New Year, New you: Breaking the ‘business casual’ code

AmberLee Clement sits inside her office at the Soldier and Family Assistance Center (SFAC) at Fort Drum.

BY: Lenka Walldroff
Few phrases cause as much consternation as “business casual.”

    In the not-so-distant-past, business attire was business attire and casual attire was, well, casual. There was a fairly clear delineation between what was worn where; “business casual” did not exist.

    To help crack the code of what business casual actually means we turn to Amberlee Clement. Ms. Clement is a north country native who works for the Army Community Service’s Employment Readiness Program on Fort Drum. Ms. Clement meets with local human resources staffers to outline what the general expectations of appropriate work attire are, and then uses those guidelines to help soldiers and military spouses make clothing choices as they transfer into civilian jobs, or, in the case of newly arrived military spouses, start new jobs in the community.

    Ms. Clement covers everything sartorial- from the importance of fit, to the challenges of shopping locally, and dressing appropriately in a region that lives under the threat of snow six months out of the year. She weighed in on the rather heated argument that is raging around the appropriateness of denim for the office, and even chimed in with a few hard and fast rules that can be dubbed “Amberlee’s Ten Commandments.”

    A few years ago, she began a clothing drive called “Classic Closet” where community members donate gently worn business attire for her clients. She also works with local thrift stores to pull together an annual fashion show dubbed, “Dress for Success for Less” to help educate people a bit on the ins and outs of appropriate business attire. 

    “I started [this program] because I noticed there were many young job seekers coming to career fairs dressed either too casually and/or borderline inappropriately,” said Ms. Clement. “Our organization’s mission is to identify supportive needs and address them. Proper job seeker attire was a need especially for our young [military] spouses coming to the region seeking employment.” 

    First, it needs to be noted that not every office is a business casual office. Some offices are very much suit-and-tie offices and while the boss usually sets the tone, to wear business casual in that sort of environment would likely be inappropriate. The business casual dress code applies to the more casual environments where a professional impression is still necessary. Ms. Clement notes that the most important aspects of business casual attire is first and foremost dressing appropriately for your work environment and client base. 

    However, even in business casual environments, all the rules go out of the window when it comes to the interview. According to Ms. Clement, “The number one rule for any interview is to know the company or organization. Get on the company website or Facebook page and research company goals, mission, products and yes, even attire. If you are unable to locate any images of company professionals then you should always dress one step up from business casual and that means a suit and tie, or [at a minimum] slacks and a blazer.”

    Dressing well conveys a sense of respect and attentiveness that leaves a pleasant first impression. Clothing also has an effect on confidence. A recent study asked doctors to take a test wearing professional attire, and then again wearing their street clothes. The doctors did better, making fewer mistakes, while taking the test in their lab coats.

    Professional interview clothing translates into a grey or navy suit for men with coordinating shirt and tie- black suits are generally considered too formal for daytime wear. For women, trousers or knee length skirt, paired with a blouse that covers the shoulders or a solid knit sweater, and either closed toe flats or a low heel. Save the stilettos for date night.

    But what about our first Monday morning in a casual, yet professional, work environment? Or perhaps if we receive an invitation specifying a business casual dress code? They both beg the eternal question: “What do I wear?”

    Ms. Clement believes that it’s a delicate balance between casual attire and business attire centered on the very practical needs of activities you will be engaging in at work (or at the event at hand, as in the second example.)

    Chinos or dark denim are both business casual appropriate- although there’s a huge asterisk when it comes to making denim appropriate for the office. Ms Clement also sanctioned polo shirts with a company logo as business casual appropriate.  I would also like to add the possibility of button down shirts- immaculately, pressed, not worn at the collar, or otherwise stained.

    Sneakers are for the gym, not the office. Business casual shoes are leather, not fabric. Brown shoes are more casual and thus more appropriate for a business casual office. Black is very formal, appropriate for weddings and evening social events, and maybe for arguing a case before the Supreme Court. In either case, black leather shoes inhabit the far right zip code of our clothing continuum   

    Women have so many business casual options on top of traditionally feminine pieces like skirts, dresses, and ankle length trousers. They can also borrow from men’s wardrobes (given that they are appropriately tailored to a woman’s body): crisp, starched button down shirts, jeans (although the same qualifiers apply), chinos, trousers, loafers, and sweaters work just as well.

