In your first few years at work, there’s almost no scenario where you want to stand out at work for how you dress. This goes for girls and guys, and I’ve seen both get it very wrong…
Typically, companies’ dress codes don’t help much. Because you can often still technically follow the dress code, and yet still get totally written off because of what you’re wearing. One of my colleagues was told by her very senior boss that when he looked at her, he wanted to see “crisp”. She knew she hadn’t quite mastered the crisp look and yet didn’t know what to change. At my husband’s very first job in London, the head of his team took him aside to explain they were transferring a few thousand dollars into his account for him to go buy some new (read: better) shirts, ties, etc. I thought this was mortifying, but he thought it was fantastic!
It’s actually harder than it sounds to wear the ‘right’ stuff. What looks appropriate on one girl might not on another even. One of my colleagues was in great shape, but even some very corporate outfits would easily look like she was trying to be a sexy librarian for Hallowe’en. A team assistant we had years ago also got the dress code wrong. She was a bigger girl, and everything just seemed too tight. You can imagine these are conversations that a manager would find difficult to have, and therefore probably won’t happen. Instead, subtle but important stuff happens that hinders your career, like you don’t get invited to a meeting with that important new client.
The best guidance I can give you is to watch what others are wearing – not just anyone, not just your CEO, but watch the people are you can tell are going places. People who are a few levels up from you and definitely are getting primed for bigger things. The thing is, I could tell you to watch your top executives, but just because a 60-something year old Director wears a bow tie, doesn’t mean you should. Likewise the Assistants might wear some pretty trendy clothes and be able to hit the bar after work. Unless you want to be an Assistant, don’t follow suit.
For those who’d rather have it spelled out, here are a few specifics that I highly recommend avoiding:
- No heels over 3 inches. I don’t care if they’re amazing Louboutins (but if they are, I am jealous). If they’re over a 3 inch heel, they don’t belong at work. Also, no shoes that show your toes – not even peep toes at corporate places.
- If you work somewhere super formal, wear tights. A lot of senior women think that bare legs are a total no-no. Such a pain since they rip after one wear, I know!
- Skirts – not too tight that you have to take tiny steps, not too short that you have to worry when you sit down or walk up stairs
- If you wear dress shirts, make sure they don’t gape open at the buttons… no one will ever tell you if this is you so check for yourself!
- Best to avoid sleeveless shirts unless it’s summer and/or you wear a cardigan or suit jacket overtop
- No bra straps showing. You’d think this goes without saying but somehow, it doesn’t!
- Polished hair and make-up (not none, not too much). Generally, the less curly/frizzy hair, the better. Also, watch the nail color. As on trend as gray, super dark purple, or mint green may be, people at work won’t get it.
- Good shoes – clean/polished – and no crazy socks. I don’t know what it is about interns but so many of them like to the wild sock look, you know with pink stripes, polka dots, etc. You can get away with these kinds of things when you’re more experienced, but not early on in your career. There are good and bad reasons to stand out at work. At this point in your career, socks are not the reason you’re looking for.
- Suits that are not wrinkled and not too pinstriped. Pants can’t be too long, too short, and most importantly, NOT cuffed!
- A good shirt and tie combo. Ask for advice at an upscale store, even if you don’t buy anything there. SO many guys get this wrong. Also, no colored shirts with white collars. It’s just a bad look – sorry!
When I was just starting out, virtually all I wore were black and gray suits. I didn’t have to, but I looked really young and wanted to do whatever I could to come across as professional as I could. This includes wearing glasses to any interview to look that extra bit smarter :) After I had established myself, I ditched the suits and wore stuff I liked better that had a bit more personality. Still professional, but less boring. I think you kind of ‘earn’ the right to be more unique as you move up. Of course you can choose to do this right from the get go, but you risk suffering the consequences – fair or unfair.
What do you think? Hate my advice and think it’s crazypants? Let me know in the comments below and let the fashion wars begin!