Today's New Interpretation of How to Dress for Success

For decades, one of the most followed rules in the business world was how to dress for success. The rules were established by John T. Molloy in a 1975 book of the same name, which introduced us to the concept of “power dressing” and promised to “make you look like a million so you can make a million.” Since that time, the business suit has been considered a must for men and women alike in order to be perceived as professional & powerful and to get ahead in the business world.

Times are changing, though. While dressing professionally is still important, today’s business owners are redefining what that looks like. In a world fascinated by personalization and individual identity, it’s not surprising that the rules for business attire would follow the same path.

The new attitude regarding dressing for success, which was highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, is that a business person’s clothes should reflect their identity and personality as well as that of the business. This means that “what you have on is your business card” and through personal branding, what you wear should speak volumes about who your business is and what it is like to do business with you.

5 Levels of Business Attire

The recognition that we have broadened our view of what it means to dress for success has been noted by others as well. In particular, Sylvie di Giusto’s 2014 book The Image of Leadership: How Leaders Package Themselves to Stand Out for the Right Reasons also championed the idea that you “have to create your own professional imprint which is true to your personality.” In that book, di Giusto breaks down five levels of professional attire, which is brilliantly depicted in the infographic below.

  • Level 5 – Baseline Casual: Clean, crisp denim, tidy t-shirts and tasteful shoes.
  • Level 4 – Mainstream Casual: Fashionable shirts, sweaters and skirts in a variety of colors or patterns and relaxed but elegant shoes.
  • Level 3 – Executive Casual: Dressy slacks or skirts, bright colored shirts, business casual jackets.
  • Level 2 – Traditional Business Attire: Professional suits that can include bright colors or patterned shirts and ties.
  • Level 1 – Boardroom Attire: Dark and classic suits with collared shirts and modest ties.

dress for business success infographic

As di Giusto explains, you should first determine which level of dress code is appropriate for your company, then move up or down one level as necessary for specific events and engagements.

The Sharks Weigh In on How to Dress for Success

The idea of dressing as a reflection of your company is also embraced by some of our favorite investors on ABC’s Shark Tank. In a 2014 Entrepreneur article they shared viewpoints that reflect this change in how we dress for success:

According to Daymond John,  “Your look really needs to be true to your profession, head to toe…Always dress to what is accurate to who and what you are.”

Echoing that sentiment, Kevin O’Leary says, “You have to dress as your clients expect to see you, to their expectations.”

In these days of personal branding, we have come to expect that CEOs will dress in a way that personifies their business.

Professional Is the Bottom Line

While the business world is currently embracing alternatives to the traditional business suit, it’s important to remember that no matter what level you dress at, professional is the most important factor. Even Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, famous for their Level 5 styles, managed to pull off a professional (albeit casual) look. Their jeans and plain t-shirts can be seen as a reflection of their brands – casual, approachable, and accessible to the masses. Similarly, your professional attire (no matter where it falls on the spectrum) can portray your business as creative, fun, serious, eco-friendly, or any other adjective.

One thing that has not changed is that people will still judge you based on how you look; today it’s just no longer a dichotomy of professional versus unprofessional. This has opened up the ways in which you can dress for success in a professional manner while also giving off important clues about the personality of your business.

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