To make this a bit easier to reference, here are “Amberlee’s 10 Commandments”:

  1. Thou shalt not wear flip flops “unless you’re a lifeguard.” Ms. Clement took the time to underscore this point with three exclamation points. Another quote from the sartorial goddess herself regarding flip flops: “Not for a career fair, not for an interview, and not for work.” So… never, then.
  2. Thou shalt not don jeans to an interview. This is the one place that Ms. Clement’s denim qualifiers do not apply. The only exception , she says are “observational interview where you have to conduct a situational task, in which case jeans should be clean, [without] holes or rips.” She also advises to stay with darker washes.
  3. Thou shalt not douse thyself in perfume/cologne. Ms. Clement says: “Skip perfumes and colognes… as some interviewers have allergies.” Save the Aqua Velva for date night.
  4. Thou shalt clothe thyself in neutral colors. As far as office-appropriate color palettes, Ms. Clement suggests sticking to neutrals: “Stick to the basics- black, blue, browns and gray- but feel free to add a splash of color for accenting your own style.” Solid advice that our well-dressed friends across The Pond (the French) also follow. If color is a vital part of one’s life and style and the thought of dressing in neutrals for 40 hours a week triggers some sort of seasonal depression, the solution is to throw in a bit of color with subtle touches- a fun scarf, a colorful piece of jewelry, or even an overcoat or umbrella. Color loving men can throw in a colorful pair of dress socks or play it up with their tie (within reason.) 
  5. Thou shalt pack a change of shoes during inclement weather. Ms. Clement notes: “Bring a pair of back up shoes and change when you get [to work.] If you live in NNY, it means many months of winter boots. Bring a bag and change upon arrival.” It’s an extra step, and another bag to carry, but far easier in the long run than trying to successfully incorporate snow boots into your professional attire. Doing so also protects shoes from road salt, which, when mixed with snow, melts, and dries leaving behind the unsightly white water marks on shoes. It looks unkempt (and thus unprofessional.)
  6. Thou shalt iron thy clothes. Ms. Clement calls these “weekend wrinkles” and warns against them. Don’t show up to work wrinkled, just like the road salt rings on shoes- it looks sloppy. Showing up wrinkled gives the impression that we slept through our alarm, rolled out of bed in a panic, threw on whatever was on the floor, and here we are. It may even give us imaginary morning breath. “Be sure to iron or steam clothes,” she says.
  7. Thou are not a jewelry case at Tiffany’s; adorn thyself simply. Ms. Clement notes that it is wise to “limit excessive jewelry. Stick to the basics- a watch, studded earrings, and necklace.” A few pieces of understated jewelry for women is most professional- earring studs (long, dangling earrings are more appropriate for evening social occasions), a watch, wedding set (if applicable), or maybe a simple pendant necklace or strand of pearls. No bracelets that are audible when jiggled about. And not all worn together. Take a nod from Coco Chanel and remove one piece of jewelry before leaving the house.
  8. Thou shalt not bare it all. Ms. Clement is straight to the point on this one: “Panty hose for the ladies, skirts to the knee, and no cleavage, please.” I would also throw in that tops that reveal the back are also inappropriate for the office.
  9. Thou shalt take care with thy tie. Ms. Clement says: “Choose a tie that reaches to your belt buckle and accents your shirt.” There have been some men who have famously- and perhaps intentionally- ignored this piece of sartorial advice- including FIAT’s legendary CEO Gianni Agnelli- but it has been recognized as a personal idiosyncracy, and perhaps not something to actually be modeled by others (like his habit of wearing his watch over his shirt cuff.)
  10. Thou shalt insist on proper fit. Ms. Clement’s a purist on fit: “Be sure that you find the right fit for your shape. Start by knowing your body and cater your style to it.” The biggest misconception when it comes to proper fit is that it requires oodles of money. Not so! The main reason that bespoke Italian and English suits looks so good is because they’re made to measure- meticulously fitted to the person’s body. While bespoke suits are out of many peoples’ budgets, taking a garment to a local tailor for small alterations are very affordable. Minor alterations, like hemming or taking in the waistline on trousers or skirts, and even adjusting shirts can be done for under twenty dollars.

    It has been said that one ought to dress for the job one wants, not for the job one has. As we are still in the shadow of the New Year, and many of our resolutions were no doubt professional in nature (and not yet forgotten) it is our hope that these tips will be helpful.  If any readers would like to help Ms. Clement in her mission to prepare our military community members for civilian jobs, please consider donating lightly used professional or classic clothing to the “Classic Closet” clothing drive. The clothing goes directly to our servicemen and women, and their families. For more information, please contact Amberlee Clement at 315.772.9611