The New Continuum of Dressing for Success: Part 1

The work place has become a kinder, gentler place regarding what to wear; however, that does not mean that dress is not important.  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 very much 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 that requires some thought as to the appropriate look for the work you’re in. In Part 1 we’ll look at the choices available when suits are required, whereas, Part 2 will provide choices when Jackets are Optional and the last part will talk about options when jeans are permitted at work.

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 worn with 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 for jackets 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.

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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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