April 30, 2006 1:12 AM   Subscribe

Dressing professionally in a junior, bureaucratic position.

I'm a grad student in (urban) planning, whose likely working for the city planning department this summer. Measly salary considering the work I'll be doing, but I'm in a position where I'll be finished and clear very soon. I'm also turning 31 in a few weeks, and both consider myself an adult and believe that I need to start dressing like one.

Here's the thing. Most people in gov't tend to dress just enough to get away with it. Dockers and crap Mens Wearhouse slacks. ID tag and cell phone off the belt. I don't want to go down this path.

Here I've been a student long enough that I'm dying to look sharp, and I can finally afford it. I wanna raid the Republic and scour GQ for that perfect ensemble. I want to look like I jumped out of an Aston Martin.

Will I look like an idiot wearing anything but Dockers, or should I just say to hell with it and dress like I desire?

What's the etiquette here?
posted by jimmythefish to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total)
If you're younger than everyone else, I think you'll be fine. Especially if you're running the Banana Republican look.
posted by k8t at 1:48 AM on April 30, 2006

My employer has a business casual policy, which I partake in wholeheartedly. Turns out you can look like an adult without a tie, with a little practice. The exception is when representing the agency to an outside partner/customer/etc. Then the suit/tie is de rigeur. Seems like a good policy generally. Makes you look serious and, yes, adult.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 5:04 AM on April 30, 2006

Phrasing this as an etiquette question is somewhat unusual. Are you concerned that you are going to offend someone or that you'll be dressed inappropriately?

To the first question, whether you'll ruffle feathers depends entirely on who your working with and whether you make a big deal about your outfits. Some people might think you're angling for a better job or that you are putting on airs if you dress better than everyone else. But, it seems to me, that as long as you don't make a big deal out of it (i.e. don't bring up clothing at all, and give short, polite answers if someone asks you about what your wearing), you'll be fine.

To the second question, as long as you don't look like you could go from work to a night club you'll be all right. Just ask yourself this question as you look at yourself in the mirror each morning. "If an important and conservative boss/customer comes in to see unexpectedly me will I be embarrassed by what I'm wearing?" If you are wearing a pink polo over an orange long sleeve shirt with brown slacks (it can be done) you may want to change. If you're wearing a stylish white shirt over grey slacks, you're in the clear.

In short (why didn't I give you this answer first?) I think stylish updates of traditional business attire are the best way to go.

Oh and Esquire is better than GQ; Perry Ellis is better than Banana Republic. :)
posted by oddman at 6:26 AM on April 30, 2006

Assuming that you're there for the summer, to be evaluated for a permanent job, you can't afford to look less than your best. At least for the interview and the first weeks on the job, you need to wear a conservative business outfit.

Forget about Banana Republic and even Perry Ellis. Go to Brooks Brothers and get the complete gray flannel setup, including the maroon tie with tiny dots, shiny black shoes and knee-length black socks. You'll need it for meetings with people outside the office, and it serves as a psychic suit of armor. You walk in knowing that no one can harm you.
posted by KRS at 7:30 AM on April 30, 2006

Absolutely get the suit--get the absolute best suit you can barely afford. If you can only get the one, make it black. If you can get two, I'd suggest one in grey or black, and one with a really good widely set pinstripe--the latter is younger and hipper, and will serve you in more situations, like going straight to a (certain kind of) nightclub from work.

Banana Republic is great for business casual clothing. So's Club Monaco, to an extent, as well as Tristan & America (oh my God, how I love their clothes...). European cuts, especially in pants, are always better on men; they're cut closer to the body, and tend to accentuate men's, uh, attributes a little more. Nothing like a nice ass in a pair of nice pants.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:07 AM on April 30, 2006

Really the best answer to any of these questions is to ask your boss what the dress norms are -- what would be underdressed, and what, if anything, would be inappropriately formal or make others feel uncomfortable with their own dress.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:22 AM on April 30, 2006

For more suggestions on places to shop and folks' philosophies about business casual for men, see this post and this other post from earlier this week.
posted by mendel at 9:41 AM on April 30, 2006

Over here in the UK, I and many in the office wear nice shoes, jeans, a t-shirt or open-neck shirt, and a suit jacket.

This allows you to:

1. Look smart and credible in meetings, with the jacket on (easily blending in with those wearing full suits, given that you can't see the jeans under the table)
2. Look casual in work breaks or after work in the pub, with the jacket off
3. Dress cheaply, without buying a suit
4. Change the way you dress regularly without spending a ton of cash on new suits
5. You can get away with only buying a few jackets; and you can pick these up from charity shops. A suit jacket without the matching trousers is always going to be fairly cheap.

Also of note: in the UK, wearing a mobile phone (cellphone) on your belt is an instant sign of nerdiness and a complete absence of fashion sense. Never, ever, ever, do this. The mobile goes in the pocket, out of sight. And that goes for keys, too. Polo shirts are not nice, so none of those, either - with or without a jacket to cover them up.

