Men’s style – what not to wear at work

posted in: Style advice | 13

Warning! This is a very opinionated post. I am suggesting rules on what men should never wear to work. You can say “mind your own business”, or “what does she know?”.  If you worked really hard you maybe able to show me an acceptable, stylish version of each of these “rules” being broken. But Fit and Flare is meant to make you laugh, think and question rather than requiring obedience. You choose what you wear. All I can do is indicate how it might be received.

A short sleeved shirt (and especially not with a tie)

short sleeved shirt with tie
Short sleeves with a tie

This man is an actor in the satirical programme The Office (US version), but wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie is far from funny. You can see this look in offices around the country – especially in finance teams. I really hate short sleeved shirts on men in the workplace. I associate this look with men in the housebuilding industry who live in the “home counties” and have non-working wives who pack for them. What is the point? To stop your cuffs dangling in industrial processes? To keep cool when the AirCon fails? I find it faintly indecent, especially when the man has hairy arms. I will admit short sleeves, perhaps in linen, look fine at weekends and on holiday (without a tie, obviously), and I accept that T shirts and Polo shirts have short sleeves. But for work, in my opinion, shirts should not only have full length sleeves, but should also ideally have double (French) cuffs, with tasteful cufflinks (see below). If you really cannot stomach the double cuffs then single cuffs are fine. Another alternative, if it is summer, is that you can carefully fold up your long sleeves to make a short sleeve.

Man with long sleeves folded up to make short sleeve
Folded short sleeve

Wearing a suit that is too small, or too big

Why does someone as famous, rich and good looking as Daniel Craig wear a teeny-tiny suit? It is two sizes too small. The shoulders, torso, sleeves are too tight, and it is also a little short. Believe me, wearing clothes that are too small for you doesn’t make you look slim. Skin tight clothes are not sexy – they make you look fatter than you are. And I have no idea why Daniel  felt the need to wear a waist coat. It is not adding anything except more bulk to under the poor solitary button. He can hardly be feeling the cold.

It is not a bad suit in itself although I would have put him in a lighter tie (green, blue or pink) given his generally light-cool look.

James Bond in a small suit
Your suit’s too small Daniel

But although a too-small suit is faintly ridiculous, a too-large one is clownish. What was he doing? He looks like he is wearing someone else’s clothes – a boy in a men’s sizing. Or perhaps he is dieter of the year and is wearing his “before” outfit. But no, this man is a serious sports commentator on US TV, and there is no explanation for this outfit at all, except that he enjoys lots of “room” in his trousers. The trousers would have hit the floor if he didn’t have his hands in his pockets to hitch them up. The colour and accessories are nice.

Man in over large suit
Your suit’s too big Keith

Getting a suit in the right size is not rocket science. Measure your chest, waist and leg length or ask the assistant to do it for you. Jackets and trousers are available in a variety of sizes and lengths off the peg. The most important place for the fit for a man is across the shoulders. Bear in mind that men with broad shoulders and an angular look need a different cut (Continental) to straight (English) and contoured (American) figures. Buy the shape that suits your shape. If the sleeves are too long then pay for an alteration.

Trousers that are too long or too short


man with black shoes and navy trousers that are too long
Trousers are too long

Wearing trousers that are too long is the look I see most often in the workplace. Men buy the longer leg believing themselves taller than they really are.  Then they just leave them, thinking they will make them look taller. Wrong. Baggy pants and pools of fabric at floor level just look silly, and actually emphasise your lack of stature. Buy the right size and have them taken up so that they break on your shoes in the proper way.

Sepia picture of men's shoes, socks and too short trousers
Too short (but increasingly fashionable)

Trousers that are too short is becoming a bit of a fashion statement. Women have been doing it for years (Capri pants, or 7/8 length). It can look OK so long as it is deliberate and paired with the right shoes, and no socks. If you are tall and your trousers are just short because that is how they come off the production line you will  look like an overgrown school boy, ie a bit sad. Get a long pair from a specialist outfitter if you are 6’6” or whatever.

Clunky shoes with a suit

Please. If you wear a suit for work wear a conservative pair of shoes with it. Brogues or Oxfords caps are nice. Laced up and elegant. Don’t wear a shoe that looks like a weekend walking shoe or anything remotely like sixth form wear from Tuff or Bata. Steer clear of square toes, elastic, slip ons, velcro, thick soles that protrude etc. Just keep it neat, tidy, polished and unobtrusive.

Black, elasticated sides, clumpy men's shoes
Clunky shoes


Anything grubby

Good grooming is essential. Dandruff, dirty clothes, unkempt, overlong hair, dirty finger nails, shoes that need attention, stains, unpressed pants, smelly jackets. No, no, no. Most men need their hair cutting every six weeks. Suits need taking to the dry cleaners after around 20 wears. If you have an outdoor jacket or coat that you travel in have it cleaned. If you have weekend jackets or outdoor wear that can’t go in the washing machine they will need dry cleaning too.

