People make judgment calls based on how people are dressed. It is so prevalent that there is a name for it: The First Impression. Articles, books, and studies have been written about this all-important first impression. First impressions are important, despite how often that first impression is wrong. It is very easy for a stranger to get the impression that you are not capable or knowledgeable enough. It is also possible to convince someone that you are an expert in your field and worth talking to. A first impression is important and will help get your foot in the door. However, you still need to back up your unstated claim of expertise and reliability with action.
Your first impression might also be your reputation. People wonder why there are certain gurus or industry leaders that dress badly and get away with it. It’s mostly because their reputation precedes them. Even then, many of those leaders have dressed up to make a point or give a good impression at some point in their careers. Infamously casual Mark Zuckerberg donned a tie to show how serious Facebook was as a company in 2009 and Steve Jobs wore suits early on in his career.
How to dress for a good first impression
Not every industry has the same definition of professional attire. An artist, construction worker, or musician would look out of place wearing a business suit while working. Professional attire for an artist might mean 2 separate wardrobes, one for creating that is comfortable and easy to clean, and another for meeting clients that is clean and shows off some of their aesthetic. The construction worker would look professional and capable in something like dark jeans or pants, a clean, stain-free polo shirt and work boots. The musician might be wearing the latest trends in well-tailored fits that might be dressed up with a blazer or sportcoat when attending business meetings.
Professional attire also varies by geographical location. San Antonio is much more casual and inclined to wear fewer layers than say Vancouver, partially due to the weather. London, Shanghai and Mexico City tend to wear more formal clothing due to the culture. Study up or ask about the places you are traveling for business, so that you don’t show up underdressed.
When in doubt or for special occasions like an interview or a first meeting with a client, dressing up is never a bad idea. People tend to forgive overdressed more easily than they do underdressed. Having said that, aim for slightly more than usual since it is possible to overdo it. If you show up overdressed, especially in clothes you don’t regularly wear or are not comfortable in, it is easy to look like a child playing dress-up or someone who’s trying too hard.
For tips on how to move past that first impression, check out Networking Vs. Relationship Building.