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Image is Everything

-- Are you dressed for success or stress?

By Mary Lou Andre

Getting dressed for work in the morning has become confusing enough to make you want to jump back into bed, still wearing your pajamas. For the past several years, casual dress has been the "in" look; experts actually touted the death of the suit in corporate America. Now, with the crash of the dot-com empire, formal business attire seems to be making a comeback. Or is it?

Although ripped jeans and t-shirts in the workplace are vanishing as quickly as the start-ups that popularized them, don't trade your polo shirt and khakis for pinstripes just yet. In fact, the relaxed but polished look that gained acceptance in the last decade is probably here to stay, in one form or another.

Addressing the Dress Code

The corporate dress code is still evolving. For starters, companies are more buttoned-up than they have been in the past few years. Fashion tends to reflect the economy--when things are a bit shaky, people dress more conservatively. Because many employees took casual dress to the extreme, HR professionals have drafted new guidelines, suggesting that employees return to a more formal business attire as a means of upgrading the company's image. Employees who come to work dressed sloppily or provocatively may be asked to change their ways.

"Casual dress" doesn't mean you never have to iron again.

So, what is your best course of action? Step back, take a deep breath, and tap into your own common sense. Consider your own industry and corporate culture--then reconsider your wardrobe. If you're a banker, you probably want to opt for a suit. If you're writing ad copy, you may want to leave the jacket and tie at home. In any case, workers should try to fit in with prevailing dress norms.

It's All About Options

Good news: There are a few basic rules. Here are some additional tips to help you dress appropriately in the New Economy:

Use your personal style as a business communication tool. Your outfit speaks volumes about your professionalism, so make sure it creates the right impression. Casual dress doesn't mean you never have to iron again. Whatever you decide to wear, be sure it's wrinkle-free, in good repair, and pulled together with unifying elements like matching belts and shoes.

Stand out, but blend in. A neat, tied-together look will help you stand out. Wearing too much jewelry or t-shirts with logos will also help you stand out--but not in a positive way. Clothing that distracts people and calls attention away from the business at hand is inappropriate to wear at work. While noisy bracelets might be fun to wear on evenings or weekends, they can be annoying at a team meeting.

Plan ahead. Step back before you get dressed in the morning and think about what you'll be doing that day, where you'll be going, and who you'll be meeting. Going on a sales call or to an offsite meeting? You may have trouble connecting with your clients if you arrive in a suit and tie and everyone else is wearing khakis and sweaters. Call ahead and ask about the dress code. Receptionists and secretaries are becoming accustomed to answering such questions, and meeting planners have become increasingly savvy about defining dress codes for attendees.

The Last Word in Fashion

Companies spend millions of dollars each year building their identities through PR and advertising. Yet the way their employees dress can go a long way toward building--or tearing down--that image. As an employee, you should dress to reflect your company's culture, values, and industry.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't exercise some personal style. Just remember to leave the ripped jeans at home.

Mary Lou Andre is a wardrobe consultant, speaker, author.