Business Wear: Just How Casual Should You Be?

Hannah Yakobi is an award-winning journalist and communications specialist. Throughout her career, she has written for the National Post, OK! Magazine, the Ottawa Citizen, Canwest newspaper network and dozens of publications around the world. Currently, she is the Editor-in-Chief of FAJO Magazine, a Canadian publication with staff in Canada, U.S. and U.K.

A recent piece of advice from renowned photographer Nigel Barker (judge on America’s Next Top Model) to Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s CEO) was as follows: ditch your hoodie. Zuckerberg is a successful social media giant, who was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2010 and who is said to be worth $20 billion.

Zuckerberg has an empire to run, so fashion is likely the last thing on his mind. In fact, he is renowned for wearing T-shirts, shorts and running shoes. But his casual way of dressing raises a question for us regular folk: if Mark got successful wearing a hoodie, just how far can we push the casual wear in our careers? How much can we really get away with?

In general, women have it easier than men, because they can accessorize any piece with fabulous jewelry or pop on a pair of heels for an elegant effect. They also have another incredible advantage: make-up. It makes everything “dressier.” But, at the same time, women have fashion mishaps all the time. It always irks me when I see a woman walking down the street at around 5pm in downtown Toronto, clad in a suit and…sneakers. This “combination” creates a real visual imbalance and does not look good. Imagine having a client meeting earlier that day and looking fabulous in a pair of heels, seeming presentable and professional, making a lasting impression. Then you run into the same clients at 5:30pm on a streetcar wearing a pair of white running shoes with blue stripes, and the same Armani suit. Will they judge you even though you are not in the office? Unfortunately, the answer is more than likely to be yes.

Notable is geared towards young professionals, so in this week’s column I’m going to share some advice for both men and women on how to look professional (and feel comfortable at the same time):

1. Impressions matter. They say that we make the first impression of someone we meet within the first 10 seconds of meeting them, and most of that impression is very much a visual experience. So whether you have a meeting on a given day or are stuck in your home office, be prepared. Anything can come up last minute and you should be “ready to go” at any given time.

2. You can look like a million bucks and wear a very expensive suit/dress, but many people often forget how important it is to be generally well-groomed. Your hair should be nicely put together, your nails filed (whether you are a man or a woman), your shoes must be clean and make sure you looked at yourself in the mirror after having lunch (spinach is too common of an ingredient lately!). Ladies – make sure your nail polish is not chipped. If you own a pet, invest in one of those sticky roller brushes – there is nothing worse than showing up in a meeting, covered in cat/dog hair.

3. Avoid very strong perfumes. Many people are allergic to fragrances, so the worst thing you could do is make a colleague/client sneeze endlessly in a meeting because you smell too good.

4. Jeans are the most widely debated topic in the business world. When is it ok to wear them? If your office policy is Casual Fridays, jeans are totally acceptable. On other days, I wouldn’t recommend wearing them and I would most definitely avoid wearing them to meetings. No matter the field you are in, if you want a promotion you have to project an image of power and independence, so jeans are not a good card to play. If you work out of your home, jeans are ok too. If you are a company CEO, you don’t need to be reading this article. Although, I would recommend that you have a killer watch, wallet and briefcase. Great accessories are a must in the business world.

5. Shorts, flip flops and Birkenstocks are not an acceptable option in an office environment. Unless you are at home or on a beach/at a pool, nobody needs to see you in those. That is taking the casual to a whole new level of “I don’t really care what image I’m projecting.”

6. Ladies, if you don’t want to wear heels all day, invest in a pair of flats or a pair of shoes with a kitten heel, so you could comfortably slip into them after work. As I mentioned earlier, avoid wearing running shoes with your suit or blouse/pencil skirt at all times.

7. Deep V-necks, maxi dresses and mini-skirts for ladies are also not acceptable in the office. You must look professional and those three items should be your weekend/out of office wear only.

8. Gentlemen: if you want to add a sexy touch to your suit or French cuff shirt, make sure you pair it with cufflinks and a pocket square for a polished look. Your suit should also fit your perfectly; it shouldn’t be loose, the sleeves must be of proper length, as should be the trousers. One of my guy friends used to joke that many men sitting in Cafes on Bay Street have their pants above their ankles, and look like they are expecting a flood. It may be funny, but he has a point.

9. If you work in a creative industry (music, fashion, art), things tend to bend a bit more. You are likely to get away with more colour, sparkle and experimentation. That is just the nature of these industries – we always want to shock, surprise, over impress. And it always works.

10. Don’t forget to have nice accessories for your gadgets. Make yourself stand out and remember that whether you are a business owner or an employee of a business, you still represent a certain brand. Invest in branded materials: nice holders/cases for your cellphones, laptops and other electronics. In the business world, we all pay attention to these things because they reflect how seriously you take your job. If you look good and organized, you will be remembered.

11. And lastly, be confident. You may be well-groomed, perfectly dressed and driving the latest Lamborghini, but you also have to believe in yourself and your skills. Your best card is always your knowledge. Dress well, look great and feel fabulous!