Dressing for Respect in the Office

At my job, we share our bathroom with all the other companies on our floor. Today I stepped in and was surrounded by what looked to be several interns or new hires. How did I know this? Purely by how they were dressed or their beauty choices. I know I wrote about this recently, but I’d like to address this in a different manner – I’d like to talk about how to dress to gain respect or a sense of authority when you’re a newbie.

Maybe you’re fresh out of college or an intern, maybe you’re a seasoned vet in your field but changed companies. Possibly you have recently been promoted and work with and manage a whole new team of virtual strangers. Whatever it is, do realize how you look at the office will affect how you will be perceived. It is possible to look professional, credible, and still stylish no matter your age, budget, or position in the office.

Clothing:

  • Cover your Lingerie. Wear a skin-colored bra under light colored tops, wear high enough necklines that your bra won’t show when you bend over to plug in your laptop, wear a thong or seamless underwear so you don’t have visible panty lines, watch the rise of pants and the width of necklines to ensure you don’t flash a bra strap or whale tail.
  • Stand in front of a window. Check to see the transparency of clothing when in natural light. Often, we get dressed in semi-darkness early in the morning and once we get to the office, we find our skirt leaves nothing to the imagination or a coworker can see the bow detail on the center of the bra. Check the opacity of all clothing by standing in front of natural light and checking out your reflection.
  • Sit in your outfit. Before you leave your home, sit in your outfit. Do your shirt buttons gape open flashing your bra or belly button? Does your skirt crease after only 30 seconds in a chair? Does your shirt ride up, exposing your lower back? Know these things before you leave the house and potentially embarrass yourself at the office.
  • Buy quality, not quantity. That $15 Forever21 pencil skirt LOOKS like a $15 Forever21 pencil skirt, especially when in a sea of suiting from department stores and higher-end retailers. It’s better to have one black skirt than a dozen cheap polyester-blend ones from bargain shops. Same goes for cheap versions of work tops that pull at the shoulders, are made of obviously low-quality fabric, are ill-fitting or too trendy of a style.
  • A suit doesn’t equal authority. Many people feel that to look like an authority, they should wear a suit. The opposite is often true for if you aren’t comfortable in a suit, it will show. Also, a suit is harder to wear at a lower pricepoint. If your dress code allows, consider instead wearing a sheath with a cardigan or a button-front shirt with a straight skirt or trousers for an equally polished ensemble that will make you more comfortable.

Accessories:

  • Wear comfortable and well-maintained shoes. They say a man’s style is judged by his shoes, well women’s style is as well! Nothing ruins a look more than scuffed shoes with the heels worn down and Band-Aids all over your ankles to deal with cuts and blisters. Break them in before you go to work, and take them to the cobbler regularly to keep them in the best condition.
  • Buy a simple bag. You’re wearing a classic gray suit from J. Crew, a pair of simple black Cole Haan pumps, and then you are carrying a turquoise crackle leather knock-off version of a Balenciaga. A cheap or overly trendy bag will destroy any credibility. No need to spend a ton, a simple bag with minimal details in black, gray, brown, or tan will get the job done and can be found at most any pricepoint. Look for structure instead of hobo, and a bag that is large enough to carry a notepad or file folders; a bag that can also carry your laptop can do double-duty for offsite meetings and business trips.
  • Buy quality, not quantity. Again, Forever21 is rarely the place to purchase office jewelry. Those fishing-line necklaces with strategically-placed plastic beads look as cheap as they cost at Target, and youthful accessories like rope or jelly bracelets, neon faux jewels, and feather earrings destroy any workplace credibility. This also holds true for shoes – it’s better to wear the same two pairs of simple shoes each day than have a closet full of cheap brands that cause you to hobble down the hallway or make you look as though you’re hitting the club after work.

