the office: What to Wear


Nathaniel Olsen, columnist

“You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take”

Wayne Gretzky

Micheal Scott 

Personal style is all about taking risks. Adding prints, interesting textures, and inspired silhouettes to your wardrobe is part of the experience in building a good sense of taste. Minimalistic and comfort-focused dressing is a notable element of the everyday closet, but our collective desire to be seen as individuals is often more powerful and more beneficial.

Style is all about perception: how you see yourself first, and then secondly how the people around you see you. Being imaginative and telling a story about yourself through fashion is something that always keeps me coming back for more when it comes to fashion. As it pertains to stories, how you should dress for work can be a difficult read. 

In the workplace, though, everything changes.

Now the considerations of your employer set the rules and regulations for what could or should be seen as socially acceptable and appropriate. You no longer are only representing your style and image, but additionally the style and image of the company you are employed to. 

Just because you now have a box of parameters does not mean all hope of personal expression is lost. Constraints are responsible for the most beautiful art. Now you have a picture frame in which to build your perfect work wardrobe. You don’t have to lose yourself in an effort to be professional. Dressing for the professional realm is a representation of your best, most capable self. 

There are 200-year-old codes and doctrines, coated in class, gender, and race, that set a paradigm of what professionalism is supposed to look like. Codes around professional dressing are always up for debate and through the work of countless professionals, many are voicing their desire to wear more cultural dressing styles to work. 

Historically speaking, the most professional workplace attire has been a boxy two-piece suit for men. I identify as a man, so I will be mainly focusing on masculine dressing. It goes without saying that you do not have to be a man to take this advice, wear whatever the hell you want. As it pertains to professional dressing for feminine-presenting people, skirt suits became the female counterpart to men’s tailored suiting as women began to enter the workforce, but many other professional dressing styles exist for feminine-presenting people. 

So how did the suit come to be the seemingly unanimous champion of men’s dressing styles? 

English high society socialite Beau Brummel in the late 1800s, provided enlightenment’s contribution to fashion through what has been called the “Great Male Renunciation”. While this sounds like a scary phrase from the dark parts of the internet it was actually just the introduction of the suit jacket and full-length trousers to the High English courts. Before this time, the courts dressed as ostentatiously as possible. Like King George with his powdered wigs, knee-length breeches, and white stockings. He was a really gaudy fellow, it’s no wonder they lost the war. Brummel’s more minimalistic and refined suit and trousers paved the way for the style to be the most widely accepted professional form of male dressing around the world. 

So enough of the history lesson, what should you wear to work? 

In 2023, casual workplace attire has become commonplace. The wool blazer, button-down cotton poplin shirt, and wool trouser has been replaced with a hoodie, a t-shirt and sweatpants. Wool knit suits are now cotton jersey sweat suits.

The “Work from Home lifestyle” aesthetic is dominant as the post-pandemic norm. Yet the appeal of dressing for success with intention and care is still an important concern for many. This is especially true for Oregon State University students. 

As college students, we are moving into the labor force largely for the first time in our lives. (Awww, look at us getting big-boy jobs.) College students are likely to have their first business meetings, interviews, dinner parties, conferences, and so on while attending college. Our professional attendance is now mandatory for our success in previously unforeseen ways. If you want to stand out in the workplace, while maintaining a sense of respect and professionalism here are some helpful tips to look out for. 

Breaking up the outfit into 3 parts: Tops, bottoms, and shoes. 

First, tops. This could be a collared shirt. The fun part is picking the silhouette and material. I mentioned a collared cotton poplin shirt as being the standard, and this is true but there are so many other professional shirting styles that create a sense of personality for our wardrobe. A short sleeve knit polo from Tommy Hilfiger or Lacoste strikes a great balance of a durable light fabric that also keeps you warm. Consider pieces with tapered short sleeves so your arms look prime for lifting 50-pound boxes. What’s wrong with a little workplace drama?!

If applicable, a tie is always a good touch to show both intentionality and personal taste. Black ties are more or less mandatory for masculine-presenting people depending upon the circumstance. Satin or silk are premier tie fabrics, but Goodwill, St. Vinny’s, or other thrift markets are likely to have one-of-a-kind options secondhand. 

