Answers to the Perennial Question "What Should I Wear?" in an Interview with Image Consultant Kathi Burns

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What should I wear?

I’m not the most fashion-conscious person around and, as a professional organizer, I found it especially challenging to figure out the appropriate outfit to wear for various business activities. When I learned that professional organizer Kathi Burns is also an image consultant, I asked if she would answer a few questions in order to help others with similar decisions to make.

One time I wore a khaki skirt and a blazer to a residential organizing consultation, and the prospective client asked if that was how I was going to dress when I came to organize her house. How can an organizer show that she is prepared to sit on the floor and get her hands dirty, yet still look professional?

That is a great question. It is all about the jacket! Jackets will help you make a solid first impression. I do think that a skirt is probably inappropriate to wear to a client’s first interview or assessment appointment. The client is assessing you as much as you are assessing them. A skirt might leave the impression that you are not necessarily ready and willing to solve their problems if it involves getting down and dirty.

A nice jacket, not necessarily a suit coat, will set you apart and signify that you work in a professional capacity.. When you wear a nice tailored jacket at the beginning of each appointment, you will automatically appear more put-together, professional and confident.

Make sure that your jacket fits you well and is not out-dated, frumpy or wrinkled. Your jacket should be tailored to skim your body and preferably cut from a material other than cotton. Cotton wrinkles easily is typically appears very casual.

When you go back to do the actual organizing, there’s a good chance you’re going to be working in some pretty dusty areas, especially if you’re organizing a basement or garage. Would it be okay in those cases to wear jeans or track pants, as you’d probably wear if you were working in your own house?

I frequently wear a nice jacket over dress jeans or slacks and a casual top. When it is time to get down to work, I simply take off my jacket and am ready to get dirty.

The  jeans that I consider dress jeans are dark washed without fading or holes so they look very professional. If my client is over 70, I will wear dark machine washable dress slacks that I won’t mind getting dirty. Sometimes older clients still feel that jeans are a bit too casual and every little bit of authority you can gain with these types of clients is helpful as they are often stuck in their old habits.

I’ve seen some organizers who wear business casual attire, and put an apron over top to protect their clothes while they’re working. What do you think of that?

As an image consultant, I feel that an apron puts a PO in the position of a hired hand or maid as opposed to a professional offering high caliber services. This is simply my chosen business model and personal opinion. I do everything possible to set myself apart from assistants and housekeepers because I feel my job is more on the level of a coach than a housekeeper.

I suppose that if you have to wear an apron, it should be embroidered with a logo, but again, I do not consider myself to be in that level of business.

A nice golf shirt with your business logo and casual pants seems to make a good “uniform” for residential organizers that’s suitable for both consultations and hands-on work. Is this type of uniform appropriate for corporate office organizing, or is it necessary to wear something more professional?

A golf shirt and casual pants might be okay for residential, but definitely not for corporate work, unless you want to appear to be in the same league as their weekly plant maintenance company. Problems that I see arising from golf shirts is that women often default into men’s cuts because this is what is most widely available from the embroidering companies. Men’s cuts do not always provide a put-together impression. A better tactic, if you really want to wear a logo on your chest, would be to buy your own women’s polo or more structured blouses in advance and take them in to be embroidered with your logo.

Regarding corporate organizing jobs, you should always dress corporately when working in a corporate setting and, at minimum, wear a nice jacket. There have been instances when I actually wore a suit every day to a corporate organizing job because that was the dress code. When I began to actually organize, I removed my suit coat and got to work. When on break, I put my jacket back on as I came and went. The thing about the corporate job is you never know who you might meet in the hallway or break room; it could be the CEO. As the CEO of your own PO agency, wouldn’t you want to appear to be in the same league?

Ideally you can plan your appointments so that you schedule meetings for certain days, and organizing jobs on other days. But what if you’re asked to do a business organizing consultation, and the time they’d like you to go is at the end of a day when you’ve been organizing someone’s garage? Is it necessary to bring a complete change of clothing, or is there something else you can suggest?

I would definitely bring more casual slacks and shirt to the home job but always wear a jacket into the home at the beginning of each day. When transitioning to the corporate meeting, I would change into business attire slacks and shoes.

This leads me to a big issue that I see in the dress codes of professional organizers. Their shoes are often terribly dirty, frumpy and out of style. In order to accommodate their foot problems, many organizers (and people in general)  default into really unflattering shoes. It does take a bit of searching to find shoes that will be comfortable while working a full day on your feet but it is very important that you try. Nice shoes for work are usually not cheap but well worth the investment. I wear Paul Green shoes throughout the winter months when socks are required and nice ballet flats with flexible rubber soles during the warm weather months.  It is also very important that shoes are maintained so they are not dirty, faded, ragged or torn.

