What to Wear to Work? Navigating Office Dress Codes

Office Dress Codes

Want to know what to wear to work? Office dress codes are often ill-defined resources that leave employees unsure of their sartorial boundaries. Here, we’ll look at some common work environments and try to dispel a bit of the mystery.

There is nothing that induces eye-rolling and a unison chorus of reluctant groans like a discussion about the office dress code…or at least, it has that effect on me. Dress codes are just one of those talking points that seem to cause more confusion than they dispel, regardless of whatever good intentions may be behind them.

Add to that the ever-increasingly casual culture of public life (sweat suits, flip-flops, yoga pants…argh!), and it is no small wonder that many of today’s office workers are left scratching their heads as to what the rules of what to wear to work really are.

If this sounds familiar to you, you should know that help has arrived. After an exhaustive research process in which many potato chips and soy chai lattes sacrificed themselves to the cause, I have been able to compile a handy quick-reference guide to help you dress for the office, whatever type of office that may be.

Take your fashion cues from those around you

what to wear to work

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that you have to start dressing like Mabel from Accounting, with her calf-length dirndl skirts and a pair of orthopaedic shoes that could blot out the small island nation of Vanuatu in one stomp. The goal here is not so much to imitate, but to try to determine exactly which way the sartorial wind is blowing.

To do so, you want to look beyond the cubicle next to you. Instead, look to the most successful people in your office. Look at the way they put themselves together, and try to envision what kind of wardrobe combinations you already have hanging in your closet that might fit the prototype for your particular institution’s culture.

If you find yourself falling short of clothing options, chances are you are probably going to have to go shopping. Don’t let this overwhelm you. Think about what you have seen on some of the most successful people in your work environment, think about what you have in your closet, then pick up a magazine or two or go online and have a look at some of the fashion blogs and websites out there.

Choose some pieces that speak to you and that you think might work for your body type, and formulate a tactical shopping plan.

Does this work? Choosing the right clothes for the right office

what to wear to work

While no two work environments will ever be alike, there are certain pieces that will work in some environments and not others. Knowing your own (and its official policies) is the key to getting it right ultimately.

That said, there are a few clothing items in particular that seem to consistently pop-up as sticking-points for employees struggling with dress codes.

1. Hosiery


As old-fashioned as it sounds, hosiery is something that is still required in many more formal corporate environments. Those who work in more casual or creative environments (think call centers, fashion magazines, or art galleries) will invariably be allowed more freedom to ditch the pantyhose, especially in the warmer summer months.

If you are in doubt as to whether or not your office frowns upon a pair of bare legs and you can’t find any answers by looking at your company’s dress code, take your cues from senior members of staff. If they are able to go without hose, you should be fine. However, even if you are able to ditch the hose in an office environment, it’s best to choose a shoe that has more coverage to avoid looking and feeling too exposed.

2. Denim


If you work in finance, law, or any other type of formal corporate environment, you can forget about denim – it’s never going to happen.

Less traditional offices (including creative environments) usually have a casual dress policy on either a given day of the week, or more and more frequently, all the time. While denim is almost always allowed in this environment, it is important to choose your denim carefully.

Leave your distressed, acid-washed, and tie-dyed denim at home and opt for clean, solid dark washes. Avoid anything too tight or with too low a waistband; nobody wants or needs to see what you have on underneath your jeans.

3. Shorts


Unless you work in fashion or in the kind of relaxed, start-up venture environment that seems to only exist in the television programs I watch, shorts are probably a no-go. Even if you are lucky enough to be able to wear a pair of shorts to the office, make sure that they are a longer, Bermuda type style and pair them with closed toe flats or loafers if you are planning on wearing them with bare legs.

Paired with a boyfriend blazer and a button down shirt, this is a look that can be chicly androgynous and unexpected if the environment allows.

4. Spaghetti strap anything

Nope. Not going to work. Even if you think you’ve covered your bases and styled your thin strap top with a cardigan or jacket, you may need to remove the jacket at some point, and then you will be out of luck. Always be prepared to have to remove a layer, even in the dead of winter.

In any work environment where you might be tempted to wear a thin strap top, opt instead for a sleeveless blouse that extends to the edge of the shoulder. If you have to think about what to do with your bra strap, or think you might need to wear a strapless bra, the strap is too thin and you should choose another top.

5. Open-toe shoes or sandals


In formal corporate environments, a sling back pump may be appropriate, but an open toe shoe is probably not acceptable. Just make sure that your shoes look conservatively sophisticated (by which I guess I mean expensive), and that they don’t make that “slap, slap, slap” noise when you walk.

For less formal office environments, open toe shoes should be fine, just choose a pair that is not too sexy (i.e. no glitter, platforms, or (shudder) clear heels). More coverage is better than less, although those who have a lot of creative freedom at work will probably be able to wear even the strappiest of sandals with ease.

However, flip flops do not belong in any office environment, no matter how relaxed. If you are still knocking sand out of your shoes from your last beach holiday, they’re probably not appropriate for the office.

Your grandmother was right


As they say, sometimes the best ways are the old ways. One of the easiest ones to keep yourself in check if you’re unsure something is appropriate is to ask yourself if your Grandmother would approve of it. Consider each piece of clothing individually rather than as the sum of all of the parts to your look, and ask yourself, “What would Grandma think?” If you’re pretty sure that Grandma would send you home to change, choose another piece.

Regardless of the dress code, it’s important to ensure that your clothing is clean, neat, and professional-looking. Avoid wearing anything that’s too revealing or distracting, and opt for comfortable shoes that you can wear all day. Additionally, accessorizing with simple jewelry and a watch can help complete your professional look.

While you can certainly find any number of office environments that will prove to be exceptions to these guidelines, overall they are an excellent way to keep yourself on the right side of your boss (and your Grandmother) when you dress for work in the morning. What do you think is appropriate to wear to work? Share your experience in the comments below!

About the author

Kristin Buchholz-MacKillop

Kristin is an American writer based in the Scottish Highlands. She is a saxophonist, an obsessive tennis player, a U.S. Air Force Veteran, and holds a Master's degree as an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner. She is the author of the online style blog highlandfashionista.com

1 Comment

Click here to post a comment