This is a guest post by Brett Glirbas – he is the founder of Achievable Ventures, a grant writing company that can help find money for your next project.
Everyone understands the importance of dressing up for a job interview.
But did you know dressing well can help break stereotypes?
Stereotypes affect opinions of ability and intentions anytime you're dealing with people from different ethnic groups, age groups, cultures, or the perceived “norm”.
If someone is harboring a negative stereotype, consciously or unconsciously, it can be very hard to get off on the right foot.
The Power of First Impressions
As an entrepreneur and businessman I understand the value of first impressions. I dress sharp as I never know when I am going to meet a new client.
I also am very sensitive to being judged because of issues beyond my control.
I've had people assume that I have limited mental ability and talk down to me.
All because I have cerebral palsy and use an electric wheelchair.
People see a wheelchair and many make immediate assumptions. They have no idea that I graduated from college with honors and have my own grant-writing and consulting business.
Little do they realize I could be – and often am – an asset to companies just like theirs. They're not doing either of us any favors by assuming my abilities are limited because of my appearance.
Side Note – I do have fun with this sometimes. When shopping at stores people often assume I work there, because hey, I'm driving a little machine. I like to tell them everything is 50% off before I reveal I'm not an employee.
The Realization That Appearances Matter
When I began my career I began to think more about how I was dressing and presenting myself to counteract some of these negative first impressions.
I came to a very important realization.
If I waited for everyone in the world to learn that a wheelchair doesn't mean I'm less useful – then I'm going to have a long lonely wait.
By dressing sharp and forcing people to see me as someone in control of his own appearance (and often someone in much better control than they are) I've preempted the stereotype.
Dressing for Self-Esteem and Pride
Another reason I pay attention to my appearance is for my own self-esteem and pride.
When I am dressed well I feel more confident and more motivated to get things done. It's a daily reminder that I define myself, not anyone else.
This ends up having a tangible benefit beyond how I'm feeling. People pay attention to men that are dressed well. A lot of guys are just happy to fit in with the crowd, but I have learned that there are benefits to standing out.
Being well-dressed on a daily basis means more people know your name and remember you. This comes in handy when you are seeking a promotion or just trying to get noticed by someone special. For me it's also a way to make sure I'm known as Brett instead of “that guy in a wheelchair”. And I don't mind the extra attention from the ladies either!
My definition of dressing sharp
Dressing well does not mean wearing a custom 3- piece suit everywhere you go. It just means looking your best in whatever environment you are in.
Being a well-dressed man may mean having a well-fitted suit as opposed to something cheap and off the rack, or it might mean adding a blazer or tie when you could get away with just a dress shirt in a less formal work environment. It can be as easy as putting on a sweater or vest when you are out with friends and wearing nice loafers instead of tennis shoes.
You can look well-dressed in anything if you always make sure the clothes you wear fit properly. You can't look good squeezed into something you bought five years and 20 pounds ago, even if it was a really nice piece of clothing. Just make sure you've got a good, consistent fit all around: long sleeve shirts should extend just to the wrist and hang reasonably close to the body. Pants should fit close to the body and “break” by resting lightly on the tops of your shoes. Jackets need to give your arms freedom of movement without pinching and to cover your bottom when you stand.
One of my favorite outfits to wear when meeting with a client, speaking to groups about my business, or meeting up with friends is a dress shirt, a tie and a buttoned vest paired with a nice pair of jeans. It works in business environments but also works in a more casual setting. For an “off-the-clock” look later in the day I even loosen the tie a bit.
My Personal Style
Like anything worth doing, dressing well takes some effort and time. I didn't build my wardrobe by buying a bunch of expensive clothes all at once; I did it by being very selective and watching sales.
I've built my business/formal wardrobe up slowly over the last few years. Before that I mainly wore the t-shirts, hoodies and sweat pants that a lot of younger people favor. I still like hoodies and sweat pants for their convenience, but they are rarely seen outside my house.
Spending my day in a wheelchair has created some obstacles in my pursuit to dressing well. These obstacles include my neck size, the braces I wear on my feet, dressing difficulties, and the whole issue of look vs. functionality.
Proper Shirt Fit – Neck
Like some men my neck size does not fit my body type. For the top button on a dress shirt to fit the shirt measurement needs to be at least 17.5-18 inches, but most of these shirts are extra-large or extra-tall.
Even with a couple extra pounds I have a smaller body type and there's no getting around the fact that I'm pretty short. Some of these extra-large shirts go down to my knees and almost look like a dress. When I tuck them into my pants I end up sitting on half of the shirt — not the most comfortable fit in the world.
I also found that these extra-large shirts were way too wide. I could gain 50 pounds and they would still fit my chest. I've since switched to “Slim Fit” (also sometimes just called “Fitted” shirts), and I recommend them for anyone that doesn't have a broad chest. Even if you're just a normal, athletic build most dress shirts are cut loose enough that you'd benefit from a slimmer fit.
