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Cracking the dress code, or what not to wear to work

Categories: casual office


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?

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4 comments so far...

  • I guess the benefit to crazy co-worker is that she makes ANYTHING I wear look tame! Ha. I do wear skirts/dresses without hose in the summer. Thankfully we haven’t had any conversations about what should be worn with bare legs yet! Oh God, please no.

    elz  |  May 13th, 2011 at 11:28 am

  • All good advice. However, in tech/software (whatever we call these days) women should not be looking to their superiors for direction as they’re still often men. Men who might mix it up with a polo & khakis OR a button-down shirt & khakis. Find some women in other departments that dress well and emulate (not copy!) them. At the very least, no bare shoulders, no cleavage (it’s amazing how many people will stand over you when your job is to sit in front of a computer), and if you’re wearing sandals have a pedicure. For the love of small woodland creatures - do not show dry, flaking, calloused feet with chipped toenails at the office.

    Catherine  |  May 13th, 2011 at 11:07 pm

  • I personally wear suit sets from places like Victorias Secret. Like a pencil skirt, that is knee length, trousers that fit nicely, but not TOO nicely, and are long enough for my really long legs. Body suits that look like a button down shirt that is tucked in, but I dont have to actually worry about it coming un-tucked during the day, blazers / jackets when it is cold out (but I live in Southeast Texas and it gets very hot here most of the time), a nice pair of heels that aren’t too short, but not too tall and are corporate friendly (I love Nine West basic black, brown and cream colored heels), etc. I personally am not comfortable wearing panty hose, so I do not wear them, but I know a lot of women who do. I have very large breasts, and a smaller frame, however I do NOT show cleavage at work. I work primarily with men. We have either 6 or 7 women in an office of about 50 ppl (just at our location) and I am one of the youngest. The last thing I want to be is the “young woman who always flaunts her breasts”. So I am very careful to make sure they are covered by whatever blouse I choose that day. I keep it simple. I rarely wear a blouse with a pattern, most of mine are solid colors. Every now and then I will buy one with a little bit of print on it to contrast a drab wardrobe. I used to work with a girl who was 24 years old, and at our company Christmas party, she wore a strapless, mini bubble dress that was bright red, with bright red patent leather “stripper heels” and when she sat down, she did NOT cross her legs….and she was not wearing any panties at all. Definitely not what I wanted to see from across the room.

    laurantexas  |  May 24th, 2011 at 11:11 am

  • Ok, I work in IT a corporate office for a retail chain. It is a business casual environment. I have nice dress pants in the basic colors - blue, black, tan. Suit jackets. Some nice dresses and skirts. No mini skirts (I am 40 and that would not look right). I keep the closes simple and have a little fun with my jewelry. Nothing too crazy, but it may add a little sparkle or color to my wardrobe.

    Anyway, I really wanted to comment on Elz’s assistant. I understand where you (and probably Elz) is coming from, but if this is a true story as you say and having not having a lot of fashion confidence myself, I was feeling a bit sorry for her. Would I have asked the underwear question to my boss, most likely not. However, I have a sister and a mother with pretty great sense of fashion that I can ask those questions to. What I got from your article is that Elz’s assistant does not have a person she can ask. I could be wrong, she could just be clueless, but something tells me she does not.. So in future for those who may find them in this situation, instead of getting all weirded out maybe some mentoring could be provided.

    Jennifer  |  December 27th, 2012 at 10:51 am