Why It Matters How Much Skin You Expose in the Workplace


Jill Chivers of Shop Your Wardrobe and I were asked to comment on the question of “how much skin is appropriate to show in the workplace”.  Now we are aware this can be quite a contentious as there will be some wildly differing views on this topic depending on your culture, your work environment, job, age and even religious or moral views.

Because the choice in women’s clothing is much broader than for men (men’s clothes are more limited, no dresses or skirts for example), means women often feel then that their choices for what to wear to work encompass that full range of options, rather than being more aware of the equality between what the men in their workplace may be required to wear and so what is that female equivalent?

Looking towards the upper management to see what the dress code is at that level will give you an idea of what is appropriate in your workplace.

Given that the human eye is attracted to skin, as skin is something we find exciting to look at (that’s why strippers of both genders get undressed, slowly to extend that anticipation and excitement).

Showing a lot of skin can make those around uncomfortable, particularly when it’s not in an environment (such as the beach) where you’d expect to see lots of skin, many people say they just don’t know where to look (as they don’t want to be inappropriate with their gaze).

Clothing in the workplace can work like armour.  This is why Yang (or more authoritative clothing) design details and clothing is in the Classic clothing style (think suits and crisp buttoned-up shirts with collars), versus the more Yin (approachable) clothing styles and details (think relaxed knits and soft fabrics and unstructured styles) are not part of the formal businesswear dress code.

Think about how your clothing communicates (which we’ve talked about in other videos and Jill mentions this book The Language of Clothes), some clothes can be read as the equivalent of swearing.   And so this is why these kinds of clothes are not appropriate at work.

Think about what am I signalling?  What would I like to signal?  Then use your knowledge of Yin and Yang and how clothes communicate to make your clothing choices, including how much skin you choose to show in your workplace.

Take Your Cue from The Men in Your Office

What to wear to work - corporate business dress codeThe easiest way to take your cues on what is acceptable in your workplace is to look at what the men’s dress code is.

If a man is wearing a suit, he’s completely covered except for his face and hands. The female equivalent is dress pants or a skirt down to the knees, closed to shoe, and shoulders covered.

What to wear to work - relaxed businessIf a man is wearing a polo shirt, then a sleeveless dress and an open sandal may be appropriate (OHS requirements withstanding).

What to wear to work - casual businessWe are all reading clothes all the time (whether you realise you’re doing it or not).  This is why costume design is such an important part of any movie or tv show. And it’s fascinating to read about just how much those clothes are altered to fit the actor (makes you realise that alterations should be a part of every garment purchasing decision).


How to Express the Right Message Whilst Flattering Your Body Shape

Why Actors Wear Costumes

If You Were a Character in a Movie What Would You Wear?

How to Put Together a Corporate Wardrobe on a Budget

Understanding the Power of Colour in Your Wardrobe

How You Can Use Colours to Communicate For You

Why It Matters How Much Skin You Expose in the Workplace


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  • You nailed it! Thank you for articulating the dangers of showing too much skin and the cues to leverage for what’s appropriate. Really well done.

  • This is always an interesting topic… oh Imogen the things I have seen !
    I have seen the shortest skirts, the tightest tops, revealing cleavages, I don’t even know where to begin.
    It’s an issue with Human Resources department as its very touchy subject to address.

  • You nailed it, Imogen! And you are so right that this topic can be so contentious! I’ve unfollowed a couple of sites on Facebook due to the inflammatory posts & discussions about this topic – it seems that some people feel any regulation of dress code is sexist. They forget that old adage, “There’s a time & a place for everything” & also that dress code generally applies to men as well as women.

  • This is an excellent discussion – thank you ladies. I loved how you mentioned how costume designers communicate where the character is in the plot using clothes – proving how what we wear communicates.

  • When I saw this pop up in my inbox, I came in ready for a fight, I was sure it was going to be some sexist dribble about the sight of a woman’s arms distracting the men in the room.

    But, it wasn’t. And, it got some gears turning in my head about how my workplace attire may not necessarily command respect.

  • I wish I could send this to my teenage daughter without angering her. As a manager I have had an employee cry when I had to talk to her about wearing stretchy tight-fitting leggings not covered by her top. And not hired a very promising candidate because of her exposing deep cleavage and torn jeans at an interview. But what if men at work wore pants so tight that it exposed the contour of their groin area? And shirts unbuttoned 3 buttons, exposing their chests? It would be most unwelcome in my view. I love it that you made this connection.

    • Feel free to share this post Amanda as it coming from a 3rd party may help to take away some emotion. I know it’s such a tricky topic and I think because of the casualisation of clothing these days (in the old days when we all wore suits this was never an issue) the younger generations just haven’t grown up understanding what to wear and why covering up is more appropriate at work.

  • I’m so glad you did cover this topic, Imogen. I hope to see fewer women reacting with outrage at the idea of appropriate clothing for the workplace that reflects a similar level of coverage as men. Newscasters (in the US anyhow) are a dismaying example: the men in suits and jackets, and the women in tight, sleeveless dresses. The message is very, very clear, and THAT is sexism.

  • In my opinion, it would be great if Imogen’s invaluable dress code lessons could be put in textbook format and taught at girls’ schools in Year 12. I wish I knew this when I started work at the bank as a teenager ! I once turned up at work in a dark tailored suit but paired with black lace stockings (they were wildly trendy circa 1986). I was puzzled as to why my colleagues shared smiles behind my back…

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