The business of business casual // Bar code

A lawyer’s guide to proper etiquette

Dear Sandra,

The fashion zealots at my firm just won a hard-fought victory. Business casual days will now be allowed once a month. For a guy whose closet is filled with suits and ties for work and sweats for the weekend, this day fills me with dread. Where do I begin?

Stumped Steve

By Sandra Rosier

On Wednesday December 15th, 2010

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illustration by Bob HamblyDear Sandra,

The fashion zealots at my firm just won a hard-fought victory. Business casual days will now be allowed once a month. For a guy whose closet is filled with suits and ties for work and sweats for the weekend, this day fills me with dread. Where do I begin?

Stumped Steve

Business casual is a problem for many associates these days, Steve. Back in the day, the rule of thumb on Bay Street was to dress like a Gap ad. But, in light of the fire-engine-red skinny cords and ripped jeans currently seen through the store’s windows, I recommend dressing like a Banana Republic ad instead.

Throughout my career, I have, of course, seen people flout whatever the current convention then was. But it takes someone…uh, special to get away with it.

Take one notable character at my old firm. Let’s call her Tracy. Every day Tracy wore the same pilled forest green turtleneck tucked into a pair of chocolate brown polyester pants, the kind with an elastic waistband. A supernova of tangled curls, Tracy’s hair defied the laws of physics. It’s quite possible that small woodland creatures nested in her untamed mane. In the five years that I was at the firm, Tracy never uttered a word during our weekly group meetings. She was infamous for scavenging for leftovers at office parties and meetings. Partnership was clearly not in the cards, yet she seemed untouchable.

Why was she exempt from the most basic office etiquette? Well, it turns out that Tracy had mad skills. She specialized in an exquisitely complex form of income pooling computation governed by a series of Byzantine tax regulations. Tracy was not only great at what she did, but nobody else at the firm could (or wanted to) do those calculations. Happy with free sandwiches, a hermit-like existence and job security, Tracy didn’t care about making partner. For its part, the firm was quite willing to keep her holed up in an inside office away from clients as long as she kept producing those flawless reports.

The Tracys of the world are living proof that if you are both exceptional at what you do and irreplaceable, you can commit fashion crimes with impunity.

Those of us without that kind of leverage, however, have to be more careful about our appearance. Remember it’s business casual, not casual. Wear your suit pants, but dress them down with a cashmere or wool sweater over a dress shirt or a fitted cotton tee. Opt for solid colours or a classic print like argyle for a polished look. For stores, you can’t go wrong with Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Harry Rosen or the casual menswear section at the Bay.

A final warning: steer clear of corduroys (they add 20 pounds) and pastel-coloured slacks (they frighten partners). Keep in mind, all things being equal, your image at the office can seriously up your cachet.


Dos and Don’ts of Business Casual for women
Do
Do:

  • Boost your colour quotient by combining bright blouses and belts with your power suit.
  • Wear pencil skirts and skinny pants but turn down the sexy with a tailored jacket.
  • Cut out magazine pictures of what you want to look like — then show your salesperson at the store.
  • Invest in beautiful, leather loafers and flats — comfort and casual do mix.
  • Keep a blazer in your office for any last-minute client meetings.

Don't
Don’t:

  • Try to channel Mr. T. Unless your client is Barrick Gold, less is more when it comes to accessorizing.
  • Wear leggings (or worse, jeggings), no matter how impressive your assets.
  • Try to look like a lawyer. Burn all your blue shirts in a ritual purification ceremony.
  • Reach for the blue (or sparkly) eyeshadow. Keep makeup light and natural.
  • Wear flip-flops, miniskirts, printed t-shirts, worn jeans or anything else you might wear to a rodeo.

Illustration by Bob Hambly