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Dressing for Work

This is one of those areas where there is a lot of room for confusion. Again, your working wardrobe is going to depend on the region, climate, industry, and company where you are working; a graphic designer in California is going to have much different guidelines than an investment banker in Chicago.

The following suggestions are for dress codes that require a suit or “business professional” attire, rather than business casual. There are pros and cons to dressing formally for work. The bad news is, this isn’t always the most creative or exciting wardrobe; you may feel like your personal style is stifled, and having to wear pantyhose on a 95-degree day is just awful. On the other hand, once you make the initial investment and get a couple of good suits, you won’t have to do much more shopping for work clothes. You can be creative with accessories and mix-and-match pieces to get more use out of your basic wardrobe. 

Men

  • As a general rule, try to fit in to the culture in your company. If you dress completely differently from everyone else in your company, you will stand out and not in a good way. Dressing in a manner appropriate to the company culture shows that you are a team player and are concerned about the kind of image you and your company present to clients. When in doubt, imitate your boss. 

  • Get a copy of your company’s dress code policy. 

  • Go for quality over quantity. A well-made jacket in a quality fabric may cost you quite a bit more than one that is cheaply made, but it will look better, fit better, and last longer than the inexpensive version. 

  • Take care of those good-quality clothes you’ve invested in. You may want to purchase shoe trees, a tie rack, those goofy rubber shoes that fit over your dress shoes, and other items that you’ve only ever seen in your dad’s closet. 

  • The dry cleaner and the tailor are about to become important people in your life. The most expensive suit in the world can still look terrible if it is dirty or fits poorly. 

  • Buy a good raincoat and a dress coat for winter. Nothing ruins your finely polished professional image faster than a barn coat over your suit jacket.

Women

  • Most of the rules for interview dressing apply if your company has a business professional dress code, but with more flexibility regarding cut and color. Pants suits, coordinated separates, coat dresses, and dresses with jackets may all be appropriate. Be sure to get a copy of your company’s dress code policy before you go shopping. 

  • As a general rule, try to fit in to the culture in your company. If everyone else wears pastels and you dress in black everyday, you will stand out and usually not in a good way. Dressing to fit in with the company culture shows that you are a team player and are concerned about the kind of image you and your company present to clients. 

  • No matter what your company, it is not appropriate to wear tight, sexy, or trendy clothing to work. This is especially important for women, who may be judged by their clothing more harshly than men. Yes, it’s unfair; but this is not the time for you to try changing American cultural standards. 

  • Go for quality over quantity. A well-made jacket in a quality fabric may cost you quite a bit more than one that is cheaply made, but it will look better, fit better, and last longer than the inexpensive version. 

  • Buy versatile fabrics and dark or neutral colors and you’ll get more use out of individual items. Some suits are sold with both pants and a skirt for extra versatility. That red suit may be stunning, but chances are people will remember it every time you wear it. Until you have a larger wardrobe, stick to less conspicuous items that you can mix and match. 

  • Learn how to accessorize. You’ll get a lot more use out of basic items if you can change your look by wearing a scarf or changing blouses. It’ll also keep you from getting bored with your wardrobe. 

  • Invest in a good raincoat and winter dress coat. You’ve worked hard to cultivate your professional image; don’t spoil it by wearing a barn coat over your suit. 

  • Take care of those good-quality items that you’ve invested in. Find a reliable tailor and dry cleaner; they are about to become important people in your life. At-home dry cleaning kits can be very economical for blouses and sweaters, but unless you’re a whiz with the iron, you’ll still want to have your suits professionally cleaned. 

Business Casual

More and more offices are moving toward “business casual” in place of suits, but the rules are often not very clearly defined. Even experienced professionals sometimes have trouble deciding what’s appropriate.

Men

One company’s version of business casual may mean you can wear a jacket or a tie, instead of both, while khakis and a polo shirt are completely acceptable somewhere else. Here are some general guidelines: 

  • Casual does not mean sloppy! Whatever you wear should be clean, pressed, and in good condition. Check regularly for missing buttons, dangling threads, and signs of wear and tear. 

  • Stores and catalogues that have a “business casual” section frequently show khakis on their models. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear Dockers every day, the style is a good guideline. If you do wear khakis, they should be neatly ironed. Don’t wear jeans or shorts unless you know this will be acceptable. 

  • Long-sleeved oxford shirts in solid colors are a safe bet. In a very casual environment, polo shirts (not wrinkled!) may be acceptable. Do not wear loud print shirts or T-shirts advertising your favorite restaurant. Always tuck your shirt in. 

  • If your company is more “business” than “casual”, tailored pants and a sport coat or a sweater is appropriate This is not as formal as a suit, but dressier than khakis. 

  • Don’t wear athletic shoes, sandals, or boots. 

  • Wear a belt that matches your shoes. 

  • When in doubt, be conservative. In the workplace it’s essential to appear professional if you wish to be treated as a professional. 

  • Remember that it’s easier to move from a conservative look to a more casual one than the other way around. See what other people in your office are wearing to get a clearer idea of what is acceptable. Pay attention to how your boss dresses; successful people tend to look the part. 

Women

Business casual is especially tricky for women, who have more choices in clothing and accessories. Pay attention to what others in the company are wearing before you ditch your current wardrobe. And when in doubt—you’ve heard this before—go conservative!

  • Casual does not mean sloppy! Whatever you wear should be clean, pressed, and in good condition. Check for missing buttons, dangling threads, and signs of wear and tear. 

  • Stores and catalogues that have a “business casual” section frequently show khakis on their models. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear Dockers every day, the style is a good guideline; very loose or flowing pants, leggings, or jeans-type styles (even in a dressy fabric) may be questionable. 

  • If you choose to wear a skirt, stay away from short hemlines, high slits, and anything tight. Take the “sit” test; try the skirt on in front of a mirror and sit, cross your legs, stoop, reach and do anything you would do during the course of a normal day. Check to make sure you’re not showing too much leg and that you’ll be comfortable wearing this item. 

  • Sweater sets and tailored shirts are a safe bet. Avoid anything sheer, tight, or low-cut, just as you would when preparing for an interview; unlike an interview, you have more room to experiment with colors and patterns. Remember the general rule: If something looks like you could wear it to the bar, you probably shouldn’t wear it to work. 

  • Don’t wear athletic shoes, sandals, or trendy styles like platform shoes. 

  • You can be more creative with your accessories when dressing in business casual, but don’t be extreme; your 15 bracelets shouldn’t clank together every time you move your arms, for example. How much flexibility you have with wardrobe details like this will depend a great deal on what industry you work in. 

  • When in doubt, be more conservative -have we reinforced that yet? This isn’t the most fun or glamorous wardrobe imaginable and it might not express your personal style, but it’s essential to appear professional if you wish to be treated as a professional. 

  • Remember that it’s easier to move from a conservative look to a more casual one than the other way around. See what other people in your office are wearing to get a clearer idea of what is acceptable. Pay attention to how your boss dresses; the staff may look ready for a night on the town and your supervisor may look like she’s straight from the pages of an Eddie Bauer catalog. She’s the one who got the promotion. Successful people tend to look the part.