Presenting a Stylish "Corporate" Image

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Monday 11th October 2010
In this article
  • Business formal office.
  • Business casual office.
  • Super-casual office.
Presenting a Stylish "Corporate" Image

Whether you work in a business formal, business casual or super-casual office, our bet is that you’d like to always look sharp and stylish. Of course, vanity and personal taste aside, what you wear to work should also complement a stylish professional image — even in the most casual of offices.

Just how "stylish" is appropriate? That depends: your overall look should suit the atmosphere of your office. What — exactly — does this mean in today’s confusing mix of office dress codes? In most professional environments, "exactly" is pretty hard to pinpoint. Managers and human resource folks are generally quick to tell you what you can't wear, but that's where the advice ends.

Don’t guess. Check out the SharpGrooming analysis:

Business Formal Offices

As a general rule, the word "formal" should tell you all you need to know:

Formal = suit and tie.

Formal = professional and conservative.

Beyond these basics, can you branch out into other, more casual combinations when working in a business formal environment? We don’t suggest it. With so many companies rolling over to business casual, any company that maintains its business formal dress code does so deliberately. Obviously, in some executive restroom on a floor far, far above, someone who makes more money than you has decided that the company’s revenue model (i.e. the customer) requires that employees continue to wear formal attire. When you wear something other than what the company calls for, you earmark yourself as someone who does not understand the demands of your industry. In other words, you’re at work, right? So forget the fashion statement and opt for a professional statement.

What says "I get it" in the business formal environment? Here’s the breakdown:

The Clothes

Suits. The traditional wool suit is ideal for the business formal office. Keep the colors basic: black, navy or gray. Solid colors generally look the best, but subtle pinstripes or plaids are acceptable.

The style of your suits matters too: sure, you can get away with trendy cuts and four or five-button styles, but that sets you up to look like the guy who’s leaving early to go dancing (or to his night job as a runway model). The point is, wearing a less conservative suit may be "cool," but it doesn’t serve your main purpose — to look like you’re on the team and moving up. Another business formal style-point: suits should be clean, wrinkle-free, and well-fitting. An expensive suit that is not properly tailored looks (a) less expensive, and (b) less professional. For more information, check out Top 10 Tips for Caring for Your Dress Clothes.

SharpMan Tip: Worried about wearing wool in summer? Don’t be. Wool comes in many weights. Stock up on a couple of light wool suits for summer to maintain your business formal look all year round.

Shirts. Match up your wool suit with a conservative cotton dress shirt. We’re talking long sleeves (unless you’re working outside of North America and Northern Europe) in blue or in white. Truly experienced business formal men have been known to pull off pink and red shirts, but those men are few and far between, so stick with the general rule. Vertical stripes are OK, but, again, only if they’re blue and white. As with your suits, your dress shirts should be clean and wrinkle-free, with crisp-looking collars. For more information on dress shirt maintenance, check out Starching Work Shirts and Looking Sharp on a Budget: How to Clean and Press Your Own Shirts.

Ties. Finally, match your shirt and suit with a conservative tie. Solid colors are safest, but brightly colored broad-striped ties (a.k.a "school ties") also work well. Skip the flowered ties, the cartoon ties and other "cute" ties. Again, they may be "cool" and "different," but you don’t want to be. Besides, starting a collection of "novelty" ties can be expensive. Instead, we suggest stocking up on three to four high quality ties and calling it quits. For more information on how to determine whether the quality of a tie matches its price tag (or how to recognize a high quality tie at a bargain outlet), check out Assessing the Value and Quality of a Tie.

SharpMan Tip: Not sure how to tie a tie? Check out Ties 101 in the SharpMan’s Macromedia Flash archives. (Please allow a couple of minutes for loading.)

The Shoes

For many men with wardrobes limited by their business formal workplaces, shoes appear to be an opportunity to deviate from the pack. Often you’ll see a guy dressed conservatively from head to…ankles — sporting a pair of black lace-ups boots or clunky mosh-pit loafers, complete with dagger-shaped detailing on the front. Oops. Just ‘cause you can’t see your shoes in the mirror doesn’t mean your boss can’t.

