Power dressing & work-wear ideas: here are some tips for looking authoritative and elegant, and walking the fine line between looking like an effervescent intern and a woman of power.
Just got promoted to a senior management position? Going to meet investors for your newly founded startup? Have a job interview with the CEO? You want to make the best impression and there are too many things to consider. You want to seem likable but also unyielding. You want to seem serious but also good-looking.
Dressing for the workplace is easier in the winter months, when you can layer blazers upon buttoned-shirts and pencil skirts, put on the pantyhose, throw pumps on, and look corporate and professional effortlessly. But in the summer months, the blazer comes off, sometimes it gets too hot to even wear pumps, and sooner than you know, you start to look like a carefree sexy intern, or, if you skipped your workout sessions (gasp!), a chubby intern. Or even a secretary.
But when you’re in a senior management position, newly promoted, you don’t want to be mistaken for looking like a fresh graduate. And if you are young, well, you are very enthusiastic about your work, and want to be taken seriously. You want to dress for success, and you have to work doubly hard because it is a man’s world.
I come from a country where most months are too hot to wear business suits. Plus, I’ve worked as a young project manager where I had to boss around people of all ages. That too in the construction industry, where I was often one of the very few, if not only woman in many business scenarios. And then I moved on to found ShilpaAhuja.com, where I manage a team. After all this, I still find power dressing challenging, but I can share what I learned. Let’s get started!
What is Power Dressing?
Power dressing is the art of dressing up to look like you’re in a position of power, especially in a professional work environment, such as a senior manager or CEO. Power dressing can be for both men and women. However, women need to be more aware of their work attire to b taken seriously, as they are easily stereotyped in a workplace.
How to Do Power Dressing?
The short answer is that power dressing totally depends on your workplace culture, your profession and your personality, but there are a few common factors that all professional work attires have.
- The first rule of thumb is that you should feel confident and comfortable in what you wear.
- Whatever the attire, it should be well-fitted to look professional.
- The old adage goes something like this, “A woman of power should never show three things at her workplace – the back of her neck, her toes and her cleavage.” A lot of workplaces have relaxed rules about this, but it may still be a good idea to wear a buttoned up shirt or a top/dress that does not have a deep neckline.
- Collars make every dress and shirt look so much more professional and sharp. If you want to jazz it up, try something that has a collar in a contrasting color, or asymmetric collars. To avoid looking cutesy or too feminine, avoid rounded collars or those with trimmings.
- If you want to look more formal, avoid sleeveless shirts or dresses. Try something with sleeves, either cropped or elbow-length. Or to take it up a notch, wear long sleeves.
- A blazer or a business suit is the best idea. In the summer, you can also go for a lightweight formal cotton jacket that makes your look very authoritative but is still comfortable. Works well in those chilly air-conditioned board rooms. A light cardigan can also do the trick, but it will give a softer touch.
- If you don’t want to wear a jacket, you can also wear a shirt with attached scarf or a pussy-bow dress.
- And lastly, don’t forget that your dress should be well-ironed and clean.
Colors for Power Dressing
No matter what the season, you can never go wrong with the color palette men have been wearing at the workplace for ages. Navy, sky blue, grey, beige, chocolate, black and white are all classic and safe, and I personally love wearing these because they look very professional. White is my personal favorite for the office!
If you want to go a step further and try something else but not too feminine, wear violet, olive green, mint green, mustard yellow, sea blue or burgundy. To look formal, it should not be too bright or distracting for you or your co-workers. Dusty pastels also work well, such as dusty peach, or dusty lemon. Pair these with the classic colors mentioned above for a safe bet.
Alternatively, if you want only a hint of color, just wear the classic colors with one accessory that is contrasting, like pink necklace with a navy top, or purple handbag with a black trousers, or orange belt with a grey dress. Nudes are also great bases to accessorize with contrasting colors.
For some business outfit ideas with nude shades, read my article Mix n Match Style Guide for 5 Must-Have Nude Fashion Items.
Go for Good Quality Fabrics
The fabric should be rich and good quality. It should not look dull or too worn-out. The trick is to invest in work-wear that has classy cuts and high-quality fabric that doesn’t go out of style. For the summers, make sure you wear light-weight fabrics such as cotton, so that you don’t end up with sweat marks or itchy waistline. Beware of transparent fabrics though, especially if your commute to work makes you sweat.
Power Dressing: Pants or Skirt?
This, again, depends on where you work and what you feel most comfortable in. If you wear pants, wear well-fitted ones that are not too tight or too lose. Choose their length and cut according to your body-type. If you are tall, it is okay to wear trousers cropped at your ankles or cigarette pants. If you are petite, wear flared trousers that are below your ankles so that you look taller.
The Fine Line Between Tailored & Skin-Tight
There is this fine line you don’t want to cross. Something too tight will give you that stereotypical sexy secretary look, and something too lose will be better suited in a college or on weekends. A good rule of thumb for shirts is that if your buttons are trying to pop open at the middle of your chest, it’s too tight. And for skirts, if it shows off your panty-lines, it is too tight.
That does not mean you have to wear shapeless dresses or jackets. Lightly accentuating the waist gives a feminine appearance without without looking slutty. Peplum tops work great too for cinching your waist and making the silhouette look hourglass.
The Fine Line Between Skin Show & Comfort
Once again, it depends on your workplace culture and the type of work you do, but in more corporate or formal workplaces, a good idea is to have your neckline above your cleavage, and your hemline at your knee. It may be tempting in the summer to wear something shorter, but sometimes, the length of your skirt can really differentiate you as a no-nonsense manager from a casual junior employee.
