Career Planning

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How to crack the office dress code

Getting it right when it comes to work clothes can be tricky, so here are some tips.

 

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Smart look: being well presented is crucial but there's room for a bit of personality too

By Alice-Azania Jarvis
Thursday, 1 May 2008

The thing about getting dressed for work – the thing that makes it so very difficult – is that work is definitely not about clothes. On the contrary: in the world of earnest employment, such frivolities are almost frowned upon. At the very least, they should appear secondary to one's commitment to the job. And yet, ignoring appearance entirely is almost as bad. A daily uniform of pyjama bottoms, holey socks and college hoodie is all very well while you're a student, but it certainly won't win you any points when you start at the office.

Given this dilemma, it's no surprise that, according to a recent Reed Employment study, 37 per cent of us prefer to work in a uniform. Even more – 85 per cent – prefer a precise dress code, as opposed to just 16 per cent who feel unaffected by their work clothes. But if a uniform's not an option, what are we supposed to do?

"The trick," says Nicky Hambleton-Jones, author of Top to Toe: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming Who You Want to Be, and host of Channel 4's 10 Years Younger, "is to find a happy medium. Not all environments are prescriptive, but you can usually get a feeling for the type of workplace at your initial interview. Of course, what you should wear to work depends on what it is you do. If you work in the media, for instance, you'll probably dress very differently from if you work at a bank. So be practical."

This last step may be the most important: impractical dress can prove a considerable obstacle when it comes to getting the job done. When Alex Kennedy, a 23-year-old graduate from Bath University, began work at a record label, he ran into this very problem. Far from the fashionable world of slick suits and skinny jeans that he'd imagined, he was expected to put comfort and practicality above everything: "I thought everyone would either be really smart or very trendy. In fact, we were expected to be active and work really long days. Comfort was obviously key."

It isn't, however, only practicality that counts. Clothes' social or emotional connotations should also be considered. Comedy ties will never win you fashion kudos – and in the workplace, they're downright sinful. The same goes for shorts, flip-flops and barely-there tops, all of which can be seen as signs of disrespect. And while jeans are increasingly acceptable (almost a third of companies now have a policy of "dress-down Fridays"), they should be worn with care. Team with loafers and a crew-neck for preppy chic, but wear with trainers and an unironed shirt, and you'll look like a grungy teenager.

Overly formal or fussy clothing can be almost as bad – as Jemma Rowe, 22, discovered. "It was my first week at a new job, and that Friday I was still dressed smartly. Everyone else was dressed down and I spent the whole day pulling at my skirt and feeling self-conscious about my makeup. It was such a horrible feeling."

For men, ties can have a similar effect, making you look stuffy, trussed-up and out of touch. In fact, only 19 per cent of men choose to wear one every day. Going tieless is an easy shortcut to rejuvenating your (and your brand's) image – something that David Cameron has demonstrated perfectly.

Other aspects of our appearance are equally important: appropriate makeup, accessories, and personal hygiene are all crucial elements of workplace presentation. While the last of these may sound like a no-brainer, studies suggest otherwise: according to a recent survey by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), job-seekers' grooming is a key problem for recruiters. In fact, almost half of those questioned claimed to have logged complaints on the matter. Dirty nails, greasy hair, too much or too little perfume are all cited as significant turn-offs.

Last but not least, says Hambleton-Jones, it's important to reflect a little of your personality in what you wear. "Being well presented is crucial, but you want to put a bit of 'me' in there, too. You may have to wear a suit, but you can choose the colour. I always try to wear bright colours, and I have my signature glasses. Maintain your personality and you'll stand out – and that's how you get noticed."

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