Dear Mr. Molloy:
I bought a charcoal gray suit three years ago. It was not my first charcoal gray suit, I have had about a dozen over the years. This one however is different. About six months after I purchased that suit, I noticed when I wore it people tended to be antagonistic. I thought I was imagining things until I watched my secretary. She has worked for me for 10 years and I know her very well. Most of the time she’s hard working and amiable, a real asset. And believe it or not what I like most about her is when she’s in a bad mood which isn’t very often, I can tell 5 min. after she arrives at her desk. It is the only time she taps her fingers. Every time I wore that suit, she tapped like a machine gun.
When I noticed her reaction I tried not to wear it to work. When I did, I kept notes of how people treated me. After wearing it six or seven times, I never wore it again. It was an expensive suit and I hate to leave it hanging in my closet. By the way I don’t even wear it to social events because I’ve had the same negative reaction that I received at work. I usually get along with everyone. In fact I’m popular when I’m not wearing that charcoal gray suit. Have you have heard of a Jinx suit? If it is a bad luck suit, is there anything I can do to change its luck and mine? I paid over $500 for it.
Dear J. N.:
Your experience with your suit is very unusual but there are garments that elicit a negative reaction from most of those the wearer meets. When I was writing a syndicated column about half a dozen people a year wrote me with a similar complaint about a garment they purchased. In most cases, when we asked them to look carefully at the garment, we found their initial description was inaccurate. Especially, when they were talking about navy blue and charcoal gray suits which are the backbone of many executive wardrobes and similar garments that are seen everywhere. Often the suits that created problems were unusual shades of color.I remember one was a charcoal gray but it had just a touch of green in it. The reaction to that suit was identical to yours. Since some garments illicit a negative reaction, suit buyers should very carefully check their next suit to see it is a standard shade of color and a traditional cut. Any variation from the norm can create problems.
The bad news is if you have one of those suits, you are better off throwing it out. It can effect the relationships you have at work and no suit is worth that. The good news is that it may not be the suit. Many men wear the same shirt and tie with the same suit all the time. If you tend to do that, there is a real possibility it may not be the suit turning off people but the shirt, the tie or the combination of the two. Test the suit with several shirts and ties before you relegate it to the garbage heap.
Dear Mr Molloy:
I am 42 and the only woman manager in my office. There are several other women managers throughout the company but I only met them at company meetings. Since one of the primary purposes of company meetings is to reward top salespeople, they take place at resorts. That is why, I have no idea how my fellow women managers dress when at work. Since this is a fairly conservative company I suspect most dress rather conservatively. I think one of the reasons I became a manager is I followed your advice and started wearing suits. If you speak to some women they will tell you it is not necessary to wear suits because many of the women who run large corporations don’t wear suits all the time. Do they have a valid point?
Through trial and error I discovered that suits worked for me and I intend to continue to wear them. The reason I’m writing is I accessorize my suits with very expensive silk handkerchiefs and scarves. I have over two dozen very expensive silk scarves and handkerchiefs. They add a bit of color, to what is normally a very conservative look without taking away from the message that I am a serious businesswoman. One of my coworkers, a man who is a friend of mine, says that you recommend only white and maroon handkerchiefs. Is that true?
Name and address withheld
Today you don’t see many men wearing pocket handkerchiefs so I haven’t researched handkerchief colors for over a decade. However since executive ties have become lighter and brighter you can assume that men’s pocket handkerchiefs, if they come into vogue again will be more colorful. Which means that brightly colored scarves and handkerchiefs will work for women as well. I never recommend women limit the colors of their scarves and handkerchiefs. In fact, I advised women to do just the opposite, to accessorize their suits with very expensive eye-catching designer scarves. Because, particularly at critical times, those scarves give them presence and as a result increase the chances of succeeding. It is a significant fact that men in top management are 3 to 4 inches taller than those in middle management. This confirms a study done at Harvard Business School some years ago which showed there was a higher correlation between success in business and a man’s height than his grades. The reason is obvious at meetings tall men tend to dominate. When we looked at the significance of height we found that short men and women are often literally over looked at corporate meetings because they are smaller. There are a number of ways to overcome the disadvantage of being relatively short and one is to wear eye-catching garments or accessories. This is much easier for business women to do without breaking the unofficial executive dress code than it is for men.
Research shows that the rules are not the same for women as they are for men. The general rule for women is accessories that look very expensive will work most of time. Since I understand giving this advice opens a Pandora’s box out of which tons of tasteless garbage may escape, I feel obliged to put in a word of warning. No matter how expensive a garment is or who designed it, if you even think it might be seen by some as tacky, slutty or tasteless, don’t buy it.
As for the argument that many women CEO’s of major corporations do not wear suits and therefore you do not have to wear suits has several built in flaws. First, most of these women are in 40s and 50s and by that time they put on a bit of weight and they have a greater sense of presence. In addition, when many of these women started working for the company they now run it was not a large corporation and some played a significant role in it’s growth. Several of the better-known CEO’s run casual high tech or high-fashion companies. The high-fashion companies are those where being fashionable is important. Obvious examples are television, publishing, entertainment and of course the fashion industry. Finally, how they dress today is not that important what is important is how they dressed in order to get to the top.
When your letter arrived since I had not researched suits for over a year I sent letters to corporate clients and asked them to survey their women executives. The suit remains the uniform for women executives but today it is as likely to be a pantsuit as a traditional skirted model. The pantsuit was made a legitimate executive uniform by Hillary Clinton and today pants are being worn by women because the skirts that are being shown are not appropriate for business.