Clothes Make the Design Director

This morning I woke up and dressed myself all wrong. I don’t know why, but I dressed like an idiot. I put on a short-sleeved, collared shirt that, once I arrived at the office, seemed entirely inappropriate for the workplace; a pair of light brown corduroys that somehow seemed more ill-fitting today than anytime I’ve worn them before; and a pair of black, Chuck Taylor All-Stars-style sneakers more fit for a playground than a meeting room.

If I recall vaguely amid my early morning brain fog, my intention was to fancy the whole ensemble up a bit with a pair of the dress shoes that I keep at the office, but when I got there I was reminded that I kind of hate those shoes. I thought maybe I’d add a blazer I keep in the closet and sort of cover up my shame, but all of a sudden this blazer, which I’ve had for a few years, made me look as big as a house. So I resigned myself to going through the day looking like some kind of “Leave It to Beaver” reject stuck in design school. Pick me for your artsy kickball team!

Dress the Part…or Not

Come to think of it, I’ve long felt conflicted between ‘dressing like an art director’ — which means casually and vaguely ‘alternative’ — and dressing like I work in a real, grown-up office. Earlier this summer I decided that, far too often, I tended toward the former and resolved to come to work in a more composed state. I’ve been trying to do that. But some days, like today, I just mess up, which is really kind of the danger of today’s relaxed dress codes (more on that in a moment).

I’m willing to bet that this is a conundrum that lots of designers face daily. For sure, if you work on an in-house design team, there’s likely to be at least some unspoken pressure to dress in a more business-like way than designers employed by studios; pressure to suppress the tendency that many (but admittedly not all) designers have towards a less straightforward wardrobe. But even studio employment, as I recall, poses the challenge of how to dress for visits from a client or to a client’s office — last-minute, impromptu visits being particularly uncomfortable if you arrived to work that morning looking like you were ready for nothing fancier than a game of “World of Warcraft.” It happened to me many times.

Suit Up

On the other hand, there’s an intangible kind of authority that designers often benefit from when they dress in an unorthodox fashion. I’ve been amazed in the past to see design directors I’ve worked for show up at important client meetings in collarless shirts, jeans and sneakers — and still command a kind of respect that one wouldn’t assume possible without at least a presentable jacket.

I always thought to myself, “Is it because he’s dressed like a designer? And can I get away with the same thing?” I’ve made some fitful attempts at raiding that bohemian cachet, but I just don’t think I can pull it off. If you see me ‘dressing like a designer,’ it’s more out of laziness than anything.

Even as a function of laziness, I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. While a casual wardrobe can be comfortable, it just turns the morning dressing ritual into an unnecessarily complex calculus… one that often leads to mishap if not disaster, as it did for me this morning. As an alternative strategy, I’ve often thought to myself that if I should invest in six or seven well-tailored suits and just wake up every morning knowing exactly what I’d be wearing that day: a suit. It would make my mornings in front of the closet much less confounding, and I’d probably get out of the house a lot more quickly. A suit every day, that’s the way to do it. Take the decision-making out of the morning. Short of that, I guess I’ll just have to dress a little nicer tomorrow.

  1. Never underestimate the power of designer denim and a pair of Puma’s. Or boots, if your in Texas. Urban Cowboy FTW. Also, thick rimmed glasses are a must have. I should start a blog. Thanks for the inspiration Khoi.

  2. I’ve worked in agencies where sandals, shorts and a t-shirt are accepted, even encouraged. At the other end of the spectrum was a long-time agency gig where the boss(es) requested that I come to work in button-down shirts, dress shoes and slacks. I think in part it’s decided by who your superiors are – if they’re older, they want more formal. Younger = really casual.

    Nowadays, running my own business, I wear whatever I want but client meetings get the dress-up routine. If I was employed in an agency setting again, I think I’d actually reach for the “mature” button-down ensemble. Guess I’m getting older myself.

