American stylist and designer, Rachel Zoe, wasn’t wrong when she said “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.”
What your taste in clothing and accessories says about you is a question asked frequently in the fashion world and everyday socialising. But nowhere does your style have a greater impact than in the corporate sector where knowing how one wants to be perceived is as important as knowing what they want to achieve in their professional capacity. In this respect, questions regarding what to wear, how to wear it and what impression to give out are obvious concerns for anyone involved in the business world. Whether you are an intern on the brink of a new career or a CEO with years of experience under your belt, knowing how to present yourself to both your colleagues and external audiences is a must in today’s image-oriented society.
Of course, with the inclusion of women in the Pakistani workforce and younger people more actively involved in income generation than ever before, it isn’t just men who need to worry about their suits and ties. The term ‘power dressing’ may be reminiscent of thick shoulder pads and overbearing dark suits (worn by female officers in the yesteryears to signal equality with their male counterparts), the concept has itself undergone a slow and steady makeover. Initially considered as an attempt for women to fit in amongst a male-dominated workforce, power dressing now refers to a women’s ability to use her clothing and style to convey an image which will help advance her career.
Power dressing in Pakistan
Unfortunately, power dressing is trickier for working women in Pakistan considering that our corporate sector is still predominantly male. Overtime, a variety of magazine articles, blogs, websites have sprung up on the internet, offering advice on power dressing according to local social norms. “One wrong step and you can end up with a tainted reputation,” says banker and fashion-enthusiast Hina Mumtaz. “Too much makeup, a plunging neckline and overall loud behaviour can actually hinder your career growth so it is important to know your limits.” Hina feels it is best to keep work attire as simple as possible to create the right image. “Simple and elegant clothing in pastel shades, minimal makeup and no jewellery should do the trick,” she advises. “Simple, neat and tidy gives off a professional vibe without making you appear too boring.”
Pouru Sidhwa, director of Human Resources at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Pakistan believes that formal is the way to go if women want to succeed professionally. “It always helps to be dressed formally rather than giving an impression of casualness,” she says. “As long as the chosen attire is appropriate and follows the dress code of an organisation, there should be no impact on the way female employees are treated there.”
According to Lal Majid, a renowned chef and owner of Lal’s Patisserie agrees with Pouru, saying that everyone — not just forerunners of a business — should dress properly, regardless of gender. “Whether you are a man or woman, casual dressing doesn’t command respect. For me, it means you aren’t taking your work seriously enough.” Lal, who also hosts her own cooking show, is used to dressing not just for her employees but a large television audience as well and believes in dressing immaculately for everyday social encounters as well, such as at airports etc. “Your dressing is not only for your beauty,” she explains. “It denotes your work ethic, personality and interests. Most importantly, it tell others how committed you are to the job you are doing.”
Dressing for your part
Leon Menezes, HR expert and professor of Practice at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), believes how one dresses to work depends largely on their personality and their status in the organisational hierarchy. “When you are starting out, you’ll need every advantage you can get,” he says. “The first few times you are meeting someone, they are judging you by your appearance and not your work.” The situation begins to change as one moves up the corporate ladder. “Once you are an established CEO or CFO with a prominent reputation in the business world, people respect your work and accept you.”
Lal, on the other hand, feel that looking professional isn’t subjective and should be something an employee strives for regardless of their position in their company. “Whether you are an intern or the big boss, regardless of the job description, you must be well dressed to be taken seriously.”
Different dressing for different industries
According to Pouru, business attire is highly dependent upon both the culture and norms of not just an individual organisation but also the industry within which it operates. “In my opinion, this is the global way of thinking,” she says. “It isn’t specific to Pakistan or how working women are treated here.” Leon builds up on this notion, claiming that, “There is no yes or no answer to how one should dress. It has a lot to do with the culture of each firm and field.” Citing the advertising industry and banking as examples of two different fields requiring different dress codes, Leon believes that power dressing, more often than not, is a matter of context.
The climate and industry one is employed in is therefore, of utmost importance when choosing a work wardrobe. A telecommunications expert from Karachi, for example, is likely to have very different wardrobe guidelines as compared to an investment banker in Islamabad. The corporate sector is replete with a multitude of different businesses, each requiring a different style of conduct. What is important is learning these underlying patterns and adhering to them, lest you lose out.
Does wardrobe matter than work?
While it is indeed most beneficial for ambitious youngsters to look the part, this obsession with appearance leads us to question whether being good at your job is good enough. Emerging trends in the global markets hint at a move away from image consciousness, with notable businessmen like the late Steve Jobs conducting press conferences and product launches in turtlenecks, jeans and tattered sneakers. Fans of the tech-genius have hailed him for his brilliance and success but would they do the same had it been someone poorly-dressed showcasing their favourite electronics?
Fortunately, the world has begun to evolve from its pre-conceived notions and the stress laid upon power dressing might just be dwindling a tad. This was made evident by fashion legend Giorgia Armani a couple of years ago, when he stated that you no longer needed powerful-looking clothes to earn respect from your peers. “Women have edged out their standing in the world. Today, they don’t have to wear a suit jacket to prove their authority,” he said. This is extraordinary, considering Giorgio is the man behind the acclaimed female power suit but is he right?
“Although trends are changing, women are still more appearance-conscious than men,” says Hina. “I think general perceptions about the female gender make us expect women to care more about how they look. Hence, a woman who doesn’t groom herself is unlikely to make much of an impact in any setting, be it personal or professional.” Perhaps this can explain the inclusion of workplace dressing in regular fashion forums of Pakistan. In fact, the phenomenon is not only limited to magazine article and online blogs. Some universities and higher-education institutes of Pakistan are now offering career counselling programmes featuring fashion advice as well! From knowing what to wear to the first interview to everyday wardrobe ideas for full-time employees, these courses outline exactly what is considered appropriate for every corporate situation. Keeping this and our male-dominated culture, in mind we cannot disregard power dressing as an outdated concept yet in Pakistan, at least. Pakistan still has a long way to go till a woman can work looking less than her best without any consequences on how others treat her.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, November 9th, 2014