How to dress for the office – without making yourself gag

Oct 2, 2014

These days, I write mostly from home - meaning that I often dress only for myself, my roommates, and the very tolerant fellas at my neighborhood coffee shop. As a result, my freelance style regularly falls somewhere between ‘backwoods yogi’ and ‘vaguely disreputable street urchin.’

On occasion, however, I have to go on-site to meet with a client – meaning that I’m expected to dress like an actual professional. This is sometimes challenging, given that traditional office wear makes me feel like a cat on a leash. But by following a few sartorial rules over the years, I’ve managed to (somehow) pass as a perfectly respectable human being.

Check in

If you’ve visited a client before, you probably have some idea of what their office culture is like. Try your best to aim for the slightly upscale version of what everyone else is wearing. If full-time employees of your client are walking around wearing jeans and sassy t-shirts, wear a (nice) pair of jeans and a neutral shirt. You want to look “on-brand”, but neat. It’s a sad truth that you have to look slightly more respectable than people your client sees every day, because you work remotely and thus are a scary alien.

Be a respectable alien for one day.

If you’ve never been on-site before, it’s completely acceptable to call and ask the receptionist what the office dress code is. If that’s not an option, aim for spiffy office casual – that means simple dress pants and a button-down or neutral sweater; maybe a tie, if you’re of the male or especially tomboyish persuasion.

Stay simple

Stick to staples – I even advocate simple color palettes, to begin with; that way, you can mix or match. Nice basic black or grey pants work for everyone; so do basic button-down shirts or neutral shirts and sweaters, either in subtle patterns or solid colors. If you’re female, I find that a long-ish black skirt can be worn over and over again. Own one pair of nice black shoes, and one pair of nice brown shoes; wear as needed.

If you open any style magazine, they invariably make lists of wardrobe staples that include crazy seasonal stuff like berets and culottes, or whatever, as “must-haves”. Those are supposed to be ‘fun’ items.

They do not seem fun.

Style magazines say these things because they are deeply invested in you buying clothes. I am not invested in this, and so I tell you – don’t feel like you need to get fancy or ornate, or even particularly trendy. Have 2-3 basic tops and 2-3 basic bottoms; you can recycle them over and over again without anyone noticing (trust me, I have experimented extensively with this theory). Neatness is much more important than being on-trend.

Dress the part

Ugh, I hate the saying “dress for the job you want” – I prefer to think of this as “dressing for the part”, because costuming sounds more fun than cutthroat ladder-climbing.

Think of your role in the organization, and how you want the client to perceive you (or how you DON’T want them to perceive you). I’m a freelance writer/editor and I specialize in blogging, so I’m generally working in what we’d call ‘creative’. Thus, I’m actually motivated to under-dress a little bit; clients would be a bit disconcerted by a blogger wearing a pants suit. That being said, I still dress pretty neutrally – I leave the YOUR BOYFRIEND’S BAND SUCKS t-shirt at home. If I were a lawyer, I would need people to take me more seriously, and would spring for the suit. Dressing for the role you want to fulfill can really only benefit you.

Invest in quality

As I said, I’m not pushing clothes (although fashion companies are welcome to send bribes c/o the Freelancers Union) – so I understand the impulse to pick the cheapest garments possible. But investing in quality pays off.

First of all, buying well-made clothing actually ensures that you CAN wear things over and over; repeated washings will often make a cruddy garment fall apart and warp. Second, quality actually shows – both to clients, and to yourself. People can often tell if clothing is poorly made, and nothing is worse than sweating through an interminable meeting in cheap polyester blends.

I’m not saying you have to run out and buy an outrageously expensive designer t-shirt; don’t go broke. Just don’t choose the absolute cheapest option because it saves you a few dollars. Go with well-made garments that make you feel good. I hate spending money on this stuff, and I’m telling you – it’s worth it.

By following these few simple guidelines, I’ve survived numerous on-site projects – and not one client has called security on me yet, despite my naturally anti-fashionista ways. Don’t listen to the style magazines. Keep it simple, keep it neat; it’s easier than it seems.