Alyson Suter Alber, assistant dean of admissions at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, knows how to dress in a professional environment. But many of her students, who depart for some of the nation's top law firms after three years of jeans, khakis and tank tops, often do not.
To help guide them, Alber has called in professional clothiers from Tom James, a Franklin, Tenn.-based suiting company with outposts worldwide, to outline the basics of dressing in a professional environment. The Tom James representatives host a PowerPoint presentation that highlights appropriate looks for interviews, those first weeks in the office and meeting with clients. These include solid suits in navy and charcoal and printed ensembles in birdseye and glen plaid.
"They're able to give them a visual so the students get some idea of what is really professional," says Alber. "Many believe they can only wear a dark suit and a white shirt. This gives them some options."
Tom James holds similar seminars at other universities--and even professional offices--countrywide, free of charge for the organizations. Christian Boehm, merchandising director and vice president of marketing at Tom James, says it helps the clothier get its name out to potential clients.
"There's no selling, but it does introduce the name to the youngest generation," says Boehm of the undergrads and graduates who get the presentation. "We like to get their attention while they're young."
The first matter discussed is interviewing. Even before you land the job, you've got to look the part, and Boehm and his colleagues believe a navy suit is appropriate for both men and women. The color evokes power and is ideal for a first meeting. Ralph Lauren's two-button men's suit creates a lean silhouette with a narrow lapel and is made of extra-fine worsted wool. Black lace-up shoes for men and black medium-heel pumps for women work well with this look. Also invest in a calf-leather briefcase after you've acquired a suit and shoes.
The navy suit should be your first get, but after that there are nine more suits essential to a complete professional wardrobe. These include glen plaid or navy windowpane style, the birdseye style--which is a weave that looks solid from afar but has a subtle texture up close--and the lightweight tan suit, ideal for spring and summer meetings.
The charcoal gray solid, for example, "signals that you've been around the block," says Boehm.
The look is great for inter-company meetings, second interviews or meeting clients, who will feel more comfortable with someone dressed in gray. (You may be young, but you don't want to appear inexperienced.) Dolce and Gabbana's classic charcoal suit for men has a notched collar, two-button front and long sleeves for tailoring. There is also a vent in the back center for extra room.
Down the road, you'll be able to invest in more interesting styles, such as a light-gray ensemble. For women, J.Crew's dove-colored version is great for summer. This two-button blazer and wool-crepe trouser has a light, fluid shape, ideal for warm days, and the straight-leg trouser hits just above the hip. What's more, the lining stretches with the fabric so you can move comfortably.
If you're worried about how you're going to afford 10 suits, don't. Start off slowly and build up a collection, paycheck by paycheck. As long as you have two to four good suits in rotation, your clothes should remain looking fresh.
One key point: When it comes to fabric, Boehm says all suits should be wool. If you're looking for something lighter in the summer, try tropical wool, which has a looser weave that allows more air to flow through the fabric, keeping you cool. Leave the linen, seersucker and cotton suits to the older, established professionals in your firm. The upkeep for those fabrics is much more daunting.
As for casual Fridays, Boehm suggests wearing a suit the first week of work so you can gauge how others in the office dress. For men whose office allows khakis--and maybe even denim--pair them with a simple navy blazer and penny loafers. Ladies can do the same, but if you have a penchant for dresses, a casual shift works with a cardigan draped over the shoulders, worn with either pumps or sandals. (If you go with the latter, make sure your company doesn't have a policy prohibiting open-toe shoes.)
The question remains: If senior members of these colleges and firms already know how to dress, why do they need to call in an outsider to teach their students?
"Credibility," says Ken Hartun, executive director of the Ralph and Luci Schey Sales Centre at Ohio University. (Tom James happens to be one of the self-funded center's corporate members, which means it donates money to the university each year.) "These people come in very professionally dressed, and the students react to that."