A simple way to prove this principle? Take a look around your office. Chances are, there’s a woman in a low-cut blouse, or a man wearing equally low-cut white athletic socks with his black suit, despite the fact that most people consider these to be clear “don’ts” for office attire.
Sometimes, people are really just clueless about what they should and shouldn’t wear to work, but more often, offensive outfits are the result of laziness, or a comfort-level reached by people in their office environments (i.e. the thought that “I’ve been working here for five years — I don’t need to worry about my outfit because my work speaks for itself.”) But this kind of complacency can actually harm your career.
According to Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette expert and author of “Greet! Eat! Tweet! 52 Business Etiquette Postings To Avoid Pitfalls & Boost Your Career,” “Many people forget that their clothing always needs to project professionalism, regardless of their company’s policies.”
If you need a refresher in “Office attire 101,” here are five things that should never be a part of your work wardrobe.
1. Clothes that don’t fit: While super-tight clothing might be the more obvious office faux-pas, wearing clothes that are too big is equally unsuitable. “You look like a little kid in your big brother’s or sister’s clothing. Your clothing needs to fit,” Pachter says. This rule is especially important for men — since even the most expensive suits will look more sloppy than suave if they fit poorly. Don’t have a ton of money to spend on new suits? Take the ones you have to a tailor.
2. Clothes that show too much leg: For women, this means no short skirts. “They draw attention to your legs. Is that where you want people to look? Plus, you can get labeled: [I knew a] woman named Susan wore very short skirts and her co-workers referred to her as ‘Suzy Short Skirt,’” Pachter says.
For men, the “too much leg” rule applies to socks. “Short socks or socks that fall down expose skin and hairy legs on men when they sit and/or cross their legs,” Pachter says. Not usually a pretty sight.
3. Cleavage: Ladies: Make sure your clothes pass the “Friday night” test. If you’d choose a top for a Friday night out on the town, you might want to reconsider it for the office. “Sexy is not a corporate look,” Pachter says. “Low-cut tops that expose cleavage draw attention to this body part and are not appropriate in the office.”
4. Lots of loud colors: A pop of color in any outfit is a great thing, but choosing a loud hue for your whole ensemble probably isn’t a wise choice for the office. You don’t want to be labeled “the man in the green pants,” Pachter says. If you’re a guy and you want to add some interest to your outfit, do so with a colorful tie or a pocket square. Women can do the same with bright accessories, scarves or shoes.
5. Overly casual clothing: Although more offices are embracing casual dress codes, a relaxed atmosphere shouldn’t be seen as a free-pass to pajama town. Also inappropriate: sweatpants/gym clothes, clothing that is stained or torn, or anything with a cartoon character, vacation destination, etc. on it. Jeans are fine, as long as your look is polished. Think darker denim, button downs and shoes that aren’t sneakers.
To eliminate potential wardrobe woes, Pachter suggests asking yourself two questions before you head out the door in the morning:
1. Is my clothing appropriate? “Appropriate” clothing will vary for everyone, so ask yourself if what you’re wearing is in line with your job, your profession, your company’s dress code, the region of the country you’re in and the activity or event that you are attending, Pachter advises. “What is appropriate for a big financial company in the northeast may be different from what is appropriate for a smaller organization in the south. What’s appropriate for a lawyer going to court may be very different than an advertising executive making a creative sales pitch. If unsure whether something is appropriate, choose something else,” she says.
2. What message am I sending through my clothing? Your clothing sends a message, so make sure that you know — and like — what that message is. Ideally, says Pachter, strive for clothing that “tells others that you take your work seriously and pay attention to the details.”