There was a time in corporate America when Casual Friday was a tentative experiment. Companies feared they would fuel a rapid downward spiral in corporate etiquette – and productivity – by relaxing the dress code. Thankfully, casual dress has become a mainstay in the workplace – but along with the shift is greater ambiguity in knowing what will help or hinder your career.

Dreamstime
Source: Dreamstime

It’s no wonder that casual dress remains a mystery to many; the most notable change in the last decade is that more relaxed apparel has left more room for interpretation. The policies, written or not, can vary by company; department; industry; your boss; geographic location; day of the week; the day’s events; and more.

Your casual wardrobe choices do play a big role in how you brand yourself at work, are perceived and how empowered you feel. Like it or not, it weighs into perceptions of your level of professionalism – and can affect your career advancement at any level.

Fortunately, there are several core tenets that will help guide you as you seek to advance in your career. But first, a look at the trends:

- A widespread perk - A 2016 Society of Human Resources (SHRM) study reveals that 83% of employers offer a casual dress benefit in some capacity to their workforce. SHRM says that nearly 60% allow casual dress at least one day a week.

- The denim revolution is alive and well – In a 2012 Time survey, 79% of Millennials felt they should be allowed to wear jeans or denim to work at least sometimes. And in a 2013 Careerbuilder survey that addresses the best company perks, 18% of workers see the ability to wear jeans as the most important one for making their workplace more satisfying.

- Even lawyers have signed on – According to 2014 study described in Boston Business Journal, dress policies at U.S. law firms, always having a reputation for conservative dress, are more relaxed than ever. In fact, 73% have a business casual policy. Professional service firms are generally warming up to casual dress options, although some in the financial sector in particular, have maintained strict, conservative policies.

So how do you navigate the casual dress dilemma as you aim to rise up the corporate ladder? Does wearing high fashion clothing and luxury brands equate to accelerated career advancement? What kind of jeans are acceptable and when?

Here are six tips to consider:

1)   Take your cue from your boss and management. Like many things that confound the average employee about corporate culture, it’s often helpful to consider the choices your boss and other executives make. How do they interpret casual dress and how often do they dress down? You don’t need to mimic their exact colors and styles, but this is your biggest insight into what’s generally considered fair game.

For example, take note of whether Friday is your real opportunity to dress down. Observe how managers dress when going on business appointments, and so on. And if you’re still unclear, and your corporate handbook or video still leaves you scratching your head, ask your manager!

2)   Create your own personal style. You have a brand, and it includes everything from your skills and personality to your outward professionalism. After you’ve observed the dress code of your company’s leaders, create a look that is comfortable and sends the right message. Your wardrobe should underscore the quality work you deliver. Stay away from t-shirts with inappropriate pictures or phrases, for example. If you think your choices are too revealing or too wrinkled, they probably are. And many colleagues are reluctant to point out borderline scenarios.

3)   Think “neat.” You don’t have to look like you just walked off a fashion runway to have a solid casual wardrobe at work. If you’re wearing jeans, make sure they’re not torn or too distressed. Darker denim is more professional than light. If you’re a woman and it makes sense with your outfit, tuck in your shirt at least in the front, for a more conservative style – and in general, err on the side of modesty.

If you’re a man, unless you’re reporting to your awesome rock band, avoid a scruffy look. Good grooming is important, even with casual dress. Snagged sweaters can be mended and quality shoes that are well maintained and clean go a long way. For both genders, whether it’s jeans or jackets, look for a proper fit and quality material that projects professionalism and your style. What you wear can speak volumes about your respect for the company and how seriously you take your career.

4)   Accessories add class to casual. You can take your more casual clothing up a notch without breaking the bank, and at the same time, look fashionable. For example, you can easily dress up a pair of jeans with a blazer, and if you want to take it to the next level, a pocket square. For women, accessories such as a scarf, attractive belt, well maintained shoes or quality boots and jewelry, can provide fashionable accents that dress up your jeans, or a more relaxed wardrobe. Beware of the yoga pants and pajama look, as cozy as that sounds.

5)   Match clothing choices to your day's activities. If you're meeting a new or existing client, you can't go wrong by dressing up. Even if your office is all casual, all the time, it still be may wise to make the right impression with outsiders. And since you can't expect the unexpected, it's wise to keep a set of emergency professional clothes, e.g., blazer, pants or shoes, in your car or office cabinet.

6)   Trust your gut instinct. Gut instincts aren't just whims. They're your subconscious on steroids, putting many facts together – and resulting in an emotion or physical feeling. If you’re concerned you might be pushing the envelope with your casual apparel, given your work culture or your boss’s expectations, you're right. If on the other hand, you look professional and well groomed, you’ll be more empowered and convey greater confidence.

Remember that you can’t go wrong by looking a little more professional than what’s expected, but can sabotage yourself by dressing below expectations. In the scheme of things, this is one of those areas of work where you fortunately have 100% control. Make it work for you.

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