What Not to Wear … the office edition

what not to wear to the officeIt’s interesting how dress norms are evolving as a whole, and how they vary at each company. Twenty years ago, most companies wouldn’t allow jeans, let alone nose piercings and tattoos. Now, some companies consider it ok for their employees to wear flip flops and shorts to work.

I went to a college in Chicago that basically bred hipsters and so piercings, tattoos, unique individuality and questionable hair styles are nothing new to me. I think it’s great, honestly.

And while I know the younger workforce really values individuality (as do I), I wonder if younger workers (Gen Y) are starting to push the envelope on what is acceptable to wear at work. I think there are some boundaries that we need to respect concerning business dress code. Now I know this is going to be a controversial post. I’ve been discussing this issue with some of my peers lately, and we all found common ground on a few things that we all agree upon when it comes to dress attire in professional settings.

In result, here are some “What Not To Wear” rules that we agreed upon for business dress code:

1. If you wore it out Friday night to the club, don’t wear it Monday morning at the office. 

inappropriate work attire for women

If you had a piece of broccoli stuck in your teeth, you’d want someone to tell you. I think the same goes for someone whose shirt is too low and skirt is too high. It’s not too appropriate for men to say something or you might find yourself talking with HR, so that’s why ladies — we need to look out for one another.

My colleague made a great point about this —

“If you were in a client meeting, would you want them to talk about how revealing your outfit was or about the ideas from your presentation?

I assume the latter.

2. Know the consequences of individuality.

alternative business man

Gen Y is all about wanting our ideas heard and respected among our peers and superiors. But if we want our ideas to be heard and want respect from our bosses and those in higher management, we need to look the part.

I’m not saying it’s bad to have tattoos, multicolored hair or a unique style (I’m actually for it), but just know the consequences of it. And yes — absolutely people should not judge you based on what you wear or how you look. But sadly that’s not the world we live in. Keep in mind it might be harder to get your ideas across to some folks (especially older generations) and to take you seriously. You will have to try that much harder to gain respect from people, so just be aware of the consequences if you decide to dye your hair neon pink.

It’s not about being “conformal” but rather influential.

3. Remember what your momma told you. 

dress code fundamentals

Now I’ll totally admit, there are times where I haven’t really tried and gotten lazy with my outfit choices. Everyone has those days (especially if you need to do laundry). But when it really counts, I definitely make sure I’m ‘dressed to impress.’ That’s when you have to remember the basics.

You know, the things your mom would give you a hard time about doing…

Ironing your shirts, making sure you don’t have holes or rips in at the bottom of your pants — and for the men, use collar stays if you wear a dress shirt. And for the ladies, if you think your skirt is too short, it probably is, (if you put your arms down , it shouldn’t be shorter than your finger tips).

The reason I say this is because Gen Y and younger workers are constantly called “lazy” and things of that sort, so let’s make sure that it’s not because of how we present ourselves. I’m totally game on expanding style and individuality in the workplace, but we need to make sure we’re also respectful, and in turn we’ll be respected.

4. The boss needs to set the example. 

dress by example

This message is for management (typically “older” people). Younger employees pick up on how other people dress, especially those in higher positions and their bosses. If you don’t take the time to iron your shirts, neither will your employees. If you’re in management, set the example for the rest of the team. (We look up to you!)

I appreciate how much things have changed over the years and that I don’t have to wear a suit to work every day, but not at the cost of losing professionalism completely. I hope that these few guidelines might help spark conversation about business dress code to help encourage us as leaders (and followers) on our professional appearance.

What do you think of how the norms for work attire have changed? Do you disagree or agree with any of these?

Photo cred: Emma BaxterRoving I

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Devan Perine

Devan Perine works with small business owners on their marketing and multimedia efforts. She's passionate about helping businesses build their presence online, and giving Gen Y a voice in the workplace. When she's not working, she loves to make a mess in the kitchen, and play with her band around Chicago. She loves to chat! Give her a shout on Google+, Twitter or LinkedIn.


  1. Good post! I think this truly depends on what type of office environment you are working in. I think about this constantly. If it’s extremely corporate then of course, I would say the traditional suit and tie/pencil skirt (knee length!) is still and always appropriate. There shouldn’t really be much exception to that. I honestly feel like shoes usually are the killer in that situation. My mom always told me, if you can wear those heels to the club later that night, you should NOT be wearing them to the office. Who can walk in 6inch spice girl platforms for 8 hours anyhow?!

    On the other hand, some other offices may be more casual, but I feel like it’s only if the company fits that “personality” if you will. I myself graduated from a hipster art school as well with a degree in marketing, focusing in sports. With that being said, I now work for a major league sports team in chicago and in office, we are not so suit and tie corporate. During the week, we dress casual, jeans are acceptable as long as they are fitted, dark wash and have no rips/holes, and on top we wear our professional sports team’s apparel. Game days call for different attire –khaki pants, said sports team dry-fit professional polo (everyone in the office wears the same one on game days) and then clean, comfy shoes.

    I feel like in that athletic environment, it seems to be okay, because there is still a sense of uniform. If you’re going out to a business lunch to meet with potential corporate sponsors etc then of course dressing more for the occasion is necessary. But for me, that’s common sense. Something a lot of young professionals still lack! Haha, I’m interested to see how others view this topic. In my mind, when you finally start a fulltime job, career choice or whatever, wardrobes need to change. We’re not in college. Wearing sweatpants to class doesn’t work anymore.

    • Haha! Loved your comment, Alicia. And Amen to the shoes note!

      I really liked what you said about having a “sense of uniform” is really key. And I resonate with your comments on knowing what’s appropriate to wear in different settings — if you’re with clients, make sure you’re dressed for it. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  2. I enjoyed the blog, Devan. My advice to the younger generation would be to err on the side of professionalism. Leave the individuality to the off hours and weekends. Clients, business, corporations are going to have more trust and confidence in professionalism. Obviously, it depends on the career (i.e. if we’re talking corporate vs. landscaping) but sometimes it seems the younger gen. puts need for individuality above common sense. My two cents/sense anyway… have a great weekend.

  3. Best wardrobe advice I ever heard was ‘dress for the job you want, not the one you have’

    • So much truth!

      Though when talking with colleagues and that quote was brought up, one of them was being a smart-you-know-what and said, “…well what if I want to be a rockstar?” 😛

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Dave Ritter says:

    This is all about being situationally appropriate. As pointed out, the office and the night club are very different situations. Various situations within the same office may call for different attire. There is not even one right answer for every client situation as clients can have very different cultures. And, going to a client’s office is different than taking them out on Lake Michigan fishing.

    I know some businesses publish written dress codes, but I think this misses the point. My approach is to start by hiring smart people, give them big challenges to tackle, coach them, and then trust them to make business decisions every day. So, if I have to tell them what to wear in every different situation, then I question their broader decision making ability and whether I’ve hired the right person.

    Individual expression is great – in the right situation. I would encourage GenY, or anyone else for that matter, to consider that their decisions about what to wear in various situations communicate as much about their judgement as about who they are as individuals.

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