City: If you think you look your best, think again

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The Independent Culture
Ever wondered what went wrong at that interview? Could flat heels, trousers or coloured tights have had something to do with it? Belinda Morris finds out - the painless way - how not to get the job.

If ever I needed confirmation, I now have it pretty conclusively: I could never make a life for myself in big business. Nothing to do with not having my head screwed on right, or having a pea for a brain - I simply would never get past the interview.

I know this because I've just attended a seminar given by Laurel Herman, a style consultant, on how to look the part if you want to get ahead in the world of high finance and corporate affairs. I really thought I was looking my professional best - brown trouser suit, flat shoes, enormous scarf - when I stepped through the door of her Hampstead showroom, but after three hours of gentle but persuasive coaching in the art of dressing for success, I know for certain that a prospective employer would suss my apparent lack of sartorial savvy and instantly (and accurately) have me down as a total time-waster - nobody who really wanted a job in high finance would have turned up looking like I did.

Happily Ms Herman's working wardrobe workshop was not directed at freelance journalists with pig-feeding duties and no video-conferencing facilities, but at a group of female students from the London Business School. With at least five years in management behind them, and their sights set on big bucks in consultancy positions, they looked to be eager sponges for every drop of imaging lore - words to the wise from a woman who has spent the past 28 years helping other women, from diplomats' wives to City working mothers, to get their acts together, stylistically speaking.

Style is a big word at the Laurel Herman Organisation, as opposed to fashion. It's one thing, they say, to follow the catwalk trends, but only the foolish would follow them slavishly regardless of their suitability for the workplace (to say nothing of the body that will wear them).

Put another way, fashion is what you're offered; style is what you choose. And what we should choose, according to Ms Herman, is Eurochic. Would we agree that the stylish, confident, relaxed and appropriate dress sense common to French and Italian women was a look to aim for?

This is where I began to lose the plot, and realised I must never think of a career change. My classmates, however, had grasped the concept and were eager to receive the prescription. The surveys say we perform better when we're looking our best; we're aware that we're being eyed up by others; and that, on average, an opinion will be formed of us in the first 20 minutes of a meeting. There are no rules, we're told ... but here they are anyway.

1. Dress appropriately - you have to appear as though you fit into your sector and your role in it.

2. Bear in mind that "acceptable" can equal "boring", so if you want to look successful and upwardly mobile, you need a successful (stylish) image.

3. Skirt suits (on the knee or just above) are acceptable, and become stylish if you take a boxy skirt in to give it a more tapering look. Long skirts are considered "earthy", casual and, dare it be said, provincial.

4. Trouser suits may be acceptable, but not for an interview (just why such archaic standards still exist was not expanded upon, but this was another stumbling block for me).

5. Coat dresses and knitted two- and three-pieces can be acceptable, but possibly not for beginners (they're bordering on the smart/ casual).

6. Make sure your clothes fit well, and remember that shoulder pads never went out of fashion for the truly smart woman, as they rebalance sloping shoulders.

7. Go for neutrals, and avoid obvious colour. Note that bottle green and burgundy count as neutrals, and that the one obvious colour you can wear (if you're feeling bold and forthright) is red.

8. Never, ever, feel tempted to wear coloured tights, no matter what the fashion editors say; avoid sheer navy tights (they don't do great things for legs) and forget about total opaques - 30 denier is as far as you should go.

9. Don't wear summer fabrics (cotton, linen and navy gabardine) in winter.

10. Buy half a size too big, rather than risk wearing anything that is too small. Don't wear tight clothes or show too much flesh (it gives out the wrong signals).

11. Don't wear white shirts under a dark suit - too stark and school uniform-like (hmm, really - but what do I know?).

12. Don't wear flat shoes - heels are more sophisticated - but don't wear stilettos.

13. Never use a carrier bag for business, no matter how chic the label; avoid boxy, masculine briefcases; and don't clutter your image by carrying a handbag as well as a briefcase.

14. Hair should be short and neat, or long and tied back (never hanging loose).

15. Always wear some make-up (research has apparently shown that women who wear make-up earn 25 per cent more than those who don't). "It finishes you off."

If you're still confused or want to know more - and there's plenty - Laurel Herman's services go far beyond seminars. One-to-one consultations are available in her showroom. Fees range from pounds 75 to pounds 375. She also sells a collection of about 6,000 "gently worn" designer clothes and accessories supplied by personally known sources. If you're really stuck for ideas, you can book a spot of leisurely "concept shopping", free of charge, and come away with a wardrobe tailor- assembled for you.

Contact Laurel Herman on 0171-586 7925.

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