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Dress-aging. Did you hear what your outfit just said to me?

 I’ll never forget the day a third year associate came into my office seeking advice. She said, “People don’t take me seriously.” It took all the strength and self-control I’ve ever had to ask with a straight face, “What makes you say that?”

Let me give you a little context. This young woman was an associate in a major DC law firm. She was a lobbyist who spent much of her time attending hearings and other meetings with members of Congress and staff on Capitol Hill.  She was a graduate of one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, cum laud, of course, and came from a very well-known, powerful, and respected political family. And she dressed like a . . . well, let me describe it and you choose your own word.

“Barbie” was an attractive young woman who sported bleached blond hair the texture of cotton candy, and liked her skirts cut short and tops cut low. She also liked her stiletto heels, big, clunky jewelry and lots and lots of make-up (I’ve always believed blue eye shadow should be illegal, but that’s another topic).

Who wouldn’t take her seriously?

We talked for about an hour and I learned that “Barbie” was having difficulty securing meetings with Congressional committee members (she just couldn’t get past the gatekeepers). She needed to build relationships with people across the political spectrum in order to do her job, but felt that most women were hostile to her while most men treated her with indifference. Worse, she wasn’t making her hours – she wasn’t getting put on cases. And she just couldn’t figure out how to get people to respond to her in a positive way.

While I really wanted to say, “this isn’t ‘hooker comes to law firm day’! If you want to be taken seriously, wash your face, cover that mess up and get a big girl voice!” I instead just started a conversation with her about impressions and non-verbal messaging.

Sending Millions of Messages a Day

The hardest part of the conversation was getting Barbie to see what others see and to understand how she was being perceived. Yes, you are very attractive, yes, your clothes are expensive, and no they are not suitable for a young professional in an office setting. They say, “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but you are being judged the instant people look at you – whether or not they’re aware of it and whether or not you like it. You are sending millions of messages a day without ever uttering a word and choice of attire can be like a big, neon-flashing billboard.

We all know that most of our communication is non-verbal. But generally when we think about non-verbal communication, we think about body language and facial expression - yet clothing is actually one of the most common forms of non-verbal communication humans use. How we dress can convey everything from personality and financial status to culture, mood, confidence, interests, age, authority, and values/beliefs. Our clothing choices can express who we are, who we want to be on a particular day, who we want to be associated with, and where we fit in.

“like it or not, what we dress in is a direct reflection of who we are personally, socially, and historically.”

Leah Wilson, The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy

In this “anything goes” day and age, is the message you are sending the message you want others to receive? Are you communicating all of the things you want others to know about you – that you are confident, intelligent, capable, professional and you fit in? Or are you unwittingly sabotaging your career?

It’s called “packaging.” Companies spend billions of dollars coming up with just the right package for their product – it’s their brand. What’s yours? Are you known as a sharp and dynamic individual? Or are you seen as a little more than an accessory?

The good news is that you don’t need to spend billions of dollars.

  • Take a good, hard look at yourself and others around you. How do they dress? What message are they sending?

  • Get a personal shopper. You don’t have to spend a fortune, by the way. There are any number of stores that offer free services (they get paid on commission) and failing that, you will find any number of other women in the store who will be more than happy to tell you how they think you look.

  • Have a good friend give you honest feedback. Don’t forget to have your friend stand behind you and watch while you walk off. What’s going on back there?

  • Take note of your first impression of others. What do you think you’ve learned about them just by their clothing choices? What do you think they’d think about you?

The bottom line? Not all attention is good. If you want to be taken seriously, dress and act like it. No one is saying you have to be boring or conform to someone else’s idea of “professional,” but if you insist on dressing like one of those people who will show up in a “seen at Wal-Mart” photo on Face Book, well – I can’t help you.

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