Entering the modern work world…

I promised I’d respond to demand and I’m going with modern office clothing etiquette – as opposed to smart, which we’ve covered ad infinitum.

Ah…this matter of modern office dress. And the whole etiquette that surrounds it. It seems that the first piece of advice I can give concerns make-up. Take Ellie Torres’ (Cougar Town – watch it!) advice and don’t look like you put all your make-up on the floor and rolled around in it. Sorry to be direct but, in this blog, I think we all know that I’ll tell the harsh truth. Lots of women I work with wear make-up that is just a shade off ‘night out’. Definitely ‘cocktails after work’ – at the very least. Personally, that level of self-respect is well beyond me – and has been since I was about 32. In fact, since I was exactly 31 years and 9 months old, to be precise. Heels went out at 33 years and 10 months old. March / April is definitely a watershed time of the year for me.

Anyway, make-up – there are a number of reasons to calm the look down: a) high maintenance cosmetics won’t match your more relaxed clothing and b) the chances are, in a more relaxed working environment, chances are you’ll be doing more rushing around and have more risk of melting mascara and/or find yourself in more ‘wind-swept hair sticking to lip gloss’ situations. I suggest the ‘fake natural’ look – it’s been discussed previously so you can check for info on earlier posts. Or, take my advice, and click on the link to the facebook page of a very talented friend of mine, Helen McBride Clavis – who I’m sure will give advice, if you ask politely: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/profile.php?id=100002100828177

If in doubt, stick to legendary cosmetics guru Bobbi Brown’s ‘7 step make-up’ regime, which can be boiled down to:
1) Skincare (yes, cleanse, tone – if necessary – and moisturise) – which provides an adequate canvas. I hardly need say this but some of my readers are may be at an age when they know that they should be doing this twice a day – not just in the morning! Especially since some of us may benefit from night creams and day moisturisers that have different ingredients and perform different functions – an intensive, plumping treatment for night and an SPF for day, for example.
2) Concealer – applied under the eye (up to the lash line) and in the innermost corner of the eye, using a concealer brush or one of the fab new concealers with a brush applicator. Even Barbara Daly at Tesco does one if you can’t justify the expense of Touche Eclat.
3) Foundation or base – keep it the right ‘weight’ for your skin: you want to feel comfortable – not like you’re wearing a mask! Some people can get away with a tinted moisturiser (if that’s you, I hate you a little bit!), some will need something with more coverage. Skin types need different textures too – I find mousse foundations really mattifying, for instance. Try liquid highlighter on top if you think you look a little bit wan. As you get on a bit, or your skin changes (I’m noticing this now, in particular) this can be just the lift you want.
4) Blusher – the instant ‘pick-me up’. Remember, if you worry about blusher, there is a colour for everyone. They come in a range and you can always use a bronzer for pale skin as a substitute. Smile and brush a little over the apples of the cheeks. If you want a little shimmer dust a tiny bit of powder highlighter over the top. You can use both to sculpt your face if you’re feeling bloated – or hungover!
5) Brows – using good tweezers, pluck any stray hair between and below the brows. Define brows using eyeshadow (match it to your hair colour) applied with an eyebrow brush. To apply shadow, begin at the inner corners of the brow and follow its natural shape using light, feathery strokes. For a natural looking – and very quick – option, try a brow mascara in a shade lighter than your brow or use a clear eyelash mascara. Benefit does one which is relatively expensive but which lasts forever. One swish and brows are ready to go!
6) Eyes – sweep a light colour from lash line to brow bone using a larger eye shadow brush. Dust a medium colour on the lower lid, up to the crease – then line the upper lash line with a dark colour applied with a finer brush, if possible. For a long-lasting look, dampen the brush before dipping into the shadow. After lining the upper lash line, look straight ahead to see if there are any gaps that need to be filled in. Also, if you line the lower lid, make sure that the top and bottom liner meet at the outer corner of the eye. If you’re comfortable, you can probably get away with just two colours. Thickening mascara gives individual lashes a denser look and is ideal if you have a sparse lash line. When applying mascara, hold the mascara wand parallel to the floor and brush from base of lashes to tips. Roll the wand as you go along to separate out lashes and avoid clumping. For practical jobs, waterproof mascara is perfect. Tip: When choosing colours for the eyes, cheeks and lips, try beautiful pinky shades – they look fresh. Avoid dark colours if you don’t feel your best, since they don’t do anything to flatter lacklustre skin or facial bloat. Look for light-reflecting textures like metallic eyes and glossy lips. They instantly lift the face. Think ‘spring’! Why not, it’s about time…and – when the sun comes out – the light’s very flattering.
7) Lips – start with clean, smooth lips. Neutral lipstick shades, sheer formulas and gloss can be applied directly. For natural-looking definition and to keep colour from feathering, line lips with lip liner after applying colour.
On a personal note, when it comes to lip colour, I rarely wear solid colour lipstick. I moisturise them often – after all lips have no serbaceous glands so need to be looked after – and use a range of products (from Carmex to a Chanel lip conditioner, which I put on my birthday list every year) that sometimes contain tint. I do, however, use a few transluscent lip colours (Clarins does some high end versions – but there are varieties in high-street chemists too) and glosses. One thing these nearly all have in common is that they can be applied without a mirror. Mainly due to some excellent advice my Mum gave me: use a colour that matches your lip tone on the particular day. Sometimes I do have beautiful ruby lips but often they’re quite pale. Either way, I usually just go with what I’ve got and will decide on my eye colours when I check out my face at the start of the day. This works for me – however, if you’re getting self-conscious about thinning lips or cats bum mouth (caused by smoking – or constant dissaproving), you may want to highlight or downplay your lips, respectively.
As a P.S., bear in mind face powder, if you need it. However, remember that too matt a finish can look quite ageing. Or, very 1950s Vogue covergirl. Which doesn’t really go with casual – altho’ it looks legendary in the right light.

