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With July 4 behind us, summer is in full swing, and with it the need—at least in many parts of the country—to trudge to and from work through waves of oppressive heat. Happily, office dress codes tend (officially or unofficially) to loosen when temperatures spike, as employers and employees alike try to minimize the sweaty discomforts of the season. Some of us simply shed layers of clothing. Others jump at the opportunity to pull out seersucker suits and white pants from the back of their closets.
But there are risks in this seasonal metamorphosis. Whether it’s too much skin on display or a shirt cut from a garish tropical print, summer weather inspires more than its fair share of questionable work ensembles. “Your clothing–or shortage of it—shouldn’t be a distraction at work,” says Lizzie Post, co-author of The Etiquette Advantage in Business. “If people are focused on your cleavage or the neon color of your shirt, then they’re not focused on you and your good ideas.”
Money hit the streets of New York City to find workers who were beating the heat with a fashionably professional look — and some who were not. Check out these nine common summer clothing gaffes, committed by men and women, that will surely raise eyebrows or, worse, lower your standing in the eyes of the boss. Then, try one of the expert-approved alternatives instead.
Itching to get into your favorite sundress? Unfortunately, it’s simply not boardroom approved. Stay away from anything with spaghetti straps, a t-strap, crisscross straps—or, worse still, no straps at all, says Sandy Dumont, a Virginia Beach image consultant to corporations and individuals. Rather than eliminate casual dresses all together, though, simply throw a jacket or cardigan over it that you can lose as soon as you clock out.
Remember the Northwestern lacrosse player who showed up at the White House in flip-flops? The fashion police pulled the siren and business consultants tend to agree. “Flip flops are a no-no, never,” says Dumont. “Not even fancy, pretty ones with rhinestones.” You have a little more leeway with sandals. Peep toes are perfect summer options, but avoid those that show “too much foot.” And by all means, if it’s been a while since you’ve had a pedicure, play it safe with ballerina flats.
3. A high ponytail or messy bun
We get it: When it’s hot, you want your long hair off your neck. But a tight, high pony looks too cutsey (or like you just left the gym), and a loose topknot, too sloppy. Instead, go for a smoother, more polished look, such as a low ponytail pulled to the side or a sleek bun. And refrain from wearing sunglasses like a hairband. “Unless you plan to go outside, keep your sunglasses off your head,” says corporate image consultant Janice Hurley-Trailor.
4. Too-short skirts or dresses
A short skirt may make you feel cooler, but you don’t want to look too hot at the office. Your hemline should be at or just above your knees, says Post, four inches above at the max. Test even that length before you walk out the door: “If you sit down, make sure it won’t ride up, or you’ll be in trouble,” says Dumont. And remember, as your dress gets shorter, your heels should get lower.
5. Skimpy or see-through blouses
While it’s fine to wear clothing that shows some skin, Post says, quality of material and cut is important. Stay away from sheer tops or halters that reveal too much. Put a lining underneath lace. Sleeveless works as long as your arms—not your chest or midriff—are the main attraction. If you’ve got Michelle Obama guns, then by all means show them off.
As temperatures rise, mens’ necklines seem to plunge. While you may feel more comfortable with an extra button or two open, your colleagues won’t. “If you see chest hair, then you’ve gone too far,” says Dumont. A better way to stay cool than unbuttoning: going with pants or a jacket in a linen or tropical wool fabric. “It is like built in air conditioning,” Dumont says.
2. Logo shirts
Unless you’re actually on the green, don’t pretend. You risk making your colleagues think you’re rushing through important tasks to make your tee time. An alternative—and much sharper—casual look is a short-sleeve dress shirt. (Unless you work in a formal environment, in which case both are out.) If you decide to break the rule and wear a polo shirt, at least skip one with any logos, labels, or slogans, particularly school related. “Your shirt shouldn’t be an advertisement,” says Hurley-Trailor.
3. Man sandals
While mandals may not have made their way into the boardroom yet, open-toed shoes and flipflops are showing up in casual offices. The verdict: Avoid them at all costs. “No one wants to see your hairy toes,” says Post. Your safer option: loafers, boat shoes, or other casual closed-toe footwear. Even those shoes can create dilemmas, though, as more men choose to go sans socks—another no-no, according to the pros. “If you’re going to be in the office, throw a pair of socks on. Your feet will smell better, and everyone will appreciate that,” says Post.
4. Loud shirts
Just because it has a collar doesn’t mean a casual shirt is office-worthy. Hawaiian and floral shirts cross the line, unless you want to signal the office is merely a quick stop on the way to the barbecue or beach. Instead, achieve the summer look with pastel colors and gingham, checkered, or plaid patterns. While you’re at it, tuck it in. After all, if you look too laid back the boss might think you’ve got bandwidth for a new project—the last thing you want as the clock ticks toward the weekend.