Standing out sartorially in the office is a finer line than a Pilot V5 rollerball. While naked self-advancement might be top of your action-item list, it’s not as simple as the cliché of dressing for the job you want: your clothing needs to fit your role and the organisation you’re in. Stand out too much and you’ll tread on career snakes rather than ladders.
These kinds of articles will typically advise bedecking yourself in tie bars and pocket squares. But that’s a slippery slope towards peacockery and besides, that whole Mad Men thing is as dated as, well, Mad Men. Below are nine ways to appear less dull at your place of employment that shouldn’t earn your colleagues’ ridicule, or your P45. (Legal, please check.)
Dress for the job you have. Just, you know, better.
Rub Up Nice
There’s a scene in Revolutionary Road – the relentlessly downbeat film of Richard Yates’ devastatingly brilliant novel – where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character gets off the commuter train in New York and is lost in a sea of indistinguishable grey flannel suits.
Grey flannel used to be a symbol of soul-crushing conformity. Nowadays, with 99 per cent of salarymen clad in suits made from shiny worsted wool (which only gets shinier the more you wear it, particularly around the seat) a fabric with some texture is a way to stand out from the crowd. Flannel will fly in formal workplaces, but even refined tweed or corduroy shouldn’t cause any friction.
Do Double Time
Double-breasted suits were a fixture of offices in the eighties; today, they see about as much use as fax machines. Time to dial things back, and up.
A plain DB is less of a statement than a patterned suit but still a cut above your average two-piece. If sharply tailored, it will flatter your physique rather fatten it, simultaneously widening your torso and narrowing your waist faster than a Joe Wicks workout.
The DB can skew classic or contemporary, corporate or creative. Yes, it requires a bit of know-how and gumption to pull off, which is why most men swerve it. You’re telegraphing that you’re not most men.
Take Positive Steps
There are some workplaces where only black shoes will cut it. In which case, you don’t have much scope beyond Oxfords. Maybe a monk-strap or a brogue, as long as the latter’s profile is suitably streamlined for sleek tailoring and the hole-punching is relatively minimal. (Chunkier styles need to be balanced out by beefy, country-ready tweeds.)
Generally, though, brown is acceptable in town, gives you more scope for variation and is way less boring. Navy, burgundy, oxblood and even dark green are also surprisingly versatile and will put you in higher standing than your less imaginative co-workers.
And depending on how soft the rules are, suede can be a nice touch.
Most men’s choice of work shirt is limited to white or blue. Maybe pink if they’re feeling brave.
You can expand your horizons with colours and patterns such as checks or stripes. But what you add in interest, you lose in versatility. Get a little too ‘interesting’ and you verge on game show host territory.
Instead of straying into party shirt ground, swap bog standard cotton poplin for chambray: denim’s more formal cousin. It’s your same go-to blue shirt, only more, well, interesting. And it won’t frighten most dress code horses. Just avoid any cowboy-style detailing, unless you’re a cattle rancher. Or a host at Westworld.
Tie The Knot
The yoke of corporate oppression has been thrown off in recent years by men desperate to assert their tieless independence. Congratulations: you now have the freedom to look exactly the same as every other guy in a navy or grey suit and an open-necked white or blue shirt.
Rather, you should see a tie as an opportunity to express your individuality – especially if you stick your neck out slightly further than generic glossy silk. A knitted tie will instantly make you more noteworthy, as will seasonal materials: wool in winter, linen in summer. There’s also something understatedly classy about their matte finish.
Maybe you’re just not a tie guy. Or maybe fancy neckwear is too stiff for your workplace. Either way, your options are more open than an open-necked shirt.
A grandad or band collar shirt (also sometimes called ‘collarless’, confusingly) will make you look like you’ve got your finger on the pulse of style, and not like you forgot your tie.
In colder months – or overzealously air-conditioned offices – you can sub in a fine-gauge roll-neck jumper. Just brace yourself for the inevitable ‘Milk Tray man’ jibes.
Slightly less formal, a polo shirt can still look fairly smart, especially if it’s long-sleeved (and so more shirt-like) or knitted from a more upmarket fabric than cotton like merino wool or cashmere.
And if your profession is forward-thinking, then there’s the ‘air tie’: a done-up top button. Done badly though, you really will look like you’ve forgotten your tie. (A slim lapel and shirt collar help.) You can always undo the button though.
Bag A Promotion
Crappy, overfilled backpacks drag down many a work rig. Especially those that come free with gym memberships.
You could upgrade to a luxe backpack, but even that might be too kiddy for grown-up jobs; and hard briefcase can be a tad stuffy, not to mention impractical as well as hard to dress down. Document holders can look slick; they can also look affected and aren’t much use for carrying much else.
Get hold of a more modern, soft briefcase that’s just wide enough for your workout gear without giving the impression that you’re staying overnight (although you could). And upgrade to a gym that provides towels to save schlepping a wet one around.
Have The Write Stuff
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who settle for what’s in the office stationery cupboard, and those who set their sights a little higher.
You don’t have to drop a month’s wages at Montblanc. A few jotters and pens from somewhere like Muji will set you back less than a tenner, and pay for themselves every time you use them.
Yes, the Bic biro brigade may think you insufferably pretentious, and even call you out on it. But a few people will quietly take note. And even if they don’t, joy-sparking stationery will make that meeting at least slightly more bearable.
Presenteeism (a fancy word for staying at work longer than is required) is not a good look. Nobody is impressed by your readiness to live in the office 24/7; they think that you’re bad at your job, or that you don’t have a life. Besides, your productivity flatlines after a certain point, which defeats the object. Go hard for your contracted hours, then go home. Do stuff. You’ll have something to talk about when you come in the next day, fully recharged.
If you really have too much work to handle, that’s down to your manager to rectify. And if you feel pressure to stay late from your peers or superiors, then you might want to consider dedicating some of that unpaid overtime to brushing up your LinkedIn profile.