- What time is it? For a lot of us, work goes from morning to evening in every season.
- Where are you? The workplace.
- Who do I need to respect? Managers, coworkers, customers, and clients.
- What are my responsibilities? To deliver consistent, high quality work.
I’m keeping the answers pretty generic, but fill them in with specifics – specificity helps narrow down what you need to rise to each occasion.
Personally, the time question presents the biggest challenge for workwear, because that is a lot of time! When you pick an outfit for a cocktail party, it’s okay if you pick a semi-painful (but beautiful) pair of shoes. It’s a limited amount of time, and if it’s a good party, you’ll take off your shoes to start dancing anyway. When you’re at work, you are there all day and there’s no chance to try again (and you have to keep your shoes on, because going barefoot is unprofessional). You’re stuck in that outfit until five, so picking an uncomfortable outfit can ruin the whole day. Keep the season in mind, but also keep the temperature of the building in mind. Freezing air conditioning in the summer can turn you into a sundress-clad ice cube. Over-enthusiastic heating in the winter can make anybody in a sweater a sweaty mess. I advise layers. Then you can thermoregulate. Even in the summer, I keep a light sweater in my desk drawer (for temperature emergencies).
While time is the hardest challenge, appropriateness is the most important. For clothing in general, if you can see up it, see down it, or see through it, DON’T WEAR IT. Overly sheer clothing isn’t a new problem – in 1945, Emily Post wrote, “Also wear clothes that properly cover you….Many a [manager] has asked that a girl who inclined to dress in transparencies be transferred.” Don’t own a slip? Buy one. Is the neckline too low? Get a camisole. Slips and camisoles might seem outdated, but they work. They’ve literally got you covered.
Miss Post also warns against anything that makes it difficult to do the job or that is distracting. “Above all, avoid wearing clothes that need constant arranging. If you have to keep fussing at your belt or your neck or your wrists, if anything dangling drips into things or catches on knobs or typewriter keys, discard the distracting detail quickly. It is not necessary to sacrifice prettiness to exaggerated sleekness as on horseback, but the nearer you can come to avoiding everything that interferes or catches, or keeps getting out of place, the better.” I’m a fidgety person anyway, so any time I wear a bracelet, I play with it constantly. That would be okay if I were the only person in the room, but I have coworkers. If my jewelry is constantly jingling or making noise, or if I’m always fiddling with my clothes, it’s distracting to everybody who can see me or hear me. Don’t keep other people from their responsibilities – respect them by allowing them to work.
It really depends on where you work, but obey any written dress codes. (This falls under the respect question.) That may seem obvious, but it can be easy to make excuses in order to wear what you like. For work, it’s more important to wear what your employer requires, rather than to wear what you want. If it’s a casual workplace without a dress code, you should still feel free to ask your manager what would be best. Feel free to dress up more than other people do, if dressing a little more formally makes you feel awake and ready to get to work. The motivation for how you dress makes a difference – when you’re at work, prioritize work. Don’t dress to get the attention of your cute coworker – your attempts might derail their concentration, but will definitely derail you and your concentration.
Last piece of advice – there’s no rule that work clothes have to be boring! Wearing a great outfit can help you feel confident and that confidence will help with the thousands of little decisions that you have to make during the day. If you have to wear a suit, get it tailored. Don’t just wear it because you have to, but because you want to and because, incidentally, it looks fierce and amazing. If everybody at your office wears jeans, dress up those jeans with a blazer and a print blouse. Or wear a dress. Why not? Go above and beyond. Dress like you want to be there!