Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Jul 6, 2005

Actually a Cowboy

Session 3: Deciphering the Dress Code
Instructor, Caroline Bender

Now that it is mid-summer, it’s likely you have received the dress code memo – the one that vaguely scolds you for violating a policy you were unaware of until receiving the memo, and without telling you how you did so.

Used to be that when you were reprimanded, you knew it. Used to be that when they didn’t like what you were wearing, they sent you home.

Do as I imply
Today, the Company is confusingly schizophrenic about dress. It wants to have that flexible-and-fun reputation, but also wants you to be the kind of employee who doesn’t really take advantage of it. So they send this:

if you would wear it to a beach party, a backyard barbeque, or a nightclub, you probably shouldn't wear it to work...

(probably.) Notice how this puts you on your own recognizance. Because the Company is afraid that if it requires you to wear pants in the office, you might go work for someone who doesn’t. On the other hand, these are the kinds of “intangibles” they consider when looking for who should move up and who should move on.

But when your only guidelines are

While dress is, for the most part, a matter of individual taste, management reserves the right to determine what is acceptable or appropriate depending on the job functions performed...

what is a girl to do?

Who will tell you 'bout yourself?
I “came up” a secretary (as we would say it in the South) just one generation removed from hats and gloves; in fact, Easter pictures testify it wasn’t quite “removed.” We had a lot of rules of dress, and not just of the White v. Labor Day variety. Never sleeveless, never bare-legged, never open toes. And never, I learned the hard way, a pair of jeans. Being dressed down for dressing down is indeed humiliating, but if it happens to you young enough, you know that it really is for your own good. Somebody needs to tell you what you clearly don't know.

The best thing I took away from that encounter was this line:
"Blue jeans are not appropriate workwear… unless you actually are a cowboy."

I wasn’t yet 20 years old, and didn’t have much of a business wardrobe. I had tried to economize, and didn’t realize that it was better to repeat than to resort to…. Dungarees.

Casual Anyday
I can’t recall how Casual Friday happened. It just sort of….happened. Millionaire Gen-X geniuses founded on-line companies and became the Bosses while the tail end of the Baby Boom was changing out of their running shoes in the lobby. The intention was to relax some of the Big Eighties new business conservativism. What they meant, I believe, was “jacket and tie optional,” “khakis OK,” and an acceptance of the goatee.

In 1994, Discount Store News cautioned that the hosiery business was down 20%, due entirely to the popularity of Casual Friday. In that same week, Footwear News and the Daily News Record suggested casual men’s shoes and linen suites, respectively, as a way for apparel designers to stay in the game. Eleven years later, Friday is no more casual than any other day, and there isn’t a suit or a shoe in the place.

Correcting the market
Together we can swing this pendulum back to center, and you’ll want to get on-board with this one. Because even if -- right now -- you enjoy the free for all, imagine these scenarios:

    • Missing a growth opportunity because you’re not presentable
    • Having to confront your own staff for limboing under the already-low bar you yourself have set
    • Introducing your braless sneaker-wearing boss to your top prospect

Universal dress code
The Company memo incorrectly assumes the Workforce knows the difference anymore between a beach party, a nightclub, and a board meeting. Know this: office-to-evening does not mean slipping your “Reform School Chick” satin-trimmed scoop neck T over your bathing suit.

What the Company memo wants to say, but is afraid to:

Save your jeans for Friday
Better to repeat your one great outfit for a single day than to repeat your jeans for 5. They’ll feel more like a treat as well.

Always dress for meetings
Even on a Friday, and especially if you are running them.
Corporate-wear (golf shirts, oxfords, and the like) is an acceptable compromise.

Accept a few “nevers.”
Challenge yourself to draw a line between work clothes and play clothes. Even on a Friday, learn to say Never to

the beach wear:
flip flops
halter tops
Shorts…unless you actually are in Bermuda

the backyard barbecue:
ball caps
t-shirts (with or without witty sayings)
sneakers… unless you actually are a gym coach

the nightclub:
belly shirts
mini skirts
sequins… unless you actually are a magician's assistant

Be a trendsetter
You know what you can afford, what suits your body, your personal style and your position. Don’t let lax business rules set the tone for your business persona. You wouldn’t hand in sloppy work. You wouldn’t show up late to your own presentation. You wouldn’t eat an apple throughout a conference call. Dress like you know better. It’s all part of the same package.

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