No Dress Code, No Rules, No Fashion Identity.

I just started my first full-time job in the “real world” at an office with no dress code.

Currently, my daily life is akin to the dread that only a party invitation calling for business or resort casual could inspire. The intentional vagueness of “no dress code” supposedly represents a progressive shift of power to the dresser to use their best judgment — but for me (a new employee at the company and new member of the American work force), this is anything but empowering. In fact, even for the more seasoned worker, it presents a strange combination empowerment and disempowerment. On the one hand, you make your own rules, but on the other, you don’t, because your clothing choices are often based on the ones of your coworkers.

On my first day of work, however, I didn’t have the luxury of comparing my attire with peers, so I knew I must walk in blindly. That day I erred on the conservative side, not knowing whether I’d be greeted with Payless or Prada by my coworkers. I wore a patterned pencil skirt, a white blouse, a black suit jacket, and kitten heels. I even dug up a pair of stockings for the occasion.

When I entered into a sea of North Face jackets and jeans that first day, I was completely mortified knowing I was completely overdressed. I attempted to compensate by removing my dress jacket and just hoping that no one would notice my shoes. (Walk fast and don’t seem tall, Claire.)

But I was lucky. Although I was completely embarrassed and self-conscious, my colleagues were completely understanding (albeit amused). One of the younger women confided that working here saves you from investing in “a whole wardrobe of work clothes”–  an ironic phrase to me given that we still do work in an office setting.

On day two, I relaxed a bit and donned a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and brown leather boots. Once again, I was mortified when I arrived. Apparently that day was a day of meeting clients downtown for many coworkers, so I felt like a girl in leggings and a t-shirt in an office of suits (although thankfully, it wasn’t quite that extreme). I stood tall and pretended I didn’t notice. It taught me two valuable lessons though: err on the side of overdressed and check the calendar for meetings.

Now on week three, my level of formality still varies from one extreme to another on a daily basis, though I have been trying my best to create a series of outfits that lie somewhere in between hipster chic and Blair Waldorf. Right now, I’m in a strange place between wearing jeans, leather boots, and a sweater one day and a dress skirt, kitten heels, and a blouse the next. But as I look around me at the wide variety of styles and formalness, I know I’m not alone in my fashion identity crisis — and that’s something I didn’t notice as a nervous newbie three weeks ago.

However, nervous questions (“Is this appropriate for work?” “Do I look professional enough?” “Is it true that I should still dress for the job I want?” “How will my level of formality compare with my boss?” “What if I look too dressy?” “What if I look like a slob?”) still rattle around in my head at 6:30 a.m. as I tear through my closet, despairing of ever finding a happy medium.

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Claire S. Gould

Claire is a social justice communications nerd by day and a bookish feminist blogger by night. She runs the popular blog Bibliofeminista as well as Today in Women's History, a project celebrates a woman in history every day. Outside of work, blogging, and volunteering, Claire enjoys consuming caffeine, making and appreciating art, watching classic films, and endlessly discussing progressive politics.

6 thoughts on “No Dress Code, No Rules, No Fashion Identity.”

  1. I work in a “business casual” office, where we don’t meet directly with the clients. So even the managers wear jeans (with button-down shirts though). When I started, I was the youngest person in the company and had a bit of authority within my department, so I dressed up a bit in hopes no one would notice how young I was (it worked, by the way). I made my own dress code and only wear jeans on Fridays or mornings when I have to go in really early. I have ridiculously long legs so it’s hard to find pants anyway (I currently have 2), so I rely on skirts and dresses just to clothe myself. A double layer of tights paired with great boots and a long coat make my winter walks to the metro bearable. Most of my co-workers wear t-shirts and jeans, but I do like dressing up a bit and a few other people do it too. So if you do want a more “professional” wardrobe, I think you should go for it.

    Oh, and I used to spend my mornings trying on every outfit.. Now I choose my clothes the night before and just stick to that decision!

  2. During the warmer months I wear a skirt and ballet flats. Its the winter months I have a problem dressing for. To cold for skirts or thin dress pants and khakis seem to casual. I’m always freezing but I feel sloppy in too many layers. If someone can solve this dilemma please let me know.

  3. I just started a new job, and am very glad that the dress code is super-clear (and that I have about a week’s worth of clothes that fit it! Need to obtain more cardigans, but am otherwise fine). It also gives me a chance to get out my nicer professional stuff, which I haven’t worn in a while, so that’s kind of fun.

  4. I work in an office where suits are reserved for client meetings and networking events. The rest of the time I have found that a “uniform” of dark colored jeans (trouser style) and V-neck sweaters like you would find at Gap or Banana work well.I think following the lead of your boss on this is also good advice.

  5. My office is like that. We have everything from suits to cloggs. Usually I’m tending more towards the “suits”, but sometimes I just can’t be bothered. Summer is REALLY quiet, so I almost only was wearing some Birkenstock/leggins/mini skirt/t-shirt combination. Nobody noticed.
    However, once, some Chinese visitors saw me (I had nothing to do with them, just walked past) and asked me, if I was the cantine lady. Which was a bit odd.

  6. I’m in the same boat as you! Started my full-time adult job six months ago, and there was no real dress code. I was originally told office casual, but that quickly turned into casual-casual after winter hit. My sartorial choices now depend on if I can wear snowpants with my ensemble. As a result, I haven’t worn a skirt since October. I try to wear a pair of dress pants on the days that we have meetings, but I’ve come to realize that the people who come for meetings are coming off mine sites and outdoor projects. We all look like bums.

    I kind of miss dressing nicely though. I do have to say that.

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