Then clothing – surprisingly, more casual professional dress (I know it sounds oxymoronic) is quite an academic exercise. It means reconsidering basics. A little bit like building a house – foundations up. When you do posh, posh, posh all the time, you’re just window dressing. Here, you have to think about the pouring concrete, damp-course etc.

So…fabric is one key area – you can get away with more ‘dressed down’ characteristics: that means knitwear (think Sarah Lund in The Killing – but with more regular changes and a better ‘wash & wear’ ethic), t-shirt material, cotton, linen, twill and corduroy – really just anything that’ll wash at 40 degrees or lower. I always advise people to choose clothing that requires minimal ironing – but that’s just because I’m lazy. However, in these circumstances, they’re practical. Linen is the exception – it’ll have to be ironed, but you have the advantage that you work in an atmosphere where the inevitable creasing won’t matter so much. However, some traditionally formal fabrics (even linen) now come in versions which incorporate lycra or elastane. Now the last, but most important, question: can you get away with jeans? If so, I am so jealous. If not, this is going to be harder!

If we’re talking about practical fabrics, we should talk about practical shapes as well. Frills, ruffles and embellishments are lovely but not so wearable if you’re likely to get pawed at by children or find yourself in any small spaces. That’s not to say that body-conscious will work in this situation – you want to look tarty as little as you would in any other job. Very fitted items in fabrics that don’t ‘give’ aren’t a good idea. They tend to inhibit movement – can you imagine wearing a Roland Mouret Galaxy dress (google it) whilst you wriggle around under a desk trying to find a network cable? If you go fitted, which is flattering, make sure you have room to breathe and move around. No jeans that will prevent you sitting on the ground or tops that absolutely have to be tucked in. Waist bands that ‘bite’ aren’t comfy. In other words, when it comes to the actual clothes, leave yourself at least a couple of inches of spare fabric around the body. Even with knitted fabrics like jersey or t-shirt material.

