First Impressions

From the boardroom to the coffee shop, what you wear instantly affects how people judge you
Illustration by Alanna Cavanagh

You rarely get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s because in less than a split-second, the brain processes visual input to the eye.

“Some may think it’s superficial to quickly evaluate based on visuals, but the reality is our brains are trained to do that,” says Patty Buccellato, a Rochester Hills-based image consultant who runs Refined Images.

Buccellato and others in her field contend that our verbal skills are flat lining while visual communications are evolving. “How you dress creates an immediate reaction,” she says. “And reaction leads to image, which, if good, can lead to success,” in social situations or at work.

“Your clothing is your everyday billboard,” adds Patti Brock-Sklar, owner of Annabelle’s Couture in Royal Oak. “Dressing should always be about what you feel you’re worth,” no matter the situation.

That goes for older individuals as well. “Even in retirement,” adds Linda Curry, a wardrobe/fashion consultant at Saks Fifth Avenue in Troy, “you can — and should — stay true to yourself and your self-image, which in turn creates confidence through life.”

Judging a Book by a Cover?

Kris Puffer knows not to start the day without looking well put together. “If you look the part, you become that part, not only to yourself but to others,” says the Rochester Hills-based sales consultant for Silpada jewelry. “People look at you in a different light when you are dressed well.”

Randy Engle, pastor at North Hills Christian Reformed Church in Troy, agrees. “One of the best — and most succinct — pieces of advice I’ve ever received (from a Fortune 500 CEO) is that you get treated how you look,” he says.

Annie Frisch confesses that she frequently makes snap judgments. “Shame on me for falling into that trap,” says the Lake Angelus resident. “If I meet a person dressed as if she just stepped out of a Coldwater Creek catalog, I assume she’s conservative — not a risk-taker. If I meet someone dressed in J.Crew, I think sort of fun and hip.”

How you dress is especially important for job hunting. A 2013 “Professionalism in the Workplace” study by Polk-Lepson Research Group notes that one of the best ways to not get hired is to wear inappropriate attire. The report notes the importance of appearance “goes beyond the hiring process. It has an impact on the perception of one’s competence.”

That applies to all age groups, says Brian Coury, who owns two Grosse Pointe-area TCBY stores. He hires 20 to 30 high school and college kids a year. “Our managers know in less than 10 seconds if they are going to call an applicant back,” he says. “If someone is dressed sloppily or inappropriately, we don’t call them back.”

Role Models

A trend toward a lack of “acceptable” attire stems in part from the classroom, according to Joella Jarchow, a retired elementary school teacher. “Walking into my granddaughter’s school, and seeing how casual the staff is dressed, I’d think it would be hard to demonstrate authority, especially when tattoos, shredded jeans, and T’s are the teachers’ choice of attire,” Jarchow says. She remembers that her physical actions changed a great deal after her school announced a more casual dress code for its teachers. “That affected the poise I needed to retain authority.”

The media also influence attire. “Youth today are definitely more casual,” says Stephanie Acho-Tartoni, owner of Chocolates by Renee in Northville. “They mimic what [they see] celebrities wear.”

The bottom line? Like it or not, nearly everyone makes quick assessments, “so you should be dressed appropriately at all times,” Buccellato says. “You do not know who you’re going to encounter, whether bumping into your next romantic partner or dashing in to drop off a resume at a company.”

/////////////// On the Job  —  Or Trying to Get One

Dress code terminology, appearances, and corporate culture are everything when it comes to success. Here are some tips from the trenches:

>> Dress Up: “For interviews, it’s always better to err on the side of dressing up, which conveys that you are giving the event the respect it deserves,” says Donna Humphrey-DeLosh, a vice president, career, and talent-management consultant at Southfield-based Right Management.

>> Go CIA: “Do some intel ahead of time so you know how people in certain positions dress,” Humphrey-DeLosh says. That goes for the already employed who wish to move up the ladder.

>> Be Current: “Every season, choose a particular trend and add it to your wardrobe,” says Linda Curry, a wardrobe/fashion consultant at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Not faddish, but current.”

>> Cut the Distractions: “Anything you have to fuss with, like pulling down a skirt hem when sitting, will detract from the conversation,” says Patty Buccellato, a Rochester Hills-based image consultant who runs Refined Images. Adds Humphrey-DeLosh: “A woman going gray with several inches of hair roots growing out would be contributing to the ‘distractibility factor.’ And you sure don’t want to be the person with the loud scarf or heavy perfume or cologne.”

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