From Sunday Life
Is office appropriate style a matter of your age or just common sense? Dressing for work has never been more fraught, but as Natalie Reilly says, getting it right is as vital as ever.It was a Friday in 2006 when my co-worker, and Generation Y touchstone, Georgina asked me, "Is that your SFO?"
"My what?" I asked, moving towards her like a nursing-home resident.
"Your Sexy Friday Outfit," she continued. "The one you wear on a Friday so you can wear it out afterwards."
I looked down at my black dress and realised that I had put on my SFO that morning. I hadn't meant to - there was no plunging neckline, no thigh-high naughtiness, and yet it was fitted enough to warrant a level of control underwear that may be described as "uterus crushing".
Georgina went on to explain that she first heard the acronym at her boyfriend's taxation firm. I wondered quietly if the definition of sexy would be the same for a bunch of number crunchers as for, say, the creative types at an advertising business. Because every office culture has its own version of what's hot, what's not and what is downright inappropriate. And with so many different job descriptions, key performance indicators and covert rules, it's sometimes difficult to discern where the trend slips into the tawdry: exactly when does an SFO become NSFW (not suitable for work)?
The thing is, times have changed and fashion - like everything else - has become hyper-sexualised.
Consider the Versace safety-pin dress that Liz Hurley wore to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Deemed controversial in 1994, it would scarcely register an online grunt today. Britney Spears' bare midriff fades into a blur of bland trash when one remembers Lady Gaga's nipple pasties. Former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld recently proclaimed that she invented "porn chic" - and she was famed for her racy styling before taking the job in 2001.
So what may have been considered tarty not 50 but only 15 years ago, is now, in the right context, merely fashionable - and, of course, that affects the office.
Those wondering if my control underwear has cut off the supply of oxygen to my brain should take a look at leopard print and black lace, because they're both regarded as demure daywear this season. I wear them to work, although not at the same time. Who's to tell me it's a no-go? Not the human resources department, who, when I note the number of Liz Hurley-style necklines, appear to be decidedly hands-off on the whole issue. Not my manager - far too awkward.
I have learnt my lesson from 2006 and believe that the solution, dear frenemies, is simple: you take your cues from the bug-eyed judgments of other people.
Oh, go ahead and cast the first stone! You may not have verbalised your disapproval when you saw Penny squeezed into a strapless number, two sizes too small for her frame - but you were thinking it. Where do you look when you see Brie, who believes that leggings are a legitimate form of pants, or Tania, who would swear on the designer's life that her shirt dress is a real dress and not just a shirt with a belt wrapped around it? What about Christy, who can't understand what all the fuss is about; she wore her satin playsuit to a two-hatted restaurant just last week, so why not the office?
It's difficult, too, to convey a universal message of modesty when the standards around what's appropriate for members of one generation don't hold for another age group. But the terms "youth" and "inappropriate work attire" don't always go hand in hand. Once a middle-aged woman endured a wardrobe malfunction in a meeting after leaning too far forward - right in front of me. I think I coped quite well from what I remember, which is to say that I compulsively whispered the word "areola" over and over again until the scene righted itself.
And what of minor misdemeanours? What about this writer, who frequently reddens at the faux admiration of "I don't know how you walk in those!" regarding the height of my heels?
Of course, strict corporate dress codes are not to be taken lightly and they still exist in the upper echelons of business. But cast an eye around some video-conference link-ups and you'll find a ladylike Prada suit set off by a Dita Von Teese-inspired fishnet stocking - a sort of sartorial version of the mullet: up top it's business, but look down and it's party time. Serious, pole-dancing party time.
See? Even subtle diversions from the corporate uniform don't escape judging eyes. It's a sad fact of office life that intellect is often thought to be inversely proportional to the height of one's heels or the length of one's skirt (especially if it's leather). It doesn't matter what rung of the corporate ladder you're on - if you wear high heels often enough or gush over another woman's outfit one too many times, you run the risk of being dismissed as a frivolous female.
My own heels are worn four out of five days and many's the time I've had to drop casually, "And wasn't last night's Q&A riveting!" in a loud voice in order to restore credibility with my fellow journalists.
And I accept that, as anyone who delights in judging Julia Gillard knows, your clothes tell the world who you are. And this is important to remember when you're interacting with people who don't really know you at all. Mark Twain was right, clothes do make the man - clothes, and the occasional well-timed reference to the Libyan conflict. Well, okay, that's probably unfair - it's not so much a "conflict" now as a war, isn't it?
And for those men ready to dismiss this phenomena as "girl stuff" - those gents who believe they are safe in their shiny suits and garish ties or deep-V T-shirts (God forbid, with writing on them) exposing their bejewelled chests - may I paraphrase Naomi Wolf, who warned at the end of The Beauty Myth that men should care very deeply about how women are judged for one important reason: if you're not already feeling it, you can be sure you guys are next.
Follow Life&Style on Twitter @Life_Style_News