Dressing for work : It's best to err on the side of formality


Menswear designer Joseph Abboud couldn't help but be irked when two investment bankers trying to woo him as a client arrived at his New York office wearing white, button-down shirts with their sleeves rolled up.

No suit jackets and no ties ultimately meant no sale to the designer, who was so annoyed by their relaxed attire, he ignored their pitch.

"I think they were trying to send the message that they were young, hip and aggressive," says Abboud. "But they blew it because they offended me by being too casual. I make suits. I make ties. I hate to pick on them, but how can you come and see me and not know enough to dress up?" The bankers, who Abboud says may have been perfectly qualified to invest his money, sabotaged themselves with their casual dress.

And making fashion blunders in the workplace is no casual problem, say style experts and business consultants. Dressed-down employees, they say, are having an effect on the workplace and fashion as employers rethink their business casual attitudes.

"I'm selling more jackets and suits," says Abboud, who welcomes the change for reasons of style as well as profit. "It's about time, because in my opinion the workplace had just gotten too sloppy."

Style and business consultant Sherry Maysonave says she has been called on in recent months to help corporations address the declining appearance of employees sporting flip-flops, exposed tattoos and cleavage, work boots, dance club attire and looks better suited for yard work than for meeting clients.

"I call it casual sabotage," says Maysonave, author of Casual Power (Empowerment Enterprises, $29.95) a new book that gives precise lessons on how to "dress down for success." "There is sometimes a really fine line between what's appropriate casual attire and what isn't," she says. And some people just don't get it.

Men, she says, tend to mess up by not dressing like they mean business: wearing untucked shirts, sneakers and not looking pressed and pulled together.

Women, Maysonave says, tend to violate workplace decorum by confusing what's in style with what's appropriate.

"I think women are terribly challenged these days and have it the hardest when it comes to dressing for work because their options are so varied," says Abboud.

Women can show up at the office in some slinky or trendy thing thinking they look great. And they may. But not at work.

Men, he says, can usually salvage attire that's too casual by throwing on "a nice sport coat." Women, he says, tend to be stuck with their blunders for the work day.

Maysonave says such style errors are not always a worker's fault. The biggest challenge many contemporary professionals face is dress code ambiguity.

"It can leave people really confused about what's acceptable and what isn't," Maysonave says.

The Stamford Advocate is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Dressing your casual best

Give your casual attire a serious once-over. Do you look like you could be dressed for running a weekend errand, meeting a friend for coffee or heading for the gym? Then you need to step it up a notch or two.

Keep something in your office that will dress you up if you have to attend an unexpected meeting.

Sweaters can work if you dress them up with a scarf or necklace for a more polished look.

Pay close attention to jewelry and accessories. Keep hoops small, or add a single, gold piece to a more classic jewelry wardrobe.

When in doubt, dress up, not down. It may seem like common sense, but you would be surprised how many people don't get this basic, says designer Joseph Abboud.

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