Dress Shoe Fit
Another obstacle that I face is most dress shoes don't fit with the braces that I wear on my feet and ankles. These braces are made of hard plastic and increase my shoe size by about 2 sizes. Because of the shape of the braces the only type of shoes that work are soft skateboarding shoes. Day to day I can look pretty good around the time in skateboarding shoes, but they don't go over well in a boardroom.
My solution was to purchase a high-quality pair of skateboarding shoes that were entirely black with black laces. I keep them set aside for business occasions and make sure they stay dark and clean so that they can fit in with everyone else's black leather oxfords.
If you're someone else that has trouble finding shoes that fit and prefers to wear soft cloth shoes most of the time, my advice is: spend the money for one pair of comfortable dress shoes and set them aside for business and formal occasions only. If you can't wear leather because it's too stiff look for an all-black or all-brown cloth shoe with matching laces, sole, and stitching so you're not drawing attention to your shoes.
Dressing Well Within Your Limits
Another thing that I consider when dressing well is my physical limitations. If I buy clothes without recognizing them I'm just wasting money on something I can't use.
I don't have full movement of my arms and upper body. This makes putting on and taking off suit jackets and blazers a daunting task. I also have a harder time moving my arms when I am wearing a suit jacket. Whenever it's appropriate I substitute either a sweater-vest or a dress vest (like you might find as part of a three-piece suit) for a jacket. That keeps me nice and business-like without the struggle to put a jacket on and the difficulty moving in one.
One of the most asked questions in men's style is “how do I tie my necktie?”
There are hundreds of videos on YouTube. You can do one search and find out 18 different ways to tie your necktie in less than a minute — but most of them aren't very helpful if you can't move your fingers well enough to tie knots.
My solution to this problem is simple, I just buy neckties that are already tied.
Most snappy dressers will swear that you can't get a pre-tied tie that looks as good as one tied by hand, of course, but I've never had anyone complain about mine and they're a great solution if you have trouble with knots. My favorite type is a zipper tie (not to be confused with “zip-ties,” those little plastic bindings), which come pre-tied with a zipper hidden inside the knot. They don't have the obvious buckle-bulge you get with a cheap clip-on and I don't have to spend half an hour fighting with a knot to go out looking good.
A pocket square really adds a special touch to an outfit. It tells everyone that you pay attention to details and care about personalizing your looks.
Unfortunately, just like the tie, I don't have the dexterity to fold a pocket square the way I'd like. Instead I've developed my own little trick: I have one person help me fold the square once the way I like it, and then I sew or staple a small piece of cardboard inside the bottom of the fold.
When I want to wear a square I just slip the pocket square in, cardboard first, hiding the stitching/staples and leaving the nice fold displayed. You'll see rental places using the same trick. Done right (and not all rental places do get it right, but I make sure I do) no one will ever know the difference. It limits the types of fold I can use a bit, but it saves a lot of time and makes putting a pocket square in an easy, solo operation.
My biggest obstacle to dressing well is the pants. Sitting in a wheelchair I have to balance comfort and style with function.
Many pants are uncomfortable when sitting all day long. Some make it more difficult to use the restroom, while others have too much fabric in unwanted places. The most comfortable pants I have are sweatpants, but they're useless for any professional setting. Dark jeans are stylish and fairly comfortable in the legs but do not sit well on my waist — they're cut with a lower rise that sits on the hips, which isn't comfortable when seated.
Khakis and dress pants fit better on the waist but are usually fastened with multiple buttons. These multiple buttons create another obstacle for me when I need to use the restroom. I like to be independent as possible, but when you have a very difficult time unbuttoning a single button a set of buttons seems as difficult as climbing Mount Everest.
The most comfortable solution I've found is blue jeans and khakis with a half or full elastic waist band. They're comfortable in the waist and legs while seated and are easy to manage in the restroom. Unfortunately, they're not the most stylish pants in the world: the elastic band stands out and the pant legs are wider and only come in very limited colors.
My solution is to dress more formally on my upper body, in ways that keep people's attention on my chest and face rather than my lower half. I usually pair my elastic-waist dress trousers with a dress shirt, some kind of vest, and a tie when it's appropriate. The vest helps conceal the elastic band on the pants, and the business shirt and tie help guide people's eyes up toward my face.
I'm always looking to improve, of course. I recently invested in a pair of custom blue jeans with a velcro fly. They fit like a glove, but they cost three times more than I had spent on blue jeans before! So like any improvement it's a slow process, and the important thing is just to keep moving forward.
Some people say fashion is a pain and isn't what really matters. For my part, I'm glad I'm not one of those people.
I dress well and it gets me the attention and respect I deserve as a businessman, instead of letting people form their own mistaken opinions based on the fact that I'm a guy in a wheelchair.
You don't have to use a wheelchair to get the same benefits from dressing well that I do. If your shirt is too tight or if you don't have comfortable shoes to walk in then you will be distracted and won't be at your best. If you're looking sloppy or underdressed people are going to dismiss you no matter what shape your body's in.
My final words of advice – Dressing well might not make you a millionaire overnight, but it will help get you past stereotypes and give you the opportunity to make your own success!
For more information about Brett's journey to success and how his grant writing business Achievable Ventures can help fund your organization's dreams.