How to dress to impress in a more casual world

Group of employees dressed in casual work clothes gathered around a laptop

What we wear to work has changed significantly in recent years, and there has been a definite shift from formal to casual. While conservative dress remains the norm in some sectors, almost anything goes in some workplaces. Rachel Miller explains how to make sure your work wear is appropriate

"People tell me they don't know what to wear to work anymore; and yet there is so much emphasis on what you wear and the impression you make," says stylist Lisa Talbot, author of Stylish Dressing With a Capsule Wardrobe.

One of her clients was going for an interview at a trendy start-up where everyone dressed fairly casually. "She had absolutely no idea what to wear. She wanted to look professional and demonstrate that she really cared about getting the job, but at the same time she wanted to look as though she would fit in."

Another client had left the corporate environment to set up a health and wellbeing business aimed at high-end customers. It was no longer appropriate to wear formal business suits; now she needed a look that was professional but that would put people at their ease.

"We swapped her formal suits for jersey skirts and chiffon shirts - fabrics that are much softer and more appropriate to her new business," says Talbot. "Now she feels like she represents her own brand."

No more suit and tie

It's not just women that are facing these sartorial dilemmas. Men often have to judge just how formal they should be. "Outside of law and finance it's very rare to see men in suits anymore," says Talbot. "Nowadays men often wear formal shirts with more casual trousers. They may wear a tie but no jacket, or they may prefer a shirt and blazer but no tie."

The challenge is to find a look that is professional, but which fits the environment and the moment. "I went to a sales conference recently and one of the speakers, who was in his mid-fifties, had judged his look perfectly," says Talbot. "He was wearing dark indigo jeans, a belt and a crisp white shirt. It was a casual outfit but it looked very professional."

It worked because it wasn't too formal, she adds. "It's about personal branding. If he had pitched up in a suit he would probably have turned off his audience."

Office dress codes

As well as working with individual clients, Lisa Talbot advises businesses on staff dress codes. "Businesses often need personal branding advice to help them with their own employees," she says.

"I worked with one company that wanted to introduce a really strict set of rules as part of a dress code, including specific skirt lengths. I told them they couldn't set such rigid guidelines. You can say 'no jeans', for instance, but you have to give people flexibility."

The best way to tackle a dress code is to be upfront about it from the start, advises Talbot. "If you have a new member of staff, just say to them 'we don't have a strict dress code, but we'd prefer it if you didn't wear jeans or sportswear', for instance."

It can also be a good idea to specify how you want staff to present themselves when they're meeting customers. Jeans and t-shirts may be the norm in some environments, but staff should be encouraged to smarten up if they're meeting clients.

"Techies tend to be happy in jeans or even shorts and a t-shirt - but what does that say when a client walks into the office?" asks Talbot. "If you have a meeting with a client, there is an etiquette. There are easy ways to up your game - swapping scruffy jeans and a t-shirt for dark jeans and a polo shirt, for instance - without becoming someone you're not."

What not to wear

Many sectors now have very relaxed dress codes - not just in technology, but in media firms and creative businesses such as advertising and PR. But does that mean anything goes?

"I went to a presentation at a tech company recently where all the women were in jeans, and that felt odd to me. Denim is a casual fabric; there are so many other things you can wear," says Lisa.

Sportswear, beachwear and festival wear are all looks that are best worn outside of work, she says. Just because Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg wears t-shirts, hoodies and flip-flops, it doesn't mean we all should.

"If you're dressed too casually it looks like you don't care about your job; it sends the wrong signals."

Do clothes really matter?

"First impressions count," says Talbot. "Someone makes a decision on you within seven seconds, so what you are wearing is a big part of that - as well as your handshake and your smile."

There are lots of ways your outfit can make a poor impression - badly-fitted clothes, a missing button, dirty shoes or even a heady perfume. "It's not just whether you are formal enough; it's about showing you care."

You want to be remembered for the right reasons. "You don't want your outfit to be making too strong a statement, but you can still inject some personality as long as you're professional."

Talbot recently worked with the CEO of a global company who had to make a presentation to hundreds of staff. "She is quite quirky, so she wanted an outfit that would reflect her personality. I found an asymmetric print dress with an asymmetric hemline and she loved it," says Talbot. "She said 'it felt like me walking onto that stage'."

It's all about confidence. "The right clothes can make you feel confident and strong in your capabilities, says Talbot. "They can even make you smile more."

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