Columbo in an old mac
Dirty detective

Anything frayed

I know men hang on to their well loved items. Below is a shirt that my husband has had for at least 20 years. He won’t part with it. What can I do? But it must not be worn on formal occasions, and ideally just for gardening. Check you don’t have any wear and tear on your collar or cuffs. Pulls on your tie mean “dusty bin” please. Any holes or any shabbiness, shiny trousers or worn hems – just put them out with the rubbish – the charity shop doesn’t want them either!

Blue denim shirt with frayed collar
Badly frayed collar (and cuffs)

A matching set

How hard is it to match your tie with your shirt? Not that hard. Matching a tie with a shirt and a suit is about the only act of creativity allowed to men at work. Choosing the right colour, and matching patterns when relevant is what stylish dressing is all about. Make the choice so it expresses you personality. Personality that doesn’t come out of a box on a market stall, or from M&S. Therefore don’t buy, or give, a shirt and tie combo to your son, dad or partner. These items are just horrible. Imagine feeling obliged to wear one of these sets. Just say no. I suspect “gift sets” are made to appeal to mother’s who feel their son needs a bit of help. The ties are invariably made of Polyester as well, which brings me to my next rule.

Four shirt and tie sets
Matching sets

Never wear polyester work wear

This fabric is entirely unsuitable for suits, ties or jerseys. You are looking for wool, silk, cashmere, merino or cotton. End of. This suit is from Primark and only cost £35. It’s not funny. It will produce static, it will make you sweat and will be identified as cheap and nasty by everyone who sits near you.

Grey suit from Primark £35
Primark suit £35

Wearing a belt and shoes in different colours

This photograph is truly horrible. The trousers are too high in the waist, the shirt cuff looks stupid, the shoes are clunky and to top it all the shoes and belt don’t match. If you suit deep or brighter shades black accessories are great. Otherwise brown (deep for cooler colouring, yellow- or red-brown for warm) is better. You don’t need both. That way if you get dressed in the dark or a hurry you can be assured that your shoes and belt will match. And the buckle should not be obtrusive or clunky. Thank you.

Brown belt with black shoes
Brown belt with black shoes

A tie that is too long or too short

OK, this is a joke picture, but the schools round here are full of young people who make their ties ridiculously short as a rebellious statement against the wearing of school uniform. Many men get this wrong and I see versions of it daily. Your tie should end at about your waist, where you belt should be.

Your tie is too long
Your tie is too long

Doing up all the buttons on your suit jacket

Young men, and men who lack confidence do this a lot. They think well this jacket has two/three/four buttons – what are they here for but for doing up. Wrong! With a two button suit, just the top one. With a three the two top, or middle only. And in most settings you can undo the button when you sit down. With a dinner suit (tuxedo) or double-breasted keep it done up. The man below reminds you of  a hotel receptionist doesn’t he?

Grey suit with three buttons done up
Three buttons done up

Anything “amusing”

I absolutely hate the idea of socks, ties, cummerbunds (yes, really), bow ties, jumpers with something “novel” on them. The only thing funny about these items is that some people think they are meant to be worn. They are just a joke like the one in the Christmas cracker. Smile and put in the bin when you clear up on Boxing day. While, luckily, most men understand this, there are some men who wear these items thinking their kids will love them more. If you really want to wear your My little Pony socks, or a Dopey tie, you can wear them at weekends, but please don’t go out in them.

Which brings me to cuff links. I like a double cuff, even on women. I think they look distinguished and polished. But they are not that common. Men who wear them occasionally panic because they don’t have any cuff links. Except maybe a pair that say Hot and Cold and look like a tap. Or maybe rugby balls, or union jacks or  batman masks. These hateful items are given to the best man at your wedding or by work “mates” in the Secret Santa game. Also in this category are any items that crafty wives have loving made – pottery cufflinks or hand painted ties, and jumpers (as a rule). So if you want to wear a double-cuff shirt then you need to also buy some nice plain cuff links. In gold or silver to go with your colouring and watch. Or vintage can be nice. The silk knot type are OK at a push, as are homemade button ones. Here you sew together two very nice vintage or great quality pearl buttons, with a strong button thread and blanket stitch (like a loop for a hook and eye).

90% of cuff links are unacceptable
90% of cuff links are unacceptable
3 Christmas Novelty ties
Novelty ties

A plastic watch with a digital dial or similar

Oh my – who would wear one of these to work? Or even at weekends? You would be surprised – I see them most days. Adolescent, cheap and geeky – popular with IT teams and people who do retro. Wear a leather strap to match your shoes and belt (ie brown or black). Men have so few chances to make any style choices so a nice watch is good idea. You don’t need to know the time to the nearest tenth of a second, or a luminescent screen.

Black plastic digital watch
Plastic digital watch

13 Responses

  1. @theSohoMod

    Kate you are so funny, what a scream! I read it dreading finding myself in your comments – phew none applied. I agree with all of those points and never understand when I see people making those errors – especially the non-fitting points. I read all the blogs they are really interesting – Joe

  2. Kate Dodsworth

    Don’t worry John. The media does it for us on a daily basis so busy male CEOs don’t need to! Kate – novelty accessories and ties with short sleeved shirts. Yes! Simpsons, Garfield and musical notes some of my faves.

