Helena Frith Powell speaks to four women who have found that when it comes to climbing the career ladder, the right outfit can make a world of difference. "Clothes make the man," Mark Twain once said. "Naked people have little or no influence in society." The saying goes double for women, who are finding what they wear is increasingly important if they want to get ahead in business. Katherine Garrett-Cox, the chief executive and executive director of Alliance Trust plc, one of Britain's leading investment companies, and nicknamed Katherine the Great by the British financial press, says, "The way you dress signals that you mean business and that you take pride in your appearance."
On a beach in Dubai at the end of a two-day World Economic Forum meeting, Garrett-Cox, in a bikini and wrap, would be unrecognisable to her colleagues who are used to seeing her in a pin-striped tailored suit. Does she think that women consciously dress for success? "I think that women, and I include myself in that, do dress for success, absolutely," she says. "And the clothes I wear are extremely important to my frame of mind."
Garret-Cox's favourite outfit is usually a tailored suit from the high-end British fashion chain, LK Bennett. Sophie Toh, who is the founder of Toh Public Relations and based in Dubai and London, says she has a "pitch dress" that she wears whenever she is negotiating for a new account. "I wear my navy Philip Lim wool dress," she says. "It walks the perfect line between corporate and fashion and I have yet to feel inappropriate in it. My husband bought it on impulse for me on our honeymoon and it still makes me smile when I put it on. I love the high-waisted belt which makes me sit up straight in meetings. I also love the way the pleated skirt moves as I walk and the fact that it's above the knee, but not too short.
"I consider myself quite shy and this outfit really helps give me confidence when I walk into a room of strangers armed with only my ideas. When paired with my Marc Jacob heels and Prada bag, it's the fashion equivalent of caffeine. It has yet to let me down." Toh feels that dressing for success is as much about mentally preparing what you are about to do as what you wear. "In the workplace, clothes are your armour and can help project an image even if you're not feeling it. If you have an important day ahead, selecting the outfit can also be a form of mental preparation, a sort of fashion visualisation exercise."
Uzma Sarfraz-Khan, the managing partner and group editor of Who's Who International Magazine, relies on either "my Chanels" or the outfit described above when it comes to important business meetings. "They are über-conservative and very mature. My fashion-conscious friends hate it when I wear them. They tell me I can wear them when I'm a granny. But when I need extra confidence - for example if I'm about to ask someone for a lot of money - they give me the right feeling. I feel empowered when I wear them."
The outfits women choose have a lot to do with their mood. Amanda Banham, the PR director for Viola Communications in Abu Dhabi, says that when she puts on a certain pair of 10cm high heels she feels she can "achieve anything, I can conquer the world". "For important meetings I wear a pin-striped trouser suit from Long Tall Sally, so the legs are long enough for me, a black vest top from Massimo Dutti, black high-heeled boots and a Gucci bag. If I feel smart and am wearing something I think suits me, I feel strong and confident."
And clothes do more than just make you feel good in the workplace. Many believe that they are essential to your career progress. "If you're middle management and you want to be senior management, dress the part," says Uzma Sarfraz-Khan, who is originally from Pakistan but grew up in the US. "I worked out early on that this was the way forward and chucked out all my college clothes by my second year at work. In my first job I was a journalist and I saw that there was a real difference between what we wore and management wore. I thought 'OK, this has got to change' and threw out all my tracksuit bottoms." Now she sticks to high-end designer pieces only - Choé, Hermès, Donna Karan.
Sophie Toh agrees. "I think that if you're serious about your career, the urge to dress the part will come naturally. Working in PR has ingrained a sense of immaculate presentation into me. "I've worked with some fantastically well-groomed women and I've picked up some tricks from them. In my first work appraisal at the age of 22, I was told by my Parisian boss that I wore too much pink and that the luxury industry was clearly unfathomable to me. "I was mortified and vowed never to let my choice of dress stand in the way of my career. From that day on, I've embraced the black dress and the white shirt and feel uncomfortable out of heels. If I ever do really well, my reward will be a Hermès Birkin bag."
Accessorise well; appropriate but not flashy. Wear memorable shoes - Katherine Garret-Cox Don't let your clothes take centre stage. They should complement your character and personality, not take it over - Amanda Banham Plan ahead. It has taken me years to work this out. Think about the image you want to project and organise your outfit the day before - Uzma Sarfraz-Khan Be yourself. Don't be overly swayed by the fashion of the moment. Fashion rarely looks good in the boardroom - Sophie Toh
Pay attention to personal grooming at work. Facial and body hair are out. Blonde or otherwise, get rid of it. Also, men notice nails - Uzma Sarfraz-Khan
Dress appropriately for your job and the people you interact with. You need to be aware of the local culture, no matter where you live. Don't wear skin-tight clothes, miniskirts or low-cut tops to work in the UAE - or anywhere else for that matter - Amanda Banham Anything that makes you look skinny and feel confident is the way to go - Uzma Sarfraz-Khan