Some people think it’s a waste of time to worry about their appearance. Yet we can’t really see ourselves—and every day we’re subject to snap judgments just based on how we look. “When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions,” says Malcolm Gladwell in describing his bestseller Blink. What conclusions do people jump to when they set eyes on you? Let’s look at how you can pre-empt those conclusions.
Look the part
This may be a stretch if you’re an introvert; you may prefer cocooning yourself in a comfy gravel-colored sweater over attracting attention. What does style have to do with substance? You want to be authentic inside and out—not a victim to whatever is in vogue. After all, fashion is fickle and you’re not. Back in the real world, though, badly dressed billionaires and Silicon Valley wunderkinds notwithstanding, you will help your career by looking the part you want.
Get a style infusion
One of my clients*, a Wall Street executive, was in a mid-career slump. An introvert in a highly visible role, she reflected that her look had become a bit dated. You might think that she should have just gone shopping. But not so fast—she hates shopping (except for books!) and views fashion as frivolous, a waste of money.
Yet, almost on a “dare,” she agreed to spend an hour or two with a personal shopper at a department store. The next time I saw her, she was revitalized—and it turned out that she had gone to several stores to find clothing and accessories that really suited her. Sure, she appeared more polished because of her perfectly tailored threads. And she enjoyed compliments from colleagues and clients who noticed her new look. But it was most important to her that she felt better about her appearance.
My client was still wearing the black, taupe, and navy neutral tones she’s always been comfortable in—however, now her wardrobe includes striking flourishes that not only complemented her eyes, hair, and skin tone, but really showed her personality.
Decide how visible you want to be
Just as there’s not one correct look, there’s not one correct amount of visibility you need to attain. The right amount is whatever makes sense for you to get to your goals. Scarlett DeBease of Scarlett Image suggests dressing and grooming yourself to feel confident. This way, when you walk into a room, you won’t look like “you’re hoping no one will notice you,” she says.
Gravitas guru Raleigh Mayer takes it a step further. “Dress for a photo op every day,” she asserts. “Create your look deliberately, even if you aren’t playing a lead role in your project or meeting.” Next time you dress for work—or a job interview, take a good look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Do you look the role you aspire to—whether it’s in the corner office or your home office?
Create your own look
If you could create an avatar to embody the image you wanted for yourself in your career, consider what she or he look would like, from head to toe. What already works about your look (your sense of color, style, texture, shape)? And what would you change? Which of those changes are realistic for you?
“Don't wear clothes that are too big,” says DeBease. She warns that swimming in your duds can make you disappear. Yet, disappearing might not be all bad for an introvert—it can actually enable you to renew and recharge. But when you do emerge, the question is: How can your image help you move toward your career goals? DeBease also advises against wearing colors that wash you out—at least on days when you show your face. Remember, your appearance can speak volumes before you even utter a word.
Don’t shop alone
How can you get a personal style upgrade? Don’t shop alone. Bring a friend with you. Or consult with a personal shopper or image consultant as a second pair of eyes and sounding board. It doesn’t have to cost a mint, and will pay dividends in your career advancement. You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not—and you don’t have to be a fashionista. In reality, how you shape your look is a strategic business decision.
What will it cost you if you don’t look the role you aspire to? Raleigh Mayer says that if you dress to be invisible, you will be. “Be brave and experiment with different looks and trends: If people notice, that’s good,” she adds. Here’s to the first, second, and third impressions you make, whether you aspire to go up the ladder, down the runway, or just around the block.
On a related topic, for quick tips on how to project more confidence—from the way you stand to the way you use your voice—see my story, “How to Find Your Inner Cary Grant.”
*This represents a composite of several clients' experiences.
Copyright © 2012 Nancy Ancowitz