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What to Wear to Work

Polished, Professional Looks

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Woman with tablet computer leaning against window
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Getting dressed for the office doesn't mean leaving your personal style behind. Find out which looks give you a polished, professional look and which fashions can be a career killer.

Polished, Not Fashion Victim

Your goal to getting dressed for work is to project a professional, competent image, regardless of your employment level or career path.

The styles, colors, lengths and fit of your fashion choices will speak volumes about your ability to do your job. If you are concerned about your career, you'll be more concerned with looking professional than looking cute or trendy.

In general, the more distracting a piece of clothing or jewelry is, the less appropriate it is for office wear.

More guidelines to looking polished:

  • Color plays a big part in professional image. Traditional career colors include red (aggressive), navy (trustworthy), gray (conservative) and black (chic). Most of these colors work well in pantsuits, skirts and shoes and mix back with softer feminine colors that are appropriate like ice blue, lilac, soft pink and ivory. Loud colors like hot pink and wild prints are much riskier in the office, but some creative types can still pull them off.
  • Jewelry that jangles (chandelier earrings, stacks of bangles) is distracting. Opt for stud earrings or single bracelets.
  • Slouchy handbags look sloppy. Choose structured styles that project an organized image.
  • Most of what constitutes a polished image is in the details: manicured nails, run-free hose, scuff-free shoes, neat hair.
  • Fit is everything when you are talking about tailored work clothes. Pants should be fitted, but free of visible panty lines. Skirts, especially straight styles like pencil skirts, should be loose enough to sit down in comfortably. Jackets should be able to be buttoned. And blouses shouldn't gap between buttonholes.
  • Designer labels are great, but heavily logoed clothing and accessories look cluttered and frivolous in the work place. A small designer bag is fine; a logo trench coat looks ridiculous. Choose well-made items that are free from obvious designer labels for the most professional look.

Dress Like Your (Female) Boss

Don't know where to start working on your career image? You're not alone because most companies don't have specific guidelines about what to wear to work.

One of the best clues to company dress codes is what your boss wears. Just think about the styles that the highest-level woman in your organization wears and use them in your wardrobe. Does she wear mostly skirt suits? Or does she rely on pantsuits? Does she wear hose or bare legs? Open-toed shoes or pumps?

If you don't have a reliable female executive to emulate, then trade on what the men are wearing. If they don suits and ties every day, your best bet is to use pantsuits and skirtsuits: the most formal of business looks.

Some organizations encourage employees to dress as well or better than their customers, especially for sales people and others that meet clients outside the office. For information technology professionals, this may mean corporate casual (more on this below), for pharmeceutical sales it may mean a pantsuit, for a lawyer it may mean a matched skirt suit. One way to always be prepared is to keep an extra "meet the client" outfit at the office for surprise meetings.

Career Killers

Unlike a fashion faux pas, a career killer outfit can do your professional image permanent damage.

Looks to avoid in the workplace:

  • Too sexy: see-through lace, miniskirts, spaghetti straps, sheer sundresses, strappy stiletto sandals.
  • Too casual: jeans, shorts, T-shirts, hats, sneakers.
  • Too sloppy: wrinkled clothing, too many layers, baggy-fit clothing.

Business Dress Codes

  • Formal Business Attire- For women this constitutes business suits (a matched skirt and jackets) and, in most workplaces, pantsuits (matched pants and blazer). Closed-toe shoes (no sandals), blouses, hose and conservative hair, jewelry and makeup are expected.
  • Corporate Casual Looks-Working women have interpreted this to mean everything from shorts to sundresses, but in its most literal sense it means "smart business." Dressy pants and a blouse, sleek jersey knits and skirts and tops are all examples of corporate casual. Denim, T-shirts and flip-flops -- all '90s phenoms -- are only acceptable in the most casual of work environments.
  • Casual Friday - Depending on the business, this can mean anything from corporate casual instead of formal looks or "Wear your company logo polo and jeans." If in doubt, ask a superior.
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