What to Wear When It's Time to Take Off the Uniform

(Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/U.S. Air Force photo)

Every time a transitioning service member shares their concerns around dress codes, facial hair, makeup and wardrobe, I hear the same fear: When the uniform comes off, what will they wear?

While the military makes it known how and what to wear and when, the civilian sector doesn't. There are as many dress codes, acceptable appearance guidelines and wardrobe protocols as there are companies. Here are some of my best practices regarding the image and presence you'll project when entering your civilian career:

What Image Do You Want to Portray?

Are you striving to be seen as approachable and relatable? Do you seek to be perceived as stoic and authoritative? Your presence and wardrobe can reinforce the impression you wish to portray. If the way you look is in stark contrast to how you want to be viewed, consider modifying your appearance to bring them into alignment.

What Are You Most Comfortable Wearing?

Do you enjoy dressing up for work, or is a more relaxed wardrobe your style? Given that most of us today are working from home and meeting in limited forums, consider whether you enjoy donning a suit and tie to feel your most professional or if jeans and a T-shirt do the trick.

What Does Your Target Audience Typically Wear?

The people you'll want to build professional relationships with -- for a job, networking or otherwise -- will dress a certain way. Do they wear a corporate suit, or do they project a more casual appearance? Do they sport facial hair and reveal their tattoos, or are they typically clean-shaven and more conservative in appearance?

These will be generalizations, but you can draw some assumptions from your observations. Check out their online profiles and corporate headshots, ask others who know them and use your best judgment when deciding whether to dress like them or project a different image.

Are There Any Industry or Geographical Norms?

It tends to be known that people on the East Coast of the U.S. dress up more and project a more conservative work attire. You'll find bankers on Wall Street wearing formal business suits.

Similarly, West Coast companies and agencies tend to adopt a more casual, relaxed appearance. It's not uncommon to see your banker in Los Angeles wearing jeans with a sports jacket. Agencies that focus more on creative arts (graphic design, internet, advertising, theater and entertainment, for instance) also project a more relaxed and self-expressive appearance. While these are some adopted norms, they are not rules or standards.

Be sure to research the specific company and office you'll be meeting with, and potentially working for, to know how they dress there.

Your Appearance Tells Us Something About You.

While it might not feel fair, people judge by what they see. Nonverbal communication (appearance and vocal tone) sends strong messages about what you believe, whether you respect yourself and others, and whether you're taken seriously for the value you offer.

While you should feel confident, self-assured and comfortable in what you're wearing, remember that others may not understand your choice of wardrobe and be confused. For example, if you wear a T-shirt that reads, "I believe in guns," to a job interview, the recruiter might see that choice as an intentional statement and feel uncomfortable. You have a right to wear the shirt and support the message, of course. But you have choices when you dress, and those choices send messages.

Facial hair, tattoos, piercings and jewelry make statements. So do business suits, neckties and makeup. They are part of how you present yourself physically to others. If you're thoughtful and intentional in your choices, you'll send a message that's congruent with the message you want to communicate.

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