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Dressing For Success When You Fly

Improve your chances of a free upgrade by dressing the part when flying. Wearing a business suit can mean the difference between staying in economy class — or getting bumped up to the first-class cabin.

When a friend of mine recently checked in for a flight from San Francisco to Vancouver, he was surprised when the Air Canada gate agent handed him a first-class boarding pass as he was about to get on his flight. What was so unusual about this? Several things. He had bought an economy-class ticket, he rarely flies on Air Canada and thus has no frequent-flier status on the airline, and even more unusually, the flight was half empty so this wasn’t an oversell upgrade situation. So why the extra love?

Because he was wearing a suit. Yep, my pal asked the gate agent why he was so blessed and she answered, “Our station manager noticed how well-dressed you were and told me to upgrade you.”

I, too, was upgraded recently on a United p.s. flight from LA to New York’s JFK, and I, too, was wearing a suit. (If I’m going on a business trip, I wear my suit on the plane — in part because I don’t want it to take up too much room in my carry-on.) I only have 80,000 lifetime miles in United’s MileagePlus program, and no, before you say, “Yeah, but they know who you are” — trust me, they don’t. Not wanting to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, I didn’t ask the gate agent why I was upgraded from a frequent-flier economy-class seat all the way through business class and up to first class (in fact, when I heard my name over the PA system my heart skipped several beats because I assumed that the flight was oversold and I was being bumped, owing to my lack of status). But I’m going to guess it was because I was the only person in the waiting area who wasn’t dressed like I was about to head off to the gym.

“You Can’t fly on Concorde! You’re Not Wearing a Tie!”

Think this is nonsense? Well, not really. For a couple of years in the 1980s just before they went belly up, I worked as a consultant for Eastern Airlines (remember them?). As such, each month I was given a stack of flight coupons. I’d just make a reservation and hand one of these coupons over at the ticket counter, and I could fly anywhere in the Eastern system for free, in first class no less. One evening I was flying back to Boston, where I lived at the time, and was curious to see that the agent handed me a seat in economy. “Is first class full?” I meekly inquired. “The way you’re dressed, you don’t even deserve to fly at all,” he scolded. What was my sin? I was wearing a suit and a nice pair of shoes, but had taken off my tie. Into economy I went.

Another time I was booked in business class on British Airways on a pass from Heathrow to New York. Due to an air traffic controller slow down, my flight and virtually all others were canceled, but I convinced the company to put me on the one flight that was still operating, which happened to be on the Concorde. I approached the ticket counter and explained that I was authorized to fly supersonic. “You can’t fly on Concorde!” the agent barked at me. “You’re not wearing a tie!” True story. Luckily, this time I had a tie in my carry-on. “One sec,” I replied. I ducked down behind the counter, quickly repaired my wardrobe malfunction, popped back up and said, “Can I have my boarding pass now?” And off I flew.

If Airline Employees Have to Dress Up, Why Don’t the Passengers?

You see, for many years, airline employees were required to dress nicely if they were flying on a pass. Women were required to wear a skirt and a blouse, and men at least a sport coat and tie, or in some cases a suit. The rules were especially strict for first-class travel. No jeans. No sneakers. No tie, no service. Although most airlines have relaxed these rules, there are a lot of employees who remember the old days. And perhaps they figure, if we had to dress well to fly, what’s up with all the passengers who get to sit in first class dressed like Richard Simmons? (It’s a bit ironic that these days when you fly first class on British Airways and many airlines, they give you a pair of pajamas to change into).

And although I don’t recommend that you show up at the airport in your pj’s, it’s entirely up to you how you dress when you fly. I do understand that flying is often uncomfortable, and many folks want to make the flight as pleasant as possible.

But with everything else being equal (same frequent-flier status, etc.), when a flight is oversold in economy and the airline needs to upgrade someone, are they going to choose the passenger in the tank top or the one wearing the nice dress or suit? You know the answer. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be extra nice to any staff you should encounter.)

How do you dress when you fly? Have you ever been upgraded because you were well-dressed?


Getting dressed for the office doesn’t mean leaving your personal style behind. Find out which looks give you a polished, professional look and which fashions can be a career killer.

Polished, Not Fashion Victim

Your goal to getting dressed for work is to project a professional, competent image, regardless of your employment level or career path.

The styles, colors, lengths and fit of your fashion choices will speak volumes about your ability to do your job. If you are concerned about your career, you’ll be more concerned with looking professional than looking cute or trendy.

