One of my guilty pleasures is the movie, The Devil Wears Prada. And it’s not because I’m into fashion — in fact, I know as much about couture as Anne Hathaway’s character did in the movie, before her dramatic transformation. I enjoy the film for its solid acting (Meryl Streep’s ability to turn the boss from hell into a sympathetic character was nothing short of brilliant) and for its keen observations on office politics.
There’s one scene in particular that stands out to me in which Streep’s character delivers a scathing critique of her young assistant’s wardrobe — without uttering a single word. Just by eyeing her up and down and pursing her lips in just the right way, she made it clear that if the girl wanted to keep her job among the fashion elite, she had better trade in her sensible loafers for Jimmy Choos.
Her message was clear: if you want this job, you better start dressing the part.
For me, the scene was eerily familiar. Several years ago, while working as a medical editor, I had my own Devil Wears Prada moment when I was asked to tag along on a client dinner. I was excited, until I entered my colleague’s office and saw the quizzical look on his face.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” he asked.
Not something you ever want to hear, especially at work. It didn’t matter that the dress code at the office was casual, or that it happened to be on a hot summer day (when many would choose comfort over appearance). It didn’t matter that I didn’t know I was going to be asked to attend the dinner; I did know the client was going to be in town, and therefore, I should’ve been ready.
I should’ve dressed the part.
And it’s not always about clothes. It’s about having the right image; the right attitude. In the movie, Hathaway’s character didn’t just make over her wardrobe. She immersed herself in the company culture, learning about the top designers and absorbing the magazine’s articles. She proved that not only could she do the job, but that she wanted to do it.
Looking back at my own misstep, I realized that my choice of clothing was only part of the issue. Did I adequately research the client at the company? Was I prepared with background information, questions, and topics to chat about? Did I dress the part, in every sense of the word, or did I mail it in?
We’ve all had encounters with coworkers, colleagues, clients, and potential hires that stick in our mind — and not for a good reason. The best example I can recall is a press event at last year’s HIMSS conference that featured several CEOs who gathered to make a “big” announcement. They were all very pressed, polished, and poised — as one might expect from the leader of an organization — except for one. He slumped in his chair (even while he was speaking) and his hair was a mess. I remember the guy next to me asking, “Who is this guy? Is he serious?”
I knew who he was, but as to whether he was serious, well, that was anyone’s guess.
His demeanor is what I remember most from the event — not the announcement itself. To me, that says a lot. I guess there’s a reason they call it an impression.
Again, the message is clear. If you want the job, you need to dress the part — from your posture to your power suit — or you could be the one who is dressed down.