At ease

Taking casual approach to working wardrobe not as easy as it sounds

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2006

'Are you going to wear that?' For the first six months working at a Philadelphia design firm, Nick Inserra would hear the same comment every day from his wife when he was leaving for work.

"She was brutal," Inserra says. "We had a casual dress code, so I'd wear cargo pants and sweatshirts, but she couldn't stand it."

Inserra says he was comfortable at work, but he did feel a little underdressed when meeting with clients.

But when Inserra's employer announced plans to move to Baltimore, he began temping, where the term "casual" took on a different meaning.

"Casual now means khaki pants and collared shirts," Inserra says. "It took a couple of days and some dirty looks for me to figure that out."

The hardest thing about your job shouldn't be figuring out what to wear.

But, for many workers today, it is.

"Things are not as easy as it used to be out there," says Mary Lou Andre, editor of and author of "Ready to Wear: An Expert's Guide to Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe" (Perigree Books, $16.95). "Ten to 15 years ago, you knew what to wear to work - a suit. Now, there are many interpretations of what is appropriate."

What to wear

According to a study conducted by California State University, Sacramento, almost one in three American workers feel it is harder to know what is acceptable to wear to the office today than it was 10 years ago.

Your work attire choices can also affect more than just your dry cleaning bill - they can affect your career track.

Experts believe that workers who dress inappropriately for the office won't be granted as many career-advancing opportunities, particularly those opportunities that involve interactions with clients.

"[Not dressing appropriately] can actually impede your career growth," says Michelle Sterling, principal of Global Image Group, an image-consulting services firm based in New York and San Francisco. "You could have very talented people in terms of how they perform their job, but if they can't be presented to the client, they won't be given the opportunity. The client makes their impression on the type of work the company provides based on how the people representing the company look."

Dressing your best can help you project an image of authority and confidence and communicate to co-workers that you take your job seriously.

"All those things have huge implications in the workforce," Andre says.

Dress for success

Whether your company embraces formal business attire or more low-key business-casual looks, experts agree that some wardrobe choices are completely off-limits for the office. Here are some tips from experts to help you make better office attire decisions:

• Heat is on: As temperatures warm up across the country, workers face a unique challenge when it comes to dressing for the office during the humid summer months. Although tank tops and flip-flops are definitely not appropriate, workers can reach a wardrobe compromise.

Sterling suggests that women commute to work in a sleeveless top, but wear a jacket around the office. Sandals are not acceptable, but sling-back shoes, with their uncovered backs, are cooler and more office-appropriate.

For men, fabrics that are lightweight and breathable, like cotton blends and thin wool, are good warm-weather choices.

If you usually wear a T-shirt underneath your button-down shirt, skip it.

"A nice tailored shirt that fits you well shouldn't be worn with a T-shirt or undershirt," Sterling says. "That's another way to keep it cool."

• A.M. versus P.M.: Experts agree that dressing too provocatively - usually in clothes meant to be worn out-on-the-town - and dressing too casually are the two most common office wear mistakes.

"Dressing business casual or for casual Friday does not mean you can just roll out of bed or wear what you wore Thursday night," Sterling says. "If it's something you would wear out at night, then I don't recommend wearing it to work."

• Detail work: Don't overlook the details when getting dressed for work. Wrinkled clothes, worn-out shoes and rips and tears can send the wrong message. Conversely, an outfit that looks finished and put together can communicate positive things about you and how you view your job.

"When you don't take the time to complete the look, that can manifest itself in the workplace," Andre says. "You send signals that the details do not really matter to you."

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