Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Workplace Fashion

I know that it is right after New Years and that I should be blogging about resolutions and dedication and all sorts of motivating things. But the Wall Street Journal recently published an internal memo about the dress code at UBS, and as someone who is weirdly interested in workplace fashion, I felt the blog calling to me.

If you are reading this blog and you know me, you are probably surprised to read that I am interested in workplace fashion. There is no question that I am not a fashionista. Not by any stretch of the imagination. No one has ever accused me of even being “fashion forward.” Our family budget simply won’t allow for it. Besides, I’m really just not that cool. I couldn’t really pull off corporate cutting edge. And, I’m pretty content to be sporting last season's J. Crew suit or sale Ann Taylor pants. (As an aside, does anyone ever buy anything at Ann Taylor for full price? They have sales ALL the time). So while Banana, Ann and Talbots are staples of my work wardrobe, I know these names rank me pretty close to the bottom rung of corporate fashion. (Check out http://corporette.com/2009/11/10/reader-mail-how-much-do-you-spend-on-clothes/ for a discussion on what other professionals are paying for their wardrobe).

But I am interested in it. When I first started practicing law, I was twenty-three years old and I looked it. Looking young was a double edged sword. In court, it was great. Every clerk could tell just by looking at me that I was a brand-new baby lawyer and took pity on me. They helped me figure out which form to use, where the heck my case was transferred to and how to use that dumb 1950s era carbon paper that some judges insist upon. But to the clients, looking young was a severe disadvantage. Clients wanted to know that I was worth the $$$ per hour they were paying for me. And dressing up was one way to convey an image of competence.

I truly believe that part of being a successful woman in the legal field is constantly looking fresh. Of course, there is a line in this – you can’t be too fashion forward or too out there. But you are expected to look current, up-to-date and put together. Lest you think I exaggerate, one of the first comments my recruiter reported back to me when I was interviewing this spring was that my now current firm was impressed with how sharp and put together I looked. Never mind any of the super cool things I had done during my time as a lawyer.

But the point is, I follow corporate couture. And, I work in the financial industry. So I was super interested in UBS’s dress code. A surprising number of banks and financial institutions still require their employees to wear suits to work. In these companies, the idea of “casual Friday” means wearing a French blue – instead of white – dress shirt with your suit. Getting a glimpse of the UBS dress code was like getting the inside scoop on how to sell myself to a potential client.

The dress code, as it turns out, wasn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) revolutionary. It advised the retail banking staff to wear suits in gray, navy blue or black. It suggested that women wear light makeup to enhance their features, but to avoid black nail polish or other nail art. And it advised everyone to wear a watch – conveying the image that punctuality and precision were important.

Of course, there were more incendiary recommendations in the code, but overall, the advice was pretty sound. I for one, am a big fan of the idea that in the workplace, underwear should be “undetectable but of good quality and easily washable.” And much of the advice simply echoed things I’d heard from jury consultants time and time again. In fact, the UBS dress code was a thousand times more politically correct than things I’ve heard from jury consultants. Which can only mean one thing – its generally good advice.


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