Appropriate Office Attire

How to get dressed for work in the morning.

Faye Dunaway in Network.
Try to be more like Faye Dunaway in Network

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

When it comes to giving fashion advice, I am always revolting. Anarchy is my comfort zone. As a result, I spend my waking hours encouraging people to ditch convention and approach their personal style with a sense of amused recklessness: Strike an unconventional pose! Creativity is your mot du jour! Buy yourself an electric-blue stripper wig! These are typical of my style exhortations.

My reasons for this approach are two-fold: First, I genuinely believe that most women are far too self-critical and masochistic. The process of adornment should be approached as a meadow of rule-breaking pleasure rather than a minefield of potential faux-pas. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”

Second, I am selfishly hoping to cut these girls loose. For my own sanity, I am trying to eliminate those annoying can-I-wear-brown-with-black or is-it-ok-to-wear-sequins-before-cocktail-hour type questions. The truth of the matter is that I am simply not a helpful gay. I lack the supportive Queer Eye gene that allows one to calmly dispense quotidian advice. Should you start wearing matte pantyhose when you hit sixty? Not sure. Just how bad are your varicose veins?

Honesty compels me to admit that I have been wildly unsuccessful at avoiding these prosaic can-I-wear-white-shoes-after-Labor-Day type questions. If anything, my provocations seem to be making the situation worse. The more I advocate a taboo-busting eccentricity, the more I find myself fielding commonplace queries. The more I hand out permission slips, the more gals tear them up and demand rule books, particularly in regard to office attire.

Yes, office attire.

Dressing “appropriately” in the workplace seems to be the primary focus of anxiety for the contemporary woman. Every time I check my inbox, the contemporary woman—I suspect her name might be Phyllis—has sent me another email on this very subject.

Today you find me at a point of total surrender. You want a manual on appropriate professional dressing? Here it is, Phyllis!

From: Simon Doonan
To: Women of America
CC: Phyllis
Re: OFFICE ATTIRE—circa 2012

COLOR: Most work environments are a sea of donkey-hued cubicles. This affords two options: First, you may transform yourself into the office bird of paradise and explode with color, thereby enhancing the moods of those around you. Your splashy digital prints—think Erdem or Prabal Gurung—and modernist color-blocking—think Haider Ackermann or Lisa Perry—will garner you rave reviews from colleagues. You will be celebrated for your plumage. Caution: Your flamboyance will have a negative impact on your perceived competence. Nobody wants to trust the company’s future to the wacked-out broad in the Pucci unitard. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Career advancement, and the horrid additional responsibility which comes with it, are both highly overrated.

Color option two: If you are a careerist Gen Xer or a millennial over-achieving lunatic and are disinclined to sacrifice professional success for that bird of paradise role, then do as follows: Simply match your surroundings by wearing conservative tailoring in muted tones—go greige, beige and even champeige—and glide down the hallway like a venomous asp. Think Faye Dunaway in Network.

CLEAVAGE: If you are an older chick—I’m talking about that middle-aged receptionist with the Florida sun damage whose name is always Dolores—then the sight of your leathery cleavage will be welcome in any office environment. It’s comforting. It’s maternal. It’s nonthreatening. Not so younger gals. While granny-cleavage is totally innocuous in its effect, a prominently displayed youthful cleavage will cause disruption, division, and mayhem.

If you are young and lovely, and you wish to deploy your natural assets for career or personal advancement, then you must call upon subtler means. Yes, I’m talking about your legs. Think Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, but with panties. Few machers are immune to the crossing and recrossing of a well-shaped pair of gams, or even a mediocre-shaped pair.

TATTOOS: In a conventional office environment, visible tattoos feel somewhat inauthentic: “I may be crunching numbers in a cubicle, but make no mistake, I am a real bad-ass,” they seem, poignantly and unconvincingly, to be saying.

If you wish to ink up—neck, face, hands—then you may need to switch careers. While displays of heavy tats feel ludicrous in the average office, the same cannot be said of your local eatery. If you work in food services—it matters not whether it’s a groovy, locavore Portland tapas joint or an artisanal pickle factory in Brooklyn—then a plethora of tattoos is positively de rigueur. Don’t even think about becoming a top chef unless you have a full sleeve thingy. Every foodie dude is now obliged—don’t ask me why—to give the impression that he has a seriously troubled, outlaw past. “I used to cook meth and now I cook organic quail eggs,” his tattoos seem to say.

A SOLUTION: Years ago I attended a vogue-ing competition in Harlem. This was way back before Madonna popularized this mysterious subculture. As those of you who have seen the ’80s documentary Paris is Burning will be aware, these hilariously competitive events were structured around very specific categories: Executive Realness, First Time in Drag, Looking Like a Banshee Girl, etc.

On this particular night one of the categories made a strong impression on me. I realize now that it contains the ultimate solution to the conundrum of office attire circa 2012. The category was … drumroll … Looking Like You’re Going Someplace Better Later. As I struggle to concoct a new roadmap for office attire, balancing the need for a little self-expression with the need for decorum, this phrase floats back into my consciousness. Avoid the gruesome pitfalls of overdressing or underdressing. Simply dress like you are going someplace better later.

For gals this translates to a few sequins here, a fake lash there, an oversized bejeweled cuff here. For men it means a new suit with a more fitted jacket, a pocket square or a nifty iPad case. Are you freakishly fabulous? No. But neither are you turgid and dreary. When your mantra is to look like you’re going someplace better later, then you have permission to add that signature flourish which sets you apart.

And then, in the unlikely event that you are actually going someplace better later, you are good to go. Memo to you: Keep that blue stripper wig in your purse, just in case.