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Can consultants follow the casual flow of dress in the workplace?

The standards of proper business attire are changing, but whether consultants should follow suit is not so cut and dry. Author Ann Marie Sabath argues that dressing down may prevent you from ever rising to the top.

Even as large consulting firms begin to loosen up their collars, the rest of the world is still trying to define “business casual.” Ann Marie Sabath, author of Beyond Business Casual: What to Wear to Work If You Want to Get Ahead, asserts that knowing what to wear can make or break your success in an organization. Sabath’s book highlights the do’s and don’ts of dressing for success in the business casual environment.


By Ann Marie SabathCareer Press, May 2000224 pp.ISBN: 1564144461$11.95 at Fatbrain.com.
As consultants invade a myriad of corporate cultures, can they afford to mimic the casual dress code that so many organizations have adopted? Some have already shifted to a less formal mode. Consulting Magazine’s September 2000 issue featured a blurb on the changing face of “Consultancy Culture” at one of the consulting industry’s big-hitters, McKinsey & Company. It seems that there have been several “sightings of bare calves among McKinsey up-and-comers”—a new trend that flies in the face of the firm’s chief architect Marvin Bower’s mandate that long socks be worn. “’Raw flesh’ in business settings was simply not appropriate,” Bower contended.

Sabath blames the now popular “dress-down” days and companies’ lack of dress-code definition for the daily dilemma most employees face. Sabath draws from her own experience in the area of proper office protocol. She is the president of At Ease Inc., a Cincinnati-based company specializing in domestic and international business etiquette programs that have been presented to individuals at hundreds of companies, including consulting firms Deloitte & Touche and Arthur Andersen.

Sabath says don’t relax: How to dress effectively
If you’ve recently moved into a business casual environment, Beyond Business Casual will help you “‘button down’ those unwritten rules.” If you’ve been passed over for promotions, or don’t seem to command the respect your title deserves, this book will certainly make you take a long hard look in the mirror. According to the author, the most common dress faux pas is “not realizing that your work competency is measured by how you dress.”

An especially useful component of the book for consultants is Sabath’s list of questions that help hone in on an organization’s “dress culture.” She also provides suggestions for building an arsenal of carefully considered attire.

Iron out your wardrobe
The strength of Beyond Business Casual is its daily usability. Sabath addresses the proper attire for virtually anywhere your business may take you—from the boardroom to the company Christmas party, from conducting business abroad to living and working in the same neighborhood.

But beware: once you read this book, you will no longer be able to ignore the ugly truth about ironing: It’s necessary. Sabath takes a hard-pressed line against wearing anything that hasn’t been ironed—“even permanent press needs to be touched up,” she writes.

Written in a question-and-answer format, this book is perfect if you like smorgasbord-style reading. You can easily choose the topics that apply to you and leave the rest behind. The detailed table of contents is organized for easy use, and an index is included. If you can’t find an answer to your question, you could check the collection of materials listed in the resources section, or you can even call or e-mail the author.

Freudian slip: Psychology of color and clothing
Interested in the psychology of clothes? Do you think you’re more apt to respect a woman in a skirted suit or a man with a red tie? Sabath suggests that you are.

Her chapters titled “How Your Dress Affects Your Productivity” and “What Kind of Dress Attitude Are You Projecting?” discuss the effects your style of dress has on productivity and the attitudes of your coworkers and supervisors. Do men who wear glasses get promoted? What should you do with a wet umbrella? Can you blend in too well? All of these questions and more are answered—and with some surprising responses.

For example, Sabath advises a young account executive struggling to gain the respect of a twice-his-age superior to “buy a pair of nonprescription glasses with non-reflective lenses. Wearing glasses may give you a more serious—and older—look.”

Whether or not you believe that’s good advice, surprising answers like these make Beyond Business Casual an amusing, informative read.
Has “dressing for success” opened new doors for you? Have you witnessed the three-piece-suit effect on a friend or coworker? Do you think clothes make the man? Do you think it’s all a bunch of bunk? Send us your stories and opinions, or post a comment below.
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