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Fashion, brains, and the job market

BY MICHAEL DALE-STEIN | FEBRUARY 11, 2010 7:30 AM

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Always dress for the occasion. Match shoes to belts, socks to slacks, and, on a below-zero morning in Iowa City, sweatpants to sweatshirts.

Fashion advice? From a 22-year-old student-journalist? I’ll have that grain of salt with an ice water and lemon wedge, please.

Yes, I’m a Pop Warner-caliber sartorialist who appreciates both a comforting pair of Iowa sweatpants matched with a ubiquitous North Face fleece and a single-breasted, three-button Italian suit with a tidy pocket square.

In the climate of Iowa City, the more casual of the two outfits enjoys a wide acceptance.

Nevertheless, college presents itself as a practice turf where fresh-faced young adults can expect a maturation of their personal style. And what better a time to start dressing commendably than now?

Each of us tiptoeing toward the plunge into the frightening job market — which, according to a Michigan State University study, is expected to be 2 percent worse for 2010 college graduates on top of last year’s 40 percent nosedive — should take every possible opportunity to carve out an edge. Maybe that means it’s time to bank some funds for corporate digs and fine-tune those crucial self-promotion skills.

Career advice? From a 22-year-old student journalist? Now you’ve gone off the deep end.

But I’m not the only one who thinks so. Deborah Rinner, an interpersonal skills consultant, recently penned her top 10 tips to make an impression in a sluggish market. She argues that presenting a polished image to potential employers is crucial.

“It takes only seconds for people greeting you to convert first visual impressions into an evaluation of your credibility,” Rinner writes, later adding, “You probably detail your vehicle, but do you take the time to detail yourself?”

But my sole concern isn’t what you should wear. It’s imperative to begin a self-branding process beyond aesthetics. Perfecting your visual representation must not come at the expense of one’s most valuable asset: the mind.

“Clothing and appearance could matter once you have an interview, but won’t matter at all if you don’t have the credentials to get that far in the hiring process,” said Michael Sauder, a UI assistant professor of sociology.

How young adults present themselves will inevitably drive a hefty portion of corporate success, social connections, and, plausibly, even spousal decisions. But Sauder makes a strong point. It’s impossible to obtain substantial accomplishments without credentials and experience.

I hope we can all truly recognize that the mind makes the man. Still, this mug needs all the help he can get, and if a Canali tie and Boss pea coat provide the slightest advantage once in the workforce — as a complement to a kickin’ personality and Einsteinian intellect (note to self: Quit the hyperbolic statements before this turns into an epically failed eHarmony ad) — then sign me up for more plastic cash.

Unfortunately, not everybody considers intelligence and creativity the measures for success. The truth is that reality is (insert number here) times harsher than overtly facile “don’t judge a book by its cover” optimism.

So as graduates and almost-graduates send out résumés and schedule interviews, keep in mind that landing a first job requires both polished intellectual skills and impeccable personal appearance.

That may mean ditching the sweatpants.


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