Plunging necklines, sky-high heels and fuzzy red sweaters studded with holiday pins: They're the fashion crimes of the holiday office party, says Lauren Rothman, stylist and author of the new book Style Bible: What to Wear to Work. "Holiday parties tend to be this free-for-all: There isn't a dress code written down or enforced," Rothman says. As founder of the consulting company Styleauteur, Rothman helps shape corporate dress codes, instructing employees on the basics of office attire and image. She also gets brought in by management and human-resources teams to deal with fashion citations in the workplace. Amid this adrenalin and punch-spiked office-party season, Rothman spoke with The Globe from Washington about fashion choices and your reputation the morning after.
Should employees step up their game at this time of year, or stick to the tried-and-true pants and jacket?
The holiday party can make us feel vulnerable: You've got the alcohol, the junior mixing with the senior. It's important to wear what's going to make you feel most confident. If that's the tried and true – the black pants and the black turtleneck – that's fine. That being said, the holiday party is a great time to flex your muscles as a leader rather than as a follower in the office. Maybe start with a baby step like a great accessory – a statement necklace, a festive scarf, a great pair of earrings, a cocktail ring or even just a fun shoe. Women can add a little sparkle.
Aside from cleavage, what are the big fashion fumbles?
Looking too dressy or too casual, that's going to make you seem out of place. You want to understand your venue. If your holiday party is at 3 or 4 o'clock in the conference room or lunch area, that's going to have a more casual vibe than a party in a hotel ballroom on a Saturday night or the boss's home on a Friday evening. Even if you're going out for drinks at the corner watering hole on a Thursday night, those venues are all going to have a different dress code.
Should people change into their holiday party outfit at the office or wear their festive gear all day long?
If you're not going home in between I'd suggest something day to night. You might have on a black dress; you're going to change your shoes, leave the jacket for a pashmina, change from a tote to a clutch. Maybe go from a lip gloss to a red lip, add a little mascara, touch up your hair. It shows you did get ready, you're not just looking tired and haggard at 6 o'clock after a long day at work.
What are you wearing to your work holiday party?
I like to play with trends that you wouldn't necessarily wear during the work day. I might throw on a leather skirt; it's trendy and appropriate for the evening.
You write about poor clothing choices at the Christmas party hurting your career. Really?
It's not that you're going to lose your job over a fashion faux pas, but your reputation becomes tarnished. When people talk about Karen, it's not going to be "Karen with the great presentation at our last board meeting," it's going to be "Karen, the one who got really drunk in the slip." Those things follow you.
Style-wise we always focus on women. What do men get wrong?
Dressing down, just being too casual, wearing khakis and a polo instead of upping the style quotient with a sportcoat and dark slacks. Sometimes men overlook the details: making sure you wear your better shoes that day, that you've polished your shoes, that your belt and leather accessories are in good order. I don't want to see wrinkles, holes or shirts that are threading and coming apart. You want to look well-groomed.
So you look slick. How do you navigate awkward wardrobe compliments from your boss, who's also hammered?
Say thank you, excuse yourself and keep moving.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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