Wear This, Not That: A Millennial’s Guide to Business Casual | Lindsey Pollak's Blog

Wear This, Not That: A Millennial’s Guide to Business Casual

Wear This, Not That: A Millennial’s Guide to Business CasualRipped jeans. Tank tops. Flip flops. Visible bra straps. Wrinkled shirts. Shorts. Micro-mini skirts. Bare midriffs. Five o’clock shadows.

Many managers complain that millennials think the same clothes you’d wear to the beach or a nightclub are also appropriate work attire.

This is, of course, not a new workplace issue. Complaining about younger generations dressing inappropriately has been taking place forever. But people really do judge your professionalism based on how you look, so it’s a topic worth revisiting.

Things Have Changed, But Not That Much

Sure, norms have changed. When I was starting out, most women wore pantyhose and now many millennials might not even know what those are. (Lucky you!) A blazer with jeans is acceptable in many of today’s workplaces, and not just on casual Fridays.

But even as workplace dress codes change, one thing does not: Dressing for success still matters. And summer, with its warmer weather and skimpier styles, brings its own potential wardrobe fails.

Here is a common-sense guide to business casual for millennials.

Dress for YOUR Workplace

At some workplaces, it’s totally OK to rock culottes and a t-shirt, but in others you’re going to be turning heads if your tie is too bright. Look around and be aware of what others are wearing. Be careful, though, not to fixate on the one guy in accounting with the funky jeans and decide if it’s OK for him, it’s OK for you. Make sure you’re looking at the people whom you admire and aspire to be. They are the models you want to emulate.

Check Your Grooming

If only we could get dressed and be done. But, no, there are so many other layers to our appearance:

  • Are you wearing too much makeup?
  • Do guys at your workplace embrace the 5 o’clock shadow?
  • Do you have a visible tattoo?

The answer to what’s going to work for you boils down to being cognizant of your environment. I have a friend who yearned to be an artist and yet he took a job in corporate America despite serious reservations. He ended up quitting and got a tattoo that covered his neck and arm.

It was a bold move designed to ensure he would never be tempted to take a job in an industry where he couldn’t be himself. He knew his ink wouldn’t fly in certain environments — and he didn’t want to be in those places either.

Consider Creating a Uniform

The uniform look is my favorite strategy. What I mean by uniform is finding a professional look that will be your go-to.  For example, a rotation of shift dresses, blazers and statement necklaces. (Seriously, I wear nothing else on stage.)

When you limit yourself to a few simple combinations, dressing professionally is a lot easier. And it can even be a hidden productivity boost. You know who has admitted to wearing a “uniform?”: President Obama. He has said that he goes with a gray or blue suit because it pares down the unimportant decisions he has to make, leaving his mind free for the important ones.

The bottom line is that the old adage rings true: Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. When you spend time consider what your superiors are wearing and commit to “leveling up” in your dress, you can’t go wrong.

I want to hear about egregious wardrobe errors you’ve seen — or accidentally committed yourself. Fess up in the comments below.

Lindsey Pollak is a New York Times best-selling author and a nationally recognized millennial expert who helps employers recruit, train, manage and market to the millennial generation. Her speeches and training sessions inspire multigenerational collaboration and foster lasting organizational success. Contact Lindsey to learn how she can help your organization understand and connect with millennials.

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  1. Lina says:

    Oh dear, Lindsay. I did commit an egregious wardrobe error on my first big job interview (as an Editorial Assistant at Random House) when I was 22, fresh out of liberal arts school:

    I wore a vintage green wool mini-dress made by my mother in the 60’s. No tights. Probably some scuffed up black loafers.

    I am now 30 (!) and pay so much more attention to how I dress professionally.

  2. Cha cha says:

    One of our new hires a “millineal” wore a sweatshirt that said LEGENDARY N.W.A and had pictures of the rap group on it. She also wore leggings – the sweatshirt was not long enough to cover her tail…

  3. Luke Smith says:

    I have worked at places where the dress code was on each side of the spectrum. I think whatever the business is you could try to meet, or dress better than everyone else. I have found out that the better you dress the better you feel and work.

