Photo via Ann Taylor
Office dress codes can be tricky; while many workplaces have clearly articulated guidelines about what is and is not allowed (no flip flops, jeans on Friday only) there is often a bigger gray area around what’s really appropriate (suit? pants? dressy shorts?). In the corporate casual office, “appropriate” often depends more on what your job is than on any company-wide policy. A good rule of thumb is always to dress for the job you want, rather than the job you have. This means looking at what your supervisor and her peers are wearing to work and taking your cues from them. It can also mean finding a style mentor in your place of business, someone who can give you advice about what’s acceptable for certain functions or situations.
Of course, there are better and worse ways to approach this. Let’s look at an example of how not to handle the the what-to-wear-to-work dilemma.
Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
This is a true story: my friend Elz is an attorney, in a firm with a corporate casual dress code. Because of her position, Elz opts for a look that is slightly more corporate than casual. “The one time I wore jeans to work,” she told me, “a client stopped in unannounced.” Whoops. Lesson learned.
Elz had a young assistant who struggled to figure out what exactly was appropriate for the office. She tried out maxi dresses with too much cleavage and plastic shoes that looked like they were borrowed from a stripper. Elz was finally compelled to say something — very nicely — to this young woman; fortunately, the assistant was listening and she changed her ways.
Moral: You can be as casual and edgy as you like on your own time, but when you’re on the company clock, you need to abide by the rules — spoken or unspoken. Micro minis, excessive cleavage and exposed midriffs are never appropriate for a corporate culture, even a very casual one. Dressing like a stripper only gets you ahead if you actually work in a strip club.
Take style cues from your superiors.
After their talk, Elz‘s assistant realized that she needed to change her sartorial ways — unfortunately, in her mind, change meant dressing exactly like Elz. If Elz came to the office on Monday in a navy skirt and gray blouse, the assistant would show up on Wednesday in the same combo. “It was a little too ‘Single White Female,’” Elz said. People in the office started to comment; Elz’s secretary started to keep track of the outfits, like it was a game. While the Mini-Me approach was better than stripper shoes, it was still awkward.
Moral: In order to dress for the job you want, you need to look to people in your firm or company who have those jobs, and determine what they are wearing. This doesn’t mean copying your boss — or any other employee — down to the smallest detail; that’s just creepy. Instead, it means noticing how other women in power positions put themselves together for the office. If your boss always wears closed-toed shoes to big client meetings, for example, keep that in mind when you’re choosing your own footwear. But unless you truly love the way your boss — or any other woman in your office — dresses, don’t copy her; you don’t want her to think that the job you’re out for is actually hers.
Confused about the office dress code? Ask questions.
Elz wears skirts to work frequently, but she never goes to the office with bare legs; she wears hose because she’s more comfortable that way. Her assistant — who was, of course, putting a lot of energy into looking just like Elz — noticed this, and started wearing hose with her skirts. One morning, she said to Elz, “Can I ask you a personal question? Am I supposed to wear underwear with my panty hose?”
Moral: If you have the kind of relationship with your boss — or any female superior in your company — where you can ask her for fashion advice, take advantage of that, especially for big meetings or conferences. But be cautious about what you ask. Checking on the dress code for a company event is entirely appropriate, but asking about her skivvies is not. Ever. You do not want her wondering what exactly you have under your panty hose — or wondering if you’ve been thinking about what she has under hers. That’s an image she will never, ever be able to get out of her head. Just ask Elz.
Have you ever made a wardrobe faux pas at work? How did you recover?