Memo: Appropriate office attire is a must

Chelsea Lanzoni was on her way from the lacrosse fields of Vanderbilt University to a summer internship at National Geographic in Washington, but her first stop was a dressing room at Nordstrom Rack in Annapolis.

"I had, literally, nothing to wear," she said. "Nothing."

Thanks to a program at Vanderbilt that advises students on, among other things, how to dress appropriately in the workplace, she bought pants, skirts to the knee, dresses with sleeves and tailored blouses.

And a pair of conservative flats that immediately gave her heels blisters.

"I had never dressed up for anything," said the rising college senior from Annapolis. "But I'd read a few things on what to wear. I wanted to be conservative. I didn't want to do anything to step out of the box.

"But I also didn't want to be sweltering," said the young woman, who will be walking a mile to and from work in the heat.

Summer creates the perfect conditions for bad workplace fashion decisions: clueless young people entering the workplace for the first time during the hottest months of the year.

The result is often flip-flops and too much skin for the women. And guys who look rumpled and poorly put together.

"The sloppy-little-boy look may be a turn-on for the college girls but not in the workplace," says Callista Gould, who founded the Culture and Manners Institute in Des Moines, Iowa. Among other things, she helps universities create career services for their students that address workplace dress codes and other civilized topics.

"Iron your shirt, shine your shoes. People notice the details," she said. "And if you can wear it at the beach, you can't wear it at work."'

Karen Ciurca-Weiner, buyer and manager of the Jones & Jones boutique in Cross Keys, suggests that office attire be "conservative with a flair."

"Throw in a small trend here and there but, not knowing what the office atmosphere is, it's better to err on the conservative side rather than being fashion-forward," she said. "And make sure the clothes fit properly. Many people buy inexpensive clothes that don't fit and then they're constantly pulling at their skirt or fixing a bra strap. So make sure they're tailored properly."

You'd think workplace dress code basics would be self-evident, but fashion magazines and television create the impression that deep cleavage or a cocktail dress is OK if you are also wearing a suit jacket. And that real men wear jeans and running shoes to the office and never tuck their shirts into their pants.

To be fair, workplace dress codes have drifted toward casual, and that can leave the uninitiated wondering where the boundaries are.

"When I worked in New York," said Gould, "a young woman showed up for an interview for a public relations job in a halter top. I wanted to tell her that in order for her to be the face of our company, she needed a back to her shirt."

That's the other difficulty: How do you tell interns or new hires that they are bringing the wrong kind of attention to themselves without ending up in hot water yourself?

"It is up to the company to set the guidelines and the rules, and it is up to the company to explain them," said Maria Everding of the Etiquette Institute in St. Louis.

"I advise them to cut out pictures: 'This is what we accept and this is what we don't accept.' "

People see their clothing as an expression of themselves, said Gould, and criticism can hurt.

"And it can be a legal issue, too," said Gould. "It can be construed as sexual harassment."