Making your work wardrobe work

Does your image give out the right messages at work? Are you known for being well-groomed and professional, or a little haphazard and mis-matched? Image Consultant Julia Campion gives some insider tips on looking great with less effort

By Julia Campion

Q What's the key element of managing your work image?

A Planning! Looking great on a daily basis doesn't just happen. Managing your image is an ongoing, conscious process. It's about discovering what suits you, understanding the culture of your work environment, and having a clothes buying strategy. It does require an investment in time, but in the long run, you'll save yourself money, time and aggravation.

Q Where do I start?

A By finding out what suits you. How? By asking an expert! If you have a friend or relative who's has a good eye, enlist their help. Or contact an image consultancy. An expert can tell you what suits you, and just as importantly, why it suits you. This is learning for life! Knowing which shapes, colours and textures look good on you means you can shop correctly, and avoid those costly mistakes that are never worn. And because everything works well together, you'll need fewer clothes. So you can invest more in better quality clothes, and your whole image gets notched up a level.

Q Why is the company's culture important?

A If you want your image to say, "I fit here, I'm in tune with the company's values and aims", you need to be dressed appropriately. And that doesn't mean suits and blouses every day. Sure, if you work in a City law office, but if you're in a TV production company, you would probably stick out like a sore thumb in a sober navy suit! And then your image-message could be read as, "I don't care that I dress differently. I'm not a part of this firm". By all means, dress individualistically, but be aware of the message you're giving out.

Q So, once I've decided on what suits me and what works in the office, what next?

A Attack your wardrobe. Twice a year - probably at the beginning of autumn and spring - go through your wardrobe thoroughly. Look at what you'll need to get you through the next few months, and make a short-term shopping list. It may not be an exciting list - perhaps new handbag and a belt, a couple of tops, and a new pair of navy shoes - but it avoids crisis buying, which can lead to costly mistakes, and ensures your wardrobe is kept smart and fresh. It's also the time to have some fun and update your wardrobe to add pizzazz for the season ahead. Add a few hot fashion items in this season's style or colour, but don't splurge your whole budget on things that will quickly date.

Q So, you need to buy lots of clothes, then?

A No, quite the reverse! The idea of building your wardrobe cleverly is that you have lots of outfits with not many clothes! The key is to work around colour themes, making sure you include accessories. You can't look at clothes as separate items - they are part of a strategy. You may see a great jacket, but before you buy, ask yourself whether it goes with anything you have, or whether you're prepared to buy something else to match with it. If you don't have the corresponding items, it's highly likely you won't wear it, and it will hang un-worn on your clothes rail for years.

Q If everything co-ordinates, don't you become very monochrome, wearing grey or brown all the time?

A You should build around two or three neutral colours, whichever suit you - say, charcoal, beige and black. Then you make your wardrobe work around those colours, keeping them in mind every time you shop. Eventually, you won't buy a green skirt, or a navy jacket, because you just know it's not going to get worn.

Q After your neutrals, what's next?

A The fun part is building colours around the neutrals. This is where you bring out your individuality, flair, and creativity. Yes, you may have a black suit, but how fantastic does it look with a cerise blouse, or a sparkly aqua top? These are your focal points.

Q "Focal points"?

A Yes - each outfit needs a focal point. Say you're wearing a navy skirt suit, your focal point may be your eye-catching top, or a stunning brooch, or a lovely necklace, or a trendy belt. You know when you've got it right, because it's the element that everyone comments on as soon as they see you! Don't overdo the focal points, though - less is more. You really only need one per outfit. But they make a huge difference to how you're perceived, and they are your opportunity to show flair, especially in more conservative work environments.

Q What else can help?

A Have a proper "grooming strategy". Have a slim, day-to-day make-up kit, with just the items you need in it, and develop a slick routine. You want to be able to do your make-up in ten minutes, in the dark! Have a hair style that's easy to groom, too - why chain yourself to hair-dryer and tongs for 40 minutes a day?

Also, be strict about what goes back in your wardrobe after wearing. Make this a rule: if it needs mending, dry cleaning or ironing, it doesn't go in the wardrobe! Be rigorous about this, and you'll be able to pull any item out at any time, knowing that it's ready to wear that instant. Going through item after item until you find one that's fit to wear, and then trying to match accessories, is very time-consuming and frustrating - not what you want first thing on a Monday morning!

Q What about your wardrobe space itself?

A Your physical storage space again can be friend or enemy, depending on how you organise it. Take a critical look at how you store your clothes, bearing in mind the large financial investment contained within. (Spend a moment one day and do a quick tot up of your clothes' value - you'll be amazed how much money is hanging on those rails and in drawers!)

Be careful not to pull clothes out of shape with poor hangers. Jackets, coats, etc, need good, wide, thick hangers or you'll ruin the shoulders. Trousers should ideally be clipped at the top to avoid creasing the knees by folding over bars. Get some proper skirt hangers, put delicates on fine hangers, fold jumpers and put them on shelves, put hooks in for belts, beads, etc. And throw all your wire hangers away! Keep your shoes in boxes or in the wardrobe to guard against dust, and use shoe trees to keep their shape. And, put a small sewing kit, spare tights, etc in your desk drawer for emergencies.

Q Sounds like quite an organisational task!

A It is, to begin with but it soon becomes a habit. And the whole idea is to make your life easier. You should be able to grab any outfit from your wardrobe, find all the colour-matching accessories, put it on, and get to work. No fuss, no aggravation, no wasted time. That way you can get dressed, made-up, and groomed in the minimum amount of time, so you can get on with the important things of the day.

Q Any golden rules?

A I'll leave two image maxims with you. The first is "Dress for your wardrobe, not for events." In other words, if you know the company has a Christmas bash or summer party every year, start looking early and make a choice which works with your wardrobe for the event, and for the future. Don't make a last-minute, one-off panic buy that won't be worn after the party.

And secondly, this one: "Love it madly, need it badly, or leave it out". We all see things from time to time that we can't leave the shop without. We just love them. So buy them! Equally, some things we do need. It may not be racy, but if you need a new handbag, get one. However, if the item doesn't fall into either of those categories, put your purse away!

Julia Campion is Managing Director of First Impressions, experts in bespoke corporate programmes, executive coaching and personal consulting. First Impressions adds value to organisations by helping personnel project an appropriate and professional image.
For further details, visit and for a free download of your Guide to Image Consultancy. First Impressions also offers one-to-one personal image assessments from around £250.

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