A 30-something friend of mine at a public-relations firm in Boston once pulled aside a colleague for a chat about dressing appropriately. It hadn't occurred to the fresh-out-of-college worker that low-cut pants left a swath of her leopard-print underwear exposed.
Young people aren't the only ones who unwittingly send unprofessional messages by what they wear to work - and that's a big concern to Judith Rasband, an image consultant in Provo, Utah. After 30 years of tracking the trend toward more casual dress, the founder of the Conselle Institute of Image Management is trying to bring back higher standards, which she ties to better attitudes, relationships, and productivity.
"Everyone has forgotten the value of looking nice and how it influences the way they think, feel, and act," Ms. Rasband says. When people wear jeans, they're ready to play, she says, and surveys show that on casual days more people leave the office by noon.
At workshops, she first explains to people why it's worth devoting some thought, time, and money to the image they project. Then she gives them a practical tool, her Personal/Professional Style Scale. It describes four levels of dress, from untailored to tailored, and outlines what messages each level sends.
The notable feature for Level 1, untailored, is the lack of a collar. Wearing T-shirts and other unfitted clothing may signal that you are agreeable and easygoing, but it also gives the impression that you are unofficial and temporary. Level 4, on the other hand, is marked by the suit, as well as darker colors, firm fabrics, and hosiery. These make you look authoritative, credible, precise, stable. Levels 2 and 3 constitute "business casual" and mix tailored elements with softer items. If you want to appear accessible, influential, and relaxed, think sweater set.
Rasband is slowly winning converts, but she's discouraged that people like Apple cofounder Steve Jobs perpetuate the idea that jeans and a T-shirt are a way to dress for success.
She might take heart that in Germany a woman is on a similar crusade to bring seriousness back to work. Reuters reported recently on Judith Mair, owner of a small design firm where employees address one another formally and must wear blue suits when meeting clients. Concerned about the workday including too much frivolity, Ms. Mair wrote a book last year whose title translates as "Back to Business."