Business professional. Business casual. Casual Friday.
For many fashion enthusiasts (particularly of those of the female gender), the mere mention of these office dress codes inspires fear and loathing.
The clothing we wear is as much an expression of individuality as it is protection against the elements of our environments. When faced with rules about what we can wear and what we shouldn’t, it is not uncommon to feel angst, bewilderment, and perhaps even a little bit of an identity crisis. How are we supposed to be true to ourselves and be office appropriate?
For many, dressing for a dress code seems to eat away at our ability to think (or dress) outside the box. But it can be done. I definitely dress on the edge from time to time, and if I can still feel appropriate and true to myself in the office, anyone can. Instead of dreading it the office dress code, why not look at it as a challenge to werk while you work?
Before I share my strategy for dressing for a dress code, I want to share a photo of me in an outfit I actually wore to work (my office dress code is business casual).
Notice something about this jacket. It’s really intended as evening wear, because of the material—a shredded chiffon-like synthetic. Because the jacket is black and the only detail is the shredding—there’s no beading or otherwise “evening” element—it’s the perfect little summer jacket. Short-sleeved and non-wool, and such a standout on its own that accessories must be minimal. But that does NOT mean boring. A single, large, tough-girl cuff and gleaming gold buckle are definitely “me” and definitely not typical office accessories.
My Office Wear Strategy
- Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. This will always serve you well. Take the way you look seriously, because you are being judged on your appearance, like it or not. So what if your office mates skate with super-casual looks. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to dress as such. Study the people in your office, particularly management. For some, that might mean suits. Others, it could be exceedingly crisp, tailored business casual. If management isn’t doing casual Friday, you shouldn’t either. Watch and learn.
- Invest in quality accessories. Buy a large, quality handbag in a neutral color that can accommodate your essentials and day planner—you should never carry more than a laptop bag and a handbag. You’ll look like a pack mule. High-quality belts and shoes up the quality of everything else you have on, and last for years and years. They are totally worth the extra money.
- The devil is in the details. Busted shoes, wrinkled shirts or pants, stained clothing, and ill-fitting garments make you look sloppy. And consequently, your level of professionalism is diminished. It doesn’t matter how expensive or gorgeous your outfit is—if your shoes are dull, scratched or faded in places, or if the heels have more divots than a golf course, you negate the entire effect. Have tips replaced seasonally and have boots shined as well. Get to know your iron, or a good dry cleaner. Make sure trousers are cut for the height of your heels. They should fall about an inch from the ground. Nothing worse than pants that are too short, or too long, with hems that are filthy from dragging on the ground.
- Accessories are the best marker of your personality. A statement necklace or ring, or a vintage brooch or watch can completely alter the feeling of an outfit, and they are the best way let your true colors shine through. Even if you have to wear a dark, conservative suit, there is no reason why you can’t wear an amazing statement piece with it. Belts, rings, necklaces, watches, bracelets—even some earrings—are the easiest and most obvious way to put your mark on a look.
- Dress for the season and the environment. A straw bag has no place in the office. Cute for the weekends, but too casual for work. You do need to switch handbags on Monday. Same goes for linen, white, etc. If you live in south Florida, you can get away with summery fabrics a lot longer. White in winter is fine, if it’s wool and clearly not intended for 85-degree days. And please leave the backpacks at university. There is nothing more ridiculous than a young (or worse, an older) executive in a suit and a backpack. Not only is it juvenile, it will wrinkle the hell out of your outfit. There are plenty of great totes and messenger bags out there.
- Cardigans and jackets are your best friends. They transform even the skimpiest spaghetti-strapped tanks into office-appropriate tops. Pair with trousers or a pencil skirt and you look totally pulled together—without having to invest in a full suit. Tunic-length cardigans are especially nice to have because you can get away with a more fitted skirt if your bum is covered.
- Watch your skin-to-clothing ratio. If you can wear sleeveless tops in the office, balance with trousers or a below-the-knee skirt. Wearing a fitted skirt? Add a blousy top and closed-toe pumps. When you have a meeting with management, always wear closed shoes. They don’t have to be boring, either. There are plenty of gorgeous, closed-toe platform pumps available that are a nod to the fashionista in you, but are office appropriate. Aim for an 80/20 balance. 80% of your body should be covered in the office.
- Never ever wear these items in the office. Ever.
- Flip-flops or anything even close.
- Skirts shorter than three inches above the knee, or slit to mid-thigh.
- Spaghetti straps, halter tops, or strapless tops without a jacket or cardigan over them.
- Skinny jeans.
- Cropped tops or anything with cutouts.
- Huge, dangley earrings, or lots of clinking bracelets.
- Sheer anything without a cami or full-coverage slip underneath.
- Body-con dresses.
- Shorts or capris.
- Grooming is as important as your clothing. It’s unfortunate that I even have to write this, but people do notice your unsightly chipped manicure or pedicure. They do notice when your hair has gone a day too long between washings. They do notice if your heels are crusty, if your perfume is overwhelming, or if you were pressed for time and skipped your makeup.
- Stand tall, stand proud. Horrible posture kills a look and diminishes your presence. Walk with your shoulders back and chin up. Wear the clothes, don’t let them wear you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Oh, I could never pull that off.” Well, you’re right, honey. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?