It’s not news that millennials value individuality. How then can we dress appropriately for the workplace while retaining our personal sense of style?
As seen on social media, millennials frequently use fashion and style to define their identities and personalities. In fact, big brands have been seeing declines in sales because millennials simply prefer to dress however they want, not follow the latest trends blindly.
Dress codes exist to project a certain image rather than make employees think or perform better. Yet it’s also crucial that workers feel comfortable on the job. Studies have even shown how clothes can affect the wearer’s psychological processes, a phenomenon called enclothed cognition.
More companies are recognising this and have shifted from being process-oriented to being results-oriented. So long as you get the work done, bosses have little qualms with what you wear.
But as the rules guarding workplace attire loosen up, dress codes have become oversimplified lists of do’s and don’ts that employees sometimes have difficulty interpreting.
What is acceptable and what is taboo? Just how far can one go with adding their unique flavour to their work wardrobe? Here are four things to consider when planning your work look.
1. Figure out the four degrees of dress formality.
Before you can figure out how to pimp your work attire, you’ve got to go back to the basics – figuring out the degrees of formality. This means digesting and fully understanding the term ‘business casual’ that HR threw at you and knowing how it is different from ‘smart casual’.
Listed below are the four main dress codes, ordered from most to least formal:
2. Survey your workplace and form a list of do’s and don’ts.
Workplaces are getting less strict about dress codes. But this doesn't mean we can go off the rails, abuse this privilege and dress however we want. A 2010 US national poll found that appearance was ranked the second-most important quality associated with professionalism (communication skills being first).
Ultimately, employees are the faces of the company and should reflect the organisation's values. Even if the dress code doesn’t specify it, we have the good sense not to wear revealing clothing or tank tops with shorts to work.
Should the breakdown of formalities still leave you feeling fuzzy, there’s always the process of elimination to fall back on. Survey your workplace and see what your co-workers and bosses are wearing. Eventually, you’ll be able to form your own comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts.
However, this does take some time to do. To play it safe, bear with conventional office attire for the first week. Don’t worry. Hard times do pass.
3. Cheat your way with colours, accessories and prints.
Sure, the classic monochrome palette is a foolproof professional look. However, if your office allows it, look into sprucing up your blacks and whites with accents of colour.
We’re not suggesting going full flamingo and strutting into the office on day one in a shocking pink suit. In fact, having a statement colour piece, like a red top paired against black trousers and shoes, could be more impactful.
Prints are also a way to make your work attire pop. Don’t bust out the loud patterns like animal prints or psychedelic 70’s swirls too early. Start out with more conservative prints like stripes, checks and polka dots. If your co-workers seem more receptive, then perhaps it's time to amp it up with bolder designs.
Remember to play around with accessories, but as usual, less is usually more. A bright and quirky watch, wacky handbag or chunky necklace could provide the focal point of your outfit. Even your stationery can say a lot about your personality.
4. Don’t forget the hair.
The myth has been busted. In Singapore, you don’t have to retain your natural dark hair to keep your job. There is only one golden rule: keep your hair neat.
As a working professional that represents your company, arriving with unkempt hair reflects badly and suggests that you don't care enough to put effort into your appearance.
For men, you can’t go wrong with keeping your hair trimmed and pushed back to achieve that fresh, polished debonair look. If that isn't stylish enough, undercuts (be they mid-fade or disconnected) are the rave these days. The same principle apply to facial hair – keep it trimmed and you’re good to go.
Ladies typically have more hair to play with, so the possibilities for styling go far and wide – natural, tied up, shaved, pinned back, you name it. For ladies with long locks who want more daring colours but aren’t ready to fully commit: highlights, balayage and ombres are your solutions. There’s also the increasingly popular “hidden hair” trend that's lots of fun, essentially saying, “Flip the page for a surprise!”
Go to town on styling yourself with colour and personality. Just because you're in the working world now doesn't mean self-expression needs to take a back seat. The key thing is to keep it both personal and professional.