Know the difference between fashion and style // The Precedent guide to looking polished

Know the difference between fashion and style. How your sartorial choices can help you get ahead at work
What you wear matters. How your sartorial choices can help you get ahead at work

By Greg Hudson

On Tuesday March 11th, 2014


Being fashionable and having style are related, but they aren’t the same. Fashion is the business of runways, of collections, of clothes and the people who sell them. Personal style is an outward expression of one’s inward conviction. This is why it’s so crucial for lawyers to consider: it’s the fastest way to communicate your commitment to a case or a client, or even your job. Style is one’s personal reaction to, and distillation of, fashion.

Being fashionable is good. But career-wise, having good style is better. Whereas fashion broadcasts the brand identity of whatever label you’re wearing, style communicates your personal brand. Which do you want to project to your clients, partners and co-workers?

“Women and men alike need to project their personal brand: the stature of their firm, and the professionalism and confidence that come with the position of offering advice to their clients,” says Will Stewart, a consultant at public relations firm Navigator. And while Stewart most often works with politicians, helping them define their personal style, he says the same principles apply to lawyers.

“It’s not just about how your clients see you,” he says. “The same confidence, attention to detail and professionalism should be projected to your colleagues, both superior and junior. It can help you manage staff, assist in your advancement and navigate office politics. Every day is a reason to dress suitably well.”

Michael Nguyen, owner of Toronto clothier Garrison Bespoke, works with lawyers regularly to develop their own style.

“Looking great lets their colleagues and senior management know that they care about their appearance, and therefore they care about the work they do,” he says. “It also makes them a lot more memorable, and more approachable.”

But there is danger in the pursuit of personal style, especially for lawyers. It’s possible to look too good: to give the impression that, just maybe, you’re overpaid.

“As with everything, you should dress for your audience,” says Stewart. “Know your clients, understand how they would view you with too much or too little emphasis on your attire. Dress as an extension of your work with them.”

Again, it’s about style over fashion. But it’s a slippery sartorial slope. The way to navigate it is by knowing, then knowingly breaking, certain rules. Mix patterns in surprising and personal ways. Add flashes of colour that might, at first, seem to clash. Pay attention to the details: the right pen, cufflinks, pocket squares, even jacket linings. Most importantly, find what you like, then make sure it fits. Nearly every fashion faux pas can be overlooked if the clothes fit right.

“The last thing any serious professional should strive for is shock value in their clothes,” says Stewart. “Think of your personal touches as a highlight, not the focal point. And don’t try to cram every accessory into every outfit.”

It’s good advice. And good advice never goes out of style.

This story is part of The Precedent guide to looking polished.

Illustration by Min Gyo Chung