Beauty:

  • Cut your hair. I’m not saying you can’t have long hair, but waist-length beachy waves that get scraggly at the ends is not professional. When I entered the bathroom this morning, this was the first cue that these women were new – they all had long manes of tangled waves that look great on the beach but not in the office. While I too would love a lush head of hair, I know it’s not a good look for Corporate America. Keeping it around your shoulder blades or higher, and having layers or bangs to give it an actual style will make you look more professional. If you wish to keep the length, consider topknots, ponytails, and twists that can manage the hair without you looking like Lady Godiva.
  • Color your hair. If you color your hair, get it touched up on a regular basis. If you can’t afford the time or money to maintain your highlights, get a single-process color that matches your natural shade. When you let your haircolor lapse, it makes you look disorganized and as though you don’t have attention to detail – not good traits for an office worker.
  • Have a polished face. I am not saying all need to wear makeup, but if you don’t wear makeup you need to make a concerted effort to have your skin look fresh and well-taken care of. Exfoliate, hydrate, consider a product like Vitamin C that will even and brighten the skin. Wear sunscreen to keep your skin looking young and elastic. If you are okay with the idea of makeup, a little tinted moisturizer, concealer, and mascara can go a long way.
  • Tone down the trends. I discussed this in this other post but it bears repeating. When you’re trying to create an aura of authority, a neon lip or colored mascara isn’t a wise choice.
  • Just tone all of it down. This isn’t a Miss America pageant, it is an office. Heavy makeup looks even more garish under fluorescent lights, and it won’t help you look experienced or credible. Dark colors, intense blush, heavy foundation – none of these give a professional look in the office.

General Tips:

  • It’s better to buy too large and have it altered for a custom fit than to purchase too small and have it pull at the hips or shoulders.
  • QUALITY NOT QUANTITY! No one is keeping score and tracking how often you wear your black pants or tan pumps. It’s better to have fewer pieces of quality, well-fitting garments than a multitude of cheap pieces that make you look as though you don’t care about your appearance.
  • Watch your length – too short skirts and pants dragging on the ground make you look unprofessional. A dry cleaner can do a simple pant or skirt hem for a few dollars.
  • Safety pins are your friends – you can pin shirts together between buttons, pin shirts to the inside of your pants or skirt to keep them from sliding out of the waistband each time you sit, and are great to have in your bag or desk in case of a fallen hem or busted seam.
  • Your iron is your friend. No matter the price or fit, a shirt that looks as though it was yanked off the floor of your bedroom will kill your credibility. If you don’t like to iron, take your shirts to the cleaners or just choose another type of garment for the office. Throwing a shirt in the dryer for a few minutes is NOT a replacement for the iron, and even though your shirt may get creased en route to the office, it will never look as bad as a shirt that was never originally ironed.
  • Solids are less memorable and usually look more expensive than a print. If you’re low on funds, stick to solids for more versatility and the ability to make a simple dress or blouse look classic and sophisticated.

For more tips on workplace attire please visit:

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  • ALyson — TAGG

    Absolutely love this. Insane amount of helpful tips. thanks! 

  • Lilgardner

    Great article, but you may want to reread your last bullet point. “Prints are less memorable and usually look more expensive than a print”

  • http://awfullychipper.blogspot.com/ Christine

    I had to laugh at the notion of feathered earrings in an office. And yet, I bet somebody does it.

    You might want to correct the first word of the last bullet point – you obviously meant to say solids, not prints.

  • http://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/ Allie at Wardrobe Oxygen

    Whoops! Thank you, off to fix! :-)

  • Une femme

    Great points! I see so many younger women in the workplace who don’t seem to have any concept of dressing for respect. It’s all about having the latest look or dressing “sexy.” If I could, I’d tell them that they’re not doing themselves any favors career-wise.

  • Erica

    I’ve always had hair to my shoulder blades. The key for making it fit with office attire is in the styling – smooth the ends under with a round brush or curling iron to look polished. One of the most accomplished career women I know works in a very conservative field and has Kardashian-length long blonde hair, but she always has it nicely curled. Ask your hairdresser for tips or watch a YouTube tutorial.

  • Eleanorjane

    What a fabulous article! Mainly because I agree with all of your points… :)

  • campbellkraft

    I have to agree with all that you have said.  When I finally left public accounting, part of the reason was the new hires.  Their dress and attitudes just rubbed me the wrong way and I had enough.  What some of them wore to interview with the firm was astounding.  Short skirts and skin tight outfits.  All they had to do was buy one nicely fitted suit, which they would have needed once they started working anyways.   When I started I had to wear suits and was often interviewing C-level execs.  I dressed for respect and had to look polished.  I did (and still do!) have very long hair, but it was always in a french twist.  Now that I am older and have proved myself I have more leeway in dressing.  I can dress more creatively, but still need to dress professionally.

