banner james carlini - Carlini's CornerBy James Carlini

When you go to a business meeting today are you dressed for success or dressed casually? Do you look like you flew in on the corporate jet or were you one of the people washing it down before the flight?

7K0A0603Image consultants seem more concerned about social media tools today than they are real barometers of professionalism and success. Having a Smartphone with an obnoxious ring tone is not cool and won’t make any points unless you hook up with someone else who has the same values on digital bling and not on professional appearances.

The advice given on some of the pseudo-news sites like Yahoo News or various “Career Corners” should be viewed as credible as, no make that less credible than, Weekly World News.


In the 1960s, this was more the fashion rules for business from well-dressed stockbrokers to lawyers in New York. Later on, “Look Italian” was added in 1968.

Variations of this kept popping up and those who were in business, were dressed well, spoke eloquently, and alluded to an air of success. Certain combinations were acceptable, others were not.

In the early 1980s, I remember when AT&T wanted their sales staff in all the operating companies to dress well for customer encounters and gave everyone the book, “Dress For Success” which focused on dressing conservatively in all-wool (natural fiber) suits in grays, blues and pinstripes to laced-up shoes (no loafers) and solid color shirts. They also wanted everyone to drive a four-door sedan with at least a certain-sized wheel base that was made in America.

Choosing a tie was a science. Classy patterns and conservative solids were a must. Yosemite Sam, Beavis and Butthead were not acceptable.

Later I remember, “Speak British, Think Yiddish, and Dress Italian.” (all the Italian designer suits were in vogue, Brioni, Armani, Gucci, etc.) This more or less said, “Speak well and articulately, know how to deal, and look good while engaged in it.” Drive German was later added and the BMW became the official yuppie-mobile.

Many people in many professions started to look at what they were spending for wardrobes and thought, “hey, we need to pay for a lot of clothes.” Companies started by letting up on dress codes by allowing “casual Fridays” and switching to “business casual” as the corporate norm and that was looked at as a “big perk” so that they did not have to pay as big of a raise.

People accepted “business casual” in exchange for lesser raises. At least, that’s what it seemed like. The “Business Casual” workplace became a corporate perk in lieu of higher pay.

It wasn’t bad at first, but people started pushing the limit. I remember in some of the software organizations, casual became real casual and then it dropped off the chart. People were coming in with ripped jeans, torn sweatshirts, sandals, gym shoes with holes in them and the whole atmosphere began to change. Did it look like they were ready for work? No, it looked like they were ready to wash my car.

Work got sloppy as well. Language in memos and Emails got bombarded with typos and people got an attitude that “well, it’s good enough.” People were getting beyond casual dress and into a realm of apathetic sloppiness across all facets of the job.


Some business owners started to see this and started requiring their employees to go back to wearing business dress. Men have to wear ties and women cannot wear jeans or other inappropriate wear. I remember one business owner telling me, “I want them to feel that tie around their neck, that way they know they’re at work and not on the golf course or at the tennis club.”

At graduate school, there were also the people that pushed too far with a casual look that was unacceptable (including some of the faculty). How are you supposed to be a role model when you look like you just came in from mixing concrete?

I remember teaching an executive graduate class where some came in really dressed poorly. Being politically accurate, I had to speak my mind. I commented, “Hey. Casual doesn’t mean Homeless”.
That hit home – as well it should.

These people were going to be the next-generation of corporate executives, not the next-generation of car wash attendants.

People started making a better attempt at coming into class dressed more appropriately. The same went for presenting a project in class. People came dressed up in suits to present their project. Why?

I asked them, “What would you wear if you were trying to sell the CEO of a company?” Getting in front of people is an executive skill. You aren’t going to be an executive, if you cannot write or speak eloquently.

Setting the bar high gave them a more realistic atmosphere that they could compete in. Long after taking the classes, I had people coming back saying they were glad the courses were so focused on the realities of the market.

In one case, a former student brought me into a consulting firm that he was at to help them solve some critical issues with a large client of theirs. I told him to wear a suit to the client meeting even though the client organization was focused on a “business casual” environment. I told him for what we were making an hour, we better look the part of professionals. He agreed.

As the meeting progressed, there was another consulting firm there as well and they were dressed casually. The CIO came into the meeting and started asking questions. He was in a suit, not casual. We started answering some of the questions and you could see through his body language that he turned in his seat and was talking to us and not the other firm.

He must have gotten that subtle hint that we must know what we were talking about – we were the ones dressed professionally – like he was. The other group lost their credibility with him, you could just tell. They were dressed like workers, not like executive problem solvers.

In interviews, you’re judged before you even open your mouth. If you look the part, you’ve already won half the battle

CARLINI-ISM: Casual doesn’t mean homeless. That says it all.

COPYRIGHT 2013 – James Carlini

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  1. I have been waiting for this article for many years. Bravo, James! Coming from an investment banking environment, I always dressed AND TALKED the part. This ‘new urban casual’ is another cue of lacking professionalism, dawg. Put on the whole show – effective TOTAL presentation means professional dress, verbiage, and written communication. If you want respect from the fast lane please do take it out of reverse!

    • I have taught for 25 years. Mainly industrial students. I always wore a tie in class. Oh I got comments from other instructors over the years but my answer was simply that you dress well for two reasons;
      1.) respect for your students.
      2.) respect for yourself

      Good article by James. I attended one of his presentations at BICSI in Tampa last spring and it was one of the most professional and memorable to me.

  2. In my experience, people tend to respect those who are “properly” dressed for the occasion, place or condition. Further, the way one dresses instantly tells those around you how you perceive the meeting, and goes hand-in-hand with proper speech, grooming, hygene and written communications. My general rule is that business meetings generally dictate business attire, regardless of how others may dress (read: I mean business). For men, a tie, pressed shirt and slacks and polished shoes are a mininum for day-to-day business activities (even in Phoenix), and a suit is mandatory for important presentations. For women, conservative and modest dress should be the norm. For both, when in doubt err on the side of dressing “up”. Also of note is that men’s suits do not need to be expensive to be professional. In closing, I personally feel that I am sharper mentally when dressed for success.

  3. I’m 61 and I wore a suit and tie for many corporate years. It was the thing to do in the day. But no more for me. I look a little too staunch, a little too serious for most business meetings (I live in a small town now) It seems to set people on edge, like I’m going to try and sell them some life insurance. No, I’ll stick to suit pants and a nice shirt with an open collar. It’s like meeting half way.

  4. I totally agree with the sentiments in this article. I am a consultant and find that clients look at you differently depending on how you dress. I always wear a suit when meeting with a bank. I think if you are asking for money you need to look good and convey the thought that you are respecting their investment and have every intention of honoring your commitment,

  5. When I used to work corporate, I would get nervous about casual days. The word casual is too vague and how you are perceived is much more about management’s idea of what is casual.

    I used to wait to see how management would dress on casual or jeans day.

    I also love the part about obnoxious ring tones…. Every time I hear one, I have to question myself as I thought that putting annoying and ridiculous ring tones on your phone that you answer at work would be dumb ass 101.

    One thing I would mention is knowing your customer. If you are the owner of a Harley Bike shop than you may want to meet with investors dressed differently than you dress for clients..

  6. Great article on Dress for Success. It is an insult to be served in a bank or store by someone in their old clothes on a “Casual Friday”
    I always believed you dress well for two reasons:
    1.) Respect for yourself
    2.) Respect for your customer

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