Here’s my one-liner about this issue, “It isn’t that hard, ladies, if you don’t try too hard.”
Don’t Forget the Right Lingerie
Your lingerie plays a major role in making you look professional, even if that role is to not show at all. Make sure you choose the right set of lingerie, your bra straps are tightly tucked in, the cups all shapely and seamless, and your panties sleek and hidden. Don’t forget to match them with your outfits, especially with those translucent white shirts or trousers!
Grooming for the Workplace: Hair
Each detail matters. Ideally, not-so-messy buns or ponytails work best for long hair, especially in the hot months. But if you are comfortable letting your hair down, it should be well-brushed and not too tousled. Power dressing is all about comfortable hair (but not sloppy).
For more hairstyle ideas, read my article 20 Latest Women’s Hairstyles for All Hair Types, Lengths | Casual, Office, Party.
Don’t wear too much makeup at work, you’ve probably heard this many times before. Well what exacty does that imply in the hot summer months when you don’t want to be sweating but also want to look awake and fresh all day? Wear mascara and concealer that matches your skin-tone for wide-awake eyes. For a fresh looking skin, wear tinted moisturizer or light foundation. It is okay to contour lightly as long as you don’t overdo the trio – blush, bronzer or highlighter. For eyes and lips, I would avoid winged liner, or red lips. A safe idea would be to wear very thin liner and a nude or bronzey peach lipstick. Light pink or brown shades work well, too.
Nails are best kept glitter-free, just like your makeup. Also chip free. Nudes, beiges, whites and greys will be best, but once in a while other colors are acceptable, too, except red, maybe.
Power Dressing Accessories: Jewelry
Just like your makeup or color palette, avoid jewelry that is too distracting. That includes anything too sparkly or glittery. Pearls and precious or semi-precious stones look elegant and lady-like. For more corporate settings, it is good to wear minimal jewelry like a small pendant or small earrings. For more relaxed workplaces, a statement necklace, rings or bracelets that aren’t too overpowering should be fine.
Summer is the time when the woolen scarves come off and the collarbone finally gets some air. So it’s a great time to show off those necklaces. Or, if you have your hair up in a bun, wear a nice pair of earrings. Although not all at the same time. If you are still confused, follow Coco Chanel’s advice, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.”
The right accessories can take your work wear from plain and boring to professional yet unique. It’s a good idea to wear a belt with loose fitting tops or dresses. Belts especially look good with a peplum top or if you are layering a long cardigan over a shirt. Wear a contrasting color for an interesting look. For handbags, a good idea is to have one with clean lines that is neither too big nor too small. A professional handbag should not be cross-body, or scruffed. Also avoid fringes and cutesy prints like butterflies.
Generally, low-heeled or flat shoes that cover your heels and toes are the best. If you like to wear high heels, make sure you feel comfortable in them so that you can walk all day without getting shoe-bites or feeling tired. Because lack of comfort will not only hinder your ability to complete daily tasks, but will also ruin your confidence. Feel too hot to wear covered shoes? Try peep-toes or peep-heels, as long as they look professional.
The Attitude Matters When You’re Trying to Look Professional
Attire can only go so far in the workplace. The best business suits won’t make a woman powerful if she doesn’t wear them with confidence and aplomb. So make sure you not only dress like a power woman, but also feel like one. If it’s a nerve-wrecking event like your first public speech or an interview for a senior management position, or your first board meeting, it’s okay to feel a bit nervous. Practice your speech or your body-language in front of the mirror. Work on your poise and your walk and talk. Remember, as The Guy says, fake it until you make it.
Work Ethic Takes You Farther Than Power Dressing Does
Power dressing may be a good way to make the first impression, but only a great work ethic and excellence can earn you respect at the workplace. Professionalism overshadows confidence. If you lack work ethic, don’t work hard or aren’t driven, no amount of power dressing or confidence will make you a respected manager.
Everything counts, right from how you treat your co-workers to whether you spend too much personal time at work to how you draft your emails. Experience will teach you to keep your professional and personal lives separate, but being dedicated and positive in the workplace are innate qualities, that will make you the true leader in any profession.
So there you are! The basics of power dressing! Which is your favorite tip? And what other tip would like to share? Leave a comment below! 🙂
And if my guide helped you with your look, show off your own power dressing pics on Insta by tagging me @shilpaahujadotcom! And I’ll be sure to double-tap!
Also check out my recent photoshoot:
Shilpa Ahuja a designer and entrepreneur. She is the editor-in-chief of ShilpaAhuja.com, which she founded with the goal of inspiring confidence in the modern working woman through fashion.
Fashion has traditionally been for the rich, white, thin woman. That’s how it evolved over centuries and that’s how it’s been represented in fashion media. But Shilpa believes that with the changing role of women in the society, fashion has changed, too. She believes that fashion is for everyone, regardless of their age, gender, color, body type and background. So she translates runway fashion into easy style advice that one can incorporate into their daily lives.
Shilpa’s work has been published in the University of Fashion blog and Jet Airways magazine. She is also an artist, illustrator and cartoonist. She is also the creator of Audrey O., a comic series that represents the lifestyle of millennial women. She enjoys creative writing and world travel. Her art has been exhibited at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Aroma Hotel, Chandigarh and been published in Chandigarh Times.
Originally from Chandigarh, Shilpa also has a professional degree in architecture and has worked in interior project management. She is also the author of the book “Designing a Chinese Cultural Center in India”. Shilpa has a Masters in Design Studies degree from Harvard University. For feedback and questions, please email [email protected]