When I was in corporate life, I wore a suit almost every single day, and truthfully, I hated it. The stockings were stifling, the heels were uncomfortable, and the suit jacket always made me feel like I was in a straight jacket. I never really felt that I was communicating through my attire who I really was. When I finally left corporate work for good and started my own business, I realized then just how much I disliked being constrained by dress codes and other rules and protocol that made me feel hemmed in, not able to reveal the real me. Thankfully, things have changed significantly in the past 15 years regarding dress code and what is now considered acceptable attire.
From my coaching work with thousands of professional women in the past 13 years, and my leadership training experiences in the workplace, I’ve seen a true shift in many industries and fields, away from the traditional professional dress code many of us grew up with (suits with jackets and tie for men, suits with stockings and heels for women, etc.).
Now, there’s much more creativity in personal expression that’s allowed and even encouraged in how we dress for work. There’s an emphasis on comfort, personal expression, and wearing clothes and accessories that help you feel good doing the work you do. And because of it, we often feel more “at home” in our work, and more comfortable and honest expressing who we really are.
That said, the reality is that we are still judged by things other than our skills and experience. If you continually wear clothes that aren’t a fit with what your work culture considers acceptable, it can and will work against you in a serious way. First impressions matter and last, and how you dress reflects who you are, what you care about, what you believe about yourself and want others to see. So it’s important that you choose your attire consciously not haphazardly, and understand what your clothes suggest about you.
Following some essential rules regarding acceptable dress code will make sure your creative, casual attire is still suitable for all professional endeavors you engage in.
I’d recommend following these guidelines:
1. Generally speaking, avoid overly revealing and overly sexualized attire because that tends to communicate a message that you’re not a professional to be taken seriously.
2. If your job involves meeting with external clients, your image matters as it reflects on not just you but the entire the company. Follow the guidelines that the company puts forth on dress code for these meetings.
3. Understand the ecosystem you’re in. If you work for a traditional organization, for example, and you want to wear sneakers, a T-shirt and ripped jeans every day, it may mean your personality is not a strong fit with this work culture.
4. If the culture is all about artistry and creativity, then certainly bring your creative style and flair forward. But again, understand those times at work when a shift in what you wear may be required (for instance, meetings with senior leadership, external client meetings, evening networking events).
And some helpful advice I offer to my clients:
If you’re in doubt if something is appropriate, then don’t wear it.
If you’re not sure, dress a bit up rather than down. Being a bit overdressed isn’t typically perceived negatively, but being under-dressed often is.
The guidelines that your company has put forward are there for a reason – to help everyone develop a sense of fitting in and feeling comfortable around each other. Follow those guidelines wherever you can. And if you feel you can’t, have a discussion with your boss or HR about the why the code doesn’t work for you and what you can do about it.
Find out what the dress code is before you take the job. If you don’t like the code, it’s likely you won’t like the culture.
And here are eight things you should never wear to work:
Noticeably dirty, soiled, or wrinkled clothes
Attire meant for a late night club dancing that expose your midriff or other parts of your body
Very short skirts that show undergarments
Sleepwear, workout gear or swim wear
Overly tight, low or see-through tops
Beat-up sneakers and shorts better meant for yard work
Flip flops or other beach sandals
In the past month, I’ve heard from some recent college grads who are starting new jobs, but are struggling to understand what “acceptable” attire is at their new company because they interviewed only remotely. If you’re concerned about this, I’d recommend that you first review the employee handbook that the organization provides, for clues about dress code. You can also do a search on LinkedIn to see if anyone you know works for the organization whom you can ask. If you’re still unsure, it’s perfectly fine to inquire with the HR manager who has been your direct contact at the company. A good time to do this is when you are corresponding back and forth regarding the onboarding paperwork and information you need to sign before you begin the job. You can ask something like, “Sally, I’d also like confirm, per the employee handbook, that the office follows a business casual dress code. Is that correct? Thank you.” (And here’s a quick guide on what “business casual” typically means.)
In the end, choosing the right attire for you is about being able to express yourself creatively and authentically and feel like “the real you” while also presenting a professional appearance that generates confidence, respect and trust that you can do your job well and represent the company in an outstanding way to others.
With a little forethought and planning, you should be able to balance the two easily, if you’ve picked the right job and work culture for who you really are.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.