09/28/2013 12:19 EDT | Updated 11/27/2013 05:12 EST

Avoiding Wardrobe Mishaps at Work

It's officially the end of summer and as all the kids I know lament another school year, I mourn the end of season for a different reason: the clothes. Even if I'd harbored some hope that I could squeeze another couple of weeks out of my summer wardrobe, the weather turned, as if on cue. Now all those lightweight summer items that met the criteria of being business appropriate and comfortable will languish in the closet for another year.

That daily question of what to wear, which infiltrates my brain before I even get out of bed, remains more complicated than you might think. Clothes define your personality but they also define your role or image. We expect doctors to wear white lab coats and similarly expect bankers to don conservative suits. These strict rules of business wear can feel suffocating. While many men may complain about the restrictive nature of neckties, they likely haven't spent 10 hours in high heels shoes. Don't get me started on nylon stockings, which seem like a cruel joke when you are in a rush.

Apparently our frustration with clothes can be more than merely annoying -- it can impact our mental health. A recent poll showed that a majority of workers in the U.K. found that wearing a suit or fitted dress contributed to stress and negatively impacted productivity.

If you factor in the media's role, deciding what clothes define success can be even more challenging, especially for women. Consider the ink spilled over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's photo spread in Vogue. The message that I draw from this brouhaha is that women are expected to look good, but not too good. and many find the concept of a glamorous tech visionary seems outlandish.

So how does one navigate this dreaded middle season of hot and cold? Decisiveness is the key insists Toronto-based fashion stylist Rinat Samuel, who tells her clients to "let each season go and move forward."

"Don't make the mistake of keeping summer in your fall wardrobe and vice-versa. You will be in a rush one day and make a fashion mistake in an important meeting," she warned.

Even if one embraces fall, despite sporadic summer temperatures, dress code norms in companies continually evolve making it difficult to navigate. Since clothes reflect your employer's image and reputation, consider your surroundings before splurging on a runway knock-off or an ironic dork T-shirt. Erin Nadler, president of Better Styled in Toronto, suggests carefully observing the choices of your boss and colleagues before making any radical fashion decisions.

"When in doubt business to business casual are always a safe bet. You're always safe with a pair of slacks and a separate jacket. Dresses are a fabulous option too because they can be dressed up with a jacket or down with just a simple cardigan," she added.

Yet, Ms. Nadler has observed a slight leniency in the business world toward different fashion choices and more professionals are dressing with their clients in mind, not their managers, so that they come across as more approachable. This poses a challenge to professionals who have worked in the same industry for years and never altered their style.

"Women who have been wearing a suit and working for 25 plus years can get into a style rut ... it's hard to get out of your comfort zone and try something new, but it's important to keep your wardrobe fresh and current," advised Ms. Nadler.

While we may imagine the biggest fashion faux pas to be plunging necklines and too-short skirts, Ms. Nadler said ill-fitting clothing remains a common mistake. Other stylists harp on another detail that may be easily overlooked -- your shoes.

"As much as you love your favourite pair of shoes, it's important to retire them before they look worn out," cautioned Christine Carlton, co-founder of The September, a Canadian online shopping site for designer shoes. "Nothing says more about your look than your shoes," she added.

Wearing the appropriate footwear remains a sticking point with Ms. Samuel as well and she cautions against ever wearing dark-coloured hose with light coloured shoes or for men, stylish shoes with white socks.

"I am not the fashion police but after having been a fashion stylist for 27 years I would give you a ticket for this," she quipped.


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