  3. I think your conundrum is rooted in your geography. In my experience, most designers that have any inclination towards business attire do so because they’re from, or started their careers on, the east coast. Here in CA, even the accountants don’t always wear a suit.

  4. Having one of those days, too, with a wide plaid shirt I bought at Wal-Mart for a meeting after a lost-luggage incident during a cross-country trip.

    The shirt and the softball-induced lower back pain are making for a tablecloth-at-an-angle wardrobe today. At least I’m wearing black socks.

  5. Great post. I can completely understand your problem.

    I have to face this same thing every morning. While I may not be the same level as you (I’m a Sr Manager) I still feel like i need to dress up a bit but I still want to hang on to my “Hey I’m a young creative person, I should dress more fun and artsy then all you suits” mentality.

    I agree it has something to do with geography. Everyone in NYC seems to dress really snappy.

    I think you touched on two easy fixes for dressing nice for work.
    #1 Fit: Make sure your clothes fit your body type.
    #2 Shoes: You can wear jeans and a short sleeve button up but add a nice pair of dress shoes and it changes the whole look.

  6. I am constantly second guessing my morning wardrobe decisions! It’s good to know that there are others similarly afflicted. 🙂

    Luckily, the music business does allow for virtually no rules, but I still have to remind myself to take it up a notch when an important client meeting comes up. I’ll invariably get to the studio and realize 5 minutes later that the Telefunken t-shirt I got 15 years ago is not going to be received very well by the advertising executive who expected something more professional, first of all, on top of probably thinking “Telefunken” means something entirely different than a vintage microphone manufacturer!

  7. While I agree with you that there is something to be said for dressing a bit more nice/alternative, I think this really is an east coast thing. Here on the west coast, while it doesn’t hurt to dress up a bit (biz casual with a bit of your own style) you’ll often find yourself in meetings with clients who are very casually dressed.

    My thinking is that it’s a good idea to dress in what you feel comfortable and confident in. For me that’s nicer when clients are around, otherwise I don’t really worry to much about it.

  8. this is one reason why i now love being home and not at work. i can wear my threadless tees and skirts or jeans everyday and not worry about being “presentable”. i’ve always been a casual dresser and nothing irks me more than dressing up for work. i guess i was never really cut our for the workplace, huh?

    but on your other note about suits, they can be just as thought-provoking in the morning. what color shirt, with what tie, with which pair of shoes? my husband spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating these things. before this i also thought suits were the easy way out!

  9. I remember those days when I’d put on a shirt I’d owned for years and all of a sudden realized exactly why it didn’t fit, or just wasn’t “me” and felt uncomfortable all day. For somebody who has as mediocre a fashion sense as I do, the potential for variety just isn’t worth it. There are still a few of those ill-bought shirts in my closet waiting to be discovered I’m sure, but recently I’ve been trying to pare things down (moving to California and now working from home have helped a bit). The more I can cut out down the number of occasions where I need to dress a certain way, the more I can cut down my options and potential for disaster. I have one good suit which I wear when I absolutely need to, otherwise it’s one of three pairs of jeans, one of three pairs of shoes, and either a t-shirt, polo or a button-down. If I get invited to the Oscars or the White House, I’ll rent something.

  10. For twelve years of Catholic school, I wore a uniform every day. At the time, I envied my freewheeling, casually-dressed public school friends. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the uniform was something of a great equalizer that allowed my classmates and I to dodge the formidable fashion bullet, at least during school hours.

    When we were kids, stuff like that seemed important. But I’m older now, and I really don’t care too much what other people think of my wardrobe. If someone decides it has bearing on the merit of my words or actions, well, eff ’em.

  11. I manage a government website, so there’s room for me to dress casually. Yet at the same time, I can’t really do the sneakers and t-shirt thing.

    Where I often have a problem is meeting designers offsite. Do I do the jeans and t-shirt thing and run the risk of coming across as a pathetic middle-aged wannabe, or wear a suit and look like a stiff?

