How Women 'Dressed for Success' [1991]
August 20, 2014

How Women 'Dressed for Success' [1991]

by Brian de Haaff

Not that long ago ‘Dress for Success’ was a phrase many women (and some men) aspired to. If you looked the part, you were halfway to greatness. Or so woman were told. But, times have changed and living and working in any technology hub like Silicon Valley has created a new frame of reference. T-shirts and jeans are perfectly acceptable in most technology workplaces. In fact, some of the most successful people I know do not even own a suit.

Why is it that not so long ago we were judged by our wardrobe versus what we were able to achieve?

Shortly after I started my first job, I received a dress code ‘guideline’ in the form of a paperback book titled The Classic Look for Business … For Women. This resource was readily available for pick-up at our Vice President’s secretary’s desk. I worked for AT&T and my male VP (at the time) reported to Carly Fiorina, one of a handful of woman to quickly ascend to the executive ranks at the company.

We were encouraged to take a copy of the book home and follow the rules. What I disliked most about the book was not the dated, laugh-worthy images of women in stiff, masculine suits or the chapter on accessories which highlighted the versatility of the women’s silk ‘bow’ that we were to wear like a tie. It was that it was written by a man—Glenn Roberts. I found that ridiculous.

Glenn opened the book with a letter where he told us successful businesswomen, “If you look the part of a confident, capable businesswoman, your chances of being accepted as one are vastly improved.”

Wow. What he was telling us was that because we were women there was a high probability that we would not be thought of as capable business people. So, we’d better dress well or we would never be respected in a male-dominated business world.

He did not stop there. Throughout the book Mr. Roberts provided tips to his female readers:

  • Pants should be confined to sports and leisure activities, as should metal buttons and button-down pocket flaps.

  • Simple ruffles and crocheted trim and acceptable as long as they don’t detract from the overall look you want to create.

  • Before buying a dress, try it on and move about. If the fabric clings, bunches up or makes any type of sound when you walk, it will detract from the overall image you wish to create. Select another.

  • As you build your Classic Look wardrobe, set your goal on owning at least four pairs of good-quality business shoes.

  • One final, important note: flesh-colored nylon hosiery should always be worn for business.

I’ve had many opportunities to dispose of the Classic Look for Business book over the years—from job changes to moving across the country.

But, I’ve held on to the book because it reminds me of what really matters in the workplace and what women (and men) must do to be successful.

While I don’t suggest you wear tank tops and flip flops unless you work at a beach restaurant, even if you do, the following is what I have learned will propel you forward or hold your career back. What’s on your back matters little compared to your:

In order to keep up in today’s rapid changing world, you need to continue to grow and learn. There is no end-state with knowledge. You will always have more to learn. Knowledge and learning keeps you competitive and useful in our rapidly changing economy. Be curious and never stop learning.

If you’re not delivering results to the business, then what is the point? Delivering a tangible contribution demonstrates that you’re essential to the success of the team. You are there to make a difference. Be an active contributor who is always looking to add value.

Passion, drive, and motivation are all qualities admired in the great leaders and managers. Passion can also be infectious, inspiring entire companies to create new products and entire segments of the market. Drive does not come from wearing a pin-striped suit and spending two hours doing your hair. But it does come from having a goal and working towards it.

I’ve always believed that authenticity in our work, as people and as leaders can set us apart from the crowd. Being open, hones, and even vulnerable at times takes courage, but it builds credibility and trust and most importantly helps us stay grounded in who we are.

As I look at the pictures in my Classic Look resource I can’t help but reflect on how quickly norms have changed and how the yardstick for woman’s success is now based on merit and contribution over suit quality or flesh colored nylon hosiery.

These days I go to work focused on making a difference in my new ‘uniform’ (jeans, white shirt and sandals), which I hope also exudes “the confident, capable businesswoman” that Mr. Roberts was guiding me to become.

Did you have to dress for success?

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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