dress to impress?

An ongoing debate continues about "dressing for success" versus dressing for comfort. Executives, employees and business consultants weigh in on this matter with different points of view. Variations in industry, economic conditions, even individual companies determine where on a spectrum those opinions fall.

We can break it down into a few major opinions as follows:

The Dress for Success Crowd: These are the people who believe first impressions matter, and every other impression matters too. Business suits and ties, professional power suits for women, being well-coiffed, manicured and appropriately accessorized are not optional. The belief is that dressing professionally has a positive effect on performance. Relaxed dress leads to relaxed manners and relaxed productivity, meaning that the work environment is enhanced by a professional dress code. It's believed that clients are more favorably impressed by those who are dressed for success, and that the effort to look professional demonstrates a desire to move up the corporate ladder and displays leadership qualities.

The Don't Fence Me In Crowd: These people believe that you need to be comfortable in order to do your best work. Looking "corporate" stifles creativity, creates a sense of hierarchy and separates workers from their work. Being comfortable and wearing casual dress to work means that you can better focus on the work itself and your relationships with co-workers and bosses without worrying about whether you're keeping up with the professionally-dressed Joneses. It's all about reducing class distinctions regardless of salary level or corporate position, and encouraging free interchange and collaboration across the entire organizational spectrum.


The Casual Fridays Crowd: This is the happy middle-of-the-road group that believes while it is important to dress professionally most of the time, there's something unique about dressing casually that also has value. The result is that while formal work dress is necessary most of the time, workers can dress casually one day a week, usually Friday, so they can feel comfortable and wrap up their week on a high note, getting done whatever needs doing without worrying about what they are wearing. They believe that there is room for both approaches, in a measured way, and strive to address the desire to have a professional looking environment with the desire for a more casual approach.

Does it really matter? Is there any evidence that dressing up or dressing down affect the performance of workers or a company? Well, as a matter of fact, there is. But the answer may not provide much of a bright line, at least at this point. A variety of studies have been done about workplace dressing that suggest that casual dress does not have much of an effect on workplace performance. In fact, the positive effects and negative effects somehow manage to cancel each other out. In some instances, there was an increase in tardiness and absenteeism when people were told to dress casually. In other instances, no adverse effects were noted.  Some industries, such as game development or Internet or computer programming businesses find that dressing casually is almost a requirement for people who spend long hours in one position and rarely need to interact with others.

However, when talking about international business dress while there is some range in options based on the specific countries and circumstances, generally, it is advisable to stick with standard business dress for formal business dealings and international business casual dress for less formal occasions. Standard business attire for men would be a suit with tie, generally in mild dark colors such as navy, brown or charcoal. Ties should not be too loud, and shoes should be nicely polished in an appropriate color. Business casual would include a suit jacket, dress slacks, dress shirt, neck tie and dress shoes. Unlike in the U.S., khaki pants or jeans would not be acceptable, and a suit jacket should really be worn, with pants that generally match the suit color and pattern.

International standard business attire for women would include tailored clothing in relatively conservative fabrics and colors, tailored pants, skirts and dresses, dress shirts and sweaters, and closed toed shoes, generally pumps. Showing cleavage is generally not advised and, be very careful to note cultural differences in the country you will be conducting business as some countries have rather strict approaches to apparel for women. For example in Saudi Arabia, women should wear high necklines, sleeves at least to the elbows and hemlines well below the knee. It is also generally a good idea to think in terms of concealing the feminine figure, so tightly tailored pants or pantsuit and revealing tops are not advisable.

So, while you may consider the comfortable versus professional attire in your business at home, be respectful and appropriate when doing business beyond the U.S. borders.