Thursday, January 5, 2012

Business Professional Dress Code: What Women Should Wear in the Office

Business Professional Dress Code: What Women Should Wear in the Office
(as found on

Your work wardrobe depends largely on what you do for a living, and if you aren't a natural-born fashion hound, it can be difficult to put together work ensembles that are practical, comfortable and affordable. Besides the obligatory chinos and polo shirt-uniforms of many retail establishments, there are three types of working wardrobes: professional, business casual and casual. In this column, we're going to cover the basics of dressing for the professional office.

What is a Business Professional Dress Code?
Probably the easiest wardrobe to assemble is the professional one that most large corporate firms expect from women. Most corporations and firms whose employees affect professional dress have strict if unwritten dress codes: observing what other people wear is the best way to decide on your own wardrobe basics.

Even now, many firms expect women to dress in skirts rather than pants to work, which raises complications in terms of choosing comfortable shoes that look good. If you are applying for a position with a company where professional dress is the norm, do as much reconnaissance work as you can to determine what designers are favored, whether suit blouses are strictly white and tailored or more feminine and colorful, and what makeup styles are in fashion. Wear the best shoes you can afford to your interview, spend more money on hose that won't snag and run before you even get to the interview, and wear a skirt, even if women also wear pants in that culture..

How to Dress for a Job Interview
When you're interviewing, it's always better to dress a little more on the formal and conservative side. This is relative, of course. If you're going for a job at a funky piercing studio, you shouldn't show up in Donna Karan, but leave the ripped jeans at home until you've gotten the job. For professional work environments, it means opting for tailored over trendy and severe over sexy. Forget the Allie McBeal micro-minis and tights tops: TV fashion does not apply in the real-world professional workplace, and people won't take you seriously if the first thing they recall about you is your astonishing cleavage. If you want to base your wardrobe on a relevant TV show, think West Wing or The Practice.

The Classic Women's Business Suit We Should All Have
Most suit skirts have the same basic shape: either pencil-straight or a slight flare as they fall from the waistband. A kick-pleat can be a nice addition, or a small slit in front or on the side may add interest. Good suits have skirts that are lined, and are usually made in wool gabardine. Skirts should fall a couple of inches below the knee or an inch above the knee (depending on your personal comfort zone). If you have cute knees (and most people do), don't cover them up--the expanse of leg between your shoes and your skirt will be an attractive wardrobe feature.

Hose should be tasteful and unnoticeable. Stay with nude colors, or maybe sheer black hose in winter. You can wear tights to keep your legs warm if you're going to wear boots in the winter, but keep the colors muted.

Classic Office Appropriate Shoe Styles
Shoes are crucial to the excellent wardrobe. First of all, they should fit as perfectly as possible, because they contribute directly to your health and well-being. Bad shoes contribute to bad posture, back, neck and leg pain, and create foot issues like bunions and corns. Especially if you walk from trains, spend a lot of time traveling, or work on your feet, your shoes must provide you with support.

Professional wardrobes require pumps. A moderate heel (around one inch high, up to two inches if you need the extra height), is classy and sensible without being frumpy. Avoid stilettos, wedge heels, trendy colors, odd designs or patterns and open toes. Shoes should be elegant, tasteful, and not the first thing people notice about you. (Some people look at your shoes first; they consider good shoes an indicator of taste and breeding. If you're wearing the right shoes, they'll pass muster, and the rest of you will then be considered.) Shoes should be made of a good quality leather or something so like leather that you can't tell the difference. Ideally, your shoes will also point up the finer aspects of your legs without trying too hard. The toes of your shoes can be slightly rounded for comfort, or if you have narrow feet, slightly triangular toes are all right too. If your feet are wide, you may need to go for a slightly boxy toe, but before getting square-toed shoes, consider checking out shoe designers who provide deeper rather than wider toes-boxes.

