Companies & Industries

That's Why They Call It a Power Suit


The magic is how a smart set of clothes makes you feel about yourself: invincible, professional, grown-up

BusinessWeek, where I've been working for a year and a half, has a relatively amorphous dress code. At important meetings and interviews staffers often dress in business formal, while everyday attire ranges from khakis to suits, varying somewhat by department, title, and age. It sometimes feels like anything goes, especially for us younger employees, and I'm grateful that BusinessWeek appreciates my forward-thinking, 26-year-old mind-set while allowing me to maintain the fashion sensibility of an 80-year-old man.

That description might be a little extreme, but I do have a decidedly old-school approach to workplace wear, favoring classic black suits over all other options. My crazy schedule (and general laziness) prevent me from wearing head-to-toe business formal as frequently as I'd like. On those rare occasions when I do get my act together I feel my most confident, put together, and striking self, even though a formal, corporate style of dress is often associated with bland anonymity. After all, Magritte's The Son of Man, with his top hat and apple, is a symbol of the empty white-collar existence. And Superman's disguise is a business suit, worn by mild-mannered alter ego Clark Kent.

For those of us who weren't born invincible but wouldn't mind giving the impression we are, wearing a business suit can be quite empowering. I personally refer to my business attire as my Power Suit, a throwback term used to describe the no-nonsense ensembles in the Reagan-era '80s. But the concept is "still very much alive" according to the definition provided on Web site Askmen.com. "We live in an era of appearances and power dressing. It's all about looking the part and projecting the right image. If you look like a million bucks, it shouldn't take long for you to make that much."

Suit of Armor

Although I would quibble with the idea that even the most well-groomed journalist is likely to make a million, I agree that in our connected, crowded society it's critical to establish immediately who you are, and that you're someone who shouldn't be taken lightly. After all, you can interact—both personally and virtually—with hundreds of people daily. And formal business wear, when done well, can be immensely helpful in making a statement about who you are.

However, even more important than the impression one's dress makes on others is the impact it has on one's own attitude and demeanor. Being a young female, and sensitive to the idea of not being taken seriously, I love that a blazer, button-down shirt, slacks, and high heels (which put me at 6 foot, 1 inch) offer me an overpriced suit of armor. In some sense we all have our alter egos, and dress is an obvious way we switch from one identity to the next. (Lindsey Gerdes, the writer, is very different from Gerdie, the basketball post—and the two dress very differently.)

If we associate business-formal attire with professionalism and competence then putting on this "costume" may help us adopt the attitude itself. And the opposite is also true. "When people dress down on Friday it is kind of a treat," says Nicholas Aretakis, author of No More Ramen: A Twenty-Something Survival Guide to the Real World. "But we found that people actually work more relaxed and are a lot more lackadaisical. That's why a lot of environments try to discourage it."

Informal Experiment

However, Aretakis also stressed that the lackadaisical behavior was only apparent in workplaces where casual dress was extremely different than what was normally expected. As an only occasional business-formal dresser, I wondered if the real appeal of my suit lay in the novelty of wearing it. Would my power suit lose its power if I associated it with the day-to-day grind?

I decided to experiment and wear business-formal attire almost exclusively for a couple of weeks. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my business self began to feel more natural—perhaps to an extreme. When I ran into a colleague I hadn't seen in a while, he joked that I was conversing in corporate-speak and should feel free to talk to him in real-world language. (That slightly alarming episode made me switch to khakis for a few days.)

Of course, there's a purely practical reason for not dressing this way every day. I simply don't have enough options to do so, and a good professional wardrobe isn't exactly cheap. In his conversations with hundreds of recent graduates across the country, Aretakis cites the lack of funds for substantial wardrobe upgrades as one of their biggest complaints.

It's a legitimate point, and my advice is choose quality over quantity. Having one basic, finely tailored suit can be a real asset when launching a career. (My father says the loan he secured to buy an expensive suit while still a broke, young graduate student is one of his all-time best investments, and he gives it at least partial credit for helping him secure a job offer from every company at which he interviewed.)

I admit I wasn't initially a fan of a business suit-style. In my first post-graduate interviews I felt like a kid playing dress-up, doing a not too successful imitation of a grown-up. And I still cringe when I remember the brilliant, casually disheveled journalist who looked at me as if I were coming from a wake. But after being at BusinessWeek and embracing its surprisingly varied dress code, I'm glad I've let my inner stodgy, old man roam free.

Gerdes is a staff editor for BusinessWeek in New York and writes the Starting Out column for BusinessWeek.com .

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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