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Promo Industry View: How to Dress the Part

No time like the present to start preparing your wardrobe for reentry.

After spending your extra time at home cleaning out closets and planning your triumphant return to the office, now’s the time to consider sprucing up your wardrobe for reentry. There’s no need to go all-out Queer Eye on your closet (most of us have everything we need right at home), but perhaps it’s time to part with a few items and habits that no longer work at work.

Lisa Bennett
Lisa Bennett is a multi-line representative and freelance writer based in Chicago.

I started in the promotional products business with a high-end gift company – my first job out of college. It was a great job and I learned a lot. But it was the late ’80s, and along with a healthy travel allowance and fabulous benefits, that job came with a fairly strict dress code: skirted suits with nylons for women and suits and ties for men. While uncomfortable, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary for the time.

Enter the ’90s. “Casual Fridays” came along, a gift from the HR department as a company perk used to help manage the exodus of valuable employees fueled by a booming economy. It was then that I went out on my own as a commissioned sales rep, and with that came the freedom to choose my own workwear. The suits and nylons were put away and only saw the light of day for funerals and the one time I got called for jury duty and didn’t get picked.

When business casual became acceptable everywhere in the ’90s, even the most conservative companies hung up the jacket and tie for a more casual environment. Men adopted the unofficial uniform of Dockers and polo shirts while women who gave up wearing nylons turned to comfortable pants and blouses.

Today’s workplace dress code in the promotional products industry is simple: Dress appropriately for work. However, “appropriately” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. We don’t need to return to the days of suits and nylons, but the industry can do a little better sprucing itself up. Here are my suggestions:

Jeans and T-shirts are no longer a no-no at work. Many of us are making a nice living selling T-shirts, so if you like ’em, wear ’em. However, if your favorite tee is that Bruce Springsteen shirt from the “Born in the USA” tour in 1984, maybe just wear it at home after work. And jeans are great; I for one am cheering the absence of women’s super-skinny spandex jeans on the mannequins this year. But if you have jeans with holes, even the holes that are factory-installed, don’t wear them to work.

Ben Turry
Ben Turry, vice president of business development at Tangerine Promotions, proves that a T-shirt and jeans can certainly qualify as work-appropriate attire.

Gentlemen, it’s time to break up with your pleated cuffed pants. You need to start seeing new pants. If you still own pleated cuffed pants, please donate them to the Salvation Army. The newer styles of pleated pants are OK, but flat-front pants have a more flattering fit and will give you a contemporary look.

Ladies, please stop wearing capris. They’ve seen their day, and no one needs to have their legs looking short or stumpy. Please replace them with your fabulous looking ankle-length pants. They’re far more flattering and truly more professional.

Where would this industry be without the ever-popular polo shirt? It’s casual, wears well and offers comfort for anyone from the executive team to the warehouse. The key to looking great in a polo shirt is the decoration: heat-seal continues to grow in popularity and embroidery is still an option for the right logo. But please, for the love of all swag, do not put a giant left-chest logo on an otherwise stylish garment. Speaking for women everywhere, we don’t want a polo shirt with a left chest logo, let alone one that is oversized. And guys just look more professional in a polo with a left sleeve or back neck decoration.

Shorts at work used to be practically illegal, but not anymore. If you live in the southern half of the U.S. where temperatures reach 100 degrees regularly, shorts are necessary workwear for survival. Having said that, make sure you check the full-length mirror before you walk out the door to verify your choice – unless, like me, you have a 13-year-old daughter who’s always willing to critique your style.

Footwear has really evolved in the last decade. The greatest thing is that almost anything goes. Do you have a favorite pair of sneakers? Go ahead, wear them with a suit. As long are you’re comfortable, wear any shoes you like. And if flip-flops work in your office, go for it. (Note of caution on the flip-flops: Before you take a single step into the office, you must get a pedicure. This is non-negotiable.)

Tattoos, facial hair and man buns? Yes, yes and yes. What would have kept you out of the boardroom in the ’90s is now a statement of creativity and individuality in 2020. Just be careful how far you take that creativity – women with unicorn-colored hair, for example, won’t even warrant a second look.

In a perfect world, you’ll be judged by your ideas, creativity and services you offer your clients. But it never hurts to make a great first impression.

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