The New Continuum for Dress for Success

The work place has become a kinder, gentler place regarding what to wear; however,
that does not mean that dress is not important. As mentioned in the previous chapters, your level of professionalism,expertise, and likelihood to succeed is communicated first and foremost in your appearance with a large part being made up by what you wear.  The fact that “suits” are not required for a lot of businesses does not equate with tattered jeans and a T-shirt.  What we saw in the movie, “The Social Network,”
is not business as usual, rather, work apparel is different than clothing for socializing
with your friends.

So given the more relaxed atmosphere of work and the options available to us here is a new approach that will help guide you on what exactly should constitute your wardrobe for work. As opposed to the past with only one way to look, today’s formula presents a continuum of possibilities based on the culture of the business, where you are based and your profession/occupation.  Not every job requires a suit.  Further, where the business is located may not mandate one. Wearing a suit in my town is not very common; people are just more casual here.  Further, perhaps your
company’s culture is more relaxed rather than traditional, so a suit may not be
necessary.

However, the suit is NOT dead and is appropriate in select situations.  But in
many instances just wearing a jacket will elicit the same professionalism as a
suit and not be deemed too formal.  Now realize that when it comes to an interview, most times a suit and tie is the best option; however, as an individual established in your career or in high tech organizations, there are avenues for dressing that are considered appropriate for work that don’t mandate a suit.

I have broken down this continuum of work apparel into three distinct categories and will describe each and how they function:  they are 1) Suits required; 2)
Jackets optional; and 3) Jeans permitted.  You say JEANS?!  Yes, in many
businesses jeans are ok.  Further, given that denim has come a long way regarding fabrication, denim trousers are verymuch ok when jackets are optional. As a dress continuum it varies from very traditional to very relaxed contemporary business attire, but no matter your profession or job when you dress for work it is a decision each morning thatrequires some thought as to the appropriate look for the work you’re in. Let’sinvestigate further.

Suits Required

This category is the most formal of the three categories along the continuum.
In your job a suit is required at the workplace and, in many cases, for men a tie may be required as well.    Some professions such as law, banking and finance would more than likely require a suit as well as a corporate culture that is more traditional and formal. Moreover where you live has an impact so living in a major metropolitan city such as New York or London would be inclined to wearing suits.

A suit communicates a formal and professional appearance and completes an outfit.  When suits are required there are other options that are just as appropriate such as a jacket, blazers and sport coats.  For women there are blazers, as well as, short and long jackets that can be wornwith a skirt, pants or over a dress. Moreover, depending on the formality of the workplace, the variety of fabrications available for jackets includes wool,cotton, Tencel, raw silk, and linen. Wool is probably the best fabric for a blazer but camel hair and cashmere is just as good.  Let’s talk about options for men and then women.

For MenIf the workplace requires a suit consider building your wardrobe around a single suit and then adding jackets and blazers that coordinate if getting started. For example, starting with a grey suit you can add a navy blazer and a camel sport coat.  A navy blazer can be paired with jeans for your time, khaki, olive, camel, taupe or light gray slacks.  Now you have access to a multitude of blazers to choose from to build your wardrobe without investing in suits all the time.  There are blazers in raw silk, and linen besides the basic wool.  Plus there are a wide variety of easy care fabrics such as Tencel and polyester blends that are also suitable.

The suit and tie is the ultimate in formal business attire and communicates instant expertise than an opened shirt that is considered very approachable and says, hey, I am like you.  Further, a suit and tie often is expected by those in that industry as well as the clients they serve.

When it comes to this category, conservative is best.  Focus on established fabrics and patterns such as tweed, herringbone, gabardines in solids and subtle patterns such as pin and chalk stripes.  Glenn plaids rather than scotch plaids are better when the business mandates a jacket because it’s expected and established in business.  You might even consider getting a black blazer either in a double or single breasted style
since black is considered a neutral and therefore goes with a lot in your wardrobe.

Choose traditional silhouettes regarding suits, sport coats and blazers.  For this category, being a fashionista is not the focus.   Jackets in bulky fabrics, novelty colors and textures and with a lot of designs are not appropriate.  You will want the jacket to land below your derriere and to fit correctly.  Choose a blazer or coat that is lined with a traditional fit including set in sleeves and tailored-notched collar lapels.  A single breasted jacket can have two to three buttons and the width of the lapels may vary depending on current fashion trends. Accessories for this category include kerchiefs in the breast pocket, leather belts and shoes with subtle pattern hosiery while jewelry is kept to a minimum.

For Women: Given that this category requires the most formal of business
attire, women still have a lot of options.  A suit is probably something that you will want several of; however, it is not the only option.  Consider a dress, either with or without sleeves with a matching or contrasting jacket.  And like men, a great addition
to your wardrobe that helps build variety are blazers in black, navy, gray, taupe, camel or olive.   You can team a navy blazer with jeans for your time or with a pair of slacks for work.   Depending on fashion trends blazers fall below the waist and can land mid to below the derriere.

