For the past six years, my mentor has been quite forthright with me about the way I dress in professional settings. The problem he had was how I shopped and, essentially, the labels on my purse, watch, shoes, and suit. He wanted me to look older and more mature by being slightly overdressed to show people that I was not only "smart but prosperous."
Conservative by nature, I was taught that clothing wasn't the essence of who I am and I certainly I didn't need to spend thousands of dollars on the biggest brand names to find good friends, business associates, or clients. Furthermore, I am a college educated financial planner who knows that the time value of money is my greatest asset and I should use it while I am young. So logically, I would rather save my money.
However, last year the topic of clothing came to a head following a speech I gave where my mentor said, "Your speech was fantastic, but you look terrible. Angie, you need to understand that you are a young woman in an older, male-dominated industry trying to earn respect for your expertise. Instead, you look like a 20-year-old dumb blonde." Hurt and resentful, I gave in as a little test to this theory. I enlisted my best friend Michelle, who is a successful older professional, to take me shopping. I purchased a brand new, perfectly tailored, three-piece black suit whose brand name I cannot even pronounce, a pair of Manolo Blahnik black pumps, several non-iron Ralph Lauren collared shirts to go under the suit jacket, a pearl necklace and earrings, and a Louis Vuitton purse--all for a price tag close to the amount of my annual Roth contribution! I choked all the way to the cash register, and the only satisfaction I got out of the fiasco was when the associate called the bank to verify that there was indeed enough money available for my check to clear.
This spending spree happened almost one year ago. I have carried that purse, wore those shoes, and I have likely spent more money on the dry cleaning of that black suit than the cost of the suit itself.
I must admit, however, that the results have been quite astonishing. I get compliments on my shoes and purse from both men and women--clients and their spouses, friends, and business associates. Where I once thought people just talked about my age, they are now asking me what I do for a living. I have been invited back to give several speeches at industry conferences. I have had people ask me where I purchased my suit. I have been asked to attend dinner with some of the top executives of B/Ds and custodians after my speeches. I have been invited to attend client events where the person sitting next to me was worth $65M and says, "Nice shoes!"
This past year I have learned that my mentor was right. I am not saying that you have to give up what you value, go on spending sprees, or do whatever it takes to fit in. I have learned that you just have to know who your client is, and in order to serve them best, how you dress yourself may make your job a little easier. We all have uniforms that we have to put on for certain occasions to get the job done, show our worth, and look professional. The first impression is very important.
For the past six years, by my refusal to dress a little older and buy the expensive things that others value (that I don't) to look successful, I was actually making my work harder. Michelle always told me, "Dress for the job you want to have, not for job you are currently doing." Whether I like it or not, it does work. My advice to all you young professionals out there is now to do the same.
I would love you hear your stories on this subject!