updated 9 Jan 2012, 09:53
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More sexy, less power
by NST

Whether you're a personal assistant or CEO, dressing for the office can be tricky. Office workers run the risk of looking trashy, vain, sloppy or worse still, like they've squeezed into their teenage child's clothing. Audrey Vijaindren speaks to experts who believe that sometimes a book is indeed judged by its cover.

We're often told that looks don't matter, but that isn't true in an office environment. While trying to put your best foot forward, wearing the right shoe can make or break your career.

Wendy Lee, professional image consultant, director of Chapter One Asia and president of the Malaysian Association of Brand and Image Consultants (MABIC) says the question of what to wear to work is usually a dilemma among women especially.

"Women often complain of being totally confused about what is expected of them in terms of dressing.

"One moment they enter the office in a fashionable short skirt and see-through blouse and receive, what seems to be, appreciative remarks from male colleagues.

"However, the next minute they're being told that whatever they're wearing is inappropriate.

"This phenomenon can be easily explained by way of the 'man reaction' versus the 'manager reaction'.

"When a man sees a woman in an alluring garment, his first reaction is to compliment her.

"His second reaction is to realise that the look is inappropriate and may lead to the wrong impression being given to his clients. She may also be a distraction to others.

"The reality is that for women, if you look too sexy, the impression is that you're not that bright, and that is certainly not beneficial if you're planning to move up the corporate ladder.

"Therefore, it's better to be known for the quality of your work than the length of your legs -- at least while you're at work."

Renowned image consultant and author of Ready to Wear: An Expert's Guide to Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe, Mary Lou Andre, helps her corporate clients understand the effect of wardrobes on their communications and their bottom line by this one line: "more skin, less power".

Once, she saw a young woman in an office lobby wearing an expensive suit, hot pink blouse and hot pink flip-flops.

"Why would anyone trust (that woman) with their investments or their project if she doesn't have enough common sense to understand that's not okay?" she says.

In the United States, a slew of new surveys have revealed that employers are increasingly concerned about staff who turn up in smart-casual attire because they're up to 50 per cent more likely to act rude and silly.

HELP University College vice-president and psychologist Dr Goh Chee Leong says that there's sufficient research evidence to show that how we dress affects how we think, feel and behave.

"Having one day of casual wear, especially on a Friday, may actually trigger the brain to go on 'relax mode'.

"Casual dress days do create a more relaxed work environment, which may help the office appear more 'comfortable, fun and less stressful'.

"However, there is little evidence to suggest that a change of dress code in itself will create more innovative or creative thought processes. What some companies, who want to create an innovative and creative work environment, have done is to allow employees to dress comfortably and semi-casual every day of work, unless they have external client meetings, as part of a broader work culture of 'quality ideas and quality work being more important than formal or rigid appearances'."

At the other end of the spectrum, Lee says, are women who look like they're dressed to go to the morning market instead of their cubicles.

"Firstly, this is an office, not your home. You owe it to yourself, colleagues and bosses to maintain a certain standard at the workplace.

"As a senior person or long-serving employee in the company, you are looked upon as examples by the juniors.

"If you're not even seen to respect yourself, how do you expect others to treat you?

"Although there are some companies that practise a business-casual dress code, certain outfits like sundresses, Crocs, leggings, fishnet stockings, wrinkled shirts and clothing that have offensive pictures or words are a definite no-no.

"If you're over the age of 45, bear in mind that your grooming and image needs special attention.

"The most notable signs of ageing for women include greying hair, wrinkles, excessive weight, low energy or enthusiasm, and outdated clothing.

"Some of these 'relaxed' employees may argue that their work speaks for itself. But being good at what you do is no longer good enough.

"Employers want you to look sharp and project the right energy when you meet clients or when you're entertaining visitors.

"Besides that, if you're always dressed dowdily or appear too sloppy, you run the risk of being passed over for promotions. Before you know it, you'll be just another piece of furniture in the office."

In an ideal world, a person would be judged at their workplace based solely on the calibre of their work, Lee says.

"Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world and that's not how it works. We hate to admit it, because we personally feel that clothes shouldn't matter.

"But how you dress each morning reflects how you feel about your job -- whether you take your position seriously, are ready to work and pay attention to detail. Like it or not, appearances matter."

Not surprisingly, a recent survey of more than 2,000 office workers carried out in Britain showed that a third of male and female colleagues, like to fantasise about the object of their office affections wearing a nice smart suit instead of skimpy clothing.

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