Because... getting dressed should be fun!

Because... getting dressed should be fun!

Category: Business Dress

Confused by Business Casual?

Confused by Business Casual?

If you are confused by Business Casual, you are not alone! Business Casual dress is loved by many, and despised by others. To understand Business Casual, let’s talk a little about the history of business dress. In particular, men’s business dress, since appropriate women’s business wear derives from the men’s.

Once upon a time, anyone working in an office wore a suit, light colored shirt, and a tie. No choices. Shirt cuffs and collars were separate pieces attached to a shirt. This made laundering less of a chore, as the collars and cuffs (which dirty first) could be removed for cleaning, and the shirt worn more than once before laundering. White collars and cuffs were the most likely to get dirty, and were worn by office workers, while laborers wore blue collars, as they showed the dirt less quickly. Electric washers and dryers have made the practicality of removable collars and cuffs a moot point, but we still hold onto the white collar/blue collar divide.

Business dress has its roots in military uniforms. Imagine the three-piece suit, shirt and tie as more “armored” and therefore, more formal or businesslike. The most common business suit, the two-piece, worn with a light-colored shirt and a tie, is still the standard for conservative business environments such as law, banking, and finance. This makes sense as more formal “reads” as more trustworthy or professional; I certainly don’t want to put my life or life savings into the hands of someone who looks casual or “risky.”

So where did Business Casual come from? You can thank the manufacturers of Hawaiian shirts looking to drum up business in the 1960’s. (Does anyone remember the Tiki craze?) Their marketing strategy was Aloha Fridays. The concept was to stimulate the local garment industry and showcase their unique look and product. We could discuss the leisure suits of the 1970’s, but some stones should be left unturned!

Fast-forward to the recession of the 1990’s. Businesses were looking for ways to give their employees an inexpensive (read: free) perk, and some experimented with Casual Fridays. At many workplaces too much casual, and not enough business was showing up in the office Friday mornings. At the same time, Levi’s had just acquired the Dockers brand. A brilliant marketer decided that Dockers were the answer to the What-to-Wear-on-Casual-Fridays problem, and created How-To-Dress brochures targeted to Human Resources departments. Voila! The Casual Friday uniform was born.

Through further economic and societal shifts, Casual Fridays became Business Casual, which has since morphed into the khakis and polos considered business wear in many circles. Employees are often pleased because Business Casual means less money spent on clothes only worn for the office, and fewer dry cleaner visits. On the down side, without good visual cues, clients can wonder if they are talking to the mail clerk or the CEO.

A recent evolution in business dress is the Dress-For-Your-Day concept touted by companies who think of themselves as flexible, employee friendly, modern, and team driven. Essentially, it means dressing for what you have on your schedule that day. If you will spend the day in your cubicle writing reports, then jeans and a tee may be just fine. If you have client meetings, you could need to don a suit and tie. Internal meetings may require trousers and a polo, or sport shirt. Dress-For-Your-Day sounds like the perfect answer as a more friendly dress code, but often leaves much to be desired. Plans change at the last minute, and running home to change clothes on the way to meet a client is an added stress most of us don’t need. And if the client shows up at the office unannounced? A roomful of employees in jeans and logo tees may not be the desired impression!

How would you define your work dress code? Does it create issues for you or your fellow employees? Let me know in the comments below!

Did I Say That Out Loud?

Did I Say That Out Loud?

One of the most frequent questions I am asked when people find out that I am an Image and Wardrobe Coach is “Well, how’d I do?” accompanied by a head to toe waving gesture of the hands pointing out their sartorial selection. My answer is usually “That depends… What did you want to say?” A quizzical look usually follows my reply. I find myself explaining that dress is communication; what you put on in the morning speaks volumes before you ever open your mouth. What you wear does matter, whether you are working, or not.

People often tell me that what they wear doesn’t matter because they work at home, or no one sees them at work because they are not “client-facing.” In contrast, data shows that even if when only dressing for yourself, it does matter what you wear. Not only does how we dress affect those around us, and how we are perceived, it affects our own mood, and perception of ourselves. This effect is called enclothed-cognition.

