Oh no! Not the navy suit...

Glenda Cooper was happy to take advice on how to look her personal best, as long as it didn't include a navy two-piece. But that was before she went to see a personal image consultant

Fuschia jacket. Words to strike fear into any woman's heart (except perhaps Harriet Harman's). But this is the image of "dressing for success". Going to a consultant to be told how to make the most of yourself has had a bad press. A flurry of coloured swatches held up to your face, and you are declared to be a "perfect winter" and condemned to wear cherry for the rest of your life. Yet the alternative has been the "good" navy suit at the back of the wardrobe from which you never quite feel you got your money's worth, and which doesn't do that much for you anyway when you're trying to convince an interview panel you're the best person for the job.

But there's a lot more to dressing for success these days. Executive coaches such as Eleri Sampson of Positive Images, who has advised more than 100 organisations including BT, Morgan Stanley, the NHS and Royal Mail, work on a holistic approach that encompasses not only the clothes you wear but the body language you use.

Going to meet Ms Sampson was the most traumatic bit. Not wanting to turn up as a candidate for Worst Dressed Woman of the Year, even underwear took a whole 10 minutes longer than normal to choose. I formulated apologies for my root growth on the way and imagined her sighing inwardly at the struggle ahead.

Nothing like that at all. All she asked was why I wanted to change my image (reminding me of the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb - one, but the light bulb has to really, really want to change). "So what is the most important quality you need to get over in your job as a journalist?" she asked. "Trust," I replied, trying to look her straight in the eye. Unsure how this would translate in a world of neck scarves, I added efficiency and creativity for good measure.

"I'm not a navy suits kind of girl," I said nervously.

"I can see that," Ms Sampson replied. "But we might be able to get you into a navy suit with a twist. I can't wave a magic wand. But I can try to capture the essence of who you are and how you want others to see you. The next step is to look at your aspirations, where you want to be going, your role model. Although by the time you reach me you'll have already done quite a lot of thinking. Now it's time for some action."

And this is what she proceeded to ask: who was I, where did I want to go, who was my role model? I found it quite difficult to reveal this to someone I had just met, knowing she'd try to change me on the outside. "The reason clients come to me is because they want to create more impact," said Ms Sampson. "But at the same time they say, `I want to be me.' My role is to make the changes, particularly your changes in attitudes, visible, to help my clients create the appropriate image."

In fact, the first thing to realise was what was appropriate, she said - however tempting it might be to go out on a limb. "For somewhere, say, like Morgan Stanley or another investment bank, there is undoubtedly a team strip and you would be a fool not to find out what it is." The exception would be if you were outstanding at your job, and even then you would have to keep performing at incredibly high levels. Otherwise it's back to the navy suit.

A lot of clients come to Ms Sampson with their own clothes and she helps them to decide what could be added or subtracted to enhance their image. "I really have to be tactful, but I do have to be straight with them as well," she said. "I end up saying things like, `Do you think what you're wearing reflects the image you want to project?' " Other people, she says, "just lie back and say `whatever you think'. But I need something to get started with."

Personal consultation does not come cheap - preparation for an interview with Ms Sampson begins at pounds 300 and the whole package can reach as much as pounds 1,500. But I defy any woman not to enjoy someone devoting two hours to making her look better - it's the most fun I've had in ages. Ms Sampson created two looks for me: one for everyday work, and a more formal look for an interview. The first - a rust jacket and navy trousers - was similar to what I might have chosen myself, but the added extras made it. The square jacket was the wrong shape for me, but by carefully hitching up the sleeves and securing them with armbands, the look was transformed. Added to that was a pair of gold earrings, a handbag and shoes with a modest heel.

But this was nothing to the strict body-language coaching that followed. Ms Sampson made me practise coming into a room more times than a Lucie Clayton graduate. Breathe deeply first, so that you are relaxed and your shoulders are down, she instructed; smile, maintain eye contact, and, crucially, pause "for the count of one or two if you can bear it". "No Hollywood actress worth her salt would mess up her entrance," said Ms Sampson. And she's right. As silly and self-conscious as I felt doing it the first time, by about the seventh I felt - and looked - more confident.

On to my "interview look". I allowed myself to be coaxed into my bete noire - a navy suit with matching court shoes. Again, with a few judicious twists - both long and short skirts, a silver torq, hair swept off the face and an accompanying handbag - I could see myself as the efficient professional. But Ms Sampson warned she could not perform miracles.

"People seem to think there is such a thing as a perfect candidate and if they pay me enough I can make them look like it," she said. "I can only make them look appropriate - and, even if there were such a look, it would be a waste of time hiring the `perfect candidate' who couldn't do the job."

However, there are some general rules. For an interview, wear neutral colours with perhaps a coloured jacket but not a coloured skirt; no patterns (people can take against them); no perfume (ditto); play it safe in classic cuts; no boots, sandals or high heels; never anything that displays a lot of flesh; and nothing "cute", such as a necklace with your name on.

For men, a close shave is a must, short shirt sleeves should be avoided and a tie should be "interesting but not amusing". Socks should be knee- length (covering hairy legs). Ms Sampson winces at the memory of a man who wore Mr Happy socks.

As for body language, she suggests interviewees remember "whoopsie", which stands for Walk like a winner; Hands under control, OO for eye contact, Pause for Impact, Smile, Intellect - remember your brain, and Engage with the person who is conducting the interview.

If all that was too much, Ms Sampson said, no one can better the warning given by Beau Brummell, the Regency dandy known for his quiet elegance: "If someone turns to notice you in the street you are either wearing something which is too new, too fashionable or too tight"n

Eleri Sampson will be at the Diamond Executive Coaching Stand at the Personal Development Show, 27-29 June at Olympia in London.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - London - £40K plus benefits - Salary negotiable

£38000 - £40000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: A leading consu...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£12 - £15 Hourly Rate: Sheridan Maine: Are you an experienced Accounts Assista...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat