“The apparel oft proclaims the man,” Polonius advises his son Laertes on the latter’s departure for Paris, cautioning him to present a good image to the discriminating French. Today, we have translated Shakespeare’s phrase from
to “clothes make the man.” And it is today just as true for women in the leadership spotlight as it as for Laertes or businessmen.
Indeed, ever since women began entering the white-collar, ascendant-oriented workplace in record numbers back in the 1970s, there has been a series of books advising them how to dress. Not a few people reading this blog will remember the navy blue (boring) suits worn with little bow ties by women hoping to eschew femininity for feminism. Ugh.
But there were no role models back then, when there were very few women in top leadership roles. I remember (as a reporter in Washington, DC in the early 1990s) then-First Lady Hillary Clinton received almost as much public attention for her dress, her “look,” as she did for her work on healthcare reform. Neither fared very well. But hers was a situation faced by many 40-something women
today: how to project an image that is both appealing and powerful, strong but not overbearing, confident but not arrogant. Charismatic. Credible. As any businessman would want to be.
Today, political leaders Hillary Clinton and German Chancellor
“have chosen to look matronly,” says French-born long-time women’s image consultant and wardrobe stylist Michele Oppenheimer, whose more than 25-year list of career credits began at Galleries Lafayette in Paris and includes working with Giorgio Armani, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. “Clinton and Merkel look like grandmothers, which might help them to not appear threatening.”
That’s not necessarily bad thing – at least neither woman is subjected to hours of discussion over her “look”; the substance of their comments has finally superseded their respective images. No one discusses Merkel’s wardrobe or hairstyle when she is speaking of the refugee problem, for example.
But wardrobe still counts; it exists as a kind of the underlying “base note” pulling together one’s public persona.
“In American politics, I think (former House Speaker now House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi is the best-dressed woman,” Oppenheimer continues. The grandmother and mother of five looks anything but matronly. “Her look is usually Armani, always impeccable and appropriate to the situation. She uses color and design in a very sophisticated manner.”
My own personal favorite is (also French-born) IMF President Christine Lagarde. Oppenheimer’s, too. “Christine Lagarde is extremely sophisticated and sharp, even chic and sexy. But although she is very feminine and beautiful, Lagarde’s sharpness connotes an almost masculine power and efficiency.” (Is this a shining example of French timeless chic?)
Dressing Your Age
Then there’s “age appropriateness” – an issue for 40-50-something women leaders, the most common age when women ascend to senior leadership positions.
“Looking ‘age appropriate’ for a woman in middle age doesn’t mean she has to look frumpy or matronly,” Oppenheimer opines. “The problem often is the opposite: women who are trying to not look old, and think they are being sexy and feminine, whereas what they do is end up looking cheap, which is not only age inappropriate but also tasteless.”
It’s not just a matter of choosing the right business suit. Indeed, it’s not necessary in these “disruptive” days, to wear an actual business suit, according to Jeff Byron, another 25-plus-year retail veteran, now vice president and general manager of the flagship Neiman Marcus Downtown in Dallas, Texas. “I see much more mix and match today,” he says. “Women are becoming more original, more inclined to adapt their wardrobes to their lifestyles, and that incudes wearing pants or slacks instead of the traditional skirts with jackets for the office.”
Personal grooming is also important to “image,” particularly in younger female leaders. “When I think of business leaders such as Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, what strikes me immediately is not the fashion but her grooming – i.e. hair and makeup. Marissa Mayer’s hair and makeup give her a clean, slick and vibrant look.”
Six Style Tips For Women Leaders
For the woman whose leadership role is a bit less stellar, but still in the spotlight, here is a short list of style tips that will help ensure your audience discusses your comments rather than your couture:
1. Go for balance between being attractive and powerful.
“To achieve a balance has a lot to do with the totality of clothes, grooming and attitude. The hair has to be shiny and vibrant, the makeup flawless and the clothes should be clean, well pressed and fit perfectly,” says Oppenheimer. Power is sexy – remember the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who wore “power” as well as she wore her legendary pearls.
2. Be “fashionable,” but not “trendy.”
“Women in a leadership role should be classic and perfectly put together,” advises Oppenheimer. “Clean lines, perfect tailoring and exquisite fabric transcend time and trends.” In short, it’s worth spending a little money on your clothes – a point also made in another quote from Polonius’s advice to his Paris-bound son:
“Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy.”
3. Think color.
“All shades of red, preferably a blue-red, and black convey leadership and power,” says Oppenheimer. “Avoid yellow, unless you want to look like a bird.” (Ed note: No, Oppenheimer did not really like First Lady
Michelle Obama’s choice of color – mango – for the President’s State of the Union speech January 12, though she does applaud Mrs. Obama for finding simple cuts that flatter her.)
4. Adapt to your environment
including the casual chic of today’s start-ups. “If everybody wears jeans, find a pair of jeans you look good in, and make sure they fit well,” Oppenheimer suggests. “In many of these types of informal settings, jeans, tee-shirt and jacket – all very fashionable of course – can work very well. But white shirts, sweater sets, or a little dress are also sometimes appropriate. You can be casual chic and “in charge” without wearing a suit.
5. Adapt “day-for-night” style.
You can indeed go from office to dinner with the right moves. “You start by refreshing your makeup, put on heels instead of flats, and change other accessories such as scarves and jewelry,” says Oppenheimer.
6. It’s about projecting YOU.
“It all depends on what fits best and projects an appropriate image that you will look and feel relaxed in,” says Oppenheimer. “The key is to remember that the woman wears the clothes, the clothes don’t wear the woman.”
And as Polonius reminded his Paris-bound son, projecting the right and true image does more than make you look good in the spotlight. It can make you a better leader overall:
“This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Watch on Forbes:
This is is a syndicated post. Read the original at www.forbes.com
Best Clickbank Products