Corporate Culture vs. The Power Suit

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Corporate Culture vs. The Power Suit

by Thea Wood,

Is there still such thing as a Power Suit?  As a certified image consultant, I’ve heard hundreds of rules for women on the proper way to dress for a power meeting, for corporate vs. business casual environments, for co-worker happy hours, and holiday parties.  Yet, the modern workplace and my clients have taught me one thing: An industry/company corporate culture dictates what’s powerful and what’s not. And it’s a moving target.

An executive on Wall Street may communicate her personal brand through a more traditional power suit:  pinstripe navy suit a white silk blouse, diamond earrings, a Rolex and stockings with designer kitten heels. Think Sigourney Weaver in “Working Girl” but with modern twists like a red patent leather tote.  This blends with the good old boys’ suit and tie uniform that commands respect through hard, straight lines, conservative colors, and classic accessorizing. Clients look for this steadfast, unbreakable, classic assurance when choosing where to trust their millions.

An equally successful Silicon Valley tech exec may communicate her personal brand best by wearing a Japanese print top, paper-bag waisted trousers, and floral-embroidered loafers. Co-workers see her as a creative problem solver who’s about upward mobility, but not above sharing happy hour drinks with the developers after launching a multi-million-dollar platform.

Our tech exec’s visual message might fall short on Wall Street, just as the WS exec may come off as looking like a boring snoot in the tech world. These disparities happen between many industries— even within one company with multiple offices where geographic norms are major influencers.  It makes sense when you look at an industry’s (or company’s) history, reputation, and culture.

Look at magazines and television shows between the 1960s and 1990s, when women started climbing the corporate ladder in large numbers.  Dresses, florals, and bright colors were acceptable for secretaries and the like through the 1970s, but the higher up the ladder you climbed, the more masculine the “uniform” became.  The 1980s were the peak of masculine fashion influences — broad shoulder pads and double-breasted pantsuits in navy or black were the norm. Georgio Armani and Calvin Klein led the way with no-nonsense designs that helped women compete mentally as well as visually with the good ole boys.

As more women rose to middle and upper management positions, they started trading in their stiff, conservative wardrobes for softer, more feminine fabrics and designs like those of Donna Karan.  After all, being a woman was an asset, not something to hide under menswear.

Then came Casual Friday— which eventually led to business casual.  Adopted from Hawaii’s “Aloha Friday” during the 1990s recession, this was a no-cost perk added to a job description. Levi’s took advantage of the trend by marketing Dockers brand pants through an eight-page brochure called “A Guide To Casual Businesswear” that featured, of course, Dockers khakis. They sent it to 25,000 HR managers, who in turn handed them out to employees, according to

Did it work?  Yes!  I remember interviewing a developer at America Online in the mid-90s and he said he wasn’t sure if he wanted a job where he had to sport a uniform every day.  I said, “Pardon? We don’t have a uniform requirement.”  He replied, “Everyone who interviewed me was wearing a button down and khakis.  I just assumed…” AOL’s corporate culture had definitely latched onto business casual, which wasn’t surprising since founder Steve Case (a Hawaiian native) wore khakis to work on a regular basis.

Influenced by the more casual nuances that a youthful, startup-oriented technology sector held, the casual look permeated through many small business startups. Working 60+ hours a week meant keeping employees comfortable. A nap in the break room, a ping pong game during lunch, a balance ball chair… These stress busters work best in jeans and a t-shirt. “Cool” trumped “smart” in these environments.

Dress codes almost became non-existent in many industries (even in fine-dining restaurants) after the turn of the century. Some lamented this shift as the Death of Fashion.  As an image consultant, I heard from hiring managers that 20-somethings didn’t know how to dress for work or even interviews.Women showed up in sheer tops, bare midriffs, or skinny jeans.  Men’s pants were so big, that not even belts prevented their Under Armor underwear bands from showing. They failed to shave or at least groom their facial hair or shower! The line crossed from casual to unprofessional. I still hear this, by the way.

Today’s job candidates face the new reality that they will be working for one company for an average of six years (rather than the lifetime our parents experienced). This translates to added pressure to stand out in a sea of candidates yet blend in with the hiring company’s corporate culture.

Enter “personal branding.” A buzzword for the last decade, here’s a fantastic summary of the phenomenon from a 2010 issue of Mobility as reprinted at In my professional experience, personal branding works for both the person and the company. Part of a personal brand is how you present yourself visually. A candidate can consciously create a visual style (and communication style) that’s true to her personality and goals, but can tweak it to complement those of the company’s brand. Companies find it easier to match the right candidate for the job if her personal brand is in line with their corporate brand and values. Yes, this counts quite a bit on first impressions, and people can try to cheat the system by portraying a false personal brand.  This rarely works for any period of time.  Honesty is the best policy.

My client Laura (name changed) came to me with a personal branding problem affecting her job at a male-dominated startup. She’s tall, has long wavy hair, and loves dressing in feminine clothing in contrast to her visible tattoos.  “The problem is that if I wear a floral dress to work, I’m treated differently. One guy even told me dressing like that is intimidating. And I will never wear my hair down— it’s always in a tight bun.”  Whoa!

We went to work on mixing feminine and masculine elements into her outfits (and played with new hair styles) so she felt true to herself yet felt confident at work. The frank discussions we had gave her the confidence to look at other employers who would embrace her personal brand— and now she has a wardrobe to reflect it.

I was excited to see the Wall Street Journal publish a piece “The New Way Women Are Dressing For Work” in 2016.   Now that women run their own businesses (224 million worldwide, according to, their personal brands now reflect their services or company— allowing for more creativity.  Zoë Barry, CEO of ZappyRX told WSJ she’s rejected the t-shirt and jeans look that men get away with for her own look: silk top, pixie pants and black over-the-knee boots. “People hear me coming down the hall in my power boots,” said Ms. Barry. “They don’t question that I’m the CEO.” Barry replaced a power suit with power boots — brilliant!

There are many economic, social, and technological influences that have rendered the traditional power suit out-dated in many offices. What we’ve learned is that your power comes from within and you can create a style that projects that that message loud and clear.


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