Monday, July 11, 2011

Work is about more than showing up, Part 1: dressing the part

(Note: I think I may have posted on this before, but I'm unable to find the post for some reason.  My apologies if any of this feels repetitive.)

Alas, summer is in full swing throughout the U.S., and we have finally had several 80+-degree days here in Colorado after living through some chilly-early-spring-like weather in June.  Because the weather is warming up considerably, everyone is dressing more relaxed and warm-weathery: cargo shorts, sandals and flip-flops, short sleeves and tank tops, and so on.  And alas, these garments are showing up at some workplaces.  Some warm weather gear is fine for the workplace, but some of it is borderline inappropriate even in a casual office.

Perhaps it's my old-school Southern raising speaking.  I'm 35, but I was raised by a Southern grandmother that lived through the Depression and World War II, and damn if she was going to leave the house and go into town in any less that a full complement of makeup, jewelry,  and a decent dress and jacket or at least a double-knit pantsuit.  (Part of how we knew she was declining cognitively was when she started going into town in her house dress and apron.)  I personally very rarely wear jeans in the office (more on that later), and I strive to look somewhat modest and business-y.  While I was raised old-school Southern, though, I am a product of my time: if other people wear a polo shirt and jeans every day, it doesn't bother me in the least.  But I have found that there is a line between casual fashion and "oh, whatever" that we in the under-40 crowd tend to cross, sometimes accidentally.   Here are a few general pointers that I've collected from 11 years in the office, both from my own experience and my colleagues sharing what they've learned at various firms over the years.

  • Guys, wear a collar.  Even if you don't have meetings and you never meet clients and your office doesn't insist on wearing ties, a collar on your shirt (like the aforementioned polo shirt) looks spiffy.  A t-shirt with no collar looks like you're about to go to the beach/club/car wash.  (Note: if your boss has you working in a dusty file room or moving boxes or the like, then the t-shirt makes some sense.)
  • Ladies, cover your shoulders.  Yes, there are occasional tops and dresses that are sleeveless that look good and professional, but use them with care.  Too-narrow straps make it hard to cover your bra straps, and the wrong material makes it look like you're getting ready to hit the club/bar/beach.  Which brings us to a couple of unisex points...
  • Everyone, cover your underwear.  Too-narrow straps, too-lowcut fronts or armholes on tops, too-low pants, too-thin materials...these are all telling me way more about your choice of undergarment than I ever want to know.  If you're ever in doubt, layer something under it or leave it at home.
  • Maintain your garments.  If something's been scuffed beyond recognition of its original material or has holes in it, it's time to mend it or save it for the weekend.  And I know there are some expensive-ass jeans out there that come with holes in them--save those for the weekend.
  • Wear work clothes at work, and party clothes at the party.  Cargo shorts, flip-flops, shiny metallic tops, gauzy/tight/shiny collarless shirts: quick, what do all of these have in common?  They're meant for wearing somewhere other than work.  They're meant for nightclubs, rafting trips, beaches, etc.  If the garment could immediately go from wherever you are now to a beach or nightclub, save it for later.
I'm sure there are a few exceptions to all of the above, but they're good general guidelines to keep in mind.  I follow these guidelines to the point that I don't wear jeans at work unless a) it has snowed eight inches and it's 10 degrees outside and my long johns need to fit under something, b) I'm really sick or physically injured but need to come in and do a few things before I go home and rest, or c) I'm in for a few hours before I get on a plane and go somewhere.  Notice a pattern there?  It's a similar pattern to the one running through the above guidelines: when I dress super-casual, it's because I want to be (and am about to be) somewhere else.  It's become almost a code now at my office; when people see me wearing jeans, they always take note, and some of them will ask, "Are you going out of town today?"

If you consistently dress like you're here to work, you send the message that you are ready, willing, and able to take on tasks and challenges.  If you consistently dress like you're too cool for the 8-to-5 with your hacked-up jeans, or just came straight from the club with your shiny halter top, or you're ready to be a lifeguard in your cargo shorts and flip-flops, then you're telling your colleagues (and bosses) that your mind isn't really here.  And this may seem silly or nit-picky, but remember: we are a profession full of people with a well-developed sense of aesthetics and details.  We critique design in part on the basis of whether it fits its surroundings and what kind of purpose it telegraphs.  These same skills will be applied, consciously or subconsciously, to the people we see.  And because we (and your colleagues and bosses) do this, thinking about the message you send when you put on your "exterior skin" each morning can really make a difference.

Got a topic you'd like to see discussed here or a question you'd like to ask?  Let me know in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Thanks!

No comments:

Post a Comment