As industries have changed in the United States, so have office dress codes. Gone are the days of dark suits and boring ties for men, pantyhose and other dowdy duds for women. Today, workers are freer to express themselves through their clothing—with limits, of course.
There’s no greater example than Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg testing those limits when he took his company public on the New York Stock Exchange. Instead of meeting with potential Wall Street investors in a suit and tie, the then 27-year-old went with his trademark hoodie. Hoodie-gate erupted as people in the business community took sides on whether Zuck’s fashion statement was a faux pas or completely non-consequential. Because Zuckerberg is a billionaire, it’s probably the latter. But for the rest of us, what we wear to work still matters.
Depending on your industry and the policies of your particular office, you may have the option to dress more casually. A 2007 Gallup poll (the most recent of its kind) found that 43% of workers wore business casual clothing to work most days, 28% wore street clothes, 19% wore a uniform, and just 9% wore formal business clothing. Studies have shown that’s because you’ll likely feel more productive and generally satisfied with a relaxed policy. But on the other hand, you’re more likely to be perceived as a quality worker in traditional professional attire.
In a compromise between dressing up and down, here are a few tips to relax your work wardrobe without crossing the line.
1. Use Fashion to Disguise Comfort
We all want to be comfortable at work. Who wouldn’t enjoy wearing jeans every day? But there’s a right way and a wrong way. Rule of thumb: Incorporate fashion or some traditional workwear to disguise an otherwise loungy outfit. For example, best to pair a dark pair of jeans with a blazer or cardigan. You could probably even get away with a hoodie, so long as you wear a collared shirt and tie underneath.
Fashion stylist Dawn del Russo suggests incorporating trends, patterns, texture and color to your heart’s desire, all while maintaining a professional look with classic shapes and silhouettes. Fellas, feel free to mix and match suits and sport more colorful ties to show off your personality.
2. Time It Right
Use downtime to take advantage of a relaxed dress code. Identify those days in the week when things slow down and you’re not as likely to have lots of interaction to be a bit more casual. In creative offices like PR, advertising, media, design and fashion, it’s become more acceptable to dress casually with jeans and fashion sneakers. But interviews, meetings and presentations are all moments when you want to look your best—especially to clients or superiors.
If you’re going to dress down in those situations, add polish to your look with individual pieces. Jewelry, a smart jacket or classic shoes are all ways to kick your casual look up a notch. Another tip: Keep a neutral-colored blazer and dress shoes at the office. That way you’re never caught off guard if a moment calls for something more formal.
3. Remember, You’re At Work
Just because you’re not required to dress it up like a character from Mad Men doesn’t mean you can wear anything. Beware of the slippery slope of fashion freedom. Items like shorts, flipflops, open-toed shoes, tank tops and tattered jeans are generally inappropriate. When in doubt, I think it’s helpful to ask yourself if you were a potential client, wandering into the office, could you tell that you worked there. If not, change into something that identifies you as a professional on the job.
4. Follow the Lead
Finally, take cues from your co-workers and higher ups before making any groundbreaking fashion statements. Your company could have a relaxed policy on the books, but your office could still have a more formal culture. In that case, you want to follow the lead of those around you to avoid missing the mark.
Donovan X. Ramsey is not a personal finance expert. He’s a multimedia journalist who writes about all things social, political, cultural and whimsical. After college, Donovan set out to discover everything he didn’t know about the world of personal finance. Learn along with him weekly on EBONY.com as he explores more everyday money matters. Follow Donovan on Twitter @iDXR or at DonovanXRamsey.com.