I have a confession to make: I was an office slob. When I first started my job at a professional office in Washington, DC, I was fresh out of my college geology program and had never owned a blazer in my life.
Like most young women do, I fell into the trap of buying cheap clothes in the professional sections of fast-fashion stores that almost always ended up being inappropriate in one way or another.
Hemlines were too short. Fabrics pilled and stretched and deformed. I even tried to pass off leggings as pants on more than one occasion.
I was a mess, and I didn’t feel good about it.
Now, though, I open up my closet every morning to see clothes that make me look like a professional, and one with a sense of style, if I do say so myself. It took me three years to figure it out, but I feel credentialed enough at this point to share with you the most important dos and don’ts of getting dressed for the office.
DON’T – Disregard the Dress Code
Listen. At the end of the day, no matter how you feel about it, you need to follow the dress code. There are rules in your office for a reason, however much you may disagree with them, and if you choose to continue to work there you should be prepared to follow those rules.
If there’s a specific dress code listed in your personnel manual and it says “no jeans”, don’t wear dark jeans to the office and think it’s fine because they’re “dressier” than your other jeans. Sorry, but that’s not going to be HR sanctioned (even if they don’t say anything – they know!). When you try to get away with not following the dress code, it makes you look unprofessional.
If there’s a specific reason why you can’t follow the dress code (for example, if you need to wear comfortable shoes because of a medical issue but your dress code specifies no sneakers), talk directly to your supervisor or your HR person and get permission before you stroll into the office in a less-than-professional getup.
DO – Make the Dress Code Your Own
Just because you have a dress code to follow doesn’t mean that you have to dress like everyone else.
Play with color if you like color! Go for an interesting block heel instead of a boring black flat if that’s what calls to you.
I pretty much always wear high-waisted pants, which are not that popular in my office but are still totally dress code compliant. So, you know, always respect the dress code, but make it fashion.
DON’T – Buy A Lot of Stuff Cheap
One of my very first mistakes when I started putting together an office wardrobe was buying things as cheaply as I could.
Of course, part of this was a function of being poor – I’d just left school and was living off of my dwindling graduation money until I got paid for the first time, and when I did get paid, the majority of that money was going to student loan payments, rent for my stupidly expensive crappy apartment, and food. My clothing budget was not a priority.
As a result, my wardrobe was full of things I’d yanked off the clearance rack that didn’t fit me quite right, or that were itchy or a horrible color or strangely silhouetted or covered in sequins for some inexplicable reason.
It was obvious to the average passerby that I had no style and that I didn’t know how to dress myself, and it made me feel embarrassed and ashamed all the time.
I’d have been better served if I took that little money that I had and spent it at thrift shops, where inexpensive gems hide among piles of discarded weird stuff. The day I stepped into my first consignment shop was the day my wardrobe started to turn around, which brings me to my next point…
DO – Invest In Quality Staples
I can’t stress this enough: quality clothing makes a difference. It makes ALL the difference!
Switch from polyester to silk or rayon to cashmere and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Your clothes will last longer, drape better, and look much more professional if you opt for high quality items.
If you aren’t sure how to identify a quality garment over a poorly made one (I wasn’t!), check out this informative video by French designer Justine Leconte.
Investing in quality items can feel like an impossible problem when you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, and I get that. Believe me, I do. I was there once and I mostly still am.
My advice for tight budgets is to pick one or two versatile items that will become staple pieces in your wardrobe (like a blazer or a black shift dress) and try to find the best one you can for your budget.
And never discount second hand! Thrift stores, consignment shops, and resell sites like Poshmark and Ebay are full of great quality office-appropriate pieces at a fraction of the price you’d pay brand new.
DON’T – Settle for Feeling Bad
Sometimes when we have a closet full of clothes, we feel obligated to wear those clothes instead of buying new ones. Under most circumstances, I wholeheartedly recommend wearing what you have. It’s a sustainable and commendable choice to keep your clothing for as long as possible and to try to do more with your existing closet.
But there is one circumstance under which I do not endorse wearing the clothes you have, and that’s this: if they actively make you unhappy.
Nowhere is it more apparent that you hate your clothing than at work.
Your professional environment is a place where you want to project confidence, but if you’re feeling unhappy or self-conscious in the clothes that you’re wearing, you’re so distracted by your clothing that you can’t focus on being a major boss.
Instead you’re fussing, tugging, and constantly asking your work bffs if your outfit looks okay.
I did this for years. I thought I didn’t deserve to have nice things. That attitude threaded its way through my confidence and didn’t shake loose until I discovered minimalism and capsule wardrobes and started the long journey of creating a wardrobe that I loved.
So let me save you some time. Don’t let misplaced guilt be the thing that keeps you from feeling like your best self at the office. If your pencil skirt makes you feel like an overstuffed sausage, get rid of it and buy that cute A-line pleated one you’ve been stalking for months.
Loved clothes last, so don’t be afraid to choose the things that you love.
DO – Dress for the Job You Want
People often associate a love of clothing with frivolity, but I think that’s BS. Clothing is not frivolous; it’s a tool that we each have to be able to manipulate how others perceive us. Human beings have been adorning ourselves with clothing throughout history all the way to the very beginning – to love clothing and to express ourselves with it is basically embedded in our DNA.
I feel like I might have lost you there, but I do have a point. When thinking about what you want to wear to work, don’t write it off as a meaningless task. What you choose to wear expresses something about you to the people you interact with, and in your workplace, you can use that as an opportunity.
I choose to dress a certain way because I want people to take me seriously (no small feat given that I am a young woman of petite stature), and I also want them to see me as a creative and interesting person.
When I put thought into dressing for work and decide how I want the rest of the world to perceive me, I find that I’m much more prepared to take on the day, a big project, a scary meeting – whatever the workday may throw at me.
What are your personal dos and don’ts for office dressing?