Monday, June 18, 2012

Seven Tips for Dressing for the Workplace

I once attended a workshop where the instructor stated that every workplace has a dress code, whether it is written down or not. She advocated writing it down because not everyone is as observant as one might hope.

Anyway, over the years I've developed some guidelines for looking professional in the workplace. And since your workplace probably does not have a written dress code, here is a starting point for you.

One Word: Grooming

But I don't get it. . .
why isn't she smiling?
         The scary thing is that customs and security agents are supposed to recognize this as the same person as in the previous picture.
I have hidden that picture from you for, lo, these many years. Aren't you glad?

And it really didn't take all that much to go from the before to the after. Both were taken on the same day within about half an hour of each other.
  • Smile. It makes people feel like magicians when they can make your face transform into something beautiful. (Plus you'll scare fewer babies on the bus.) Caution: don't walk around with an open-mouth smile. People will compare you to Dopey.
  • Comb hair and pull into a controlled style. 
  • Wash face. (I have the dreadful habit of sleeping in my makeup.)
  • Concealer and a little bit of neutral eye shadow, a soft fluff of blush, and mascara. I also always wear lipstick because I have no natural lip colour and people keep thinking I am dying. In this case, I painted carefully around the cold sore (so I wouldn't contaminate the lipstick). 
"Business Casual" does not mean "casual."

Be presentable enough at all times that you could meet your boss's boss or your top client. Even in a relaxed workplace, as where I work now, you need to look pulled together. My rule-of-thumb for business casual is that either the top or the bottom can be casual, but the other half needs to be business dress.

Some examples:
  • Jeans with a crisp white button-down shirt, or a jacket (but not a jean jacket), or a twin set.
  • A more casual top (but still modest, of course) with dress pants.
  • A fun-printed skirt with a tank top and sweater.
Just make sure the casual part is in good repair with no stains or rips.

"Sexy" is a four-letter word in the workplace.

Cleavage? No.
Intentional hints of undergarments? Bad idea.
[Don't even consider going full Lewinsky!] 
Despite what shows like House and The Practice might indicate, dressing like Dr. Cuddy or Ally McBeal will not help you gain credibility in the workplace.

It's not a question of potential harassment; it's a question of showing off your best asset. If your best assets are your ass and cleavage, well then maybe the Dr. Cuddy look is your best route. However, if you want to be recognized for your brains, your work ethic, or your skills, then showing your curves is just . . . throwing a curve. [OMG, I am so funny!]

I will allow an exception to this guideline: you are allowed one saxy thang. As with the business-casual look, if everything else about your outfit is CEO-worthy, then you may slip in one small hint of sexy.

For example, if Dr. Cuddy's top were long-sleeved and slightly less fitted, she might be able to get away with that much cleavage (but without the lace showing). Or if the top showed no cleavage, she could allow her camisole to peek out the top.

Tread carefully, though. I once wore fishnet stockings with an otherwise staid suit and got several comments on it. Oops..

BTW, rule-of-thumb for decolletage: your top should come to two inches above your cleavage. If it doesn't, add a camisole.


The right scarf, necklace or ear rings can make an otherwise plain outfit stand out. I often buy a necklace or scarf at the same time as I buy a dress or suit. Not only is this convenient, but when the seasons change the available colours will also change.

Pearls and simple chains are timeless, of course, and can lift a simple dress to Jackie O status.

Just be careful not to overdo it. Choose which item you want to receive the attention. If you have a busy top, then skip the necklace. A patterned jacket and a patterned scarf may work well on the runway, but may make you look like a runaway train. [And they just keep on coming!]

Remind yourself that you are neither Gisele Bundchen nor Rachel Zoe.

Enjoy the trends, but invest in classics.

A few weeks ago I saw a young woman wearing a trench coat in a Burberry-type print. I knew immediately that it was a knock-off because the stripes of the plaid were not lined up at the seams. She would have been further ahead to buy a decent trench coat in a neutral fabric.

Quality materials and workmanship will show.

On the other hand, some things are so trendy that you should not pay top dollar for them.

Dress for your size, not your fanta-size.

As someone who has lost and gained more pounds than I care to admit, this is really hard for me. I hate buying a larger size! Hate it, hate it, hate it. But nothing says "overweight and gaining" faster than a too-snug top or pants.

I've also erred by buying clothes that I'm sure I'll fit into next month when I lose just a little bit more.

Don't sweat the small stuff.

It happens to everyone: pantyhose slide down a silky girdle; coffee spills down a white blouse; a classic hairdo slides miserably during a job interview. As my brother commented on that hairdo post, "If it is any consolation, the guy interviewers were oblivious to your situation, and the girls would have totally understood and given you bonus points."

There are, of course, haters who will hate, but I always have great respect for anyone who can soldier through when things are falling apart. It says much about their characters.

Remember this:
This is what bravery and grace look like.
According to Lady Bird Johnson, who was also present, "Her hair [was] falling in her face but [she was] very composed ... I looked at her. Mrs. Kennedy's dress was stained with blood. One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked, it was caked with blood – her husband's blood. Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights – that immaculate woman, exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood."

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