American Style for Today’s Professional
What does “American Style” mean these days for professional men? It’s a good question and one that could fill (and has) many a book.
First, though, the bottom line. Be highly observant and, then, strive to dress like the people you admire most. By that I mean, observe what the best performers of your office and your customer base wear, and copy that look. What they wear and their high-performer status are probably not a coincidence. You don’t want to perform, be paid, be promoted, have the same reputation or have the same responsibilities a year from now as the average guy, so why dress like he does today? Yogi Berra once famously said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” So be watchful.
After that summary, here’s a bit of the rest of that book. As with the rest of our lives, American Style has changed and continues to evolve. And what’s appropriate obviously depends on the situation. For instance, we used to dress the same for work, for a night out and for religious services. Today, though, you wouldn’t wear Friday work casual, or even date night casual, to your sister’s wedding or to your grandmother’s funeral. That’s obvious. But you shouldn’t wear Friday casual to your biggest sales presentation either. And when a suit or sharp sport coat is called for, you want to be sure the jacket is up to the task. If the sport coat fits like a Hefty Bag, it’s as bad as being way under-dressed. If it’s made of cheap material and doesn’t hold a decent shape, it’s a poor reflection on you more than it is on the discount retailer where you bought it. What you wear does make a difference — consciously or subconsciously — in how you’re perceived. Don’t underachieve. Invest in your clothes and you invest in yourself.
Here are some updated guidelines —
Fits have tightened up over the last 5 years but, if your six pack is still in the cooler, leave a little extra room in your shirts. Undershirts, sweaters and sharp-looking vests are good for hiding Dad’s Body and other corporeal imperfections; wear them. If your suit or sport coat is over 5 years old, take it to a tailor for alterations (if you can’t bear to part with it), or donate it and start refreshing your wardrobe with updated fits. I’m not talking about switching to overly tight coats for your age or body, just don’t stick any longer with what’s now way too baggy. If your shirts and coats could “sail away” and take you with them in a stiff wind (like Tiger Woods or Freddie Couples golf shirts in the 1990s), let them go. Also, make sure your vests and sweaters don’t bag under the arms or around your waist too much, or suggest that you’d rather be golfing or hiking. Never underestimate how much non-golfers dislike golf clothes with prestigious logos, and maybe even the guy who wears them. I learned that lesson the hard way.
Jeans under a patterned shirt and a sport coat are great in a whole lot of everyday environments, especially in marketing and advertising. Sweaters over shirts on top of jeans? That’s also a good look, usually. In shirts and sport coats, check patterns on top of check patterns CAN work, if the two check patterns are much different in size, not too loud, and there’s a common color in the two. Stripes can be good under a checked coat, as long as the coat pattern is subtle. If you have checked pants, though, wear plain fabrics above them in your sweater or sport coat. Checks over checks, top to bottom, are only good in circuses and certain Broadway shows.
What else to avoid? Ironically, it’s “fashion”. Our Director of Style, Mark McNeill, has a great saying — “Style stays in the closet over time. Fashion goes out the garage door in paper bags.” What’s common but ill-advised “fashion” today? Sweatshirts, for one thing. Seriously, nothing says “out to lunch” like wearing a sweatshirt to work. What else fails? How about the guy I met who thinks he’s wearing a cool t-shirt under his collared shirt and sport coat, channeling the “highly successful nerd” look. It might have been great… except the t-shirt’s collar had stretched out and, worse yet, was yellowed with sweat. If you’re going to show the world your t-shirt, make sure it looks like new. How about baggy jeans that are half down your proverbial back side. It’s simple, if your pants don’t cover your crack (regardless of whether your shirt is already doing the job), they’re too low. Drooping pants is a bad look both in front and in back. You’re much cooler in well-fitting jeans.
Here’s a rule for job interviews and major sales or board presentations — Always go up one level from what you think you’ll see on the other side of the table. If they’re in shirts and sweaters, wear a sport coat but no tie. If they have on sport coats, wear a suit with an open collar or wear a tie with your sport coat. If they’re in suits, definitely wear your best suit, crispest shirt and power tie. As in any competition — the better you know the other team, the more likely you are to win.
And lastly, I have to talk about shoes. If there’s nothing holding your shoes together but glue, I hope you’re only running in them. Glued-together work shoes aren’t going to spring your step up the career ladder. If the toe on your leather shoes is square in shape, give the shoes away. Like, right now. That ship sailed maybe 20 years ago. If the leather on your brown or black shoes looks as shiny and fake as vinyl or naugahyde, you’re risking not just your career mobility, but your love life. Sneakers are good with jeans, but don’t wear them every day even if jeans work every day for you. Remember, the introverted computer/digital wizard looks down at his shoes. The EXTROVERTED computer/digital wiz (maybe your boss) looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you. If man were meant to wear bad shoes, he’d still be an ape.
Let’s be careful out there.