    It’s like walking a tightrope. Recently, for example, I dithered about wearing jeans and Daring Fireball tee to such a meeting. Thankfully I didn’t, because I was greeted at the meeting by the head of the agency, who was wearing jeans and DF t-shirt!

    Any fashion tips gratefully received.

  12. “While a casual wardrobe can be comfortable, it just turns the morning dressing ritual into an unnecessarily complex calculusЁ”

    Right, but the kind of people that can do this kind of ritual dressing, successfully, fall into 2 categories me thinks:

    1. The kind that can effortlessly get up every morning and create a new and hip ensemble out of their wardrobe and they’ll have enough foresight to know that once they get to work it won’t all fall apart as yours did. These people are truly “designers” in the way they dress. they have “vision”. and I envy them.

    2. The kind whose dress is hip and art-directorish but you soon realize they’re wearing another kind of uniform, ultra-stylish versions of Steve Jobs (interchangeable jeans and black turtlenecks). They have a hip wardrobe but everything in it matches. it’s not quite the routine of 6 matching suits but it’s close. I think I fall into this category.

    One thing I gotta say for suits, after going to two private high schools is this: suits can definitely be liberating from the fashion grind, but the art in wearing a suit is finding subtle ways to show your uniqueness. never forget the details.

  13. I’ve been in all three situations: cases where there was a strict dress code, cases where there is no code, but there is some pressure to look professional from other departments, and cases where the is no dress code and the other in the office truly don’t care one way or another what you wear. In every one of these situations, the important thing is to find something that you feel comfortable in and stick to it.

    I’m a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy. But, there are ways that you can make a t-shirt and jeans fit into all but the strictest of dress codes. Add a blazer. Make the jeans a dark, trendy, fashionable pair from a great denim brand. Wear nice shoes with them.

    You can’t wear jeans? Kahkis only? Try them with a solid color t-shirt. Try them with sneakers. Try kahki-colored jeans — most people won’t know the difference, but if you like jeans, you’ll be ten times more comfortable.

    The point is: just find something you feel good in that works with your dress code. And don’t thin you can’t. If you’re creative, you can make your dress code work for you. If you’re not so creative fashion-wise, go to The Gap or Bananna and tell the staff your dress code and what you feel comfortable wearing. They’ll be happy to help you find stuff that works in the office and that you feel good in.

    The important thing is that you’re comfortable. If you’re comfortable, you’ll feel good about yourself. Feeling good about yourself instills confidence. Confidence is a visible and admirable trait when dealing with clients and bosses alike. Have confidence and do good work, and your clients won’t give a damn what you wear.

  14. Actually with the suit, you’ll end up spending a fair amount of time trying to get your shirt/tie/socks combination up to snuff, ever on the lookout for something new and it’ll only cause a whole new set of problems.

    The problem IS the answer.

  15. I wear a self-imposed uniform every day. My tips: well-cut pants that fit you will take you everywhere; and by all means wear white or coloured t-shirts as long as they fit properly and you have ironed them. Yes, I mean it. No iron, no t-shirt.
    Put a jacket that fits you over the top and you’re set.
    And polish your shoes 🙂

  16. A button-down shirt, dark jeans and a good pair of shoes is my usual thing. (But dammit, I really loathe having iron them shirts!)

    I wish I could afford to dress snappier, but I try to make due with what I can afford. Unfortunately, my favorite nearby clothing store, Uniqlo, just closed. What’s great about Uniqlo is that you can get any jeans you buy altered for free. Jeans that fit well always make me feel happier.

    One thing I’ve recently started to do was wear cologne. I just plain wanted to smell better. Admittedly, when I started putting it on, I felt like such a dad (which is fitting I suppose, because i am a dad).

