Dear First Gen,
Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow first gen and we were sharing our opinions on the proper dress code for work. Depending on the home you were raised in, you may not have grown up with parents who wore “professional” attire. For example, my mom is a Registered Nurse so her uniform was scrubs, a stethoscope and comfortable footwear; my father works in IT so he is expected to wear a dress shirt or polo shirt and dress pants. They dressed me well before I went to school or church growing up, but when I was grown and getting dressed for a business office, where did I learn?
In my first year of law school, I was told the proper attire for a law firm, legal/corporate office, or a legislative office was a business suit for men and business dress or skirt with a blazer for women. But it's not just the type of setting that dictates your attire; geography plays a role as well. Surprisingly, in the South, women are expected to wear pantyhose with their skirts even on very hot days. I am Caribbean and love warm temperatures, but I probably would break protocol if I lived in the South – it is a joke, follow court rules.
There’s also the issue of cost and care: Business attire can be expensive, especially if you need to get alterations. You definitely want to take good care of your business wardrobe so you aren’t having to replace it very often. I keep my business clothes in good condition by removing them promptly when I get home and hand-washing them in between drop-offs to the cleaners.
There is a saying that you should dress for the job you want, not the one you have. And there are definite advantages to dressing properly for the position you seek. I can honestly say I learned this later in life because of my financial obligations. Now that they have been loosened, I have made a considerable investment in my wardrobe, which has helped me when I attend events on behalf of my supervisor, but most importantly, for my own personal reasons for going to a function. Now, colleagues view me as a good representative for my boss and the profession.
Something else to consider is makeup. My mother did not allow me to wear make-up until I went to college, so I was a late starter with this skill. But she has style so I have been able to look presentable thanks to her good instruction.
There are pluses for women to have natural make-up (you want to look like yourself!), nicely combed hair, trimmed nails, a nice outfit, and nice shoes (and purse – I love handbags!). Men can advance quickly when they are dressed in a fitted suit, matching belt and shoes, groomed hair and nails, and are clean shaven (although these days a well-groomed beard works as well).
If you are uncertain where to begin, I suggest a traditional business look. You would rather be overdressed than underdressed. When you are in the role—or interviewing for it—observe how others are dressed to get an idea of what the dress code is and where you need to make investments in your wardrobe.
Tell me: What is your opinion of good business attire?
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