Can You Dress Up Too Much for Work?

dress code

When it comes to picking out an outfit to wear to work, you might think that the only wrong move is to wear Saturday’s jean shorts to Monday’s meeting. But it’s also possible to err in the other direction.

You can dress too fancy for a workplace — and that mistake can lead to issues ranging from making your team feel uneasy to missing out on promotions.

Here’s how to tell the difference between too much and too little when it comes to your work wardrobe and the office dress code.

Problem #1: You have a new job. What do you wear?

First day of school? No problem. Jeans and a t-shirt probably served you well no matter where you went to class. But with offices loosening up their dress codes, who knows what you need to wear on the first day of work?

Unless you’re wearing a uniform or working at a bank — nobody’s wearing shorts to work there — it’s a good idea to take a minute or two to pick out a conservative, comfortable but work-appropriate outfit for your first day.

  • The first step is to plan out your outfit a day or more before you begin, if possible. Think about what you can put on quickly and get out the door to get to work on time. You certainly don’t want to be late on your first day!
  • Next, think about what makes you feel good. Do you have a favorite pair of pants that always fit great? Wear those (as long as they’re not inappropriate). Have a “power color”? Put it on! You’re already going to be nervous, so why wear something that makes you feel uncomfortable all day?
  • Third, ask for help from an insider. An HR professional or hiring manager can answer tons of first-day questions for you, like where to park … or what to wear. Ask them if there’s a dress code that hadn’t been mentioned, or if not, what does most everyone wear. (I’ve found receptionists know this information in detail as well, if there’s no HR person in the office to ask.)

Problem #2: You’re used to dressing up. Your office doesn’t Do That.

You’re into business casual, but your office is much more laid-back. Is it OK to just wear what you want and keep it dressier? Turns out, that’s a no-no, too.

Alison Green at Ask a Manager takes that question to a level you might not have thought about: that of “fitting in” with the group (sometimes a critique that comes up at annual reviews).

Clothes send signals,” writes Green. “In this case, you risk signaling ‘I’m not quite a part of this team,’ ‘I’m removed from the rest of you,’ or even ‘I’m not quite a culture fit.'”

This goes for special “team” dressing-up or -down events, too. Turns out optional (not optional) “Hawaiian Shirt Friday” is about being a team player after all, Lumbergh.

Problem #3: You’re crossing the dress code line (and missing out on promotions).

Implied or not, the dress code can have big implications when it comes to being seen as worthy of promotion. As awful as that sounds, it’s true that who you are is first telegraphed by what you wear. Clothing can be armor inside the office or outside on the streets. If you’re not wearing the right things, you could be taken less seriously at your job.

If you decide to push the “how thin is this strap on my strappy top” or “these are Birkenstocks, not sandals” line, you might be making your job harder than it needs to be.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t negotiate, however. Some offices ban clothing that seemed ridiculous in one decade but many years later is a given (like women wearing … gasp … pants!) so there’s usually some space for changing things up.

Be upfront in your questions to HR or your boss about loosening the rules on shorts to work during, say, a heat wave, or about showing your (gasp) bare arms on the floor of the House of Representatives. (Side note: Women couldn’t wear pants in the Senate floor until 1993.)

Whatever your personal preference, the important thing is to figure out what flies at your particular place of business. Don’t burn your social capital by insisting on an outfit that just doesn’t fit in.

If it makes it easier, have a five-day capsule wardrobe to make your mornings go more smoothly and make dressing for work a no-brainer.


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