  • http://weallgrowuponeday.blogspot.com/ MJ

    Haha whale tail. Love it. I always do the bend test, I would never want to give my students a free show! I am guilty of feather earrings, side braids, and waves…

  • Thrift Store Mama

    I’ve been working professionally for 17 years in a variety of offices, some formal some casual. Your advice works for every single person in every situation, unless someone is a professional dancer.

    When I have young people work for/with me, I’m not shy about telling them these things. I’m kind when I say it, but I am clear.

    I encourage young people to shop at larger thrift stores, especially if they are a size 8 or smaller, because there is JUST SO MUCH at that size. I caution them about consignment stores, because sometimes you wind up paying more than you would at a good department store sale.

    Above all else, this is my favorite quote from your post: “this isn’t a Miss America pageant”

  • http://sarahhulbertstyle.com/ Sarah Hulbert Style

    I am so enjoying this series (is it a series?) on dressing for respect, Alison. Part of what I work with my styling clients on, is not only dressing to respect others, but to show that you have self respect. A little modesty goes a long way. It is possible to look fabulous without showing off your fab bits, right? :)  Thanks again!

  • Patti_NotDeadYetStyle

    Bravo, Allie. Great tips and reminders for all ages who work in professional environments. Quality trumps quantity, always.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07252580682826914410 byhillary

    One tip you forgot. You MUST wear a bra.
    If I can tell you aren’t wearing a bra it’s all over. I’ve judged. Sorry.

    Personally I’ve never carried about panty lines. They let me known you ARE wearing underwear. I’m sure people see the line on me constantly.

    I find you can get away with all kinds of things and be taken seriously as long as you heed that advice above.

    Like I had pink in my hair but I was always coiffed and irons and everything covered and my clothes fit.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07252580682826914410 byhillary

    Oh. I got this bright red sweater with hearts on it and I feared it was too much for the office but I wore a plain shirt waist chambray dress and rights and plainish boots and left my hair simple and no joke all these super important people at work stopped me to say how nice I looked. If I’d had on a mini skirt or a ton of makeup I doubt they would of had same reaction but that’s just my assessment.

  • http://www.tulleandcombatboots.com/ G.

    This post is awesome. So many people in my generation I have no idea how to dress for the workplace. Growing up with parents in sales, I thankfully have never had this problem. But it’s always interesting to see how people interpret “business casual,” haha. And as always, this is timeless advice! Also, I look to you for working world style! 

  • http://www.afternoonapparel.com/ Charlotta, Afternoon Apparel

    Great tips!

  • IsabelleS

    I enjoy
    this series of articles very much and I love your blog! I can’t help but
    reacting to this article, though. I agree with most of what you said, except
    for this point: the part about quality above quantity. I think that what is
    most important is how your clothes fit you. You better buy something less
    expensive and alter it (or buy it as is because it fits you really well, even
    better) to make it fit well than buy something more expensive that don’t fit
    and therefore don’t do you any good. I work in a very conservative environment
    (think about a bank’s head office) and too many times, I see women who don’t
    realize how bad they look in their very expensive suits that don’t fit well.
    Moreover, many don’t realize that it’s not because you paid a fortune for your
    clothes that you can wear them for 20 years and still look good in them! Some
    keep their clothes “in case they become fashionable again” but there
    is always a detail that changes when a certain style is “in” again…
    And about the “quality above quantity” statement, many studies have
    shown that little things acquired on a regular basis are more satisfying than
    big infrequent splurges. They specifically gave the example of purchasing
    cheaper clothes more often than a big ticket item once or twice every season to
    illustrate that theory. And it’s true that many women – I’m part of them -
    enjoy acquiring new items on a regular basis. It makes us feel good to have new
    things in our wardrobe. So I would say, go to F21 but be SUPER SELECTIVE in
    what you buy at those stores. I have been shopping at F21 for years (although
    I’m 40 now) and still manage to find little gems there: cardigans that age
    well, tank tops in all colours to add a little “pop” to my outfits,
    necklaces very similar to those I would find for 5 times the price in other
    stores, blazers (yes, blazers) that look good and go in the washing machine,
    some silk skirts in the “more mature” section… When shopping, one
    has to be selective, whether they go to high-end stores, or cheap ones. Too
    many times I’ve seen women thinking that because they buy something at
    Burberry’s it will look good. It doesn’t necessarily. Being selective, knowing
    what fits you well or not, wearing appropriate underwear, and tailoring your
    clothes so they fit YOU well is key.
     

