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Office Fashion: Do's and Don'ts

Shopping for work clothes doesn't have to be, well - work. Office dress codes can vary greatly by geography, climate, industry, and even within different departments. It can be tough if not impossible to generalize any outfit as “work-appropriate” across the board, but despite these differences, there are some rules that hold steady no matter what type of office environment you find yourself in. We sat down with Elizabeth Atcheson with Seattle based Blue Bridge Career Coaching to get the down low on office wear.

Seattle Refined: As a career expert, can you please give us an example of what to wear to a job interview for a woman and a man?
Elizabeth Atcheson: First, learn as much as you can about office attire at the place where you’re interviewing. Recruiters and HR staff are happy to answer questions about what is appropriate to wear to an interview – so ask them! Failing that, you could call the main number of the company during office hours and ask the receptionist. When in doubt, dress in traditional business attire: collared shirt and suit or jacket and tie for men, skirt or dress or slacks for women, with a structured jacket above a blouse.

What are the most common mistakes women make fashion wise at work?
The most common mistake is to dress for a social or fitness setting rather than a professional setting. It’s fine to wear that tightly-fitting black cocktail dress so that you don’t have to change after work before going on a date, but add a tailored jacket over it and wear a scarf to cover up that deep-V neckline. It’s fine to wear your yoga pants, but dress them up with attractive heels and a longer tailored top. The great merchandise from companies like Lululemon and Athleta has definitely normalized fitness clothing for professional wear, but you should look as if you’re going to the office, not to the gym. Lose that hoodie sweatshirt before you press the elevator button!

How low can you go when it comes to your top?
Ask yourself, “Is my top low-cut enough that it might be distracting to a colleague?” If the answer is YES or even MAYBE, don’t wear it.

Can you wear a sleeveless shirt or sleeveless dress in summer?
Sleeveless is totally okay, as long as your shirt or dress is cut fairly close to the body so that glimpses of your chest don’t peek out. A structured jacket would be a good thing to bring along with you, in case you unexpectedly get called into a meeting with the CEO and want to look more professional.

Is wearing perfume to work a Do or Don't?
Light fragrance is totally okay, unless you work in close proximity to someone who is sensitive to perfume. It’s always wise to check with colleagues on their fragrance sensitivities, because sometimes sensitive people are hesitant to speak out.

How about open-toed shoes?
Open-toed shoes are totally fine in all but the most conservative office settings. Draw the line at flip-flops, though – save those for your beach days.

Are there rules for men's attire?
Men are more likely to make “not nice enough” mistakes, such as wearing a sweater over a collared shirt – which is fine unless that sweater has a stain and is worn at the elbows

Do you think Seattle is more laid-back when it comes to workplace dress codes than other cities?
Partly because of the predominance of tech, Seattle office wear is much more laid back than most other cities. But the same guidelines apply – research the norms of the company where you’re interviewing, and dress accordingly. For both men and women, the guideline “dress for the job you want to have, not the job you have now” is a good guideline. As you rise up the professional ranks, you’ll want to dress more formally and more professionally. Steve Jobs could get away with black turtlenecks and jeans every day because he was a visionary leader. Until you reach his stature, it’s best to notice and observe norms.


Tattoos and piercings are generally fine in a city like Seattle, except in more conservative industries like financial services. It’s better to be safe than sorry, though, so cover up that huge eagle tattoo across your chest and remove your nose ring before your interview – unless you already know the company is fine with such adornments.

If you’re a job applicant: once you’ve landed the job, you can relax a little bit – but you’ll still want to be mindful of the clothing norms of your workplace. Save your “coloring outside the lines” moments for creative insights related to your job responsibilities. But go ahead and become known for your unusual statement necklaces or your collection of bow ties – i.e. stand out in familiar ways… at least until you become the next Steve Jobs.

When I prepare clients for job interviews, I advise against wearing all black to an interview. In addition to conveying a sort of “Grim Reaper” vibe, the severity of black can signal an overly-serious or even grim personality. Find a color that flatters you and wear it close to your face. Steer away from overly-busy prints and stick to solid colors so the hiring manager concentrates on what you’re saying, not what you’re wearing. For women, accessories like scarves and jewelry are great, but remember Coco Chanel’s advice and always remove one accessory before you walk out the door. Don’t wear very expensive jewelry or they may think, “She doesn’t need this job – she’s obviously got a trust fund.” One of my clients wore a pair of very large diamond stud earrings to an interview and the next day was dropped from the finalist pool. Coincidence? Maybe, but why take the chance?

If clothes are not your thing, find a fashion-savvy friend to go shopping with you to find an interview outfit that’s comfortable and current without being too “look at me”. You’ll have enough to think about during the interview without also worrying about your outfit.

For women, makeup should be simple – no heavy eyeliner or bright lipstick unless you are interviewing in a fashion-forward setting.

Scroll through the gallery from some office fashion DO's!