Archive for the 'Style Dilemmas' Category

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Cracking the code – my answers

Last week, I set a little teaser to see if you could figure out which of the outfits I posted would be most appropriate in different professional contexts.

Below is what I think. 

A little caveat first though:  There’s no right or wrong about this. Most of the the outfits would look great in most of the professional environments, depending on the wearer’s personality and individual style. (And the pictures all feature a single model.) So I’m not even going to explain why I think is each right.

The point of the exercise (which I hope has worked!) is that I’m guessing you intuitively thought the same as me for most of them, which just demonstrates that we all recognise the dress codes in operation everywhere. 

So here is my solution:

The entrepreneurial CEO 

The city executives (these outfits are particularly good for to day to evening wear)

The lawyer

The IT executive

The consultant

The advertising/creative industry executives

The magazine exec

The film company executive

If we do have a common intuitive appreciation of appropriate dress for various professional contexts, then the trick is to discover your own personal solution to cracking the code. 

If you can do it you will look both successful and confident.  This will increase the confidence of others in your ability to help them; and just knowing it will be a huge boost to your own confidence.


Cracking the dress code

I talk a lot about developing your own individual confident style.  However, an important ingredient to making your individual style work for you in business is to decipher and respond to the dress code in your working environment.

And just to anticipate an objection which I often hear to the above statement, if you work with other people, there is a dress code: whatever the official policy and whatever your approach to style, your clothes send coded messages about you – and the message depends on the context and the culture of the organisation.

What is not context specific is the ‘success factor’ – you should always dress as though you are successful in the job that you are doing or preferably the one you’re aiming for next.

Where uniforms and medals are worn, ‘codification’ – badges of rank, medals, etc… –    makes it easy to detect success.  But in business, the code is the sort that needs deciphering.

Men have long understood this code.  We expect successful men to wear good suits – most men in senior management positions buy at least one new suit a season and refresh shirt collar shapes and widths of ties.  It’s a pretty simple code and easy to adapt for the individual personality.

But women, particularly in the UK, seem to have two problems with dress code.  The first is to do with guilt, worrying about what they spend on clothes to appear successful – not wanting to appear frivolous.  And the second is that successful women, after decades of wearing either boring copies of men’s suits or clothes that are inappropriate, are only just (as they start to do business with stylishly dressed continental counterparts) beginning to learn how to respond to the code and make it work for them.

To be clear, I’m not saying everyone should have the same look.

If you are a modern classic person, who wants an up-to-the-minute but subtle look, you need to make sure that the design, fit and fabric are the best. Somebody who is in a more creative world will also need to dress in a businesslike way but can be a bit more edgy – this can also be done with modern classic clothes but accessorised more creatively.

Responding to the code means developing an individual style which reflects the organisation.  With a little thought it is easy to decipher the code (see the little quiz below); figuring out how to respond is more difficult. Which is why it’s so important to get the help of a professional who can maximise all your personal assets.

Just for a bit of fun, and to illustrate the point about context, take a look at the pictures within the post and below.  I think these are modern, edgy outfits that fit the codes of different types of organisation.  I think there are a couple of city executives, a lawyer, an IT executive, a consultant, two advertising/creative execs, a magazine exec, an entrepreneurial CEO and someone working in a film company.

Can you guess which is which?  Answers next week.


Style dilemma: the office party

If you work in an office, talk is probably turning to the office party – that special day where you have to spend time in the loo with your colleagues transforming yourself from your usual sophisticated work-self into…

Into what?

Here are some tips to help you dress up without dropping your standards.

First, confidence is as important in the evening as it is during the day. Don’t wear what you wouldn’t wear at other times. Most women panic when they see younger colleagues and try to compete. It usually makes them look older. Don’t do it.

Remember as you choose your outfit that simplicity stands out. A simple, well-cut outfit/dress will be the most flattering thing you can wear.


Do, however, glam up the make-up; step up the heels; dress up the neck line; and pick up an interesting bag; possibly using the bag to bring a bit of colour to your outfit.

It’s worth getting some professional advice on evening make up; but in any case don’t use too much glitter on your eyes or too heavy an application of lipstick. There’s a great lipstick by Laura Mercier which is bright red, but sheer and a good evening colour – its name is Poppy.


Even if you’re wearing a suit to the party, dress it up with an attractive top or shirt. (It’s always a good idea to keep a dressy top, a pair of heels and some stronger make-up in the office so you can easily move from office to evening occasion.)

Finally, make sure you can walk in your heels – so you’re not in pain or unsteady on your feet – or you’ll start to look the worse for wear earlier than necessary!


No age limit to wearing jeans

In the Sunday Times Style magazine last week, their style agony aunt penned a piece advocating that nobody over 30 should wear jeans (I can’t find it on their site to link to).

If you read the article, please pay no attention to it.  Surely someone who writes for women about fashion knows that denim is just a fabric and as long as it is cut and worn in an appropriate way it doesn’t have an age limit.