  4. […] summer I wrote a post, Wear This, Not That, to address potential confusion about appropriate dress for individuals. The No. 1 rule: If […]

  5. At our work place we have a lot of young individuals that vary in heights and sizes so one thing our company has struggled with is what looks good on one doesn’t work for another based on their body type. How do you generalize a dress code where there are so many different fits and styles now?

    • @Anna – Thanks for the question. One strategy I’ve seen is to provide written guidelines such as “polished,” “professional,” “knee-length,” “toes covered,” etc. and then provide a variety of images (usually hand drawings) to show examples. I hope that helps! – Lindsey

  6. […] a big believer in having a “uniform” to make dressing easier, so my closet is relatively manageable. However, there was one piece of clothing that had become my […]

  7. Amanda Haas says:

    That was great article. I’m about to start my first serious job,well one in my desired industry and in new city. This helped me look back and think about faux pas and what I should have done instead. But have you wirked at places or in positions that you always seemed out of place. I have had several jobs (most to be honest) that I was in trouble somehow with what I wore. I dressed the same way or more conservative than others yet I got the complaints. I have had the hardest time finding a place that I can dress well and not have that “concern”. I love fashion with all of my heart and have dedicated so much time and effort to learning about it and using it express myself. I also have an eclectic style, is that what is causing this problem or is it more based on the person who complained/judged about me? Or does this pattern some kind cosmic way of saying I need to be somewhere else doing something else?

  8. Nycco says:

    Dear Lindsey, I am 23 and I got a new job (a good one). I am supposed not to wear jeans nor sneackers, and I must wear shirts, indeed. However, I seriously feel that formal clothing makes me look older than I actually am and it makes quite uncomfotable. I’ve always loved looking sharp and fashionable according to my age. I would gladly accept some advice. 🙂

    • @Nycco – Thanks for reaching out. What if you saw this as a challenge, to dress according to your job’s rules but to also be stylish and comfortable in your own way? I speak at a wide variety of companies (some very formal) and there are many ways to show your style and youth — through color, pattern, vests, ties, socks, accessories — while still following the rules. Many stores also have free stylists who can help you put together outfits. I hope this helps and good luck! – Lindsey

  9. Lyndsey W. says:

    Dear Lindsey,

    I’m getting ready to transfer to a four-year university where my major is Political Science. After that, it’s off to law school! And the business casual style is more than likely all I’ll be wearing from now on. Do you have any tips from converting a wardrobe from hoodies and ripped jeans to a more professional one? Any staples you suggest are critical? Thank you and I seriously appreciate the article!

    • @Lyndsey – (great name!) Thanks for reaching out. This can be such a tough transition but also really fun. I’m a big fan of simple, business casual capsule wardrobes with just a few items that can all interchange. I’d recommend visiting a store with free stylists — I know J. Crew, Banana Republic, Gap and many other popular stores have them at all price points. Some people also do a clothing swap with friends to get more stuff. Good luck and keep us posted! – Lindsey

  10. CCheryl Brancheyl Branche says:

    I am an old lady. Ripped jeans at work is unprofessional. Were I to walk into a bank or place of non-fashion business and saw and employee with ripped jeans, I would leave. If the business owners do not take their business seriously enough to have their employees wear something other than ripped jeans, I do not care to patronize the business.

    I am a librarian and have a student aide who is willful: entertaining a boyfriend at work, coming in late to work, etc. Most recently, is wearing ripped jeans. Like teenager testing the boundaries…and since this is new behavior. Our library has a “goal towards business casual” dress code. These days business casual is defined in a variety of ways that include and exclude ripped jeans.

    I have begun a paper trail. I have given her the library’s guidelines for student aides, including the dress code.

    To me, this is very frustrating. I feel as though I am being asked to parent in the workplace. Do not these children have home training? Do not they realize want adulting means? It seems to me that many want to be treated as adults, but they do not want to do the things that adults do, including demonstrating responsible workplace behavior. They want to get paid though.