Some companies don't consider boots professional dress, no matter how well-made they are, but in other firms, wearing boots in fall and winter is acceptable. The perfect boot for the workplace is sleek and sophisticated, with no trendy additions. It should be brown or black, have a medium heel, a leather or suede finish, and should hit you one to two inches below the knee. (Try boots on with your work skirt before committing to a purchase to make sure the combination works.) A hidden zipper is your best bet: lace-ups look a little too Victoria's Secret to be professional.

Buying Professional Attire on a Budget
The money that you spend on acquiring the perfect shoes can be made up for in your budget when you shop for blouses. If your blouse is usually going to be worn under a jacket, you can skimp on the quality and get away with it as long as the cut and fabric are good. Linen blouses are a nice idea, but all-linen wrinkles right away: go for a blend. Cotton-poly or the more recent stretchy blends of cotton and Lycra will keep their shape better than all-cotton or cotton-linen blends. Some people can wear silk: others find it doesn't breathe well enough to be comfortable. If you do go with silk, you may find some wonderful blouses in the new, washable silks. Avoid anything ruffly, frilly or lacy, and forget about colorful accents on your blouses in the way of buttons or bows. Think Katherine Hepburn: tailored, classy, very understated.

What to Look for When Choosing a Career Pant or Skirt Suit
When you're putting together a professional Career wardrobe, plan for the long-term. Good suits with a jacket, pants and a skirt are expensive, but they may last you for ten years, and if you choose a classic look, outdated clothes won't be an issue. Choose conservative, neutral colors, black, gray, navy, white or beige for suits and shoes, and make sure each piece you add can be mixed and matched with pieces you already have. One simple way to achieve a pulled-together look based on separates is to find a designer you like and stick with him or her when purchasing your suits. (Ann Taylor has marvelous working wardrobes.) Three skirts, two jackets, five blouses and two pairs of pumps (one black, one brown) should see you through the first six months or so, at least until your new paycheck has caught up with your standard of living. At that point, you can start adding separates piece by piece, with the eventual goal of being able to take last week's clothes to the dry cleaners and still have plenty to wear until the weekend.

Keep Jewelry & Accessories Simple at Work
Your jewelry and makeup will fit in with the professional look by being understated as well. Keep makeup muted and elegant: use neutral tones and minimal eye makeup. Lipstick can be a bit brighter; after all, that's what it's for, but ignore any trendy statements in the way of metallics, glitters, glosses or hot colors.

Jewelry should be simple, without fuss or glitter. Jewelry should be cleaned on a regular basis to make sure it looks nice and not shabby. Follow the rule of three, wearing a bracelet and earrings, or necklace and bracelet, but not all three at the same time. (Wearing earrings and necklace becomes unbalanced because all your jewelry is clustered around your face. You may be able to get away with it if earrings and the necklace are utterly simple.) For earrings, wear hoops (not too big), or studs, but avoid dangling pieces that will destroy the clean line of a professional suit. If any one piece of jewelry has gems, keep other pieces solid.

If you wear a watch, don't wear a bracelet, not even on the other wrist. Your watch should be elegant, and if you want to make it into a piece of jewelry, splurge on something with diamonds and a sleek style that matches your suits.

Never, ever wear an anklet or armband to work.

The single strand of pearls favored by yesteryear's clothing designers and movie stars is timeless: if you're starting your professional jewelry wardrobe, a medium-length pearl necklace and a really great watch (maybe with an oyster or mother-of-pearl dial) are excellent starter pieces.

A Little on Handbags, Purses and Brief Cases
Your handbag says a lot about you, and it can be hard to find the right handbag for work. Even if you always carry a briefcase, there will be times when you will to go to a luncheon, and your briefcase will need to stay behind. Like shoes, great handbags can cost a fortune, and the really elegant ones will also be innocuous until closely inspected. If you don't fancy spending a couple of hundred bucks on a purse that you're going to use about once a month, visit consignment shops to look for a classic design with minimal wear. Get crocodile, lizard or leather, or an excellent imitation in an animal-free textile. Don't bring a fabric bag to a professional do: it never looks right. You probably already know whether you prefer a clutch to a strappy purse: clutches have a cleaner look, but some people are more comfortable with a strap. When it comes to purses, smaller is better, although it should be big enough to hold your necessities.

