Emboldened by the latest hip music video, you decide to start pruning conservative blacks and browns from your professional wardrobe in favor of riskier attire. Good idea? Probably not, says Mary Lou Andre, president and founding editor of Dressing Well On-Line, a Needham, Massachusetts-based wardrobe management and fashion-consulting firm that teaches folks how to use fashion as a business communication tool.
"You start hearing 'business casual' and 'relaxed dress' and get bombarded by images on television and popular culture," she says. "That's where problems start. When you're overexposed in a business environment by the way you're dressed, you can sabotage yourself.
When advising people on sensitive financial matters, "you start the relationship on a 10, because your shirt is ironed and your hemline and blouses offer proper coverage," she says. "If you don't look like you just rolled out of bed or you're on the make, you'll put your buyer at ease.
In her work with individuals and corporations, Andre teaches people how to dress by focusing on three things: appropriateness, boundaries and respect. If you're dressing to talk to someone about a portfolio or to close a sale, you want them looking at your numbers, not your legs or the egg stain on your tie.
When it comes to skirts, how short is too short? "It's based upon what you look like, but two inches or shorter above the knee is really risky," Andre says.
What about men? "In financial services and accounting firms, the navy-blue suit may still work in a formal setting, like a board of directors meeting," she explains. "Going into someone's home, try a blue jacket and khaki or gray wool pants. Maybe you take your tie off but have a nice button down shirt on. You can still use that jacket to create boundaries, but going in in a suit, people may think you're going to a wedding or funeral.
As you shop for those khakis, look for Lycra or a wool micro-fiber on the label rather than 100 percent cotton, so they don't look like gardening pants after their third trip through the wash. For jackets, a single line of buttons will draw the eye up, and interesting textures, such as olive and brown tweeds, pair nicely with wool or knit tops.
"Leave your Hanes T-shirt at home," Andre advises. "Wear a fine-knit T-shirt in a mock or crewneck style. But at conservative financial companies, you may want to go with a collar, like a knit polo shirt."