We probably don’t think about dress codes too often. We do pay a little more attention when preparing for a job interview or meeting an important new client for the first time or going to the company’s yearly holiday party. Dress codes are important. They help define standards of dress appropriate to specific activities. First impressions are as important in business as they are for establishing relationships with other people in general. We can be unfairly judged (or judge others unfairly) using all means of criteria in addition to our clothes: gender, race, age, religion, political views, height, weight, perception of beauty, marital status, pregnancy, hobbies and many more. How we dress is one item that we have more control over. Common sense tells us that one hour before an important meeting it is not a good idea to have the pastrami with double onions or the triple bean burrito. Common sense using dress codes is at this same level of importance.
Many years ago, when I was hiring several direct reports I had some interesting negative experiences with dress code adherence. One man, just out of college and looking for his first professional job, was interviewing for a role as a programmer on my release team. He was very bright and had great references when I checked them before bringing him in. I did not expect him for this type of role to show up for the interview in a 3 piece suit to impress to me. Clean, neat and appropriate for a casual business environment is all I expected. However, he showed up wearing a baseball cap backwards, baggy pants with the crotch almost to his knees and a t-shirt with a skateboarding vs. society philosophical statement. He had everything but his skateboard. It didn’t take much of a conversation to see that his attitude matched his outfit. During this same hiring period, I had a woman come in to interview for the lead position on my test team. Again, she had a great resume and references. She showed up wearing a formal business suited skirt but the hem ended at mid-thigh. I moved the interview from my office to a room with a table and put her on the other side, out of view so to speak, for all of the interviewers. I interviewed once with a director who was wearing shorts and sandals. I don’t pay attention to other people’s feet but I couldn’t help but notice his ½ long dirty yellowish toenails since he was sitting so slouched back in his chair that his feet were almost at my eye level. Thankfully, I only have a few of these examples of poor adherence to dress codes and basic common sense.
To help other high-tech professionals, I have come up with a multi-level dress code model similar to those leveled process models made popular by the software CMM (Capability Maturity Model) and more recently the CMMI (CMM Integrated). The most formal dress code levels are very specific for men, I suppose, because we often need more fashion help.
DCMM (Dress Code Maturity Model) Summary:
|0||Home Alone||Only wear at home if there is no one else in the house.|
|1||Street Legal||Not illegal or so inappropriate that you wouldn’t wear to the grocery store.|
|2||Business Casual||Slacks & button down shirt|
|3||Business||Suit & Tie|
Level-0 — Home Alone
Only wear at home if there is no one else in the house.
- Bare naked
- Visible through window.
- Answering the door.
Level-1 — Street Legal
Not illegal or so inappropriate that you wouldn’t wear to the grocery store.
- Public casual or better.
- Level-0 items
- Bare feet
- Blades > 6”
Level-2 — Business Casual
Slacks & button down shirt
- For men: A combination of collared shirt (such as a dress shirt or polo shirt), wool blend trousers with a belt, and dress shoes with socks is generally acceptable. A blazer or business jacket can optionally be added.
- For women: A reasonable length skirt (not mini-skirt) or full-length trousers of a non-jeans material combined with a top (such as a dress shirt, polo, or sweater set) is considered acceptable. An informal dress with appropriate skirt length is also acceptable.
- Note that some companies allow cotton slacks.
- Level-1 items
- Sports shoes
- Golf or bowling attire
Suit and Tie
- Jacket and matching (long) pants
- Long-sleeved shirt (usually white or light blue) and tie.
- Suite colors are typically black, grey, dark blue
- Jacket with matching shirt or pants
- Suit is typically darker colors.
- Level-2 items
- No tie
- No jacket
- Athletic socks
- Overdressing is also inappropriate – No Level-3 & 4 items
Black Tie – This is the typically the most formal level in North America.
Sometimes a business event, like a company’s holiday party, will have invitations that state ‘semi-formal, optional’. The proper etiquette is to be at least level-3 (suit and tie). The host will usually dress semi-formal.
- A jacket with ribbed silk facings (usually grosgrain) on a shawl collar or peaked lapel (while a notched lapel is a popular modern choice, it is not traditionally considered correct)
- Trousers with a single silk or satin braid covering the outer seams
- A low-cut waistcoat or cummerbund
- A white dress shirt (a Marcella front is traditional, but other styles are also accepted) with a turn-down or wing collar
- A black ribbed silk bow tie matching the lapel facings
- Shirt studs (optional) and cufflinks
- Black dress socks, usually silk or fine wool
- Black shoes, highly polished or patent leather Oxfords, or patent leather court shoes
- Evening gown – generally floor-sweeping. Evening gowns are often made of an elegant fabric such as chiffon, velvet, satin, taffeta, silk, or charmeuse. Although the terms are used interchangeably, ball gowns and evening gowns differ in that a ball gown will always have a full, flared skirt and a strapless bodice; in contrast, an evening gown can be any silhouette – sheath, mermaid, A-line or trumpet shaped – and may have straps, halters or even sleeves.
- The evening gown can range from tea length (mid-calf to ankle-length) to full-length (to the floor). In general, the same rules of a white tie event apply to a black tie event, although in some cases a cocktail dress is acceptable.
- Level-3 items and below
- Overdressing is also unacceptable – No Level-5 items
If you get invited to an event where the dress code is “Formal” it is probably a mistake unless you have been invited to a dinner with the President and foreign heads of state or to a ball with the rich and famous. Non-state events requiring White Tie were more common before the 1940s but less common now. I am including this section for completeness. White Tie events also allow for specific military dress uniforms and traditional ethnic dress. For example, there is a formal kilt style for white tie events. Traditional ethnic dress however, does not allow for coonskin caps or burnt orange jackets with longhorns.
- Black tailcoat with silk (grosgrain or satin) facings, horizontally cut-away at the front
- Black trousers with a single stripe of satin or braid in the US or two stripes in Europe; trousers are fish-tail back, thus worn with braces instead of a belt.
- White plain stiff-fronted cotton shirt (usually cotton Marcella)
- White stiff-winged collar
- White bow tie (usually cotton Marcella)
- White low-cut waistcoat (usually cotton Marcella (US: piqué), matching the bow tie and shirt, which should not extend below the front of the tailcoat)
- Black silk stockings (long socks)
- Black pumps
- Ball Gown — traditionally a full-skirted gown reaching at least to the ankles, made of luxurious fabric, delicately and exotically trimmed. Such gowns are typically worn with a stole (a formal shawl in expensive fabric), cape or cloak in lieu of a coat, “good” (couture or vintage) jewelry and opera-length gloves. Standard accessories are dancing shoes and a clutch style evening bag. Where “state decorations” are to be worn, they are on a bow pinned to the chest, and married women wear a tiara if they have one. The ball-gown shape has changed little since the mid-19th century. Although artificial fabrics are now sometimes used, the most common fabrics are satin, silk, taffeta and velvet with trimmings of lace, pearls, sequins, embroidery, ruffles and ruching.
- Level-4 and below
The next time you have a first time meeting with an important client or are going to an important interview, dress for success! First impressions are important. Avoid the triple bean burrito and leave your skateboard at home.
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