Monday, April 11, 2011

Proper Professional: Cara's Closet

Welcome everyone, to the first edition of A Working Mom's Closet's "Proper Professional" Feature!

The Proper Professional title is courtesy of the one and only Mary (who, incidentally, also came up with the name for my personal blog as well). Mary, send me your address (why don't I have your address already?) because I have something pretty to send you! Thanks for submitting the winning name!!! (P.S. I love you and miss you! You should come visit!)

As I've moaned and groaned so very much recently about my dress code trials and tribulations, I thought it would be interesting to see how other people view the concept of professional and office appropriate attire. It's also been on my heart lately to spread the style blog love around the internetz by interviewing some fantastic bloggers. I decided to combine both of these into one fabulous little feature!

Your very first Proper Professional is Cara of Cara's Closet.

Tell us a little about yourself and your blog. 
I started my blog in 2008 to help me figure out what “stuff” I didn't need. I used to routinely go through my closet and post what was going, and what was being put on probation, generally selecting 5 from each category. I didn't keep up with that for very long. Now, I mostly use it as motivation to get dressed every day! As for me, myself, and I, I'm 27 years old, living in a small city in the middle of Canada. I'm counting down to two very important dates: the day we move back closer to my family, and the day "we" becomes a legal term - I'm getting married in July!! (CONGRATULATIONS!!! I'm invited, right? Right? Cara...?...)

How did you come up with your blog name?
I like alliteration, so I needed something that went with my name. Since my last blog was Cara's Place, I decided I like the idea of it being a physical location. Cara's Closet seemed to be the obvious answer. However, I didn't do enough research and discovered it's also the name of a porn site. Thus far, there haven't been any real mix ups, so I guess I'll just keep it!

Do you work from home (a stay-at-home-mom IS an occupation too!) or outside the home, and what do you do? 
I'm currently a professional student. No seriously, I'm currently being paid to go to school -- not a lot -- but I kind of love how that worked out. I'm taking my Masters' in English Literature. This is my last year of my program, so I'm working from home on a thesis. However, I have also held a part-time job in the public sector for the last 5 years. Once a week, I set an alarm, get dressed and get out of my apartment for a day. This fall, I'll be looking for my first “Big-Girl” job, so it will be interesting to look back on this interview to see if my opinion changes!

Do you have a dress code by which you need to abide (either corporate or self-imposed)? If so, what is it and how do your co-workers (if applicable) approach the dress code?
I have 6 dress codes to follow!

It's hard keeping motivated to get dressed when you work from home so I created my own dress code depending on the activities of my day. If I'm spending the day inside my apartment, I go rather casual, either in cotton dresses, or jeans, sweaters and hoodies. If I'm at the library, or meeting with peers, I try to kick it up a notch. I'll allow myself jeans, but skirts or dresses are preferred, as I like to set myself apart from the undergrads. If I'm meeting with faculty, I'll make sure I'm in a blazer. On the odd occasion I make presentations at conferences, I gravitate to heels and tweeds. The only time I allow myself to wear pajamas or sweats is when I'm spending the day actually writing. I need total and absolute comfort on those days.

Obviously, I work alone for the most part, so no one really says anything about what I wear. However, the comments I most frequently get refer to the brightness of the colours in my outfits, which I will admit are highly influenced by the colours found in my pajamas. It's too rough going from bright pink plaid flannel jammies to boring black!

When I do work in an office setting, we do not have a formal dress code. The guys typically wear black pants with a pale coloured dress shirt. The (older) women wear “casual separates” (being those elastic waisted pants and kitschy cats-in-flower-pot print sweaters). I force myself to be a step or two above business casual, though that doesn't always happen. Frequently, my coworkers ask what I have up after work, as they always assume I have a more important meeting. However, I'd rather be over-dressed than under-dressed.

Do you choose your outfits in advance or in the morning, and how long does it take you to get ready in the mornings?
I try to plan my outfits in advance, as getting ready is something which I use to procrastinate getting down to work. If I've planned ahead, I can go from bed, to shower, to ready to go in about 35 minutes, sometimes including breakfast. Otherwise, those 35 minutes can be spent staring at the closet (watching TV out of the corner of my eye), and accidentally crawling back to bed!