  • http://www.byhillary.com/ Miss Matilda

    totally weird. I KNOW I commented on this last night. I think you have two comment forms on your site. On an iphone there is a blogger form and on the computer there is a disqus one.

  • http://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/ Allie at Wardrobe Oxygen

    I fully believe that quality can be found at any store and any pricepoint. And yes, some gems can be found at Forever 21. I also believe that utter crap can be found with big pricetags on them. MOney does not equal quality and I think much suiting out there is a perfect example of crap with high prices. :)

  • http://www.byhillary.com/ Miss Matilda

     there is someone in my office who wears feather earrings. They are in their 30’s but they have no idea of what is office OK or not.

  • Grace Mitchell

    Hey Allie, I wanted to mention that I have noticed, and am LOVING, the new collage-style pictures you’re headlining posts with. What tool(s) are you using to create them? They look fantastic.

  • http://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/ Allie at Wardrobe Oxygen

    Word or Polyvore with PicMonkey. Will email you how exactly I do it. :)

  • Alix

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned fake tans. I saw two young women on Metro morning with unnaturally tanned skin (and cotton sundresses–just because it’s a dress doesn’t mean it’s dressy enough for work), and I was struck by how unprofessional it looked. As a young-looking young professional (early 30s), I am hyper-aware of dressing to look like I belong on the same hall as the Secretary of my agency. Before I leave in the morning, I ask myself if I would be embarrassed to ride the elevator with him.

    PS This is one of my first ever blog comments, but I’m really enjoying your recent articles. Thank you!

  • Sarah

    I agree 100% that people should dress respectfully at the office, but I also believe my office mates should respect my work and not judge me based on my outfits or the quality of my shoes. As an office manager, I see some crazy looks that I consider unprofessional, but as long as my employees do their job well, I’m satisfied, and so is my director. I try to follow the whole “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” maxim.

  • http://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/ Allie at Wardrobe Oxygen

    I fully agree you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it. It’s a factor when you do an interview, stand on a street corner, order a latte. While your direct supervisor may know the quality of your work, a CEO, or a client visiting the office may not and one is always a direct reflection of her employer.

  • Karen

    Great article!

     Would love to add a bit about fingernails (and toenails, if applicable) — they should be not-too-long, clean, and even at a minimum.  Adding even just a clear or light opaque polish gives you a more sophisticated look without having to worry about daily upkeep.  If you use any other kind of color you really need to make sure you can keep up with it.  Don’t think that no one will notice that chip – they will. And don’t be one of those women who doesn’t change their polish until it’s worn completely off — Ugh.

    One more thing, always remember – the best accessory you wear is a genuine smile.

  • http://www.wardrobeoxygen.com/ Allie at Wardrobe Oxygen

    You’re never fully dressed without a smile! :)

  • http://catspajamas-dogstuxedos.blogspot.in/ coffeeaddict

    this post belongs in all major fashion magazines and trumps just about 90% of all the advice I’ve ever read anywhere else :-)

  • Emily Kate – Capital Style

    This is such a fantastic post! Going to share it on Facebook now!

  • Lorena Lorena

    Nicely done !

    As insanely as it may sound some people are just not conscious about these things.. or like me forget.
    This morning for example I should have sat down and would have noticed my dress was WAYYYY too short for the office.
    This post also reminded me that I need to go through my shoes and get rid of a couple of scuffed ones that I keep telling myself to keep as I will only wear with pants and scuffs won’t be visible. Not true.