Thursday, May 3, 2012

As office culture varies, so do dress codes

    Angi Pauley demonstrates what not to wear to a job interview Feb. 15 during Columbia College’s Dress for Success Business Etiquette Dinner and Fashion Show.

    Do an image search for career wear, and you'll likely find pictures showing staid gray suits, collared shirts and conservative heels. But step into a number of businesses, and that's not necessarily what you'll see.

    Several social forces contribute to a company's culture, and it's this culture that is reflected through what employees wear.

    During a business etiquette dinner in February at Columbia College, soon-to-be graduates were given a crash course in interview attire with a fashion show.

    Reyhan Jamerson, coordinator of employment services for career services, said the show was designed to show examples of getting it right as well as wrong.

    Student models donned examples of business-professional and business-casual attire, and two staff members played the role of bad examples.

    For women's business professional, the student model wore a black suit with straight-legged pants, a collared shirt, a pair of matte leather, low-heeled pumps and a strand of pearls.

    The business-casual look included an ivory jacket with matching wide-legged pants, a ruffled top and a pair of bone colored, close-toed pumps.

    The bad examples included the obvious — too tight, too short, too low — as well as the oft-overlooked. For example, name tags should be worn on the right because when someone shakes your hand their eye travels up your arm to where the tag should be, Jamerson said.

    Still, the do's and don'ts aren't set in stone.

    "It's all about the company culture, too. It's going to vary in different areas," Jamerson said.

    That company culture is dictated by a number of factors, said Tina Marks, an assistant professor at the Stephens College School of Design & Fashion.

    Region affects dress codes, both in terms of culture and climate. What flies in Los Angeles might not work in New York City, both because of social mores and weather patterns, Marks said.

    Additionally, the type of work that goes on has an effect on dress code. Marks brings up one Stephens alum, now a technical designer at Abercrombie & Fitch, who described her workday uniform as ripped jeans and flip-flops. She didn't dress quite like this for her interview; however, had she shown up for a job interview in a suit, she likely wouldn't have gotten the job, Marks said.

    Even if that won't fly in most offices, the trend in general is still a move away from the concept of power dressing, Marks said.

    During the 1980s, women dressed similarly to men: navy suits in boxy cuts and blouses with high necklines, which often featured some sort of tie. Marks said this sartorial shadowing reflected a greater sense of trying to achieve as much as a man.

    The casual-Friday phenomenon of the '90s took away some of the emphasis on suiting for both men and women, Marks said, and today the fast pace of fashion in general has an effect on what we see in offices.

    "You can see something an hour after it was on the runway just by turning on the computer. Trends are seen much more quickly, and the fashion cycle moves more quickly. We are almost bombarded with so many possibilities that there isn't one specific style that prevails," Marks said. "You can pretty much pull off a version of any style you want, as long as it is appropriate for your workplace."

    For the most part, the general rule is to avoid anything cut too tight, too high or too low.

    "Do you feel like you are being a professional, or are you always distracted by having to adjust something? That's really the main thing," Marks said.

    Those are the main parameters in her career, sportswear and dresses class, in which students design and construct an office-appropriate dress as well as a jacket with coordinating pant or skirt.

    Before they construct the garments, students must research trends in career wear. This year, Marks had each student select a woman from the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women list and pull together a presentation showing 20 images of this woman. The student then created a line inspired by this woman's style of dressing.

    Marks said her goal was for students to have a feel for what successful women in their 40s and 50s wear to work instead of designing what they might like to wear themselves.

    Results varied.

    "Andrea Jung," formerly "of Avon, could look softer than Diane Sawyer," Marks said.

    And one standout had a penchant for arm-bearing tops and leather skirts.

    "For the entertainment industry in L.A., that might be fine," Marks said. "But she would still wear something more conservative to a meeting of the board."

    That isn't to say anything goes in every instance.

    "Financial and legal" industries "are more conservative. Even if it isn't stated" in a written dress code, "it's understood. You really don't want to draw attention to yourself. People need to feel comfortable working with you and not be distracted by anything else," Marks said.

    Barbie Weaver, retail manager at First State Community Bank, said her office follows a strict, written dress code for this very reason.

    "We're a lot more conservative than a lot of the local banks," Weaver said.

    For women, this means no bare shoulders or low-cut blouses at any time. Hosiery is required. Tattoos and body piercings cannot be visible, though Weaver said women are allowed up to three piercings in each ear — a small departure that nonetheless probably wouldn't be allowed in another time and place.

    Although some might consider such a detailed dress code to be limiting, Weaver said she finds adhering to them makes her more confident in her work.

    "No matter what happens during the business day, I am dressed to face it," she said.

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