In a study done at Northwestern University, subjects were tested while wearing a “doctor’s coat,” a “painter’s coat,” (identical to the M.D.’s coat) and no coat at all. Subjects performed better at a test of observation skill when wearing what they thought to be a doctor’s coat, versus the painter’s coat, or no coat at all. The had to be wearing the coat. Hanging it over the chair, or looking at it did not produce the same effect.

“Dressing up” is not only good for us, but it is good for business, too! People perceive women dressed more (business) formally and conservatively as more intelligent, and these same women are more likely to be hired, promoted, and paid more. We hold ourselves differently in dress clothes than in casual wear, and we behave differently, too. In fact, correlations have been found between relaxing dress codes and rising rates of harassment. More casual dress = more casual (read: less appropriate) behavior.

The biggest complaint people have about “dressing up” for business is that they are uncomfortable. For some this is a physical discomfort, trousers are too tight, or heels make feet hurt, but those are all problems with the clothing purchased. There is no reason to buy uncomfortable clothes. If you have an issue with comfort (often the case with people who rate themselves as highly kinesthetic) then you need to be extra careful when selecting items for work. It takes careful research and effort, but will pay for itself (literally!) in the end.

For others the discomfort is mental. They never have dressed in traditional office wear, or they are uncomfortable in their required corporate dress, and feel like a fraud. For new entries into the corporate world who have spent their lives in jeans and athletic shoes, the discomfort can feel overwhelming. This is a real concern to address and requires a little more mental exploration than the physical discomfort issue. Unless you wear a proscribed uniform with no customization options, there are ways to make your workwear more mentally comfortable.

If you work in a very traditional environment that requires a suit and tie five days a week, but have a more relaxed personality, there are ways to bridge the disconnect that may cause your mental discomfort. One option could be as simple as keeping a sweater on the back of your chair to wear with your shirt, (loosened tie if male,) and trousers when you are not in meetings. (Yes, this may smack of Mr. Rogers!) Often, purchasing business wear in colors that better suit your personality and personal coloring can bring your business dress in sync with your physical self, and reduce discomfort.

What we wear creates a feedback loop that we can use to our advantage. Say what you mean with your words, your actions, and your clothing.

Does your workwear reflect your business environment and personality, or do you feel out of sync? Please share your experience in the comments below!

Thanks to Katherine of Not Dressed as Lamb for the link-up!

Clothing as Language

Clothing as Language

I was privileged to be asked to participate in a Professional Empowerment Seminar for women this week! The sponsor was a financial advisor particularly interested in helping women secure their financial independence. While finance and fashion may seem an odd combination, empowerment is at the root of how both of us work. I thought I would share just three of the questions I was asked here, as well as (what I remember of) my answers.

What is the most common question that people ask you when they find out what you do?

I get very different reactions from men and women. Women are often more interested in finding out what I do, and how, but usually the first thing men will ask is a confident “How’d I do?” accompanied by a head to toe gesture with the hands. My reply is usually “That depends… What did you mean to say?” Which gets me a quizzical look until I explain that dress is communication, and that you speak volumes with what you put on each day to go out the door, whether you gave it any thought or not.

What is the difference between Fashion and Style?

Those two terms are often used interchangeably, especially in the media. When I use them, fashion is the clothing found in the stores, or in our closets. Fashion is the “stuff” or even the trends or the looks that define an age. Think big shoulders in the 1980’s were the fashion, or Athleisure is a current fashion favorite. Style, in contrast to Fashion, is the outward expression of your personality. Fashion is the tool you use to express your Style. Yves Saint Laurent said it best when he said “Fashion fades, but Style is eternal.”

What does Fashion (or Style) have to do with empowerment?