Unfortunately, shoes are not exempt from formal dress. Your shoes should match the overall style of your clothing. For business formal, that means well-constructed leather loafers, oxfords or even wing tips. Skip the boots, sneakers, and Spice Girl-style platforms. Most guys only need a black pair for business formal, since brown won’t match any of the "approved" colors and navy shoes haven’t been fashionable in many a decade. Remember, business formal means no suede — just straight leather.

Shoes should be kept clean, well-polished and well-soled, so watch the bottoms of your shoes and hit a shoemaker when they start getting thin. Resoling is quick and cheap and will save you embarrassment. For more information, check out How to Buy a Great Pair of Shoes and How to Shine Your Shoes.

The Extras

Socks. Avoid patterned socks. Stock up on dark, solid-colored dress socks, preferably black to match your shoes. Wool or cotton calf-length socks (a.k.a. "trouser socks") with Lycra® around the edge are best — they’re less prone to sliding down your legs and they’re tall enough to hide your bare, naked calf when you’re seated. Plus, unlike all-Lycra® or all-nylon socks, wool and cotton will prevent a sweat-fest in your shoes.

Belts. Match the belt to your shoes. Keep belts simple and classic — no ornate buckles. Good quality leather is a must. Like your shoes, belts should be polished when they start looking ratty. Replace your belt when the belt hole begins tearing or looking noticeably worn.

Glasses. Glasses worn to work should be classic and conservative; save the funky pair for after hours. Styles and colors that suit your face and match your skin tone will complement you and your overall work image. Avoid tinted lenses or any style that interferes with eye contact — you want to look approachable. For more information on finding glasses that suit your look, check out Choosing Glasses That Flatter.

Other Accessories. As a general rule, keep your jewelry at home. Confine what you wear to work to your wedding band or one class/signet ring and a stylish watch.

Should you wear a colored pocket square to match your tie? Many SharpMen like these classic touches, but watch out: too much "matchy-matchy" and you begin to look like you care more about your look than your work. Our vote? Skip it.

Finally, resist the urge to bathe in your favorite new scent. For the fine points on smelling great without offending the boss, check out Using Cologne Without Going Overboard.

Other Hairy Issues

Hairstyles are a confusing matter: on the one hand, you’re a professional. On the other hand, you still want to look cool when you leave work. We suggest finding a hairstyle that can be styled conservatively for day and less conservatively for night. But either way, since work time pays for those cuts, it should be conservative. Think short and neat. Besides, why go through all the trouble of dressing conservatively with a hairstyle that will blow your whole cover? For more information on hairstyles for work, including tips for matching your cut to the shape of your face, check out Your Hair and That Big Interview and SharpMan’s SharpCuts.

And the facial hair? Clean-shaven is best, but subtle, well-maintained traditional facial hair is also acceptable. Avoid "cool" or unusual mustaches, goatees, jazz dots, etc. Remember, business formal is about conforming — if that’s not your bag, find another job. Otherwise, keep your facial hair conventional.

Finally, keep nose hair and ear hair out of sight and pay attention to skin care and nail care. For more information, check out Making the Facial Hair Decision, Growing Facial Hair and Ear Hair: What Gives?

Business Casual Offices

The term "Business Casual" is likely to be one of the most confusing concepts in men’s professional grooming. While the "casual" part suggests you can wear what you like, that’s not the case at all. In truth, business casual is only a small step down in formality from business formal.

In fact, while the business casual workplace generally allows you to dump the suit and tie most of the time, you still have to break out your suits for pitches, client meetings and other important consultations.

Why?

Simple: just because your company or industry has gone business casual doesn’t mean your clients have adjusted their expectations of what "value" means. Some clients expect to see their service providers dressed up and will often dress up themselves.

Otherwise, business casual days without meetings allow you to step down your formality — a little. What’s "a little?" Consider toning down to slacks, a dress shirt and a blazer.

But this is business casual, you say. Why not simply wear chinos, a polo/dress shirt and a pair of deck shoes?

Why? Because you don’t want to be mistaken for the mailroom guy (even if you are the mailroom guy). Remember, "dressing for the job you want" still applies in the business casual environment. Plus, chances are that the higher-ups making decisions about whether you get your next promotion are less comfortable with the casual nature of today’s office ("kids today…") and will likely interpret a more formal presentation as a sign of a guy who’s ready to rise.

