Your work wardrobe 101

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Unfortunately, there’s not always a common thread in common sense. Meaning things that may seem completely obvious to one person might not be so readily apparent to another.

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.”   


  1. That is 1 thing that I’am good at, dressing for office, especially for interviews. I have been unemployed for 2 years now & still looking & get compliments from the interviewer on what I have on, so I don’t need any tips on office wear & anyone that does, does’nt work in an office environment very much or they just don’t care. Makeup helps too, I have worked with people that look like they crawled out of bed & just put on whatever & put their hair back in a pony tail with no makeup.

    • This may be true but at the end of the day, you can wear Donna Karan everyday but not have the ability to “get the job done” nor the ability to “sell” yourself. Appearance will only get you so far; substance is more sustaining.

    • Cathy,
      Have you ever thought about becoming a consultant/coach to people that are interviewing or already in an office setting.
      Maybe this could become your next career.
      You sound like you are very good at it and could possible offer others advice – why not make a living out of it? You may find it is something that you enjoy. :)

  2. I’ve worked in recruitment and I can tell you that there are cases where a person loses a shot at the job the moment they walk into an office dressed like they are. I’ve seen it happen and I know what hiring managers tell recruiters after interviews in terms of how people dress.

  3. I agree that clothes can make you or break you on the interview, even if you know you are interviewing with a woman or a man. The woman could be polished and expecting the same (i. e. wearing a suit) or she could be casual and think you are too expensive for the job if you overdress. Its been the hardest thing for me in my job search process. I usually go for something that I’m comfortable in which helps me be more at ease during the interview.

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  11. Good guidelines above, but I believe most people already know these basics. Judy makes a good point. I know if sounds odd to those in more traditional work environments like finance, insurance or legal.. but in IT, sometimes over dressing isn’t really desirable. In fact, dressing to fit the tone of the office can be very key to establishing reparte and feeling comfortable in the interview. Definitely there are no-nos pretty common to all interviews. But for certain environments a clean, comfortable, casual look can sometimes work best. I’ve notice in my large city, it is more and more common for women to wear flats, not heels. Maybe this trend is specific to my region, but being dressy at the sake of comfort is not necessarily a plus.

    • Women should ALWAYS wear flats. Heels are bad for their back and feet. They were designed to acentuate a woman’s wiggle which cause men to look where they should not and I beleive I heard in classes that women to do like oogling so take down all the signs that say oogle both high and low.

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  32. This is very helpful information on how to address these situations. Although today’s society thinks they should be able to express themselves in the way they dress and their language they use, It’s hard in a workplace when you have very few Christians that can or will speak up about these topics because the rest of the employees (inlcuding managers) think that it’s funny and ignore the situation. Well as a Christian, I belive that people should be modest in their dress and kind with their language. The bible tells us that are bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in us. You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). If a woman or man reaveals parts of their body which causes another man or woman to lust, then it is sin. I think when people get dressed for work or other occassions, they should ask themselves if they would wear that to church.

  33. Just about the dumbest think I have heard anyone write, “Take the rest of the year off from looking for a job” Susan wrote….Romney paid her to promote that so the unemployment numbers don’t get better!   If you are out of work, pound the job market every day BEFORE you become a bum!!!

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