How to send a clear message with your biz wardrobe

How to send a clear message with your biz wardrobe

Q. I’m graduating from business school and am hoping you can give me a suggestion on how to look professional and still feel like myself.  I recognize that in most positions I will not be able to wear jeans, but black pants make me look like I’m in government, and I really feel uncomfortable in the gray or blue corporate look. 

A. I’m sure that they taught you in business school that what you wear sends strong signals. One of those messages should not be “Look at me, I’m not a conformist.” Part of making others feel comfortable when working with you is presenting yourself in a manner that they can relate to. In many jobs, a suit is the standard, but there certainly are a growing number where it is not a given. In such a setting, there certainly are other options.

Of all the clothes in a man’s wardrobe, nothing is more versatile and more widely-accepted than that most ubiquitous item, khaki-colored trousers. They work well with almost anything else you have in your closet. They are classic enough to pair with a white dress shirt. Or, when outside of work, they can be combined in more casual, dressed-down looks, such as with a vest, a patterned shirt, or a colorful polo.  

Each type of khaki trousers has a multitude of separate uses in a man’s clothing rotation. Khaki trousers may be:

  • Upscale, almost elegant light brown, wool dress trousers that are well-tailored and sell for a few hundred dollars.
  • Mid-range tailored khakis that are worn nicely-pressed, and are considered to be a timeless staple in a man’s business-casual wardrobe.
  • Or inexpensive, knock-around casual chinos, worn interchangeably with a pair of jeans.  

Any, and all, of these are in the brown family and mix well with other, darker shades of brown, as in a belt and shoes, and also in a brown tweed jacket. Browns coordinate especially well with accessories in the yellow, orange, and red color families. That’s why khaki pants look so good with a yellow-and-red tie (it looks orange from a distance). A yellow or an ivory button-down Oxford cloth shirt is an obvious accompaniment. If you insist upon going tieless, your khakis can mix just as well with a bright yellow or red crewneck sweater, either with or without a blazer. Just as handsome, and a bit less unusual is the mix of khakis with a few shades of blue, starting with a navy blazer, adding a sky blue shirt, and perhaps a pastel blue, pink, and tan striped tie.        

None of these combinations needs to look old-fashioned, as long as your garments are not too big, that is, not cut too full and/or too wide. Today’s look is more about a clean-cut kind of fit (trim and slightly close-to-the-body), and not too long. Fabrics should be quality 100% natural materials, including wool, cashmere, cotton, silk, and linen, without a hint of polyester. 

The message a business man’s clothing should send is that the wearer is self-assured, knowledgeable, has good taste, and belongs comfortably in most any group. 

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