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“Dress for success” is an oft-repeated motto. But recent studies have shown that wearing nice clothes in the office can actually be an effective strategy – dressing professionally can affect the way people perceive you, how confident you’re feeling, and even how you’re able to think abstractly.
And yet, finding clothes that are both in line with a professional dress code and reflective of your personality is no easy task.
Back when they were both MBA students at The Wharton School, Emelyn Northway, formerly an analyst at Merrill Lynch, and Dorie Smith, a former consultant at Deloitte, bonded at a networking event after they realized they were wearing the same black dress. It was out of that encounter that the idea for Of Mercer was born.
Of Mercer, now a favorite of Wall Streeters and celebrities alike, specializes in workwear that’s versatile enough to wear in a variety of offices. The products are manufactured in New York City and sold both online and out of a store in the Flatiron District.
We recently caught up with Northway and Smith to get their best tips for conquering all kinds of office dress codes.
“Whatever you wear, make it something you feel comfortable in,” Smith told Business Insider. “We’re all in this world where we want to make the woman successful as possible, and she needs to feel confident in what she’s wearing to do that.”
Here’s what they recommended.
If your office dress code is: Business formal
- Of Mercer
Just because you’re working in a formal environment doesn’t mean you need to stick to the classic black-suit uniform.
“This is probably the hardest because you want to make sure you’re dressed appropriately, but you also want to stand out,” Northway said. “As offices become more casual in general, we actually recommend ditching the boring black suits and embracing pieces that are a little more unexpected. You can show you’re confident by incorporating colors.”
That could mean wearing a traditional piece – whether that’s a suit, dress and blazer, or a skirt – but in an interesting color like navy or even a very-bright cobalt.
“You can do the matchy-matchy thing, but not in black,” Northway said. “Research shows that dressing in a non-conventional manner can make you feel more professional.”
If your office dress code is: Business casual
- Of Mercer
Last June, JPMorgan sent out a company-wide memo encouraging employees to dress in business casual unless they were meeting with clients. Other firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers and BlackRock (which has had a business casual dress code since the ’90s) followed suit in relaxing the office dress requirements.
The term “business casual” is still confusing for many, however.
“This one is the murkiest for our customers and for other people we speak to. Part of the problem is that there are so many trends that are so casual,” Smith said.
The rise of athleisure has made this in-between category even trickier for people in the workplace. Since more and more people are wearing leggings and other performance-centric materials as they socialize and do errands on the weekends, the look has bled into the outfits people are choosing to wear to work.
“We’ve even gotten emails from HR at some of these firms that say, ‘Help our analysts realize it’s not OK to wear leggings to work,'” Smith said. “People go too casual.”
You can, however, incorporate some elements of athleisure into your work wardrobe, like tailored pants that have some stretch to them – just no sweatpants.
Northway added: “Our rule of thumb is to make sure you’re dressing one step above everyone around you. If people are wearing jeans, wear nice black pants instead. It goes a long way to making you feel good about yourself and to making other people feel like you know what you’re doing.”
The Of Mercer founders recommend going for a dress with a fit-and-flare silhouette or a wrap dress in a bold color.
If your office dress code is: Casual
- Of Mercer
Casual dress codes are becoming more and more common these days, especially in creative and entrepreneurial environments. Still, that doesn’t mean you should show up to the office in jeans and a hoodie everyday.
“Our overarching advice is to always make sure you have one piece that’s more formal than your dress code,” Northway said. “If you’re in an environment with jeans, throw on a blazer. Blazers also have a psychological power of making you feel like you’re ready to get down to business.”
Try adding a piece of statement jewelry like a bracelet or necklace, or get a pair of heels or flats in a fun color.
Smith added: “Boyfriend jeans with black pumps is super chic, and it looks like you’re taking your outfit and your job seriously.”