Navigating the Unspoken Office Dress Code

What to wear on the first day of a new job is a major decision. Catherine Hageman explores the politics of office dress.

how to decide what to wear to work when the rules are unclear
(Image credit: Archives)

As new graduates (not to mention summer interns) begin their careers, one of the major decisions they'll face is what to wear on the first day of work.

At least it was a big deal for me. I remember my first-day-outfit — black pants with a white puffy-sleeve tee and an argyle sweater-vest.

The tee may have been a mistake, but the look is burned in my brain, thanks in part to the ID badge that I still use (and which causes the occasional double-take — I used to be a brunette!).

I began my career overdressing — blouses, black trousers and heels every day. After a few weeks, I realized my work-environment was a little more relaxed, the definition of business casual. But the truth was that there were no set-in-stone rules about what we could and couldn't wear — it was (and still is) a judgment call. I still remember hearing from a co-worker that flip-flop-like shoes were unacceptable only to look down at her feet and realize she was wearing them!

With no one telling me how to dress, I observed what my colleagues wore — and went to my mom for advice. I started with safe black trousers and branched out slowly. If black was a go, than I was reasonably certain navy would be as well. If trousers worked, why not try nice capris during the summer?

And maybe the most obvious path — I checked with my boss. Asking questions, especially when there are no clear-cut rules around the office dress code, shows your supervisor that you care about the impression you make at work — and it's a lot easier to ask than to have to explain an inappropriate clothing choice. After all, everything speaks to who you are as a colleague and employee — whether it's the state of your desk or the outfits you wear every day.

Catherine Hageman dispatches fashionista tendencies fit for a corporate career on Small Town, Big Wardrobe.