Dress For Success Scott Reeves, 04.12.06, 1:30 PM ET NEW YORK - Paris Hilton may be everyone's favorite airhead, but you don't want to dress like her at the office. And face it, guys: That muscle T-shirt doesn't flatter your teddy-bear tummy. But in the age of "Dress Down Friday" and Internet Frump, what's appropriate to wear to work? At many companies, there are no carved-in-stone rules, so when in doubt, go traditional. "The most basic mistake new employees make is underdressing," says Randall Hansen, a professor of business at Stetson University in Deland, Fla. "If unsure, dress conservatively. The best way to avoid a problem is to understand the corporate culture." Click here for seven things you need to know about dressing for the office. That's a polite way of saying that a button-down company won't appreciate your showing up for work in cutoffs and flip-flops, while a crunchy-granola outfit will think you're nuts if you sit at your desk in a three-piece suit. Making the right impression at work isn't hard if you keep in mind three basic points when buying clothes for the office: 1. Presentation counts. 2. Casual shouldn't mean slovenly. 3. Dress as you want to be seen: Serious, professional, upward-bound and ready to meet clients. Before you head to Talbots, Saks, Macy's—a subsidiary of Federated Department Stores—or your friendly Army-Navy surplus store in search of new clothes, size up your office. If you want to be a manager, check out what the successful managers wear. Next, check out the rising stars in the office. Here's betting they don't show up for work in their weekend grubs. If your office has a written dress code, your problems are solved, and you can dress cookbook- style. If necessary, go shopping with the dress code in hand and pluck appropriate stuff from the rack. But many offices don't have written standards, and it's up to you to get it right. So, here's a rule of thumb: Understated elegance beats flash and trash five days a week. That means men shouldn't dress like aspiring rock stars, and women should shun the Paris Hilton look. For men who still furnish their apartments in Undergraduate Chic, traditional attire includes: —A button-down shirt. —Polished black shoes. —A blue, black or gray jacket. —Slacks that complement the jacket. —You can't go wrong with a conservative tie. (Alas, this rules out pink flamingoes, hula dancers and anything to do with sports.) —Don't forget the socks. Here's a hot tip for fashion-impaired Y-chromosome types everywhere: buy two dozen pairs of identical black or blue socks so you can pluck two at random from your drawer each morning and always have a match. There is some slack in the grand scheme of things. Blue and white shirts have been around since time began, or so it seems, but there's also room for the occasional yellow, pink or (if you're an aspiring poet) black shirt. However, if you don't know what you're doing, stick with blue and white shirts, because otherwise you're almost certain to step in it. For women, the traditional look includes: —A skirt that hits just above the knee, slacks and perhaps pantsuits. —Simple jewelry. —Just a hint of makeup. Skip the perfume, especially during a job interview or the first few days at a new job. If you use perfume thereafter, go easy on the saucy splash behind the ears, because you can bet that some grump or hyper-sensitive soul will complain bitterly about headache, nausea or a general outbreak of the fantods. (See "How To Work For An Idiot.") —Polished flats or moderate heels. —Sweaters. —Pantyhose may be the office standard. Ask. Keep an eye out for regional differences; what's standard in the Northeast may be seen as stuffy and impractical in the Southwest. Remember that you're not dressing to attract attention at a rowdy bar while guzzling Anheuser- Busch, Molson Coors Brewing or Boston Beer—you're dressing to underscore your professionalism and competence. Some young workers don't understand the difference and damage their careers. Getting it right is especially crucial when interviewing for a job or sitting down to a new one. Overcoming a bad first impression is as difficult as un-ringing a bell. (See "Hitting A Job Interview Home Run.") "Many recent college grads just have no understanding of a professional wardrobe," Hansen says. "Up to that point in their lives, extra money has been spent on party clothes. Some think because they look attractive when going out, the same clothes will work in a job interview." Here's a gentle reminder, gentlemen, brought to you by a seasoned interviewer: If you borrow a jacket for an interview, make sure it fits. If it's three sizes too large, you'll look like a miniature person; if it's too small, you'll look lost without your mother. Non-verbal cues can speak volumes, especially to a job interviewer. (See "Is Body Language Betraying You In Job Interviews?") When starting a new job, remember that you're being sized up all the time. Little things count. How you dress will tell the boss how you see yourself and how you approach the job. Some people, especially young workers, overlook this basic point, flub it and wonder why what seemed like a promising opportunity turned sour. (See "Job Hunting Tips From Recruiters.") You want to be noticed for the quality of your work—not the horrible miscalculation of your duds or what you think is a glorious bod. It's better to overdress on your first day at a new job. If you dress too formally, you can count on the critter in the next cubicle poking you in the ribs and saying, "Nice outfit, but it's not necessary unless you're calling on clients." That beats the boss thinking that the surplus store is your tailor or, worse, that you don't take the job seriously. Rule of thumb: Always dress for the task at hand. If you're a civil engineer headed for a construction site, jeans, a flannel shirt and work boots are fine, but that's not how to dress when making a formal presentation to the grand pooh-bahs at the office. Believe it or not, otherwise intelligent people are remarkably dumb about this basic point. Appearance can create credibility. You know this from your own experience watching TV food- fight shows focusing on politics and other chin-pulling topics. Think of the number of times experts from opposing sides of an issue have made good points during an exchange, but you remember what one said simply because that person was better dressed and came across better on screen. As usual, Mark Twain said it best: "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society." Do not go naked (or inappropriately dressed) into that good night.