It’s widely accepted that business casual replaced suits at most offices many years ago. Remarkably the Steve Jobs turtleneck never managed to go viral, but the dot com boom and proliferation of startup companies has notably sent work attire careening into the realm of hoodies, jeans, and t-shirts. Casual Friday has evolved into Casual Seasonality and, in some workplaces, Casual Perpetuity.
Between the controversial psychological studies on the effect of color perception in work attire and the fact that personal grooming and fashion is inherently more complicated for women than it is for men, it is no wonder that millennials often struggle to discern between a safe choice and what not to wear.
Before you get too excited, though, the actual numbers may surprise you. Year over year, employer attitudes have actually become less accepting of casual attire in the workplace, according to annual studies administered by the Society for Human Resource Management. Of the employers surveyed in 2014, only 32% allowed casual dress every day, down from 34% as reported by employers in 2013. Employers also indicated less leniency on seasonal casual dress year over year. The overarching message seems clear: it does still matter how you dress for work, and it may start to matter even more as employers renew their focus on how employee behavior and appearance factor into how their brand is perceived by clients, and whether it ultimately aligns with core company values.
Although I believe that women should be able to express their individuality in smart, sophisticated and stylish ways (see here for some closet inspiration by yours truly), as a boss and as an employee I also know that what you truly want is for others to stay focused on what fantastic work you do and not become fixated on your wild nail art, visible bra straps, or toned and tanned hamstrings. Unless of course you work at a nail salon, Victoria’s Secret, or Gold’s gym. Or you’re just so high up on the corporate food chain that it just doesn’t matter anymore.
Often your work environment is full of clues to guide your judgment on what is acceptable and what is crossing the line. Pay attention to your boss’ choices, and especially the choices of colleagues whose careers and personalities you most admire. One thing you can look forward to as you become more successful is that society generally begins to find little eccentricities in personal style more endearing and acceptable. Those eccentricities become part of your personal brand; almost like a calling card.
Regardless of your current station in life, I’m going to attempt to take a holistic view of the matter by highlighting what I consider to be the top 10 worst fashion offenses you can commit in a professional environment. I would love to hear your feedback and opinions in the Comments section below!
Top 10 List of What Not To Wear
1. Open-toed Shoes
Here’s the deal with open-toed shoes… I am actually okay with them but with the following caveat:
✖ No pantyhose with open-toed and/or slingback shoes. Period. If you wear pantyhose, you wear a closed-toe shoe.
✖ Nothing taller than a 4″ heel (more on this later).
✔ If you wear an open-toed shoe, you must maintain well groomed feet. Get a pedicure or just take a little time at home to exfoliate, moisturize, and tend to your toes.
2. Flip Flops, Sneakers, or Crocs.
Generally if you can wear it to the pool or to the gym then you should think twice before wearing it to work.
3. Skyscraper Stiletto Heels
Unless you are strutting a catwalk during Fashion Week, or work in an extremely fashion and trend forward environment, extremely high heels have no place at work or at work functions. Anything taller than 4″ is starting to push the envelope. Not only does it look unprofessional, but most women can barely walk with poise in sky high heels for any length of time.
4. Beach Attire or Visible Bra Straps
First of all, always wear a bra and/or some kind of foundation garment that keeps your figure looking svelte and modest under your clothing. Second of all, tank tops stay at the beach unless they are being layered underneath other other clothing (a semi-sheer blouse and a blazer, for example).
5. Low-cut Tops and Mini Skirts
I once had an intern show up to work in a lovely lavender sweater made of fuzzy angora. The problem was that it was cut very low and left very little to the imagination. This is not Hooters or the Renaissance Faire, it’s your place of employment. Even if you are small-busted, maintain a modest neckline. Shorts and mini skirts are also likely to be more distracting than flattering. Co-workers and clients need to be able to look you in the eye and focus on what you are saying and doing rather than what you are wearing.
6. Bare Midriff
I get it. It’s trendy to show a little peek of your toned midsection right now. But not at work, ladies.
