10 Tips: Dress for Development Success

yellow jacket polka dot skirt

Classy and stylish work outfit. Thanks to thimble be quick for the image. Check out the rest of the outfits on their page (sorry guys, just ladies on this one).

I can remember distinctly the handful of epiphanies that I’ve had in my career that have made a true difference in the way that I do my work and flex my development muscles. At the risk of sounding shallow, one of those was definitely the idea that what you wear, and how you carry yourself, can make you instantly seem more competent and better equipped for success.

People, whether we like it or not, base a lot of their impressions of us on first impressions and appearances. Though it may not actually be the case, donors and colleagues look at a well-put-together development professional as more competent and more talented than their less stylish counterparts. (And yes, I’ve known a lot of super-lazy dandies that don’t fit this description, but, as the proverb says, perception is reality.)

For the arts professionals who read this blog, we’re fortunate in the sense that we have more freedom to assert our personal style in a professional environment than, say, our human services or political counterparts. Our orgs are creative by nature, and creativity is often encouraged amongst staff. Our own employee dress code (which I crafted, not completely disharmoniously, from that of a hair salon), states “All dress will project an image of fashion, professionalism and good taste.” (Today, for example, I am wearing a grey 3/4-sleeve jacket with a white button-down shirt, a long marcasite pendant necklace, and a grey knit muted leopard-print skirt with nude hose and patent snakeskin pumps. Not too over-the-top, but not too conservative either.)

You don’t need to pay a personal stylist or personal shopper to give you advice (though there are many reasonably priced ones out there). Much of what you need to know you can learn from books and websites. All it takes is practice, and a few friends or colleagues that will be honest with you. Enlist their help, and explain what you want to accomplish.

I could write about this topic all day (interview dress, the 10-point system, business casual, etc.), but instead I thought I would offer 10 Tips (and Links) to help you get started on your own professional-dressing odyssey. I’ve tried to provide a mix of guy, girl and unisex tips, but feel free to add your own in the comments section!

  1. Dressing well gives you confidence. Whether it be making an ask to a major donor, or asking for a raise, if you look your best, you have one less thing to worry about. If you look like a million bucks, you have a better chance of making a million bucks for your organization. The key here is to make sure you look great—without being uncomfortable. Wearing something that you have to keep tugging and rearranging will make you look fidgety and unsure of yourself and your message. (For more on this, check out Dressing Well Makes You Smarter, Make More Money by Dressing for Success, Can Dressing Well Increase Your Income in 2013?, Dress Well, Test Well?, and Dressing well for class may bring opportunities, respect, attention.)
  2. Find some colors that are flattering and focus on them. Which colors garner you the most compliments from people? These are probably the colors that look best on you, and will make a striking impression with your donors as well. Seek out these colors when shopping for the biggest bang for your wardrobe buck. Finding a compatible neutral (i.e. grey, beige, black, or cream) is key to pulling your wardrobe together. For example, bright colors work best on me, with grey as a neutral, but I have trouble with cooler colors. If I wear these colors, I make sure they are part of an accessory and not too close to my face.
  3. Invest in tops over bottoms. If your pants and skirts are nondescript, chances are your colleagues won’t notice if you wear them a lot. But they will notice if you wear a top repeatedly, even with different accessories. Believe me, I wear some of my bottoms two or three times a week some weeks.
  4. You don’t have to spend a lot to dress well. I get most of my clothes at thrift stores or on mega-sale at stores whose quality I’ve come to trust. Though I’m not a label-shopper, I have come to recognize quality over years of being an amateur fashionista, and I usually buy natural fibers because they hang better and last longer. (For more on this, check out Dressing Well on a Budget, A Poor Man’s Guide to Dressing Well, and The GQ Guide to Dressing for Less.) The key is buying pieces that work well together; otherwise you’ll end up with a bunch of great pieces that you won’t be able to wear.
  5. Mix it up with accessories. This will also help you save money of your work wardrobe and stay up-to-date without breaking the bank. Scarves, neckties, bowties, necklaces, vests and the like spice up outfits and can make the same outfit look different each time.
  6. Got a big fundraising call coming up? Play it by ear. If your style is particularly edgy or flamboyant, it may be best to tone it down a little when dealing with donors. You don’t want your dress to detract from your message. Look over your wardrobe and scale it: the most expressive look works great for tabling and public outreach events, the mid-range look for your days at the office, and a softer version of your personal style for times when the focus should be elsewhere, but you still want to make a tasteful impression. Believe me, I’m not telling you to stop being yourself; if you’ve gotten the appointment, chances are your donor likes you and likes the work that you do at your organization. You don’t have to change your personal style, just adjust it when appropriate. You can adjust it the other way if you know that your donor loves high fashion!
  7. Take care of what you have. I stopped using my dryer after it kicked the bucket because I found that my clothes were lasting a lot longer! This may not work for you if you don’t have time to iron or wait for laundry to dry on a line or a rack; it depends on where your priorities are. I know that many of us are on a time crunch! My rules are: clean, wrinkle-free, and in good repair. This applies to everything from scarves to shoes. If you don’t like ironing, buy wrinkle-free fabrics. If you use a dryer, you can hang things up right away and they won’t have time to wrinkle. And always make sure your shoes are ship-shape! You’d be surprised how many people judge you based on your shoes.
  8. Make sure everything fits. Try your best to find clothes that fit you without a lot of alteration, but if something is baggy in some places and fits elsewhere, get it tailored or learn how to tailor yourself. Basic fixes like hemming pants and sewing buttons can be done by anyone, but tasks such as taking in pants or jackets should be done by a professional. Make sure the items that you have tailored are top-quality, classic pieces though; there is no point is adjusting something you’ll only wear for one season.
  9. Consider the investment purchase. Buy quality if you can, and take into account the cost per wear, not just the initial cost. Consider two nearly identical classic-style jackets, both black pinstripes, but one which is made of chintzy material ($15) and one which is of a quality fabric, featuring details such as a lining and matched patterns at the seams ($50). You may be able to wear the cheaper jacket 15 times over a year; over time it will shrink and seams will unravel, or it will begin to pill. The quality jacket will be able to be worn 50 times or more over the same year, and will fit the same the 50th time you wear it as it did the first. The cost per wear is $1 for both jackets, but the quality jacket is by far the better choice. The same goes for trousers and outerwear. Go for quality, classic pieces and you won’t be disappointed. Sometime you can even find these at thrift stores or on sale!
  10. You don’t have to figure things out on your own. While there may be a little practice and trial-and-error involved, there are lots of resources out there for people who would like to dress well and look stylish and professional. For those of you who have recently graduated and are in your first development or nonprofit position, your college career center probably has some resources on career dressing that you can access as an alumni. And there are tons of resources on the web and at your local library that can help as well. (For more on this, check out Goodreads Popular Dressing Well Books list, Put This On [mostly for men], Style Basics: Simple Tips for Dressing Well [on YouTube], dressingWELL [wardrobe management and tips newsletter], and Makeup Geek [makeup video tutorials, reviews and articles]).

BONUS: Have fun! Dressing well shouldn’t be drudgery. Have fun with it, and enjoy the compliments that you receive!

Have you found any style tips that work particularly well in an office environment? What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received when it comes to your professional appearance? Do you feel that style makes a difference in the development world?


Posted on April 8, 2013, in 10 Tips, Kylie, Philanthropy, Productivity, Resources, Workplace Issues, Your Career and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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