Not long ago, I dashed out of the office for an afternoon meeting that I’d almost forgotten. As many of us do, I’d dressed for a day of writing, phone calls, and stuff like that. Not a quick meeting with friends working on an event, for sure. I wore linen.
So when I ran into the room to see my neatly pressed professional friends, I could hardly miss the fact that I was wrinkled, deeply wrinkled, from head to toe in a linen pants suit (check: linen pants, linen jacket, linen blouse, yep, head to toe). It didn’t quite look like pajamas—it was taupe—but I did look like I’d been sleeping in it.
When is it networking and not just an errand? Always, when you are making or trying to make connections that might lead to a professional opportunity. If you are an artist, looking for an artist job, you might look seriously artistic dressed in paint-stained clothes. But if the job ever involves presentations to someone’s clients, you won’t look sensible; you want to blend in a little, even if your work stands out a lot.
Here are some basic dress rules for summer networking success:
1. As I may have said, avoid the Full Blown Linen look. Scrunch wrinkles look bad on everyone, distractingly so (worse on men, though). Tropicals are for vacation.
2. Flip-flops are for the beach. In general, sandals are riskier than you think.
3. Sleeveless, men or women: Sorry, NO. Strapless: NO! For those who will offer me an issue of a current and reliable fashion magazine containing an article on what to wear to work that shows an actual picture of a sleeveless top: 1.) Once you have the job, do what you think is right, based on what you see around you, and 2.) Magazines rely on ads, the fashion industry relies on profits, and clothes without sleeves are less expensive to manufacture.
4. Jewelry should be minimized and should not distract. I once wore three or four inexpensive strands of large beads wound around my neck to a meeting of a networking group. Fashionable, absolutely (and really cute). Sensible for the occasion, not so much; it was a bad decision. You don’t want comments on your jewelry, period, men or women. Leave all expensive jewelry in a safe somewhere. Wear earrings or a bracelet, pearls or a ring. If you have a big honking engagement ring, good for you, but you would be amazed at the ridiculous people who believe that suggests you won’t need to work once you are married. And, if you are married, the plain band is a safer choice.
5. Wear a plain, basic watch. A watch is not jewelry for this purpose.
6. Hosiery. Well, now. After my first August in the Sunshine State I discarded all hosiery except opaque hose, which I wear with flats instead of boots on the coldest days of winter. But I don’t recommend abstinence from hose for anyone seeking employment. Many, many employers don’t want to see bare legs and feet on men or women, so I don’t recommend taking the risk until you are on a payroll. With your suits and dresses, wear nude hose (I know that every fashion editor from here to Seattle is shuddering), which means closed toe shoes, because open toed shoes with hose is just wrong. (Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, is from Clearwater, and invented the original footless Spanx prototype out of her determination to have her hose and wear her mules and sandals correctly, too.) Men—black socks or socks that match your trousers.
7. Handbag (if any): small, plain, shoulder bag, or briefcase style shoulder bag—because you want hands free for handshaking. Stay uncluttered; if you have to rummage for a business card you look unprepared and disorganized. Your wallet should be plain and simple and well-organized. I was once interviewed by a woman who pulled out her wallet to pay for lunch and I immediately heard an alarm go off in my head. It was pink (I think) scuffed and bulging, filled with junk and random photos, notes, and dirty dog-eared cards. If she’d extracted a hundred dollar bill to give me I’d have hesitated before touching it.
8. Men and women, if it is 96 degrees and a hundred percent humidity, remember the building will still be air conditioned. Yes, wear the jacket. Women, you can indeed wear a dress (with sleeves) with nothing over it.
9. Men—ties for professional events, with a long-sleeved shirt in white, blue, or a pinstripe. I personally believe undershirts are a wise choice but not everyone agrees with me and that’s okay. If you are the guy in the polo shirt, the tropical print, or the guayabera everyone will think you are retired.
10. Hair: kempt. I’m a student of the Diversity School of Hair Discussions, so I believe this is a cultural thing, as are tattoos, and I’m going to resist the temptation to be critical of hair. If you are a woman, a ponytail is the equivalent of rolled up sleeves (as if to get to work), and if you have long hair, looks neater (assuming it is a neat ponytail) than long, stringy, frizzy, or poorly cut hair. Short, neat hair looks efficient, for both men and women. That said, I’d make sure it is mostly the same color, a color that real hair might be (i.e. not green) and that it appears to have been attended to with a comb within the last day or so. Keep up to date with your haircut.
Last piece of advice, really. Do not wear cologne; limit yourself to a small amount of scented lotion for women; a tiny pat of aftershave for men, and don’t reapply it at any time during the day. I guarantee that your networking opportunity will be shortened in direct proportion to the distaste that your companion(s) have for your splash of Shangri-Lalala. Taste in scents is very personal and allergies are widespread. I once rode on a convention outing bus for what seemed like centuries. My seatmate was wearing Eau de God-Knows-What, applied with a heavy hand between the day-long program and the dinner out in the middle of nowhere. By the time we “landed” I had a blazing headache and could not run fast enough or far enough or gasp enough fresh air. Don’t be that seatmate.
One last story. I was recently asked to lunch by a young woman whose job search was not going well. I was astonished when she arrived with wet hair, dressed in shorts and flip-flops, a bathing suit under her parachute silk parka. “Coming from or headed to the beach?” I asked. “Maybe this isn’t a good time?” (thinking how hard it would be to coach someone with her head in the sand). “Nope,” she said, “I wouldn’t dress like this for a meeting, of course.” Really; what is this if not meeting? If I hook her up with a contact will she show up appropriately attired or decide it isn’t a real meeting?
Let’s be clear. For now, they are all meetings. Anyone who can connect you to an opportunity might as well be conducting an interview: he or she can choose you to help and support, or choose someone else. That’s the name of the game when opportunities are in short supply and people who need them are plentiful.