Do clothes make the woman? [Commentary]

In talking about women and business, it is inevitable that we address questions of appearance in the workplace. While men may believe they have issues with the move to more casual dress codes — tie or no tie, blazer or suit — I doubt they consider these "dilemmas." But many women stand before the mirror in the morning wondering if their outfit hits the right notes.

I do. Most of the women I work with do too. But how often do we think about what it really means?

Women traditionally have taken any mention of clothes and hair at the office as demeaning, a way to diminish our importance, to take the focus off the substance of our work. We worry that, unlike men, we will be measured on a scale of attractiveness that is in no way relevant to our performance.

Yet, being women, we also care about our appearance. We like when someone compliments our cute new haircut or the great dress we got off the sale rack. Sometimes we care more than we should. Still, the role of clothes and hair in the image of women in business can be a sensitive subject. It touches on cultural and sometimes religious norms, style preferences, even age, all in very personal ways.

Many seasoned managers, including me, have stories of uncomfortably counseling female employees on inappropriate dress. We do not enjoy it, at all. Most corporations have policies that make the lines fairly clear, but when counseling someone on their clothing, it is important to be knowledgeable and respectful. You cannot arbitrarily impose your own style or try to enforce on younger generations the standards of bygone eras. It reminds me of the old adage, "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have." The objective is to guide someone to an appearance that enhances — rather than diminishes — their credibility and contributions.

When I started in public accounting in the 1980s, we did not have as many options. Our choices were limited to skirt suits in black, blue or grey; conservative blouses; pantyhose and closed-toe shoes. A few years later, a touch of color and patterns with a fluffy bow tie was the style. (Think Melanie Griffith in the movie "Working Girl," after she borrowed Sigourney Weaver's wardrobe.) Many dress codes for women prohibited pants and required pantyhose. It sounds hideous now, and it kind of was, but to dress outside that box was to risk losing credibility.

Fortunately times have changed: men have been socialized to expect women not to dress like them, though it's also OK if we do. We confidently wear dresses, sweaters, pants, skirts, suits, open-toe shoes, heels, hues that flatter and colored nail polish. Or, dark suits and flat closed-toe shoes — if we choose. We should wear what presents the best image and embrace the expression of our personalities through appropriate clothing. And appropriate is the key word. What works in a nightclub — curve-hugging mini skirts and plunging necklines — may turn heads, but it seldom brings professional respect. Save sultry and provocative for off-hours.

Many of my female colleagues and I now consider women's business dress a huge competitive advantage. Unlike corporate men, who have few choices (a suit is a suit is a suit), women have wonderful options that can convey style, flair, personality and poise. Women can use color and design to stand out and be memorable in a very positive way, particularly in presentation settings.

A colleague told me she likes that she can create a work persona by what she wears. To her it is a mask, something that she can control. I have often said that at work I am a character in a play and must wear the right costume for what is happening in the scene. If I'm dressed in character when I enter the stage, the audience will immediately understand my role.

As a risk manager, authoritative and serious are usually better choices for me than whimsical. But sometimes appropriate dress takes other forms.

Several times a year Legg Mason has dress-down days tied to our corporate citizenship efforts. Our Women's Leadership Network sponsors a jeans and high school/college alma mater shirt day, encouraging employees to donate to two Baltimore educational organizations.

We also enthusiastically celebrate Purple Fridays. Many women at Legg Mason are avid football fans, and we love to support the home team by proudly wearing our Ravens jerseys.

The men are welcome to wear football jerseys too. If they have them.

Stephanie Beran is managing director of Enterprise Risk Management at Legg Mason & Co., LLC. Her email is

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