How to dress for your office

1960s Office 2

We have all been there, particularly now in cold wet March –

You wake up late. Again. Drag yourself from the bed. Can’t find your hairbrush so do the best you can to tame the mane with your hands. Put on whatever looks clean enough. Throw the makeup bag in the bottom of your handbag knowing you are not going to get a chance to get near it until lunchtime at the earliest. Run for the bus and promptly fall asleep against the window giving your hair that much envied punk/manga look.

Yes that’s right, people only need to look at you to know you’re a winner. Or not.

Like it or not, people judge others based on their appearance – now I don’t mean their crystal white Hollywood smile or their gym-perfect abs, I mean their general presentably and professionalism. While your ‘Just Woke Up’ look is great for the weekend, this might not be the image you want to present to the people who determine your take-home pay. People make snap judgements and then stick to them. Treat it right, and this could work in your favour.

1. Be attractive, do not be overtly sexual.

Unless you work in the red-light district, slept with someone to get your current role and are planning to repeat this strategy for your next promotion, or are otherwise employed by the sex industry, don’t dress like you are. That means no underwear brandishing, no accidental flashing, no casual mooning. It might be ok for Rhianna to dress like that at work, but unless you are an up-and-coming pop star, it’s not ok for you. It is hard to listen to someone, take them seriously or act on their advice if you are distracted by their Coyote Ugly get-up wondering where they dance on tables at lunchtime. There is a line between attractive and sexy – find it and stay on the right side of it.

There are some guidelines that can help you find they line. Answer the following questions:

  • a) Do I look like a backing dancer in a hip-hop video?
  • b) Could my co-workers give an alarming accurate description of today’s underwear choices?
  • c) When I sit down, can I feel the cold seat on my buttocks?
  • d) When I sit down or lean over, can my office tell if I am a tights, stockings or hold-ups kinda gal?
  • e) If I were sitting opposite my mum/ my granny/ nuns/ leery old men would I feel exposed in today’s outfit choice?

If you answer yes to any of the above, you are on the wrong side of the line. Go home and put some clothes on before you catch your death!

2. Every day makes an impression.

Many people get their next job based on the network they establish in their current role. This should be born in mind as you interact with your current colleagues, people in the wider office and organisation and new people (aka your network). It’s not just common courtesy to remember their name, what they do, that not-so-funny story about their fourth kid – its information you could use to your advantage later, so pay attention.
Chances are they will also be paying attention to you, so if it looks like you fell out of bed backwards, are always running in late and really could not give a rat’s arse about this job, that will resonate and that will be their impression of you. Each time you are observed in a dishevelled state it adds to the person’s impression of you and that is the impression they will express if they are ever asked for their opinion of you.
Where are all these impressions leading – what do you care what these people think about you?

People are slow to hire disaffected, disengaged people who cannot self-motivate, as this is an important leadership skill required for senior roles. If people think you are happy swirling away at the bottom of the barrel, then that is where you will stay, and it will take an opportunity from outside your network to prove that wrong – which really defeats the point of having a network. Your attire contributes heavily to that impression. You don’t have to look like you just fell out of a Ralph Lauren Ad; just be neat, clean and presentable.

So find something, anything, you like about the current job to motivate you, get out of bed twenty minutes early to put yourself together and arrive on time.

3. Dress appropriately for the culture of your office

If you work in a financial house, legal firm or large formal corporation, the chances are it’s a suits sort of place. If you work in a creative, technology or new industry type, chances are it is a casual sort of place. Figure out which sort you are in early on and dress appropriately.

Wearing suits to an informal office is as inappropriate as wearing a tracksuit to a formal office, because it shows that you do not understand the culture of the organisation and that you hold yourself apart from the values of your colleagues and organisation.

That said, you should also remember your position in that organisation. Unless you are a maverick genius, it is advisable to be slightly more presentable the further you go up the chain. This does not mean suits and a tie, just newer jeans, the occasional kitten heel, clothes with no holes that were not there when you bought them.

4. Dress appropriately for your role in that office.

It’s all very well to dress for the job you want, but if your current role requires you to run all around town or be on your feet for eight hours, then there is no point in wearing those Jimmy Choo stilettos that you know you will be wearing when you rule the world.
Similarly if you are required to inspect properties, climb ladders, walk around dusty sheds, see into a crawl space then you fabulous white pencil skirt is not going to work.
Also, some organisations, particularly customer facing sales roles, hire based on a look, be it conservative or alternative, because it fits with the brand image. A bank teller is expected to be the perfect Pollyanna (even if they are not under the uniform), while a tattoo artist is expected to support some nice tattoos and have a more alternative look. If you change your look dramatically overnight you might suddenly jar with the brand, which puts your role in a perilous position. That is not to say that you cannot experiment with new looks – covered tattoos is always a fun look to explore! – just keep the day job in mind while you do.

5. Dress appropriate to the day’s agenda

While you might wear pretty much the same thing day-in day-out, some days you will be doing something slightly different to your normal day job, and it’s good to dress for those days too.
In the absence of other information, people think they are similar to those that share their style. You can use your clothes to exploit this simple fact and turn it to your advantage.
Clothes allow you to build up a rapport with people and given how easy it is to change an outfit, it is easy to use this to your advantage. Give people an outfit that will put them at their ease, and make them feel comfortable.
For instance if you normally dress very causally but today are meeting the accountants or other business minded people from your organisation, it can be better to dress more conservatively than you would normally, given that these individuals will be accustomed to doing business with people in suits. This is not the best meeting to debut your totally on trend Vivien Westwood outfit. On the other hand, if you are meeting clients who are hiring you based on your cutting edge alternative brand, then ditch the frumpy pants suit and rock that Westwood.

So they are our opinions – what are yours? Are there particularly bad dressers in your office and who are the worst offenders?

About Cathy Clarke

Cathy lives with her husband, offspring and so many animals that her household often feels like a small petting zoo. She is one half of the team behind (an Irish Lifestyle blog) where she discusses motherhood, weddings, DIY, GIY, and everything in between. And she is one third of the team behind, a podcast which discusses topics interesting to writers. Follow her on twitter at @CathyCClarke.
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