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What's Your Holiday Look? Betty Ford or Vamp?

Vivia Chen

December 14, 2011

Katy Perry SNL - © NBC.comOh dear, I hope this isn't too late— because, ladies, I'm hearing that some of you are clueless about what to wear to the office holiday party.

I know, some of you are skipping the shindig, dismissing it as a "staff event." But that's apparently the wrong attitude these days when "teamwork" is all the rage.

So here's the dilemma: You're expected to dress "festively" to spread that corporate holiday cheer, but can you do it in a way that maintains your professional dignity?

And exactly how "festive" should you be? Can you add a Christmas tree pin to your work attire and call it a day? Or should you show more pizzazz—like slipping into a green or red velvet dress? And what about that sequined dress or skirt that's been hanging in your closet—is this finally the time to break it out?

To be honest, I find the whole notion of holiday dressing in any context rather dreadful. To me, people either look too flashy or too matronly--or frequently, an unpleasant amalgam of both. Carol Sabransky, a managing director at Huron Consulting, hits this issue on the head: "I am all for sequins and shiny if it is stylish, but I don't want to end up looking like Betty Ford."

Betty is definitely not the right role model. But looking like a bejeweled exotic dancer isn't right either. So I've gathered some tips to help you find a happy middle ground:

1. Sequins in the right places. "Tasteful sequins are fine, but not on a tight dress that shows off cleavage," says a lawyer at a Fortune 100 company. In other words, it's not the glitter that's the issue—it's where it's sprinkled.

2. Avoid looking like a Christmas theme park (unless you are Katy Perry). One of my pet peeves are Christmas outfits, adorned with frolicking snowmen, reindeer, elves, etc. Despite my personal aversion, I'm told they are quite "acceptable" at some of the suburban in-house holiday parties, where being hokey is not a career impediment.

3. Definitely steer clear of clothes that "light up." Sage advice from TLC Style: "Rethink wearing any clothing that requires batteries or a power source. The blinking Christmas sweater  . . . might seem festive and whimsical when you catch it on a late-night TV shopping network. 'Look! Rudolph's nose lights up! Adorable!' Really? It's a little too much for a work event."

4. No bells or whistles, please. "Jingle bells are a hallmark of the holiday season," says TLC. "However, after a while they're also super-annoying. Please avoid the urge to wear a jingle bell necklace. Bells are cute and festive—but only for a few minutes. . . . Let the Salvation Army Santa Claus ring those bells instead."

So what should you wear to the firm or company holiday party? I'd vote for a simple black dress with a bold necklace. Personally, my favorite--and only "holiday"— jewelry are mismatched ornament earrings.

You don't have to go whole hog on holiday attire, but you should don something festive to "signal to the staff that you want to be there," says Kelly Hoey, a former Sidley & Austin associate, who's slim and tall. Hoey says she's became so fond of glittery things that she even wore skirts covered in sequins to the firm on regular work days.

Hey, if you can carry it off, why shouldn't you sparkle every day?

Related post: "How to Kill the Fun—Party Tips for Law Firms."

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Katy Perry on SNL.


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Alice said it. What condescending crap.

"signal to the staff that you want to be there" Are you kidding? (1) I hate that condescending attitude about "the staff." Where would you be without them? I doubt most lawyers know how to operate the postage meter. (2) The staff couldn't care less about whether or not the attorney wants to be there. They already know who is "naughty and who is nice."

I was struck by the comment "signal to the staff that you want to be there," -

People will know you want to be there by your attitude and how you treat them, not by what you wear.

A party is a party. No need to over-think this one. Either show up because you are willing to put aside whatever issues you have (it's only for one freakin' day of the year - and only a few hours at that) and treat everyone with good cheer and have a good time, or spare everyone your "pain" by staying in your office. People are better off once they realize that the world does not revolve around them.

I agree with you that lawyers should not look vampy at the holiday party. But in my experience (at large and medium size firms in NYC), people really enjoy a bit of hokiness at the holiday party, whether it be a light-up/musical tie, a jingle bell bracelet, or a sweater with a snowman on it. That sort of thing will get you noticed in a good way - people appreciate the holiday spirit. Much better that than getting trashed and telling off a client or partner (a risky move that I've seen a couple people get fired for).

Over twenty years ago, in my early recruiting years, I was enlightened at the end of a holiday season recruiting breakfast when a candidate looking to move pressed a button on the back of his tie. The tie lit up and played Jingle Bells.

Yes, this was precious and probably declasse, but it was also funny and a big part of how this lawyer lives. This lawyer was moving because his firm was largely composed of social elites who judged him as a boor and were not helping him woo clients. They could barely believe he had clients of the stature their firm would want. He did, and he moved with his clients. Several of the firm’s older clients also followed.

Different strokes of just different styles? Either works for me.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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