Professional workplaces during hot and sticky summer weather can feel like walk-in freezers. Experts at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business have business attire advice for such indoor-outdoor summer climate, including which styles will actually fly at work, and which ones are too casual even for the more laid-back summer season.
“Take your cues from peers at your level in the organization and those just above your level,” says Rachel Loock, career and leadership coach with the Smith School’s Executive MBA program. “Full business professional may not be required in many places, but don’t go too far in the other direction.”
If you are new to an organization or a recent grad just starting out, observe what others are wearing, says Loock. Although many workplaces have become more casual in recent years, there are some industries – banking, accounting, finance, consulting, to name a few – where the dress code is still pretty conservative, regardless of the season. Meanwhile, tech companies, startups, creative marketing agencies are often much more relaxed. “You just really need to look at what makes sense in your organization,” says Loock.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to take your cues, she concedes. If yours is a customer- or client-facing role, for example, you might not have the flexibility to dress more casually. When in doubt, check with HR to see if there are specific dress code policies, or ask your supervisor, particularly if you are early in your career or just getting established in new role, Loock says.
Once you know what attire is appropriate for summer, you still have to get to the office. However you arrive — parking and walking into the building, using Metro and walking a few blocks to the office — you’ll likely endure the heat for at least some of your commute. How do you avoid arriving sweaty?
Choose your fabrics carefully. Go lightweight and breathable, but remember, not all fabrics are created equal. “Linen is always portrayed as a summer fabric, but I think it’s horrible,” says Loock. “It’s not that great for ventilation and it wrinkles so easily that it never looks nice. It automatically gives a very casual look.” Polyester and nylon are bad for breathability and will not be your friend on a sweat-inducing hot day. Skip them (your officemates will thank you). For suits, opt for light wool gabardine or blends rather than a fully lined suit. Cotton is a good choice, and performance sweat-wicking fabrics can work for, say, a polo shirt if that will fly in your office. Beyond office-appropriate Under Armour and Lululemon pieces, some companies (Ministry of Supply, QOR, Betabrand to name a few) offer “performance professional” clothing with the breathability, stretch and feel of athletic apparel but a business tailored look.
Focus on fit. No matter the season, this is the No. 1 rule, so find a good tailor, says Kristen Fanarakis, assistant director at Smith’s Center for Financial Policy and Wall Street veteran who knows how to dress for success. “The most expensive item in the world looks bad if it doesn’t fit well, and a cheap item can look like a million bucks if you have it tailored to fit you properly,” she says. And if you can get away with more casual looks, make sure they are, ahem, “complimentary:” Not too short, too low-cut or too tight, says Loock.
Layer up. To look professional and beat the heat outside while not freezing in the air conditioning inside requires dressing in layers. Grab a jacket or cardigan to throw on when you get to your chilly office. For women, a light scarf offers another layer that can easily be removed, she says. Men who wear ties can stow it in a bag or pocket for the commute and put it on at the office.
Keep an “emergency” kit at the office. Keep an extra sweater or jacket in a go-with-anything color at the office for days when the air conditioning is on full blast or when you suddenly need a more professional look. And keep an extra deodorant in your desk drawer – if you need it, you’ll be glad it’s there.
Don’t get cold feet. While many women’s dress sandals look professional, a closed-toe shoe makes a big difference in keeping your feet warm in over-air-conditioned spaces.
Do men still need socks? Keep them on to stay professional, says Loock, unless everyone at your office is going sockless. Better to err on the safe side.
Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize. Even in buttoned-up corporate environments, you can look “summery” and show your personal style with colorful shoes or jewelry for women, or light-colored patterned shirts, neckties or interesting socks, says Fanarakis.
Flip-flops are a no-go. Does it even need to be said? Your $2 Old Navy flip-flops look great at the beach or the pool, but never the office.