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Office Dress Codes Defined

Posted on November 15 2018


This article was also posted on the Ellevate Medium page.


Work dress codes are extremely confusing for women. With so many options, the lines are blurred between what is acceptable and what is not. And, with the growing casualization of offices, it's becoming even more confusing to know what to wear. Most companies and industries have a specific dress code (e.g., business casual), but the reality is that it all depends on your company culture, city, and sometimes the tone set by other people in your office.

Here are the four main dress codes we see today and the rules we have to follow them. If you develop your professional style within these rules, we think you're in the clear.


1. Business Professional

Summary: This dress code is probably the most straight forward. Think suit sets (pant or skirt) or a nicely tailored dress with a blazer. I remember being in a dress code training for a finance internship (…oy 10 years ago), and we were told to wear pantyhose - I pray to the lords that doesn't apply to you.

Suit color considerations: Again this depends on the firm, but you'll likely be limited to dark colors (black or blue). You could introduce a cream colored suit in the spring or summer, but if you're working on a budget and can only invest in a few suits, I would steer clear of the light/bold colors since they stand out a bit more and you'll get less use out of them.

How to have fun: While this is the most limiting of all the dress codes, you can still have fun with your suit style or blouses. Test out a double breasted blazer for a more masculine look, or a cropped blazer for something a little more fun. With tops, don't be limited to button downs - blouses with fun colors, patterns and cuts are your friends.



2. Business casual - more business than casual

Summary: No need for suits, no denim allowed, steer clear of t-shirts. The main goal is to look put together and professional. Easy right? Here are a few guidelines to help you navigate the haze.

Materials: Most fabrics are acceptable. Wool, silk, polyester are most common materials for workwear pieces. The main thing you want to stay away from is denim, denim lookalikes (e.g., chambray), overly soft/comfy looking cotton pieces, large knitted sweaters, and athleisure (performance workwear is popular these days - those are fine, but ditch the yoga pants).

Fit: Tailored is the name of the game. This doesn't mean everything needs fit perfectly and sculpt your body. Instead, pieces should hit your shoulders and hips at the right spots and you shouldn't be swimming or bulging in your clothes. I love loose shift dresses and baby doll cuts, but I always make sure those pieces fit my shoulders so the dress falls the way it's supposed to. A piece that fits you correctly will always make you feel more confident.

Neckline: Make sure it's not cut too low - meaning below where your cleavage starts. If you're in love with a v-neck that cuts a little too low, pair it with a nice quality cami and you'll be workwear ready!

Strap width: Remember that dress code training I mentioned? They said no sleeveless tops. The workplace has evolved a bit since then and sleeveless tops are totally acceptable. The big rule here is strap width - please ladies, do not go thinner than 3 inches, and if you do, wear a cardigan or blazer in the office.

Hem length: The safe zone is somewhere longer than mid-thigh and shorter than mid-calf. Above mid-thigh and you'll constantly be self-conscious getting in/out of chairs and walking up stairs. If you're super tall and most things are short on you, you can wear black tights to make it less obvious.

Color: Honestly, have fun with it! This is where business casual dress code is evolving so much. I've seen corporate execs play with fun and bold colors and patterns. If you rock it with confidence and follow the rules above, no one can stop you. 

Shoes: A couple of quick rules here as well - no open toes, no tennis shoes, don't expose your full heel (slingbacks are okay), and avoid chunky wooden heels. Outside of that, have fun with pumps, booties, and boots. You can get a sense from your office about how far to go with colors and patterns. 



3. Business casual - more casual than business (aka jeans OK)

Summary: This often applies to corporate companies that used to be strictly business casual and have evolved to 'jeans ok'. It's basically 'more business than casual' minus the no jeans part. I like to think of this as, replace the black pants with the black/dark jeans dress code.

It's definitely tempting to go too casual here and you might see other people in the office do this as well - don't fall for it just yet! Like it or not, your dress can have an impact on how you are perceived - just take a second to think if your outfit might impact your credibility. This all depends on the office and culture. Trust me, I love my grandma sweaters and Vans and have always thought my work should speak for itself, but there have been instances where I've cut my own confidence short by dressing a little too casual.

Caveat on shoes: You can wear clean tennis shoes and wooden heels are okay. Please continue to stay away from sandals and open toes - it's a safety hazard and there are still mixed feelings if we should be seeing your toes or not.



4. Casual

Summary: You're kind of on your own with this one. Jeans, t-shirts, and maybe even sandals are okay here. It all depends on your company. If you're new to a casual company, play it safe with jeans and closed-toe shoes until you get a sense of how far down the casual spectrum people are willing to go. If you're lucky, maybe you can wear athleisure after the first week or two.

Last thought, something an old client once said to me is "dress for the role you want" and that really stuck with me. Not only does it give you that extra boost of confidence, but it also tells everyone else that you hold yourself in the highest regard.

So, with that, I hope you found this helpful. Send me your thoughts / questions / agreements / disagreements - I'd love to hear how you see dress codes in the workplace getting redefined!




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