  17. As a freelancer I usually dress with what I “find”. But meeting with clients I follow the “dress code”. It’s a easy way of showing respect to the client…

  18. I work in local government in the UK. That’s as staid and formal as it sounds.

    I have to at least make an effort and wear formal trousers, shoes and shirt. I’m really supposed to wear a tie but, until recently, I hadn’t really bothered.

    Overall it has probably stopped me impressing the right people but, as I have no intention of being anything other than a web designer, it suits me fine!

    Recently I’ve started moving towards dressing more smartly… partly because of fashion (ties are quite cool at the moment), partly because I’m getting older and it suits me more.

    I like having long(ish) hair though – I’m not stopping that until my scalp tells me too…

    which, depressingly, might not be too far away!

  19. Having worked in a government department where jeans were a no-no (which is OK, when you consider that not everyone looks good in jeans at work) I got used to relying on a couple pairs of nice-fitting trousers and a few standard shirts, with the right collar of course. I stopped wearing ties except for interviews and meetings with external stakeholders. Really nice (and probably expensive) shoes are important.

    One thing I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do is wear t-shirts with work trousers, nor will I ever be comfortable tucking anything into jeans.

  20. Designer denim, designer tee, well cut suit jacket and Italian loafers – casual, room to be creative and fit for clients. If clients aren’t on the agenda, lose the jacket and substitute the loafers for more casual kicks. Seems to work for me… anything but a suit!

  21. Ha, perfect timing for this article.

    Yesterday, I dressed like a complete, yet composed, bum and today I’m consciously a little more “professional” for lack of a better word.

    I go through waves, like you, where I am conflicted about how to dress. I certainly don’t feel the need to dress the ‘AD’ role though. In fact, once on the subway some guy started talking to me and said ‘you’re in the design field aren’t you?’ His assumption was based solely on what I was wearing. I never wore the same outfit combination again.

    Of course, for client meetings, I would always lean towards the professional side, but never beyond the real me. That just wouldn’t be right. Should a client catch me with a surprise meeting, or my CD pulls me in unexpectedly, they’ll have to take me as I am. Composed bum and all. 🙂

  22. A light-material button-down shirt, a pair of slacks, and one of a variety of comfortable and geek-chic t-shirts. Screw dress shoes, I have walk three or four miles every day in what I wear to work.

    I do the ‘designer style’ rather poorly. I hate going to clothing stores, which doesn’t help, either.

  23. Great post, Khoi. This is a constant struggle for thirty-something former punk rockers across the world.

    As a webmaster for a small town, I run into this constantly. I try to dress nice for work, but at the same time I don’t want to feel like an old man. I share an office with a young video producer who wears jeans and gas station attendant shirts to work and pulls it off, but I have come to the realization that I’m not in my 20s anymore and have to dress the role of a Dad.

    I recently got myself three or four nice pairs of slacks and five nice Enro wrinkle-free work shirts in white and grey. Now I just get up in the morning and match black with grey or tan or green pants with white, match my shoes and I’m out the door. I can always accesorize with my huge 1970s leather watch band or wear a zip up casual jacket over the top to make it feel more buttoned down.

    Not having many choices can be very liberating, and I still get casual Friday to wear jeans and an untucked nice t-shirt.

  24. I think you’ve hit a subject that everyone can relate to Khoi. I spent my high school years hanging out with the loners and the hackey sack players and I fit in because of the way I dressed. Baggy jeans, Airwalks (or Vans), and goofy tshirts. I was the only kid in the bunch that played sports, had good grades and was actively involved in clubs and youth group. I knew then how much the way I dressed affected the perception that others had on who I really was.

    Fast forward a few years into college. I had an eyebrow piercing and wore mostly the same wardrobe – much of it being splattered with paint and ceramics. I was an art major, and people knew it. Nevermind the fact that I was at the same time a student athlete, a computer nerd, and helped run the Campus Crusade club. Just as I did in high school, I chose to dress the part of just one facet of my life.

