It’s a rare man who makes it through life without ever holding a salary man job — nine-to-five, five days a week; mandatory dress code. Some men never have any other sort of job.
And with so many working men in America holding similar jobs, or at least jobs in similar settings, it’s no surprise that something of a uniform look has evolved.
Most corporate offices these days have relaxed out of the suit-and-tie standard.
Men may be expected to come to certain meetings, presentations, and other events dressed in a business suit, but outside of the executive culture the shirtsleeves-and-tie look has become more common.
Some offices may even dispense with the necktie, either on “casual Fridays” or in general.
Typical Office Clothing
The resulting default for most men is rapidly becoming a caricature of itself. White or blue shirts paired with navy or khaki slacks and a plain necktie defines “dressing up for work” for a vast number of male workers. The uniform has its advantages: light, plain colors are difficult to clash with, taking color concerns out of the equation.
Shirt sleeves can be rolled up and neckties removed to “dress down” quickly for social occasions, or just for comfort in the summer months. And the popularity of the look makes it inoffensive everywhere — a man in the corporate worker style can’t really be blamed for not being an exciting dresser, because he’s just following the dress code.
Why Stylish Office Wear Matters
The trouble with that philosophy is that it makes a man invisible. The light-shirt-and-tie approach is inoffensive, unquestionably, but also visually interchangeable with co-workers, peers, and competitors. In the high-turnover corporate world, the last thing a man wants is to seem easily-replaceable, but that’s exactly what looking like everyone else does.
Managers aren’t always great at remembering who was responsible for what achievement in the first place. Being one of half a dozen (or half a hundred, or half a thousand) guys in the department who all look about the same does nothing to help you out.
Dressing Well for Corporate Jobs: the Balancing Act of Style
There’s danger in making too much of a spectacle of yourself as well. If the office dress code and culture are firmly non-suit-wearing, you don’t want to show up in a business suit every day. That can seem like flaunting your money, or putting yourself above your fellow workers, or even threatening a superior’s position.
A little more balance is going to be called for. We recommend taking it piece by piece:
The first step toward standing out in a shirtsleeves office is to put something over them. A suit is right out, but a casual jacket or sport coat will usually be acceptable — and unusual. Most men will happily avoid the expense and effort of maintaining jackets if they can avoid them (though neither is particularly challenging), making it stand out from the start.
A good jacket fit is also extremely flattering, giving a man’s body a tapered, proportional shape that appeals to basic aesthetics. You don’t have to look for anything exotic or luxurious — a simple herringbone tweed or even a soft corduroy is affordable, distinguished, and flexible enough to be worn at varying levels of dress.
Plain colors are easy to match but boring to look at. You’ll want a white shirt or two for more formal occasions, but a good day-to-day office wardrobe should have some variety in it. Checks and striping are both common and flattering patterns, though both should be kept small in scale. Large, bold stripes are more suited to stylish social wear, and anything checked more aggressively than a restrained grid pattern is veering too close to plaid for corporate tastes.
Textured fabric can serve as an alternative form of patterning, such as a herringbone weave to give a shirt a two-tone sheen. Be aware that button-down collars are the least formal of styles, and often less flattering to a man’s face as well — point or spread collars, neatly pressed, give your appearance a crispness that the admittedly-convenient button-down can’t quite match.
Just like shirts, a monochrome tie is safe but boring. Add patterns and textured weaves to your wardrobe, and don’t be shy of mixing and matching. Contrast with the shirt is a good thing, so long as it doesn’t clash. You can help avoid clashing by keeping the pattern of the shirt and the pattern of the tie distinct and differently-proportioned — a tie with a few broad diagonal stripes goes well with a narrowly-checked shirt, for example.
Take the time to learn a knot well-suited to your build as well. If you have a stocky build and a broad face, a narrow tie in a small knot is going to make your head look oversized. Get a good thick tie and go ahead and put the full Windsor in it.
There seem to be a lot of men out there who want their butts to look big and saggy. Don’t be one of them — only buy slacks that fit comfortably in the waists, the hips, and especially in the “drop” between the waistband and the crotch. If you’ve got a lot of extra fabric hanging below the place where your legs meet, it all goes straight to the visual impression of your rear end. The thighs wind up looking a little chunkier too, so you’re losing all around.
Make sure the fit is fairly snug, just loose enough to allow you to move comfortably and not much more. Larger men who genuinely need the extra flexibility in their trousers should stick to pleated fronts (and should be wearing their trousers high on the waist, preferably with suspenders in place of a belt), but plain fronts will flatter most men so long as they fit without stretching.
Khaki and navy are probably the most popular color for office slacks, so try to find others for your wardrobe. Charcoal gray is an ideal color for more dressy looks, and a relaxed brown or green shade works well for more casual days.
Shoes and Socks
We already mentioned it in our post on menswear faux pas, but your shoes should be the same color as your belt (and in office settings that’s pretty much going to be either black or brown). Your socks, on the other hand, should match the color of your trousers, which means being sure to own a few pairs for every color of pants you wear.
Regular polishing will help keep your shoes from looking scuffed or faded. You’ll end up saving yourself a lot of time and effort if you give them a quick dusting-off when you get home at night, or a wipe with a damp cloth if they’re dirty or salt-stained (a particularly damaging condition that’s hard to avoid in northern winters).
An eye for details goes a long way in setting yourself apart from a uniform look. If you are wearing a jacket, throw a pocket square in the breast pocket. It shouldn’t be flashy, but its presence demonstrates time and effort spent on details.
A wristwatch shows attention to punctuality, and is a lot classier than pulling your cell phone out of your pocket whenever you want to know the time.
Cufflinks may be a bit formal for daily office culture — save the French cuffed shirts for meetings (though they’ll be a nice stylish touch when you do get there). And always pay attention to the details of grooming: clean shave, neat haircut, trimmed nails and no personal odor beyond your soap and maybe a mild deodorant or aftershave.
Are you an office worker or a manager? Let us know what your corporate culture looks like — and how you stand out in it — by dropping us a comment!