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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dress For Success: In This World And The Next

By Maria Hussa

Islam Online, New Jersey

So you're fresh out of college and ready to take on the world. Your first job interview - what are you going to wear? Let's face it. In America, employment is based only partially on your qualification for the job. They have already seen your resumé, and they liked it. The interview is how they decide if they like you. It is the image you project that tells your potential employer if you are the man or woman for the job.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, you always communicate. Within seconds, a potential boss has guessed your age, marital status, race, economic class, nationality, educational background, personal capabilities, character, goals, and if you can be trusted.

In other countries, status is often based on tribal or regional associations, and people are respected or disrespected based on their birth. However, in America, nobody has even heard of whatever region or family name some may feel is superior, and nobody cares what your grandfather did for a living. Here, social status comes primarily from the personal power a person is able to internalize and project. That is the reason that "clothes make the man" in America.

The way you dress, walk and stand, the force of your handshake, your tone of voice, and the directness of your eye contact all reveal if you are a valuable and important person or not. Business dress is all about maximizing the positive unconscious mental reactions we get from others.

It is necessary for new immigrants and first-generation Americans to understand the symbolic value of the different styles of dress and social behaviors of the various sub-groups within American culture, in order to realize what messages we are putting out there and to make sure that they are the messages we want to be sending. That is how we take control over how others assess us.

Because they lack this basic understanding of American culture, kids of foreigners almost always have trouble fitting in socially in school. They are often tempted to buy the trendiest outfits in order to look "cool." They don't have anyone to tell him or her, "A pair of straight-leg Levis might last you ten years without looking out of date. But those fluorescent orange shirts and bell-bottoms are going to look really foolish in a short amount of time, so they are not a good long-term investment." The other children unconsciously reject them because their clothes never look right.

It may take years for these new Americans to realize that in terms of creating a future for themselves and forging a career in this country, there is far more merit to maintaining a "timeless classic" look. Within the American school system, values constantly change about who is "in" and who is "out," but the preppies are the upper caste at all times, because their clothing says "Leader." They wear ironed, button-down shirts, polos and penny loafers, the leisure clothes of the rich. These kids usually get good grades and do well in sports. They do not have to work hard for popularity.

This same silent conversation that determines students' social success or failure in school by the clothes they wear continues in the office, but now it takes on new importance. Your clothes tell people not only your job rank, but also whether or not you intend to be promoted. If all the employees are equal in ability, when the supervisor wants to choose a project manager, he or she will choose the person who looks the most like a project manager. That is, the person who comes in with a freshly ironed shirt and polished shoes each day, whose fingernails are clean, who has taken the time to make polite small talk with both the bosses and the secretaries, demonstrating self-confidence and personability. The person who has self-respect will gain respect.

It is especially important for the Muslims in America to understand the psychology of the American people in its finer details in order to be able to play the role of public relations agent for Islam in their everyday lives. Indeed, a smart-dressed Muslim businessperson who is well-mannered, well-groomed, standing tall on the subway, saying nothing, has done more to enhance the image of Islam in this country than another hard-working Muslim standing on the corner handing out 1000 pamphlets, no matter how pure his intentions.

Islamic clothing guidelines present a challenging fashion statement. Can we identify ourselves as Muslims and still look respectable, employable, and smart? The answer is yes, but it is very important not to go halfway when it comes to Islamic dress.

I recently read a fashion review where the American writer was appalled at the Muslim women's attempt to compromise with western dress, wearing the scarf with form-fitting pants or short skirts. As she described it, they were Muslim only from the neck up and it looked awful. The clothes took away the person's personality completely. So do not make a joke of yourself in front of the non-Muslims by compromising your dress. Your challenge is to find a way to wear business clothes in a truly Islamic fashion. And it can be done. A blazer worn over a long skirt with hijab looks very stylish and smart. You can also wear a nice blouse and sweater with loose pants.

I have found that the more expensive department stores are more likely to have modest clothing. If you shop carefully, you can find clothes that are long, elegant, and appropriate for the office. Men should also strive to keep to Islamic guidelines, because American law defends their right to wear a beard on the job. However, it is imperative that the beard be kept neat and clean. Trousers should, of course, be loose.

We also have to be careful about cultural habits because some Muslim cultural traits can give the wrong message to others. I once watched a Muslim woman apply for a job, all the while staring at the manager's shoes. Needless to say, she was not even considered for the position. Staring at the floor may be a gesture of respect and modesty in Jordan, but in America, this behavior says, "I am highly insecure, and I do not relate well with others."

It is necessary for us to make direct eye contact, if only briefly, in order to assert one's self-confidence to potential employers. There is a world of difference between this and flirting. When sharing an office with persons of the opposite gender, it is necessary to be polite. You must greet men and women pleasantly. If someone is about to shake your hand and you wish to decline, you must explain without delay, "Although shaking hands with women/men is against my religion, I am very pleased to meet you." If you fear losing your chance at a job offer, then give a quick shake with a firm grip and no one will ever accuse you of anything inappropriate.

Shower every morning, brush your teeth, and wear deodorant if necessary. The smell of curry and garlic oozing out of your pores might not be noticeable to you, but to those with less aromatic dietary habits, it may be difficult to work near you. The same is true for cologne and perfume. Use it sparingly, or not at all. This is not Eid. A worker whose smell disturbs others will not get far, no matter what his capabilities.

Match your belt with your shoes, and your socks to either your pants/skirt or your shoes. In most cases, black is the best color for your shoes and belt. If you are in a position of authority, man or woman, you must wear a suit. Your clothes should be ironed carefully the night before.

Keep your color choice very conservative: black, gray, dark blue. When you are new on the job, pay attention to what others are wearing. If the atmosphere is somewhat relaxed, expand your wardrobe but use the color brown very sparingly. A man's brown suit screams "foreigner" or "schoolteacher from the Midwest."

Buy high-quality fabrics. Wool trousers, no blends. Cotton/Polyester blend shirts are okay only if the cotton ratio is higher than the polyester. However, pure cotton has the highest status. Cotton shirts need to be sent to the drycleaners to be starched and pressed professionally for that "crisp" look.

If you are a shy man and want to appear more confident at a meeting, wear a bold print tie with the color red. If you are a large, loud person and don't want to distance others, wear a cool blue tie.

Women, stay away from florals, bright colors, pinks and pastels. Save the flowing hippy skirts and shalwar kameez for a Saturday picnic. The business world does not value soft femininity. Wear deep, strong colors like deep purple, forest green, chocolate brown, charcoal gray, and maroon. A white or off-white blouse is fine.

Don't overdo the jewelry. Men, a wedding band and a nice watch are enough. Women, one ring and one bracelet per hand and one decorative pin to hold your scarf in place are the limit. When you have a good quality piece of jewelry, you don't need to clutter it with more jewelry. It looks trashy.

Watch your posture. Stand and sit up straight. This is good for your health, and gives people the idea that you are self-confident, trustworthy, and righteous.

I believe it is possible to wear hijab in a businesslike manner. Indeed, it is often recommended for women executives to don scarves as a sign of fashion flair, so why not wear the scarf pinned neatly around the face and draped elegantly over the bosom and shoulders? Again, stick to dark colors. Floral borders and prints may be used in moderation, but white scarves are a bit intimidating. Never tie the scarf beneath the chin or behind the neck because these styles tell people, "housewife," or "field worker"


And those who strive in Our (cause),- We will certainly guide them to our Paths(29:69)


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