    I still do the same today. It’s a lot harder though. There’s more checks and balances. I have to choose between feeling professional or “real”; fun or an adult; cool or a cog. In then end, you just have to be yourself and be consistent. If you’re going to buy the suits, wear them everyday. If you’re going to raid that bohemian cachet, do it to the T.

  25. For this conundrum, I point you to the fashion photographer Nick Night, who’s wardrobe is, if a bit precious, the perfect example of a creative taking his rebellious roots, and fusing them with good taste, wider cultural traditions and a very personal identity.

    Alice Rawsthorn, in her April, NYT piece describes it well,

    “Knight buys all his suits from Carlo Brandelli of Kilgour and is similarly particular about the rest of his wardrobe. His shirts are custom-made by the venerable shirtmaker Frank Foster, and his black leather brogues are made from his personal last at Tricker’s. Even his Levi’s are bespoke: his signature embroidered down the side, with a gold silk lining hanging to the knees. It’s only when you look closely at the shirt, the brogues and the jeans that you realize they replicate exactly what British skinheads would wear. The brutal youth cult fascinated Knight in his teens, and the fascination continues. ”It’s the uniform I’ve built for myself,” says Knight, one of the world’s most celebrated fashion photographers.”

  26. Khoi – I am your female counterpart today. All your writing about web and print design, and you nailed it with clothing. It comes down to the fact that as designers we have expectations that we can also successfully design our wardrobe with the same flair.

    Temperatures dropped this week and this morning I stripped my closet looking for a few cooler weather things that matched at all. I threw on a jacket on the way out the door and as I was walking to the bus I looked down and thought “That didn’t work at all!” and cursed the fact that the bus was coming to soon for me to run back and fix any part of it.

    I work as a sort of one person print and web design office in a medical academic department. I sit with the tech folks all day who are as likely to wear sweats as polo shirts. I try to aim for the artistic edge of ‘real grown up office’ but I definitely have to nudge myself to land far enough over that line. I’ve always figured I have a bit of free license as ‘the artsy one’ around here, but a few more generic officey things would make for easier mornings.

  27. Post (and comments) couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time for me. I am starting my internship at The Netherlands biggest multimedia design company and I am still not sure what I should wear to work.

  28. Someone wise once told me:

    “If you really want success, wear a suit one day per week. It doesn’t matter what day and it doesn’t matter what you wear the rest of the week as long as you do it up one day. Then they know you’re serious and will never question the 4/5 days you come in looking like a slob.”

    Not sure I see the logic behind this one but it seemed to work for him. I myself don’t even own a suit (other than my old second-hand brown plaid grad suit) so I can’t confirm this.

  29. As with everyone else, this seems to be the conundrum of the thirty-something.

    I find I bounce between both ends of the spectrum, and I think for the design studio, it is a necessary thing. Especially from a client perspective, actually. Some clients, usually older and conservative, need the tight dress/suit to feel comfortable letting you run rampant over their brand and then paying you tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege (“communication is an expense, not a necessity” – groan). On the other hand, working with a band is usually more casual, and I have to try to pull off that if I am not necessarily cool, I can recognize it (and I bring along the killer accessory – a 23 year old designer). As several of the comments have already shown, people can spot a designer a mile away – the non-uniform uniform. So everything is a suit, actually, unless you are stylistically challenged! I always try to dress ‘me’, but ‘me’ relative to my clients for the day. I love to wear a sharp suit (never a cheap-looking one) and fine shoes, but I also love a cool polo and my shell-toes. At the end of the day, I need to connect with my client – whether to sell them on a large project or a specific design. The way I dress is tool to achieve a goal, the same as how you design a site to lead behavior. It also helps that I enjoy buying clothes (when I can afford them) and I like putting them together.

    However, it can be very costly to do this – good ‘designer’ clothes and sneaks are not cheap, and to have a couple sharp suits and shoes and shirts and ties – it get pricey, so you have to choose your battles.

