Work Wardrobe Woes

Whether a recent grad or a seasoned pro, office attire can be a source of ire

There was a time when dressing for the office was a no-brainer. From the early 20th-century to the late 1970s, men donned a suit and tie and women switched between dresses, skirts with coordinating blouses and, toward the later end of that spectrum as fashion evolved, women’s suiting. Hats and overcoats for men and women, plus gloves and hosiery for women, were included in that lineup early on, but were the first causalities of the impending casual era.

In the 1980s, a shift occurred. The concept of business casual — khakis, a button-down shirt and dress or dressy-casual shoes — was born in Silicon Valley and made its way through the rest of the country. Had business casual stayed the same and was the only other choice of business attire, it would still be fairly easy to navigate office dress. Alas, even business casual has changed and can mean anything from its original look (a dressed-down suit of sorts) to a T-shirt and jeans, or, for remote workers, loungewear.

To complicate matters further, even when a mention of the company dress code is included in an employee handbook, it’s often vague and will simply say, “business,” “professional” or “appropriate” attire or the ever-elusive business casual.

So then, what is a professional to do when it comes to work attire? If your employer doesn’t include it in the handbook, is it anything goes or business attire? Should you ask during the interview or wait and see what everyone else is wearing when you first report to work?

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer, because every company is different, but there are several things you can do to easily navigate any dress code — even if there isn’t one.

Graduates and Other Interviewees: When interviewing for a position, whether you are a recent grad, looking to change companies or vying for a promotion within your existing company, its important to “dress for success.” Interviewees should definitely ask the hiring manager about the company dress code prior to the interview and if you are told it’s casual, err on the side of dressier. Even in a casual work environment, interviewers and managers are likely looking to hire or promote those who stand out (in a good way) above the other candidates. If everyone up to and including the CEO wears jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers to the office, mirror his or her casual vibe, but dress it up a bit with a blazer and dress shoes.

If, however, the hiring manager tells you the dress code is business attire, do not deviate from this during the interview stage. Adhere to strict formal business clothing (suits, dresses and skirts). Once you’re hired, continue to dress accordingly and only begin dressing down if it’s evident that the company culture (and your boss) supports it. Proceed with caution and again, adopt a dressed-up version of the attire worn by the CEO or upper-echelon managers.

Everyone Else: While business casual can certainly be a confusing prospect, when you think about it — and assuming formal, semi-formal, festive and exercise apparel are off the menu — there are really only four types of workplace attire: business, business casual, dressy casual and casual. Always consult your company’s handbook, or if that’s not an option, learn which mode of dress is acceptable to your boss and/or the person who is at the top of the organizational chart for your company.

For those who couldn’t care less about fashion — business or otherwise — or have yet to find their personal style, “The Capsule Wardrobe: 1,000 Outfits from 30 Pieces,” by Wendy Mak is an excellent resource and will help you mechanize your closet.     
While shorts, shorter skirts, plunging necklines and maybe even flip-flops are acceptable in some workplaces, it’s better to favor more coverage rather than less. Finally, remember that the founder or president of your company has earned the right to dress as he or she pleases, but expectations are different for everyone else.

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