How to power dress in summer – tips from TV presenter Emma Willis

Love the warmer sunny days, but struggle to be smart and comfortable at work? Find out how to power dress in the summer from TV presenter Emma Willis. 

We don’t know about you, but as soon as the sun comes out and the temperatures rise, all we want to wear are sandals and summer dresses. Which is great for comfort – but less suitable for meetings and business appointments.

First impressions are important, and the clothes you wear can influence not just what someone thinks of you, but ultimately whether they decide to hire or buy from you.

So how can we strike a balance between power dressing and comfort on warm summer days? TV presenter and mum Emma Willis, and fashion psychology expert Dr Aurora Paillard (Senior Lecturer and course leader for BSc Psychology of Fashion and the London College of Fashion) share their tips on dressing for success while staying true to your own identity.

What is ‘power dressing’?

Before we share tips on how to ‘dress for success’ in the office or in meetings, we need to define what power dressing actually means. The term often conjures images of severe suits in harsh lines and sombre colours, or tightly tailored dresses. Or of Melanie Griffith’s boss Katherine in Working Girl.

Power dressing actually originates in the 1970s, when John T. Molloy published his manual Dress for success (1975), followed by Women: dress for success (1980). In his books, Molloy described how men and women should dress to make an appropriate professional impression.

He advised men to wear high quality, conservative business attire that fit well (think Don Draper). Women were recommended to wear a skirted suit and a blouse with floppy or bowed neck pieces.

The aim for women was to not look like a secretary, nor too sexy. Scarves were employed to draw attention away from the breasts, and florals and pastels were out.

As style (and society, thankfully) has evolved over the years, and senior female roles are no longer a novelty, women have been able to stop trying to imitate men in their dress, and instead adapt their own personal style for the workplace.

Does power dressing work?

There’s a very good reason why power dressing took off as a concept. According to Dr Paillard, dressing for business or career success changes how you feel and act: “When it comes to power dressing, it is proven that if you wear such clothes, or for example red lipstick, you will perform better.”

A 2015 study (The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing) put this idea to the test. It discovered that, when we wear clothes that are more formal than we are used to, we think more broadly and holistically. As Abraham Rutchick, an author of the study and a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge, says: “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world.”

Of course, if we feel more powerful and are able to think more broadly, we’ll make a better impression at work or in meetings. This is amplified by how others perceive us based on how we are dressed. Research has shown that when we combine our appearance with communication skills, their perception of us and their behavior toward you is influenced:

“Clothing plus communication skills determine whether or not others will comply with your request, trust you with information, give you access to decision makers, pay you a certain salary or fee for contracted business, hire you, or purchase your products and services.”

How to power dress when it’s over 25°C

So, power dressing does work. Great! But how can we make sure we dress to make the right impression with others (and reap the psychological benefits ourselves) without breaking a sweat, or just feeling uncomfortable all day in summer?

Thankfully, today we don’t need to strut into boardrooms in shoulder-padded suits to let everyone know we mean business. Instead, we can find beautifully cut work clothes that fit our personal style, with a trend in year-round tailoring bringing well-cut pieces in light fabrics to the high street – perfect for summer meetings. Or we can slip into a comfortable Easel dress.

How Emma Willis dresses for success (and comfort)

After more than 15 years in the public eye as a TV presenter (of the iconic Big Brother shows and The Voice, among others), Emma Willis has her summer work wardrobe sussed.

And, while she agrees on the importance of a power outfit, Emma believes that comfort is essential: “I think a suit gives me the most power – I mean, I don’t know if it actually does, but wearing one makes me feel comfortable AND confident.”

So no surprise that a red crepe suit with loose trousers is one of her favourite pieces from her new Summer 18 Collection with Next. And it’s not just that the outfit is smart and confident (and helps her to stand out), but that it genuinely feels like her. (Unlike the strict, regimented workwear code dictated to women in the 1970s and 1980s…)

As she says: “There’s a lot of pressure today to be individual and different. It’s not important to me to feel individual, but more to trust my gut and to feel like me in it.” It’s a sentiment that Dr Paillard agrees with: “Your wellbeing will be higher if you’re wearing clothes you’re comfortable with and show who you are.”

And it makes sense; there’s no point wearing an outfit that you don’t feel like ‘you’ in. While the clothes themselves may impress, you’ll be far less likely to shine yourself if you feel like a fraud or hate your look.

How can you power dress in the summer?

So how can you dress for success on sticky summer days? The key pieces of advice from Emma and Dr Paillard are:

  • Choose tailored items in light fabrics.
  • Go for comfort and pick outfits you can wear all day without breaking a sweat.
  • Pick a look that feels like ‘you’.

Our own fashion editor, Karen Skagerlind, also has these workwear style tips:

  • Invest in a fabulous coat or jacket and you can get away with wearing high street separates underneath.
  • Look for fabrics which have a mix of both man-made and natural fibres.
  • Wear skirts that don’t crease and trousers that don’t shine.
  • Plan ahead for meetings so you know everything you want to wear is clean.
  • Make sure your shoes are smart and clean (they can make or break an outfit).
  • Wear seamless underwear to avoid VPL.

Thankfully the days of needing to wear a scarf to draw attention away from our breasts are over!

Need more workwear tips? Read more of our style hacks for comfort at work.