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From sweats to SUITS.

You've earned your academic credentials. Now learn how to dress for professional success.

SEKOU MA'AT SPENDS MUCH OF HIS WORKDAY IN THE COMPANY of teenagers. He speaks their language and 1 relate to them on their level. At 29, it's not hard for him. Indeed, his easy style of communicating could put just about anyone at ease. But as a professional--and a role model determined to show those teenagers how important they are to him--he knows that he can't let his attire match his casual conversation.

A social worker dedicated to improving the community, Ma'at could never be mistaken for one of the volunteers who work with him. A fan of three-piece suits and professional-looking ties, he dresses more like a corporate executive than a kid from "around the way."

"There are days when I feel like rolling in to work in some sweats," laughs the director of New York City Youthline, a division of the city's Department of Youth and Community Development. "But I would never do it. In order to be a professional, you have to dress like one," he adds.

It's an inevitable fact of life: suiting up for the job is a necessary part of establishing a successful career--or business, if you're an aspiring entrepreneur. But after years of wearing relaxed clothes, making the fashion transition from college sweats to career suits may take some getting used to. It did for Michael Bell, an account executive for WTNH-TV, an ABC affiliate in New Haven, Connecticut.

"I was strictly a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy," says Bell, 28, of his undergraduate days at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "Making the jump to a more professional style was tough." It took a mentor--who went so far as to contribute to Bell's then-sparse collection of suits--in the earliest stages of his career to help him craft the basics of a great workplace-ready image. The investment has since paid off. "It took a little while for me to acquire a taste for fine professional fashion," he admits. "Now, I would dress up even if it wasn't required."

If you're wondering when you should begin building a professional wardrobe, the time is now. "Creating a professional image takes time and planning," says Mary Lou Andre, president of Organization By Design (www.dressingwell. corn), a wardrobe management consulting firm in Needham, Massachusetts. "Therefore, you'll want to get started early, before you land a job."

When it comes time to make your entrance into the world of work, you'll want to make sure your appearance is as on target as your qualifications. Ditto for when you're ready to move on to bigger and better professional things. With some guidance from our experts, you too can master the three dictates of professional fashion--without losing your own personal sense of style.


Shantel Goodman knew she looked good when she went off-site to meet her first client. "I wore a blue suit, a scarf and heels," says the real estate advertising sales representative for The Washington Post in Washington, D.C. The. only problem was that she wasn't dressed appropriately for the setting--a construction site. "My client [a builder] was wearing Wrangler jeans and a short-sleeved shirt!"

Deciding what to wear can be a dilemma for the up-and-coming professional. On the one hand, you need to look confidently put-together so management, colleagues and clients will pay more attention to your potential than to your age and relative inexperience. Then again, you don't want to stroll into the office or a meeting wearing an outfit that does not fit the environment-or your personality. What do you do?

Forget about buying the latest fashion magazines. "Most of them are for entertainment, not real life," maintains Andre. "Your best bet is to take cues from the industry in which you'll be working." For example, conservative fields, such as investment banking, favor more traditional types of dress than, say, graphic design, which is likely to be more fashion-forward.

As a business reporter for The New York Post in the heart of New York City, Lisa Brownlee's field definitely falls into the latter category. "Newspaper folks don't usually stress over getting dressed up every day," says Brownlee, 27, who covers entertainment, media and telecommunications companies. If she has to interview a prominent source outside of the newsroom, she'll wear a suit to work. "But when I'm tied to my computer all day, I'll wear something more casual, such as a dress."

The foundation of a professional wardrobe for both men and women is a dark suit, a traditional shirt or blouse and black lace-up shoes or pumps. While this may seem boring, it does present a simple, polished look. "Unfortunately, people who don't know your abilities use what you wear to determine whether you're competent," says Brownlee.

Bell concurs. "In fact, as a minority, you have to look better than everyone else." Thus, at the beginning of your career, it's better to lean more toward the conservative side.

