A little over a year into her new job, Megan Schindele thought she had dressing for her sales position at a Dallas hotel all figured out. She wore a suit when meeting with clients in accounting or finance, but would opt for a skirt and cardigan for meetings with more fashion-forward clients.
But when the 27-year-old showed up to work in a short jumper, it caused the human-resources department to send out an email reminding employees of the company’s dress code.
“I didn’t think it was inappropriate,” Ms. Schindele says. But “now I know that skirts or dresses that short are not going to work.”
Figuring out what’s appropriate professional attire is trickier than ever, experts say. Most workers can forgo old staples like closed-toed shoes, monochromatic suits and even pantyhose. Yet while you have more choices, crossing certain attire boundaries could hurt your efforts to make a good first impression at the office.
“You want your efforts to be noticed. You don’t want to be dismissed because your skirt is too short,” says Nicole Williams, a career expert in New York.
If a peer tells you your clothing is inappropriate, you should question his or her motive before taking the advice, says Ms. Williams. It’s a good idea to ask a work confidante for a second opinion. But if your boss or another manager calls you out because of your attire, thank them for their advice and ask if you should go home to change.
If you’re starting a new job, base your outfits on what the interviewer wore during your job interview, since many companies outside of finance, law and hospitality don’t issue a formal dress code.
Buy basic pieces, such as black slacks and collared shirts, for your first few weeks. Then add to your wardrobe when you get a better sense of what the company’s informal dress code is. “The smartest thing you can do is to be dressed less casual until you get the lay of the land,” says Eric Lange, senior vice president of human resources at consumer-information firm Nielsen.
When Edward Hicks started working at a technology company, the 26-year-old dressed like the company’s executives, donning a button-up shirt and tie. But Mr. Hicks changed his style to jeans, paired with either a collared shirt or a T-shirt, once he realized that the dress code for people in his position was “anything but shorts.”
Co-workers can be a good resource. Ms. Schindele asked veteran saleswomen about the proper length of pants and when a blazer should be worn. You also can turn to your human-resources department for guidance. But asking a new boss what you should wear to work can make you look juvenile, Ms. Williams says.
Anna Post, spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute, says for women, sleeveless tops and dresses, open-toed shoes and skirts above the knee are appropriate in many workplaces. But experts caution to stay away from spaghetti straps, backless shoes, skirts that are more than two inches above the knee and anything low cut.
Men can don colorful ties, shirts, and even blazers and pants, Ms. Post says. But Ms. Williams says men should stay away from untucked shirts or anything else that makes them look like they’re going to a bar.
And it’s OK to put your own twist on the standard your older co-workers set, Ms. Post says. For Ms. Schindele, for instance, it means wearing more feminine, tailored suits than her older colleagues.