The preceding is probably not very helpful for those of you in the US, but might give some food for thought, at least.
posted by jamescridland at 10:03 AM on April 30, 2006

I don't think you will get in any etiquette-related trouble just by taking a bit more care with your clothes than your colleagues do. Most likely they won't really notice. I work in a place that has widely-varying takes on "business casual," and I dress more on the "business" end. The only people who seem to notice what I'm waring are other people who care about clothes.

That taken care of, I'm going to pretend that you asked "How do I start putting together a good business wardrobe?" That seems to be a subtext of the question, at least.

I would suggest starting with the basics and working from there. I'll leave this store-independent, as I don't know what's available in Calgary. I'd suggest a lightweight navy blue single-breasted suit as the basic building block. I like black better personally, but navy blue will always be appropriate and black may be a little "hip" for some occasions. Of course you'll need the basic all-cotton white and blue shirts (do not get button-down collars). I think at first I'd make ties the "fun" part, where you can get something cool and interesting and well-made, without breaking the bank or looking like you're going straight to da club after work.

Then later pick up grey, black, tan suits/jackets/trousers. With a good foundation you should be better able to know what you like and looks good on you, and can experiment a little more.

The thing to keep in mind is that you want quality fabrics and you want to take care of them. Good shirts should last you for years and good suits for decades. Avoid trendiness. You don't want to look like you take time dressing, you want to look like you just happen to have a great wardrobe and threw something on. This is the difference between "dapper" and "dashing."
posted by lackutrol at 10:44 AM on April 30, 2006

Also of note: in the UK, wearing a mobile phone (cellphone) on your belt is an instant sign of nerdiness and a complete absence of fashion sense.

i make it a point to never talk to anyone with a phone hanging off their belt.

put the damned thing in your pocket and set it to vibrate like the other adults. it's not your phaser and you don't have to be prepared to whip it off your belt to save spock.
posted by patricking at 10:56 AM on April 30, 2006

OK - having worked in just such an environment earlier in my career, I can speak to this.

I'm assuming you're in the US. The best advice is to go with the flow, but maybe turn the style up one notch. The reason: you want to impress, but you don't want to stand out too much. These are city bureaucrats you'll be dealing with. In some environments, dressing better than your colleagues is seen as "putting on airs", and you'll be resented for it.

My advice is to get a good sense of what folks are wearing day-to-day (especially your boss!), and then emulate that using the best-quality clothes you can afford. DON'T wear a suit unless others in the office are wearing suits. (I once had a guy come up to me and threaten to cut off my tie if I ever wore one to work again. I believe he was serious.)

If you like the job, you want to fit in as much as possible with your colleagues, and you want to make your boss look like a genius for having hired you. Don't wear anything that would make him/her/them feel uncomfortable.
posted by aberrant at 12:23 PM on April 30, 2006

Thanks all. This is what I was looking for, yes. Unfortunately jeans are a no-no at the city, so that's out. I did just buy a suit for interviewing and a few weddings this summer, a two-button grey pinstripe in the English fashion of double rear venting and thinner pant legs, which suits my body type. As a fairly scrawny distance runner myself, I tend to drown in a lot of stuff.

I'll just start putting together a decent wardrobe which builds on this and not worry about what others may think. Thanks again.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:28 PM on April 30, 2006

Three general, somewhat conflicting principles:

1) Dress like your peers. Reality is that you will be judged -- fitting in will reduce that and improve your working relationship with your colleagues.

2) Dress for the position you want, not the position you have. We'd like to think that we are promoted based on merit, but the "subjective" factors are often just as important.

3) Dress to please yourself ("be real", blah blah). Only the most judgemental of people will care more about your appearance than you. So wear what you like, within reason.

You have to decide which principles and to what degree you will compromise one principle for the sake of another. It depends on your career ambition, your tolerance for sucking up to superiors, how much you care about harmonious relations with your peers, and how vain (not a bad trait, within moderation) you are. Only you can determine that based on an assessment of yourself and of the culture of your workplace.
posted by randomstriker at 12:33 PM on April 30, 2006

Abberant - sorry, missed your son preview. Yes, that's kind of what I'm afraid of - threatening co-workers. I've worked in offices before, but as a very young back-room tech geek who never needed to speak to anyone. Now, I will be, so it's different.

I want to look professional, and I also want to dress nicer both at work and away from it. There's a balance there, I guess.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:33 PM on April 30, 2006

Something that I didn't see covered here is that you should never out-dress your boss*. Yes, dress to the position you want, yes, dress lie everyone else but better, but don't threaten your boss' position as alpha (fe)male, and don't make them think you're looking for a job on your lunch break.

*I've been doing this a lot recently, but my boss has a good sense of humor and I can usually get off a good joke or two when someone asks me what the special occasion is.
posted by lekvar at 6:33 PM on May 1, 2006

« Older How can I stop biting my lip so much?   |   Localised Social Networking script Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.