Fashion Forward? 5 Tips for Dressing for You in a Buttoned-Down Office

Fashion Forward? 5 Tips for Dressing for You in a Buttoned-Down Office
by Marianne Stenger
Photos Tonhya Kae | September 07, 2015

Office dress code and workplace politics have more in common than you think. Successfully navigating one helps you ace the other. Here's how to stand out without raising eyebrows. 

Remember that old piece of advice about dressing for the job you want rather than the job you have? The reason it’s so true, even today, is that it’s easier for others to visualize you in a higher position when you already look the part. 

In a recent survey by Career Builder, over 2000 employers revealed the sort of things that might prevent them from promoting someone, and while poor work ethic and negative attitudes featured high on the list, they also indicated a worker’s appearance can have a big impact on whether or not they’ll be considered for a promotion. 

Over 40% said provocative attire or a shabby appearance would make them less likely to promote someone, while other workplace transgressions included overly casual attire, visible tattoos and non-traditional piercings, ostentatious haircuts, bad breath and too much makeup. 

Clearly, what you wear and how you present yourself can and does make a difference, so here are a few things to keep in mind when dressing for the job you want. 

1. PAY ATTENTION TO HOW THE TOP PEOPLE IN YOUR COMPANY DRESS

Because every industry and company differs, there’s no single ‘right’ way to dress. And career management consultant Rosemary Hook points out that appropriate styles of dress may even vary depending on where you live.  

Since you won’t find universal standards, pay attention to how your managers and overseers dress for work and then follow their lead.

Related: It's 7am and 9,000 Degrees. What Do You Wear to Your Interview? 

“Given that the U.S. is still a regionally-dominated country, it's important to note that acceptable business dress on the East coast will likely not be the same on the West Coast,” she says. “For instance, you can probably get away with no pantyhose in San Diego but most definitely not in Boston.” {Click to Tweet}

Since you won’t find universal standards, pay attention to how your managers and overseers dress for work and then follow their lead. Keeping an eye on what your clients wear can also help you understand the company culture. 

“Your ability to mimic the everyday wear of your clients goes a long way in communicating that you understand their needs,” says Hook. “Miniskirts worn by new graduates in Los Angeles might be acceptable business attire inside Warner Brothers, but Goldman Sachs in the Big Apple is going to expect a conservative suit that outwardly showcases your business acumen.” 

2. INVEST IN A FEW DESIGNER PIECES 

Even if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on your wardrobe, you can still invest in a few high-quality pieces that are versatile enough to pair with other, more affordable items. 

Start by investing in work wardrobe essentials like a blazer, pencil skirt and slim trousers, as well as one or two pairs of work-appropriate shoes. You can never go wrong with black closed-toed pumps, but if you don’t feel comfortable wearing heels at work, try a pair of ballet flats or loafers, which can still look very professional. 

Once you have a few well-made basics, you can start mixing things up and showcasing your own personal style. Try adding new colors and textures by picking up button-downs, v-neck sweaters, and accessories from more affordable retailers like H&M, Zara, J. Crew or ASOS. {Click to Tweet

3. GET THE COLORS RIGHT 

Some colors simply work better in a professional environment, and one survey found employers actually prefer conservative colors like blue, grey and black, while the color orange is seen as “unprofessional.” We also associate certain colors with attributes: black implies leadership skills, while blue can signify you’re a team player. 

Then there are the power colors. Politicians have long worn red ties to debates, but a recent study also found waitresses who wear red land better tips. Consider adding a touch of red to your outfit when you plan to broach the subject of a promotion or pay raise. It just might improve your chances of success. 

We associate certain colors with attributes: black implies leadership skills, while blue can signify you’re a team player. 

Related: 5 Best Stores to Shop for Your Workplace Wardrobe

4. AVOID WEARING ANYTHING TOO REVEALING

The last thing you want to do if you’re hoping for a pay raise or promotion is to distract people from your skills and qualifications by wearing clothing that draws too much attention to your physical appearance. 

Women tend to be judged more harshly for what they wear at work, and research shows that women are rated as less competent when their clothes are seen as more provocative. It’s a frustrating double standard, but one you should navigate carefully.

In general, try to avoid shorter skirts (knee length is a good rule of thumb) and tops with plunging necklines. Open-toed shoes or sandals and knee high boots, while not revealing per se, also tend to be viewed as unprofessional in almost all offices. 

5. DON'T OVERLOOK THE DETAILS 

All too often, it’s the details that lead to downfall, so it’s important to pay attention to every aspect of your look. Keep bra straps out of sight, your nails neatly filed and polished, and make sure your breath smells fresh all day long.  

When it comes to accessories, a survey from Cosmopolitan found human resource execs shared a unanimous pet peeve: noise-making jewelry. Keep it simple with one or two pieces that complement your outfit and avoid clunky bangles or long, dangly earrings.

All too often, it’s the details that lead to downfall, so it’s important to pay attention to every aspect of your look.

Related: Donna Garlough, Style Director for Joss + Main

Another commonly overlooked element: scent tends to be very personal and fragrances can easily upset sensitive noses. Hook suggests avoiding perfume in the office altogether. “In the same way that too much makeup makes for great office gossip after you’ve left the room, so too will the unpleasant odor of a poorly applied perfume,” she says. 

At the end of the day, what really matters is your ability to work hard and excel in your job. But given that physical appearances tend to be the first thing anyone notices, it can’t hurt to make sure your presentation sends the right message, too.

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What tips do you have for making a good office impression? Share with us in the comments below.