May 31, 2012 at 7:42 AM ET
There was a time when what to wear to work seemed pretty clear. But these days it seems that trying to fit in at the office, fashion-wise, has never been more complicated.
On the one hand, there’s Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wearing his hoodie to meet with Wall Street bankers. Then there is Virgin mogul Richard Branson, who recently acquired a bank and quickly told his employees to ditch the tie.
On the other hand are companies like UBS AG, which only recently revised a demanding dress code that went right down to the underwear, and law firms where people reportedly have been fired for wearing matching colors.
The stakes are even higher this time of year, when many new graduates are entering the workplace for the first time, and even seasoned cubicle dwellers are feeling the pull of summer wear such as shorts and flip-flops.
“It’s extremely confusing,” said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas. “It depends on the industry, it depends on the corporate culture (and) it depends on the boss -- what she or he either requires or tolerates.”
Experts say one big problem is that the rules seem constantly to be changing. There was a time when everyone would agree that a banking job required a suit and tie, but Branson holds the opposite point of view.
"In British banking, few things strike terror in the heart of a customer quite as much as the prospect of facing a tie-wearing, three-piece-suited bank manager across a huge mahogany desk," he wrote on Entrepreneur.com.
At the same time the weak economy has prompted some once-casual workplaces to step up the dress code, hoping to impress new clients and hang onto existing ones. A worker who doesn’t notice that trend also is at risk of getting left behind.
Then there are perils to overdressing in an office where casual dress is the norm, and sticking out because you’re the stiff in a suit while everyone else is dressed in khakis or jeans.
That could be a problem if you worked for Branson, the brains behind the multifaceted Virgin brand.
“Suits and ties in an office are just another type of uniform, but in an arena where uniforms no longer serve any useful purpose,” he wrote in the Entrepreneur piece.
Zuckerberg made a similar, if less overt, statement when he was seen talking up Facebook’s initial public offering dressed in slouchy
clothes more suited for a college dorm. Would-be Facebook employees might want to take their cues from that.
Life Inc. asked some etiquette experts for tips on navigating fashion land mines at the office.
Ask around:If you are starting a new job or moving to a new office, author and business etiquette expert Barbara Pachter said the best approach is to simply ask your new boss or human resources manager if there is a dress code. If not, ask how people generally dress and try to follow suit.
First impressions matter:Everyone likes to believe that what they do matters more than how they look, but Pachter notes that, in reality, how you present yourself can be key to succeeding. A person who is always in a suit when everyone else wears jeans, or someone whose clothes are a little too tight, will quickly become known for that style of dress.
Pachter recalled a consultant who was constantly told to dress casually and yet kept showing up in a tie. One day, his boss took a pair of scissors and cut the tie off.
“What you do is you end up creating trademarks,” she said, “and some are good and some are bad.”
Dress to impress your customer, not your boss:Gottsman notes that Zuckerberg and Branson can get away with dressing as they please because they’re already earned their fortune.
Chances are, you haven’t. And that means you may have to even ignore your boss’s cues in order to present the right image when meeting with clients.
“You dress for your moneymaker, (and) the bottom line is the moneymaker is the client,” Gottsman said. “You dress to make them feel comfortable because that’s really what it’s all about.”
Dress well, even if you dress casually: Even if your office is jeans-and-T-shirts kind of place, both Gottsman and Pachter say it’s important to make sure you are wearing clean jeans and a tidy shirt.
Grooming habits matter, too: Keep your hair cut and nails trimmed, and don’t forget to wear good shoes even if the standard at your office is sneakers instead of heels.
Don’t be tempted by flip-flops, even in the summer months, and save your halter tops for the weekend.
“You don’t want to look like you’re going to the beach because you still want to look credible, and you don’t want your clothes to be a distraction,” Pachter said.
Dress a little, but not a lot, nicer than everyone else: If you’re ambitious, you may want to consider dressing for the job you want, rather than the job you have. But Pachter warns that you shouldn’t dress as if you are CEO-in-waiting. That’s going to alienate you from everyone else, too.
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