In the Biz: Make Casual Work for You

Tricks and tips for elevating your look in an increasingly casual workplace
Illustration by Tony Healey

In the summer of 2017, United States congresswomen protested the House chamber and speaker’s lobby dress code for women, which forbids sleeveless tops or dresses worn without a sweater or jacket. (It’s worth mentioning that the rules state that men must wear suit jackets and ties; no sneakers or open-toed shoes are permitted for either sex.) Speaker Paul Ryan soon announced that officials would review the policy and reconsider it.

It seems after all the hoopla, the rules weren’t updated — or I’ve been unsuccessful in determining a change — but the fact that the dress code for those at the highest levels of government was challenged at all once again brings to the forefront the gradual transformation of American work attire since “business casual” hit the scene in the ’80s.

I took a deep dive into the trajectory in this column in 2018, but work attire is always a hot topic due to our rapidly changing culture (both in and outside of the office), vague or absent employer guidelines and the fact that for the first time in history, there are five generations in the workplace and each has its own ideas when it comes to appropriate dress (among other issues that we can unpack in future columns this year).

There trend toward more and more casual, workplace clothing still confuses more than half of employees.

According to a 2017 PayScale survey, “49 percent of … respondents said their company has an explicit dress code policy. About 19 percent said that while there’s no explicit dress code at their place of work, there is strong pressure to look or dress a certain way. Thirty-two percent of respondents said they can look however they want at work, within reason [and] more than 42 percent of respondents reported their company encouraged a business casual appearance.”

Adding to the bewilderment is the fact that even if an office culture is casual, employees are still going to be judged by managers and peers for their appearance.

In the 1999 release “Emily Post’s the Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success,” Peggy Post and Peter Post write, “How you dress and accessorize speaks volumes about you. In the business world, your attire sends instant messages to others about your status, profession and professionalism, self-image and self-confidence.” This was true prior to the 1990s and still holds true. If you look around your office and everyone is wearing T-shirts, jeans and sneakers — or that’s what they are wearing where you aspire to work —there are still messages being sent by each individual. The question then becomes, how can you send the message that you are capable, trustworthy and productive while wearing the same attire you might wear to hang out at a brewery with your friends? The answer: attention to detail.

Make sure every item you are wearing, no matter how casual, is in good condition. Avoid anything ripped, misshapen, stained, tattered or ill-fitting. As soon as a garment or accessory starts to look worse for wear, retire it to your home or weekend wardrobe, donate it or toss it, but whatever you do, pull it from the work rotation. While patterns and logos are generally safe, omit designs that could be considered risqué and items with slogans (especially those that are political, religious or sexual in nature).

Often a way to stand out in the right way — without seeming as though you don’t fit in — is to elevate casual attire with a jacket, sweater or accessories, such as statement jewelry and watches, or fine fabrics and materials. For example, if sneakers are de rigueur, opt for a stylish leather (or vegan leather) version in lieu of canvas. Investing in a well-made, attractive messenger bag or tote is also a solid way to bring sophistication to a dressed-down look. If you are worried about budget, rest assured that a pulled-together casual wardrobe can be sourced from thrift stores if you are willing to put a little extra time into the endeavor.

If there is one thing we can always count on, it’s change, but the ongoing shift to a casual workplace doesn’t mean you have to give up personal style or professional perception. This year, resolve to level up your work wardrobe — especially if it’s casual — and get another step closer to that raise or promotion you’ve been working toward.

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Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to Melanie@MyNewOrleans.com.