Ages ago, reader Grace asked if I could weigh in on the ins and outs of workwear. She said:
If you wanted an idea for a post sometime, I think one on different types of work wear for different types of work environments would be great. I work from home now, but am soon going to be working in a fairly corporate environment, which will be very different from my past offices, which have been more like where you work. Because of that, I’m thinking a lot about the fairly wide spectrum of “work wear,” and I think it would be cool to see/read your take.
Since I’ve only ever worked in business casual environments, I’m loathe to lay down guidelines for those employed by conservative law firms or casual graphic design firms. I could give opinions based on my own assumptions about these workplaces, but I think you’ll learn more from the format I’ve chosen here instead.
I’ve asked my friends and colleagues who are actually working in environments different from my own to discuss what they consider to be the most basic parameters for office-appropriate dressing.
As you know, I do not work in a “conservative corporate” environment. Sometimes I wish I did because I think the tone would be a lot chic-er! Having said this, I do work in a place (the civil service / government-public sector industry) that gives a lot of latitude for self-expression. The fact that few people make the most of it seems odd to me, an affirmed fashion-lover. My environment is observably schizophrenic. Senior management people of a certain age dress in suits. Young professionals dress in jeans. There are lots of middle-of-the-road, middle-agers in, um, less-than-fascinating separates.
Here’s what I do: On days when I’m not meeting with senior management or with clients, I wear what I like. In the summer (when dressing is easy – I live in Canada), I often opt for vintage-style dresses and skirts with sandals. I like to mix old and new. In the winter, alas, I’m battling the elements and I walk for hours a day, so I have to wear pants. Usually that means jeans. Really nice denim which I pair with chic footwear and a rich top like a cashmere sweater. I finish it off with an asymmetric sweater or a blazer and some luxe accessories. And I always wear an awesome coat/hat/scarf/gloves. After all, that’s what everyone sees. Now, if I’ve got a meeting with the top guns, then I have to pull it back from the edge with a winter dress and tights or more formal pants, though my toppers are generally the same.
Are there rules I never break? Well, lounge/yoga/sweat pants are ALWAYS a “no.” I never show my abdomen. I never wear anything that is imperfect i.e. needs repair or is deliberately “distressed.” I am also very careful to wear perfectly fitting undergarments. Without them, I’ve observed, the nicest outfit can look sloppy.
My hometown Vancouver has a reputation for being rainy, outdoorsy, and laid-back. It’s not unusual for Vancouverites to go to the office looking like they’re going on a rugged hike or settling down for an afternoon of TV and video games. I work in the software industry which usually has a casual dress code, and as a technical writer I don’t deal with clients directly, only internal folks. My office is also in a really trendy part of town. The result of all this? I can pretty much wear whatever I want to work and still look more dressed-up than many of the developers and software testers. My outfits are more likely to garner compliments and questions like, “Where did you get that?” than frowns of disapproval.
That being said, I do have some rules for myself. Nothing too low-cut, too short, or too revealing is a big one. Software is a predominantly male industry after all, and I’d rather my attire say, “Look at me, I’m a capable member of the team who also happens to be a girl, and a stylish one at that!” than, “I’m going to the bar after work for all-you-can-drink highballs.” You’ll notice that although I take risks with pattern, texture, accessories, and colour, I try to cover up as much as possible. Cardigans, tights, leggings, and camis do wonders for maintaining modesty. Another rule I have is no sweatpants, yoga pants, or exercise trainers, ever. Truthfully it’s more for my own sake than for professionalism. If there are no limits on what you can and can’t wear, it’s easy to backslide into sloppiness. Sweater dresses, tunics, blouses, dark wash jeans, and tall flat boots are all easy everyday options that look a lot more put-together than Lululemon and a pair of Nikes.
Thanks so much, Sal, for inviting me to participate in this post!