  3. Kbenco

    I love it! Thanks for the giggles. I do think though, that appropriate professional wear varies by location and by which professionals you are considering.
    You have just vindicated my husband, who works in health, where long sleeves are not suitable for hygiene (arms can be washed at work – sleeves not). He only wears long sleeved shirts, and carefully rolls them up the instant he gets to work.
    Re the bow tie – my husband wears no tie – hygiene again, but one of our best dressed colleagues feels that tielessness is unprofessional and invariably wears a bow tie, for hygiene, not silliness. I think he looks quite smart. Dangling a tie on a patient is rather unprofessional in addition to being an infection risk.
    Unfortunately, elastic sided R.M.Williams boots are considered the height of masculine elegance by the local conservative rural Australian professional males, so the professional work wear in our country town would be a fail by your standards ;)- even the lawyers wear them with their serious suits to court. My husband has both brown and black, but I promise he never wears the wrong coloured belt 😉
    Your archive photos are nice to see, how interesting to hear about your workplace’s beginnings.

    • fabrickated

      Thanks Karen for such an interesting comment. I never knew why gynaecologists wore bow ties! It’s obvious now you explain. And yes, cultural context is everything. Once saw a man on the tube in a Bermuda shorts suit that was just embarrassing, whereas in Bermuda he would have looked just fine.

  4. Karine

    Thanks Kate for this great post. I live in a hot and humid place. One of our local politicians tried to start a trend in wearing suits with short sleeves. Imagine a suit with the sleeves cut above the elbow! Dreadful.

  5. Joyce

    Terrific post………and your strongly opinionated posts are most favorite! – in fact, that’s why I follow your blog. I love the strength and confidence in your writer’s voice. However, I don’t believe everything I read, and always factor in where it’s coming from. I think you have a very educated opinion, and so I always look forward to what you have to say.
    Now, what do we do with Husbands that don’t listen!! Mine is the worse….he won’t do what I say, nor invest any money in this area…and he knows all about first impressions. Something else is over riding his decision making in this area…. Honestly, it drives up my frustration level…….till I just have let it go! — has been going on for years :~ (

    The other day I watched a family head off to an important event, and the Father was wearing those Way Too Long Pants— what are they trying to say with that? I’m only wearing these dress pants once, so forget about it? or I’m so busy making money, no time to get them into the tailor. I have read that short sleeve shirts imply “labour” and therefore should not be worn by businessmen.
    Thank-you Kate for the food for thought post…keep em coming.

  6. Stephanie

    I’m still laughing! I am very opinionated myself (but in gentle spirit) and so I like opinionated posts. It’s much more interesting to be honest and forthright than the opposite.

    At least 80% of Canadian male professionals would be judged wanting by your list. The big thing that my best friend (who is German but who has lived in Canada for fifteen years) has always noticed is that Canadian men almost always wear suits that are too large, especially in the shoulders. They also have never met a leather bomber jacket that is two sizes too large that they didn’t love. Most of my colleagues also wear shoes of the clunky variety that you so dislike, even with a suit, although we do have one reasonable excuse in the weather here… I even have one colleague who is a very grave offender in that he not only wears short-sleeved shirts, tight to the body, but he wears shirts meant for running (also skin tight) in the office with his dress pants. I often have to avert my eyes from the horrible spectacle! I won’t even tell you in detail about the attire of my male colleagues at the national statistical agency where I once worked, but let the mention of Bermuda shorts and flip flops suffice…Shiver!

    Gianni is very fussy about his clothes and way more knowledgeable than I am. His father was an old-school Italian doctor and so was always very dapper. Right until the end they made sure to dress him with great elegance, as he would have wanted. Gianni has one Achilles heel though in that he is very fond of his old jeans from university. They have holes in the inseam and his mother repeatedly argues with him about throwing them out but he insists on wearing them from time to time. Otherwise though he is impeccable and won’t even permit me to crease his pants! 🙂 Oh and did I mention that he buys me nice shoes, without me asking?

    Oh and I agree about double cuffs. Was just looking at a pattern for a women’s shirt with them!

    • fabrickated

      Bomber jackets! Well I didn’t even think of them, but they don’t seem to fit anyone very well. I often see them way too short, finishing above the waist. I have noticed that Italian, French and Spanish men usually wear fairly formal leather shoes with their jeans rather than the range of “comfy” trainers and sports shoes Brits and American’s wear. And I love to watch Italian men pick up their trouser legs as they run up steps rather than get them grubby. So I suppose that Gianni’s jeans are to some extent a reaction to that.

  7. Stephanie

    You make a good point about bomber jackets. Gianni tends to wear more casual sport shoes, because of biomechanical issues, but he is very picky about style and colour. They are always in muted shades of blue or brown. The jeans are quite funny, but with any pants he is also very fussy about the hems. He’s a laboratory scientist, or at least he usually is, so his clothing choices are influenced by his work. (Kbenco’s comments are very interesting in this regard.) I find it fascinating to see the care he takes when he gets dressed to go to the theatre though.

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