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Dress Code
for the New Millenium

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Over the past decade or so, the highly entrenched attitudes about what constitutes appropriate business attire have been turned on their head. A new generation of workers, more interested in comfort and individual expression than in trying to fit into a rigid corporate mold, have worked their way into positions of leadership and influence. And they have begun to exercise this influence to dismantle traditional dress policies in the most conservative institutions in America.

Even IBM, long known for its conservative and inflexible dress policy finally relented as it became obvious that its ultra-conservative culture was diminishing its ability to attract top young talent. In 1995 it quietly changed its dress policy and began to allow employees to come to the office dressed in casual business attire.

In recent years, the casual dress movement has gained significant momentum. A new less formal dress standard has started to take hold. Of course, not everyone is pleased by the new trend. Many managers fear that less formal dress requirements will spill over into other aspects of their organizations and ultimately lead to sloppiness in work and overall behavior. However, one thing is certain - the new dress standard is here to stay. For better or for worse, there is no going back.

As traditional standards come tumbling down, employees are faced with a new dilemma: what is appropriate and what is not? Traditional dress policies had well defined expectations for appropriate attire. Today, those expectations have become fuzzier and less clear-cut. Some employers are reacting to this problem by providing specific dress guidelines. More commonly, however, employers have instituted "casual" dress policies but stopped short of providing specific details on what constitutes appropriate casual dress.

This lack of explicit definition opens the door to liberal interpretations on the part of employees eager to test the limits of the new policies. As a consequence, body-hugging spandex tops, micro-miniskirts, sandals, shorts and t-shirts have all become common elements in the workplace. This has spawned a whole new wave of casual office fashion, from Nudie jeans to fun t-shirts. Redefining office fashion has helped people express themselves more freely through their wardrobe choices for work.

While comfort and freedom of expression are certainly important, you should not lose sight of the fact that workplace perceptions can have a significant influence on your career. The image that you project to managers, directors and senior executives will in large measure determine how promotable they believe you are. Don't assume that because you don't get a lot of face time with these people that they do not notice you. They generally make it their business to know who is coming up through the ranks and who is promotable. A professional appearance can be an important first step on the road to the executive suite. Consistently pushing the limits of good taste and professionalism is more likely to detract from your ultimate success in your profession - regardless of how it may make your feel personally.

The following tips are intended to help you navigate a successful career path while still retaining a degree of individuality.

Request a Copy
of your Organization's
Dress Policy

As mentioned earlier, not all companies have a detailed dress policy. That is o.k. If there is a dress policy in effect, however, you should make sure you clearly understand it. There is nothing wrong with approaching your local human resources representative and asking for a copy of it. If a written policy does not exist, you may request verbal clarification on the company's dress standards.

Understand your
Organization's Culture

All organizations have their own unique culture. Not all cultures are easily identifiable at first glance, but upon careful examination, a cultural snapshot will emerge. Generally, an organization's culture will be defined largely by the reigning senior management team. In some cases it will be defined by a single powerful individual. By developing an understanding of the culture of your organization, you will be in a better position to identify acceptable dress standards. For instance, while shorts may never be an acceptable apparel item for one organization - they may represent the norm for another. Understanding and living within the framework of the prevailing culture will typically maximize your opportunities for advancement - all other things being equal.

When in Doubt -
Err on the Side of Conservatism

When preparing for an interview, dressing for a first day on the job or entering into an unknown business situation, it is usually wise to err on the side of being more formal, professional and conservative than you think you need to be - rather than the other way around.

It is far better to be the only person dressed in a suit and tie than it is to be the only person in shorts and loafers. The jacket and tie can always be removed. Exchanging the shorts and loafers can pose a much more difficult challenge.

Cultivate an Image
of Professionalism

Decide what image you want to project and then work diligently to create that image. Avoid clothing and appearances that detract from that image. Cultivate the image every day. Consider the people that you know or work with. Identify those people who always have a positive and professional appearance and demeanor - then think about what it is that gives them that image. Try to emulate the positive aspects of their dress and behavior.

Take your queues from the Executive Office. For men, wearing pressed slacks several days per week along with a crisp button down shirt or even a nice polo shirt will add an element of professional style to your image. For women, wearing a nice skirt with a pressed blouse occasionally will also convey the same no-nonsense professional image. While times have definitely changed, the clean cut and conservative look is rarely out of place in a professional organization.

Just because your company has an ultra-casual dress day on Fridays doesn't give you the license to come to work looking dumpy. Keep in mind that this day, like every other day contributes to your overall image.

