The worst thing I saw someone wear in a professional setting was a mini skirt with a backless blouse and tattoos showing when accepting an award,” says Gretchen Twohig, a lawyer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska.
Many executives would agree. Tales of skintight leggings, flip-flops, and ripped jeans appearing in a professional office abound. Some reports blame millennials while others consider the cause to be the rise of tech startup culture, but the rules are clearly not as black and white as they were in the Mad Men era.
JP Morgan formally embraced the informal trend in 2016 when they created new guidelines that took their offices from being full of suits and ties to ones that allow “Casual pants, capri pants, business-appropriate casual shirts, and polo shirts,” among other trends.
The variety even happens within industries. Nicole Seckman Jilek, a trial attorney at Abrahams Kaslow & Cassman law firm, wears a suit and pantyhose every day. If she wants to add a personal touch to her workwear, she uses accessories, especially black high-heeled pumps.
“If I’m going to be appearing in front of a judge or a jury, I’m probably going to choose a more conservative suit in a more conservative color: black, navy blue, some sort of neutral color,” she says. “But I do have a few of what I call ‘power suits’ that are emerald green and a couple of red suits. So depending on the circumstances, sometimes those red suits can project a more confident image than an all-black suit.”
Jilek works in a setting that requires her to speak with a variety of clients.
“If I’m going to cross-examine or depose a difficult male witness, I may not want to wear certain colors because I want to come across stronger and bolder and more confident.”
Her personal preference to wear pantyhose every day doesn’t mean she finds it unprofessional if other women don’t. Jilek considers being too casually or youthfully dressed as crossing the line in a business formal setting.
Color choice can push the boundaries of acceptable business formal attire, too.
“There are certain circumstances that are the utmost professional setting, such as a jury trial, so I stay away from wearing a lot of color [in those instances],” Jilek says.
Twohig, on the other hand, works at a business casual workplace. She often wears accessories like jewelry, or brightly colored or patterned shoes.
She deems short skirts, anything with holes, or faded jeans as inappropriate for the workplace. Even dark jeans are pushing it.
Jeans, incidentally, are on the rise again, in terms of their prevalence and their waistlines. The 2018 spring fashion trends show everything from higher-waisted jeans paired with fuchsia blazers to jeans-style pants in sequined materials.
Michael Curry, a customer service training specialist and coworker of Twohig at Blue Cross Blue Shield, is known for having a playful sense of style.
Curry’s favorite way to express his personal style is with a boldly colored watch, belt, or shoes for that pop of color. He enjoys having more fashion options in a business casual environment like dressing down his outfit with a pair of white sneakers if he wants. But Curry also loves the polished look a tie can give when he needs to be at his best.
“My go-to work outfit when I need to feel confident is a cardigan over a button-up and tie with a tie clip, fitted slacks, leather band watch, eyeglass frames, and my signature fragrance,” he says. “I feel unstoppable.”
As workwear becomes more open to interpretation, the idea of acceptable fashion in business differs for each individual, and is only going to get more complicated, as millennials, who value personal expression over formality, rise to upper management and the conversations about gender identity and equal pay continue.
“Even at my office, there’s different dress codes,” Jilek says. “I wear different things depending on what I have on my calendar that day. I have a bunch of colleagues that also don’t meet with clients. They generally only see the people that we work with. So sometimes that can also justify a different look for them, but even under those situations, I always dress like I’m going to end up having a surprise important appointment or have to run down to the courthouse.”
And there’s another factor people sometimes don’t consider when hiring younger employees —those coming right out of college may not have much of a wardrobe budget.
“Early in my career, I didn’t have a lot of clothes to wear to work or the money to buy a lot of new things all at once,” says Twohig. “Now that I’ve been working for a long time, I have built a wardrobe.”
Even though Curry thinks jewelry should be minimal at work, he views a small eyebrow piercing or lip ring as still looking professional. Jilek sees fashion trends as a major influencer of what is considered acceptable business fashion.
“Ten years ago, you probably wouldn’t have seen any double-breasted jackets or suits in a store, but, in fact, I just saw a very successful, well-dressed evening news anchor wearing a double-breasted suit last week, and she looked great,” Jilek says.
Jilek, however, keeps her attention on the fact that she works in a professional setting.
“I’ve always kind of followed the mantra: dress for the job you want not the job you have,” Jilek says. “So if you want to be perceived as strong, confident, and capable—you need to dress like it.”
This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.