Now you have the basics of your professional wardrobe. Keep in mind that, like a career, your wardrobe can be built over time starting with a few basics and adding gradually over a period of years. Keep it simple and straightforward for a look of timeless, understated elegance.

(Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Presenting a Professional Image

Presenting a Professional Image

In today’s world of “accept me as I am” and “casual Fridays”, it seems that there is some confusion about how best to present a professional image for interviews and the regular work week. More and more we see candidates showing up for interviews in attire that is, shall we say, less than one could hope for. It is okay to be ‘you’, but there is a time and a place for showing your individuality in non-professional ways. When going for an interview, it is best to dress professionally and let your credentials and experience show the things that matter to a prospective employer, instead of making them wonder about your professionalism due to your clothing choices.

Tattoos and Piercings:
While this is not technically a “clothing choice”, let’s start with tattoos and piercings, since we have been seeing a lot of them lately. They may have special meaning to you, but let’s face it – to someone who does not know you yet, or your motivation for having either of these decorations, they can give off the wrong signals. So what do you do about them? Cover up tattoos and remove piercings. It’s that simple. Unless you are applying at a tattoo or piercing shop, this body art will not gain you any points, and may seriously damage your chances for attaining the position that you desire. Especially if you are seeking a professional position. It was unfortunate, but we know of a highly qualified medical professional who recently lost the opportunity of a lifetime due to leaving facial piercings in for an important interview. Another example is a nurse who lost the chance at a position because of visible tattoos. It may be your way to show your individuality, but if it does not mesh with the vision that the employer wants to present to the public, then your chances of obtaining a job with them while showing tattoos and piercings is slim to none. Piercings are easy – just remove them. You can put them in your purse and re-insert them once you are back to your car if you’d like. Tattoos can be a little more difficult to hide, depending on their location. A good suggestion is to not get a tattoo where it can’t easily be hidden, but if it’s too late for that there are still things that you can do to make them disappear. For tattoos on the arms, wear sleeves that are long enough to cover the entire tattoo and won’t ride up and expose a portion of it when you move. This may get hot in the summer, but it was your choice to get the tattoo where you got it! Tattoos on the legs are easier – wear long dress slacks. If your tattoo is on the top of your foot or your ankle, try wearing opaque hosiery to hide the ink or make it at least a lot less visible. Wear a higher neckline to disguise tattoos on the neck or upper chest. For tattoos on the wrist, wear a bracelet that covers the tattooed area.

Slacks or Skirts:
For an interview, either wear a skirt that stops approximately an inch below the knees, or wear a nice pair of dress slacks. Do not wear jeans, knit pants, sweatpants, corduroys, Capri’s, or something that is most appropriate for a picnic or day at the park. If you are not sure exactly what constitutes “dress slacks”, type in the phrase on Google Image Search and it will show you literally hundreds of examples. Not all of them are exactly dress slacks, but if you look at what is feature most often, you will get the idea. As for the skirts – avoid the long type that have multi-layered tiers (“peasant skirts”) or anything that is too short or too tight. Make sure that your skirt or slacks are clean, pressed, and free of stains, lint or pet hairs. You do not have a pay a fortune for a decent skirt or slacks (or any article of clothing, for that matter)…if you use good judgment and pay attention, you can find perfectly appropriate items at K-mart, Wal-Mart, and even Goodwill. Choose solid, muted colors – charcoal, navy and black are the most versatile and professional.

Blouses & Jackets:
Generally for an interview the best way to go is a blouse and jacket combination. The jacket should be in a solid muted color that matches your slacks or skirt, or at least coordinates well with it. Blouses should not be low-cut! Be sure that the attributes you are showing off are the right ones – your experience and abilities – not the physical ones. It is okay to choose a lightly printed blouse, but avoid anything that with wild patterns or very vivid colors. Remember – the goal is to be professional, and you can wear the wilder choices after hours. In some offices, once you have been hired and everyone has become accustomed to you and have judged you based on your merits, it’s okay to loosen a little on the color/pattern choices, but keep it simple and basic to start out.