  30. And I guess the post above mine came in as I was composing, but I think I would agree that a suit one day a week is probably a very good strategy. And said much more concisely than my long-winded post.

  31. I agree with Keith. Wear what you feel most confident in.

    Related: is wearing a T-shirt with your own company’s logo on it as bad as wearing a shirt of the rock band you’re in?

  32. This is such a subjective thing depending on where you work. Where I’m at now they kind of expect all the “creatives” to dress down, like we’re too busy with our work to be bothered with clothes. At the same time, it seems to work against you if you’re younger than most everyone else, then they just think you’re a slacker. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  33. The point is: just find something you feel good in that works with your dress code.

    Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. And do your best to spend more than $100 on a pair of good shoes, without laces.

  34. Thank jeebus I work in an office where I am not required to dress up OR try to “out-casual” or “out-trendy” anyone. If everyone’s making fun of my third day on these cheapo jeans from Target and my wrinkled generic old navy polo shirt, I remain blissfully unaware. I have enough more important stuff to worry about.

    And to answer “is wearing a T-shirt with your own company’s logo on it as bad as wearing a shirt of the rock band you’re in?” Yes, tenfold, especially if you’re wearing it OVER a dress shirt. Although if it’s a t-shirt your company made that isn’t overtly promotional, I guess it’s fine (as long as, again, for the love of god, you don’t wear it OVER a dress shirt.).

  35. Dressing comes down to having some basic but quality pieces in the wardrobe. Muted colours are nice and darker has versatility.

    Basically, you want to tread this kind of middle ground where you get some clothes that can cross the line between day wear but also night wear.

    Some sharp shirts, nicer jeans (dark denim) and a pair of slacks that are in the grey/black tonal range match up well with the ever-popular athleisure shoe (the Pumas, Adidas, Prada, Diesel, Kenneth Cole types).

    Match it with a sharp jacket and you’re set.

  36. As a designer, I think dressing whatever you feel comfortable in is the way to go. It helps to keep your mind focused on the design process and off of things like that damn tie strangling you.

  37. I’ve worked from home for the past 7 or 8 years. It makes morning fashion decisions basically a non-issue. I’m a t-shirt and shorts kind of guy, but even that’s often too much work to muster in the morning.

    I’m not wearing any pants right now…

    Let this be a lesson in apathy to all you other potential freelancers out there!

  38. Khoi,
    Oh how many times have I repeated the sme mistake! Very funny. No worries though. I know this will sound totally cliche, but I wear just black now. It works for every situation. Black, button, collared shirts, black chinos, black Jack Purcells. Black blazers, black, black and black. In all shades and textures. Try it. No more worries about the brown mistakes. Just get to work. No more color choices while shopping. Just go for the black. Buy good cuts in black. Ties are over, unless you can wear one that cost at least $800.00. Black is the new black.
    Cheers mate.

  39. Ah, this would be one of the main reasons I work from home, too. I personally envision a utopia where the dress code is flannel pjs.

    For client meetings, though, one has to step up. Catherine mentioned wearing clothes that fit (and aren’t rumpled).

    The jacket is the universal piece that works for both men and women. It can be fairly traditional, but I also have a reversable leather one that looks indy-but-composed.

    My best tip, for women: shawls are another way to make an outfit look intentional with very little effort.

  40. Great post, Khoi, I’m encountering the same dilemma in my job. As the PM/AD of a college newspaper, do I dress like faculty or student? I could come to work in my PJs and no one would notice, which I love. I’m most comfortable in jeans and a Threadless tee, but I’m also a manager and university employee. Perhaps I should wear something more befitting of my station, but if I do, the inevitable “somebody must have a job interview” comment is made.

    I also find in that my usual dress, I’m often mistaken for a student (although sometimes i am quite ok with it lol). I’ve been late to work more times than I can count trying to put together the right outfit.

    By the way, I’m in CA, so I don’t see this as an East Coast thing. More of a “I am becoming mature” thing.

