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Whoa – this isn't Girls Gone Wild

By now, you probably know whether your company has decided to proceed with the office holiday party.

If elbow-rubbing with fellow employees has been postponed, perhaps you're feeling a sense of relief. No social land mines to avoid, no regrettable moments to relive the next day until the end of time.

But in the spirit of the season, many businesses will still throw a bash. And now is hardly the time to be flippant about work-related festivities. Giving careful consideration to what you wear is as important as knowing when you need to be cut off from the bar.

The office holiday party (henceforth known as the OHP) is an opportunity to make an impression about who you are personally within professional parameters. Apply this to your attire and immediately rule out anything that would embarrass you at work.

"I don't think the office holiday party is a place to show a different side of yourself," says Deborah Mecklinger, a Toronto-based professional coach, lawyer and social worker. "I think it's a place to mingle socially as a dressed-up version of yourself at work."

In other words, "If there was to be a brochure made using photos from the holiday party, I think everyone should feel okay with that. It shouldn't look like Girls Gone Wild."

This does not mean that women must look buttoned-up or conservative. The OHP is the perfect occasion to bring out the higher heels or an extra touch of makeup. The dress that does double duty for day and night can be accessorized with jewellery or paired with a sheerer pair of stockings. For men, simply being well-groomed will help send the right message.

The biggest problem, according to Ms. Mecklinger, is that people don't give the same weight to the image they are projecting at the OHP as they do at a board meeting. "What's appropriate to wear may be different, but the consciousness should be the same."

Toronto image consultant Wendy Natale notes that OHPs may be less of an extravaganza in this economic climate. Because the gathering may be an extension of the workday, she recommends that people bring what they need to the office. Men should change into a crisp, fresh dress shirt and can opt to go tieless or put on a bowtie. (Yes, they're back, in an un-ironic, hipster way.) Pearls, cuff bracelets, anything vintage and dressier footwear will transcend from cubicle to cocktails. "Definitely wear something that is understated and elegant to begin with," she says.

One note about high heels: They look fabulous, but don't dismiss the comfort factor. OHPs typically require a lot of standing, and you don't want sore feet to be a handicap.

For those who want to buy a new outfit, stores such as Zara and Club Monaco offer a suitably chic statement on a budget. Look for pieces that can be mixed in with your existing wardrobe or amortized over several parties; that way, paying $139 for a gold metallic skirt or $199 for a men's jacket (current prices at Club Monaco) can be justified.

And remember that in a recession, looking too sloppy or too sexy are not the only potential OHP outfit errors. Anything flashy could be construed as insensitive, while laziness may be the biggest mistake of all. Translation: Being stylish will not save you from being laid off, but putting effort into your appearance could be perceived as caring about your job, which could buy you some time if the decision is between you and someone else.

Speaking of someone else, if you bring a date, make sure he or she is briefed on any dress code. For example, the CEO's wife would be wise to keep the major jewels in the safe, Ms. Mecklinger says, especially if there's a noticeable difference between this year's spring rolls and last year's rack of lamb.

And hotness should be restrained. Or else, Ms. Natale says, it suggests disrespect to your date and ego to your colleagues. "You become the 'It person' of the party. The next day, that's what everyone is talking about when what you really want to be talking about is what a good time you had and how fortunate you are to have a job."

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© 2023 Deborah Mecklinger LL.B., M.S.W