COLUMBIA, S.C. – You’re a recent or soon-to-be college grad who lives in flip-flops and hoodies. Your laundry is sorted into piles of “dirty,” “filthy” and “grievous skankage.” You have the luxury of wearing clothes that reflect your personality all day long.
You’re so used to reflecting your personality, in fact, that you might even wear flip-flops to the White House, like Northwestern University’s women’s lacrosse team did this summer. The minor flap over their footwear reminds us that there are times to show toe cleavage and times to, well, not.
For instance, you’re soon starting full-time work, so along with other lifestyle changes – “going out for a drink” instead of “going out drinking,” for instance – you’ll need to get hip to business dress. You’re on the 9-to-5 train now, baby, and there’s no getting off unless your stop is Somewhere in The Arts. You’re punching a clock for The Man, which means Establishment drag.
Here’s the tricky part: It’s hard to know what will go over well in an office environment, because the dressy/casual line is blurred and every company is different: Some have taken “Friday casual” and spread it out over the rest of the week, and others – like the nearly 8,000-employee Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Columbia, S.C. – have discouraged dressing down.
“Kids start working and they don’t know what to wear,” said Barbara Kelly, the local Blue Cross/Blue Shield vice president of human resources. “You want to get away from the school-sloppy look to a professional one.”
Before the company cracked down on overly casual dress, Kelly saw employees show up in off-the shoulder nightclub wear; ripped/low-slung jeans; a white button-down shirt unbuttoned to the wearer’s navel; running shorts; and evening gowns.
There’s none of that now. The company even frowns on capri or mid-calf length pants, which makes shopping difficult in a pedal-pusher world.
“We butt up against the fashion people all the time,” said Kelly.
They’ve also put the kibosh on denim – although occasionally, employees can donate to a charity fund-raiser and thus buy permission to wear jeans for a day.
But at companies such as Stier Supply – a local home-building product distributor – jeans are always fine, even if you work in the office.
“It’s very casual,” said manager Irby Hipp, “because the salespeople in the office sometimes go into the warehouse and into the lumber yard.” They mostly wear jeans and golf shirts or casual button-downs (no T-shirts).
Post No Bills, a merchandising/promotional marketing company in Columbia, offers the rare professional opportunity to wear flip-flops (employees there tend toward the artistic).
Post No Bills president Doreen Sullivan – who recently wore cargo shorts, polka-dot flip-flops and a T-shirt reading “Love Machine” – believes in an atmosphere that doesn’t stifle creativity.
“Everyone’s mindful about the way they dress, but it all depends on what they have to do that day,” said Sullivan’s assistant Jeannie Culbertson. “If we’re meeting with a corporate client, we dress professionally, but if we know we’re going to be bagging promotional items to send out to a client, we wear jeans, shorts and T-shirts.”
Kim Shark, recruiting manager at OfficeTeam in Columbia, said that businesses have become more casual across the board, with the exception of law firms, some banks and top accounting firms. (Although you should always wear a suit to job interviews.)
“The larger the organization, the more likely it is that employees still dress to the nines,” she said. “It is the rare client that we work with that requires formal business attire – mostly it’s khakis, polos, button-downs.
“Nine times out of 10, people who interview in suits will revert back to business casual once they start the job.”
BARE-BONES BUSINESS BASICS
- One black, knee-length skirt that covers your thighs when you sit. Spring for two more in navy or gray if you can.
- Three pairs of casual, ankle or top-of-shoe length pants in – you guessed it – black, navy, gray or brown. Don’t wear them too tight.
- One pair of khakis.
- One pair of dark-wash jeans.
- A half-dozen blouses and sweaters in complementary neutrals. Cotton, silk and blends all work, but stay away from anything too shimmery or velvety.
- Several pairs of black/navy/brown shoes (leather, vegan leather or microfiber). To stay on the safe side, keep your toes covered until you see other women wearing sandals at the office. Make sure your shoes are comfortable – hobbling around hurts your image.
- At least two belts to go with the shoes.
- Several colorful – yet not completely whack – scarves.
- A simple, conservative watch, even if you use your cell phone to check the time.
- Grooming-wise, use common sense. Pretend you’re going to your grandmother’s birthday party – natural-looking makeup, clean and filed fingernails, little or no fragrance.
- Hair color can look great, but if you can’t maintain all-over color at this point in your fledgling career, try highlights instead.
For him (he has it easier):
- Dude, there is no such thing as a short-sleeved dress shirt. You need at least seven cotton, button-down long-sleeve dress shirts in white, light blue and conservative stripes. Pick up a pink one if you are so inclined.
- A few polo shirts for Fridays.
- A week’s worth of dress pants in black and navy.
- Several pairs of khakis (which you already have).
- Several pairs of black and brown shoes and belts to go with them.
- If the other guys wear ties, so must you.
- A conservative watch.
- Keep facial hair and fragrance under control.
- Use common sense and avoid making a fashion statement: At a new job, it’s smart to blend in with everyone else. Fly low; beat the radar.
- Look in the mirror before you go to work. “No extra piercings, no obvious tattoos … neat, clean and pressed,” said Barbara Kelly, – vice president of human resources at Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Columbia, S.C.
- Women, don’t wear a strapless top unless you put a sweater on over it. “I’d say ‘Wear your Sunday best,’ ” said Kelly, “but nowadays, from what you see at church, that doesn’t even hold anymore.”
- Check out what everyone else at work is wearing and lean that way (we never said working for The Man would be easy or creatively satisfying).
- If you’re not sure about something, just go ahead and ask your HR person.
- If something doesn’t fit exactly right, spring to have it tailored.
- Keep your undergarments – bra straps, slips, etc. – to yourself.
- Bare midriffs are for the weekend.
- The iron, it is your friend. Also that cool “stretch-out-the-wrinkles” spray in the laundry detergent aisle.
© 2005, The State (Columbia, S.C.).
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