Shoes should be of a color that goes with your jacket and slacks/skirt, and should be dress shoes. Please, do not wear a nice skirt or pair of slacks and then ruin the effect with a pair of tennis shoes or canvas shoes. Dress shoes with a slight heel look good, but do not choose the same type of shoes you would wear for a night out on the town – those 4” spikes may make you feel attractive, but they aren’t professional. If you cannot wear heels at all, you may choose a pair of nice flats. Avoid sling-backs and open-toes for an interview. Depending on the office, those shoes may be fine after you have started, but they’re not the correct choice for an interview. Also, make sure that whatever shoes you choose are clean and in good repair with no visible scuffs, tears or dirt. If they are dirty, wash them off with a damp cloth. If they have scuffs or tiny tears you can disguise these using a marker in a matching shade (make sure it is a very close match!). If they have significant scuffs or tears, don’t wear them.

Jewelry should be kept simple and appropriate. If you usually wear a playboy bunny necklace, remove it at all cost!!! Avoid bangles and clunky jewelry that will distract your interviewer or make a lot of unnecessary noise. Also, stick to a few key pieces of jewelry, such as a watch, wedding/engagement ring, one bracelet, a simple necklace and moderate earrings. (Avoid the big dangly type of earrings that detract from the rest of your outfit.) Again, you want the focus of your interview to be on your abilities, not on what you are wearing. This is another one of those situations where once you have gotten the job, depending on the office, you can branch out and wear different types of jewelry – but continue to leave that playboy bunny necklace at home!!!

Makeup and Hair:
This tends to be more geared towards ladies, but there are a few brief tips for men as well. Guys, have your hair trimmed a couple of days before an important interview and make sure that any facial hair is neatly trimmed as well. Be sure to use a comb or brush before you leave home, and bring one with you for touch-ups if needed. Everyone should wash and dry their hair before leaving home. Ladies, choose flattering styles for your hair – do not show up with it in a ponytail, or worse, looking like you just rolled out of bed and didn’t even bother to brush it. If you dye your hair and it’s been a while, do a touch up a couple of days prior to your interview. If using hairspray, try to go with an unscented type and make sure that the sprayer doesn’t malfunction and leave you with an unattractive glop of hairspray stuck in your hair. Ladies – even if you are not accustomed to wearing makeup, it is appropriate to apply at least a little before an interview. Coming in with no makeup tends to make you look as though you didn’t care enough to bother, or like you quit in the middle of getting ready and forgot to finish. For those who are used to wearing makeup, be sure to keep it light and simple – try to stick to neutral colors and avoid the ‘party’ look. For those who don’t normally wear makeup, try adding just a little light eyeshadow, some mascara, and perhaps a light lipstick. Be sure that if you wear foundation it is the appropriate shade for your skin-tone – you do not want to look like a vampire (too light of a shade) or a zombie (too dark of a shade).

You cannot believe how important this one is!!!! The best option is to not wear perfume, cologne or body spray at all, but if you absolutely feel that you must, please, please, please keep it light! Some interviewers are allergic to scents and some are not – you never know which one you will end up meeting. And for those who are not allergic, strong scents are still a turn-off. We have had several candidates arrive and by the time they were half-way through filling out the paperwork we were ready to throw the window open (even in very cold weather) to air out the room. If you wear strong or heavy scents, it leaves a lasting impression – unfortunately it’s a negative impression. So avoid that and either forego the scents altogether or go very very light on them!

It’s not hard to present a professional image – it just takes a little thought. Choose professional clothing that is suited for an office, not a night out or a trip to the garden, and accessorize accordingly. Remove your piercings and cover your tattoos. Follow the tips outlined above and you will present the type of image that employers will respect and find appropriate. Let your individuality shine at other times and other places, or introduce it in very small amounts over time. Good luck with your interviews!