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The Suit Stays, But Millennials Redefine Work Attire

Posted by | May 20, 2015 | Change, Grooming, Workplace

Via LinkedIn : The phrase “dress for success” is old. It’s dated, and no one really knows what the hell it means. If you feel certain you know what it means, you probably don’t. The thing is, “dress for success” is vague. It fails to take into account the many industries and identities our workforce represents. I prefer, “dress to be your best.” At the forefront of how we dress must be a deep and concerted respect for how we get it done.

Ever see the Disney movie Brave? I’m a mother, so frankly I’m a little embarrassed how frequently I’ve seen this animated kid-flick. By far, my favorite part is where the King of Scotland holds an archery contest to “win his daughter’s hand” and, unlike in the Robin Hood of my childhood, our heroine is no passive Maid Marian. Unwilling to be married so young, this girl stands up from her seat on the dais, and pulls out her own bow and quiver of arrows, announcing she will be competing for her own hand. She then climbs down and proceeds to hit a bulls-eye on each of the suitors’ targets, shocking her parents and the clansmen. Why is this relevant? In the moment before she releases her first arrow, she realizes her very tight, restrictive dress prevents her from drawing back her bowstring. “Curse this dress!” she yells and rips the seams at the arms so she can move freely, kick asses, take names. Girlfriend has the right idea in my book.

Our clothes must give us the freedom to do what we need to do to be our best selves. Entrepreneur and Marketer Kyle Reyes recently wrote in his post With the Rise of the Millennial Comes the Fall of the Suit ,

“You know when I get my best work done? When I’m in jeans and a hoodie. And I have music playing. And a beer next to me…”

Good for him. This guy knows how to get it done. To be frank, as a career coach, I’d like to think we all have a sense of how we work best, in what atmosphere, clothes and frame of mind. This is basic process optimization. Engineers do it all the time: assess conditions and tools for maximum production and quality. I get my best work done from 9-1 each day with a giant coffee next to me. Client or no client, I am wearing a blazer, tailored jeans and my trusty 3- inch heels. Why so dressy if I am not even meeting a client? Because this is my armor. This is my proclamation that I don’t screw around, and when someone pays me big bucks to help them reframe their career and turn their image around, they are paying for that level of seriousness. This is someone’s career. Boomers, in particular feel very strongly about traditional “work rules” and how Millennials “just aren’t in line with the real world.” The truth is, the “real world” is changing. Fast. Faster than many Boomers care to admit, and many exciting, challenging and lucrative spaces don’t give a hoot if you’re sporting Chucks, Birks or Boutins, ya dig? Since the person paying me is often a Boomer on behalf of their freshly graduated kid, I project this image to help gain their trust. Kind of like bait. Anyway.

It boils down to work style, self awareness, industry knowledge, and above all, risk tolerance. Are you willing to potentially alienate some clients who don’t feel confident in your skills if you’re wearing a hoodie and a ballcap? Maybe. It might be a sign that they can’t handle the bleeding edge in a field where what is new is critical to success. How you dress then can act as a way to vet folks who would otherwise not be a good relationship fit for you and your company. If they can’t let your work speak beyond what you are wearing, or perhaps, not associate what you are wearing with what you produce, you may not be able to have a productive relationship.

This notion of dress formality in work spaces is an entrenched idea, and it will not be purged easily from the American psyche. You want to project professionalism? You wear a suit. In the South and Midwest, women wear skirt suits…with nude hose. Oh yes. I damn near gave a Hoosier an aneurism when I told her she would look dated wearing hose to a job at a startup here in New England. In grad school I called my internship before I flew to DC to take up my post and asked “what is the dress code?” “business casual” was the reply. Yikes. So much variation there. I’ll save that for another post. Needless to say, Northeast “business casual” means pumps or flats, trousers or dresses and blouses. I showed up for my first day looking like Linda Tripp at a barbecue while my co-workers donned flip flops and tiny-strapped sundresses. Lesson learned. Now I just ask what the most senior person in the office is wearing and do a more modern spin on it.

In the end, be informed and intentional. This economy is about outstanding production and services, it isn’t going to coddle someone who appears irrelevant Ask for help from someone who knows who seems on the ball.

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