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Create the appearance you want to project

Self-assured professional woman showcasing her personal style

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Create the appearance you want to project

Which comes first: How you feel in your clothing and overall appearance, or how others judge your look?

How you answer may depend on your worldview; regardless, a feedback loop occurs. When we feel appealing from the outset, others notice our confidence and judge us positively. We pick up the positivity and feel some swagger.

Likewise, when others have cause to judge our appearance unfavorably — due to tired eyes, a spill on your tie, or any other altogether human reason for not looking fabulous — our confidence reflexively wanes. Many of us feel unappealing on all fronts, and next we diminish ourselves professionally or physically, asserting ourselves less, moving to the sidelines of the room, slouching.

There’s evidence of how this feedback loop might work: One study showed that people were judged as more attractive when they wore red shirts, even when the viewer couldn’t see the shirt color. (The shirt was digitally hidden after photos were taken and before being shown to the viewers.) The study authors reasoned that the shirt wearers may have felt more confident when they wore red, which the viewers noticed, leading them to rate the wearer as more attractive than when they wore other colors.

While we can’t look our best every day (the odds don’t favor it), I like to be aware of the impact my physical appearance has on my behavior. When we’re aware, we can decide whether and how to put effort into our appearance.

The clothed communication of personal style

Science or not — and there is scientific support, though little seems definitive — how you feel about your appearance and how you hold yourself subtly, psychologically influence components of your communication. When you wear something that feels aligned with your personal style, you recognize it, and you feel confident. The confidence comes out in how you convey yourself, how you speak, and how you interact.

I know what it’s like to feel proud, confident, and prepared based at least partly on my appearance. I’m more likely to initiate conversations and engage with colleagues. I get an energy boost by dressing according to my personal style.

In most industries — even Big Banking, post-Covid — a range of clothing styles are allowed. But most employees conform to the style of their tribe. Male tech workers, for example, shy away from conventional business dress, but they do have a business dress: It’s tech bro style. They don’t put on any free t-shirt; they deliberately pick the fabric, the style, and the color of their t-shirts and hoodies. Another style that wants to project indifference, Sk8er girl aesthetic, is equally defined.

Clothing can appear indifferent or neutral but still be making a statement. What your style is matters less than being aware of it and the nuances of the messages you’re able to send via style. 

What statement do you want to make, and what do you do to get there?

“You have to be seen to be believed.”

Around the time I started iSpeak Clearly, I adopted a bright, clear royal blue as my personal brand color. It was unintentionally intentional, meaning I didn’t set out to select a brand color. But once I found it, I noticed how much I liked the statement it made and how people reacted to me wearing it. I own a royal blue dress, patent leather pumps, a royal blue leather tote bag, and a clutch, and I always include this color in my outfit when giving a presentation or attending a trade show. I’ve come to call this color “iSpeak Clearly blue.”

The positive reactions I receive may have less to do with the hue or the color-coordination and more to do with the confidence I display. It takes confidence to wear an eye-catching outfit. The self-assurance feeds off itself, with the attention and reactions begetting a taller stance, a chin raised higher, a stronger gaze.

Personal branding can be overwrought with requirements — or it can be as simple as paying momentary attention to your natural preferences, noting them, and seeking more of the same. It turns otherwise haphazard choices intentional. Your personal brand may include just a signature color or accessory, like my iSpeak Clearly blue, Steve Jobs’s black, Gayle King’s eyeglasses that match her dresses, or Dave Kerpen’s signature orange.

Or you can take it to the level of Queen Elizabeth, the monarch of personal branding. Throughout her reign, she wore bright, coordinated outfits to stunning and memorable effect. She often said, “You have to be seen to be believed.”

Color Me Beautiful

In the 1980s and 1990s, I (and many others of my generation, especially women) subscribed to a theory of personal color analysis. The book that began the trend in the 70s was Color Me Beautiful by Carole Jackson. My copy has claimed a half-inch of my bookshelf for 40 years.

Personal color analysis is based on the idea that our hair and eye color, skin tone, and melanin level pair best with certain sets of colors. Each color set contains all basic hues (red, blue, purple, etc.) but with varying levels of clarity and vibrance.

The color sets were named after the four seasons, with summer and spring colors taking on soft, faded undertones like those seen through atmospheric haze. The winter palette is clear and bright, untainted by black notes, while the autumn color set is comprised of rich browns, olives, and jewel tones.

From the book and associated Color Me Beautiful parties that were fashionable in those years, I learned I’m a True Winter — I wear bright, true, vivid colors best. Colors in my palette, such as bright blue, bright red, or bright yellow, give me a vital glow. On the contrary, as a Winter, pastels and warm tones give me a pale, dull appearance.

Decades after the personal color analysis fad faded, it’s on-trend on TikTok, fodder for 20-somethings’ postings. And it’s not only practiced by women.

Color analysis is as valuable now as it was 30 years ago. I found that learning my colors simplifies shopping; I zero in on my best colors immediately, on a rack or on the computer screen. At checkout, it provides conviction that the money I’m spending will augment my looks. And the positive change in appearance that comes from wearing your perfect colors can be astonishing. There is no substitute.

There’s also no substitute for the self-assurance you feel when you know you look great, and you know others will see it, too.

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