If you were commissioned to rewrite the dress code, what would you change (if anything)? 
I'll stick with my office dress code for this question, since I can change my own dress code anytime! I would make everyone step it up a couple notches. We work in the public sector, which essentially means we help the geographically defined region run. As such, I think we should be bringing more professionalism to the table. Since our department rarely interacts with the public, I do understand the laxity in the dress code. However, we still walk in and out of the building numerous times throughout the day and should make more of an effort to have it appear that we are confident, capable professionals. I shouldn't feel out of place wearing a suit in this industry. Structured jackets, fine knit sweaters, pants ironed with a proper crease down the front, tailored to-the-knee skirts and pressed shirts work for me. I'd even be willing to do away with sandals if it meant those who worked around me would take their wardrobes more seriously!

Do you think companies should take into account the potential cost for certain dress codes to be achieved and if so, should they be concerned about the cost being equal for both men and women?
I generally believe the higher your paycheque, the higher the quality your wardrobe should be. In our capitalist system, those who receive higher paycheques generally receive higher amounts of power and responsibility and that should be reflected in how they present themselves. I don't see any reason to put actual figures on these items, and I don't see, especially at higher levels of occupations, why there would be a need to correct any gender discrepancies in price. I'm not sure whether it's gender that affects price or the fact women tend to own MORE clothing than men. In fact, I'm rather glad I'm a thrifty female... have you bought a quality tie for the man in your life recently?  Eek, it's no wonder men always look like they wear the same thing.  However, good pieces are timeless and need only be replaced when they start to look overly worn. In many cases short-term pain is indeed long-term gain.

What is your definition of professional attire and would this vary if the business is a small business compared to a larger corporation?
For as long as I can remember, my dad has put on a suit and tie to go to work. When I hear “professional attire,” I picture him. However, I'm also cognizant that as western culture we have relaxed our ideas of “professional attire,” and this upsets me to a degree. I can't really define “professional attire” in a succinct way as it really does vary, and I don't think the size of the business should necessarily affect the dress code. Rather, the TYPE of business is more important. A 6-person investment company should dress more professionally than a 60-person web design firm. What you wear should reflect your work. If you're handling large amounts of money, you should look like you're responsible and trustworthy. If you're working in a creative industry, your clothing should reflect your eye for colour and composition. 

What are some pieces that every woman should have available in their professional arsenal?
Every woman should own one good tailored suit. In fact, every man should too. Whether it is for weddings, funerals, job interviews or what have you, a tailored suit makes you stand up taller, look more pulled together, and garner more respect. Of course, proper footwear and accessories are key here, too. I've seen lawyers in suits and runners... it doesn't work. If we're looking outside clothing itself, then a good iron, drycleaner and tailor are important too! Spending $50 can make you look like a $1,000,000.
What pieces are never professionally appropriate regardless of the situation?
Crocs. Uggs. Spandex and sweats. And believe me, I've seen all four at work. There is absolutely no reason for any of these to be present in an office building. If it can be worn in the garden, on the toboggan hill, or in the gym, it can't be worn in the office. I really feel like this should be common sense, but apparently, it's not.
Describe an outfit you'd wear in each of the following settings: 1. A typical day at work. 2. A formal business meeting. 3. An informal meeting with co-workers. 4. A business dinner with co-workers and superiors.
1. A typical day at work would be reading and researching, so I'm going casual. A sweater for warmth, tights and a dress for comfort! It feels like pajamas, but it meets my fiancé's request that I get dressed at least 5 days a week!
2. I tend not to have formal business meetings, so I think the closest equivalent is presenting at a conference. Again, this is where heels and tweed are necessary in my opinion. If I had to dress at this level more frequently, I'd probably switch up the tweed a bit more, but since I only present once or twice a term, I have yet to work through my entire collection!