"Boot-cut pants and midriff-baring tops scream 'adolescent' and just won't fly if you want to be taken seriously in the office," declares Andre. Starting out, you should have two great suits that can take you from your desk to a lunch appointment to a board meeting in style. Women, who have more flexibility, can also create professional looks with separates--twinsets, slacks, skirts, blazers and dresses.

(1) Stick with solid, dark, neutral shades such as black, navy, gray and chocolate brown, and choose clothes in year-round fabrics such as wool crepe or wool gabardine.

(2) Save experimentation with different fabrics, styles and color patterns for your blouses or shirts.

(3) Err on the side of simplicity.

"Almost nothing I own is patterned," she says. And while she likes dresses, she'll only wear those that "have a classic, tailored look and are cut a bit above the knee." Goodman primarily wears suits, but she finds ways to break up the monotony. "In the warmer months, I'll wear sleeveless shirts, so I can take off my jacket and still look professional," she says. "When it's colder, I wear turtlenecks" instead of the typical conservative blouse.

For many men, getting dressed for work isn't as discretionary. A suit is usually the only appropriate option. "Especially since I'm in sales, even `dress-down' days are still dressy for me," says Bell, who prefers suits in traditional colors, such as navy and gray, and classic white and blue shirts. While khakis, a white shirt and a tie are good for some, young black men interested in getting ahead must take special care to present a confident, professional image. In other words, you'll need a great suit.

There are many things to look for when shopping for one. "Educate yourself about quality before you buy," advises Andre, who suggests browsing without your wallet. "Get to know which fabrics feel best, and what good stitching and construction look like." For more help, men might use this checklist compiled by MBA Style (, an online magazine dedicated to interview preparation and career dressing, when buying a suit:

(1) Jacket collar. It should hug the back of your neck without buckling or pulling. No more than a half an inch of your dress shirt should show above it.

(2) Arms and sleeves. High armholes allow for the best drape, but shouldn't bind. Sleeves should end about ha]fan inch above the point where your hand meets your wrist.

(3) Lapels. They should lie flat and cling to your chest. When you rub them between two fingers, the inside and outside panels should move independently.

(4) Shoulders. The suit should lie flat against your shoulder blades and allow room for growth. This ensures a proper fit.

(5) Buttons: Tug at all the buttons before buying the suit. They should be well sewn on.

(6) Vents. These are the vertical slits located in the "skirt" of the jacket below the waist. You can have a single, center vent, or two side vents. They should overlap each other by about three-quarters of an inch so slacks don't show through.

(7) Pockets. Those located on the sides of the jacket should have flaps.

(8) Slacks. While trying them on, bend your knees and squat. The crotch shouldn't be tight or short. The front creases for each leg should cross the middle of your kneecap.

(9) Cuffs. Cuffed slacks are standard in business fashion, and the length is determined by your height. See a tailor to get the best customized fit.

At 5 feet 8 inches and a muscular 200 pounds, Bell--along with Ma'at, Goodman and Brownlee--knows the importance of having a good tailor. "There aren't many suits that I can buy and wear straight from the rack" he says. As soon as you can afford it, Andre recommends assembling your own "professional team"--a tailor or seamstress, a cobbler, a dry cleaner and a jewelry-repair person--to help you perfect your image down to the last detail and keep you looking sharp.


Professional apparel that fits like it was made just for you is a good beginning. For a great finish, add accessories. They can liven up an understated outfit, and they're a great way to let your personality shine through--without you even having to say a word.

"I'm a very conservative dresser," says Bell, "but I do have a thing for ties. They're in various prints and colors and they're the, most expressive part of my wardrobe." Ma'at, on the other hand, has a penchant for hats. "I don't feel fully dressed without one," he says. Ma'at tops off his look with a Panama hat in the summer and a fur-felt fedora in colder months.