True, it needs to be designed in a way that suits the wearer; but there are thousands of styles and hundreds of designers.

What you need to do is find a cut that looks good for you. Something that complements your proportions, body shape and personality.

That might change as you age (and I’m talking 50 rather than 30). In particular as your face begins to look a bit older, you might want to find jeans that look more sophisticated to avoid what I saw described elsewhere as the “mutton effect”.  Maybe when you get into your 50s you will want to avoid the ripped look.

 PS jeans

One example is Piazza Sempione. Their background is in trousers so, while they’re not the trendiest on the market, the cut of their jeans is superb. (A straight legged pair are pictured but they also do wider shapes but with same good fit.) 

This kind of sloppy, un-researched journalism is the sort of thing that can leave women feeling unconfident in their clothes and their bodies.  At least it isn’t available on the web.


Style dilemma: no need to be as barmy as the weather

What is it about hot balmy days that makes women go barmy about what they wear?

Why, just because the sun has come out, would a woman who knows she looks much better in a straight skirt in winter suddenly swathe her bottom half in volumes of highly patterned fabric, and wear a tight t-shirt on her top half showing off bra-straps and rolls of fat.

It’s a peculiarly British thing to do; continental women continue to take care of their appearance in the heat – and to be fair in most parts of Europe there is a longer, hotter summer.

But in reality, even in the UK there are at least four summer months which are warm enough to wear summer clothes; and with careful purchasing you can still look and feel cool as well as looking stylish during even the hottest of the heat waves.

A good investment at the heart of a summer capsule wardrobe is a cotton trouser or skirt suit, as the pieces can be worn independently – and the jacket can be worn or not depending on the temperature – and can look great over jeans or other bottom halves. A heavier cotton stretch is a good option and now available in many collections.

Another good staple is a very simply cut, collarless summer dress just below the knee which can have a small cap sleeve or be sleeveless. Choose something either button-through with a belt or what I call a body dress – a very simple, but beautifully cut dress like the one below with no ornamentation that you can use as a basis for accessorising in lots of different ways.


Less is more in the summer as it is in winter.

Getting shoes right in the summer is important. Summer shoes tend to be more uncomfortable than winter shoes; and often people seem to worry less about what’s on their feet in the summer. This seems a bit silly to me as more of the foot is exposed. A pedicure is not a luxury in the summer because other people see your feet too.

A tip: as summer shoes often have a thinner sole, you tend to feel the pavement and hard surfaces more under foot; and I have on occasion asked a good shoe mender to add an extra layer of sole to make them more comfortable.  Of course, a small platform on a summer shoe solves this problem.

Not having a coat means you can be more indulgent with the size of your bag. A bag made of linen with a leather trim, like the ones below, is a good investment because you can bring it out year after year. Many of the top chic bag manufacturers tend to do one of these a year because it is such a good standby.


Over the coming weeks I plan to do a series of posts re-introducing the capsule wardrobe concept and showing you how to put it all together.  If you follow the approach you won’t suffer from silly season  summer style again.


Comfort Chic: How to achieve a versatile capsule for the weekend away

I’ve been asked to discuss a capsule wardrobe for: “a weekend away in a country house hotel; in London doing the sights, shows and shopping and dining; and a long weekend in a luxury hotel in a warm (not hot) hotel abroad”.


In fact all three can be pretty similar when you get the capsule wardrobe right.


What you’re looking for here is what I call comfort chic.  This can easily be achieved with a couple of well cut pairs of trousers (one of which could be black) and jeans; a comfortable boot or shoe; and a coat or raincoat depending on whether it’s winter or summer, as the basis.


Then add a couple of white shirts; two or three sweaters and a chic cardigan and a coat for winter – or a casual jacket for summer.  A great scarf and a chunky necklace to wear over the shirts can be very useful.


For the evenings, I suggest a simple well-cut dress and a change of earrings and some sexy shoes to glam it up a bit.  You could also take an evening shirt which could be worn with the black trousers.


Style dilemma: what to wear for a black tie do

Last week, a customer asked a question which hasn’t come up for a while.  She was looking for something fabulous to wear for a black tie wedding.  A size 14, she was looking for something flowery and floaty.


Evening wear for most people is really difficult. Looking forward to the occasion can so often be tempered by the anxiety of choosing something to wear.


The problem is, if you don’t go to these events very often you could be tempted to pull out a dress you’ve had for 10 years or to buy something that looked glamourous on a model in a magazine without thinking about how much of your body will be on show.


Black tie events are the occasion to be understated but chic.


Unless you have a perfect figure, if you want to look fabulous I believe you’re better off choosing a dress in a plain colour (black is more than acceptable, in fact it’s very fashionable right now) in a fabric that drapes well.  Draping hides a multitude of sins. 


Add some creativity with an evening jacket – long or short – shawl, bag or a statement piece of jewellery.  Men look elegant in their tuxedos; women should be going for the same elegance.


