Let’s Talk Professionalism

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A lot of my fashion problems, and a lot of the ones I hear from my friends, revolve around dressing well for work. There’s a dress code, but you want to be comfortable, girl clothes don’t have pockets, and what exactly are the rules we should be following when we dress for work? How much money is a reasonable amount to spend on work clothes when I literally just got this job and haven’t been paid yet? The whole thing can get overwhelming, and for a while I actually avoided office jobs because it was easier than trying to figure out how to dress properly for that venue.

Eventually, though, I dug into some internet research, and with the help of Google and some fantastic female bosses who were able to give me pointers, I figured out a closet-worth of work clothes that didn’t cost me a year’s income, that are comfortable as well as flattering, and that don’t get me nasty-grams from Human Resources.

I’m going to reference the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois Frankel quite a bit in this blog. It’s one of those books that changed my life, and I highly recommend giving it a look. Some of her points are not universally applicable, and some of them are open to debate, but overall, I really like what she has to say, and I’m going to tie my suggestions back to her suggestions fairly often. Her thesis for the book is that, as little girls, we are taught to be ‘cute,’ and ‘endearing,’ and ‘sweet,’ and those qualities are great in a child. But what about a businesswoman? Are those qualities beneficial to the career of a successful female in the working world? Probably not, honestly. And yet, we’re never told how to make that transition from childish/girlish to womanly/professional, so we carry a lot of our learned traits from girlhood into the office with us, and oftentimes it sets us back in the ‘people taking us seriously’ department. Let’s face it, we all have That Lady in the office who dresses like the high-school head cheerleader, but she’s 45 and it kind of looks ridiculous on her, especially when she tries to pull the ‘Oh, blonde moment!’ thing to excuse her screw-ups. Fashion Fledglings, we are better than this, and I don’t EVER want to hear about you saying ‘blonde moment!’ or blaming your period when you make a work mistake. You may indeed be distracted by a raging case of PMS, but that is none of your office’s business.

Here some general guidelines that will help you navigate the weird world of work fashion.

  1. Read your HR manual. I guarantee that if you work for a company with more than 50 employees, they have a handbook that spells out exactly what you’re supposed to wear. Some places have a color scheme you need to follow, some places give specific examples of what’s acceptable, and some just say ‘business casual‘ or ‘business professional.’ Do some research on your own to get a good idea of what those terms mean, and if in doubt, just ask your HR representative. They’ll likely be happy to run it down for you, because you’re showing them you WANT to follow the rules. That’s going to do good things for you come annual review time.
  2. Look around. What’s everyone else wearing? Specifically, what’s your boss wearing? If you’re wanting to move up in the company, it behooves you to dress like the people who already have moved up. Don’t fall into the trap of dressing like the people at the same level as you, only to realize that they gave up a long time ago and are currently dressed in I-don’t-give-a-crap casual. Those guys aren’t going anywhere, and you don’t want management to lump you in with them.
  3. Err on the conservative side. It’s better to overdress and tone it down later, than to under-dress, get a note from HR or your boss, then have to spend time undoing that screw-up and getting over the ensuing embarrassment. If you look in the mirror and go, “Is this too revealing for work?” You just answered your own question – put on a cardigan and some leggings to cover some skin. Also, your office is probably cold, so you’re really doing yourself a favor here.
  4. Comfort over fashion. If you work in fashion, I highly doubt you’re reading this blog (although if you are, sorry about all the mirror selfies, I’m poor). Since you probably don’t work in fashion, you don’t need to wear the latest weird, not-machine-washable trend. You’ve got work to do, and your clothes shouldn’t get in the way of that. Make sure you can sit/stand for a while in your work clothes without having to adjust them all the time. Make sure they fit properly so you’re not having to tug at them all day. Make sure you’re warm/cool enough for your office temperature. Make sure you’re not at risk of an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction if you have to pick something up off the floor. Make sure your shoes don’t make your feet hurt or put you at risk of tumbling down a flight of stairs. If you’re able to focus on your work and not on what your clothes are doing, you’ll have a better chance of managing your workload and being taken seriously.
  5. Don’t play the martyr. Attitude is everything – if you feel good, you will look good. So don’t sneer and grudge all over your work clothes just because you have to find things that are long enough for your long legs or that cover up your DD’s without making you look frumpy. We all have dress codes, and bucking those dress codes will A) make you look silly, and B) possibly get you in trouble at work, neither of which makes for a good work day. You can go all-out after 5:00 and wear those sequins and rock that mini skirt and just own it, but baby, you’re at work to WORK, not to pick up dates (please don’t pick up dates at work, it’s such a horrible idea). So sit down with yourself, think through the reasons you’re resenting your work clothes, and find a way to work through them. Are they uncomfortable because you need to buy different sizes? Do you secretly hate your job and want a new one, and the dress code is just representing how trapped you feel there? Talk with someone who knows you well, and get their take on why you hate wearing work clothes, then do what you can to find pieces that make you feel good about showing up every day. Who knows? A change in wardrobe might just make you feel better about your job.

Stay tuned, because next week I’m going to dig into this whole ‘work-appropriate clothing’ thing with concrete suggestions for clothes to fold into your work wardrobe in order to make it easier to get out the door in the morning while still feeling good about how you look. In the meantime, I want you to assess your own closet, and compare your work clothes to the five guidelines I’ve listed above. Think over the clothes you’re wearing to work, and toss/donate/replace/keep things according to how well they fit the guidelines. Remember: if all you have in your closet are clothes that fit you and make you happy, you’re never going to feel out-of-sorts about your outfit.

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