Orthopedic sandals and running shoes are, in my opinion.  simply not professional enough for everyday wear in this industry. If you have a garage job, and you already have made the good first impression with the client, than feel free to wear athletic shoes that day. There are more professional alternatives to athletic shoes if you know what to look for. Otherwise, wear something more put-together until a high level of professionalism and strong rapport with your client is established.

Professional organizers are often asked to give presentations or workshops about organizing. What is the best thing for a speaker to wear that will look great but not be distracting for the audience?

I would always wear something that was at least on par with the audience. For instance, if it’s a women’s business networking organization, I would probably wear a suit. If I was presenting a workshop for college students, I would probably wear dress jeans and a jacket. When in doubt, a suit is always a safe choice. After all, you are the authority and this is why you are giving the presentation!

In my new book, How to Master Your Muck I have included a chapter on creating a masterful image and another about the fields of Professional Organizing and image Consulting. You can also read more questions and answers about image and first impressions on my addSpace To Your Life! website.

Thank you for asking these questions. If you have any personal or specific questions, feel free to leave a comment under any article on my website and I will be happy to help.

I feel that our industry needs to kick it up a notch and wear more professional clothes even when they are up to their knees in dust and dirt. And we are, after all, Professional Organizers!

Kathi, I know you’ve been really busy with your book launch, so I really appreciate your making time for this interview. I’m sure your tips will be very useful to my readers!

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

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A former professional organizer, I now eliminate stress for my clients by hosting, monitoring, and maintaining their WordPress sites so they don’t have to worry about security, downtime or performance issues. When I’m away from my desk, I enjoy reading, photography, watching movies, and cooking.

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  1. Julie Bestry Julie Bestry on October 16, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Great interview, and I generally agree, especially with making the distinction about the type of services we offer. I’ve worn the same “uniform” for 8 1/2 years–black Chico’s Traveler’s pants (y’know, the kind that are a bit flowy), a ribbed cotton twinset with a sleeveless mock turtleneck and matching cardigan, and rubber-soled loafers. Sadly, Land’s End has discontinued those great twinsets–I have them in seven colors, and would gladly have bought them for eternity.

    To me, the cut of the cardigan serves the same purpose of the jacket–to create a finished, professional look suitable for residential or small business organizing. (Certainly, as Kathi notes, corporate organizing requires apparel that matches the corporate culture.) All of the items are machine-washable, making it easy to rid myself of dust or pet hair or the paper detritus from opening thousands of envelopes, without the expense of dry cleaning.

  2. Avatar Jacki Hollywood Brown on October 16, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Super interview! I’m glad to know I was on the right track for residential organizing – right down to the shoes! I find it essential in Canadian winters to have a pair of indoor shoes as I arrive at the client’s in dress boots. My indoor shoes are similar to the Paul Green shoes mentioned by Kathi – not just indoor sneakers.

    Kathi notes that corporate apparel match corporate culture and I wholeheartedly agree! I service some agricultural clients and I must dress accordingly. Nice jeans and clean work boots show that you are familiar with what goes on in a barn yet have that professional, authoritative look.

    Julie has an important point – machine-washable clothing is essential!

  3. Avatar Janet on October 16, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Julie, I love the idea of a cardigan instead of a jacket. In addition to providing a finished look, it’s easier to move around, in the event it’s a bit cool where you’re working and you wish to leave it on, as well as being machine washable.

    Jacki, your example is great too. It would be so easy to think that working in a barn is an occasion for dressing down, but you demonstrate that you can maintain a professional image regardless of the dress code and work setting.

  4. Avatar The English Organizer on January 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Since deciding to become a Professional Organizer, I haven’t bought a single skirt. And my days of cashmere sweater and dry-clean only pants are gone, too. 🙂
    Thanks, Janet, great interview.

  5. Avatar Janet Barclay on January 30, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    Pauline, it sounds like you don’t miss your cashmere sweaters!

  6. Avatar Helena on August 31, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Great interview Janet and Kathi.
    Since moving to San Diego I’ve been trying to find the “perfect” set of what to wear since here can get so warm. I will definitely look into your suggestions, Kathi! PS: I also had a client ask me “what will you wear during organizing sessions?” once.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 31, 2013 at 11:58 am

      Speaking of “what to wear,” I really like the series of “Friday Outfits by Jennifer Rosson” that you’ve been featuring on your blog, Helena. I can definitely see myself wearing some of those – except for the high heels. I rarely wore them when I was younger, and now I don’t even try. 🙂

      • Avatar Helena on August 31, 2013 at 1:43 pm

        Thank you Janet!
        I love her outfits too. Yes, no heels for this mama! I would be on heels daily as a professional, but since having the twins you’ll always find me on comfy and stylish flats. 😉
        Changing my wardrobe was a long process and finding the new brands, sizes and what I liked took a while, but now I know exactly where to shop, sizes and will ONLY shop online.

        • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 31, 2013 at 2:57 pm

          I have a few favorite stores, but I still like to shop there in person.

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