Having worked full time in since my early 20’s (in the late 1970’s), the question of What To Wear To Work has occupied a prominent place in my style development. For the first fifteen years of my working life – with two short exceptions – I worked in small offices in small towns. If there was any dress code in these workplaces, it was along the lines of “be clean and neat,” which for me usually meant pants or jeans and a a top of some kind, loafers or sandals. Aside from the fact that most of these jobs paid poorly, sometimes there were sartorial occupation hazards like having to clean out a dusty records storeroom. (And at one job at a fish wholesale company, I had to walk through the processing floor to get to the office. After slipping and landing on my arse in a pile of fish guts while wearing my favorite pair of jeans, I soon learned to “dress down.”) So my workwear and weekend wear mostly overlapped. The concepts of Power Dressing, so popular in the 1980’s, were foreign to my work life.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1993 and found myself working in management in a slightly more corporate environment (administrative department in a creative business), pantsuits quickly became my best friends. Getting dressed in the morning was a breeze: Pick a suit, pick a top, shoes and accessories. That lasted for only a few years. Beginning around 2001, a shift in corporate culture toward Business Casual for all but the top execs gradually rendered dress codes as obsolete as a kickstand on a tricycle. So my suits began to feel like overkill.
I really struggled for a few years, trying to sort out a more casual yet management-appropriate wardrobe. For a while, I ditched the suits in favor of trousers and the occasional skirt with a coordinated-not-matched jacket. But in the last couple of years, most jackets have begun to feel too stiff and mannish, and I’ve migrated toward cardigans. I’ve also eased up and will wear dark wash jeans during the week, as well as slim ponte knit pants under a tunic. I’ve worked to collect softer (often knit) but coordinated pieces that make it easy to pull together a daily outfit. Solids are my friends, as are neutrals. I’ve found that Eileen Fisher offers many basic pieces that “play well together” and conform to the long-over-lean silhouette that’s a friend to my shape. The Pantsuit Years taught me rely on very basic wardrobe pieces that can be accented and changed up with accessories, and that’s a strategy that still works for work. Accessories are also easier to update to help keep a look more current.
I’m still a bit “old school,” and feel that dressing for work puts one in the mindset for work. What constitutes “professional” dress is very fluid these days, but I think it’s important to make the effort, within the context of environment and business culture.
The conservative corporate environment is all about wearing an outfit that doesn’t distract from what you’re saying, and doesn’t restrict any movements you may need to make for your job. Ultimately, think classic shapes with a ladylike twist. First, classic shapes: pencil skirts, A-line skirts, trouser pants, blazers, sweaters, simple pumps (with closed toes) that you can walk quickly in, in case you have to hurry to someone’s office for whatever reason. Avoid anything trendy or new (e.g., the open-toed bootie) — if that style of clothing wasn’t seen 5 years ago, think twice before wearing it. It’s OK if things are fitted, but nothing should be distracting: Your cleavage shouldn’t be showing, your shirt shouldn’t be gaping, and your skirt shouldn’t be too short or too tight. It doesn’t hurt to invest in good foundation garments, like slips (necessary for a true wrap dress) or camisoles.
Similarly, I think you want to avoid articles of clothing or accessories that make people think of other activities. For example, wearing leggings might be seen as too sporty, or platform shoes (particularly if you can’t walk in them) would be seen as a little too glam (if the observer is fond of you) or stripperish (if they’re not).
On a typical day, I think a sweater and trousers are fine. However I’m a fan of keeping a blazer in your office that you can throw on top of outfits if you’re heading to a supervisor’s office or to a meeting with clients and want that extra boost of confidence. (A blazer is also great because it should have pockets for your ID card and Blackberry.) I’m also a fan of showing personality, even within the constraints mentioned above. Personally, I tend to wear all-black outfits (hey, I am a New Yorker), or colors with colors. For example, in the outfit shown above, I’ve chosen a red sweater, a turquoise necklace, a simple black pair of pants, and a gray tweed blazer. Mixing colors, textures, and even prints can be a great way to have fun with your wardrobe, and color in particular can be a great way to elevate your mood on a dreary day.
I work as a Teaching Assistant (a pitiable name for the underpaid doctorate student who runs full classes of undergrads all by herself) at a big Midwestern university. There are a few pressures which guide the way I dress as a graduate student instructor.
First, my department is generally pretty casual—it’s not unusual for a lot of grad students to teach in jeans or tee shirts and there’s no dress code to speak of.
