I’ve always enjoyed a sturdy pair of slacks and a polo from Old Navy, and I’ve never felt the need to spend more than a few hundred dollars on a suit. But I just got a big promotion, and I’ve gotten the feedback that, given my seniority, I should buy some “nicer” clothes that “reflect my position.” Does moving up the career ladder mean I can’t buy my two-for-$30 polos anymore? — Rick, Austin, Texas
First of all, congratulations on the new job. The question of how you dress for it, however, is a lot more complicated than just “to suit or not to suit?” It’s really about communication and what values you are trying to model.
Fashion, after all, has long functioned as a sign of both aspiration and achievement; a covert signal of wealth, access, taste, smarts and membership in a club. So as people climbed the corporate ladder, they used their clothes to reflect each rung.
That’s what gave the world the adage “dress for the job you want.” Also the man in the gray flannel suit.
Between the casualization of the workplace, however, and changing attitudes toward the balance of power between the individual and the employer, such dress codes are increasingly downplayed. Not gone entirely, but more … well, coded.
So while you don’t necessarily need to dress fancier for your new job, you need to dress with more consideration. With more responsibility comes more attention. More people will be “reading” not just your emails and memos, but also your expressions and, yup, even your shirts.
Authenticity is an important quality these days, so doing a complete about-face in your dress to go with your new title is probably not a good idea. Instead, consider the details.
Generally, as a boss, you want to show authority, organization, decisiveness, attention to detail and dependability. That doesn’t mean you need a tie or the pussy bow equivalent, but it does mean clothes that are rumpled, ill-fitting, stained or otherwise fraying are not good. At the very least, you may want to enlist a tailor to ensure a perfect fit. (A tailor can also make an inexpensive suit look like a much pricier garment.) Well-made garments also demonstrate that you can identify and recognize quality, which is more important than quantity. Make sure your shoes are in good shape.
Consistency and personal signatures are also values worth embracing. There is a reason President Barack Obama said he always wore dark gray or blue suits, and Steve Jobs wore the same Issey Miyake turtleneck every day. And if you invest in a few good pieces and wear them like a uniform, you can amortize the expense over time.
Then design your choices to fit the job description.
If you are dealing with tight budgets or different fund allocations, sticking with your two-for-$30 polos may work as a show of solidarity; a sign that whatever belt-tightening you are demanding from your staff is belt-tightening you are willing to do yourself.
If your job is about creativity, demonstrating creativity with dress makes sense. And if you are in E.S.G., pay attention to the supply chain and manufacturing of your clothes.
Dress not so much to impress as to suggest.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.