Ask the Image Expert

Sherry Maysonave is the founder and president of Empowerment Enterprises, one of America's leading communication-image firms. Sherry conducts corporate seminars and coaches executives, professionals, and politicians in achieving excellence in communication and image. She is also the author of Casual Power: How to Power Up your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success

Should I wear suits?

Question: I am a 46 yr old single mom, who is also a graduate student in Human Resource Development. I took a position in the VP of Student Affairs office at our local university in July and I love my job. I want to stay here, I think maybe this is where I have belonged all along (I hold a Home Ec. teaching license - but could never find a perm. job teaching) but have realized, I am more suited to HR type work. My question is this - In a high profile office like the VP under the Univ. Pres. - Should I start always wearing suits to work if I want to move up and stay here? This summer I have worn skirts and tops - but sometimes I feel underdressed without a suit jacket? I do not feel pants are suitable in this office - but am wanting to know if I should only wear suits - or could I wear real nice sweaters this winter with real nice skirts also?

Answer: Dear Sharman,

Congratulations on finding a job that you love!

Do you have to wear only suits to get ahead? No, you do not have to wear suits exclusively. However it is important that you always project a tailored, businesslike image to set yourself apart from the "student -- even the graduate student" look. Sweaters and skirts can give off a college-days image unless the skirt has tailored, straight lines (that does not mean tight). Sweaters should not be the long baggy type nor should they be overly tight to convey professionalism. When wearing (or trying on) a sweater or knit top, be sure to check your back view for bra-line bulges; any will instantly downgrade you. Also avoid floral prints (in any garment worn to the office) as they tend to project a little-girl image, regardless of your age. Sweet floral prints are well suited for social wear, but not for a woman serious about getting ahead in her career.

In my experience, most academic institutions are not exceptionally formal, even in the VP's office. That certainly is not a license to dress in an overly casual style or to drop down to the lowest common denominator of attire worn in that office. My point is this: "pant suits" are more than likely acceptable. The key is sticking with true pant suits -- pants with a jacket in matching fabric -- not just pants worn as separates. Some women are simply not comfortable wearing pants; pant comfort depends largely upon your body type and your personal preferences.

Suits can be found in abundance in the stores this Fall as "the suit" has made a comeback; tailored jackets and suits are strongly featured in Fall fashions. Take advantage and buy (if possible), at least one suit in a solid color, preferably your best power neutral color -- black or navy. Buy all the coordinating pieces available, even a matching solid-color blouse or top. The monochromatic look is always tasteful and empowering and this will allow you enormous mix and match with other garments in your wardrobe. If your budget allows, buy another suit (again all the pieces) in a color that will mix well with your black or navy suit. For example, purchase a red, burgundy, green, taupe, or brown suit -- or even a houndstooth check. Or buy just a jacket or blazer in a coordinating color to the other suit for mix and match purposes. In chapter 4 of "Casual Power," I discuss the advantages of a "Capsule Wardrobe" that holds the ingredients to a consistent businesslike, empowered look. And it is a much-loved budget stretcher for working women.

If you love suits, wear them at least a couple of times a week. On the other days, be sure to "power up" your nonverbal image with tailored, businesslike outfits that are appropriately accessorized. Also keep in mind the positive impact of well-groomed stylish hair and tastefully applied makeup.

Best of luck to you,
Sherry Maysonave

Also see:

  • The law firm I work for just adopted business casual dress policy. What should I wear?
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  • Ask your image questions
  • Personal Power: A case study from 'Casual Power'