Traditional suit jackets and blazers, either with or without lapels, should be structured or lined to provide stability to the fabric and makes it easier to put on over dresses and shirts.  Details might include single or double welt pockets, breast pockets, patch or slit pockets with or without a vent in the back.  Regarding princess seams let them provide a pleasing shape to the overall silhouette yet you don’t want the jacket to be so fitted that you can’t really move comfortably.  Tailored and polished is what you’re aiming for.

Another style of jacket for consideration is the box- and Channel- styles.  With or without a lapel or collar and less tailored than a blazer, this style is great because it works for a multitude of body types.  If you’re like me, a pear, the box style adds more “weight” to the upper torso and balances the shape.  This style of jacket can be teamed with pants, skirts or dresses.

The types of fabrics to consider forjackets include gabardine, polyester blends, tweed, wool, Tencel, linen blend, cotton, raw silk and some of the newer synthetics.
Consider solid colors or subtle patterns such as Glenn plaid, pin- or chalk-striped and herringbone so as to give yourself options for coordinating it with other pieces of your wardrobe.  As with men, businesses that require a jacket are seeking the ultimate in formal business attire and so conservative is best when it comes to choices.

Accessories work to pull your look together and include scarves, belts and jewelry, such as lapel pins and earrings.  Hosiery and shoes are essential details that
warrant a conservative professional appeal and might include pumps and slip-ons.  Stay away from flats, athletic shoes and sandals.

Jackets Optional

For those businesses such as marketing, fashion, sales, education, real estate, and a multitude of others, jackets are optional.  Having jackets optional for many companies signaled business casual in the past; however, for many this form of workplace attire communicates an approachable professionalism and does not put off customers. Further, if you are in sales, one day may take you to someone’s office inside a building where a jacket is preferable while the next day is outside at a construction site. Often you want to appear professional but also appropriate for where you’re at.

You may be required to wear a tie but a jacket is your choice. Sometimes you may choose to wear a jacket but not a tie if you desire but it’s not required. If you live in Phoenix in the summer, jackets are definitely not worn even in retail. It’s too darn hot!  Here we have the opportunity to relax our look with greater leeway when it comes to
introducing fashion and our own personal style into our professional appearance.  Further, nontraditional fabrics such as denim, knits, with interesting textures can be considered.  However, let me caution you, satins, brocade, shiny metallics, and sheer fabrics are a no go for work.  You might consider leather or suede for your jackets but stay away from the leather pants unless you’re in the fashion business.

For Men:  Although jackets are optional great consideration must be made in your pants, shirts and accessories such as belts, shoes and socks.  Depending on the type of business you may even consider a tailored denim blazer if you want to wear one.  Blazers either structured or unstructured, worn with shirts and trousers, provides an approachable yet professional appearance.  In this category, V-neck and/crew neck sweaters and cardigans are another option to create versatility in your wardrobe and provide warmth during the winter. Vests give men another option outside of a jacket.  If you choose to wear a jacket single or double breasted blazers are great choices and are considered suit separates or sportswear when trying to find them in a store.

Regarding tops, shirts either short or long sleeved, turtlenecks, polos, or pullover sweaters are options.  When it comes to sleeves for dress shirts, consider long sleeved varieties.  Even when it’s hot, it looks cooler to roll up the cuff a couple of times rather than wearing a short sleeved shirt.  Forbutton-down sport shirts that are tailored, short is fine.  However, when it comes to whether you should wear your shirt tucked in or out, tucked in with a belt is best.  Even though the look is not as traditional as when a jacket is required, your professional appearance is a must.

When it comes to pants, dress pants, either plain front or pleated in fabrics such as cotton twill, or wool blended slacks with or without a cuff are great choices.  Your pants should be in tip top shape without holes or frayed on the edges.   Regarding
the color and design of the belt go towards a conservative belt buckle and the shoes and belts should match in color. Shoes might include loafer styles with flaps and tassels.  If you desire comfort, there are many companies that offer softer soles and leather uppers that enhance comfort for everyday wear.  Avoid the athletic shoes and sandals.

For Women: Options, options, options but still professional appearance counts.  Again, like men you can choose to wear a jacket or not; however, there are lots of possibilities.  For example, consider tunic tops with pants and a short jacket for interest.  Fashion becomes a player in this category particularly if you are in the creative fields such as interior and fashion design, architecture and theater arts.  If you want to go sleeveless; however, do wear a jacket or perhaps a knit cardigan.
Skirts in a variety of lengths yet a minimum of three inches above the knee and a maximum mid-calf are choices to consider.  Pants also have a multitude of lengths available from city shorts that are about three inches above the knee to cropped, ankle and regular lengths work well.  Try fitted shirts worn alone with pants or a skirt.

Dresses such as a sheath or shift with princess seams worn with a belted cardigan work well for this category.  Consider two-piece dressing that can mix and match with pieces already in your wardrobe, or sweater sets, pull over sweaters, bulky turtlenecks as options for colder months.

