Cleavage Crisis


Are they too sexy or sloppy at your office? Avoid skirting the issue by buttoning up on buttoning down.

By Suzanne Gleason

Few of us can forget the “flip-flop flap” a few years ago, when members of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team shocked the nation by wearing, well, flip-flops for their visit with President Bush at the White House. If, however, you supervise a staff – particularly a youngish one – chances are you didn’t bat an eye. Georgia Donovan, a Bucks County, Pa., image consultant, once saw a woman walk into a telecommunications company cafeteria wearing cutoff shorts, flip-flops and a halter top. “That was her version of business casual for the summer,” Donovan says. “If she’d worked for me, I would have sent her home and docked her pay until she showed up in something presentable.”

Blame it, perhaps, on a culture in which it’s OK to attend the opera in jeans, and the nubile policewomen on TV are hard to distinguish from the hookers they’ve arrested. But somewhere along the line, many twenty- and thirtysomethings began to equate appropriate officewear with straitjackets, fearing that standards of dress would stifle self-expression and creativity. “If I want to flaunt what I’ve got, I’ll do it, and I don’t care if some old-fashioned or overweight female employees can’t handle it,” says Karen Feldman, a 27-year-old junior account executive at a Los Angeles advertising agency who wore hot pants to work last summer. “I do a great job, and that’s all that matters. This is who I am.”

Not so fast, says Barbara Peters, who just retired from her post as chief financial officer at a Seattle architectural firm she helped catapult from $3.3 million to $40 million in revenue in the last decade. “When you accept a job, it’s a given that your paycheck comes with some reasonable expectations, including giving up a small portion of your wardrobe’s individuality,” Peters says. “You may smoke, but you don’t smoke at the office. You may sleep in on weekends, but you get to work by 8. And you may wear tank tops and shorts at home, but not in an office setting. There’s always give and take.”

Michele King, a vice president at the real estate company Trammell Crow, boils it down even further: “I will not promote anyone who doesn’t dress appropriately. I consider it a factor in her decision-making skills.”


What constitutes proper business attire is, admittedly, a delicate and tricky judgment. It’s all about dressing for your clients – and sending a specific message about your personal image and the image of your company. Janine Gordon, president of Janine Gordon Associates, a brand marketing and corporate public relations firm in New York City, notes that hers is an enormously creative business. “If I wore sterile dress-for-success suits and looked like a trust officer, it would belie what I do for a living,” says Gordon, who describes her look as “subtly edgy but tailored chic.” “On the other hand, we work for clients like the Mayo Clinic and the Department of Education, so our appearance does have to instill confidence.”

Sometimes employees go too far, says Donovan, who was hired by a leading New York City auction house to address a staff largely composed of young, edgy, cosmopolitan women. “These women were going to the homes of potential clients to try to get them to consign their multimillion-dollar Picassos or Rembrandts. Many older, more staid New Yorkers were very offended by how these young women and men dressed,” says Donovan. One of these women, a 36-year-old, had accompanied a resident art expert from the auction house to a Park Avenue apartment. She was wearing a very low-cut top, a short skirt, no hose and very high, spindly heels. “When she walked through the door, the potential client, took one look at her and her mouth dropped open,” Donovan says. “She couldn’t believe that somebody representing that company would come to her house looking like that, and felt that this person didn’t have any respect for her or her position.” Clients notwithstanding, overly provocative dress also opens another can of worms that can negatively impact both the women themselves and their male co-workers.

Companies with employees who have frequent client contact or who interface with the public should have a written dress code to which managers and staff can refer, says Leslie Dent, a partner at Paul Hastings law firm who specializes in employment law. The code can be very specific – detailing skirt lengths, hose and closed-toed shoes, for example – or it can be as vague as “professional-looking clothes” and “no sexually provocative attire,” Dent says. A trickier area – and one that does present legal stumbling blocks – is that of religious attire, like hijabs for Muslim women. Says Dent: “At that point you have to work together to strike a balance that accommodates both your company’s needs and your employee’s religious beliefs.”

Evolving with the Times

Striking a dress code balance also means being flexible as fashion evolves. Mercifully, the ’80s “power skirt-suit” with quarterback-sized shoulder pads, for example, is but a distant memory. Stylish jackets, smart suits and elegant, well-designed separates are now workplace staples. Livia Corredor, an attorney, remembers the days of bow ties and “proper” suits with long skirts and jackets. “We have come a long way in the last 20 years,” she says. “I remember how liberating it was the first time a female partner wore a pantsuit. It has to start at the top.” 

Television is another arena that’s seen changes over the years. Jane Skinner, a Fox News anchor and host, had a realization when she recently put on earrings almost 3 inches long. “I thought, ‘Six years ago I never would have worn these chandelier-type earrings on the air,'” she says. “Things have definitely loosened up for women on TV.” Some of the rules remain – such as clean lines and nothing distracting onscreen – but she can now wear sweaters, for instance, instead of the predictable jacket-only wardrobe.

Although fashion evolution can be a good thing, it can also spin out of control, as when the lines began to blur between stylish, professional wardrobe choices and sweatpants or microminis. “It really started with the dot-coms, because people were working in those very relaxed, younger environments,” Donovan says. “The CEO would be coming to work in shorts and a T-shirt.” The trend then filtered into the Top 500 companies, especially in telecommunications, with the advent of casual Fridays. “A denim skirt with a nice blouse became jeans and a T-shirt. There was no more line being drawn about what was ‘casual,’ which to some people could mean a jogging suit.”

