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How to Fit Into Dress Codes in the Workplace

How do you know what's right for your office wardrobe?
How do you know what's right for your office wardrobe?
Geri Lavrov/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Three-piece, pin-striped suit. White button-down shirt. Diagonally striped cravat. Wing-tipped shoes. Such was the strict dress code of anybody who worked for IBM in the 1960s. Peek into any IBM headquarters nowadays, however, and you're more likely to see polo shirts and khaki pants.

Across much of the western world, corporations, politicians and even royalty seem to be relaxing their standards for proper attire. Hours after being sworn in, President Barack Obama was holding jacket-less meetings in the Oval Office. Even Buckingham Palace is letting its hair down. Jeans and flip-flops are now accepted apparel at garden parties hosted by Queen Elizabeth. Dressing down, it seems, is positively de rigueur.

Yet, even in this age of running shoes and unbuttoned collars, professional dress codes remain an important part of the modern workplace. For anybody who had to endure uniforms in high school, an official dress code may seem like an outdated corporate relic. But a dress code isn't just arbitrary sets of rules; it's seen as a meaningful component of a well-run company.

Many business schools now require their senior-level students to show up to class clad in suit and tie. Keeping up a closet of well-pressed suits is a tricky prospect for cash-strapped university students, but instructors will insist that it's essential training for the pinstripes and power suits of the corporate world. Clothes make the man or woman, and wherever your workplace may be, you've got to be prepared to dress the part.

Keep reading to find out why techies don't wear ties.

Know the Territory

Even before you sit down for a job interview, you should be boning up on the dress code of your prospective employer. Proper attire is key to a successful job interview, and if you can show up clothed as a model of official dress policy, your interviewers will definitely take notice.

But how to find out a company's dress code? Start by checking online. Many large firms, such as General Electric or Goldman Sachs, will post their dress codes directly to their Web site. You can also check with a company's human resources department. Feel free to call up a representative and quiz him or her on the basics of office attire.

Keep in mind that your dress will be heavily influenced by your job description. If you're in a position that deals with the public, such as a receptionist or salesperson, you'll likely be in the top end of the dress code: expect ties, suit jackets and pleated pants. If you're an office technician, on the other hand, you might be able to clock in with nothing more than a polo shirt and a pair of pleated work pants. Wiring up a computer can be dusty work, and it's no place for a pin-striped suit.

Be sure to check if your office's dress code is subject to seasonal changes. During the summer, your employer may slacken the dress code to include capri pants and sleeveless shirts -- particularly if your office isn't equipped with air conditioning. Before the heat wave comes, check with your superiors on whether it's alright to leave the suit jacket behind.

Even if your office doesn't have a set dress code, be sure to have your boss lay out some basic parameters. Is Friday a casual day? And if so, how casual? Some offices demand "business casual" -- collared shirt, pleated pants and a pair of dress shoes. Other offices will allow blue jeans and T-shirts. Are shorts ever allowed? How about flip-flops? Getting a good idea of what not to wear is the best way to steer clear of a potential fashion disaster. One wrong outfit and you could be hearing about it for months.

Is your closet short of collars and cardigans? Keep reading to find out how to whip your wardrobe into professional shape.

Building Your (Management-approved) Wardrobe

Now that you know the rules, it's time to get your closet into shape. Start by combing through your existing wardrobe. What fits the code? What doesn't? Naturally, your college sweaters and Led Zeppelin T-shirts probably won't make the cut. For convenience's sake, keep these leisure clothes separate from your work clothes. The more organized your closet, the better prepared you'll be to craft a suitable work outfit each morning -- especially if you're a little pressed for time.

If you're in the beginning stages of your career, your collection of office-ready clothes will probably need some additions -- which means it's time to hit the shops. Fashion is pricey, and clothes shopping for a new job could easily cost you hundreds of dollars. Check to see if your employer has a special deal with any clothing retailers. And, if you're a savvy shopper, you might consider picking up a few outfits on the thrift store circuit.

Aim for flexible clothes. The modern worker will switch jobs multiple times during the course of his or her career -- and encounter multiple dress codes. Instead of just filling your closet with suits, go for clothing items you can mix and match: a few pairs of dark pants, a turtleneck, some dark jackets and a good supply of white shirts. Keep the colors basic. By sticking to common "office" colors like blue and gray, you'll be guaranteed a more versatile wardrobe.

If you can afford it, spring for higher-quality clothes. Not only will they look better, but they'll last longer. If your jackets are looking threadbare after only a few months, it might be time to put more money into your clothing budget. Don't forget to allow for changes in the weather. On cold days, bundle up with wool pants, a cardigan or a sweater vest. During the summer, beat the heat with Egyptian cotton and light colors.

At one time, professional clothes were a lot of work. Looking good in the 1960s required regular trips to the drycleaners, hours spent over the ironing board and nightly appointments with the polishing cloth. Save yourself the trouble by loading up on modern, low-maintenance clothing such as wrinkle-free shirts, easy-shine shoes and machine-washable suits.

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