Lifestyle & Retirement

Show some office style to avoid a dressing-down

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Listening to a presentation by an expert on workplace wardrobes, I realized my closet is so replete with fashion violations it should be burned to the ground, covered with concrete and then burned again for good measure.

I dress, apparently, like an unhip version of everyone’s grandfather.

This doesn’t technically bother me. The only reason I wear clothes at all is because it’s illegal not to, and whenever I’m shirtless, I get mistaken for Matthew McConaughey. (Please pause for a moment and allow my wife to stop laughing.)

The mantra we’ve heard is "dress for success," but according to Maegan Zarley, director of wardrobe at a Chicago-based company called The Image Studios, few of us are pulling it off. And that bothers her.

"Wardrobe is the biggest piece of visual real estate you have," she said. "It’s the biggest part of your body. That should represent who you are. That’s what allows you to effectively communicate with other people."

I said I’m not a fan of judging people by their appearance, and Zarley — and I’m paraphrasing — said, "Tough luck, dummy."

"We want to think it doesn’t matter this much, but the reality is that it does matter this much," she said. "You want the impressions you’re making to be positive and memorable. You don’t want people to remember you by what you were wearing or your crazy hair or having lipstick on your teeth."

Then she brought up the concept of "visual communication." A person doesn’t want his or her appearance to get in the way of communicating with a boss or co-worker or client.

"If you have two team members, one 22 and one 50, they already have that age disconnect," Zarley said. "That disconnect is furthered when they can’t visually communicate with each other, when one’s wearing Converse sneakers and jeans and one’s wearing a three-piece suit from 1990. They can be distracted."

So you want to dress current — in a way that isn’t going to strike people as too out of step or over the top. What you wear to work shouldn’t distract people from listening to you and appreciating your talents. It’s not so much dressing in a way that’s going to make people say, "Wow, you’re stylish." It’s dressing so that you are what matters, not what you’re wrapped in.

The good news is, you don’t have to drop a ton of money to accomplish this.

"It doesn’t have to be from Barneys or Bergdorf or Brooks Brothers," Zarley said. "It can be from wherever. It’s about making the right choices with your clothes."

Here, then, are some simple tips to avoid looking like me:

–For guys, pleated pants are a dated look. Your trousers (which is a dated word) should be flat-front, whether they’re khakis or suit pants.

–Most dudes wear shirts that are a little "roomier," and then tuck them in and let them pooch out around the waist.

"Men tuck the shirt in and blouse it out because it doesn’t fit them right," Zarley said. "Why have so much excess fabric? Make sure it’s a modern-cut shirt, one that’s more fitted."

–Don’t wear sneakers with a suit or any work outfit — you’ll look like an aging hipster.

–And, sadly, short-sleeve shirts are a big no-no, even in the summer, when they seem so darn sensible.

"That’s a look that’s just not ‘in,’ it dates you significantly," said Zarley, wiping out 75 percent of my summer wardrobe. "It would be better to just have a long-sleeve shirt on and roll the sleeves."

–Steer clear of wide-toed, rubber-soled loafers. Try instead for a leather brogue, something with a slim, clean line that isn’t too clunky.

Ties should not be too wide, with stripes for work and patterns elsewhere.

(She didn’t say anything about Batman boxer briefs, so I’m sure those are OK.)

For women, there are more options, clothing-wise, which can make it difficult to narrow the tips.

Zarley pointed out that many professional women still attempt to mirror what men wear: "They have the same uniform almost, sometimes the same type of fit, pants with the same silhouette, shirt tucked in and a jacket. The reality now for most organizations is that they’re not so conservative. A woman’s wardrobe can still articulate the same message a man’s can by wearing a suit with separates. Implementing dresses and skirts and other pieces that women can wear is much better."

Basically, don’t be afraid to dress in clothing befitting a woman.

"Pantsuits are fine for women, but wear it with a blouse. A man wears a button-down shirt every day for work, but that’s a uniform that doesn’t really work for a woman. A silk blouse is more appropriate."

She warns against pantyhose, noting that rarely are bare legs considered inappropriate in a work environment. And shoes should be close-toed pumps, ideally, not boxy shoes that resemble a man’s loafer.

On the accessory front, Zarley says to stay away from matching sets.

"That’s very dated," she said. "You should have one statement piece of jewelry and then simple earrings."

These are, of course, suggestions. But Zarley’s take on how we dress for work is pragmatic: We all get dressed every day; it doesn’t cost much more — if at all — to dress in a way that fits current trends; so why not do it right?

Now if anyone needs me, I’ll be in the backyard burning my short-sleeve shirts and pleated pants.

But not the Batman boxer briefs. Fashion be damned.


(c)2012 Chicago Tribune

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