Four Tests for the Office Red Carpet

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Thanks to Sunday night's Academy Awards show, clothes are again a popular topic around the office break room. Just as they do on the red carpet, women in the workplace often have more flexibility when it comes to what they can wear to the office. More freedom, however, can result in some glaring faux pas. For every Nicole Kidman or Jada Pinkett Smith, there is a Bjork in a swan dress.

While a swan dress or wardrobe malfunction on the red carpet can be charitably viewed as a bid for publicity, the corresponding fashion disaster in the office can cost you jobs, promotions and clients.

So while discussing who wore what to the Oscars might be entertaining, it might be more productive to consider what your clothes say about you. For instance, are you dressing for the position you have or for the one you want? Do your clothes tell the world you are someone who can be trusted with the intimate details of a business or someone's personal finances? Or do they imply that you really don't pay much attention to the details?

The first test of any outfit is a simple one: Is it clean and in good repair? This test applies to everything from jeans, to business suits, to formal wear. Clean seems to pose a special challenge because the definition changes based on the frequency with which an outfit is worn. “Clean” for casual wear may mean recently washed and ironed as needed. Clothes worn less frequently, including the “power suit” donned only for big meetings and major clients, or the cocktail dress worn only to holiday functions, may not need to be washed or dry cleaned after every wearing. At the same time, you don't want to smell like last year's perfume, or worse, the mothballs in the closet either.

The second test is tougher: Does it fit? We would all like to think we have the same body we graduated college with. Unless graduation was last year, chances are we don't. So even if you invested in a classic suit a couple of years ago, take a good hard look in the mirror to be sure it hasn't become too tight, too loose or just doesn't quite fit right anymore. Hint: panty-lines and buttons that pull indicate something is too tight. Straps that keep slipping off your shoulder, or waistlines that sit on your hip bones, probably indicate something is too loose (or at least in need of some new elastic). Hems that don't hang even, or show off their lining, just don't fit anymore.

These two tests are primarily mechanical, in the sense that they deal with the details of the condition of your clothes and the person wearing them. The next tests are tougher because they involve things the individual can't always control, like situations and fashion.

The third test is whether your clothes are appropriate for the situation. “Casual” varies by age, industry and even geographic location. In business, the rule of thumb that it is better to be over-dressed than under-dressed, probably still holds true, especially for job interviews or client meetings. You can hardly go wrong with a nice business suit or tailored dress, low-heeled pumps and a decent purse or attaché case, unless you are going to a company picnic or some formal event. Although skirts are no longer mandatory, there are many professionals who still think that they are more appropriate than pants and therefore they are probably a safer choice, except on the coldest of days.

The final test is the hardest one: Is it fashionable? You don't have to succumb to every trend to be fashionable. Some styles, indeed, are so classic they can be worn for years or even decades. Many of the outfits that fail this test do so because of color, hem length, width and fabric type. Plaid, and paisley prints can tell other exactly when an outfit was purchased, so can the color and the presence of shoulder-pads large enough to be used in a football uniform. Fashion designers and writers cringe, but one way to be fashionable without having to buy a new wardrobe every season is to accessorize well. The basic blue shirtwaist dress can be transformed with the right belt, wrap, blazer or jewelry. Best of all, accessories can provide the best opportunities to express your individual personality and fashion sense.

Whether you are building your professional closet or paring it down, be sure your closet has a few classic pieces – a summer and a winter suit, a couple of all season dresses, and some coordinating separates, including skirts, pants, blazers and blouses, all in black, blue, khaki or white/cream. With this foundation you can build a variety of outfits for the office that will always have you presenting yourself to the best advantage while still leaving you room to explore many of fashion's trends.

By evaluating each outfit you wear using these four tests, you can also be confident that you are prepared for virtually any situation. And that confidence goes a long way in helping you feel prepared to handle any situation. It is often said that clothing is a kind of armor. The right clothing certainly is. It increases you confidence, whether you are at the office dealing with clients and co-workers, or on the red carpet having millions of people scrutinize every detail about you while reporters ask the same questions over and over again.

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