A couple weeks ago, the news broke that some journalists were being turned away from Congressional news briefings for wearing sleeveless dresses and/or open-toed shoes. The story led to a lot of debate about dress codes in professional settings – especially where the rules are undefined yet expectations remain.
Even if you’re not a journalist on the Hill beat, 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.
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!