by Susan Hodkinson

Mark Twain famously said  “clothes make the man,” and for generations men in the business world have adhered to an easy-to-interpret dress code of suits and ties. When women entered management ranks, the feminized version of the traditional corporate uniform marched into boardrooms all over the world: a navy skirt, matching jacket, white shirt, pantyhose, and sensible pumps. Oh, and if it was 1985, probably a little silk scarf tied in a bow. Red or burgundy. I remember those days well.  Not fondly.

Fast forward to 2014, and we are now the establishment. We baby boomers, being single-mindedly focused on our goal of corporate acceptance, and the journey up the corporate ladder, didn’t question many of the traditional expectations of how we should dress for work. We rewrote some of the rules, and put our own stamps on them, but clothes still do “make the (wo)man”, a fact of which we are acutely aware.

So what about Generation Y, our children, who are making their way into the corporate world? According to the Australian Centre for Retail Studies, “compared to earlier generations, Generation Y consumers … [are] the most ethnically and socially diverse cohort, [and] loathe stereotyping and demand to be treated as individuals”. No navy suits and little silk ties for these girls.

Jill is my 20-year old daughter, a university student specializing in communications who has her sights focused on the corporate world. Jill considered my question concerning how she would amend her personal style when she enters the business world. “Well, obviously I have my own style, but I admire the women who have gone before me, and I do want to be like them. I want to fit in, and show that I am serious about my career,” said Jill.

Debra McLaughlin is an image and wardrobe consultant with Images That Suit, a consulting firm that has answered the question “What do I wear?” for businesswomen for over 20 years.  Her advice to her clients in their 20s and 30s mirrors Jill’s thought.

“I would advise a younger client to look to some of the better dressed senior executives, and while she does not want to dress exactly like them, she will see that they have their look ’packaged’ and pulled together. If she is smart, she will try to figure out how to work that for herself, for her own age group, and for her own personality,” she says.

“You are your own brand, so you should be investing everything you can in supporting that brand. Your wardrobe is an investment in yourself.”

What about some specifics?  A few pieces of sage advice from Debra, a professional in this area, with some editorial comments from the writer,  who is enjoying watching Gen Y women making their way in the world in both her personal and professional lives.

Don’t wear worn shoes.  (Fix those lifts!  The sound of nails on a bare office floor … not pleasant.)

If you are wearing light-coloured clothing, make sure your underwear is not showing through.  Don’t dress provocatively or too casually.  (I am aware that it’s now fashionable to treat your bra as an accessory rather than a foundation garment, but not in the office please.  Oh, I sound very old.)

Casual Fridays – a minefield.  At Images that Suit, they emphasize “the third piece” – a jacket or beautiful cardigan over a shirt and well tailored, dark denim jeans.  (If you would paint your house in it, sit on the dock in it at the cottage wearing it, or wear it to a club, don’t wear it to the office.)

My conversation with Jill about this topic was illuminating and helpful. It is clear to me that the generation of women following us into the business world is perceptive, optimistic, and eager to be successful while remaining true to its own values and style. I asked Jill how she would prepare for her first big corporate interview in terms of image. She considered my question carefully, smiled, and replied: “I would definitely replace my nose ring with a small stud.”

Generation Y women will make us proud.


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