I recently had the pleasure of meeting Ann Marie Sabath, owner of At Ease, Inc. an etiquette coach to a wide range of domestic and international corporations and law firms. As an etiquette guru of long standing, she has published numerous books in this field to address the seemingly endless number of issues that arise in professional settings. Not only does she counsel the poorly groomed, she helps HR departments in banks, technology groups and corporations set dress codes so they can prevent fashion mishaps before they occur.
In a recent conversation we discussed the following four faux pas that she commonly encounters. What follows are her tips to avoid repeating these faux pas and avoid fashion emergencies for yourself and your team.
Faux Pas #1: Not realizing that every organization has a dress culture, even if it is an unwritten one.
What does this mean? It means that, if you observe the attorneys in the partnership ranks (and those who are headed there), you’ll be able to observe your firm’s dress code in action. It usually starts at the top with the firm’s owners and partner level attorneys setting the standards. Attorneys at this level typically know how to present a polished, professional appearance when required to do so. When not seeing clients at the office, they may allow themselves to be more casual, but they know there’s power in presenting themselves appropriately when seeing clients, appearing in court or attending a marketing event.
Faux Pas #2: Not recognizing that you are judged by the way you dress.
Unfortunately, this applies even when you believe a loose interpretation of “business casual” to be the norm in your firm. Both men and woman, and team members at every level, are subject to these judgments – unfortunately, it comes with being human and no one is immune.
According to Sabath, people that present well typically regard their clothing as their professional “armor.” When they step into this clothing they are preparing themselves to step into their professional role and present the most business-like version of themselves. They know that clients and referral sources are more likely to take them seriously – and pay them well – if they look the part.
While most attorneys suspect they’re being judged by their appearance, many team members assume that they are judged on their skills alone. Unfortunately, firm management will subconsciously judge them for their professional presentation as well. They won’t be held to as high a standard if they don’t deal with clients, but dressing poorly will work against them, no matter their position.
Faux Pas #3: Not choosing a dress mentor within your organization.
This is a person whose style of dress you can emulate. Find someone that you believe is striking just the right note with their grooming and style of clothing. Sabath is not encouraging you to imitate them exactly, but to learn from and be inspired by how well put together they appear. Perhaps they dress in more solid colors with a limited palette of tones; they may limit their use of patterns and they may practice high-contrast dressing, typically pairing darker pants, jackets or skirts with lighter shirts or tops. The point is to locate someone in your organization you can use as a model.
Faux Pas #4: Not recognizing that the clothing you buy should be purchased for long-term wear.
This is Sabath’s way of saying that you should consider your clothing an investment, and that buying more classically tailored clothes will allow you to get more use out of them in the long run. She is quick to note that dressing well does not have to cost a fortune if you take a mix and match approach and include vintage shops in your search for classic suits, skirts, pants and dresses. These pieces should be well constructed to last a long-time. And they can be made to look more current by adding accessories in more contemporary styles.