Are You Violating Your Company's Summer Dress Code?

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Composite by Sarah Browne from Urban Outfitters

It's that time of the year again. The snow has finally melted, the daffodils are in bloom, and HR departments across the nation are shuddering in anticipation of enforcing "The Summer Dress Code." This year the hottest style trends seem especially tempting, ranging from cut-outs in skin-hugging summery dresses to knee high gladiator shoes to gossamer-sheer shirts. Then there are the "man sandals."

Before you stash your sweaters in the bottom drawer and switch to tube tops, keep this career research in mind: in a study conducted by staffing agency Robert Half International, 74 percent of companies surveyed said they don't relax their dress codes during the summer. While some have adopted a business casual policy all year round, others believe the no-jacket, no-tie, untucked shirt approach isn't ever, summer or not, going to be polished enough for the workplace. The casual look that feels right to you may not feel appropriate to employers. Much depends on the kind of business, the work culture and location. What is acceptable to wear for an ad agency may be taboo in a bank. This fashion fuzziness is enough to confuse anyone.

At AOL Jobs, we believe that looking professional is a vital part of a successful career. As the saying goes: Dress for the job you want, not the one you have. We turned to an expert for advice about how to stay stylish yet continue to be taken seriously during these steamy summer months.

Kristen Kaleal is a professional wardrobe stylist whose clients are C-level executives, media personalities, recent college grads, and just about everyone in between. She is a former president of the Association of Image Consultants International (AICI) OH/PA chapter and a writer and media expert on style matters. She guides her clients by teaching them to send the right strategic messages to help them achieve their personal and professional goals.

What do you think are some of the challenges of dressing for work during the summer?

One of the biggest challenges is that what's office appropriate is so arbitrary. It depends entirely on the employer. "No cut-offs, halter tops, spaghetti straps, bike shorts or flip-flops." Bike shorts? Seriously? Some of this has to be common sense, folks.

Tip: HR should issue a specific set of guidelines for employees. If for some reason they don't, ask for clarification. This is an area where making assumptions can swiftly and negatively affect your career path. One of my clients didn't understand why she was suddenly dropped from going on sales calls. I suggested she ask her manager directly. He told her the boss didn't think her bare legs and summer-short(er) skirt gave the right impression. The business development team needed to appear powerful and capable to prospects. She was too casual, and as the manager said, "too girlish."

Are t-shirts or sundresses ever acceptable for work?

T-shirts can be okay if they don't have a recognizable logo on them and if they're worn under something else, like a button-up shirt.

Women love their sundresses, especially if there is the promise of sitting on a patio somewhere for an after work happy hour. Surprisingly, I would say that many of them are actually fine for the office. The caveat is they absolutely must not show too much skin and they need to be layered under something. Depending on the formality of your work environment, you can combine them with anything from a blazer to a cardigan, or for a less formal office, you can even put a tailored shirt over a sundress. Make sure the dress isn't too low-cut or too short. It should be knee-length and not flimsy or see-through. If in doubt, wear a half-slip like it's the early 60's and imagine you're on Mad Men. Too much skin or sheer is a distraction. So are visible bra straps.

Tip: When you wear a summery, less structured dress, step up the formality of the rest of your outfit. If possible, belt it to give it more shape and wear a dressier, more closed-in shoe. Take off your sunglasses when you're inside, and don't wear them on your head either.

What about footwear in a world where it seems like flip-flops are everywhere?

Flip-flops are dangerous. Not only to your ability to climb the corporate ladder, but they're actually dangerous for other reasons. First, they rarely have any kind of arch support and can cause long-term foot problems. Second, it's easy to trip or roll your ankle in them. And third, some flip-flops make so much noise when you're walking around that you should beware of coworkers attempting to throw office supplies at you out of frustration. "Loud walkers" are a no-no.

If you work in a more liberal footwear environment, be grateful, but guarded. Always have well-groomed feet. If you're going to wear sandals, make sure they are of a higher quality (leather is always a safe bet) and that they have at least a small heel or wedge to give your feet the support they need. Sandals shouldn't be ridiculously high, but they shouldn't be totally flat, either.

Man sandals at work? Not. Ever.

Tip: Pedicures are your best friend if you're going to dare to wear anything open-toed.

What if your workplace has Casual Fridays? How informal can you really be?

I always think it's safe to let management set the tone. Of course, if your boss is in board shorts and Birkenstocks, you might not want to emulate that. But as a rule, let the higher ups be your guide. If everyone else is uber-casual and the managers are only slightly more relaxed than during the week, it's best to err on the side of dressing more like management. Especially if you want to go places at that job.

One of my clients made the mistake of wearing an aloha shirt on Casual Friday. It was a designer shirt, bright, colorful and rather nice, but unfortunately, it destroyed his big break. He worked at a television station and had been waiting for his chance to be on camera. That Friday, major news broke and the other reporters were already on assignment. The news desk would have sent Jim. But not in that shirt. There was no time for him to go home and change. An intern got the break instead. The next week, Jim called me!

Tip: If you're going to participate in Casual Fridays, keep a more formal outfit in your car or office in case you have a surprise meeting.

How about trends? Like that flower child look that's all the rage?

I think if you want to indulge your inner hippie in your private life, that's totally up to you. But the message it sends to your superiors and peers may not be the ones you want to send. There are a lot of "sweet print" florals out right now, and if you make those your regular go-to look, be careful because you're giving off a very young, soft, ingénue message that may undermine your credibility. Your look should positively affect your potential raise or promotion.

Tip: Jackets, shirts, and lightweight sweaters are great work-arounds if you absolutely must wear some of these trendy styles -- such as dresses with sexy cut-outs or bold, bright prints. Slip a jacket on during the day and reveal your true trendy self at night.

One last question. What advice do you have about summer hair?

You're not at the beach. No flower pins or scrunchies. Wild beachy waves, natural or not, should be styled neatly. Ponytails, especially in sleek Kate Middleton style, can be appropriate. Men, this may not be the time to go scruffy, grow the ironic hipster beard or surfer hair!

> Here's a job where you can wear your trunks
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