Reader Request: Prettifying Pantsuits


Reader Kristen dropped me an e-mail with this request:

I work in an INCREDIBLY professional environment. Typical workwear is a pants suit or separates with fun jewelry and shoes. Over the holidays, we don’t have to dress quite as extreme, so I had fun wearing different sweaters/pants combos that would normally be reserved for Fridays only. I would love some ideas on how to jazz up a pants suit or work separates.

I am not a suit-wearer myself, so I had to really use my imagination for this one. Then again, Kristen knew that, so I’m hoping she was simply seeking a fresh perspective! Many of things you can do to spice up your work-wear will totally clash with the clean, classic vibe of a pantsuit. But I dreamt up a few simple tricks that might add a bit of panache without getting too casual, and hope you eternally creative folks can throw in a few more suggestions.

  • Scarves: SO many ways to incorporate a colorful patterned scarf into a suit! Tuck it into the breast pocket and just let it peek out. Wear it like an ascot, tucked inside the collar of your button-down. Drape it over one shoulder and secure with a brooch.
  • Unusual blouses: Even if you’re not a fan of the ruffled confections that J.Crew offers, you can still spice up a suit with a gorgeous blouse. Go for rich colors, sumptuous textures, and subtle embellishments. Silks, muted jewel tones, contrast stitching, unusual cuffs … any fun details that will show through. (Thanks to reader Patti for this idea! We chatted back and forth about spicing up her look and, in the end, she realized that changing up her blouse options would help a ton.)
  • Brooches: Add a little sparkle to your lapel. If you can, do two or three smallish brooches at a time. Pierced post earrings can also serve as tiny, conservative brooches if you don’t have any on hand.
  • Bright shoes: Suits in vibrant colors can sometimes look dated, but adding a pair of red patent pumps or teal suede booties to a neutral suit gives the whole look a bit of pizazz. If you go this route, try to pick up the shoe color elsewhere in the ensemble – scarf, earrings, necklace, or from the colors and patterns in your shirt.
  • Statement necklaces: A giant, dazzling, chunky necklace that just barely peeks out from the neckline of your oxford could be fantastic. Layered chains, colorful stones, bibs. Check Dana LeBlanc for pieces that are big and bright and bold, but not TOO over-the-top.
  • Styling changes: Cuff shirt sleeves over blazer sleeves and push them up – then add some bracelets. Pop the collar of your blazer or shirt. You could even try something funky like a silk pocket square in the blazer pocket!

What else would you all suggest for making a pantsuit less conservative? When you wear one, how to you let your personal style shine through? Any of these suggestions that would never fly in your pantsuit-wearing workplace?

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  • Kristen

    Thanks Sally. 🙂

  • Ari

    Depending on how strict the dress code is a tapered black pant with a pair of heeled booties can look incredibly chic

  • S.

    I work in a conservative dress environment for a large tech company so it can get pretty stale around here in terms of fashion.

    Female execs wear blazers with brooches, statement necklaces, and colorful blouses. If you're on a budget, my advice is to hit up a TJ Maxx or Marshalls and find unique blouses that go well under neutral colored suits. I don't belt my suit jackets but I do belt my blazers once in a while on a Friday.

    I've also worn pretty patterned blouses under my suit jackets though admittedly some are sleeveless so I keep my suit jacket on until after work. I wear neutral colored shoes that match my suits – colorful shoes wouldn't go over well where I work.

    Look at what other female execs wear and, if there aren't many (or any), consider the age of the male execs. When our CEO "dresses down" he's still got a navy blazer and crisp white button front shirt with khaki pants.

    I should add I'm way under the average age of people I work with and this plays into my wardrobe choices.

  • Tara van Brederode

    This is hugely helpful for me–I am an attorney in a fairly conservative judicial district, and have a huge collection of pantsuits (believe it or not, some female attorneys in our area won't even wear pants to Court at all–and I had one Judge chastise me for suggesting that women don't need to wear hosiery ALL THE TIME–he expects stockings/hose with skirts or pants in his Courtroom). I can often skip wearing suits if I am not scheduled to be in Court, and I have done so more and more recently, because attorney suits are so DULL! But then I feel guilty to have perfectly good suits hanging in my closet with no wear. This will inspire me to pull them back out on non-Court days too.

  • La Historiadora de Moda

    I don't actually own any pantsuits at the moment, but I love the idea of belting a blazer!

  • Syl

    I am also an attorney but this is a fairly liberal courthouse so far as the dress code goes, and one of the judges is herself quite up-to-the minute when it comes to fashion.

    That being said, if there's going to be a formal hearing, such as a trial or adjudication, the pants suit comes out. I have the ubiquitous black and navy, but I also have some more unusual but still-professional colors, such as olive green, taupe, and tweedy brown.

