Because... getting dressed should be fun!

Because... getting dressed should be fun!

Category: Business Dress

Occasions of Dress

Occasions of Dress

My apologies for the delayed publication of this post… I’d love to blame Technical Difficulties, but it really comes down to Operator Error.

Gone are the days where women or men had one outfit for Sunday Best, and another for the rest of the week. Now we have closets full of clothes, and people regularly complain that they don’t have what they need for the occasion at hand, whether that be a baby shower, or job interview.

One of my favorite books about fashion and style is The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish. I reread it regularly, and refer to it often. It is a book for anyone interested in the history of style and fashion in America, and the history of women in American society. In it, Linda Przybyszewski refers to a collected group of brilliant and determined academics as the Dress Doctors, who were “fashion influencers” long before the existence of social media. They believed in elevating everyday life by applying the principles of art and the occasions of dress. These multi-talented women found themselves relegated to the Home Economics departments of universities, and found a way to thrive and be taken seriously. “Home Ec” was an art, not merely a necessity. They preached that beauty can and should be found in the quotidian. After all, that’s where most of us live. The Dress Doctors considered dress to be:

one of our social duties for two reasons. First, because the world has to look at us whether it wants to or not. Second, because the world has work to do, and an inappropriately dressed individual can be distracting. These two reasons explain why “making the most of your looks is not vanity.” The effort “indicates proper self-regard and consideration of others.”

In The Lost Art of Dress, Ms. Przybyszewski outlines the Six Occasions of Dress  for older children and adults. These included: (1) School, (2) Spectator Sports and Active Sports, (3) Street, Travel, or Work, (4) Housework, (5) Afternoon Affairs or Tea, (6) After-Five or Formal Evenings. From what I see on the streets today, categories 1-4 seem to have collapsed into one for many Americans, unless they work in an office with a dress code at a level above Business Casual. Category 5 has disappeared completely for most of America, unless you count happy hour. After-Five and Formal Evenings still hold a place, albeit for most of us, very rare.

I am not the only person who has noticed that in our current culture, for many, dressing for the occasion is dead. I am called into workplaces for employee training for exactly that reason. (Or because employees are taking their work wear cues from Hollywood and Pinterest.) I have witnessed church wedding attendees in cargo shorts, logo tees, and flip-flops. (The wedding party was in full length dresses and tuxedos, so no, the wedding was not casual.) Even beach weddings with flip-flops don’t usually go to the cargo shorts and logo tees extreme.

Many blogs and articles complain about the “casualization”of American dress, and give myriad reasons for the shift to “dressing down.” Everything from ignorance of propriety, laziness, lack of discipline, the obesity epidemic, and fast fashion have all been blamed for sweatpants culture. The “high” cost of clothing is my favorite… This excuse does not come from those in the industry. Cost cannot be the reason. We buy more clothing than ever, and still spend a lower percentage of our income on clothes than we did in the 1950’s, when (after looking at lots of photos) we were certainly better dressed! More than anything, I think it reflects the infantilization of our modern American society.

Since the 1960’s and the Youthquake, maturity has taken a beating. Our culture has been chasing youth, or the illusion of youth, for more than a generation. We don’t even grow-up anymore. We “adult”. What rubbish! There are privileges that come with maturity as well as responsibilities. Why not celebrate the privileges rather than cling to immaturity. There is nothing wrong with a youthful attitude (I think it’s a necessity), but dressing like a teenager usually comes across as childish rather than youthful. Previously, one of the privileges of maturity included what you could wear. Women in their 20’s were not seen as mature enough for the elegant styles designed for a woman in her 40’s. I remember looking into my mother’s closet as a girl, and wondering when I would be old enough to wear some of her beautiful things. (Cocktail pretties, and later, a stunning silver St. John knit gown!)

For those whose parents were busy chasing an extended adolescence, and missed out on the education of what to wear when, I have taken liberties with the Dress Doctor’s 6 Occasions for our modern age. Your wardrobe needs to fit your life, so if you never attend weddings or eat out at nice restaurants because that violates some deeply held principle, don’t worry about that category! Most funerals are not planned, and shopping is the last thing you need to be doing when grieving, or supporting those that are; please make sure you at least have something that fits the Solemn Occasion category…


School:  At one time, elementary school children, high school students, and college students all had their own styles of dress. Now, university students can be seen at class in their pajamas, and many other students attend classes dressed for athletic competition, or they look ready to clean out the garage. School is the child’s equivalent of work, and students should be dressed for it. Not necessarily shirts and ties, but in comfortable, not ready-to-roll-in-the-dirt, clothes. (Or where I live: ready-to-go-hunting clothes.) Creating a distinction between school clothes and play clothes (as in previous generations) creates a structure that supports the business that study is. When I taught in a school with uniforms, I (and other teachers!) dreaded out-of-uniform days for the attitude shift in the children. There was less respect for others, and less concentration on schoolwork. When students dress for play, they demonstrate play behavior and manners from the first bell to the last.

Work:  The same principle applies to adults and work. Unless you are a yoga instructor, or personal trainer, you don’t need to wear fitness gear all day long. I understand the appeal of athleisure, but by definition, work is not leisure, so save athleisure for non-office time. If you work from home, like I often do, and are caring for children or slipping in housework between business calls, dress in a manner that you will not find you embarrassed if a client or business associate drops by, and throw an apron over your clothes if you worry about stains. (I wear mine when having coffee because I am a mess.) Check your business dress code. If you need to make up your own, unless your job requires dirty physical labor, it is usually better to find yourself overdressed than underdressed.


