Money & Happiness - Cracking the Office Dress Code

Laura Rowley

The first time I attended a New York runway show in the early '90s, the audience was composed mostly of store buyers and fashion editors, and Elsa Klensch of CNN had a lock on the television coverage.

Now these once insular and elite events have gone mass-market and mass-media. Last week, when designers previewed their spring collections at Fashion Week in Manhattan, the biggest news was the taping of the season finale of Bravo's Project Runway, a reality show starring a group of unknown designers.

First Impressions

When did fashion become so democratic? I suspect it dates back to the 1990s, a decade of grunge and vintage, sneaker-clad dotcom millionaires and dress-down Fridays. Sharon Stone showed up at the Oscars in a Gap mock turtleneck and Valentino floor-length skirt, signaling the acceptability of cross-shopping (and encouraging everyone to feed up and down the fashion food chain).

The '90s also saw a tipping point of fashion media, as early coverage by E! led to the Style Network and a host of other cable channels that turned designers into household names. InStyle magazine was launched around the same time, showcasing celebrity apparel and home design in a uniquely accessible way. (You might not have the starlet-of-the-moment's body, but you can buy the brand of mascara she wears.) We're mired in a consumer culture of staggering aesthetic choices, and it's hard to resist. We want to make the right statement, the key first impression.

In her book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel says, "Identity is the meaning of surface. Before we say anything with words, we declare ourselves through look and feel: Here I am. I'm like this. I'm not like that. ... Aesthetic identity is both personal and social, an expression both of who we are and with whom we want, or expect, to be grouped."

Fashion on a Shoestring

That can be a challenge for budget-conscious people who want to be grouped with the rising stars in the office without blowing their paycheck on fashion. So, at the show I attended last week, I asked a few style mavens for their advice. How do you dress for success when you only have, say, $300 to $400 to spend on clothing for the season, or even the year? A spokeswoman for Saks recommended spending the whole budget on one classic quality item -- a great black dress or a suit -- that will endure in terms of style.

That staple can be mixed up with designer pieces purchased from discount web sites such as Bluefly,, and, or low-cost, high-style retailers like H&M.

Meanwhile, web sites like DailyCandy and The Budget Fashionista offer information on designer sales in multiple cities. Even discount stores may yield a few finds:

Isaac Mizrahi and Marc Eisen, two highly regarded designers, offer collections at Target and Wal-Mart, respectively. (Eisen designs under the label George M.E.)

Karen Duffy, an actress, author, and correspondent for HBO Entertainment, offered three bits of wisdom: Don't forget to share; everything old will be new again; and be creative. "I have this great dress, and I pass it around to my sisters," she says. "It's been to parties, weddings -- my dress has a better social life than I do."

Duffy also advises the frugal fashionista to hang on to stylish pieces. She cites a favorite dress from the '90s, when she was a veejay for MTV, that's back in vogue.

Crafty Ideas for Dressing

Duffy shares her creative philosophy in a new show she's producing and hosting for TLC called Hey Crafty. "My idea of doing crafts is to put a record album in the oven and have it shrink into a fruit bowl," she jokes. On a recent shoot, she took a crew to the beach and assigned a group of surfers to find a novel function for duct tape. Among their creations: sticky bikinis -- proving fashion can emerge from the most unlikely sources, and doesn't have to cost a fortune.

John Bartlett, menswear designer and creative director at Ghurka, the upscale American accessories line, suggested a shopping list for the working stiff. For fall, head over to Club Monaco or J.Crew and get two well-made pairs of corduroy pants, two button-down shirts, and two crewneck sweaters, he advises.

"One of the pants and one of the sweaters should be in a bright color -- I like kelly green or red," he says. "It just makes you smile."Bartlett says those choices are ideal for someone in a creative field -- think graphic design or architecture -- while people in more staid professions should buy at least one high-quality suit. If all you can afford is a $300 ensemble from J.C. Penney, invest in a great belt and shoes, he adds. (The fastest-growing segment in the men's suit business is the under $300 range, thanks to more sophisticated manufacturing techniques in China and Mexico, according to the Wall Street Journal.)

Office Fashion Do's and Don'ts, an executive-level job-search site, surveyed its members last month and found that 70 percent thought employees dressed in suits are perceived to be senior level; 60 percent said people in more formal attire are more likely to be taken seriously.

Bartlett agrees. "There is a real psychological power to dressing for the job," he says. "When I meet with the CFO of Ghurka, he never wears casual clothes. The other day we had a meeting and he was wearing jeans -- it didn't have the same kind of fear factor."

While more than one-third of's respondents thought casually dressed employees were likely to be more creative, nearly half agreed that such people run the risk of being taken less seriously -- especially if they wear jeans.

The most common fashion no-no's: Wearing revealing clothes (63 percent) and flip-flops (62 percent). Also frowned upon at the office: sleeveless shirts and athletic shoes; visible tattoos or piercings; and clothing with inappropriate slogans.

"If you have to ask yourself if you could get away with wearing a certain outfit to the office, it's best to avoid it," advises Marc Cenedella, CEO of "A vital part of succeeding in the office is knowing the company's culture. If the dress code is important to management, you should pay attention to it, too. If management has a relaxed stance, then it's fine to follow their lead."

Finally, if you're aiming to impress the boss and clients with your urban sophistication, there's one accessory you should lose immediately: "Take your cell phone off your belt," Bartlett says. "It screams suburban normality."

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