Professional Dressing Without the Suit

The days of the suit are over. Most of us will never again wear a suit to work or to an interview or a conference. There will always be industries where a suit is de rigueur, but unless you are in one of them (and you know when you are), the sartorial rules have changed.

Ten years ago most office workers wore suits to interviews and special work functions like conferences, even if they didn’t wear them every day to the office. Suits were necessary for conveying professionalism and power. Today the culture has shifted significantly. What happened? Well, all those pesky startups and the youngsters and the hip hop messed up the rules (or something, I don’t know), and now it can be tricky to know how to dress appropriately for your office, let alone how to dress for something like a conference.

The dress code for many offices now is “business casual,” but those dreaded words have struck fear into many a heart. Why? Don’t we Americans love anything “casual”? Yes, but the rules for business casual are so vague and unspoken. At least when you knew you had to wear a suit, you knew you just had to buy a suit and that was that. Now there is so much more you have to know about the world of fashion in order to choose something to wear to work. Also, it used to be that all professional men wore a suit and all professional women—oh wait, there weren’t any. But that was long ago. Now, every industry is its own niche ecosphere. Each has its own culture, and you have to dress correctly so you show you fit into the niche. It’s the unspoken rule—if you are dressed like everyone else here, you belong here (and so you might be offered the promotion or the job or just plain old acceptance). If your dress doesn’t match the rest of the people in the niche, you will stand out, and people feel less comfortable with you if you don’t “match” them. This goes back to cave people times, when anything that didn’t fit into the normal landscape was perceived as a threat. So before you dive into a new workplace situation, make sure you understand the sartorial rules at play. Choose to flaunt them if you will, but at least know what they are.

I’ve been interviewing for a new job recently (or a new career, really) and so this topic is near and dear to my heart these days. Since I’ve been doing so much research about this for myself, I decided I should write a series of posts that will give you the same information. Since the rules are slightly different for every industry these days, I think each deserves a separate post so I’ll be writing those in the days to come.

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