7. Pajamas and Yoga Pants
Unless you work at Lululemon, in a gym, or from home, there is no justification for sweatpants, flannel pants, or workout leggings. Would you wear pajamas on a date? Honestly this should be at the top of your “what not to wear to work” list.
8. Shiny Pantyhose or Fishnets and Patterned Tights
When you are going for a look with pantyhose, you don’t want the shiny, iridescent 1980s kind. Nude pantyhose should blend gently with your natural skin tone, or be matte if it’s a darker color. When in doubt, I am a big fan of opaque black tights with dresses and closed-toe heels. Very chic and slimming.
Millennial fashionistas love colorful, opaque tights. I’ve seen the look mixed with open-toed shoes quite a lot as well. It has a quirky yet vintage vibe that reminds me of Zooey Deschanel’s style. But I just don’t think that bright orange polka dot print stockings and open-toed sandals is a safe fashion choice for most professional fields. If you want to dabble in colored tights, your best bet is to wait for the cooler weather to arrive and stick to earthy or neutral colors that mix in well for fall and winter. Instead of shocking pink or bright purple, go for cranberry red, rust, gray and eggplant.
9. Leggings as Pants
Leggings can sometimes be work appropriate, but this is an area to exercise caution and good judgment. For example, leggings should be completely opaque, be made of substantial enough fabric as to require seams (unlike pantyhose which is usually seamless), and typically should be worn with a top and/or jacket that drapes generously below the hips so that your buttocks are not on display.
10. Personal Grooming
Like it or not, personal appearance absolutely can and does impact whether you get hired, how much you get paid, and maybe how hard you’ll need to work to advance. At work you want to channel your inner Audrey Hepburn and not Lady Gaga, meaning that less is usually more, although showing up entirely bare faced may also work against you. If you crave a creative edge, it’s generally safer to experiment with jewelry choices, hair length/style, and pops of colors and patterns than wild hair color, makeup, and nail fashions.
✔ Brush your hair, and your teeth. Even if you don’t wash your hair daily, a little dry shampoo goes a long way and there are plenty of tutorials showing you how to style your hair to keep things looking fashionable and well kept on day 2, 3, or even 4.
✔ Keep your nails looking presentable. You don’t have to spring for weekly manicures, but keep your nails trimmed, filed and clean at a minimum. No grungy chipped polish a la Lindsay Lohan, and talon nails may not be the most practical choice either, especially if you’re in sales or have a very client-facing role in a more traditional field where edginess can be a turn off to more conservative clients.
✔ A super smokey eye is probably pushing the envelope for daytime wear in general, let alone in a boardroom. And while I love the trendy colored mascara, deeply pigmented eyeshadow palettes, over the top nail polish designs, and vampy purple lipstick, those should be reserved for after work unless you report in to an edgier industry like makeup artistry, hair styling, fashion, or maybe entertainment.
✔ On the flip side, unless you totally won the genetics lottery and have perfectly dewey skin and a rosebud pout, you owe it to yourself to apply a tinted moisturizer with SPF, maybe a touch of concealer on any dark spots, a little lip stain, and maybe some brow mousse or mascara. There are great products that combine benefits to minimize the time you spend on primping each morning, which is terrific for moms or gals who just like to sleep in until the last possible moment. Tinted moisturizer with SPF takes care of moisturizing your skin, evening out your skin tone, and preventing sun damage all in one bottle. Many cheek stains can also be used as a lip stain, so you just dab it on, pat it in, and voila! Personally I would also go for some mascara and a little brow grooming, but that’s just me.
✔ Hey, Pepe Le Pew, go easy on the perfume and scented lotions. Our noses acclimate to frequently applied fragrances, so don’t make the mistake of applying more and more over time. A couple of spritzes that you walk through or a few dabs onto your pulse points is sufficient. If people can smell you before they can see you, it’s probably going to leave them with a negative first impression (especially if they have allergies).
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