Appropriate work attire: What is OK to wear to the office in the summer?

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
June 9 2011 4:14 PM

Braless in the Office

Guidelines for appropriate summer attire.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Freedom can be very bewildering. As fabulous as it is to be liberated from an oppressor, the subsequent power vacuum always seems to throw everyone into a tizzy. Sometimes even a regular vacuum can throw me into a tizzy. I hate it when the bag explodes or the cord gets wrapped around the leg of my escritoire.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

Back to freedom: Liberation is happening in Egypt and other Middle East countries, and believe it or not, it's also happening closer to home. I'm talking about your closet.

In the last few years, we have seen the evaporation of every style restriction, guideline, or taboo. You, the ordinary woman in the street, have been liberated from the girdles of convention, especially when it comes to office attire. There are no longer any standards for work-wear. Gals with sleazy biker tattoos trade derivatives. Human resource directors sport Snooki bumps whilst jacked up on seven-inch porno-pumps. We are living in a wear-pasties-if-you-feel-like-it arcadia.

However, based on the number of fraught emails I get from women who are horrified and disoriented by the fleshy excesses and toe cleavages of their colleagues, I suspect there is trouble in paradise. Here's an example from a lady in Washington, D.C.:

I know I sound like a jealous old crone (which I am), but whenever I'm in the office I'm astounded by the bouncing, bra-less tank tops, the slopping midriffs, the barely covered rear ends. Yesterday I saw one young woman in a tiny romper dress (half her bra visible); it looked almost exactly like something my daughter wore when she was sandbox age.

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These why-am-I-looking-at-so-many-wobbly-bits-in-the-workplace exhortations are deluging my inbox. While fashion sociologists like myself observe this phenomenon with amused detachment, my correspondents all seem fit to explode with indignation. Unfortunately there is no solution to this particular problem. Any attempt to constrain office boob-flaunting or minimize butt cracks will result in some kind of gruesome law suit. Your only hope is for the offending flesh-exposers to all die of pneumonia.

But I don't want to leave you totally adrift and solutionless. So let me offer a few office-attire style pointers. Before I do, I must warn you: I have a long history of offering reckless advice with horrifying consequences. For example, a few decades ago I told a pregnant pal that she and her boyfriend should flee their inhospitable family milieu immediately and seek shelter with the hippies and druids at the Glastonbury Solstice thingy. They were halfway to Stonehenge before they realized that February was hardly the optimal time of year.

Simon Doonan. Click image to expand.
The author wears one of his neckerchiefs

With that in mind, please enjoy the following career-clothing DOs and DON'Ts:

DON'T wear carrot earrings. Remaining enigmatic and unknowable is the key to any business negotiation. Demonstrating your love of carrots or any other vegetable, for that matter, reveals too much about the real YOU. By wearing carrot earrings you are effectively showing your hand. No pickle brooches either.

DO wear prairie-themed clothing. The hilarious incongruity of tiered skirts and conch belts in a commercial midtown high-rise will always amuse and delight your colleagues. Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lauren. Ralph Lauren.

DO wear a cheongsam. This glamorous traditional Chinese garment is in danger of falling into extinction. They don't even wear them in China anymore! Yes, I know, a cheongsam is tight and uncomfortable, but, I'm sorry, you girls need to work with me on this one. Here's an incentive: At under 100 bucks a pop, cheongsams are a total bargain.

DON'T shy away from gaudy technology encasements. I myself have elected to enrobe my iPhone in a sleazy pink Ed Hardynumber. This guarantees that nobody will ever snag my phone by mistake. It also allows me to channel my inner Guido in a contained way. Choose from this fabulously vulgar selection.

Lastly, and most importantly …

DON'T blend in. You will garner more attention in the workplace, and possibly a promotion, if you adopt a signature flourish. This also applies to we dudes and most especially to wee dudes like me. While Steve Jobs has his black turtleneck, I have adopted the jaunty knotted neckerchief as my gesture-du-jour. Inspired by '70s geezers—think Robert Evans with a dash of Charles Nelson Reilly—I am knotting up a storm this summer. If you feel inclined to follow suit then raid your grandpa's haberdashery drawer and steal some of his old pocket squares. (They are exactly the right length to fit around your neck with a couple of dangly ends to spare.) Printed cotton is best. Silk tends to look a little too foofy. And we don't want that now, do we?