  41. “As an artist, there are more important visual decisions for me to make every day.”

    So answered my grad school fine art professor when I asked him why he never wore anything other than a blue denim shirt, blue jeans, sneakers, and a baseball cap. (He went on to tell me he owned about 10 of each, so that he could always wear a clean outfit.

  42. It’s hard to go wrong with the dress shirt and black dress pants ensemble. That way, I don’t have to think about whether or not my pinstripe Chuck Taylors will be well-received.

  43. Lot of comments so this might get lost but…

    Unless a slave to a dress code, the “wear a suit everyday” cop-out is just that a cop-out. It’s a sign of people not knowing how to dress.

    P.S. Chuck Taylors are okay just make sure you own two or three different colours, so you can mix it up.

  44. I can’t relate to this post at all, unfortunately.

    I’ve never had a real job in an office. The closest I’ve come is working for a friend of mine’s business, which was reasonably small [20 employees] and family owned. There was no real dress code, perhaps “moderately presentable”

    I’ve been freelancing now for about 2 years, and I’m still studying. I work from home, so unless I have a meeting, I work in my pyjamas until about 11am, then I take an hour break to shower and get dressed. I just wear jeans and some sort of top [t-shirt, jumper etc.]

    I’m a big fan of Dress Shirts, so I wear one with a pair of nice jeans when I have a meeting with a client. That’s about as formal as I get for work.

  45. I swear to God this is the same outfit I wore on Tuesday (dark brown cords however) and I felt like an idiot too. However, instead of reverting to the old t-shirt and jeans I Kanye’d it up with a green v-neck over a nice white button-up and my Beckenbauer 3-stripes and it’s working out nicely.

  46. Yes, I think I saw you that day Khoi. You were wearing the sneaks anyway, which is what I noticed. Like you had a relaxed summer on the cape and it was sort of spilling over. It was fine.

  47. I’m always amazed by those old school architects ( FLW ), Mathematicians ( GШdel ), and designers ( Le Corbusier ) who were always seen at work in suits.

    There’s something great about those old high-contrast B&W photos of individuals of that age doing their work in suits that I think we who can wear whatevah to work miss on occasion.

  48. Eric Raymond (open source guru) once had to meet with some corporate execs about next steps for Mozilla/Netscape (AOL maybe?). To put it mildly, he’s not the corporate type. He said his approach to attire was to dress like a “prince from another country.” That way you don’t try to pass as an exec, which you’ll inevitably fail at. I think what you’re referring to, Khoi, where designers command respect even when they’re not dressed formally, is the “prince from another country” effect.

    It’s interesting to read this post about professional dress, which must be on many of our minds (and bodies!) but is so little discussed.

    I tend to err on the side of being overdressed. However, for an interview at a boutique interactive design firm, I wore just gray flannel flat-front pants and a smart button-down shirt. I was really glad I didn’t wear a suit in that case.

  49. A topic near and dear to my heart, having worn everything from gym sneakers to tuxedos at my current office. (Though I’m afraid the “Smoke Crack & Worship Satan” t-shirt remains woefully closet-bound.)

    Either way, I’m still stunned by how many times I’ve been told, “Ya’ know, you don’t look like a designer.” The tone has ranged from high praise to open insult. I find both deeply troubling in its own way.

  50. I work in a corporate setting and believe that one shouldn’t stand out too much (it’s pretty much suit+tie)…however, it’s the little things that I accessorize with that let’s people know that I’m a creative (assortment of unique eyeglasses, watches, cufflinks, and shoes)

  51. I’ve done the wearing a suit every day, and believe me it has it’s weak points. You get to a point where you become very picky about ties, becasue taht is really the only thing that sets apart the suit, and the only thing different.

    Then you are in the same boat, wondering what tie am I going to wear today…

    I will say you have a much different attitude and mind set when you are in a suit. I still love my relaxed dress code at my work place, I enjoy being comfortable, and it helps me relax, and the more relaxed I am, the better ideas I am able to generate.

