Casual Style: For the Office

Apr 25, 2011

The term business casual is the source of much consternation in the American workplace.  How does one balance a professional work environment with relaxed attire?  What is appropriate?  And what is forbidden?  

Sadly, fewer and fewer employers are implementing dress codes.  They want to believe that the people they’ve hired are capable enough to decide for themselves.  However, much like a frontier town without a sheriff, offices who keep to a vague business casual dress code are ripe for sin and lawlessness.  

This week, I’ll try to rein in some of this outlaw behavior by clearing up the confusion.  But whether my advice is appropriate for your work place is something that you will need to figure out for yourself.  So let’s start with the ground rules, shall we?

Verboten.  The following items are completely inappropriate for a work environment: exposed undergarments (bra straps, whale tail, etc.), flip-flops, dirty clothing, spaghetti straps, halter tops, shorts, miniskirts and any garment bearing the phrase “Juicy” or a similarly suggestive or childish statement.  

These are the basics, and I don’t think any of these directives should be a challenge for a person who cares about her career trajectory.

Double Trouble. If your outfit can double as beach/golf/club/gym/gardening attire, then you need to rethink wearing it to work.  In the summer, it is not uncommon to see staffers who would look more at home on a treadmill or in a nightclub in Dewey than in the halls of Congress.  So if you look in the mirror in the morning and think, “I could wear this outfit to (fill in location other than work),” take a moment to consider whether it is right for the office.

When in Doubt.  Too many offices don’t provide their staff with any guidance and so individual tastes reign.  If you’re a supervisor or employer, do yourself a favor and at least enlighten your staff about the items you consider forbidden.  It’s the least that you can do.

Should you work in an office without a stated dress code beyond the totally unhelpful, business casual, don’t be afraid to ask.  If you feel like you can’t, the best place to look is at the person whose job you want most.  What does she wear?  What does your boss wear?  If you feel like you’re dressing more casually than they are, upgrade.  It’s always better to dress for the job you want than the job you have.

Know Your Place.  Should your employer or supervisor tell you that an item of clothing is inappropriate for work, it is.  It doesn’t matter what you think.  If he/she says that it’s not right for the office, it’s not.

Very simply, this is their company/office and they have the right to decide how it should be presented.  So if they ask you to change or not to wear something again, do as they ask and be gracious about it.  Say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that this was out of bounds. Thank you for telling me.”  Then move on.

The only thing more unprofessional than being dressed wrong for work is arguing with your boss about what you’re wearing.  So unless the item in question is worn for religious or medical reasons, retire it without argument.

Dress for Your Success.  Part of the reason why I think so many workplaces are off the reservation when it comes to dress codes is that when you feel so-so about your job, it shows in your wardrobe.  So if you have a lackluster attitude toward the company you work for or the work that you do, you will be less likely to really take pride in your work attire.  This is why you need to start dressing for you.  

Sometimes, looking better or dressing better can boost your attitude, which will help you feel better about yourself and your job.  Fake it til you make it.  Because one day, you will have a job you enjoy or work for a company that you respect and you don’t want to be unprepared in the wardrobe department.

As I mentioned above, what to wear to your office greatly depends on the office and the job description.  However, if you set a goal to dress for the job you want and not the job you have, you’ll go far.  It’s when you get too comfortable that you will run into problems.

Casual Style

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  1. Katie says:

    What's a whale tail?

  2. Jen says:

    COMPLETELY AGREE. This blog post needs to be sent to every HR and/or office manager in this town, regardless of corporate, association, non-profit or government status, K Street or Capitol HIll. And then they need to get it into the hands of every employee. Thank you for saying ALL of this!

  3. mndaln says:

    @Katie: when your thong shows above your pants/skirt top…don't let it happen.

  4. agster says:

    I agree with Jen, this needs to be posted and enforced in all companies. My company went from formal to business casual and some of the folks here just get away with murder. No, I don't think velour sweatpants count as slacks. Your neck tattoo should not be showing. Designer sneakers are not dress shoes. A skirt that's 5 inches above your knee is not work appropriate. Hoodies are not suitable cover ups at work. UGGs are not formal shoes and certainly not flip flops.

    I rather we go back to formal dress to avoid all these eyesores.

  5. K says:

    I like your point about supervisors needing to speak up and provide guidance. I'm in an office where the top management has always been in disagreement over the dress code so none has ever been set. This leaves us with some sort of implied business casual thing that always feels a little subversive. A little clarity would be nice!

  6. Ann S says:

    A whale tail is the effect that happens when a girls G-string or Thong becomes exposed as she walks, bends over or squats.

    Ick.

  7. gingerr says:

    “double trouble” gets a lot of problems I see in a nutshell.

  8. Adriana says:

    I have seen two staffers in the past three weeks wearing a tshirt with leggings. A tshirt that doesn't even cover the butt. I never thought I'd have to say the words “please make sure there is something that is not sheer covering your butt when you enter the halls of Congress” but apparently this is a new trend.

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