Working Women: Dressing for Success

By Townsel, Lisa Jones | Ebony, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Working Women: Dressing for Success

Townsel, Lisa Jones, Ebony

Wearing the proper attire for your work place - whether it is on an assembly, line, at a typists desk, in an executive suite or in a television studio - can make the difference in success or failure.

It might seem unfair, industry experts and corporate executives agree, but a well-dressed, polished employee tends to convey knowledge, know-how and a sincere interest in going places, while a disheveled worker gives the impression of being a disinterested, marginal performer.

In light of todays diverse fashion and cosmetic markets, working women have little excuse for derailing their otherwise promising careers, by committing flagrant dressing faux pas. In fact, even workers with limited time and finances can spruce up their professional image by paying close attention to their hair, nails and cosmetics, and by choosing sophisticated, business-appropriate attire for work.

Black women in all lines of work are finding ways to blend their personal style with the demands of their work environment. Kim Wilson, a court attorney with the Bronx Supreme Court, chooses sophisticated business apparel for the hard-nosed legal scene. Mellody Hobson, a senior vice president with Chicago-based Ariel Capital Management Inc., prefers classic suits with a whimsical flair for the high-powered world of finance. Ertharin Cousin, director of the White House Liaison Office at the State Department, sticks with very classic, comfortable clothes for the Washington, D.C., power scene. On the West Coast, Yvette Lee Bowser, executive producer and creator of Living Single, chooses avantgarde power wear for her Tinseltown meetings. Freida Wheaton Bondurant, vice president and associate general counsel of Citicorp Mortgage Inc. in St. Louis, customizes her professional style in a business-casual setting. Atlanta secretary Cheryl Morgan expresses her personal style through sensible separates and suits. And Teresa Fleming of Detroit succeeds in maintaining a crisp, feminine image although she works in the gritty atmosphere of an auto assembly plant.

Although dress codes vary from one work setting to another, these women and others agree that a few elements remain constant when it comes to presenting a clean, confident appearance in the workplace. "Everyone expects your dress to be polished, well-made and unobtrusive," says Georgette C. Poindexter, a real estate and legal studies teacher at the Wharton School of Business and a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Prior to joining the university's teaching staff, Poindexter worked as an attorney with Philadelphia- and New York-based law firms. And, she says, she dresses now just as she did then - for business. "We're preparing students for the business world, and in my opinion, I should project the image of the business world that they are about to enter," she says.

The most elementary component of every businesswoman's wardrobe, industry insiders say, should be the classic navy blue or black suit. "It's very hard to look unprofessional in a suit," says Alice Berry, a clothing designer who teaches an advanced design class at Columbia College in Chicago. Nevertheless, she says that's no reason for career women to stuff their closets with cheap, nondescript suits. "Americans tend to think that you should have a lot of clothes," says Berry, who worked in France before returning to Chicago to manufacture her own line of limited-edition clothing, scarves and trademark reversible jackets. "Its a much better idea to have five, high-quality tailored suits as opposed to 15 haphazard ones that you find on sale because fit is very important in how you look."

And it is paramount, Berry and others say, that powerful women dress powerfully. "When you're in a meeting, you wear business suits because you want people to listen and respect you," says Lori Scott, associate merchandise manager of E Style, a fashion catalog for the African-American woman. "It's still a male-dominated world. …

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