Getting Staff to Button Up

Usually a female supervisor is charged with telling other women in the office to button up. And it’s not always easy. Experts suggest making it a business, not personal, issue when discussing an employee’s attire. “A good tack is to tell her that her performance is wonderful and that she should take her wardrobe to the next level as well,” Donovan says. “Point out that you wouldn’t want it to be an obstacle in her getting a promotion.” Like many executives, Janine Gordon will start out with a compliment followed by a direct but tactful suggestion that her employee “dial up the dress.”

When Michele King was working toward a vice president position, her supervisor recommended she upgrade her entire wardrobe. “She told me that to be a VP, you need to dress like a VP,” King says. “Within a week, I had purchased $2,500 worth of new clothing.”

Occasionally, dressing too conventionally can be the drawback. Laurie Jones, managing editor at Vogue, initially had a hard time breaking her habit of conservative suits in favor of something more fashion-forward, and that kept her from feeling completely comfortable at work, despite excelling at the job. Her editor-in-chief suggested she try the sleeveless dresses that were so prevalent at the time. “But I resisted. I didn’t think I’d look good in them,” says Jones, who in the past year lost 20 pounds after a high cholesterol reading scared her onto a low-fat diet. Then, with the help of her style-savvy assistants, she completely rethought her wardrobe, choosing new and more eclectic ensembles that were flattering and chic. “I love pairing easy, bright, tissue-weight T-shirts or fitted cashmere twin sets with knee-length A-line skirts. I feel better and more youthful,” she says, emphasizing how dressing well at Vogue is an occupational obligation. “Vogue is in the business of promoting style and fashion, and we want our staff to reflect what Vogue stands for.”

Humor – used effectively – can go a long way in conveying the message of appropriate workplace attire. When Barbara Peters started out in the banking industry 25 years ago, belted floral dresses with wide white collars were all the rage. “They made you look like a tulip that was opening up,” she says. “My boss and mentor took me aside and told me that if I wanted to be in an ad for Gardening in America magazine, then [I should] continue to dress like that; but if I wanted to advance in the company, I’d better change.” Peters got the message – quickly.

Seasoned businesswoman Kathy Meyer found a creative way of dealing with the awkward task of telling a beloved and extremely buxom employee that her choice of work duds was sending the wrong message. “She was beautiful and wonderful at her job, but she wore these super-tight shirts that clung to her like a second skin,” says Meyer, who handled the task over drinks one night. “We got smashed, and I started talking about how jealous I was that she had boobs and I don’t, which is true, but it was also an easy way to get into the conversation. And she got the message.”

Even in those cases when discussing an employee’s wardrobe malfunction is painful, realize that you’re ultimately doing her a favor. TV anchor Skinner recalls when a colleague was called in by her supervisor to get a more supportive bra. “She didn’t take it very well,” Skinner says. “Who would? But the advice did help her look better on the job.”

To keep advice fair and acceptable to all, messages about employee attire should be consistent, says author, workplace expert and PINK columnist Gail Evans. There’s nothing illegal or inappropriate about telling people that their clothes have to be professional, Evans says, as long as you apply the same standards to everyone.

What to Do: A Checklist

1. Keep a conservative suit in the office for impromptu client meetings.

2. Keep pantyhose and pumps in a drawer for high-level meetings.

3. Check company policy to see what is required.

4. Dress for the job you want.

5. If you’re not sure about the dress code, ask.

6. When advising or being advised, remember it’s business, not personal.

7. Humor may be a useful tool when addressing such concerns with staff.

8. Have a written dress code to which staff can refer.

9. If needed, consult a personal shopper experienced with your industry.

10. See what women wear in other departments or competitive companies.

Cleavage Meter: By Industry

Law. No cleavage recommended. Courts in some states are just now allowing women to wear pantsuits in the courtroom.

Finance. As for cleavage, “I’m a numbers person,” states former CFO Barbara Peters. “I think it would be good to establish a rule for inches of cleavage in the workplace. I say an inch is too much.”

Creative. Some cleavage is OK but not when meeting with clients. Then it’s time to button up and put on a jacket.

Television. Cleavage required for characters with careers: think high-powered TV attorneys and criminologists, and Edie, the sexed-up real estate agent on Desperate Housewives. 

To Hose or Not to Hose?

In general, especially in conservative fields like banking and law, business attire means never baring your legs (or wearing open-toed shoes), but the rule is industry-specific. “If you’re working for a hip recording company, bare legs are probably OK,” says fashion consultant Georgia Donovan, “but I’d say that in most conservative businesses, like banking and law, women have to wear stockings – even in summer.” To Janine Gordon, president of Janine Gordon Associates, it’s age-dependent. “At my agency we have twentysomethings who are so beautiful and put-together that no hose and open-toed shoes look fabulous. They look like beauty editors. If I were doing it, people would wonder why. When you’re fiftysomething, it’s a no-no.”

How High Hemlines?

According to Professional Image Consulting, when you sit down, your skirt shortens three inches. Therefore a skirt that stops around the knee is appropriate for the office. The bottom line – don’t distract. That goes for hair, jewelry or perfume. “Avoid big, fussy hairstyles, arms laden with dangly bangles or scents detected more than 3 feet away,” image consultant Georgia Donovan says. “Keep everything tasteful and simple.” In other words, think of Alexis, Joan Collins’s character on Dynasty, “and then do the opposite.”

This article originally appeared in the February.March 2006 issue of PINK Magazine.

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