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What We Wear to Work

How Does Your Office Dress Code Stack Up?

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Businesswoman walking in plaza by Eiffel Tower
Sam Edwards / OJO Images / Getty Images

Imagine being sent home from a meeting because you wore open-toed shoes. Or being discouraged from wearing bright colors, hair clips and sleeveless tops. Or only being allowed to wear jeans one day a year.

Sound confining?

Most women would agree, but find the flip side of the dress code coin just as confusing: companies with no discernable dress code. In these environments where anything goes -- from hoseless legs and sleeveless tops to what one employee called "hoochie mama outfits" -- the chaos of not knowing what to wear is as bad as the by-the-book companies that spell everything out.

Strictly Business

27-year-old Vanessa, a marketing professional, works for a company with everything spelled out, replete with outdated sketches of approved outfits (one page included pleated pants, a kerchief and crew neck sweater for women) and a laundry list of no-nos. Her company dress code was so strict she even intimated that they would probably frown on white being worn after Labor Day.

While she understands the importance of looking professional, some of the rules chafe, especially the necessity of always wearing a jacket.

But the consequences of not following the dress code to the letter have made their impact. Vanessa found out the hard way that it wasn't just her boss watching what she was wearing: one of her clients reported her to her superiors because she wasn't wearing a suit.

Her company has trouble keeping up with current fashion. The company just added capri pants (appropriate only with a jacket) to its list of approved wear. In contrast, some of the employees have visible tattoos. And the women try to push the envelope: "We have been wearing longer earrings and no one has said anything," Vanessa said.

Chris, 38, an executive assistant in banking, says her dress code is just as strict. "Skirt length must be to the knee. Navy blue suits and white shirts preferable. Heals should not be over 2 inches."

Although some of her company's rules seem ridiculous (such as requiring pantyhose in the Miami heat), Chris says having a spelled-out dress codes makes it much easier: "You don't spend all morning guessing what to wear."

Dressing Down

But not everyone likes to be told what to wear to work. Lisa, a 38-year-old Internet marketing professional, works for an office with a casual dress code, with nothing spelled out. She says not having a dress code is easier: "You can pretty much pick and choose depending on your mood, the weather, what's clean..."

For Christina, 40, administrative support at corporate headquarters for major fast food chain, the dress code leans to business casual.

"It's pretty casual. Fridays are jeans day and during the rest of the week it's slacks and a blouse/sweater," she said.

Business casual for her company means these things:

  • No hose required.
  • Open toe shoes are OK.
  • Sleeveless tops are OK.
  • Makeup is optional.
  • Hair, up/down as long as it's combed/brushed.
  • Jewelry is optional.

Office Wear Role Models

Vanessa was lucky. She had a female mentor who taught her everything from standing when she was talking to men to choosing black slacks and dark suits over things like bright lipstick. Vanessa said her boss at a previous job told her "Men have to be comfortable with you, not looking at you as a woman but as a business partner."

In Vanessa's company, female superiors lean to the classic professional look with a personal touch. For example, one VP favors pantsuits with a polka dot scarf or a tribal necklace, she said.

For Christina, she's noticed the dress code seems to depend on position. She said "Upper management does not dress down, even on Fridays."

Office Necessities

Is your office casual or polished? Most essentials can go either way. A few examples:

  • A dark (black, brown, charcoal, navy) pantsuit. Wear it strictly as a suit in professional settings, mix up the suit pieces in business casual environments.
  • A dark (black, brown, charcoal, navy) skirtsuit. Same rules as above.
  • "Soft" suit: a matching twinset (sleeveless or short sleeved sweater with a matching cardigan). Biz casual types may choose to tie the sweater over their shoulders and go sleeveless.
  • A white shirt. Worn with smart black trousers and a simple pearl necklace it is goes smart casual. Paired with a black pantsuit it means strictly business.
  • Black pants. You can never have too many of these. Creative types can branch out into longer cropped styles.
  • Low-heeled pumps. Closed-toe styles can go anywhere. While you may be limited to dark colors to match your suits, you can experiment with materials and textures for interest: suede, exotic skins, polished leather.
  • Structured handbag. A smooth, black or brown handbag with a structured frame gives you a pulled-together, tailored look. If you have some leeway in how you dress tie a pretty scarf on the handle or attach some charms for a personal touch.
  • What Do You Wear to Work?

    Chime in with your company's dress code!

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