3. An informal meeting with co-workers generally means lunch at the university pub, which generally means I've spent the day in the library. I reach for boots and casual dresses, or blazers and scarves most of the time. Looking a little classier allows me to glare down those kids talking in the “Quiet Zone” with a bit more success. 

4. I have never had a business dinner with co-workers and superiors – in my office job, we're strictly the 9-5 type crowd. However, we have had a few business lunches. I generally incorporate more structured pieces the more superior my superiors become. However, I always add colour, particularly when I'm meeting someone new (and potentially influential).  Why? No one will remember “one of those girls in the black pants and white shirt”. Sure, I risk becoming: “that girl with all the colour”, but that has never happened: they've always remembered my name. Considering I'm definitely the lowest rung on the ladder of my department, that is quite the feat. I'm not advocating wearing bright neon orange, but combining colours creates interest and definitely makes you appear more of an individual.
Are there any questions you wish I'd asked or is there anything else you'd like to mention regarding this topic?
I spent a lot of time complaining about the lack of dress code at one of my previous offices.  As such, I've often mused at the reasons behind a dress code and the appropriate way to enforce it. One of the reasons my current office does not seem to have one is that the union has argued that what we wear does not affect how we work, and therefore, any punitive measures would be unfair, as it does not relate to our job performance. I disagree; I strongly believe what we wear affects our productivity. My thesis work is a strong example: I work more efficiently at the library than I do at home. When forced to sit upright at a desk, in clothing chosen to make me appear competent, I can breeze through to my desire endpoint in half to three-quarters of the time it takes me when I'm lounging on the couch with my laptop in my pajamas. It's not only the location (fewer distractions) nor the posture (more ergonomic), but the clothes also undoubtedly affect how I am working. I feel more productive and professional. It's not like high school, where you can be told to turn your shirt inside out to hide a profanity, put on a sweatshirt to cover an immodest top, or be sent home to change into a skirt of a more appropriate length, but I believe supervisors have a right to point out infractions, privately, and provide warning prior to any official reprimand. Repeated violations of a CLEARLY enforced dress code show an employer that an employee not only dislikes the dress code, but also disrespectful of the clients they serve and the authorities who put the dress code in place. With that said, a dress code should meet the needs of the situation, without placing undue stress on the worker. It's a difficult balance to reach, and it's not surprising that fewer and fewer businesses are requiring stringent dress codes.  

BIG thanks to Cara for taking the time to be grilled interviewed on this topic as our very first feature! I hope you enjoyed reading her answers and hearing her perspective as much as I did.


  1. Great post...I love her looks and her answers! I think if I were to be hired some place without a dress code, I would make sure I understood what the boss expected. It is always good to have a conversation and know what the boss considers to be be professional wear for his/her office. Like it or not clothing does affect your career!

  2. Well done! Great questions and answers!!! Looking forward to more of these!

  3. I really enjoyed this. It was long and it held my attention the ENTIRE time. I even had a work email pop up which usually distracts me from anything but I didn't look until I finished with this.

  4. I agree with her. I think that clothing DOES affect how we perform on the job. And what people think of us while performing our job. I work in non-profit and do not really have a dress code other than : please look nice because you are the face of our agency. I work with the artsy type and therapists. I am definitely the best dressed in my agency (of 5 women). I am also the youngest. But I am sometimes appalled at how the women dress here.

    Love this post and I am looking forward to see where this goes from here!!!

  5. Great Post. I would have to add you should never where beach flip flop to the office.

  6. Thanks for this opportunity, Melissa! Even though I knew it was going "live" today, it was still such a great surprise to see me pop up in my reader!
    And thanks to all of you for all the wonderful comments so far!

  7. What a great idea, Melissa!! I can't wait to check out more of Cara!

  8. Great guest post!!! Darling outfits!

  9. Seriously great feature! And I love Cara too! :)

  10. Great new feature Melissa!! I hope it's a fixture around here.

  11. I love the feature!! And thanks to Cara for writing such thoughtful responses!! Seriously!! This is so awesome! :)

  12. Very nice! I'm so excited about this series.


Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and chat with me!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.