How to Dress the Part

Work wardrobes convey department and rank

Three days into her first agency job in 1994, Kristen Cavallo got a makeover. She and her boss were scheduled to fly to New York for a client meeting, but her boss didn’t like what he saw.

“He took one look at what I was wearing,” says Cavallo, “and said, ‘Oh, that won’t do.’ “

The pair’s first stop in New York was Saks, where Cavallo, a brand planner for Mullen in Boston, was re-outfitted from “something your mother would buy you to something your gay friend would buy you,” she says. “Black boots, black slacks and a sleeveless black top.”

After the trip, her Talbots wardrobe went right to the Salvation Army. Today, the 34-year-old Virginia native is back in Richmond, working at The Martin Agency. Wearing Marc Jacobs shoes, a vintage shirt, a Target skirt and her grandmother’s ring, she has a look that appeals to both clients and creatives.

“What I changed to wasn’t flashy or revealing but hip and more youthful,” Cavallo says. “Now the cachet is mixing new with vintage. Expensive with cheap. Both are bragging points.”

“Planners have to look smart,” says Claire Tiffey, 28, a former planner at Leo Burnett. “They dress like German rock stars but buttoned up. Stealth wealth.”

Agencies don’t have formal dress codes, but people should understand the unwritten rules of what to wear to work. “Of course there’s a dress code,” says Tiffey, now a copywriter at Temerlin McClain in Dallas. “People are watching you, and it’s a competitive environment.”

HR executives, recruiters and placement officers at colleges and ad schools routinely counsel job seekers and young professionals on how to present themselves. What is appropriate depends, of course, on department and rank. Account managers, for instance, need to dress fairly conservatively.

“Account people become mentally and physically the client,” says Dave Tutin, who himself dresses for his role as executive creative director at darkGrey in New York in jeans, a T-shirt and a black leather jacket.

It’s no surprise that creatives have the most latitude. “Something on me is always cool,” says Annie Nichols, a copywriter who picked up shopping tips from wardrobe women while on production shoots for Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago and New York. “Like silly rings I buy in a vending machine. I want one thing to comment on and get people laughing. It helps break the ice.”

Dressing for an interview has its own set of rules. What you wear is a form of advertising, says Carol Vick, placement director at Atlanta’s Creative Circus. “Show me something I haven’t seen but that makes sense,” she says.

To project confidence, you have to be comfortable. “I made the mistake of wearing a skirt to an interview,” says Temerlin McClain’s Tiffey. “I felt really self- conscious, which makes you look nervous and insecure. Suddenly I had to cross my knees. I was thinking, ‘Oh, shit, I’m in a skirt,’ not ‘Oh, shit, I’m in an agency.’ ”

Once she switched to slacks and her now-signature platform sandals, “I felt like I could have a conversation instead of an interview.”

But don’t get too comfortable. You can lose the job if you’re not dressed the part. Debbie Lindner, executive vice president, chief people officer at BBDO Atlanta, says one recent job candidate failed to secure a second interview because she arrived at the first in a tank top and tight capris, excessive makeup and an armload of bracelets. “She was articulate, polite and although too junior for the position, very promising,” says Lindner. “Had she been dressed appropriately, I would have considered her for a different job.”

B.A. Albert, a creative director and founder of Match in Atlanta, says she once asked an applicant to shave and get a haircut. “I was presenting him to my boss and wanted him to have every chance,” says Albert. “Looking like you take care of yourself looks like you’re going to take care of your clients.

“A cd looking at you is thinking, ‘How are you going to look in front of a client?’ ” says Albert. “If you aren’t going to present work well or look respectful, all you are is a good creative person. Our business is about selling our work as well as creating it.”