Know the Code: Work Wardrobe Dos and Don'ts

by Staff - Original publish date: January 4, 2012

Pleading ignorance isn't going to save your job if you show up for work inappropriately dressed. It's not a secret code. It's a dress code.

Whether informally followed or clearly outlined line by line in an employee manual, trust us. It exists. 

Keep in mind, however, the corporate culture of your particular business. What might crisply soar through a law office might look a bit stiff in a more eclectically creative environment. 

Follow these tips to be sure you're a dressed for success, not disaster.

Do sparkle

The difference between "sparkle" and "flash" equates to the considerable mileage between a gemstone and a rhinestone. Think classic.  And classy. 

Would a store mannequin wear it on Black Friday? Go for it. You might twist it just a little by wearing a different scarf or shirt. 

Your goal is to look coordinated, not fresh off the Brooks Brothers assembly line! Accessorize tastefully to make the outfit your own and proceed with confidence. Feels pretty good, doesn't it?

Don't flash

If you think you might have seen any of the Real Housewives wear it while walking their bejeweled, indulged doggies, set it aside.

Or guys, if there's any possibility it's been worn by an NBA player or seen on TMZ, try whatever's dangling on the next hanger over.

That shirt might look great on the dance floor, but might also leave you with a lot more hours available for dancing, if you catch our drift.

Do be put together

Invest in quality clothing, head to toe. Splurge on a higher-end suit if you’re in a conservative industry that dresses formally. Consider purchasing custom-made items for a one-of-a-kind fit.

Check out pre-season fashion trends online or in store display windows at the mall. Looking at effective clothing styles will help you to recognize them in your own closet and identify gaps before you slip into the "no-style" zone. 

If your offices include beanbag chairs and ping-pong tables, aim off-center, but strive for unusual over outlandish. Show imagination, but also be aware of corporate boundaries.

Don't be pinned together

A safety pin here, a bit of tape there and no one's the wiser, right? You know better than to use black tape to hold up the hem on your brown dress pants. Wrong color, right? But here's a second question:

Dare you trust a bit of duct tape to hold your hopes and dreams together? 

No pithy witticism will cover ripped seams or buttons popped free in front of an audience. Repair holes-to-be before they happen, fasten loose buttons before they roll off down a sewer grate and fix that detached hem before your big presentation. 

Do take a test drive before you leave home

Go ahead and do a quick twirl in front of your bathroom mirror. It's not vanity unless you smile uncontrollably and spin more than once. 

Take a peek at your backside (we won't tell and, no, those slacks don't make it look bigger), because someday you will sit upon wet paint or a sticky food item. Let's make sure that never happened in the skirt you're wearing to work today. 

Next, stretch your arms out to the sides and then straight over your head. Comfy? Ladies, take a moment to examine your "no spy" zone. That would be the grade-able (A, B, C, D...) parts just below your neckline. It is better to pin than to gape.

Don't primp at work

Don't spend inordinate amounts of time at work preening in front of a mirror. You're competing for promotions and pay raises, not primping for candids in the high school yearbook. 

A quick tooth brushing after lunch is OK -- if you are discreet and wipe out the sink! Same goes for reapplication of facial powder or lip color. 

Caveat: Always do a private mirror check after eating. If you can't do a visual inspection of your teeth, try some circumspect swishing with a glass of water. If caught in the act, tell 'em your dentist made you do it.

Do dress up to move up

Think of "business casual" as a test. You're standing in front of the fashion buffet with an array of choices spread out before you. No sneeze guard is going to protect you here. 

Can you choose a balanced office-appropriate look? Or will you indulge your inner Jersey Shore persona and blow your chance at that promotion? 

When in doubt, play it safe. No harm, no foul... no embarrassing conversations with your superior or HR, followed by a long lunch break while you adjust your look to better meet company expectations.

Don't out-dress or out-trend your superiors

You want their job? Fine. They know it, you know it. But this is supposed to be subliminal stuff. Dress just a little better than your current position.

Not enough to annoy and alienate your co-workers, but well enough that dressing for a job interview won't be obvious (Hmm... no dog hair on the back of his jacket today? Dibs on his ergonomic office chair!) 

Follow office cues like a roadmap and they may lead custom-made you to a corner office and ergonomic everything! 


Do remember the spirit of the law

This isn't a matter of stretching down your skirt length to pass the "ruler test." You've graduated to bigger things. 

Your high school dress code was all about fulfilling a requirement, but an office dress code is about executing an image. You are auditioning on a daily basis. 

Being graded on what you do, how you do it... and how you look when you do it. If you have to check an item's wearability in the employee manual, you're missing the point. And possibly the promotion.

Don’t show what they don’t need to know

Keep the tattoos, curves and biceps undercover. Fit is good. Flaunting is not. Clingy materials accentuate the wrong assets. Let them notice your crazy way with a spread sheet instead. 

And...that sweet rosebud tattoo on your ankle looks great on the beach. But in the office? Only a "maybe." 

Play it safe. The same goes for the six-pack abs peeking out from under your crop top. Might be right for some "situations"... but most likely not yours.

Do spice it up a bit

Accessorize. Scarves are trendy and can be fashionably worn in most corporate climates. They are also great for hiding lunchtime mishaps. Keep one or two in your "emergency stash" for the occasional and quite unfortunate soup splash.

(Hint: skip the chili, chicken noodle is an easier spot clean).  

Watches are in again (and with your cell phone handy, you don't even need to change the battery to know the current time).

Don't over-season the dish

Reindeer antlers and Santa hats are not wearable office art. We know, the piped-in Christmas music in the elevator got you tapping your toes and humming along and you are now compelled to spread the twinkling holiday cheer. 

Skip the flashing ornament jewelry and jingle bells. Upwardly mobile employees know that homemade sugar cookies also spread the holiday love and are more office-friendly. 

Psst… especially savvy employees include diet friendly fruits and veggies on the side.

Do tread softly

Test your footwear on an uncarpeted surface before you march through the office. Remember that blind date last summer who squeaked when he walked? We’re pretty sure it was those rubber-soled sandals (but not positive, so you were right to turn down date number two). 

Shoes are unpredictable. A broken buckle here, a loose heel there and suddenly you’re a symphony of sound. If you squeak, jingle or squish, please offer ear plugs at your next team-building exercise. 

Flip flops? You’re just messing with us, right? Are you wearing a whistle? Is white zinc block slathered attractively across your nose? If not, skip the flips.

Don't jangle co-workers' nerves

Jangling jewelry is intrusive and a bit like being your own silver-plated, bugling town crier. They shouldn't hear you coming. Instead, let them simply be thrilled you've arrived.

The same goes for heavy colognes and perfume. Smelling clean is good. Nuking the hallways with your signature scent is a bit presumptive. You wouldn't vaporize the entire break room to kill the microwave popcorn aroma, would you? (That wasnot a suggestion.)

Less is more, and more is less.

Use common sense and trust your instincts

Remember: A dress code is not a prison sentence, it's a guide -- your own handy compass to steer you to where you want to go anyway! Look for the clues in office literature and on the persons around you and follow the signals faithfully.

A day off will take you way off course, so be consistent. 

Get labeled for your excellent work, not for an iffy work wear choice. Frumpy, Sexy, and Sloppy sound like the clueless cousins to the Seven Dwarfs, not talent-in-waiting for the job you deserve.