Sending the right message

Your workplace clothes should say 'I'm here to work'

Staff WriterApril 6, 2009 

Something seemingly as innocent as wearing what's in style this spring -- a Kelly green cardigan or tunic top -- might be hurting you more than helping you on the job these days.

Bright colors, peasant style tops and shirts or sweaters without collars could be sending messages to the boss that you might not be as serious as someone else who's wearing a collared button down, jacket and slacks.

Now, more than ever, the clothes you pick for work have to send the right signals to top management, says Bev Dwane, a Durham-based image consultant.

But that doesn't necessarily mean breaking out '80s-style power suits.

"We need to be focusing on you and the message that you have, not on anything about your appearance," she says. "Your appearance should not be distracting."

For some, achieving that is harder than it seems.

Here are a few of Dwane's tips on what to wear to help keep your career on track.

Avoid tops with no collars. Something as simple as adding an unmatched jacket with a collar will give the impression of authority.

Tone down the brightness. It might be the hottest look in spring fashion and accessories, but save it for after work. Those bright colors might be telling your boss that you're all about having fun and being playful rather than being serious and dedicated, Dwane says.

Stick to colors that are more neutral or have less intensity, including teal, rose or mauve.

Stay clear of the Bohemian look, which includes the popular-again peasant and tunic tops, at the office. "It doesn't say detail-oriented or committed," Dwane says. "It says 'I'm going to relax and have more fun.'"

Apply the same approach to make-up and hair color. Watch out for bright blond highlights, contrasted with very tan skin, and avoid wearing too much make-up, especially the bright colors. If your look is too sunny, you'll lose credibility, she says.

Remember the basics. They might be obvious rules to some, but they're still broken in offices all over the country, especially in the summer. No flip flops, midriff-baring shirts or tops that show cleavage.

Be mindful that some companies increasingly are frowning on sleeveless tops, open-toe shoes and even shoes that show "toe cleavage," Dwane says.

Jewelry also should be minimal and basic. "We shouldn't hear you coming," Dwane says.

Skirts should be no more than one inch above the knee when sitting down, Dwane says.

"At some companies, if you aren't seen to be part of the brand of the company, you are seen as expendable," Dwane says. "It's all about putting the control back in your camp."

samantha.smith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

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