Evening wear is expensive. You want to be able to wear it more than once.  If you go for the floaty approach, you’ll not find many occasions to wear it and you’ll find yourself pulling it out of your cupboard years later and looking quite out of date – more costume than confidently worn clothing.


Something more understated will be able to be used much more regularly. And, if you do have an evening jacket it can be worn casually over a pair of well-cut jeans for less formal evenings.


If your figure is less than perfect, floaty florals don’t do you any favours at all.  Simplicity in evening wear is in some ways even more important than for day wear because where there’s a pattern there’s a lot of it on show.


And when you do go to a black tie event, look a round the room.  You’ll realise that the women who really stand out for the right reasons are wearing plain colours, beautifully accessorised.


Style dilemma: Managing the Winter to Summer transition

With the hot snap last week and the return to a more British April this week, a number of people have asked me how to manage the transition between their winter and summer wardrobes.


It’s always a problem in the UK.  You can go out of the house into a sunny morning and find it’s freezing by mid-afternoon and vice-versa.


Here are some ideas:


  • wear layers. A summer cardi over a tailored dress under a summer coat or raincoat. A lightweight suit, with a sleeveless cardigan as an option for early morning. Or a Wolford body (‘cos it fits well) under a shirt is a good layering tip
  • always take a spring coat or raincoat and a summer scarf – once you neck is protected you’ll always feel warmer
  • long sleeve cotton shirts are warm, but not as wintery as a sweater; but equally there are some lovely lightweight wools and cashmeres that look good and won’t be too warm under a lightweight suit at this time of year
  • this year in particular a trend has emerged of tailored dresses for day wear.  There’s a lot of fabulous tailored dresses with three-quarter sleeves in wool/silk or wool/linen mixtures which are not too heavy and can be worn for eight months of the year with a jacket or summer coat. Here are a couple of examples: 


  • if you’re worried about you pale wintery skin tone, I recommend you buy some Nivea Self Tan Lotion. Exfoliate first – in fact I recommend exfoliating once a week even during the winter months – and after a couple of applications you’ll look like you’ve had a weekend in the South of France.  The Nivea lotion is one of the least expensive on the market, but don’t let that put you off – I’ve tried a lot of them and so far this one for me is the best.


The arrival of warm weather always raises the bare legs issue – can you go without tights?  Generally, I think if you want to be taken seriously, you shouldn’t be showing off bare legs in the office and you should wear tights or trousers whatever the weather.


If you really don’t want to wear tights, wear a fitted straight skirt, or a cotton dress, below the knee and sexily cut.  You can probably get away with it with supertanned legs and a shoe with a heel.


A floral skirt, flat shoes and no tights will look like you’re on the way to the park or the supermarket.



Style dilemma: Do I dress down for the interview?

The following was posted on the Fashion Forum page:

I’m going for a job interview with the BBC. I do want to look smart – in the past I’ve always ‘overdressed’ for interviews and, as you say, it has made me feel confident and I’m sure that has rubbed off on the interviewees.

But the thing is, most people I’ve met at the BBC tell me they don’t worry too much about what they’re wearing, and I’m concerned that looking too ‘continental’ might come across as flashy or threatening – or just a bit vain.

Any tips?

First of all, it’s great that you’re thinking about this.  It’s important know who is interviewing you and it’s worth thinking about how they will be dressed and how they will see you.

My advice is:

  • continental women tend not to look flashy – confident, professional, successful, yes; but rarely flashy.  The way to pull this off is to make it look as if you’ve put together your look effortlessly – that you haven’t tried too hard.  Don’t dramatically change your style for the interview: it’ll be obvious.  Even if it is the BBC, don’t try to be overly ‘creative’.  Avoid bright colours; stick to so softer ones.  If you want to show a little flair dress it up with an interesting piece of jewellery or at most a colourful shirt.

  • no matter what the interview is for, always wear a suit (or at the very least a jacket).  You are always more likely to be taken on if you look presentable and successful.  Over three decades of working with senior executives – and hiring quite a few people for Wardrobe – I am convinced that there are few, if any,  circumstances where it’s a good idea not to wear a suit for an interview.

  • whatever you wear, make sure it really, really fits you.  You need to appear 100% confident that you look good when you walk into the room. You don’t want to be fiddling or adjusting your clothes, so ensure that they look and feel as though they are you (and not just your interview persona) – and make sure that you can walk comfortably in your shoes.

  • make sure your hair looks good and your make up is natural – but don’t go without make-up – and if you wear glasses, don’t forget to give them a clean

I don’t know if you are going for a presentation job or an executive job, but I am constantly amazed at the way the BBC’s female presenters dress.  While the men are always immaculate, it seems to me that the women get it wrong more often than they get it right.  It is harder for women, but you only have to look at their counterparts on the US news channels to see how to put together a well-groomed professional look that can complement the undoubtedly professional content of their work.  Just as in your interview, looking successful and confident in front of the camera can only enhance credibility among their audience.

Good luck with the interview.