The 11 Don'ts of Dressing for Your First Job

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 05: A model walks the runway during the Tess Giberson Runway show Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Spring 2015 at Pier 59 on September 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images)
Source: Brian Ach/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The first real job interview I was invited to was for a winternship at Marie Claire. It would be at the New York City office, and when discussing travel plans with my mother, our conversation shifted to what I might wear to the interview. The position was in the magazine's fashion department, so it felt imperative that I dress the part. 

I consider my mom to be on-trend and usually heed her fashion advice, but this was an exception. Her suggestion of a skirt suit didn't match what we've all seen fashion industry professionals wear in movies like The September Issue and The Devil Wears Prada. I worried wearing a skirt suit might make my interviewer assume I didn't understand, or wouldn't fit into, the work environment. 

Instead, I wore a just-above-the-knee pleated, patterned skirt with black stockings, black leather booties, and an elegant silky blouse. My fingernails were manicured and I did my hair and makeup to the best of my 18-year-old abilities. As for jewelry, I kept it simple and even left in my cartilage piercing, despite my mother's warning to take it out. And I'm glad I kept it in! Did it alone land me the job at Marie Claire? No. But presenting myself in a way that expressed my personal sense of style surely helped.

I'm glad I went with my gut. Every industry and each person is different, and a skirt suit may be the correct answer for you. 

If you're about to start your first job and have no idea where to begin, here are 11 pieces of styling advice that apply across most fields. Not every woman will have the same office dress code, but keep these tips in the back of your head to avoid any awkward office don'ts.

Don't Wear Your Highest Heels

So you've mastered the art of walking in heels? Fabulous! Just remember that the office isn't a runway. "Really high platforms are usually a no-go," Kat Griffin, founder and editor of Corporette told Lucky. "Sometimes even high, high heels can be inappropriate." She recommends you choose a pair that you're able to walk smoothly and elegantly in, and go up from there. Best to save the 5-inch stilettos for the weekend and hit the office in something more sensible.

Consider this powder blue pair of sturdy heels from ModCloth that measure 3.25 inches high. They're simple and elegant, while the color lends a fun touch. If you're not into heels, nice, polished-looking flats will also work. 

But Don't Go Too Casual, Either

When considering appropriate office footwear, it's important to find a happy medium. At the opposite end of the spectrum from sky-high stilettos are flip flops. "Whether they're plastic or leather, [flip-flops] are off-limits unless you've seen multiple superiors wearing them," Griffin told Lucky. Even then, you might double-check that sandals aren't against the dress code—the rules a manager breaks aren't necessarily as flexible for entry-level staff. If it's comfort you're looking for, try a simple pair of flats.   

Don't Show Up Underdressed 

In nearly any life scenario, it's better to be overdressed than underdressed—including at work—so throw on a pair of pantyhose on the first day, just in case. You'll probably have a general idea of what to wear (especially if you were paying attention to the office environment at your interview), so go with your gut. Of course, the dress code for a job on Wall Street is going to look a lot different than that of the fashion industry, but with a few days on the job you'll develop a clearer sense of what office attire is expected. 

Invest in nice, work-appropriate staples like this classic black dress. Wear it as-is during warmer months or with stockings and a cardigan during the cooler part of the year. The hemline length is perfect on this piece.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask

If you're nervous about picking a first-day outfit, or are unsure about specific pieces such as sandals, then reach out to someone who can give you some guidance. "A friendly HR manager, internship coordinator, or person you report to should be happy to give you a few guidelines specific to your office," Katherine Goldstein wrote at Slate, "especially if it means she won’t be getting an eyeful en route to the coffee machine." It's less awkward to ask than it is to be told by a superior that your outfit is inappropriate.  

Don't Dress for The Job You Have

Speaking of superiors, there's a saying that goes: Don't dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want. "If you want to be a manager, check out what the successful managers wear," Scott Reeves told Forbes. "Next, check out the office stars. Here’s betting they don’t show up for work in their weekend grubs." Just because you have an entry-level position doesn't mean that your presence is any less important. 

Don't Show Off Labels

Channeling (or, at the very least, taking cues from) your boss is a definite do, but while she may be wearing designer duds, try not to let labels pop up all over your outfit. 

In a bit of converse reasoning, Amy Odell at BuzzFeed writes that interns or entry-level employees should not go to work wearing a piece that is "blatantly, absurdly expensive" because it could come across as flashy or entitled. Even if you spent an entire summer saving up for a new Chanel purse, it's easy for people to make snap judgements. "Many people outside of Vogue associate wealth with entitlement and entitlement with poor work ethics," she writes.  

Let your colleagues get to know you first. Once you've proven yourself, nobody will care what brand handbag you carry, but no need to risk sending the wrong impression at the very beginning.

Be Body-Confident, But Don't Go Body-Con

I'm all about a figure-hugging dress, but anything too tight is unprofessional at work. "I'd rather not be conscious of my co-workers' bodies," Lucky's Market Editor Laurel Pantin told Who What Wear. Well said.

Don't Show Off Your Undergarments

VPLs (visible panty lines) aren't necessarily something to strive for, but they're a whole lot better than plain old VPs (visible panties). Save sheer clothing for street style. "Whether it's a thin T-shirt, a diaphanous blouse, or a slightly transparent dress or skirt, it's just not right for a professional setting," Hillary Kerr, co-founder of Who What Wear writes. Trust me, they'll be plenty of other opportunities to display your cute new bra.

The skirt above has a sheer element, but it works because there's a nice balance with the heavier floral fabric. It's also below the knee so the sheer panel is low enough that it's not showing anything inappropriate. Wear this with low black heels and a fitted shirt for a cute office look. 

Don't Go Strapless

And a little more on undergarments from Courtney Weinblatt, Marie Claire's market director, as told on Who What Wear. 

"My general rule is: If you need a strapless bra to wear it to work, it should be left at home—this canvases a wild assortment of items." Dealing with a strapless bra during an 8-hour workday sounds like struggle city, anyway. 

Don't Dismiss the Power of Fabrics

Anything spandex (unless you're in the field of fitness) is probably a "don't," but it can be tricky to gauge the appropriateness of most other fabrics. Julie Bensman shared a good piece of advice with her readers at Teen Vogue: "The thinner the fabric, the longer the hemline ... if you want to don a mini and it's acceptable for your specific office, think about opting for a heavier fabric like tweed or thick linen to make sure everything stays covered." Compromise! 

Another tip on fabrics is to steer clear of jersey fabric, as it tends to make a piece look way on the casual end.

This skirt is well-above knee-length, but its weighty fabric makes for a more polished look. Still, it never hurts to layer with a pair of pantyhose. 

Don't Forget Where You Work

All of these tips are general rules of thumb that apply to most entry-level jobs. That being said, we're not all working in the same industry and dress codes can vary drastically from office to office. "If you work in a magazine’s fashion department, and wear leather shorts of a reasonable length to work one day, people are more likely to look at you and think, "Oh, fashion people," and continue on to the Nespresso machine without thinking twice," Amy Odell writes. "If you’re in the politics department and roll into work wearing leather shorts the very same day you’re supposed to interview a politician ... your coworkers are more likely to wonder what you smoked before work. (Also a good rule: don’t get high before work.)" 

All good things to remember, ladies.

Images: ModCloth; Ann Taylor; Giphy; Bloomingdale's; Piperlime 

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