Your accessories should complement your outfit and give you a polished look. "You want to draw attention to your face at all times," says Andre. So while your open-toed stilettos, multiple body piercings or tattoos may look striking, they'll only distract colleagues and give management the impression that you don't take work--or yourself--seriously. "If your accessories don't reflect your professional goals, you shouldn't wear them to the office," advises Andre.

Invest in high-quality, comfortable shoes in durable materials. Leather is the preferred material for men's professional footwear. "I've found that a thicker, tougher leather will give off the best shine," says Ma'at, who, like Bell, believes--and rightly so--that a man's shoes should always be shined. Good-looking shoes are obviously important. However, you should never sacrifice comfort for style. "I do quite a bit of walking, so it's important that I have comfortable shoes," says Goodman. "It can get expensive, but I owe it to my feet!"

Similarly, hosiery should always be worn, even in the summer. "You don't want to expose large areas of skin in the office," says Andre.

For both men and women, jewelry should be kept simple and to a minimum, i.e., one necklace, one ring on each hand.

For your office's particular dress code, check your employee handbook or with the human resources director. "Remember that you're not only representing yourself, but the company [or your business] as well," says Goodman. If you remain unsure about certain items, heed Andre's advice: when in doubt, don't wear it.


A well-draped scarf and comfortable, stylish shoes can definitely enhance an outfit, but if your face is full of acne or your cuticles are rough, you won't look totally put together. By far your most important accessories are your skin, hair and nails. Therefore, you should invest time and energy in helping them look their absolute best.

"Care of these areas is essential for a clean, finished look," says Rhonda Bryan, president of Dare to Dream, a San Leandro, California-based image consulting firm that emphasizes great skin care. In the time it takes you to brush your teeth, you can perform a simple routine that will help you get and maintain a healthy glow. Use a facial cleanser and moisturizer that are right for your skin type, says Bryan. They don't have to cost you an arm and a leg. "Over-the-counter products are fine, or you can even make your own," she adds. Mayonnaise, for example, is a great moisturizer for both your skin and hair. "Just apply, leave on for about 15 minutes and rinse." Also, don't forget to drink plenty of water and keep your hands away from your face.

With regard to makeup for the office, less is definitely best. To keep her face shine-free, Goodman wears a little face powder along with some lipstick. Brownlee, too, keeps it simple, with eyebrow pencil and a dab of brown lipstick. "My makeup routine takes 40 seconds, tops," she says proudly. Save more dramatic looks--smoky eyes, boldly colored lips--for after-work functions.

Good grooming is just as important for men. Bell sports a bald head and a cleanshaven face to the office, while Ma'at shapes up his hair twice a week and wears a beard. Keep in mind that facial hair isn't accepted in some corporate settings. But if your environment permits it, "be sure to keep it neatly trimmed," advises Bryan. And don't think that nail care is only the concern of women. Men's nails should also be kept clean, short and filed. "Not only will you look good, but you'll feel more confident," says Ma'at, who gets professional manicures regularly.

Hair should be simple and neat, and you should stick with office protocol when it comes to styling. That means checking with human resources to see if locks and braids, for example, are permissible. Whether you prefer a relaxed style or a natural cut, you'll find that hairstyles requiring low maintenance are the best way to go. "I like short styles," says Brownlee, who sports a pixie cut. They're easy to care for and require minimal styling time. Long hair is also a good option; it can quickly be pulled back into a bun or an up-do.

By now, you should have a handle on why it's important to have a great professional image all your own. While it's true that "how you feel inside is the most important thing," says Ma'at, Bell sums it up best: "Always look sharp, because you never know whom you'll meet."

With dynamite skills and a professional style to match, you'll be headed for the big time before you know it.


* Stick with classic pieces. Load up on separates

* Find your own tailor, dry cleaner and a jewelry repair person you can trust

* When it comes to makeup, less is best

* Visit the barber regularly. Manicures aren't just for women.

* Pick shoes that are comfortable and stylish

* Great skin is always your best accessory

* Stick to an easy, low maintenance hairdo
COPYRIGHT 1999 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:how to dress for professional success
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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