Professional Woman: What to Wear

Disclaimer: It is a shame that topics like these are sometimes considered as a social taboo. On this blog, I hope to act like a 'big sister' to any young women readers, giving my own opinion on various subjects, like I do with my younger sister. You are of course entitled to your own opinion, and if you have any questions or comments, you can reach out per email - I would appreciate it!

Clothes make the man. There's some debate about to whom to attribute this proverb, but for my purposes here, it is irrelevant. I only want to make the obvious expansion of this claim - clothes also make the woman. In other words, how you dress matters.

I also want to distinguish between an ideal world and the real world. What I am about to say is not based on a world view that assumes people view you solely on your merits and personality. This reality can be frustrating to confront at times, but the fact that the way you dress (and carry) yourself makes a difference is also an advantage. If others assessment of you can be described by a rubric, then, in this section, I hope to give you some advice that will help you get full points in the category of professional dress.

Keep it simple and coordinated.

If you're like me and you don't have a lot of room to spare in your dresser nor money to spend on clothes, this advice is for you. As you move into a professional career your budget and closet might expand, but for now you need to consider how to get the best return from a small investment in a professional wardrobe. After all, you might only have a few professional events a year, but how will you survive a week-long conference? I offer the following:

  • Everything should fit and flatter you. This golden nugget of advice comes from my mom (and maybe also from yours) and moms are always right. It's not worth buying or keeping around a piece clothing that is always second string, you deserve and can find better!
  • Find out what colors and patterns look best on you and build your wardrobe accordingly. For example, I look good in blue and own a navy blazer and pencil skirt combination. I can wear this combo with tops in various colors and lengths, enabling me to go to that conference with a light suitcase and plenty of options.
  • Favor versatile items. My favorite clothing pieces are thin long-sleeve blouses. I can wear them to conferences in the summer and they hold up against air conditioning, with sweaters and blazers, jeans and dress pants, with heels, boots, sandals and sneakers. Of course I'm biased, but I'm confident your personal style and habits will help you identify the most versatile items for you.
  • Personalize your wardrobe. There's no need to go under in a see of women in gray pantsuits. Find items that show your individuality and personality - the music-note tie to your high school band boy. Maybe that's a uniquely-patterned blouse. For me it's a blazer in my school colors - I feel like I represent it well!
  • Choose comfortable shoes. As women, this is our Achilles' heels (get it?). I'm not saying to stay away from heels, but if you go with them, make sure you have worn them in and our capable of walking, standing, and sitting for eight hours - or however long the conference is. If you feel uncomfortable, skip them altogether and don't resign yourself to wobbling around. Here, versatility is also helpful. Nude or black shoes match almost everything and an open-toe won't cut it in a Midwestern winter.
  • Add finishing touches. Professional dress might not be your go-to style for every day, but there's a lot more to dressing professionally than dress pants and a blouse. Don't be shy to add a necklace, earrings, bracelets, and do your hair and makeup so that you feel comfortable and beautiful.
  • Don't forget the bag. So you have your outfit ready, from your shoes to your earrings. You have a few coordinated items stowed safely in your suitcase and the possibilities are endless. But if you're a student like me, you might look around your room and find that your only two options are a backpack or small purse, neither of which are ideal for professional situations. If you can, get a briefcase, large hand bag, or even a laptop sleeve with some extra space to hide notes, pens, etc. When packing, think about everything you will need - some conferences provide stationary and folders with lots of information, but sometimes you will need to bring your own. Always have 2-3 pens ready, bring your wallet and ID, and business cards are also a must-pack (if you have some and are moving further ahead in your career). Finally, use some extra space to prepare for anything else you might encounter: deodorant, feminine hygiene products, and a granola bar would fall into this category. 

Modesty is the best policy.

Yes, you have a right to wear whatever you want. I still wouldn't recommend it. Whatever your personal perspective on modesty is, it's always a good idea in professional situations. Not only do I think modest clothing is often more comfortable and versatile, but by dressing modestly you can be sure to present the best possible image of yourself to people by whom you want to be regarded and given attention for your intellect and skills (that you have worked hard to develop). By no means is this advice meant to stop you from feeling beautiful - in fact, you should feel great in whatever you wear and don't be afraid to do your hair and makeup - I'm just saying that you can do so while keeping modesty in mind.

Think outside the box if finances are tight (it's sustainable, too).

    There are lots of ways of finding quality professional clothing at a low cost. Your university might have a career closet, where you can rent or buy outfits for interviews (and I have heard of many "if you get the job, you keep the clothes" policies). Also, share with your friends! This might not work for all items and will depend on if you wear the same sizes, but I've shared many a top and the occasional dress with friends for conferences, interviews, and special occasions. Finally, check out your local second-hand store, for example Goodwill. They often have professional sections where you can find name-brand items for only a few dollars. My secret tip: Second-hand stores often receive their inventory from the neighborhood they are in, so making the trip to a Goodwill in an upscale town or neighborhood will be worth the superior haul.

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