Dress For Success: Just Don't Expect The IRS To Help You Foot The Bill

Your latest book is going gangbusters; the reviews are to die for; and sales are off the charts. Oprah wants to schmooze, and you’re green-lighted for Dr. Phil, Regis and Ellen. On the other hand, you’ve been chained to your keyboard for a year, and your wardrobe shows it!

As a media favorite, it’s crucial that you are suitably dressed for chats with television’s glitterati. My advice for men: Wear a jacket, tie and pants. Whether this is a three-piece suit or a blazer and slacks is your call. But unless you seek to establish that you’re sartorially disadvantaged, try to look as serious as if you were applying for a loan.
 
My advice to women, gleaned from observing those who regularly show up on TV: Wear a jacket with long sleeves—not a dress or a short-sleeved jacket. You’ll look more serious. Strong, bright colors are best; avoid black or white. Overdo your makeup by about 10 percent, but tone down the jewelry and accessories. What interests viewers are your opinions, not your unusual necklace.
 
The right outfits don’t come cheap. So how about easing the pain to your wallet by writing off what you wear to interviews that result from the fruits of your labor? Don’t even think about it. Generally, clothing costs are not deductible as business expenses. They are considered nondeductible personal expenses.
 
The Internal Revenue Service and the courts agree that no write-offs are allowed for clothing that’s adaptable to general wear off the job. It’s no excuse that you need to be fashionably or expensively dressed for TV interviews. Your outfits are obviously appropriate away from work.
 
For example, the United States Tax Court threw out deductions for suits bought by Edward J. Kosmal, a Los Angeles deputy district attorney who planned to leave government service. Ed decided that the right way to impress his future employers and colleagues was to upgrade his wardrobe to the sartorial standards of a “big-time Beverly Hills P.I. [personal injury] attorney.” The court denied the deductions because, unquestionably, the clothes were fitting for ordinary wear.
 
HAIRSTYLING AND MAKEUP. The IRS and the courts sometimes differ on deducting hairdressing costs. The IRS classifies such payments as nondeductible personal expenses, even for a big-name, New York fashion designer like Mary McFadden, who’s in the public eye and “noted professionally for her distinctive hair style.”
 
However, an IRS defeat occurred in 1978, when the Tax Court sided with Margot Sider. Margot wrote off the cost of 45 extra beauty-parlor visits that were made, she argued, only because her hairstyle was an integral part of her job demonstrating and selling “a high-priced line” of cosmetics in a department store to a “sophisticated clientele.” As soon as she stopped selling, she went back to a simpler style.
 
At her trial, Margot cited a 1963 Supreme Court decision written by Justice John Marshall Harlan: “For income-tax purposes Congress has seen fit to regard an individual as having two personalities: One is a seeker after profit who can deduct the expenses incurred in that search; the other is a creature satisfying his needs as a human and those of his family but who cannot deduct such consumption and related expenditures.”
 
Margot maintained she’d spent the amount in issue as a “seeker after profit,” not as “a creature satisfying her own needs.” That satisfied the judge, who ruled she was entitled to fully deduct expenditures beyond “the ordinary expenses of general personal grooming.”
 
The IRS had no trouble convincing the Tax Court that Vivian Thomas shouldn’t be allowed to deduct grooming expenses. Vivian worked as a private secretary for an attorney who required her to be perfectly coiffed at all times while in the office. So she deducted the cost of twice-weekly trips to the beauty parlor. Sorry, said the court, but a secretary’s coiffure maintenance costs are not allowable— even in her case.
 
Back in 1979, actress September Thorp offered an unassailable not-adaptable-for-general-wear defense—and won—when the IRS challenged her deduction for makeup: “I’m in Oh! Calcutta! and I have to appear nude onstage every night,” argued September, “so I cover myself with body makeup. I go through a tube every two weeks, and it’s very expensive.”
 
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Julian Block is an attorney and author based in Larchmont, N.Y. He has been cited as “a leading tax professional” (New York Times), "an accomplished writer on taxes" (Wall Street Journal) and "an authority on tax planning" (Financial Planning Magazine). This article is excerpted from "Julian Block’s Easy Tax Guide for Writers, Photographers, and Other Freelancers".
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