We may know what to wear for the job interview, but what to wear for the first day (or week) can be a different story. What’s the difference between business casual, professional, smart casual, and the myriad options in between? How do you balance workplace expectations with your sense of self (which may or may not fit into any of the “allowed” categories)?

The easiest thing to do is ask your supervisor or colleagues:

“I’m really excited about starting. Can you tell me about the dress code for a regular day? What about an important meeting?”

or

“I’ve been here a couple [days/weeks/months/years]. How am I doing with our dress code?”

Their answer will depend on your responsibilities and the culture of your particular workplace.

One thing you and supervisors to know is that any dress code must apply equally to everyone in your unit, and it cannot be based on discriminatory norms around race, gender, or other protected identities. For example, a dress code cannot require that all women wear skirts or that only men cannot wear t-shirts. Dress codes cannot set expectations that are implicitly based on (white) racial norms; for example, black women may choose to wear their hair unstraightened as part of their work appearance. A dress code also cannot require that you dress according to your biological sex if you identify with or express your gender differently.

You can also rely on visual cues. What do your colleagues wear on normal day? Are you in meetings all day with people with fancy titles? “Business casual” or “professional” is probably a safe bet. Creative and informal jobs tend to allow for much more self-expression. Do you work with lots of chemicals or equipment that might stain or tear clothing, like a lab or Housekeeping? Go with (clean) clothing that won’t endanger you or be ruined. The bottom line: Wearing clothing that lets you do your job well and still make a positive impression should be your goal.

Starting a job with different dress expectations can be daunting if you feel like you need to buy a new wardrobe—especially when you have other bills to pay. There are lots of options besides turning over your first paycheck to Brooks Brothers, though. Thrift stores—especially in more expensive neighborhoods—can be a great source of inexpensive clothing, while places like TJ Maxx or H&M offer savings on more trendy pieces.

 

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