What does it mean to dress for success? Well, nothing builds or destroys confidence faster than showing up in inappropriate attire. You become self conscious almost immediately and even your hosts can feel some guilt at being unclear on the dress expectations. Gross. Awkward. Unnecessary!
So the key reframe here is simply:
Key Point: Dressing for Success means being so comfortable in your clothing that you are focused on anything but your clothes.
There are a couple of things to consider here. The first is wearing something that fits. It is very distracting if you are speaking with someone and they keep tugging or pulling at themselves. So, please don't wear tight clothing that needs to be continuously adjusted. Keep in mind that the key here is to feel confident and comfortable. Hard to do when you are pulling your pants up or adjusting a bra strap!
The next step is to consider what the various dress terms mean. Consider being invited to a "black tie" event. What does "black tie" mean? Well these days it can mean a lot of different things so the best thing to do is to ask specifically. At a minimum it usually means men will wear a dark conservative suit and tie but it might also mean that a tuxedo is in order. My suggestion is to contact the individual organizing the event or doing the invitations and ask specifically. Keep in mind, you will not feel comfortable being "under dressed" and your host will not feel comfortable seeing your discomfort.
I have a rule of thumb that has served me very well over the years and that Key Tip is: I try to dress as suggested plus one level.
The reason for this is that I always prefer to be slightly over dressed than under dressed. For example, I was invited to a wine and cheese cocktail party at a local institution a couple of months ago and when I accepted the invitation, I asked about the dress code and was told it was casual. Not satisfied that I knew what that meant, I asked for clarification and was told that ripped jeans and a t-shirt would be inappropriate. So what did I wear? Certainly not jeans of any kind. I dressed one level up with dress pants and business shirt - no tie, no jacket. As it turned out a lot of the people attending were in business attire complete with ties! I felt comfortable with what I had worn but I doubt that would have been the case if I were in khakis and a polo shirt!
I think one of the most misunderstood terms currently used these days is "business casual". To some people this does mean jeans but my key tip as noted above has served me well here as well. I would never wear jeans or khakis to any place that was looking for business casual. Business casual to me means dress slacks and perhaps a golf shirt or open collared dress shirt. Is this over dressing? Few give it a second look and yet I am never uncomfortable in wearing this type of outfit in a business casual environment.
Let's look at the hierarchy here.
For men, I think these roughly translate into:
For women, I think these roughly translate into:
Just as a warning, halter tops, muscle shirts and anything with some sort of profanity or improper reference written on it should be avoided at all costs. These are just not appropriate except for beach parties. Sweat pants and the like are out too.
I know this seems somewhat restrictive and perhaps even old fashioned but the reality is that most businesses are still old fashioned institutions filled with people that are generally conservative. Keep in mind this is about respect rather than pushing the boundaries of fashion.