10 Dress-to-Impress Tips for Veterans in the Civilian Workplace

(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christina Russo)

In the military, choosing what to wear to work every day was less stressful: You’re issued uniforms and told for what purpose and reason each is worn.

In the civilian sector, however, most jobs don’t require a uniform, and even the best-intentioned dress codes can be confusing. Since your image is part of the impression you’ll make on the job, let’s look at tips for dressing to impress:

1. Customary for the industry, job and company.
A wardrobe for a job in construction will look different from a Wall Street banker’s wardrobe. Pay attention to what others in the company and in similar jobs in your industry wear and learn from them. There are norms for each industry as well as the geography of the country. A project manager in the Midwest might dress more relaxed than someone in that job in the East Coast.

2. Suit your personality and brand. 

Now that you have a choice of what to wear, align your wardrobe with your personality. Consider the impression you want to send. Do you want people to perceive you as conservative, serious and formal? Dark colors, conventional and understated clothes might suit you. Want to be seen as friendly, approachable and creative? Consider using color and texture in your clothes to send the message of relatability. 

3. Appropriate for the situation

Different circumstances require different clothing. Just like in the military, more formal civilian events (a job interview, promotion discussion, meeting with a new client) may dictate you dress in a more elevated way than you do on the job day to day. Leverage the insights of your network to learn what is appropriate to wear for the various situations you’ll find yourself in.

4. Dress comfortably. 

It is important that you’re comfortable as you navigate your new career. If the idea of wearing a suit or high heels all day gives you the chills, then perhaps a different kind of job or company -- where you can dress more relaxed -- would be better. Being comfortable ensures you’ll feel most like yourself and show up confident.

5. Fit your body shape. 

Over time, everyone’s body changes in size and shape. If your clothes pre-date your military career, consider whether they still fit you well. Invest in tailoring to ensure your clothes are appropriately fitted to your current shape.

6. Current style

Like No. 5, if your clothes are older, ask yourself whether they’re still in style. Yes, some styles are so classic that they’re considered “timeless,” but most of us hold on to items well past their prime. Look at your jacket lapels for current width sizes. Consider whether your pleated slacks are the contemporary style. Evaluate your heel height and thickness, tie width and shirt material to ensure they aren’t outdated.

7. Reduce distractions

As much as it’s encouraged to show your personality in your wardrobe, too many distractions can take away from your credibility. Showing too much skin or cleavage, loud colors that clash, too many accessories or patterns and/or logos can pull the focus off of you and onto your clothing (and not in a good way).

8. Free from holes, snags, dirt. 

Grooming is important. Check the bottom of your shoes and clothes for holes. A snag in a sweater -- in an obvious spot -- is distracting. Similarly, if your clothes need a visit to the dry cleaner or wash, or your shoes aren’t clean and/or polished, they become distractions.

9. Buy the best you can afford. 

There aren’t rules about how much money to invest in your post-military work wardrobe, but a good rule of thumb is to seek quality over quantity. When you buy well-made, well-structured pieces (slacks, dresses, suits, shoes, etc.), they last longer with proper care and maintenance. 

More trendy and less quality pieces show signs of wear (fabric thinning at the elbows and knees, for example) more quickly. With a base wardrobe, you can mix and match pieces (different jackets and tops with different pants or skirts) and add accessories to keep your look fresh.

10. Dress for the job you want

Growing in your post-military career may include pursuing promotions or advancement. As you consider what roles could come next, look at how leaders in those industries, jobs and companies dress. Dressing for the job you want makes it easier for decision makers to envision you in that role.

While there isn’t a “uniform” in the civilian sector, companies often have guidelines and protocols to ensure everyone represents the company, brand and service correctly. Follow these rules, ask your network and mentors for insight and find a post-military career wardrobe that sends the right impression of how you want to be perceived by those around you.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

Want to Know More About Veteran Jobs?

Be sure to get the latest news about post-military careers as well as critical info about veteran jobs and all the benefits of service. Subscribe to Military.com and receive customized updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Story Continues
Veteran Jobs