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Fashion 911: What Not to Wear to Work

I’ve always envied people who have to wear a uniform to school or to work. I shudder to think of all the hours I’ve wasted staring into the depths of my closet on weekday mornings, attempting to pull together a presentable outfit from my limited selection of drab, monochromatic options. Every now and then, I’ll size up an item from the “fun” or “going out” section of my wardrobe, trying to decide whether this blouse is too shiny or that skirt is too fitted for the office, but I always end up erring on the side of caution. I can’t say the same for many of my fellow female commuters, though; once I’ve finally gotten myself dressed and seated on the train heading downtown, I often find myself transfixed by the garments some women perceive as appropriate career attire. 

In the twenty-first century, dress codes vary drastically from workplace to workplace; while power suit–clad executives look forward all week to casual Friday, the sweats-wearing self-employed folks and the scruffy staffers at start-ups don’t own a single shirt with buttons among them. But most American offices fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and for the workers who populate them, getting ahead professionally requires steering clear of any fashion missteps that could reflect poorly on them. 

Too Much Skin, Too Little Breathing Room
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it” may be an empowering attitude up in the club, but leave it at home when you’re heading to work—your boss and your coworkers won’t take you seriously if you show up for a meeting wearing a down-to-there V-neck or a skintight pair of pants. No-nos include: 

  • Micro-miniskirts and short shorts
  • Anything spandex
  • Ripped jeans (or, at some companies, any type of denim)
  • Camisoles/spaghetti-strap tank tops worn on their own
  • Any top that reveals your bra straps
  • Sheer blouses and sweaters with no undershirt
  • Slinky cocktail dresses
  • Workout clothes (yoga pants, hooded sweatshirts, sports bras) 

Do Sweat the Small Stuff
The little details you select to complement your workwear sometimes make as lasting an impression on your officemates as your clothes themselves do—for better and for worse. Polished self-presentation is a head-to-toe endeavor, so everything from your hair accessories to your jewelry to your footwear to your bag requires thoughtful consideration. Don’t get caught wearing or carrying these items: 

  • Facial jewelry
  • Oversize, bejeweled earrings and necklaces that look as if they belong either on a beauty-pageant contestant or in a museum display
  • Shopping bags in lieu of purses
  • Fishnet stockings
  • Rubber flip-flops, hiking boots, Birkenstock-type sandals, or athletic shoes
  • Sky-high stiletto heels (especially Lucite, bedazzled, or patent leather)
  • Thigh-high boots 

Set the Bar High
One rule of thumb that countless career coaches cite is to dress for the position you want, even if that means wearing more formal garb than your current role calls for. So if you’re angling for a promotion—or even if you’re simply trying to establish your credibility as a new employee—keep those goals in mind as you strategize about your wardrobe choices. Shopping for party clothes might be more fun than buying daytime basics, but if you’re spending forty hours or more at the office, you’ll rely heavily on these building blocks: 

  • A few pairs of nicely tailored, flat-front slacks in dark or neutral colors
  • A variety of fine-knit sweaters (nothing too baggy, ski lodge–esque, or low-cut)
  • A few crisp collared shirts, plus mix-and-match shells to layer under sweaters
  • Knee-length or longer dresses that can be worn under a blazer or cardigan (in muted colors or soft patterns—not too bright or fussy)
  • One or two straight skirts hemmed just below the knee
  • A flattering trench coat, as well as a stylish all-weather coat
  • Classic pumps and flats, kept well polished
  • A well-made, all-purpose purse that matches most of your work clothing 

Assess the Situation
From the moment you enter the workforce, your professional-fashion choices speak volumes about your sense of propriety and your career aspirations. When you’re just starting out at a new company, pay special attention to how the other employees dress. If the women around you wear skinny jeans and T-shirts most days, breathe easy and enjoy the casual environment. By the same token, if they’re dressed to the nines in matching skirts and blazers, you’ll want to, er, follow suit. And remember, in today’s ultra-competitive job market, every little bit of effort counts when you’re vying for a new position or a role with more responsibility. To play the part, you have to dress the part—so keep your blouse buttoned, your pants pressed, and your shoes shined, and save your fishnets and your bustier for Saturday night.