In general, the more distracting a piece of clothing or jewelry is, the less appropriate it is for office wear.

More guidelines to looking polished:

– Color plays a big part in professional image. Traditional career colors include red (aggressive), navy (trustworthy), gray (conservative) and black (chic). Most of these colors work well in pantsuits, skirts and shoes and mix back with softer feminine colors that are appropriate like ice blue, lilac, soft pink and ivory. Loud colors like hot pink and wild prints are much riskier in the office, but some creative types can still pull them off.

– Jewelry that jangles (chandelier earrings, stacks of bangles) is distracting. Opt for stud earrings or single bracelets.

– Slouchy handbags look sloppy. Choose structured styles that project an organized image.

– Most of what constitutes a polished image is in the details: manicured nails, run-free hose, scuff-free shoes, neat hair.

– Fit is everything when you are talking about tailored work clothes. Pants should be fitted, but free of visible panty lines. Skirts, especially straight styles like pencil skirts, should be loose enough to sit down in comfortably. Jackets should be able to be buttoned. And blouses shouldn’t gap between buttonholes.

– Designer labels are great, but heavily logoed clothing and accessories look cluttered and frivolous in the work place. A small designer bag is fine; a logo trench coat looks ridiculous. Choose well-made items that are free from obvious designer labels for the most professional look.

Dress Like Your (Female) Boss

Don’t know where to start working on your career image? You’re not alone because most companies don’t have specific guidelines about what to wear to work.

One of the best clues to company dress codes is what your boss wears. Just think about the styles that the highest-level woman in your organization wears and use them in your wardrobe. Does she wear mostly skirt suits? Or does she rely on pantsuits? Does she wear hose or bare legs? Open-toed shoes or pumps?

If you don’t have a reliable female executive to emulate, then trade on what the men are wearing. If they don suits and ties every day, your best bet is to use pantsuits and skirtsuits: the most formal of business looks.

Some organizations encourage employees to dress as well or better than their customers, especially for sales people and others that meet clients outside the office. For information technology professionals, this may mean corporate casual (more on this below), for pharmeceutical sales it may mean a pantsuit, for a lawyer it may mean a matched skirt suit. One way to always be prepared is to keep an extra “meet the client” outfit at the office for surprise meetings.

Career Killers

Unlike a fashion faux pas, a career killer outfit can do your professional image permanent damage.

Looks to avoid in the workplace:

– Too sexy: see-through lace, miniskirts, spaghetti straps, sheer sundresses, strappy stiletto sandals.

– Too casual: jeans, shorts, T-shirts, hats, sneakers.

– Too sloppy: wrinkled clothing, too many layers, baggy-fit clothing.

Business Dress Codes

Formal Business Attire– For women this constitutes business suits (a matched skirt and jackets) and, in most workplaces, pantsuits (matched pants and blazer). Closed-toe shoes (no sandals), blouses, hose and conservative hair, jewelry and makeup are expected.

Corporate Casual Looks-Working women have interpreted this to mean everything from shorts to sundresses, but in its most literal sense it means “smart business.” Dressy pants and a blouse, sleek jersey knits and skirts and tops are all examples of corporate casual. Denim, T-shirts and flip-flops — all ’90s phenoms — are only acceptable in the most casual of work environments.

Casual Friday– Depending on the business, this can mean anything from corporate casual instead of formal looks or “Wear your company logo polo and jeans.” If in doubt, ask a superior.


Is it true that clothes make the man or woman? Do people form an opinion about us based on the way we dress? They do. Does that mean we should avoid any sense of individuality in the workplace? Of course not. With that said, some types of clothing are inappropriate for certain work environments. In addition, some work environments have a dress code that all who work there must follow. Sometimes you won’t find these dress codes in writing; but if you look around you’ll find that all employees are dressed in a similar way.

This gives us something to think about when choosing an occupation, or a place of employment. Do we want to fit in, or do we want to be able to express our individuality on the job? The answers to these questions should play an important role in our career plans.

Let’s say you work somewhere where expressing one’s individuality is okay. Does that mean anything goes? That brings us back to being judged based on what we wear. Is it improper to wear revealing attire to work? It depends on where you work and whom you work with. A teacher should stay away from revealing attire, for instance. A retail sales clerk might be able to get away with it depending on where she works. In other words, good judgment is important here. If what you wear is distracting to others then maybe it’s time to go shopping.

