How to Mix Business with Fashion

Mix Business With Fashion?Is being fashionably dressed at work the same thing as being appropriately dressed for business? I used to think so when I was in my 20’s. These days, I know better: in the grand scheme of things, being a fashion devotee can actually HURT your career, depending on your industry.

Now I know that seems counter-intuitive. I often preach that you need to keep an eye on fashion so you can stay current with your hair and clothing, and you should. It’s like keeping your skills updated so you can always command the highest salary.

But putting fashion first at work is only appropriate for certain image-driven industries, like fashion and entertainment. Wear the latest trend to report on red carpet fashion and you’re golden; wear the latest trend to the lab to mix chemicals or to court to defend your client and you’ll be mocked.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how you can mix business with fashion to create a head-turning yet always-appropriate business wardrobe.

1. Know Your Industry

EVERY industry has a dress code, whether you’re aware of it or not. There are four levels of business dress formality, as defined by Image Master Judith Rasband of the Conselle Institute (, and your industry, whatever it is, fits into one of them.

  • Traditional businesses – like law and banking call for the traditional business suit or a slight variation thereof.
  • Creative businesses – like advertising and design call for a creative twist to the traditional uniform, like unusual colors or fabrication.
  • People-Oriented businesses – like teaching and social work call for less formal professional pieces that convey expertise yet are seen as approachable.
  • Physically Demanding jobs – like child care or fitness instruction call for attire that’s comfortable, flexible, and easy to clean.

So what should you be wearing? You need to figure it out.

2. Follow the Rules

Follow the rules to advance quicklyOnce you know what’s appropriate for your industry, you need to follow those dressing guidelines – even if you think everyone around you is clueless. Work with a bunch of accountants who always dress like they’re going to a barbecue instead of an audit? I have. They were the ones who complained the loudest when their better-dressed colleagues were promoted instead of them.There’s a reason why that old saying, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have” has endured for generations – because it works. When you groom yourself for the next step, it makes it ridiculously easy for others to help you climb it.

3. Inject a Little Fashion

Once you know what’s appropriate for your industry and are following the rules, you can inject a little fashion if you like – so long as it’s still industry-appropriate. Try new takes on old classics. Wear the latest hot color in a blouse, scarf, or handbag. Indulge your passion for shoes, but keep it all business from the ankles up.

White BlouseNew twist on the
classic white blouse

Of-the-moment colorTraditional suit,
unusual blouse color

Traditional clothing, fun shoesTraditional dress,
fun shoes

Blending business and fashion is kind of like personalizing a recipe: once you’ve tried it a few times and are sure of the results, you can add your favorite seasonings or use one cheese instead of another. The main ingredients stay the same; the slight modifications make it “you.”

4. Lather, Rinse, Repeat

What if you change industries or relocate to some faraway place? Reassess your situation. If your engineering past doesn’t fit your teaching present, update your wardrobe. If you move from Hawaii to Moscow, the cottons and linens will have to go. Change begets change. See to it.

So what if you decide that you’d rather follow fashion than my advice? Then I’d recommend you pull a John Molloy and do some testing before you commit. John T. Molloy, the man behind the popular “Dress for Success” books of the 1970’s and 80’s, arrived at the definition of a successful wardrobe through a process of elimination. By testing and recording how people reacted to various clothing elements, like suit/ no suit, red tie/blue tie, black shoe/brown shoe, etc., in everyday situations like shopping, hailing a cab, and getting service at a restaurant, he discovered which garment pieces command the highest respect.

So should you. Wear something fashionable and see how your clients and colleagues respond to you. Then wear something industry-appropriate and make note of the same. Chances are, you’ll discover that the business attire draws a better response.Then when you’re out and about running errands, going to restaurants, checking out at the grocery store, etc., observe how others are treated based on how they’re dressed. It’ll be an eye-opening experience.So what’s the bottom line here?

Red Dress - Business Attire

Great for work

Red Dress - Casual Attire

Better after hours

If you want to get ahead in business or positions of leadership, you need to dress the part. Fashion is fun, but it’s not always appropriate, so learn to identify when to follow fashion and when to follow the business dress code. Your bank account will thank you for it.

Business Wear MagicNeed more help determining which level of formality is appropriate for your line of work? Download a copy of Business Wear Magic to see how profitable dressing for business can be

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