    When I wore a suit every day, I also had sky-blue, dark purple, and various shades of pastel blues and greens.

    (Consigned suits in my size are never in the traditional colors.)

    These days, to spare the dry-cleaning bills, I usually top a poly-rayon-lycra (washable) pant with a related blazer or a cardigan-and-something.

    I do wear comfort shoes or booties with the pants, though. I had to give up the heels after those 7-hours-standing traffic calls.

  • Rosie Unknown

    I have never worn a suit, nor do I plan to, but these tips are great.

    If you are allowed, I would wear some bright eyeshadow. Nothing too complicated or crazy, just a little pop of colour.

  • Mother of Style

    I think you really hit the nail on the head with the unique blouse suggestion- it's the most versatil opion since you can then wear them again outside of work with jeans or a skirt and look really pretty doing so.

  • lar

    You mentioned using a scarf to belt a blazer, but using it as a pants belt would be cute also. And if you wear glasses, get several different, interesting frames that you can change out depending on your outfit or mood–there are a TON of options online that are much cheaper than your typical eyeglass store.

  • Vix

    I love wearing suits and am currently in withdrawal from doing so.

    All the tips are great, but *if* it's possible to break out of the "typical suit" box at all–assuming you like the looks of the more creative suits– I'd do that. Nanette Lepore, Theory, and others are spendy but often have more feminine silhouettes/details. If you find a line that fits well you can be ruthless about watching for sales or outlet bargains.

    And of course as mentioned upthread, finding colors that are still sedate but a bit of a departure from black/brown/grey can add a little excitement. As can pinstripes, lightweight herringbones (for colder temps), cotton/silk/linen blends (for warmer months).

    [I think the House MD costume designers put "Lisa Cuddy" in some great suits, but I'd wear them with higher necklines and a slightly looser fit, ha.]

  • Summer Raven

    I rarely have a need to wear a pants suit, BUT I still see the beauty and fun in them, thank you for sharing!

  • rb

    I wear suits to work and I prefer skirt suits because as a larger framed woman, I find pantsuits a bit masculine. If I do wear a pantsuit, I tend to girl it up with peeptoe shoes and pearly jewels. I always wear a scoop or a v-neck shirt underneath, and absolutely avoid wearing a collared shirt because hello I'm a boy. Ditto on wearing any kind of shoe that looks like a man's boot or oxford.

  • Anonymous

    Love this topic because it pertains to me for once! 🙂 I work in a corporate environment (pharmaceutical sales) where all the men and most women sales reps wear suits every single day. I have found that close-cut, slim suits in neutral colors with fun accents and really cute shoes are the best way to go. Weird colored suits can look dated or aging. Fun, ruffled silk tops (yes I'm a huge J.Crew fan) add so much to a suit and can really give them a modern vibe. I have found that the best suits by far are from Banana Republic and J.Crew, and last for many years. Also stay away from shoulder padding, pants that are too wide or too skinny (they may look dated sooner) and double-breasted styles. That is just my two cents, I've worn suits daily for years and rarely feel dull because there are many ways to keep it freash and interesting, yet still classic!

  • Kristen

    Great ideas! I especially love the scarves one; I have a massive collection of those and I am always looking for ways to punch up my suits on executive-meeting days. I had been on a pretty-blouse shopping spree but maybe it's time to look at a piece of clothing I already have…thanks for the tip!

  • princesshoudini

    Love the second pantsuit (the dark one)!

  • Pammie

    I agree with the attorney comments on this site – I'm a law professor and feel the same way – sometimes in Court you have no choice. The Supreme Court of the United States still has a dress code and just recently (this last decade or so) allow pants.

    My new thing is that I like to wear my suits with a slight more casual shirt. Sometimes a cotton blousy shirt and colorful shoes (blue patent, yellow) . . .I think it adds a certain something. Although I do have at least five suits in different shades of gray.

  • gina

    Adding vests and sweater vests can vary the look too, and make the pants suit look a bit more current. The vest can match the suit or not.

    I love the glasses suggestions. Don't forget varied hair styles or hair accessories as well.

    Sweaters layers over blouses in contrasting colors can add a punch to a neutral suit.

    Mixing and matching different suit jackets and pants is a great way to get some variation.

    If you're wearing a skirt suit, add colored tights. Bright colors may not fly in a conservative environment, but black, grey, brown, and dark green or purple or navy might work. Or a black tone-on-tone pattern.

    Try a screen print tee with your suit. Wear your jacket buttoned during work so the graphic doesn't show, then unbutton it after work for a more casual look.

    Try t-shirts and tanks with embellished necklines.

    As someone else said, try suits that are a little different than the traditional suit, something with a different color (still muted though) or a different cut or additional details.