The days are long past when appropriate work attire meant men in suits and women in pantyhose. Most workplaces today land somewhere between business casual and casual when it comes to wardrobe.
But those terms can be confusing, and making the wrong choices can get in the way of your career advancement. So here are a few tips to help you suit up without feeling like a stuffed shirt.
1. Learn what’s expected
To paraphrase fashion icon Coco Chanel, dress shabbily and they remember the outfit; dress impeccably and they remember you.
Your outfit shouldn’t distract from your abilities, nor should your clothes make you so uncomfortable that you can’t do your job—or so comfortable that it looks like you just climbed out of bed.
If you’re newly entering the workforce or starting a new position, ask about dress code in the interview process.
If your work involves physical activity, like childcare, service industry jobs or engineering/construction, look for clothes that are durable, attractive and can be thrown in the washing machine.
If you don’t conform to a gender binary, your clothes don’t have to either. Seek out androgynous clothing options in which you feel confident, polished and professional.
2. Dress for the job you want
Look at the people or jobs you aspire to, and dress the way they do.
Do your boss and the person above them wear jeans or leggings and a t-shirt? Then you can do the same. But take note: are their jeans dirty or t-shirts full of holes? Probably not. So yours shouldn’t be.
Supervisors, remember that your team looks to you for clues about what’s appropriate.
Your wardrobe matters most on days when your image and your ambitions will be judged, such as interviews, presentations or conferences. Remember your coat and bag or briefcase. You don’t want to pull out your “I’ve had this since high school” Pokémon backpack in front of a potential employer.
3. Invest in a few smart pieces
You can dress well even on a strict budget, searching resale and consignment shops. Be critical when you buy: make sure there aren’t stains or tears. Your local tailor can often take a diamond in the rough and fit it perfectly to your shape.
If you’re buying new, invest in classically styled, high-quality items that you can wear for years. Well-fitting pants or skirt, a blazer or sweater in a neutral color and a dressy shirt will always look sharp. This doesn’t have to be boring; find shapes that suit your personality and make you feel confident.
4. Add your personality
Identify your own style and the image you want to present. For example, I love geeky novelty jewelry—like a “Game of Thrones” pendant or Wonder Woman earrings—that suit my profession and make me feel like me.
Shoes, jewelry, coats, purses and briefcases are often overlooked but can make a statement or make a less expensive wardrobe look like a million dollars.
Some people view the rules as conforming or confining. Instead, think of them as respectful of the space you are in and the job you were hired to do—and representative of your own amazing potential.
As Chanel also said, “Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself.”
Career Corner is a monthly feature written by UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Elizabeth Schrimpf, a career counselor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.