Secondly, bottoms. The lack of thoughtfulness that most masculine people put into their pants is severely disappointing. Recognizing where this comes from is important to solving the problem. It’s time to look in the mirror and self-reflect. The start of the conversation centers around how standard sizing has screwed over the vast majority of men from even being able to appreciate their pants. Taking the time to try on as many options as possible will help mitigate most of this issue, but still could prove relatively fruitless in terms of good options. I know this is exhaustingly time-consuming and more or fewer means that buying pants online is a stupid idea unless you like burning money. 

There is, however, a silver lining that many young people have yet to consider: tailored pants! That’s right, you can go to tailors like the Natty Dresser in Albany and purchase a one-of-a-kind pair of trousers made to measure exactly to your body. And here is the catch, they aren’t unfeasibly expensive either. 

People spend so much time talking about how the slave labor that fuels the fashion industry is so terribly wrong. Well, here is your best solution. Local tailors are masters of their craft and apply their knowledge for every person that comes in the door. If you have the means of affording your first real bespoke (custom-made) suit then I recommend taking a visit to Collier in Portland. Collier is one of the finest tailors in the state, so if you are truly looking for the full custom experience I would highly suggest checking out their showroom. At the very least, feel the fabric selection they offer to understand what you should be looking for elsewhere. 

Invest in your wardrobe like you are investing in your career. They are likely to cost more than you have spent on a pair of pants but they will last you decades if you treat them with love. There is no need to overdo it, three pairs of tailored trousers will provide you with the range and adaptability to create countless style combinations. 

Without a doubt, if you are over 20-years-old you need a pair of black trousers. They go with anything and are a basic requirement for the Black suit. 

Other options to consider are cotton twill neutral-toned khakis or linen trousers. I think color and print are necessary for personal style, but being cognizant of the place you work to determine whether any color or pattern is appropriate for any given situation. Clothing communicates trust, and trust, as we know, is a primary element in any relationship. This applies in the business world as well. 

Once you have found a shirt and trouser combination that is capable and canny. Now you need some leather shoes to boot! Finding a dress shoe can be a very intimidating experience. There are so many different style options that are all pretty similar. The price points range from high to Nepo Baby. At its very basic level, what do good dress shoes show about a person?

This depends on the shoe style of course. Leather Dress shoes come in more or less three style options that all differ in perceived formality. Loafers, Derbys, and Oxfords are what college students should look out for when trying to purchase a formal shoe. It hurts me to say this but it is time to put away your Jordan Ones when you wear a suit. They do not present very professionally in a cross-generational workplace. I love my Jordan very dearly but I need payroll checks, not just Nike checks. 

Loafers or penny loafers are the most casual of leather dress shoe styles. They can be found with chunky heels to almost no heel at all. The material quality of the leather speaks to individual style. Personally, tassel loafers have my entire heart, they look clean, approachable, and super playful! 

As it pertains to traditional dress shoes the conversation begins with Derby’s. Leather shoes that use open lacing to maintain secureness as you wear them. You may decide that you like a rounded, pointed, or more square-toe box for the shoes as you try on styles. Finding the right derby for you is going to take time. Once they are broken in, they become an extension of your feet. In my opinion, leather soles when worn long enough rival the comfortability of Adidas Ultrabosts, Birkenstocks and even crocs. They are an investment in your professional future, and when you treat them right they will serve you for decades. 

The most traditional formal is the Oxford. The black patent leather glides light off its glossy upper like wading in a river of light. The heel clicks communicate a firm presence wherever you are. A perfection of leather craftsmanship, the traditional oxford now sees itself more as a relic of the past. With sneakers taking up most of the footwear market, the oxford has been sitting on the shelf for quite some time. The dust gathers on the once-shiny shoes as they wait for a little recontextualization from some fashion designer somewhere. 

Leaning into tradition in some respects is what makes professional attire easier to comprehend for so many people. Using the set of rules informed by our professional predecessors provides a framework for personal expression and professional growth. A collared shirt, straight-legged trouser, and a pair of leather dress shoes can be anything you want or need it to be. I promise you, some items that look formal are made of some of the most comfortable materials on the market. Natural materials are the foundation for synthetics anyway. And who wants to be synthetic when you can be authentic instead? 

We as college students are investing our lives into our pursuit of entering a career. And you can’t spell pursuit without “suit”!

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