Apparel Perils

Dressing appropriately for business success.
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Dressing for success isn't so cut-and-dried anymore.

Not long ago, what was considered acceptable business attire wasn't hard tofigure out: Men wore suits, women wore dresses or skirts and blouses. Forsalespeople looking to build rapport with their clients, deciding what to wearwas easy. But with more companies adopting casual dress codes, your chances ofclashing with your customers' environment have increased tremendously.

If you show up for a meeting in your best dark suit or your most powerful dressand find the table crowded with people wearing jeans and sneakers, you're notonly going to stand out, your clothing is going to be a distraction from yourpurpose for being there. Unfortunately, what people will see won't be thebrilliant marketing plan you worked on all night, but your starched whiteshirt.

On the other hand, if you dress down for a meeting and show up in jeans andsneakers, finding everybody else dressed to the nines is like that strangenaked dream come true.

"Dress is an important element during those first three minutes of mutualassessment," says Susan Pelteson, 45, president of All About Events Inc., aLongwood, Florida, party planning business. "You're trying to connect on avariety of levels, looking for a common ground, and one of the ways you do thatis through your appearance."

It's important to blend how you want to represent yourself and your companywith what will make your customers comfortable. So how do you avoid stickingout like a sore thumb? Before calling on a company for the first time, do alittle investigative work on its dress code. If you know people who work forthe company, find out what they wear to work. Look up any colleagues you havein common with the company; they might have the information you need. You caneven talk to the company's receptionist to find out what his or her co-workerswear.

If you're going to see customers in a variety of environments during the day,wear clothes that allow you to be flexible. "I keep a jacket in my car andjewelry in my purse that I can put on and take off as the situation[dictates]," Pelteson says.

And what do you do when you've clearly chosen the wrong apparel? "A good senseof humor goes a long way," Pelteson believes. Acknowledge the situation, andquickly move on. "You need to compensate for the fact that you're not dressedappropriately, so immediately show your expertise."