Second, I’m a young instructor so the age gap between me and my students is generally only 5 years or so.
Third, I teach literature, so I have the luxury of a classroom interested in aesthetics.
For me, work wear means I’m comfortable moving around a classroom, more or less modestly-covered, and I look approachable. These are all important for making me feel at ease in the classroom and among my students. Early in the semester, I tend to dress more formally and wear bigger shoes which make me feel authoritative when I’m nervous about a new class. Throughout the semester, I tend to gravitate toward just-above-the-knee high-waisted skirts and a lot of pretty blouses, but I’m not afraid to mix it up with colors, patterns, and accessories.
The only rule I never break is that I need to be able to sit comfortably without a skirt or dress riding up. Otherwise, I’m lucky to be able to wear almost anything I like.
My work environment is business casual, with leeway on both sides. Denim is acceptable on Fridays and weekdays, if there are no major events and we don’t have any meetings with external contacts. Generally, the higher your position, the more you lean toward the business side, and vice versa. This was my first full-time job out of grad school, and I’ve been here for over three years now. Even so, I’ve had internships and part-time gigs in a variety of offices, ranging from all-casual to not-even-a-casual-Friday. All of this, plus a promotion and year-long shopping diet, has shaped my thoughts on and application of style at work.
Work wear to me is clothing that is appropriate for the business you are conducting. Like it or not, your physical appearance will influence peoples’ perceptions of you. Of course, appearance is more than just what you’re wearing or how your hair looks. It also includes posture, confidence, and behavior. Even when all of these things are in place, people can get hung up on your clothing if it is in any way inappropriate. You are an extension of your employer when you are at work, and should present yourself accordingly.
I have a lot of personal rules for work wear, most of which don’t apply to casual wear. And when I say “rules” I mean it loosely—I waffle regularly. Here is a sampling: Jeans at work twice a week, max. Never should bra or bra straps be at risk of being exposed. Skirts should be no more than an inch above the knee when standing up. If it’s tight enough to necessitate a thong, it’s too tight. Shoes should not be too “sexy” (either color, strappiness, or height). No sneakers or sandals. Camis under everything buttoned, remotely low-cut, or short in the torso (bend over the check the last two). Cardigan or blazer over sleeveless tops in meetings. No clubbing tops (this one applies to my clothes in general).
In addition to my “don’ts” I have a lot of “dos.” Do use color, preferably more than one at a time. Do incorporate interesting textures like tweed and dobby dots. Do take menswear and make it your own. Do mix your neutrals—black with brown, brown with gray, cream and white with everything. Do use jewelry, belts, and scarves to kick an outfit up a notch. Do experiment. Do walk tall, no matter how high (or low) your heels are. Do be practical and consider your day’s activities. Do produce work that looks as good as you do. Do go bare-legged if you can, and wear fun tights if you can’t. Do iron and mend clothes and shoes regularly.
Work wear, in summary, is an opportunity for me to express my professional self at work. Creativity counts in my profession, and I use my physical appearance to give others confidence in my abilities and professionalism. There are enough odds stacked against women in the workplace as it is—dressing appropriately and smartly makes me feel better and my work performance benefits when I am confident in myself.
I have spent my career in technical industries. As these are still populated largely by men, the management dress code I know is taken from the masculine template, and rarely leavened by support for personal expression. Severity varies. In the office of a startup, on Friday? The atmosphere is collegial, forgiving. Presenting to potential clients at the New York Stock Exchange, the day of the 2008 stock market crash? A battlefield. Your first day as the new VP when at least 10% of your team wanted the job you just took? Altogether internecine.
Of course, even the highly visible sometimes have positions of power, and can test a lot of limits. Look at Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, here, sporting heels, ruffles, and cleavage. As Facebook prepares their IPO she has the world by the, um, tail.
But sometimes we fight from boggy ground. So pick your sartorial battles. Under fire, dress for the situation first, and eke out personal style at the margins. In my case, personal style means dignified, luxurious, feminine details. “Feminine” is culturally determined, of course. You may prefer to add more exuberance, or even rebellion. To each her own.
