Ask the Image Expert

Sherry Maysonave is the founder and president of Empowerment Enterprises, one of America's leading communication-image firms. Sherry conducts corporate seminars and coaches executives, professionals, and politicians in achieving excellence in communication and image. She is also the author of Casual Power: How to Power Up your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success

Blouse Dress Code

Question: I hope you can help! I am the Human Resources Manager for a labor organization. I just completed a Business-Casual dress code policy with the help of members from both unions. It has been a tough battle to say the least. One question has come up regarding the way women should wear their tops, tucked in or out. It seems that some of the younger females want to wear their shirts out even though they have what I call a shirt-tail hem (rounded tails). They tell me the shirt is designed to wear out or tucked in. They hit right below the waist line and fit closer than a blouse would. They also like to wear them with a tank underneath with a skirt or pants and either leave the top shirt unbuttoned or button 3-4 buttons from the bottom so that the tank top is seen. I have told them that this is not a professional look for the office. Their argument is that this is the "look" and can be found on various websites in the "career section" so it must be acceptable. Then I have the problem with a couple of females who are overweight and they also like to wear a shirt underneath and a blouse on top and not tucked in. The difference I see is the outside blouse is truly a blouse/jacket type and is quite long and looks nicer and more professional than the shorter tops. I would greatly appreciate any advice you can give me.

Answer: Although the problem sounds complex, it’s actually quite simple. Blouses or tops that are made to wear out (not tucked in) do not have shirttail hems. While shirttail hems are rounded up on the sides as the typical man’s shirt is, blouse styles made to wear out are hemmed straight across just as a tailored jacket is. If they vary from a straight hem around the bottom, it is a design feature, such as small slits on the side or an inverted v-shape in the front.

I understand that it is a problem that manufacturers and retailers (including e-commerce sites) position this type of inventory as career wear and as appropriate to wear on the outside of your skirts and pants. But, it is irrelevant to your dress policy. Your company can legally require tops to be tucked in or not. Using the criteria described above, you can make the distinction in your dress policy that shirt-tail hems are not allowed to be worn on the outside, saying that those styles must be tucked in by women, just as a man’s shirt must be.

Dress codes must be enforced uniformly. Legally, you cannot allow tops with longer shirttail hems to be worn out and disallow the shorter versions. You can legally state that all shirttail hem tops must be tucked in, not worn on the outside, as that look is too casual for the image your company wants to portray. And that look is considered exceptionally casual.

Ironically, many designers, clothing manufacturers, and retailers do not understand (or care about) this concept. In their drive to sell their merchandise, covering as many categories as possible, they mislead the consumer. For example, a few years back Victoria Secrets marketed tube tops, low-cut tanks, and lacy boustiers as “Career Wear” that could be worn under blouses, suit jackets, etc. Perhaps one could wear them for work in the beauty and fashion industry, but they’re not appropriate to wear for main stream business.

A layered look can be appropriate for business, but generally the tailored styles that work best do not include low-cut tank tops. This is a popular look for young women, but it is social or leisure attire, not proper business wear. If you allow tank tops, you invite cleavage problems, which means more policing for your managers. In addition, if you allow this look for women, it opens the door for men to wear their shirts unbuttoned when wearing the scooped-neck muscle shirts underneath (revealing chest hair and/or muscles). This look is also popular for young men, at least according to some retailers. While it may be acceptable for someone just hanging out with friends, it does not fly in an office or regular business environment.

Stick to your guns. You will do these young women a huge favor. By helping them learn distinctions on professionalism, you will help them be more successful in the long term. Fashion often butts heads with professionalism. The savvy woman serious about her career learns to integrate parts of current fashion into her look without sabotaging herself.

Best of luck,
Sherry Maysonave

Also see:

  • I recently accepted a position in the office of the University President. This summer I have worn skirts and tops - but sometimes I feel underdressed without a suit jacket. Are suits required in an office like this?
  • The law firm I work for just adopted business casual dress policy. What should I wear?
  • Ask your image questions
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