What to wear to work

Posted October 13, 2011, by Helen Isbister

Dressing for success can be quite a challenge. Not all of us are born with an innate sense of style that makes us look like we’ve stepped straight out of a work-wear catalogue. Not only that, different industries and companies require different dress codes – can you imagine wearing a tie while cleaning toilets? Or turning up to a corporate meeting wearing fishnets?

Whether you are starting a brand spanking new job or you’ve been with the same company for the past 10 years, what you wear to work each day is important. It can be an indicator of how well you do the job, can help determine whether you get chosen for that hard-earned promotion, or can help you fit in with the team and the corporate culture of the company. The goal in the work-wear game is to project your competency and professionalism while also being comfortable, both practically and psychologically.

You are what you wear

Whether you work the checkouts at a discount store, flip burgers at a fast food chain or are the PA at a multi-million dollar company – you are what you wear.

The clothes you wear can speak volumes about the type of person you are. Without even realising it, when we choose our outfits each day it is a reflection of who we are and how we are feeling. Whether we like it or not, people are ready to judge and make assumptions about our personality and work ethic based on what we use to cover our bodies. Hence, why dressing for work is so important. If you choose to dress like you’ve just rolled out of bed, if your uniform is unironed and tatty, then that is how your approach to work will be perceived – like you don’t really care. However, if your shoes are always polished, your clothes are pressed and you look like you’ve put a bit of effort into your presentation then you are more likely to come across as capable, prepared and keen for work. Regardless of your position or the company you work for, you need to look the part.

Dress for the industry

Not all industries are the same and neither are their dress requirements. Naturally, a real estate agent will be dressed very differently to a rockstar, and a model will be going for a very different look to the Prime Minister.

There are different expectations and practicalities of work clothes for different professions and you need to dress appropriately for the type of workplace you’re in. In the medical profession, for example, a nurse would be expected to wear comfortable shoes as they may be on their feet running busily around the wards all day. Someone working with children would be expected to dress appropriately and wear something smarter than their students. An outdoor worker would be required to wear covered-toe shoes and a hat and sunglasses for protection. A corporate environment would call for a suit and tie and a more creative industry might allow for a little more expression with your wardrobe.

Safety and practicality should be the starting points in your dress-for-success campaign. Stilettos may be the required footwear for models, but your career could be set for a fall if you try tottering around building sites in them. Some jobs will spell out the safety requirements, so check out whether hard hats and enclosed shoes come with the territory. It’s equally important to be comfortable in your workwear – while a ridiculously tight pair of leather pants are unlikely to prove fatal, it could strangle your professional performance – or at least your credibility.

Fitting in

One of the best clues to company dress codes is what your boss wears since company culture plays a huge part in what your wardrobe should be. If everyone is ultra-formal then you’ll stick out a mile if you rock up in jeans, a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and thongs. However, if your boss is playing the casual card, then feel free to be a little more relaxed yourself.

Dress for the job you want to be in, because if you look the part, you’ll be more likely to get the part. Some industries tend to be stricter than others. Particularly in a corporate environment where the company may want you to project a certain image to clients, fitting in with the corporate culture is vital. If you’re going for an interview, dress like you already work at the company.

In an age where ‘anything goes’, the dress code for a company may not always turn out to be what you think. For someone working in IT you might picture a suit and tie or something fairly conservative, but employees who work at the Apple Computer office are encouraged to show up wearing anything they want – thongs, hats, shorts, jeans, work-out clothes – you name it! 'I never dressed nicer than sweat pants. I often came in whatever I slept in the night before and walked around the office barefoot. Nobody cared,' says one employee. However, it’s always good to check out the dress code before turning up to the office in your pyjamas – save the embarrassment, and your job!

Keep it modest

There are some definite office fashion faux pas to avoid if you want to keep your career intact – and being too sexy is one of them. Sheer dresses, low-cut tops, strappy shoes, mini-skirts, see-through lace and spaghetti straps are office no-nos (well, most offices anyway!). You want to be known for the great work you do, not your body.

Working from home

If your desk is just metres from your bed, it doesn’t mean wearing your pyjamas all day is a given. One of the great mistakes people working from home can make is to let their dress standards drop. Making an effort to look sharp can psychologically boost your performance and serve as a reminder that even though you’re at home, you’re there to work.

The basics

Even a killer suit can be let down if the accessories are left wanting. And listen up men, because accessories aren’t only the domain of women. Shoes should always be polished, and briefcases and bags shouldn't be tatty. Ties should be clean and in keeping with the style of suit (that means no Garfield, Homers or Cupids). For women, a nice haircut and polished make-up make a big difference in the overall appearance.

When it comes to tattoos, piercings and crazy haircuts, their acceptability will come down to individual bosses. Understandably, some companies wouldn’t want to send someone covered in tattoos out to their clients, so keep that in mind when making any permanent changes to your appearance.

Remember, you are what you wear!

Helen Isbister

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