Anyone who has ever worn open-toed shoes with stockings in Italy knows what it’s like to be pelted with disapproving glares. When you commit a fashion faux pas here, no one has to tell you. You feel the stares and realize your mistake.
And while the disapproving looks are uncomfortable when you’re walking down the street, they can be fatal when interviewing for a job.
“People make a judgment about you in the first five seconds after they meet you,” says Cherys Jenkins, wardrobe consultant at The Wardrobe Studio. “And they are making a judgment about who you are.”
The Right First Impression
Because people make so many assumptions about you based on your image, it’s important to think about whom you want them to think you are. For this reason, fashion consultants often seem a lot like cognitive therapists.
Image consultant Ashley Rothschild, a Yugoslavian native who founded The Rothschild Image in California, begins by designing her clients’ futures. She asks them, “Where do you want to be three years from now? Where do you want to be professionally? Where do you want to be socially?”
These questions become more complicated when you throw in international relocation. When conducting business abroad, you have to juggle your own personal style with another culture’s fashion sense. And just as you should research your overseas employer and expatriate country, you should also research dress codes.
“The first thing you need to do is find out what the fashion culture is where you are going,” says Jenkins. “In Italy, you could probably interview in a paprika suit, if that’s a color that works for you. I wouldn’t recommend that in Japan. They’re not fashionforward in the business world.”
Unless you are going to a country internationally known for its fashion, you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find concise information about fashion dos and don’ts. So if you want to learn how to dress to impress in another country, you should start by learning about its culture. Much of a region’s fashion sense can be inferred from its beliefs and customs.
If you are going to a country where there is a heavy emphasis on community and brazen individuality is considered suspect, you should probably dress more conservatively. When one of Jenkins’s major clients relocated to South Africa, she prepared him for the move. “That meant modifying the fabrics and colors,” she explains. “You need to consider whether you can wear open-toed shoes, sleeveless shirts or shorts to work. That’s your responsibility as a person going from one country to another.”
Jenkins also had a client who frequently traveled to Dubai for business. “We had to consider that she was a female doing business in the Middle East,” she says. “Coming to work in a short skirt would not be looked upon well.” In countries where women rarely wear revealing clothes, American travelers need to dress accordingly.
And, if you are going to a country where certain colors are considered unlucky, you can bet that belief translates into fashion. For example, in some Asian countries, yellow and white are bad luck and should be avoided.
Wherever You Work
A few fashion truths resound throughout the world and throughout time. Clothes that fit look better than clothes that don’t. Rather than buying new clothes for her clients, Jenkins often encourages them to alter old ones.
Rothschild agrees. “Alterations and tailoring have a lot to do with how an article looks on you,” she says. “It’s better to buy a size too big than a size too small. The worst that could happen is people will think you lost weight.”
Jenkins’s last bit of advice: “As Americans, I think we need to respect the people and places we visit. You need to remember that you are a guest. It’s not just the fashion part of it, but the intellectual part as well. You can have the right outfit on, but if you don’t have the right attitude, it isn’t going to work.”
Fashion Faux Pas
According to Rothschild, avoid the following:
• White Socks: Americans think white socks are acceptable -- that is a big mistake. You’ll see educated, powerful people wearing white socks. They should know better.”
• Time Warp: “One major faux pas is to be caught in a time warp, wearing clothes that are totally outdated. For women, this would mean frosted blue eye shadow or bright red lipstick.”
• Evening Wear: “One common mistake people make is to wear night wear during the day. Shimmering nylons or fishnets are not acceptable in professional environments.”