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Five Rules of Style for the Business-Casual Workplace

Dressing for work used to be pretty easy: a suit and tie for
men, and a skirt suit or pantsuit for women. Then came casual Fridays and " href="">Hawaiian
shirt day." Today's business-casual workplace (where,
according to Gallup, just 6 percent of American men bother to wear a necktie)
would seem to be a world without rules.

Of course, there are rules, they're just more
subtle — which makes them even harder to follow. If you think a "jeans
OK" dress code means that no one's judging your appearance,
think again. There's a big difference between dark jeans with a belt
and faded jeans that hang a little too low — and it could mean
the difference between being taken seriously and being taken for granted. Here
are five rules for making "business casual" work for you —
not against you.

1. Give Details Their Due

As a sergeant in the U.S. Army, Matt Eversmann, whose heroics
inspired the book and movie Black Hawk Down, had to instill in his men
unquestioned faith in his leadership. His first step? Making sure he always
looked just a little better than they did. “It was always incumbent
upon me to have my shoes better shined than any one of my subordinates would
ever dream of,” says Eversmann, who is retired from the army and now
runs Freeman-Phillips, an organizational development consulting firm. “For
leaders and larger-than-life people we follow into battle, you have to look the

Companies that understand this principle often send newly
promoted managers to places like the Bixler Consulting Group for an extreme
office makeover. The Atlanta-based company specializes in turning office
schmucks into boardroom heavyweights.

Take Harry, for example: an extreme case who was sent to
Bixler after a promotion put him just two steps below the company president.
Harry’s unique “style” included a belt held
together with duct tape, holes in his badly scuffed shoes, pattern balding
combined with long and unruly hair, shirts that were yellowed and frayed, and a
mustache that “gave him a negative appearance,” says senior
consultant Shelley Hammell. With a new wardrobe, haircut, and clean shave,
Harry was less of a liability when talking to the board of directors. What’s
more, Hammel says, they paid attention to his words rather than his appearance.

2. Dress One Step Up

“If you want to know how to dress at work, look at
the top,” says corporate style consultant Anthea Tolomei, whose
clients range from buttoned-up Accenture to dressed-down employees from Google.
While executives at your firm may be casual, you’re unlikely to see
one of them in a Guitar Hero T-shirt (unless he’s href="">Sergey Brin). More likely,
the men will be in a collared shirt worn underneath a sport coat, blazer, or
other low-key jacket. The women will probably wear slacks, designer jeans, or a
skirt with a modest top and jacket.

But remember: it’s one step up, not two,
advises Kristen Harper, of Wing Woman, a style consultancy. “If you’re
working every day in a three-piece suit and everyone else is in jeans,”
she says, “it’s going to give off a stuffy odor.”
That said, Harper notes, “You can’t really overdress for an
interview. If you’re dressed to the nines, all it should say to your
prospective employer is that you’re taking it seriously.”

3. Know Business Casual from Weekend Casual

One of Tolomei’s favorite quotes comes from the
late couturier Bill Blass: “Style
is synonymous with the appropriate.” But with today’s lack
of clearly defined standards, many people don’t know what’s
appropriate when. Men may come in on Monday morning still in their weekend-warrior
gear of cargo pants and Tevas. Women can err on the skimpy side, wearing
outfits more suited to the beach than to the boardroom. On a recent hot day,
Tolomei was stunned by the fashion choices at a consulting firm: “We
had belly buttons showing. We had short-shorts. We had flip-flops. We had
not-enough-fabric all over the place. I had to say, ‘Be careful—your
clients could show up. The rules don’t change just because it’s
110 degrees outside.’”

Of course, there’s business casual and then there’s
business casual. Bechtel’s casual Friday is going to look a
bit dressier than, say, Yahoo’s. If you work in one of the more
conservative business-casual environments, Tolomei offers a simple litmus test
to tell at a glance if a garment is really work-worthy: the detergent test. If
you wash it at home, it’s probably not business wear. If it’s
professionally dry cleaned, however, it’s almost certainly
appropriate for business. There are indeed exceptions, and Tolomei admits that
they include jeans. One way to make a pair of jeans more businesslike, she
says, is to take them to your dry cleaner once a month and have them pressed.
The creases should hold through several machine washings.

“Remember: There’s the weekend you, and
there’s the you that has to fit inside the rulebook, because you’re
going to suffer if you don’t,” Tolomei warns. “People
are going to raise eyebrows at you. Why test it? It’s only clothing.”

4. Temper Trends with Classics

One perk of the casual-dress workplace is the chance to
ditch yawn-inducing business classics and embrace contemporary styles. But
trendy clothing poses a problem in itself. If your look changes too often, you’ll
appear as if you don’t know who you are. “Head-to-toe trend
is real fickle,” says Tolomei, “and head-to-toe
time-honored classic is real boring.” The trick is to find the right
middle ground for you — depending on your workplace, age, and
position. Tolomei suggests blending the classic with the contemporary. For men,
that might mean wearing more daring shirts and a pair of hipper shoes. For
women, it can translate to accenting a classic wardrobe with a few fashionable
accessories. Take a Bixler Group client named Ida. She preferred loose,
unstructured clothes to uptight suits, but the look diluted her authority. The
consultants recommended tailored clothes with bolder colors instead of bland
and muted shades, and helped her find a pair of glasses “with a
little flair to them,” Hammell says.

The important thing, says Tolomei, is never to look dated. “It
makes you look older and, more important, makes your credentials appear to have
expired. People will assume that your philosophy is as dated as your clothes.”

5. Use Pictures to Shape Your Style

People naturally want to express themselves and their
interests through what they wear. But in most business environments, even the
more casual ones, it’s just not OK to show up in your favorite Rolling
Stones T-shirt or square-dancing outfit. Being true to yourself in a business
context means something else entirely. It’s not just about who you
are but who, and what, you want to be.

What you should look for in a business-casual wardrobe, says
Tolomei, is not an idiosyncratic or eccentric you but “an enhanced
you.” She suggests forming a clear mental picture of what that person
looks like. In her practice, she has all her clients clip or copy images of
ensembles they like from magazines and books. This clarifies things greatly.
Figuring out what you want to look like before going shopping can save time and
money and help you achieve your stylistic goals. Bring your images with you to
show the salesperson and say, “Something along these lines.”
Just don’t expect to look like a Meryl Streep or Cary Grant after one
shopping spree.

And if you really must express yourself at work as, say, a Mick
Jagger fan, consider a pair of Rolling Stones cuff links name="_Hlt78613818">.

Additional reporting by Michael Mattis

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