Shoes should be kept clean, polished and tied. Wearing scuffed shoes caked with dried mud or dirt shows a lack of attention to detail. If the soles of your shoes are wearing out - resole or replace them. It is often cheaper to buy a new pair of shoes than to have shoes resoled - especially if you watch for sales.

A nice belt for men and modest but attractive accessories for women will complete your look. Don't skimp here. Well thought out accessories can often add just the right touch to a polished appearance. And men - make sure your belt goes well with your shoes. If you struggle with color and pattern coordination there are books available to help you.

When it comes to jewelry - men should avoid it - or be very modest. Layers of gold chains are not likely to impress anyone. An open shirt - showing off a heavy gold medallion may be hip in some circles - but is not appropriate fare for corporate America. Women should use jewelry modestly also. The same goes for makeup. A nice set of earrings and an attractive necklace can improve an ensemble. Gaudy jewelry and excessive makeup will generally detract from an otherwise professional appearance.

Socks should match the outfit and not contrast drastically with shoes and clothing. White gym socks are generally not a good choice - unless you're wearing tennis shoes. Nice hosiery can make a difference for women and men alike.

The Sad Truth about Conformity

If you have one of those personalities where you just want to be you and that means being different and unique - that's fine. But remember that continually setting yourself apart from the crowd can sometimes work against you. Ask yourself what message you are intentionally trying to send.

Conformity is not always terrific, but being way out there can create the perception that you are not a team player, that you lack loyalty, or that you simply aren't willing to put forth the effort to fit in to the organization. Be careful.

If you have exceptional technical talent, you may be able to get away with some "in your face" behavior. However, remember that job security and promotability are two different things in most companies. You may be technically talented and secure in your current position, but if you do not exhibit the characteristics that are considered important for leading others then you may be passed over for promotions. Fitness for a particular position does not equate to promotability.

Also, don't forget about the influence that your peers can ultimately have on your career. Resentments and hostilities resulting from presumptuous dress and behavior can lead to disastrous consequences.

Dare to be Different
(once in a while)

If you follow the rules most of the time - reward yourself by wearing something unique or going in for an interesting hairstyle once in a while. Doing it occasionally will add to your image and show that you possess creativity. It can be a memorable and positive experience. Doing it consistently, however, can be distracting and demonstrate defiance.

Dress-Up Occasionally

Every once in a while, it is nice to dress up - really dress up. By wearing a nice formal business ensemble periodically, you can set yourself apart in a very positive way. Dressing up for important meetings is always a good idea. Keep in mind, however, that this is also something that can be overdone. Overdressing every day can lead to the perception that you are uptight or that you are struggling to overcome a poor self-image.

Always be Well-Groomed

Good personal hygiene, manicured nails and a simple, well-maintained hairstyle are critical but often overlooked elements of a professional appearance. Avoid sloppiness. One of the most frequent complaints among managers is that many employees confuse "casual" with "sloppy". By taking a little extra time and effort to press your clothing you will add measurably to your overall appearance. A clean unrumpled look will serve you well throughout your career.

Extreme hair styles are generally better avoided in the workplace. Funky colors and styles may attract attention, but not the right kind of attention.

Assembling a Wardrobe

There is no need to go overboard on cost. Wear basic clothing that is neat, clean, and pressed and then show a little attention to detail. The good news is that basic clothing has become more affordable than ever. A full wardrobe is not cheap, however. Trying to keep up with all the latest styles is neither necessary nor justifiable. It is far better to buy clothes that are time tested and then take care of them. Mix and match to make your existing wardrobe go further.

Where possible, buy your clothes at the end of the season. If you do this consistently you will end up paying 25-60% less on average for your wardrobe. Buying sweaters on clearance between April and June is a great way to find a bargain. Likewise, stocking up on summer-wear in August and September will save a lot of money. Keep your eyes open for clearance sales. Go shopping once in a while without buying anything. As you come to understand general prices for quality clothing, you will be better able to recognize good prices when you see them.

Fill your wardrobe with a solid collection of basic, versatile clothing - taken from discount stores and clearance racks. If you feel so inclined, buy a few more expensive high impact items that will add a little extra flair to your wardrobe. Avoid spending a lot of money on jewelry - it can consume an inordinate share of your wardrobe budget it you allow it to.

These tips are meant to serve as general guidelines. By paying attention to your organization's culture and demonstrating a basic level of good taste you will avoid doing things that will detract from your professional image. And don't be so conservative that you stop having fun. A professional outfit without a smile will leave your career short changed!

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