Thursday, January 31, 2008

Strut Your Stuff

Have you ever heard the expression "She couldn't see the forest because the trees were in the way?" The more I read, the more I realize that this perfectly describes my former attitude toward work dressing. How on earth did I miss all these articles on how to "dress for the job you want, not the one you have?"

While perusing Penelope Trunk's latest advice on polishing your career image, I stumbled upon Gretchen Neels' comment linking to a Wall Street Journal column about law associates and their amazing fashion crimes.

Winston & Strawn brought in a personal shopper from a local department store last year to address associates on how to shop and dress for work. Mr. Mills says that when some associates do make an effort to dress up, they seem to base their look on Hollywood. "You get the TV-woman lawyer look with skirts 12 inches above the knee and very tight blouses," he says. "They have trouble sitting and getting into taxis."

This is why I'm looking forward to conservatism in fashion this season.

The firm also hired etiquette consultant Gretchen Neels, a former executive recruiter, to give lectures on grooming, dress, and etiquette standards such as where to place one's napkin at dinner.

She says many members of the so-called millennial generation have never been schooled in the traditions that previous generations learned at their parents' knees. Yet these 20-somethings are still being evaluated by old-school bosses and clients. Many members of this generation not only "don't own a watch -- they've never owned a watch," says Ms. Neels. In many white-collar professions, an expensive watch signals success, while a cool cellphone or iPod, though it tells time, signals hipness.

This one I can speak to. I wear a watch everywhere and wouldn't be without one. While I love my iPod, I've learned the hard way that it creates a really bad impression and take mine off before I step into the building at the beginning of the day, and won't put it on until I'm out the door.

Ms. Neels, founder of Neels & Co. in Boston, has been making the rounds at law firms, as well as law and business schools at Duke, Harvard and other universities. She hears all sorts of complaints from scandalized partners: One young attorney wears yoga pants to work. Another associate blasted out a firmwide email searching for a size-32 belt when an unanticipated court appearance required him to dress up midday.

WHAT?! I love yoga pants, but wouldn't dream of wearing them to work. That's just wrong. And how can you work someplace where you go to court and not wear a belt? Additionally, if you're stupid enough not to wear a belt to work, don't send out a mass email asking for one--it only underscores your lack of intelligence to your boss. You wouldn't ask a senior partner for a belt in person, and doing it by email is even worse.

Ms. Neels notes that business-school grads share law associates' casual sartorial attitude, and she tries to connect the dots between what they wear and how they come across. When she was coaching M.B.A. graduates at Harvard last weekend, she says only about half came in a suit. One young man showed up in cargo pants, and his cellphone rang during the interview.

"What I'm getting from you is that you're a jerk," Ms. Neels told the student as part of her feedback. "Can you see how I'd get that?"

"Yeah, I guess," he responded, she says.

I would have thrown this guy out instantly. When I proctored exams at a previous job, any cellphones that rang during a test would be confiscated for the duration of the day and the test would be immediately graded a zero. Yes, phone calls are great, but don't bring them to a setting where you are supposed to be paying attention to what's going on.
Trial attorney Rosemarie Arnold says young lawyers need to learn that "courtroom drama is all about control." With courtroom appearances in mind, Ms. Arnold spends $150,000 a year on clothes, she estimates. She is partial to Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana in particular and black suits in general.

"Trying a case is like a movie," Ms. Arnold says. "Wardrobe is everything."

I can't imagine spending $150,000 a year on clothes. That's three years' salary. That's half of a good condo in Boston. That would cancel all my debt, student loans and still leave me enough to start a very decent retirement fund. For this job, I went to Macy's and bought a pair of suits on deep discount to add to my wardrobe, and I have six suits that I rotate. I'm not planning on buying any new suits until they fall apart or I get a raise. Maybe I should ask Ms. Arnold if she has any hand-me-downs I could have, provided she's the same size.

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