What’s more important? Our deeds or our words? Some people use language others find offensive or at least feel doesn’t belong in the workplace. Does the fact that someone does great things outweigh the fact that he or she may be offending those around him or her? Well, if your language puts just one co-worker off, it’s probably a good idea to shape up. In social situations, one can choose to stay away from someone who uses foul language. At work that person is a captive audience. While you may be protected by freedom of speech laws, that doesn’t make it okay to irritate those around us.

Let’s not forget sexual harassment. Can your words be misconstrued as sexual harassment? It all depends on who is the recipient of your comments and how far they plan to take it. Even an innocent joke can be taken as harassment.

Being outspoken can be a good thing. However, being a loud mouth is not. It’s true that the “squeaky wheel gets the oil.” But how squeaky should you be? Again, look at your work environment. Is this type of behavior encouraged or discouraged? Having opinions is a good thing, being opinionated is not. There are some people, and we all know who they are, who must have a strong opinion about each and every thing. And, that person must make that opinion very public. Choose your causes wisely or it will look like your primary cause is hearing your own voice.


What You See is What You Get… Or Is It?

You would think someone being interviewed on television would dress professionally, but unfortunately not everyone knows to do this. The host of a television show about my local job market was interviewing two women — one the chief economist of a regional business association and the other a newspaper journalist who reports on international business. The chief economist was dressed in a business suit and her hair was neatly combed. She sat up straight and looked at either the host or camera when answering questions. The journalist, by stark contrast, was dressed casually in slacks and shirt. Her hair looked wet, as if she had just gotten out of the shower or pool. She slouched in her chair and looked at her lap a lot of the time. Both women were very knowledgeable and had a lot of useful information to convey to the audience. However, I had more faith in what the economist had to say than I did in what the reporter said. Why? The way they carried themselves.

Maybe the current trend toward casual dress at work has made people more lax about what they wear. In addition, many people work from home where there are no rules regarding dress. As a remote worker, I can tell you that I don’t give much thought to what I wear while working at home. While I don’t work in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, unless of course I’m working at 1 a.m., if it’s good enough for the supermarket or picking up my daughter at school, I can wear it to sit in front of my computer. When I give a presentation, though, it’s a whole different story. I try to look my professional best, in a skirt, blouse, jacket, and dress shoes. I make sure my hair and makeup are neatly done. In other words, I dress for success.

Why You Must Dress Professionally for Certain Situations

Maybe it’s unjust to judge a book by it’s cover, but we all do it. It’s human nature. While the person in jeans may be as competent and as intelligent as the one wearing the formal suit, or more so, we do assess these attributes based on appearance. That’s not to say you can forget about preparing for a presentation, put on a nice suit, and you’ll wow ’em. All the ingredients — knowledge, preparation, and appearance — are necessary to make a good impression.
When you work at home or in an office where casual attire is the norm, it’s difficult to get out of that role and into the role of the professional in front of the audience or in front of a television camera. But, if you want to make a good impression, it’s worth the effort. Here’s what you need to do.

How to Dress Professionally

Should you go out and purchase a suit for the one or two times a year you’ll have to make a presentation? It’s probably a good idea. You should buy something classic. After all, if you’re only going to wear the suit a couple of times a year, you don’t want it to go out of style too quickly. Women can probably get away with a nice skirt and jacket, while men can wear dress trousers and a jacket. There’s also nothing wrong with a pant suit for women. If you’re going to be in front of the camera, some special rules apply. Wear neutral colors — dark blue or grey are good, don’t wear large or glitzy jewelry, and wear a button down shirt or a jacket so they have somewhere to clip a microphone.

Now about your hair. Your hair should be neat and clean. Try to keep it out of your face. As for makeup (for you women out there), keep it simple. If you’re going to be on camera, you should stay away from anything iridescent, frosted, or glittery — matte is best.

As your mother may have told you, sit up straight. When you slouch you look bored. If you’re bored, how do you expect your audience to feel? You’ll also look more confident if you’re sitting or standing up straight. Look like you’re happy to be there. Put a smile on your face. Don’t fidget, bite your nails, or play with any jewelry you are wearing. Oh yeah — don’t forget to breathe.


