Monday, March 12, 2012

Guide for dressing at work

Let's cover the basics before getting into the contentious:
  • Don't wear clothing that you'd wear to the beach or for gardening, etc.
  • Don't be spilling out of either the top or bottom of your outfit (or middle)
  • Holes, strategic or designer, usually are a no-no (crochet/knit sweaters and eyelet tops the exceptions)
  • Start the day clean, unwrinkled and stain-free
Yes, that's all common sense but not everyone can find sense when they're tired or on a tight budget.
What isn't so easy are the rest of the "rules". When I googled "rules for women business dressing", the search turned up 259,000 opinions in less than 2 seconds. Suggestions ranged from wear subdued colours and low heels to keep hair short and tidy... Really???
There are 3 guidelines to consider:
1 - Know what's appropriate for the situation.
Usually that's set by the tone of the event, meeting or workplace. Often there are suggestions "Business Casual"... sometimes there are specific items listed "No clamdiggers"  (I'm not kidding). 
I once wrote an employee communication around dress code while weating an outfit that broke every rule in the note - and yet no one would have looked at my clothes and thought that. That's the trouble with getting specific about types of clothing and colours, it's like trying to list everything that someone should have in their fridge - including condiments - instead of just portion and fibre guidelines.
However, the rationale for these guidelines (or rules depending on your workplace) is not to limit your creativity or put everyone in a uniform. Think of it as the polite manners of the workplace, like adding "please", "thank you" and "may I call you by your first name?".  As folks get to know you, your expression of self within the guidelines will emerge.
When I work with not-for-profit administrators, I point out that when relationships first form we need to put folks at ease. Since we first connect on the visual, mirroring body language and dressing to loose business guidelines is a quick and easy way to say "I get where you're coming from" off the top. The differences will emerge soon enough.
2 - Know your personal style and don't give it up, just adapt it.
Ask yourself - what image do I want to project?
If you're not sure what your style is, stick closer to the suggestions the event/workplace offers around #1. Play it safe. If you are aware of your style - use it. Graphic print wrap dresses or beautiful necklaces keep me sane.
Those who tell women to dress in conservative colours and cuts are trying to downplay gender. No one tells guys not to wear yellow ties or cool two-tone wingtips. Stay away from huge "in your face!" choices and feel good in what you wear, including heels if you can actually walk in them (have a friend follow you to check).
3 - Ask someone you trust if you are not sure.
Don't just go to folks who dress like you and look for validation. Pick someone who has a style you admire and ask for their opinion.
If you don't feel happy in what you're wearing - shoes that pinch, pants that pull, an itchy sweater or feeling like you're wearing a disguise - you won't have as good a day. Our image inside and out should be confident, comfortable and in control and reflect how we wish to be seen.
As for the all those who feel that conservative is the only and best way to go... have at it if it makes you comfortable (see #2). I'm also avoiding the contentious issues of panty lines, dye roots and chipped nail polish but feel free to comment :-)


Michael Dundas said...

Good advice.
I actually adjust my dress to where I am and who I am speaking to that particular day.
If I am speaking to or involved with executives that wear suit and tie, I wear a suit and tie. If I am dealing with engineers, then I dress with dress pants and a dress shirt. Consultants, then I dress with pants, shirt, and jacket, no tie.
I was taught by my mother as a child that "Manners were a way of making things easier for the other person." Later on, a mentor told me that "dressing to match your audience is a way to make them feel comfortable". Both make sense and so that is what I do.


Dennie Theodore said...

The part I love most about making others feel comfortable is to smile - we're so rushed these days, we forget.