I Just Got a Big-Deal Job. How Can I Look the Part Without Going Broke?

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Mary is a 29-year-old analyst who just got a big promotion at the large corporation in Philadelphia where she works. In two weeks, she’ll be supervising a team of 16 people, 9 of whom are men older than she is.

She’s thrilled about the new position, which she’s worked hard to earn, but she knows it’ll be an adjustment to project her leadership to her colleagues. She’s getting a pay raise and wants to buy a couple of things that will convey “boss” and help her be taken seriously (and, if she’s being totally honest, to reward herself for getting the job). She’s seen how her male and female co-workers judge the way people look, and she wants to make sure her appearance works in her favor.

From a financial standpoint, what are the best investments for her to make? She doesn’t want to spend unnecessary money or look like she’s trying too hard, but she’s willing to put down some cash if it’ll help her career. What should she get, and how much should she spend?

Congratulations on the promotion! Bravo. And while I want to say it doesn’t matter how you look as long as you work hard, that would be a lie. You’re smart to be strategic about this.

There are plenty of terrible “How to Dress for the Job You Want” lists out there, and most of them are about the same: a great watch, a nice bag, heels, signature scent, blah, blah, snooze. But there’s a grain of truth to the idea that some things are worth spending more money on than others — and it’s a fact that people judge you by the way you present yourself. Much as I wish we were all evaluated by our performance alone, the truth is, we’re not — particularly women, as studies have shown time and time again. Or, put differently: Our looks are part of how our overall performance is perceived.

Two years into my first magazine job, a colleague told me that she remembered the dress I wore on my first day, a royal blue shift with white stitching along the edges. It wasn’t anything special, but it wasn’t bad, either, and that was important. Whether you’re in a corporate or creative field, every workplace has unwritten codes that show you “get it,” and when you don’t, it sticks. Studies have shown that first impressions are made in less than one-tenth of a second, and it’s tough to shake that initial imprint.

On a positive note, feeling great in your clothes is equally important. Thus, your goal for this shopping venture is twofold: You want to find things that project a take-no-prisoners attitude, but also make you stand tall and genuinely enjoy your day. The psychological aspect of your image is part of the outward-facing package, and the best purchases check both boxes.

You may be aware of the term “enclothed cognition,” which came out of a 2012 study in which test subjects performed a task wearing white lab coats (which were determined in a pretest to be generally associated with carefulness and thoughtfulness). In the first experiment, subjects wearing lab coats functioned more effectively on attention-related tasks than those who wore their normal clothes. In the second experiment, subjects all wore the same coat, but one half were told it was a lab coat and the other half were told it was a painter’s coat. Guess which group focused better? You get the gist: Wearing an outfit that you associate with competency can have a concrete impact on your actual work.

Obviously, you’re not going to show up at your office suited up to split atoms, so how should you translate the white-coat effect to your own life? I called up Sylvie di Giusto, a professional “image consultant” who spent over two decades working in HR and now trains corporate leaders on how to “package themselves,” for her take.

“In the corporate world, your goal must be that your appearance is a non-topic,” she said. “You want to be known for your knowledge and your excellence, not for how you appear.” Okay, but your colleagues have eyes, don’t they? How can you use your appearance to stack the career deck in your favor?

“When it comes to appearance in a corporate workplace, people never talk about what others do right,” Sylvie pointed out. “Nobody leaves a meeting and goes, ‘Wow, everyone was so impeccably dressed!’ Or ‘What a great day — nobody had on a bad outfit!’” (Clearly, she has never worked at a magazine, where post-meeting chatter is dominated by shoe compliments.) “But if something is off, people will talk about it,” she continued. “And usually, that’s because you did something that’s too much — too much hair, too much makeup, too much jewelry.”

However, there’s room for tactical maneuvering — and you should still like the way you look (a lumpy pantsuit is hardly empowering, for most women at least). “First of all, I always tell my female clients: Do not dress like a man,” said Sylvie. “Many women who work in a male-dominated environment adjust to look more masculine, but that is not the way to go. Embrace your femininity in a way that is appropriate to you.”