Unless your job requires you to wear a uniform, choosing clothing for work can be difficult. Of course there are industry standards, such as the navy blue suit for accountants and bankers. What do you wear, however, if you work in an industry where there really isn’t a typical style of dress? Complicating the matter further are companies that allow more casual attire. How do you keep from crossing over the line from casual to sloppy? What about the job interview? You want to look your professional best, but you also want to appear as if you “fit in”. Here are some pointers for dressing for any type of work situation:

– First and foremost, no matter what you wear, your clothes should be neat and clean.
– Keep your shoes in good condition.
– Your hair should be neatly styled.
– For women: makeup should be subtle.
– Nails should be clean and neat and of reasonable length.
– Dress for the job you want. If you aspire to be a manager, dress like managers in your company do.

Rules for Casual Dress at Work

Although in theory most people love the idea of not having to wear a suit to work, they are often confused by the casual dress policies some employers have instituted over the last few years. Here are some simple rules:

– Casual doesn’t mean sloppy. Your clothing should still be neat and clean.
– You can’t go wrong with khakis and a sport shirt or a nice sweater.
– If you are going to a meeting or making a presentation, professional attire may be in order.

Dressing for a Job Interview

In addition to following the general rules for dressing for work, heed this advice when you go on a job interview:

– Adhere to the employer’s dress code: find out whether it’s formal (suit and tie) or casual by asking around or by observing employees arriving for work.
– Dress slightly better than you would if you were an employee. For example, if the dress code is very casual, you should take it up a notch.
– Cover up tattoos and remove body jewelry until you know whether they are acceptable at that particular workplace.


Company dress codes are a never-ending battle in the working world.

Battle No. 1: Employees misinterpret the dress code or they don’t abide by it.

Battle No. 2: Companies have a code in place but don’t enforce it.

Battle No. 3: Companies don’t have a dress code but they still reprimand employees for wearing certain attire.

Or, Battle No. 4: There’s constant objection from certain industries along the lines of, “Why do I have to look nice at work if I don’t see anybody?”

For example, if you’re a sales employee who meets with clients every day, it makes sense to dress professionally. But for the writer who sits in his cube all day and rarely sees the sun, let alone another person, does it really matter what he’s wearing?

If he wants to be promoted, it does. In a new survey, 41 percent of employers said that people who dress better or more professionally tend to be promoted more often than others in their organization.

Where do wardrobes really matter?

According to the survey, dressing professionally is more important in some industries than it is in others.

Financial services is one industry that places the most emphasis on professional work attire. Fifty-five percent of workers in this sector say well-dressed employees are more likely to be promoted than others.

An additional 51 percent of sales representatives say the same thing about the likelihood of promotions in their industry.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, only 33 percent of manufacturing employers and 37 percent of IT employers say that professional attire influences whether or not an employee gets promoted.

Employer restrictions

Especially in the warmer months of the year, employees take advantage of more relaxed dress codes. But, professionalism shouldn’t decrease as temperatures rise.

How you dress plays a critical role in how others perceive you at work. Dressing professionally in the office, despite the urge to wear a tank top and shorts, will help you project a motivated image to your boss and co-workers.

To many employers’ dismay, traditional dress codes aren’t always enough to keep employees from dressing inappropriately. In order to force employees to dress more professionally, some employers are banning certain items of clothing in order to limit the options workers have when it comes to their work wardrobes.

Sixty-four percent of employers surveyed have banned flip flops, while an additional 49 percent have forbidden mini-skirts. Thirty-eight percent banned sleeveless shirts and 28 percent have prohibited jeans.

More than one-third (35 percent) of companies have gone as far as to send employees home for unsuitable work garb.

Here are four tips for dressing professionally on the job:

Stock your closet — Start with the versatile basics, such as a pair of black pants, a dark pant suit, some button-down collared shirts and a classic pair of dark shoes. Once you have the staples, you can continue to build your wardrobe to give you plenty of professional options.

Keep it neat and clean — Make sure your pants, shirts and other clothes are ironed, stain-free and in good condition. When your clothes look sloppy, so do you.

Steer clear of bar attire — Don’t mistake the office for your local watering hole. Leave the slinky shirts, tight pants and cut off t-shirts at home.

Look the part — Have a client presentation or a meeting with the CEO? Dress for the part, making sure you choose appropriate articles of clothing for your role.


Office Fashion Dos and Don’ts

Does your office style border on the wild side, or are you the picture of professionalism? No matter how casual your office is, some things you just shouldn’t wear to work. Find out the dos and don’ts of dressing for work.

Wondering just how “casual” HR meant by the “casual Friday” memo? Check out this advice from Cube News 1 about office attire.