Dress Like a Pro

dress for success coverThe Woman’s Dress for Success Book

Submitter #1: I am submitting a fun little book from the late 1970’s that advises women on how to dress for success in the workplace and the bedroom. By fun I actually mean horrifying. The author tries to acknowledge the sexist world women were grappling with at the time, but is definitely blinded by his own impulses in that direction. There’s some racist sections, too, so black women get a double whammy.

The attached photos include some of my very favorite sections, including the intro titled “Bedroom or Boardroom-Your Choice”, a wonderful illustration of a “Don’t” workplace outfit, a section explaining how black women lawyers should dress for optimum impact on white men and black men, and an intro to the section on attracting a nouveau riche man.

Submitter #2: This book is so over-the-top ridiculous I don’t even know where to start. I can’t believe it was on the NY Times best seller list and I can’t believe we only just weeded it this past year. Inside John T. Molloy assures us that all the information in the book was very scientifically compiled from interviewing employees at “Fortune 500 companies” which he does not deign to list. I would feel so much better if he just admitted that he made it all up in his head or from throwing a darts at women’s clothing catalogs.

This book poses all sorts of ridiculous “rules” based on some pretty offensive stereotypes. (What to wear if you’re a lawyer in front of a jury of “urban ghetto blacks”! What to wear to attract men with old money! What colors are upper middle class!) Not to mention that there is an entire chapter on what to wear to attract men in certain professions. I think a book on office dress codes or compiling a work wardrobe could probably be helpful for college grads. It just shouldn’t be this one, in ANY decade. Also, I still can’t get over his advice to wear a “feminine fedora” and “necklace of gold golf balls.”

Holly: That’s right, folks, two separate people submitted this book to us within two days of each other! We actually posted this book back in the early days of ALB, but for the life of me I can’t find the post. (We lost some golden oldies last time we moved web hosts.) Since two people bothered to submit it again, I think we’ll post it again! If the guy on the back cover (below) is John T. Molloy, he just looks like a creeper. Sorry, sir, but you chose poorly in your author photo.

Mary: Molloy was the go-to guy for all things in professional attire for both men and women. I had about a thousand of those tied professional blouses. I think I burned them all in about 1990.

dress for success back cover

doing it wrong diagram

dress for success introduction

success suit

business blouse styles


dressing to attract men

dressing for the job


  1. In fairness to Molloy, his book for men included advice on dressing to attract the opposite sex too. And most of his books involved research (without going into detail, I think his methodology was flawed, but he didn’t pull the stuff out of his butt). From what my older female friends have told me, dressing professionally really did mean avoiding sexiness and looking Serious back then, though that changed later.
    But of course any book on dressing professionally 1977 is hopelessly dated now.

    1. That’s what I was getting out of this. He did research on this stuff and reported what tested well in different classes for both social and business occasions.
      It might be racist and sexist, but we are talking about the seventies.

  2. I remember this book. I probably even still have it. And I want to defend it. Maybe not everything in it was gospel truth, and it sure came out before things got all p.c., but it really filled a need at the time. Submitters, you had to be there to know how much this was needed — and heeded. Women were just starting to move into middle management then. We aspiring women in business dressed very carefully, and we did conform to a lot of what the book recommends. I remember a classmate in B-school (I was in the class of 1978) who always wore very conservative knee-length tailored skirt suits in dark colors. We actually got into a conversation about this — she said that she was working in a venture capital firm, seeing very conservative men, and the look was necessary for her credibility. (She went on to be a zillionaire so I have to conclude that it worked.) For a time, I had more leeway because I was in the fashion industry (had to maintain fashion credibility), but when I moved on, it was suits and tie blouses from then on, for probably decades. The one thing I remember about this book that I didn’t like is that he said not to wear a brown suit in Boston. Well, I loved my brown Sir-for-Her suit and I defiantly wore it anyway :-).

    1. The book is actually really interesting now as a cultural piece. I don’t think people today realize what a culturally loaded act it was at the time for women to hold jobs like this.

      1. It sure was! I recall one buyer I had to work with in the fashion business — he didn’t come on to me, but he would stroke my hair, ugh ugh yuck! I had to get along with him but it really creeped me out. I asked another buyer in the guy’s area what his take was, and he reported back that the guy just didn’t know how to deal with women in the workplace — he thought what he was doing was appropriate! This, in a business where I think at least half of the people in positions of authority were women. After the fashion business, my next job was in tech — my manager was pretty progressive (or he wouldn’t have hired me at all) but the rest of the place was male engineers and their secretaries. They really didn’t know how to relate to me! But I wanted to be sure it was on a professional level, and so I really made a point of not dressing like the secretaries. After a couple of years, there were a couple of female engineers and things were easier. But you can bet I never wore a cardigan nor carried a handbag. Suits & briefcase all the way.

        1. I remember reading about one of the first sexual harassment cases and the guys involved apparently had no idea that complimenting a woman’s breasts or telling her their awesome sexual fantasies about her could possibly be anything but a compliment.

          1. A lot of men just could not see women as anything other than sex objects. It wasn’t a conscious choice — they simply could not alter it (I was trying to think of an analogy but failed…) But, a lot of other men were not captive to this perception, fortunately. I had some great graduate B-school professors, and some male mentors in the workplace after that — I am indebted to them.

  3. I remember this so well. I had just entered the workforce after college. I think this is the book that said something along the lines of “Cardigan sweaters just scream “secretary.'” Didn’t stop me 30+ years ago and won’t stop me now, where I continue to work in a professional capacity and wear cardigans almost every day.

  4. The “doing it wrong” drawing makes me think of the woman who came to talk to my senior english class about how to dress for a job interview. She insisted that to look professional your skirt had to be above the knees. To this day that bothers me.

  5. I think I still have some of my floppy silk ties in the back of a drawer… And one trick I still use from back then is to take a long, narrow scarf and tie it like a man’s tie.

    The big problems with “dressing for success” were 1) good quality clothing of that ilk was damnably expensive, 2) if it wasn’t expensive, it was quite uncomfortable, and 3) once you dressed for success, you still had to work twice as hard as the men to get paid half as much.

    Honestly, I prefer to not think about clothing — my own, or that of the people around me. Must be why I’ve never been able to attract “money,” old or new.

  6. Why is a handbag “doing it wrong”? I work in an office, and a smart handbag is de rigueur for women.

    1. Maybe the “doing it right” drawing had a briefcase or something like that? I was curious about that too.

    2. Ro, you are talking about almost 40 years from when this book was written. Handbags are fine now — but back then, they were not. To be taken seriously as managers we modeled ourselves on the male executives as much as we could. Hence, briefcases. Also, they were a lot more practical for carrying folders, etc. home. And more — I had this wonderful Coach soft briefcase I could even fit my boots into LOL.

  7. My husband looked over my shoulder, and only saw the author photo. He immediately asked me if this book was about sexual harassment.

  8. “But women are no longer the cardboard characters that appeared in the early novels of Enlightenment England.” Is he saying that women used to be cardboard characters?

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