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Dress Down Without Bottoming Out
In the early eighties, many companies realized the value of a polished appearance and organized "Dress for Success" seminars. The successful look that was being touted then for a business man consisted of a navy blue suit, a white or subtle pinstriped shirt, and a burgundy tie. Women were relegated to wearing a navy blue, skirted suit, a white or pastel blouse and a string of pearls. Dressing in this manner was understood by all; it was very "safe."

In the nineties, companies began experimenting with "dressing down." Businesses involved in computer technology switched to a daily casual dress code. Financial institutions followed more cautiously with "casual Fridays." To justify this change in dress, employees were asked to contribute a small sum of money to a charity for the privilege of dressing down for the day.

The relaxation of dress codes soon raised several concerns. Many employees did not understand what was appropriate under the "business casual" umbrella. They arrived for work in tattered jeans, T-shirts emblazoned with lewd slogans, tank tops, short shorts, and bra tops. In response, companies either rushed to put into writing acceptable, casual dress guidelines, or banned dressing down entirely, reverting to the formal business attire that was unequivocally understood.

Also, as marketplace competition for the consumer's dollar has become more fierce, I have seen an increase in the demand for image seminars. Companies are reviewing their overall policies and are realizing that professional image plays an important role in securing the trust of potential clients. People entering their establishments for the first time will decide in seconds whether or not to do business with them. Maintaining the professional image of the company is one highly effective strategy that can be used to create a positive first impression.

With today's general tendency to dress more casually, we must strike a balance between the rigid, stuffy "dress for success" cloning of the eighties, and ultra casual clothing that is best relegated to weekends. In businesses where wearing a navy or dark coloured suit is still essential, taking the white shirt or blouse and replacing it with one in an interesting colour, texture or pattern will make the wearer seem more approachable, yet still professional. If the atmosphere needs to be more casual, jackets have become an essential tool in setting the tone. Subtly patterned sports' jackets worn with coloured shirts, dress pants and ties, if appropriate, are miles ahead of polo shirts and jeans. As the thermometer rises and polo shirts become a real option, team them with dress slacks and dress shoes instead of khaki's and docksiders.

It is especially important for women to guard against dressing down too far. When men dress down they lose some authority; when women dress down they seem to lose all authority. To illustrate this point further, a 1992 study done at the University of Manitoba by Temple and Loewen showed that a woman wearing a jacket was perceived to have greater expertise and legitimate power than a woman not wearing a jacket. Keeping a blazer handy to throw over more casual clothing will always give you an edge over the competition.

Catherine Bell is President of Prime Impressions, a Kingston-based image consulting company, seminar leader, and author of Managing Your Image Potential. Enquiries and comments can be directed to Catherine Bell at: tel: (613)634-1820, fax: (613) 634-1830, EMAIL www.prime-impressions.com