In a world where the lines on appropriate work attire are becoming increasingly fuzzy, dressing for the office of a morning has never been more confusing.
Dressing for the office in tailored suit is no longer a prerequisite for success, thanks to Silicon Valley moguls such as Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs’ ilk, who broadcast headline-making presentations and product launches to the world while dressed in jeans and sneakers.
Even if hoodies and jeans are not allowed in your office, many workplaces are loosening their requirements and allowing employees greater self-expression through their clothing. Banks are historically among the most formal of the pack; however, even some of these workplaces are embracing ‘business casual’.
This month, American bank JP Morgan sent an internal memo to staff, announcing that ‘business casual’ is now acceptable attire on most occasions, bar client meetings. Business Insider reports the bank stated business casual dress would be expanded “firmwide,” which “reflects how the way [JP Morgan works] is changing.”
This change now includes polo shirts, casual pants, capris, and dress sandals. “More clients are dressing informally, and many parts of our company are already business casual,” the memo reads.
Where is this fountain of casual fabrics and comfortable shoes flowing from? In a New York Times article titled “The end of the office dress code,” the now-ubiquitous Casual Friday was suggested as a key driver of this trend. Casual Friday, while originating in Hawaii in 1966 , took off in a big way during the 1990s recession, when employers were looking for ways to boost workers’ morale without dipping into the coffers.
Indeed, in a related article from The Atlantic, casual Friday was labelled a ‘gateway drug’ to informal work attire.
The way we are working also plays a role in this shift toward the casual when it comes to dressing for the office. Flexible work environments and the ability to work from home are blurring the lines between office hours and personal time.
However, no matter how relaxed things might get, there are still basic standards of dress the majority of workplaces will expect employees to comply with.
Here are some tips from the experts on how you can dress for success no matter what type of office you work in, while still putting your individual spin on office attire. Hint – under no circumstances does this include Crocs.
The corporate office: Women
Corporate offices don’t mean everything needs to be severe and sterile, but a little more care needs to be taken to comply with a more conservative office dress code.
Nikki Parkinson-Hubbard from Styling You says this starts from the top down.
“Just because you’re in a corporate job doesn’t mean you have to wear a severe bun, but it should be neat and not distract from the rest of your outfit,” Parkinson explains.
“If you have coloured hair, get your roots done. Look after it and maintain your hair. If you have mid-length hair, nail a few good quick updos that you can do as you run out the door for work. You don’t always need to have a boring ponytail,” says Ruby Worden from Ruby Slippers Styling.
Keep the bling at home and tone it down with elegant, fine jewellery. If you’re going to wear high heels in the office, it’s important to choose a height that you’re comfortable to walk around in all day.
“You can wear flat shoes in the office, but choose a pointed toe for a more polished look. Avoid wearing round-toe ballet flats,” Worden says.
For clothing, “Never underestimate the power of a really good jacket that can often quickly pull your outfit together, especially for meetings,” Parkinson advises.
“You should wear at least one structured piece in your outfit, like a jacket, skirt or pair of pants but you can soften it with a contrasting textured silk or floaty fabric, like a blouse or shirt. Tuck it in to make your outfit look neat.”
The crux of dressing for the office in a corporate setting is about creating a polished look, so if there are loopholes in your skirt or trousers, put a belt through it and wear stockings rather than bare legs, Worden says.
If you want to or need to wear a suit, buy the best quality suit that you can afford, says Worden. Select a neutral colour like grey, navy or black that will complement the rest of your wardrobe and go the distance in seasons to come.
Now is also not the time for risque hem lengths, so avoid skirts that are above the knee. And steer clear of fabrics like leather, sequins and suede, which are all better suited for drinks at the bar, rather than meetings in the boardroom.
The corporate office: Men
Now’s not the time or place to experiment with outrageous styles. Keep your hair neat and wash it regularly.
To create a work-appropriate outfit, stylist Alex Wilson advises to think of each piece individually. “Your pant length is a matter of choice but there are two correct ways,” Wilson explains.
“The classic length is determined by one fold in the fabric when the cuff rests on the shoe. The back of the pant cuff stops in the middle of the shoe between the opening and the top of the heel.
“A more fashionable or trendy look is where the cuff barely rests on the shoe and there are no folds in the fabric. This look looks better with a slim fit suit.”
Choose a nice shirt that breathes properly. No-one wants to see your yellow sweaty underarm patches. And void wearing stripes on stripes with your shirt and tie combinations.
Don’t even think about whipping out a novelty tie in the office. And if a pattern was made in the 80s, that’s where it should stay, Wilson advises.
“Tie width is also important: 7.5-8 cm is the standard width, so avoid anything wider than this. You might go skinnier, but avoid the super skinny look in an office environment,” she adds.
If you’re going for the whole shebang, make sure your suit is tailored and fits you properly, especially if you bought it off the rack.
Your jacket’s sleeve should end slightly before the wrist bone and the shirt sleeve underneath should fall 1.5cm lower touching top of the palm, Wilson says.
To top it all off, invest in a pair of good quality leather shoes and keep them polished and clean, Wilson says. “Do make sure they match your belt and don’t even wear thongs or sandals to work.”
The creative office: Women
Whether you wear preppy brogues, leopard print high heels or cool sneakers to the office, shoes should still be clean and neat.
Steer clear of thongs and absolutely no Crocs – you should be fired on the spot for wearing Crocs to the office, Worden says.
“Accessories are a great way to express your personality, but beware of the peacock effect, where it becomes all about your jewellery and people aren’t listening to what you’re saying,” Worden warns.
You will have more flexibility to express yourself with accessories, but steer clear of things like big bangles that bang on the desk, too – it can be annoying for your colleagues who sit around you.
As for clothes: “You can have some fun with patterns, colours and styles, but give your outfits some balance. If you’re wearing jeans on the bottom, put it with a blazer. Or you can wear a plain t-shirt but with a necklace to dress it up,” Worden says. “The trick is really nailing the smarter end of ‘smart casual’.”
Depending on your workplace, you might be able to get away with purple hair or a half-shaved head, but your hairdo still needs to look clean and well-groomed, not like you just rolled out of bed.
The creative office: Men
A creative office has a little more room to move with styling choice and can have a ‘relaxed’ feel, but it is still important to look neat. Hair should still be clean and neat.
As for facial hair, while beards have made a big comeback, it’s still important to keep your beard trimmed, Wilson says. And if you’re normally clean shaven, make sure you continue to shave every day.
“Denim and tees are everyday basics. When it comes to work, they can be styled under a blazer or bomber jacket with jeans,” Wilson explains. “If wearing them by themselves, make sure they aren’t a deep V or scoop neck to avoid showing too much chest. Also, keep prints ‘clean’ – no swearing or rude images.”