Monday, 30 April 2012

Appropriate Clothing Choices for Work

Personal Choices  
We act the way we dress. Neglected and untidy clothes reflect a neglected and untidy mind.
- Unknown (and I am sure there are exceptions to that conclusion.)

Closet Content Analysis: A Working Wardrobe
 NICE      NO THANKS      NOTE-WORTHY         NEED          NEW 
This could be a "what not to wear" essay.  

What Not to Wear, a makeover reality television show, originated on BBC Two and the first show was broadcasted on November 29th, 2001, hosted by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine. The American version (US version) airs on TLC and is hosted by Stacy London and Clinton Kelly. Foreign versions exist in Mexico, Colombia and Argentina. It is also seen on Discovery Travel & Living Europe, on People+Arts in Spain and in Portugal and Brazil. (Retrieved from Wikipedia, April30, 2012.)

Good clothes open all doors.
- Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) British clergyman and author 

I was visiting a professional workplace and stopped to chat with a young woman I recognized. She is new to the workforce and therefore I'd like to give her the "benefit of the doubt" but honestly . . .  you decide  . . .  she was wearing a navy blazer that was at least two sizes too big. She was probably a size 6 and it appeared that she was wearing a size 12, a blouse  with a stain (maybe coffee), and a pencil skirt that seemed uncomfortably tight, given away by the creases and stretch in the front. Good thing the over-sized blazer was covering the bum-hug. She revealed that she had only been working for a couple of weeks and everything she was wearing was given to her or borrowed from her mother's closet. Her sling-back leather flats were the only thing that revealed her fashionable potential. Given that this young woman is a new employee, hopefully, she'll be able to set aside some funds to go shopping for business clothes when she receives her first pay-cheque (which should be today).

I am aware of three business wear terms: business, business smart, business casual. There may be more but for the three, here is my interpretation: 

Professional Business - Suits for both sexes; always a jacket. 

Business Smart - Wool/cashmere/blends blazers, trousers, skirts, blouses, shirts, sheath dresses. 

The blur between smart and casual is the fabrics and ties for men and hose for women. 

Business Casual - Same as above in more casual fabrics such as linen, cotton and denim as well as, unstructured jackets, cardigans,  sweaters, vests/waistcoats (for my friends from the UK I'm not referring to what you call vest in the UK but rather a sleeveless underjacket) in addition to the skirts, pants and jeans. Debatable (dependent on your institution's dress code) are seasonal variations - for example: walking shorts (just above the knee) - I have seen walking shorts with a blazer that looks very business casual and quite NICE.

Generally speaking, work environments are becoming more and more casual in North America. As I walked through a location where the professional employees have an average income of about (Cdn) $60,000.00 and the average length of university training would be four years, I thought "these people should know better" and should be able to afford to dress better. The public has access to this place and there are many regular clients coming and going. The employees have responsibility to do face-to-face presentations in front of various ages of people in one-on-one situations or in groups of up to 30. It is not an uptown storefront so only those who have business with these people would be on their site.

Here's a cross-section of what they were wearing.

Professionally Dressed
Acceptably Dressed
Unacceptably Dressed
female - black sling-back leather heels, black and white geometric print sheath dress, waist-length v-neck light-weight fine wool black cardigan, worn unbuttoned
female - black ballerina flats, black dress pants, looked like a wool blend trouser and a beige, grey and black striped sweater
female - flip flops, black stretch elastic waist pants and a black hooded sweatshirt
female - dark blue suede sling-back heels, navy cowl neck, 3/4 length sleeve dress, simple gold drop earrings
female - black ankle boots, fitted short blazer with a dark t-shirt matching her blazer, dark wash blue jeans, turquoise necklace

female - knee-high heeled boots, leggings, hip length striped top. It could have been acceptable except for too much reveal with the leggings
male - brown leather oxfords, grey trousers, dark grey crew-neck t-shirt, lightweight herringbone (grey, camel, brown) blazer
male - casual shoes in same tone as his pants, khaki trousers, plaid shirt with a matching tone in the plaid to match the pants
male - flip flops, blue jeans, navy sport team hooded sweatshirt

female - black ballerina flats, skinny black pants, navy cowl neck sweater
female - black athletic shoes, dark wash jeans, dark purple sweater

male - athletic shoes, blue jeans, plaid grey and burgundy over-sized, no . . . big, too big for the person wearing it, sweater

female - black "comfortable" flats well worn, black baggy bottom pants, dark faded t-shirt, navy over-sized shapeless cardigan,

male - athletic shoes, baggy navy corduroy pants, over-size striped golf shirt hanging way below the butt in the back and hoisted up crotch-length at the front (he won the "sloppy shirt" prize)

male - athletic shoes, grey below the knee shorts, turquoise golf shirt

female - athletic shoes, black casual pants in a stretch fabric, black and white print top, black cardigan

In conclusion, ill-fitting clothing in black and dark colours with sport/athletic shoes appears to be the "uniform" at this workplace. Out of 16 people, 7 were either acceptably or professionally dressed relative to my criteria and out of the 7, only 3 would have been considered well-dressed or professional business/smart business.

This particular place is not the only one that has examples of comfortable casual, even slovenly dress. A friend, who owns a shop, relayed this story about questionable dress in a workplace. She tells of a woman who went to a hospital to visit her ailing husband. She encountered a woman in his room, who from the style of dress, appeared to be a member of the housekeeping staff. They chatted and the wife became uncomfortable owing to the information this "housekeeper" was sharing. So the woman said, "Thank you for your concern, but I will need to talk to his doctor about such things." The wife knew that her husband's doctor was to be away for the next month and she had not yet met the "substitute-doctor". So you can imagine how taken aback she was when the presumed "housekeeper" said, "I am Dr. X's replacement and I will be taking care of your husband for the next month". Maybe the white coat with stethoscope hanging from the neck is stereo-typical but in some cases, obviously necessary. Even so, something should be said of the choice of clothing, which was so inappropriate that there was no indication whether the person in question was medical or housekeeping staff.

The same shop owner shared that many executives in the office highrise above her storefront are contemplating re-introducing dress codes for both male and female staff. Those office types might want to refer their employees to The Working Wardrobe website which identifies working dress for both men and women.

For the most part, the people who need to read this post probably will not be. It is the people who already dress well, who are reading posts like this one, so my only suggestion is for you to lead by example. 

What are you wearing to work and where do you work?

Update: Just click on a follow-up post to read about work-related comfortable casual, which balances and rounds out the rather pointed tone of this post.


  1. I have been looking to build a good professionnal opinion on the topic. Your post got me a step further in the right direction. Many thanks.
    Designer Salwar Kameez

    1. With so many variables in business leadership and expectations, it is difficult to come to a definitive "business dress code" as I have expressed in my other post on "What is comfortable casual?" When developing a specific business persona, one's original mission statement provides the base but I am happy that I have had a wee bit of influence in the development of your "professional opinion". You are most welcome.


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