Tips for Navigating Your Office’s Dress Code

Summer – and the heat that accompanies it – is officially here. There are lot of benefits to summer in the office. You can see the sunshine from your desk, take meetings outside and even attend the occasional summer social with your colleagues. But one challenge we see every year is shaping a summer wardrobe to the office environment.

It’s hot, which means it’s tempting to be free! You want to throw on sandals and a crop top, rather than loafers and a jacket. Suns out, guns out and all that jazz. Of course, that’s not really appropriate for the office. But what is appropriate?

Even if you’re not the crop top type, you may very well find yourself in a situation where you just aren’t sure what’s considered “appropriate”. So how do you figure out what to wear?

There are a number of common routes to tackling this problem. You could go the “better safe than sorry” route and show up in a suit every day. But in some offices, that might actually negatively impact the way you’re perceived if the office you work in is very casual. Plus, who really wants to wear a suit every day if you don’t have to?

You could also check the latest issue of Vogue or a fashion blog, but you’re more likely to get blanketed advice that doesn’t consider the particulars of your environment.

Finally, you could just ask a coworker. But, who do you ask? What if they’re wrong?

While none of these tactics are wrong, they probably won’t be enough to help you navigate a new and unclear dress code. Instead, we suggest these three broader tips that can help you determine for yourself what’s best to wear at the office.

Floral Fridays: The Importance of Culture

At our office, we wear floral prints on Fridays during the summer. Yes, it probably is a little weird to clients who come into the office and find themselves wading in a sea of flowers. But, that’s our culture. Other offices have these sorts of quirks, too. Even the Senate has Seersucker Thursdays.

The first step to mastering your office dress code is learning the culture of your workplace. You may not have the one-off days with special outfits, but it’s guaranteed there are some unspoken norms of dress that echo the culture of your organization.

Take queues from the way business is run. For instance, if your office is pretty strict about scheduling meetings to talk about anything important or if people are more formal in the way they speak to colleagues, you can guess that attire is also held to a slightly higher bar of traditional professionalism. On the other hand, if employees tend to collaborate in open spaces or otherwise informally make decisions, you probably have more leeway on your attire, too.

Take the time to understand the culture of your organization, before stepping out in your own Floral Friday frock.

 The White House Test: Dress for What Might Happen

 In addition to understanding the culture of your workplace, you should also consider the field you’re in and what situations that work might lead you to.

I have been asked to a meeting at the White House once in my life. I was asked in the middle of the day for an afternoon meeting. And because it was the middle of the summer on a Friday, I was wearing flips flops. It was not great.

Of course, I went. You don’t turn down that offer. But I also thought about my exposed feet flip-flopping through the hallways for most of the meeting. The lesson? Don’t dress for the day you think you’ll have. Dress for the day you hope you’ll have.

I call this the White House Test. In the morning I ask myself if what I’m wearing would fly if I had to go to the White House again. You can apply this same test, even if you’re nowhere near the government space.

Say you work at a startup that has a super casual style and equally casual business partners. The most baller meeting you could potentially have might be at Google or another similarly casual office environment. In that case, you might just want to make sure your hoodie looks clean and your t-shirt doesn’t have explicit text on it.

The point is to be prepared for what might happen, so you’re always putting your best foot (or hoodie) forward.

Not Just Your Boss: Ask a Mentor

Finally, the most common advice I’ve heard on this subject is to ask your boss when you’re just not sure what to wear. However, I like the Career Contessa’s recommendation to ask a mentor instead.

Your boss isn’t always the best resource. They may be the opposite gender and not have a good gauge of your gender’s fashion rules. They may just not care about work attire. They might even be a serial offender of inappropriate work outfits themselves.

When that’s the case, pick a mentor who you trust to give candid advice and who is known for exemplifying professionalism in the workplace. Ask what rules they use to dictate their attire, and what they’ve learned from working in your office so far. You don’t have to copy their wardrobe, but their track record lets you trust that you can follow their guidelines for success.

Since a debacle last year regarding sleeveless dresses and sandles, the House has clarified some of its dress codes, but you can’t bank on your workplace doing the same. Use these tips to navigate your own way through murky dress-code waters. And if you have other tips, make sure to let us know in the comments below!

This article was originally posted in July 2017 on GovLoop.

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Profile Photo Hope Marshall

I’m so glad to read this! The warmer months can be tricky, especially for those who may commute on public transportation. I’ve since learned to wear my sneakers while traveling to/from the metro, but bring a change of shoes.

Profile Photo Breg

Love this advice. I have also heard the advice “dress like your boss dresses.” While you address the issues with this in the article, I think it could be changed to “dress like you would for the job you want.” So, if your goal is to advance to the next level in your agency, dress like the professionals at that level dress, rather than those at your current level.