Fabrics might include traditional ones as mentioned above or those with interesting designs and textures. Stay away from metallic, brocade, translucent and sheer type fabrics.  Although this category allows a lot of freedom of expression, your appearance must remain professional. Denim trousers and jackets that are tailored are an option but DO NOT wear jeans (there is a difference!). Accessories such as scarves, hosiery and jewelry play an even more important role in personalizing your style.  Shoes such as pumps, tailored boots, open-toed shoes (not sandals), slip-ons and loafers are options for this category.

Jeans Permitted

Yes, there are some occupations were jeans, nice jeans, are an option for work.  Nice jeans do not have holes or a lot of stitching that has seen its day in fashion.  Additionally, this category might include uniforms found in many occupations. It is imperative that anything that you wear for work is clean, pressed, without tears and lost buttons, and fits properly. Often at this stage most people don’t give much
consideration to what they’re wearing or how they are wearing it and assume that anything goes, but that is farthest from the truth.  Communicating your professionalism is just as important.  In many high tech companies such as Apple or Facebook, jeans and t-shirts are common place and its ok just as long as they are in good condition for work – there is a difference!

Pants and skirts in denim and a variety of casual fabrics are the highlight of this category.  Some jobs that might fall under this category, depending on the corporate culture might include retail, restaurant, music, and the film industry where being able to move equipment and work a scene is a must.  This category does NOT exclude other dress options suggested above but permits denim.  Hence, consider hard working fabrics such as twill found in Docker brand pants, as well as some fashion alternatives such as longer skirts.

For Men: As mentioned earlier jeans and t-shirts are acceptable in a many types of occupations; however, if considering them have a good pair of jeans and several work t-shirts without writing or graphics on them. Jeans need to land at the natural waist in either a straight or boot cut leg and t-shirts need to be in really good condition and are substantial in weight so they have body and don’t show through.  Regarding the style of the t-shirt try one with short or long sleeves as opposed to sleeveless tanks.  Consider cargo pants but avoid camouflage or military-type apparel.  Consider leather
jackets and vests for variety and long sleeved flannel, denim or suede shirts.  Hawaiian shirts are great if you live in Hawaii and California but be sure that they not loud and overwhelming with neon colored designs.  Regarding shoes, consider those devoted to comfort such as athletic shoes; but again, refrain from loud, highly detailed ones that draw attention to your feet rather than to your face.  As well, avoid flip-flops and sandals.

Choose pants that have a classic look with minimum detail.  If you wear a shirt with a hem you will want to tuck it in and wear a belt with a conservative belt buckle.  Avoid belt buckles that are large and ornate and save those for your time.  Light jackets are great; however, avoid “hoodies” and hats of any kind.  As well, avoid sweatpants, warm up suits and other athletic apparel, since you’re going to work, not playing baseball.  Consider bringing your gym bag with your stuff in it if that will be part of your day.

If you wear a uniform, it should fit and be clean and pressed.  If you need to provide your own shoes make sure they are made for comfort and coordinate in color with the uniform. As well, jewelry should to be kept to a minimum.

For Women:
It is just as important to dress professionally at this end of the continuum as it is with more formal traditional businesses.  Seek tailored styles and avoid sexy, revealing clothing such as skirts with slits in the front and side.  Exposed midriffs and cleavage are also not appropriate as well as wearing fashions latest craze. As mentioned previously what you wear to work needs to be clean, pressed, coordinated, accessorized and needs to fit. Consider polo, crew- and V-neck style shirts but avoid halter tops. If you wear jeans consider straight legged or boot cut styles with minimal detailing that land at the natural waist.
Consider unstructured jackets such as jean jackets and cargo pants with limited detailing but avoid “hoodies” and hats.  Pants and skirts need land at the natural waist or a little below but avoid hip-hugger styles.  As well, skirts, shorts, and dresses should
be no shorter than three inches above the knee.

Save the sun dresses, halter styles as well as beach cover-ups for your time.  As well, avoid sweat pants and work out apparel, even warm up suits for the office. Consider cargo pants but avoid camouflage, military-type apparel.  As well, introduce split skirts or mid-calf length types gathered, pleated or plain front in denim, leather or suede with boots or tailored flats for your office attire.  Avoid leggings, jeggings (leggings out of denim), flip-flops and very high platform shoes – period. Greek styled, gladiator sandals that go up the leg need to be worn during your time and not for work.  If you want to wear athletic shoes consider those that have minimum detail and bright colors. Have a pair for work and one for your time.

If you wear a uniform make sure that it’s clean and pressed and fits. If you need to provide your own shoes seek those that are comfortable and tailored in a color that complements your uniform.  Jewelry is best kept at a minimum and if you wear hose consider tights but avoid fishnets.

If your company does NOT have a dress policy look at what your supervisor or the owner is wearing for clues and use these categories mentioned above to help guide you regarding what works for work and you.  More detail regarding options for each will be spelled out in the next chapter.

Bottom line – realize that your appearance counts at work no matter what you do!

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About vseitz

Marketing Professor at California State University, San Bernardino and author of "I Don't Wear A Suit."

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