Going to a game? Playing after work or on the weekend? Gardening or hitting the building supply store for work on that project? Great! Wear what works for your sport, hobby, or project. And think about where else you may choose to go. Please think twice before going to brunch after spinning at the gym. You don’t need to be marinating in your own juices for the next two hours, especially at a restaurant.

My husband and I take ballroom dance classes, so some of my leisure/play wear looks like what someone else might wear to a wedding. That fits my lifestyle, but maybe not yours. I keep a box of clothes to wear for yardwork and camping under my bed; they don’t need to take up my valuable closet real estate.


Festive: In festive occasions, I include events such as wedding or baby showers, dinners out for celebrations, casual or daytime weddings, and other similar affairs. Often these outfits are brighter in color, or have bolder patterns than work wear, but if your workplace is more casual, you may have pieces that cross over well. A brightly colored dress, or trousers with a cheerful blouse can usually fill in the gap, especially with some added sparkle. Leave your work tote or everyday bag at home. Try something smaller and less utilitarian.

Solemn: As I mentioned above, solemn occasions are not usually planned. A court date or jury duty, funerals, or other important appointments are less of a stress if you already have something appropriate to wear. My least favorite appointment is being called to help someone buy an outfit for a funeral, even if it is a privilege to help during a difficult time. If your work wear is conservative and neutral, you probably have what you need, but if most of your clothing is leisure wear, making sure you have a neutral trouser outfit with a subdued top, or a easy to throw on (not party) dress in your closet can be an emergency lifesaver. This is the time to leave the sparkle at home, but adding a bit of subtle sheen looks like you made an effort.

If you find you need to buy a new dress for a festive or solemn occasion, and they are rare in your world, please don’t spend a fortune on your outfit. Are you really going to wear it again? If not, look at renting, or check out the consignment stores in your area. The cost per wear on party outfits is a budget buster! Spend your money where you make your money, not on a party frock!

Special Event Wear

Other events are much dressier. Does your company have a holiday cocktail party every year? Or do you have formal occasions to attend? I used to have two dresses for the military ball we would attend each year. We moved every three years, so I would just alternate years. If anyone was bothered that I wore the same dress, that wasn’t my problem. Now I don’t have any, because our life doesn’t require gala wear. Buy for the life you live. If clubwear doesn’t fit your life, then leave it behind in the store, no matter how cute that little dress is… I have a few dresses I wear for ballroom dance events, and these can cross over for cocktail parties and other (exceedingly rare) events of that type. I am looking for a new dress to wear for my son’s wedding next fall, and am hoping to find one I love that I will be able to wear again.

What categories of dress do you need for your lifestyle? Did I leave out a category that is a must for you? Please let me know in the comments below; I love to hear from you!


Business Dress Codes Deciphered

Business Dress Codes Deciphered

 Traditional Business Dress is what most people imagine when they think corporate “suit.” Traditional Business Dress (TBD) is widely seen the C-Suites, and in banking, finance, and law. The goal is to look serious and trustworthy. Why would you put your money or life into someone’s hands who looks casual or “risky”? Some real estate professionals also wear TBD, a logical choice if you think of a home or piece of property as the largest investment a person may make.

In Traditional Business Dress, men wear a (dark) suit, shirt, and tie. They are covered from neck to toes, and down the arms to the wrists. The only exposed skin we see is the face and hands. Women’s TBD equivalent is similarly armored, and in subdued colors. For women that means skirts are down to the knees, and shoulders are not exposed. Hose are always worn, and closed shoes are expected. Accessories are usually fine and subtle.

Smart Business (SmtB) is similarly covered up, but less stiff and structured. The jacket and trousers may not be of the same fabric, but the trousers are generally wool or a wool blend, not cotton. You will see more color and pattern in shirts and ties. Shirt sleeves are long, and a jacket is still expected. For many men, the grey trousers plus blue blazer is the Smart Business default, but that is certainly not the only option! One summer variation here in the South is the lighter colored and more relaxed look of the seersucker suit and white bucks.
For women, Smart Business expects the same level of coverage as TBD, but often the colors will be brighter, and with more patterns and combinations. Accessories are often bolder and more expressive of personality.

Relaxed Business (RelB) takes another step down from the formality of Smart Business. RelB has less structure and more color than the above manners. Men’s shirt sleeves may be short, and a tie is not always expected. Relaxed Business is less “covered up.” If no jacket is worn, long sleeves are still often preferred.

Women’s RelB may find sleeveless dresses and tops appropriate, but the tops of the shoulders are still covered (no tanks or spaghetti straps). Less structure means that wider, softer skirts are seen, and fine knits will be commonly worn. A cardigan will often be chosen as a topper, rather than a jacket. Accessories will often be larger, and more colorful than in the more formal codes above.

Business Casual (BusCas) became a phenomenon in the 1990’s. This is the dress code that many offices and schools have adopted. Business casual is not what you would wear: to an outdoor activity, cleaning your garage, out for a pub crawl, or on a “looking for love” outing. The first word is still Business! Everything is less structured, but should not veer over the line into leisure wear. The default here for men is often khakis and a sport shirt. If jeans are worn, they are dark (not distressed or torn) and balanced with other structured pieces like a jacket or collared shirt. When knits are worn, they too, are balanced with more structured pieces.

For women the difference between Relaxed Business and BusCas often comes down to the shoes. Open toes are commonly seen as Business Casual, as well as fabric shoes instead of leather.

As difficult as it may be for those of us living in the center of the golf universe to believe… Not everyone is familiar with Masters’ Casual! A common dress code for small businesses here in Augusta, and even for larger businesses during the season, and often well into summer, Masters’ Casual generally consists of khakis and a golf shirt with loafers or boat shoes. One April is all you need to be indoctrinated into our specialty form of BusCas!

What’s the dress code where you work? Please share in the comments below!

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!