Confused? Check out our breakdown:

The Clothes

Slacks. Your business casual slacks — like business formal slacks — should be sharply creased. What’s that? Your slacks don't hold a crease? Then don't wear them to work. Otherwise, you’ll find that most khakis hold a nice crease — even "budget" khakis. To ensure your khakis look more "business" than "casual," get a pair with cuffs (or have your tailor add them). Apart from being stylish, cuffs add a more finished look to casual slacks. Like those from your suits, your slacks should be tailored to fit you well. Avoid the "baggy" look at work.

Shirts. Although wearing polo shirts is tempting, "business casual" work shirts should be of the long-sleeve-cotton-dress-shirt variety, just like business formal. The average day means "no ties required," but we suggest keeping one on the back of your door or in one of your drawers for the occasional impromptu meeting.

Jacket. So you think jackets aren’t required for business casual? Think again. Ask yourself: who will have forgone the jacket in your office? All of the sheep you plan to overtake. Who will be wearing a jacket (and looking remarkably well-put together)? The SharpMan. The point? Jackets may be more "formal" than "casual," but they put forth a professional image that can’t be beat. For this reason, we strongly suggest adding one of these to your business causal uniform.

What type? Single breasted navy blue. One jacket — one color. It’s classic and looks great with those khaki slacks we recommended above. What could be easier?

Since you’re likely to wear this one jacket nearly every day, consider having it tailored to fit you properly. Make sure your jacket sleeves lie about an inch below your wrist and your pant cuffs are one-half to one inch above the top of your heel. Also have your tailor, or the one provided by your men's store, look at how your jacket hangs on your torso; be sure there are no folds or wrinkles.

SharpMan Tip: To find a good tailor, go to the source: any good men’s store will have your purchases outsourced to an excellent tailor. If you like the work, ask for a referral and make a habit of bringing all new purchases in for "polishing."

The Shoes

Many guys think that "business casual" shoes include boots, athletic shoes and other super-cas’ styles. Nope. As with business formal, oxfords or loafers remain your best. Guys who simply must break out suede shoes or brown loafers can do so in the business casual climate, but should make an effort to match their shoes and belt.

Accessories and Other Grooming Issues

Again, since business casual is only a small step below business formal, your accessory and grooming guidelines should err on the side of "conservative." See to the business formal accessories and grooming sections for more tips on keeping your overall appearance in line with "professional" guidelines.

Super-Casual Offices

And then there are those super-casual offices, where T-shirts and pierced orifices rule and bonuses are determined based on one’s level of foozball skill. Reality? Maybe in a few hyper-"creative" environments, but for the most part, even super-casual offices expect "serious" employees to look like, well, like employees.

So what does a SharpMan wear?

As with business casual, we suggest erring on the side of "conservative" by adopting a business casual wardrobe minus the jacket. By wearing crisp-looking slacks and dress shirts you’ll be casual enough for the environment, while looking "professional" enough to meet clients, contacts and anyone else who expects you to look like you’re actually holding down a job.

Check out the details:

The Clothes

Again, khakis and a long-sleeve dress shirt look "best," but a polo shirt, a short-sleeve dress shirt or any clean shirt with a collar is interchangeable in the warmer months. Khakis and khaki-like slacks look casual and well-kept. Avoid blue denim pants. If you’d like to wear jeans, consider a brown or solid blue pair. Keep all of your work slacks in good repair (no holes at the knees or pant cuffs that are too long) and not too baggy.

The Shoes

As with business casual, try to keep your athletic shoes at home. Get yourself a "staple" pair of lace-up shoes and a matching belt and keep both in good repair.

Accessories and Other Grooming Issues

Again, while the super-casual office policy may seem like an open invitation to wear and look as you like, hold off. Without the safeguards of business clothing, your hairstyle and accessory choices make an even bigger impact on whether you look professional. For this reason we suggest that SharpMen working in super-casual offices keep all accessories — including their belts and buckles — on the "less is more" vibe. In general, follow the business formal guidelines for rings, watches and cologne, allowing yourself a bit more latitude on the styles of each piece (but just a little). Remember, you’re still heading to work. Your look should reflect this.

This is particularly pertinent with head and facial hair grooming. Sure, you can get away with a longer, more casual style, but realize that you’re likely to look that much less employable for it. For this reason, make a point of keeping longer hairstyles neat and well groomed. The same goes for facial hair: shave or trim your facial hair every morning, as needed.

This article last updated on Wednesday 13th October 2010
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