits on certain occasions is because we realise, consciously or not, that how we’re dressed can influence how we feel, act and interact with others. In fact, there is extensive research showing our professional style and clothing can impact other’s perceptions of our education level, leadership skills and ability to do a job.

Yes, we’ve heard the expression don’t judge a book by its cover. But we’ve also heard the expression dress for success. Fair or not, the reality is that our professional style reflects our self-image and personal brand to the world around us. And choosing clothes that help us look and feel good boosts our confidence and esteem which translates into how effectively we project our self-image and brand.

If these aren’t reasons enough to take control of your professional style, studies in the 1960s into successful communication styles discovered a massive 93 per cent of effective communication is made up of non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues include eye contact, body language, speech inflection, physical proximity and, you guessed it, dress.

Like it or not, it’s clear our clothing choices are important in building our sense of self-esteem and confidence, and influencing our image, personal brand and non-verbal communication. All of which are critical for professional success. If you’re struggling to create your professional style, or want to update your style, the following tips will help.

Seven tips for creating your professional style

Signature style. Sometimes the hardest step in creating your professional style is choosing the image you want to portray. From styles spanning athletic, casual, polished, formal, retro, preppy and bohemian there are many gorgeous choices. Picking a professional style that reflects your personality helps make sure authenticity of your personal brand and will make shopping and mixing and matching easier. It’s likely you’ll discover you have more than one professional style but, as long as you’re consistent in appropriately matching your clothing to the occasion, your personal brand will stay strong.

Work culture. Part of identifying your professional style means ensuring relevance to the organisational culture in which you work. For example, your professional style may emerge as bohemian when you work for a conservative law firm where neutral suits are the norm. Stereotypes always have limitations but in this environment, broadly speaking, your favourite floaty bohemian dress and open-toed leather sandals may not show a personal brand that your clients and colleagues perceive as professional and capable. This doesn’t need to spell disaster though. There are ways to blend your professional style with the cultural morays of your work environment. In this example, look for a tailored suit in an unconventional fabric or wear accessories which reflect your personal brand.

Comfort. Comfort is the unsung hero of good professional style. When you feel comfortable, you usually feel more confident. Comfort means you don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing, particularly if the outfit risks a wardrobe malfunction or if you’re trying out the latest fashion trend which may not quite suit you. Debra Bednar is the founder of DB +Co, a female leadership coaching company with a focus on personal style, and over twenty years of experience working with brands including Facebook, Microsoft and Accenture. Debra says, “When you feel more comfortable, you feel more confident. When you feel more confident, you push through fear. When you push through fear, you learn, grow and evolve. When you evolve, you are on the right path to reach your greatest potential.

Personal realities. Every full-time woman is glorious in her individuality but there are professional style practicalities that help each of us look our best in our own unique way. Explore clothing cuts and fabrics that flatter your beautiful body shape. Find the colours that complement your skin tone. Keep in mind the functionality your wardrobe needs at work and choose clothes that are practical for how you need to move to, from and during work each day.

Clear the closet clutter. While it can feel fun to stare into a wardrobe full of clothing, once you’ve found your professional style, pulling together a work outfit each day doesn’t need endless options. Maintain a small, versatile wardrobe to readily mix and match clothing combinations helps make sure your professional style is consistent and that you feel good no matter what outfit you pull together. Recycle regularly to make sure your professional style stays current. Drop off your unwanted clothes at one of the emerging sustainable fashion initiatives, such as H&M’s Garment Collecting program.

Stylist. With so many clothing outlets, on and offline, it might be overwhelming to create, maintain and live, your professional style. If you need help, or reassurance, to uncover the professional style that helps you look and feel your best, search online for help from a stylist in your local area or for help from online tools such as this style guide from the team at Birds Nest (a team of Australian women who share a passion for helping other women feel great about themselves).

Last minute check. Before you walk out the door each morning, do a quick check of how the clothing you’re wearing today makes you feel and what it says to the world around you. Make sure you feel confident and comfortable. And check your outfit represents your brilliance and where you want to go in the world today, because you don’t always get a second chance to make a good first impression.

For more tips on how to succeed as a full-time woman check out some of our other articles.