Let’s decode the outfit above.
1. A grey suit cannot be questioned. (Neither can navy, nor black, but right now my impeccable suit is grey.) For personal style, and to signal that you are not slavishly imitating men, choose a slubby, wool/silk blend with some sheen, especially one that drapes like a dress. Suitable for meeting COOs. This is Luciano Barbera, via Wilkes Bashford.
2. The white tee looks formal enough under a jacket. However, when you meet with the client team to work, you can chuck the top layer and metaphorically roll up your sleeves. Instantly approachable. Also helps avoid annoying shirt flappage or resultant over-tucking. From the GAP.
3. 8mm pearls and pearl/diamond studs. Pearls are fancy, in the corporate world. Particularly big pearls. When I want to say, “I’m one of you,” I wear classic or vintage gold jewelry. When I want to say, “I’m a powerful woman who respects tradition, and I am dressing up to honor this occasion and you,” I wear big pearls. Whether my message gets across, of course, will depend on how I perform. Clothing only puts you onto the field.
4. Flat shoes. I believe in flats. I know that’s controversial. But if you have to wear clothes like men, they look best with shoes like the ones men wear, in the proportions for which they were designed. To say nothing of comfort, and the joys of feet firmly on the ground. These flats are Manolo Blahnik, and the quilting (look closely) adds more texture to the look and more female to my day. Again, style at the margin.
5. Hair. Ah. Corporate hair. I have not entered a corporate office in a year and a half. My hair has grown out. If you are luxuriating in long hair, a low ponytail or bun is just fine. However, if you are a Sturdy Gal who hates fussing, short is easier. The photos below show two past incarnations of Corporate Hair, on the right from corporate marketing materials, on the left from a vendor badge to the New York Stock Exchange.
6. Glasses in the right shape and color. I realized, once I started wearing reading glasses to work, that they make a good accessory. For reading documents, glasses on, serious assumed. For communicating with people, glasses off, signifying that I do in fact want to connect. My face is best suited by rectangular frames in a light tortoise shell. It’s worth sorting through frames and finding ones that work. The pair at top cost $12.95 at CVS. Dressing for this corporate environment is never about commercial brands; personal/professional brand signaling demands too much bandwidth.
Lar: I feel really spoiled when it comes to work-wear. I work in a small marketing firm as a graphic designer/project director. Basically that means I’m considered artsy-fartsy, so I can be a bit more creative with what I wear than most working a nine to five. On days when I know I don’t have any client meetings my clothes are fairly casual – the way most people would dress on casual Fridays. I wear jeans, boots and a tee. When I’m meeting clients I throw a blazer on top of my casual clothes or wear an simple dress. (Still with boots though – love me my boots!) The key to keeping things from looking too casual is to make sure your clothes (even cotton tees) are ironed, rip-free and spot-free. I also usually wear boots or some sort of heel (it doesn’t have to be high) instead of more casual and comfortable shoes like flipflops (never!) or sneakers (I don’t actually own a pair). Both of these photos of me and Cath show you what I wear when I’m dressing more formally. On my more casual days I usually have on dark jeans and a more relaxed top. Cath is my inspiration when I have to be more formal…
Cath: Compared to Lar my municipal government work-wear is formal, but it really isn’t too strict. My go-to uniform is a plain shirt (preferably silk, but usually cotton), a cardigan or blazer, pencil skirt, black tights and dark heels. If I run out of black tights for the week, I’ll switch over to black pants – not very exciting, I know. On days that I don’t have meetings I can get away with wearing jeans, but I try to keep it pulled together with a blazer and heels. I have a couple of office-appropriate/Audrey Hepburnish dresses that I wear when I want to look really professional, but those are rare occasions – so much so that when I wear a dress my co-workers usually say, “Ooohh, what are you all dressed up for today?” I really love the look of suits, but since I don’t need them in my line of work and hate having to take things to the dry cleaner I stick to separates from places like Zara, H&M, Ann Taylor and The Limited. On weekends I usually steal from Lar’s closet, because she has much cuter clothes than me!
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Was a working environment similar to yours covered here? If not, what are your parameters for appropriate work wear?