Navigating the rules of the professional workforce can be daunting. Figuring out what to wear shouldn’t be. Ai InSite sought the advice of Jane Allen, British fashion maven and professional dressing consultant for the Pittsburgh chapter of Dress for Success, a non-profit agency that helps women gain economic independence. Wanda Clarke-Morin, instructor of Fashion Design and Fashion Marketing at The Art Institute of Seattle also helped us decipher these sometimes confusing dress codes.
MAKING A FIRST IMPRESSION
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but prospective employers can judge you by what you’re wearing, and they do. What you wear to an interview and on the job can really make a statement about your work ethic and dedication.
“Executives have been surveyed and 70% believe that there is a direct correlation between how an employee prepares himself or herself for work and the quality and quantity of their work,” Allen says. “Also, 62% stated that employees who dress well are likely to move up the ladder quicker.”
KNOW THE DRESS CODE
Different businesses have different dress codes, so it’s best to do a little research before an interview or your first day of work. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can ask the human resources department or the employer what kind of dress code they enforce.
Some industries, particularly the creative ones, tend to lean toward a more casual dress code. However, many industries still follow strict rules.
“The protocol for the finance, law, or hospitality industries is much more conservative and reflects the expectation of professional dress that generates trust and credibility,” Clarke-Morin says.
If you’re in doubt about the dress code, always dress more professional and formal, until you are sure it’s acceptable to be more casual.
So what exactly does “business professional” mean?
“To my mind, professional dress means suits every day,” Allen says. “Men would be expected to wear a suit and tie with dress shoes. For women, it would also be suits — pants or skirt.”
For women, she advises that hose or stockings should always be worn with skirts. Dresses are usually okay as long as they are worn with a jacket. Women should wear closed-toe shoes and keep jewelry to a minimum.
Figuring out what is appropriate for a business casual dress code can be tricky, because there are a lot of gray areas. As a result, some people wear clothes that are too casual and end up looking sloppy and unprofessional.
“A general rule about ‘business casual’ — it should only be one step down from your standard business wear,” Clarke-Morin says. “For men, if your standard business wear is a suit jacket, white shirt with a tie, and dress trousers, then your ‘business casual’ attire would be a sport coat, colored shirt with a tie, and khaki or cord trousers — never jeans.”
She notes that women have a tougher time deciding what is appropriate for business casual dress codes. If you’re unsure of your outfit, stay on the safe side with elegant attire, like a jacket or vest with a coordinated skirt or trousers.
“Business casual is a mine field for new employees,” Allen says. “My advice to new hires is always to take what they wear up a notch when they first start with a company and see what others wear.”
You may be dressed a little more formally than the other employees, but this will leave a positive impression on your employer.
A lucky few are allowed to wear a casual wardrobe to work. Some creative environments, like design agencies, enforce looser rules for work attire because they want their employees to be able to express themselves with their clothing. However, not all rules go out the window.
“Casual still needs to look like you are going to work. It should always be clean and tidy — no ripped jeans — no matter how fashionable it is,” Allen says. “See what others are wearing and use that to create your own style.
ADD SOME PERSONALITY
“Once you have a good feel for the company culture related to dress code, work your personality into it,” Allen says.
Just because you have to adhere to a dress code doesn’t mean you can’t stand out from the crowd. Use your accessories to show your style.
“For the guys, maybe choose a bow-tie, or try a skinny tie, or one with a bolder artistic pattern or fun design element,” Clarke-Morin says.
She also recommends fun accents like cuff-links, linen pocket squares, or metal tie bars.
Women have lots of opportunities for accessorizing. Allen suggests setting yourself apart with stylish shoes or a designer scarf. Or you could take your eyewear to the next level with trendy frames.
Clarke-Morin emphasizes the purpose of a great work wardrobe: “Remember — it’s about making an effective, professional impression; that you are a smart, organized, disciplined, and polished professional. Show an attitude that reflects your ambition.”
Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite