Should we still believe in 'dress for the job you want'?

A few months before my 21st birthday I had my first job interview in journalism, at a women's magazine.

At one point, the then deputy editor, who remains a friend and mentor, asked me which job I'd want in five years, I replied, deadpan: Yours. Remarkably, I still got the job.

I don't remember what I wore on my first day but given it was 2001, it was probably A-line and finished with a metallic belt. But I do remember the saying that rang in my head as I chose my outfit: dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

Recently, it got me thinking: in an age when sneakers are appropriate office attire as much as suits and slip dresses, should we still dress by that motto?

Professor Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion, is one advocate of the dressing up philosophy. She says work dress is all about sending clear signals that reflect the corporate culture of the business.

"If we dress in a way that is relevant, appropriate, and non-threatening, we encourage others to communicate with us," she says.

But be careful of stepping outside the lines too far in either direction.

"If the general clothing style is casual, and a worker wears a formal business suit, [they] might be considered aloof, or even ‘above [their] station’. The reverse is also true," she says.

Still, dressing for work, even in corporate climates, is fraught, especially for women. Ties are on the wane, business casual is increasingly the norm and no-one can seem to land on where the line lays between a strap and a sleeve (just ask journalist Patricia Karvelas, who was ejected from Parliament last year for wearing a shell top that fell foul of Canberra's fashion police).

Nicole Adolphe, head of style for The Iconic, says regardless of one's seniority, erring on the conservative side of workwear will rarely backfire.

"No strapless, no plunging neckline, sleeveless [is OK with] a high or round neck," she says.

One of Adolphe's preferred ways to project success through dress is through the power bag (as opposed to the power suit), preferably a tote in a classic shape.

"That is a thing [people see when] you walk in to the office or meeting – you can spend a bit of money … [whereas] a designer jacket will date," she says.

While there is no such thing as a junior or management uniform, Adolphe says that at the start of one's career, having more outfits (or the appearance thereof) is important, whereas higher up the ladder, "it may be about the aesthetic more than keeping on top of trends".

People in more junior roles should look to midi skirts – "the length is good and also a trend" – a good slip dress for layering over more affordable shirts and turtlenecks and a couple of blazers. "If you don’t have that much cash, buy one great skirt or trouser and mix it up with different tops," Adolphe says.

Once a person rises to management, Adolphe says their dress should look more "polished and expensive", regardless of the actual amount spent.

So is it better to be overdressed or underdressed?

Professor Mair points to a 2015 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science that found people who wear more formal clothes tend to feel more powerful. But be careful of wearing red. "Red is often quoted as being the colour for power dressing, but in a [2015] study, men wearing red were rated as more aggressive, more dominant and ‘angry’ than men wearing grey or blue," she says.

Get the look

Dressing for success is as easy as choosing polished basics and adding a little (office appropriate) sparkle.



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