That said, she does advise staying away from anything that might read as soft, young, or sexy. “For women who are looking to project authority, I recommend wearing power colors. These are usually cold colors — navy-blue or charcoal-gray — as opposed to warm colors, like a light-pink or pastels,” she said. “I would also recommend that she wear power fabrics in power cuts, which are more stiff and architectural. Not flowy. And definitely nothing cute — stay away from small prints or anything girlish.” In other words, stick with silhouettes that you like, but bulletproof them. You want to look like the toughest version of yourself.

And in case it hasn’t been hammered into your head by every women’s magazine ever, get a tailor. “Know your body, and make sure your clothes fit you properly,” Sylvie added. “I tell all my clients that the best designer you can wear is confidence in yourself and the body you’re in. No matter your age, gender, or whether you’re short, fat, or thin, you have to dress in a way that suits you physically.” That might mean that you don’t even go shopping at all — instead, go through your closet, find the basics that are almost perfect but not quite, and haul your uniquely shaped butt to someplace that will make your clothes fit.

Now for the dry part of this equation: finances. You might be gung-ho to cough up for high-quality, career-advancing purchases, but that can be tricky when you don’t actually have that job’s paycheck yet. It may go without saying, but don’t let these expenses get in the way of your savings (or, even worse, put you in debt).

“One approach to affording these ‘evergreen’ pieces is to apply the 50/30/20 rule,” said Manisha Thakor, the director of wealth strategies for women at the BAM Alliance. “In an ideal world, 50 percent of your take-home pay goes towards ‘true’ needs — housing, transportation, essential food, insurance, mandatory debt paydown. After that, 30 percent goes towards ‘wants’ — all the fun stuff, including investment clothing and accessories. Then, 20 percent is savings for the future, like retirement and emergency funds. So if you have the funds available from your 30 percent discretionary pool, use them on these types of purchases.”

Manisha followed her own advice early on in her career, and it worked. “I used my first big pay raise to invest in three timeless, classic work outfits — two suits and one dress — in high-quality fabrics and neutral colors (black, charcoal, and navy), and then had them tailored to fit me perfectly,” she said. “I also made sure to always keep them properly dry-cleaned, and so on. Twenty years later, I still have all three, believe it or not! We make impressions on people very quickly in the workplace, especially when you are young and female, so showing that you have the good taste — in a simple, elegant, quietly confident way — speaks volumes.”

Finally, when it comes to big-ticket “status” items, like bags and shoes and jewelry, what’s the best use of your money? Literally every woman I spoke to placed footwear at the top of their list, followed by a bag, and then jewelry as a distant third (many mentioned that anything flashy can actually work against you, by acting as a distraction).

My friend Allison Kant, who runs a 12-person team as a marketing director at the Dow Chemical Company, bought a pair of $750 black Ferragamo pumps right after business school and before starting her new job. “I didn’t even have an income again yet, but they were beautiful, fit extremely well, and felt like ‘go-to’ pumps that I could wear everyday in the office or in a meeting with my boss’s boss,” she told me. “At the time, it felt imprudent, but I’ve never regretted it. I’ve run through airports in those shoes, advocated to my boss for raises for my team in those shoes, and made great decisions in those shoes. They give me another four inches of height, which I swear gives me better posture and more confidence. And I think they sometimes help me intimidate people, which isn’t always a bad thing, in my line of work.”

Of course, a lot of that impression also comes from the way you carry yourself, and that’s affected by much more than shoes. For some people, that might mean a fancy gym membership, making a budget to take colleagues out to drinks, getting manicures, or heck, just paying down your student loans on time.

For my friend Katherine, a doctor, it’s her car. “When I became an attending, I bought myself a beautiful bright-blue BMW. Obviously, that’s way more expensive than a bag or shoes, but totally worth it. It brings me joy every time I get into it, and it makes going to work, an inherently dreaded activity, fun. It’s my way of celebrating myself and my many years of tireless work and study to get where I am. And I won’t lie, I love the looks I get as a 31-year-old woman driving around in a gorgeous BMW — I always think, ‘I dare you to think I didn’t earn this.’”