How to Break the Office Dress Code

young business man laughing...
ShutterstockUltra-conservative suit and wild hair? It works for him.
It's a subtle art, and not one for amateurs. These days, professionals can "dress for success" and still buck the office dress code.

In a Harvard Business School study titled "The Surprising Benefits of Non-Conformity," researchers conclude that a touch of nonconformity in dress can give its wearer an aura of greater competence and confidence.

If it's done right, that is.

A person who wears red sneakers or an unusual tie at a business function is perceived as being of higher status, and therefore immune to the pressure to conform.

It works, though, only when the observer perceives the choice as a deliberate flouting of the rules. If, for example, those red sneakers were scuffed, it might send a signal that the wearer can't afford a decent pair of loafers, or is clueless about the subtleties of the company dress code.

Smart Dressing

So, the right touch of individuality in dress sends a message of power. Best of all, it even affects the wearer. A growing field of research into what is called "enclothed cognition" suggests that a person's cognitive capabilities actually increase (or decrease) depending on the clothing they are wearing. No kidding. Put on a doctor's white coat and you become more careful, more attentive, and more rigorous in your thinking.

So, a touch of individuality can be powerful. But it also can be risky. The Harvard study notes that dressing like everyone else keeps us in our comfort zone. Flouting the rules can make us feel vulnerable to rejection or ridicule by our peers.

And, of course, "dressing like everyone else" means dressing for the micro-world in which you work. Company dress codes differ widely, from the highly-conservative banking and insurance industries to the creative disruption of the fashion biz.

So, your personal style statement is a deliberate departure from the rules of the world you live in.

Geek Wear

Silicon Valley has a dress code as rigid as any hidebound law firm ever had. It's just rigidly opposed to traditional conservative business attire.

Nevertheless, even techie aristocrats get judged by their clothes. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg sent mixed signals when he wore his famous gray hoodie for a crucial series of meetings with institutional investors in advance of the company's initial public offering. Some of his audience saw his choice as a reflection of new media cool. Others found it disrespectful of Wall Street norms.

Zuckerberg was taking a risk. Some in his audience might have seen a kid in a sweatshirt, oddly like the one who fetches their coffee in the morning.

But Zuckerberg pulled it off in the end. The key is dressing to convey a perception of professionalism and competence.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Grubby is never a good look.

You can flash your vintage Bakelite jewelry, or wear funky eyeglasses, or shave your head, or wear a diamond stud in one ear. But whatever your style choice, make sure you're always neat and well-groomed. "If your teeth are clean and you have a good handshake and you're groomed,
Portrait of an African American woman in retro glasses pointing upward over colored background
ShutterstockPink rhinestone glasses? She can get away with that.
I don't care what you wear," fashion executive Jenna Lyons told an interviewer for Vogue magazine.

Assuming, that is, that you purchased it at J.Crew. Lyons is credited with turning around the fashion brand since taking over as creative director in 2008.

Don't be gross.

Grossness is in the eye of the beholder, but fashion statements that originated as acts of rebellion rarely achieve acceptance among the kind of people who are in a position to hire and fire.

One Canadian woman was in the news recently because she claimed to be a victim of job discrimination. It seems her 22 visible body piercings were turning off prospective employers. Lawyers advised her that a lawsuit had no chance.
Portrait of Woman with Pink Dyed Hair.Creative image #:  dv754040License type:  Royalty-freePhotographer:  Neil MarriottColl
ShutterstockFacial piercings and pink hair? No.
Employers, in both Canada and the U.S. are generally considered to have the right to set a dress code. Unless you're going for a job as a rock star's roadie, avoid obvious turnoffs like naked-lady tattoos, exposed flesh, really peculiar hair styles and shirts bearing slogans in questionable taste.

Don't go overboard.

The authors of the Harvard study stress that individual expression can be carried too far. You may choose to wear a turtleneck instead of a white shirt and tie. But wearing a tie, say, wrapped around your head does not draw admiration for your ingenuity. It creates contempt for your desperate attention-seeking, or makes them wonder if you are drunk.

Respect the culture.

Context is all-important.

Think of your workplace as the homeland of a unique little tribe with its own unwritten but sacred rules of dress and behavior.
happy business team with arms...
ShutterstockRespect the culture
One major New York media company has an unspoken business-casual dress code for men: chinos with a white or blue shirt and a navy blazer. On the rare occasion that a man shows up in the whole suit-and-tie, he invariably jokes self-consciously that he "had to let out the bar mitzvah suit" for the occasion.

Individuality is prized in this workplace, but is not to be abused. Suspenders are seen as a charming eccentricity. Zuckerberg in his gray hoodie would get tossed out the door.

Don't press your luck.

Style statements are not for newbies, with the possible exception of very high-ranking newbies.

You can make your style statement after you settle in and prove your worth. Nobody likes an arrogant new kid.
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