Anyone who's been in the workforce long enough knows that office dress code and work culture vary widely from industry to industry. What works for a tech firm in Silicon Valley probably looks very different from a Wall Street bank. Whether you work for a corporate law firm or a creative advertising agency, one conundrum seems to be universal—What's appropriate to wear to the office?
The truth is that office dress code policies are becoming increasingly more casual, especially in the boom of startup culture. Susan Scafidi, a Fordham University law professor and founder of the Fashion Law Institute, went as far as telling The New York Times in 2016 that we're "moving into an era where personal expression is going to trump the desire to create a corporate identity."
Company culture, of course, isn't solely defined by the office dress code. Still, celebrity stylist Jacqui Stafford believes in putting your best foot forward. "I don't care if the boss is showing up in jeans and a ripped T-shirt, you don't need to follow the herd. I'm a firm believer that whatever the rules are, you still need to dress in a way that you'll be taken seriously."
Be that as it may, over 50 percent of those on the job hunt say that office dress codes play an important role in taking a new position, according to a Salary.com survey. With the weather warming up and a crop of new grads getting ready to enter the workforce, we decided to tackle this tricky terrain once and for all. When it comes to decoding office dress codes, here's how to stay in HR's good graces in every industry.
The super casual office
Comfort doesn't necessarily have to come at the expense of professionalism. If you're in a denim-friendly office, for example, the right pair of jeans can make all the difference. "If you're able to wear jeans, you can go for a darker wash in a modern, trend-right style, but avoid any whiskering, fading or distressing," says Stafford. ("Whiskering," by the way, refers to those little crease lines you often see in worn-out jeans.)
In other words, the idea is to opt for clean-looking denim that you can dress up a bit with the right top, shoes and accessories. High-rise jeans are having their moment this season, according to the experts over at Vogue. For women, we're seeing this pop up in both wide-leg and skinny silhouettes. Meanwhile, menswear denim is all about slim-fit over traditional wide legs.
As for accessories, trench jackets are particularly in right now for women—especially when cinched with a belt. When considering tops, Stafford says T-shirts never have a place in the office, no matter how casual the dress code may be. Instead, men can opt for patterned, short-sleeved dress shirts; women can get playful with ruffles, fun patterns and so on, like tucked-in button-down shirts with high-rise jeans.
Breaking down "business casual"
Oh, the ever-elusive "business casual." According to Stafford, the way to nail this dress code is to pad your closet with some essential staple pieces that you can mix and match as you go.
"A nice dress pant, a well-fitting dress, some dressier fabrics; business casual means leaving the denim at home and going with something that looks a bit dressier than what you'd wear on the weekend," she says. For men, we're seeing a lot of that slim-fit look for pants—elevated a bit with a slightly rolled-up leg. Dressing it up with a nice pair of loafers and a dress shirt instantly pushes it into business-casual territory. (Add a blazer to take it a step further.)
Women can also punch up a casual wardrobe by swapping jeans for a sleek pair of slacks, or weaving in a statement scarf or some bold jewelry. The idea is to look put-together and polished in a way that's not too dressed up. For a breath of fresh air, office-friendly jumpers are also making a splash. Just be sure to opt for sleeves as business casual doesn't leave room for bare shoulders.
When the office dress code is more conservative
Those working in an industry like financial services or law may find their clothing options a bit more limited. Fear not: Stafford says it's more than possible to be expressive and feel like yourself, even if your office dress code is on the conservative side.
"A great way to add a little flair and get out of the box is to think about accessories," she says. "A print belt, a vibrant scarf, a bag or great shoe can go far when the rest of your work uniform errs on the side of neutrals like charcoal, ebony and navy."
While we're on the topic of office wardrobe essentials, women's suits have certainly come a long way. Fitted options in subtle patterns work for the conservative office, although new spins on the iconic '80s power suit are making their way into the mainstream—think somewhat oversized jackets with high-waist, wide-leg trousers. The look leans into slightly masculine territory and adds a little gender fluidity to the mix.
Men looking for something with a little more flair can ditch the traditional suit and play with solid colors or plaid. If sticking to the traditional navy, black or gray options, you can also get expressive with a patterned dress shirt, silk tie or bold shoe.
In the end, it's about respecting your office dress code policies while still being true to your individual style. The good news? It doesn't have to be an either/or situation.
Photography by Mel Walbridge