Posted June 30, 2008 -- Ciaran Smith was in charge of writing his company's summer dress policy. Within minutes of issuing the three-page document detailing every article of inappropriate clothing he could think of, the phone started ringing. "It says no tank tops; does that mean I can't wear a sleeveless, collarless silk shell?" "I see you can't wear open-toe shoes; are backless mules okay?" "Was someone really walking around the office in a tube top and I missed it?"
When the temperature rises, inhibitions plummet. To avoid the distractions and embarrassment that occur when employees wear attire that is too revealing or sends the message that their comfort is more important than their clients' business, many companies put out comprehensive summer dress codes.
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"It may seem silly asking employees not to wear flip-flops or T-shirts with provocative slogans," admits Smith. "But it's not nearly as awkward as having to tell a woman in a halter top and mini-skirt she needs to go home and change."
Wearing the wrong thing hurts your image and casts doubt on your sense of judgment. Yet while you don't want to look like a beach bum or floozy, you also don't want to be the most buttoned-down, uptight guy or gal in the office. How can you get it right? Here are some general rules to keep in mind when dressing to beat the heat:
Follow the Leader
Levels of formality vary by geography, industry and corporate culture. The best guides for what to wear are the executives, middle-managers and authority figures where you work. For example: While not wearing pantyhose would be a major faux pas at many companies, wearing hose in the summer months at certain ad agencies would be seen as decidedly unhip. Even if your company has an informal style, employers still want you to look professional.
A relaxed dress code doesn't mean you can be a slob. Make sure your clothes are clean and pressed. Since lightweight fabrics tend to be sheer, check your reflection under bright lighting to make sure your undergarments don't show through. If your company allows open-toe or backless shoes, make sure your feet and toenails are clean and cared for.
Don't Flash the Flesh.
Women in all professions should know they're not advancing their careers when they wear revealing clothing. Short shorts, mini-skirts, tank tops and low-cut or sheer blouses may get you attention, but not necessarily the raise or promotion you want. When choosing what to wear, think Diane Sawyer or Condoleezza Rice, not Britney Spears or Paris Hilton.
Layer Light Fabrics.
Stay cool in lightweight materials such as silk, cotton, linen, or summer-weight wool and cotton blends. Remember to dress in layers -- the difference in temperature between the outdoors and your air-conditioned office can be 30 degrees or more.
Have a Cover-Up Ready.
For those days when the office air-conditioning is on the fritz, you may need to bend the rules. But always keep a lightweight neutral blazer at the office so you can slip it on in case the CEO or an important client decides to drop by.
Despite the comprehensive summer dress policy he established, Smith has already been called several times to advise managers on the best way to tell employees their apparel is questionable. Smith says next year he will add the following caveat in bold: "If you think a piece of clothing could be inappropriate for the office, it probably is."