  52. There is perhaps a middle ground.

    Wake up in the morning and mindlessly put on your uniform.

    That is all a suit is — a uniform. It adheres to an expected dress code. So build a professional uniform, like a suit, except with the sideways approach of a designer.

    I wear a black shirt (polo or t-shirt), grey pants, and all black non-dress shoes (either casual dress or tennis shoes).

    Its the same approach as a suit, no thinking involved beyond how hot or cold it is. And you would be surprised how quickly people become accustomed to this uniform approach.

    Obviously won’t work for you if you demand diversity, but personally, the constraint involved simplifies the “designing” of my wardrobe.

  53. For client meetings, a former boss of mine used to keep a full set of formal clothes in the office: shirt, pants, shoes, tie, tie clasp… That helped him out a lot, and he could wear shorts, sandals and an informal polo to work.

  54. Interesting. I think what you wear is determined where you work, culture etc to a degree… I worked in a national ad agency in Sydney (Oz) and used to wear “designer” suits – at first – finding only that my boss wasn’t impressed as I dressed better than she. (My husband has found the same and he works in government).

    I then worked in a web design firm and anything went – your “artsy” black look or the cords and sneaks, no matter anything went.

    I currently have been working freelance for 6 years and pj’s are my uniform – the final liberation! For client meetings I’ll dress “artsy” but no suits or too dressed up as my main client is the science dep. at the university. You can tend to look like a sore toe – and out dress them. Clients expect you to look creative not formal.

    So my advice is not to wear suits unless the boss asks for it (for a particular client meeting). And suits just open another pandoras box, you don’t want to outshine your boss – doesn’t do you any favours. Be who you are – creative.

  55. I’ve had the same problem lately. I work in an ad agency that’s located inside the corporate building of their largest client. Even before this client decided to enact a dress code, I’d started steering away from my jeans, t-shirt and tennies look and trying to wear more skirts, slacks and such. I still will probably never wear a women’s suit, but I might do a jacket with non-matching slacks or dark jeans. I just feel like we’re not respected enough and maybe this will help. Sad that it could be true, but it probably couldn’t hurt. Plus, the other employees get kind of jealous that we can wear jeans and they can’t.

  56. I have to agree about taking your cue from the boss. I am one of those who look awful in jeans unless it is a jean dress. I have worked corporate, agency and now have my own studio. My basic wardrobe is black pants with a black jacket and colored top or black top with a colored jacket, black loafers with varying heels depending on pants. Yeah, I vary from this, but in a pinch and fashion crisis it is what I always fall back on.

    There are a few things you can do to make the mornings easier (and easier on the budget). I will be talking woman’s wardrobe but the concept works for men too. KEEP IT SIMPLE, which does not mean boring!

    1st – pick a basic color palate, a neutral for your base (it does not have to be black) and 2-3 accent colors — this will make it easy to dress, shop and pack.

    2nd make sure you have wardrobe basics (skirt, pants, jacket, suit, raincoat and so on) *** make sure at least some are machine washable incase you have to wash in the middle of the night kind of emergency. — Once you have the basics add trendy things but put the big bucks in the basics.

    3rd accessories keep you from being boring (purse, briefcase, scarf, jewelry, tie…..) is the easiest place to add personal touch and have fun stuff.

    Another way to keep from being boring is to add a signature item, a focal point (colorful t-shirts, trendy shoes, interesting pins, fun purses… something you can collect and have fun with. (put on you basic wardrobe and a fun piece, grab your coffee and go, mornings could not be easier.)

    The basic rule for creatives is add flare by color or cut (design) of item, especially for corporate creatives…

    (By all means keep shoes polished- it is easy and you can even – for you corporate types; keep something at work and women keep extra hose at work)

    Ok, in a nutshell create a working palette and have a focal point…. that is my nickels worth of opinions on wardrobes and making mornings painless.

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