This question could be answered with a doctoral thesis! In a nutshell, what we wear affects not only how others perceive us, but also how we feel about ourselves, and even how we perform. Psychologists call this “enclothed cognition.” If you ever had a “lucky” shirt, or shoes you were taking advantage of enclothed cognition. Have you ever noticed how when you feel like you look good you walk with a spring in your step? You carry yourself differently, with more confidence. I call that empowerment. For many women this is hit and miss, and many days they don’t feel great walking out the door. Some people have a talent for style, but dressing to one’s best advantage is an art and science every woman can learn. You don’t need anyone’s permission to dress yourself to feel great. Give yourself permission; that’s empowerment!

Anything you would like to ask? Please do in the comments below!

Work Wear Issues

Work Wear Issues

I was asked to write a series of articles for a local business paper, Buzz On Biz. This first article is an introduction–some thoughts about from where many business dress issues arise. I thought I would share it here, as readers may be familiar with some of these in their own workplaces…

“Paul, we have issues with how your team is dressing. Please handle that.” Employee Dress Issues: Three words that strike terror into the hearts of supervisors, managers, and Human Resources professionals everywhere. Dress issues crop up regularly, but no one wants to manage them; it is messy and awkward. Most employee dress issues stem from four causes.


Assumptions can be dangerous! When management hires a new employee, the managers assume the new hire understands what dress is required, because he or she came to the interview appropriately dressed. Employee dress codes should be discussed during the interview process, to make sure that the applicant understands what will be required. This also creates an awareness from the start that employee dress is a matter of importance to the company.

In the absence of a written dress code, reviewed and signed by the employee, a new hire makes assumptions based on what he or she sees others wearing. Taking cues from others who are inappropriately dressed, or from employees with a different position and dress requirement, creates a problem. Newly promoted employees may run into the same issues as the newly hired, and the same courtesy of explanation should be afforded them.

Dress Code Ambiguity

Found in an employee handbook: “Female employees may not wear short skirts.” Dress codes are rife with rules like this.  Any parent of a teen will tell you that “short” is far too open to interpretation! Define short. Ask five different people if a skirt is short. Unless it is skirting indecency laws (My apologies, the pun was too hard to resist!) there will be disagreement. Lest you think ambiguity is simply an issue for women and their hemlines, prohibiting clothing with slogans or logos sounds simple, right? Does the horse on the pocket count? Is the boss’ shirt pocket monogram a problem?  Do I have to cut the tag off my jeans? Creating a clear written dress code with visuals to illustrate both correct and incorrect modes of dress gives everyone a clear standard.

Inconsistent Dress Code Application

When employees feel targeted, whether individually, by gender or by job, for dress code violations, morale takes a hit. Maybe at the staff meeting, the men are called out for torn (or air-conditioned) jeans, but the women are not (That’s the fashion!). On the other side of the gender divide, the women are asked to tone down their perfume when the men are wearing enough body spray to disguise a corpse in the filing cabinet. Does anyone hold the supervisors accountable when they miss a trip to the barber, or is it only the guys on the shop floor who hear about it when their hair needs a trim? As they say, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. A dress code should apply to all, or to none.

Management change is another source of inconsistency. Old Manager never enforced the dress code, and now New Sheriff in Town is struggling. This is an opportunity for the new management to demonstrate leadership and an investment in employee success. Bringing in a professional to facilitate employee dress workshops and/or training sessions demonstrates both the intention to take employee dress seriously, and provides the support needed for success. Yes, there will probably still be grumbling, but no one can complain that they don’t know what New Sheriff wants!

Uniform Buy-In

“Tom looks like he slept in his uniform! That’s an embarrassment.” Employee uniforms frequently are a source of friction. Business owners with uniformed employees must ensure that the uniforms are appropriate for the job, not just “what the boss likes.” Comfort and safety, maintenance and color, all play into appropriateness. A professional to mediate the selection process can help. Employees who have a say in what uniform they wear are happier and more comfortable. That is a win for the employee, the company, and the customer.

Do any of these seem familiar? Or do you think I am missing some categories? Please let me know in the comments below!