Then, actual items: smart t-shirts (try M&S – which does some reasonable versions in their basic range – as their clothes are better made so they last and wash very well) come with a range of necklines. As do sweaters. Choose the shape that suits you – shallow V-necks flatter people with more impressive chests. They also mean that attention is drawn to the waist. A shallow scoop, straight or the plainest type of neckline can also look very chic. Note, I said ‘shallow’ – because you don’t want to look like a slut. One last rule: any shape should go to the hip line – or below. You don’t want any risk of the items in question ‘riding up’: no-one wants to see your muffin tops and no-one wants their muffin tops to be seen. With more structured tops – like shirts and blouses or t-shirt shaped tops – you get the same amount of room but without the ‘cling factor’ – which I prefer. Also, with the weather hotting up, cling is not a desirable option. So, you see, non-knitted things can be a good choice – as long as the rules re adequate amounts of fabric are followed.

Now for the bottom half – no surprises here, I’m afraid. Trousers are the most sensible choice – that may not be the height of innovation but it’s fact. I think that jeans come into their own here. However, the rules on jeans apply for trousers too. Choose a denim or fabric in a dark, or neutral, colour – unless you can guarantee you won’t get dust marks or fingerprints on them. I think you can go with khaki or even beige if you’re careful. Try to get a fabric with a little stretch if you’re wearing a more fitted style. That applies to a bootcut or flare equally. With a wider legged pant (make sure the fabric won’t get caught on anything), you can go with a fabric that has no ‘give’. Skirts can also be worn…with care. Very casual skirts aren’t a great option – certainly not if they have a lot of fabric or bag, for the same reason as ruffles. However, a fitted, knee-length (or above, but be careful) skirt in a tough fabric can be worn – but no stretch. Try an A-line – very this season since the 1970s are back, with a vengeance.

I normally hate jackets but here they can be super useful. Something quite structured can be worn. I’d recommend a comfortable fit – with a good shape – that can be buttoned up or, at least, pulled into place. This serves a useful purpose – you can, by all means, cover up with a cardigan most of the time but you have a smart item to replace it with when you have to see a client, parent or senior manager unexpectedly. I hate to mention this – in light of Kate Middleton’s fondness for the look – but I have three favourites: 1) a short, well shaped, tweed (with metallic thread running thru’ it) jacket that is perfect over dark trousers; 2) a dark (actually really fine denim – but my boss can’t tell) vertically pinstriped, jacket that is really flattering and 3) a cord jacket that is very All The President’s Men – but for girls! Alternatively, get a trench coat or jacket for dashing about in. they’re weatherproof and pretty much dirt proof – they rock!

Shoes are a really easy area here. Flats are best but wedges work well if you can’t quit heels. This is the year and the season for both. Brogues, loafers, ballet pumps are all being sold everywhere. Then cork wedges in fabrics or leather are a great option for summer too. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

I have to say that this exploration into alternative work lifestyles has been a disappointment. Bad luck – it seems that ‘dressing down’ means as much of a uniform as any other workwear option. Although, in this case, it’s defined by practicality and not by the necessity to ‘dress to impress’ – which would come as a welcome relief for most of us.

All of which has persuaded me that a job where you can work from home is an excellent idea. If possible, a role which also means that you leave the house to meet a variety of people: you get to wander around in your pyjamas all day – if you like – but you can wear ‘dress down’ if you prefer. Plus, you get to spruce yourself appropriately for meetings. Sometimes super-smart, sometimes in a more practical, ‘smasual’ style.

Next time, an exploration of the previously unknown – maternity wear that lasts…maybe even past the birth. Oh sure, I hear you say – very likely. I appreciate your opinion – mostly because, until recently, I shared it. However, as I think I may be able to prove, it could be the future! While that sounds unlikely, I think I may have cracked onto something here. Just go with it…

Lastly, I should credit a teeny tiny friend of mine, James, with the term ‘smasual’. Clever boy, James. And, yes, I do sound patronising – but he is only 21 years of age so I feel somewhat justified!


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