Reader Nicky popped this one in the suggestion box:
I would love if you would do a post on what’s appropriate to wear for the office if you are the boss working in a conservative field. I am a physician, and I love clothes. My taste is somewhat traditional, oftentimes a little edgy, but never slutty. Sometimes I have a hard time deciding if something is not appropriate for me to wear to work because I am the boss, as well as that there are certain expectations about what doctors should wear. I am not talking cleavage or short-short skirts, but things like vibrant color and pattern combinations, skirts with no hose in summer, skinny pants, trouser jeans, knee high boots, skirts above my knee (what length is OK?) Audi’s harnesses, Frye Harness boots, etc.
This is gonna be a stretch for me, friends. I’ve been a boss, but I was the boss of one other worker and we worked together in a creative, business casual environment. Also since I’m not a fan of hard-and-fast style rules, I’ll have to be a bit more vague than Nicky might like. But I’ve a few ideas that might help.
Clothing itself can broadcast messages about your inner self, as I’ve said approximately 94 trillion times. But if you are in a position of power and want people to focus more on what you’re saying, thinking, or asking of them than how you look on the outside, it’s best to avoid clothing, shoes, and accessories that will distract. Now, some people are distracted by houseplants, so take this advice with a grain of salt and remember that you’re not responsible for anyone else’s attention span. But if you’re wearing earrings the size of grapefruits, a rhinestone-studded shirt, or kelly green patent knee-high platform boots, you may end up having to repeat yourself a bit more than usual.
Generally speaking anything sparkly, super shiny, outsized, neon, extremely tight-fitting, or even remotely costume-y will be at least slightly distracting. And if you think there’s a chance and you’re worried about a certain item, save it for the weekend or Casual Friday.
One daring item at a time
If you’re going to risk distraction with an unusual or attention-grabbing item, color, or texture, just make sure it’s alone in the context of your outfit. Don’t wear the harness AND the harness boots. Don’t wear the bright blouse AND the bright pants. There’s nothing wrong with splashing out and being creative, and daring items will generally figure into those behaviors. But if you want to appear authoritative and need to balance your creativity with your respected boss persona, wearing one unusual or conversation-starting item at a time is a good formula to follow.
Darker is more conservative
Darker, more subdued colors are generally more conservative and authoritarian. If you’ve got a serious meeting, a client that needs impressing, or a sticky work situation to resolve, wearing charcoal, navy, black, maroon, or forest green may work better than wearing scarlet, yellow, cobalt, or purple. Colorful accents are less likely to grab undue attention than colorful garments. Shoes, scarves, belts, and jewelry are great places to play with bold brights. (Bright colors can be powerful, it’s true, but darks are more conservative.)
Try pattern mixing
To be clear, I’m not recommending that conservative doctor boss Nicky do a purple paisley skirt with a red plaid blouse. But small patterns – especially in neutral shades – can mix beautifully with slightly larger, brighter ones for marvelously rich, textured looks. Try a herringbone bottom with a polka-dot top, a pinstripe bottom with a geometric print top. For some great advice, check out Kara’s Pattern Mixing 101.
When in doubt, trust your gut
If you’re a boss working in a conservative field and you’re at all concerned that something might be inappropriate, distracting, or odd, just skip it. You can always consult a colleague or check in with HR for input, but if you’re making the decision on the fly and it’ll just worry you all day long, why take the risk?
Some of you may feel that creative dressing is part of your power, and serves to enrich your authority as a boss. But remember that Nicky is concerned about the messages she’s broadcasting with her clothing and unsure of her choices, as may be other women working in positions of authority. Those of you who feel confident that your daring sartorial choices positively influence your working relationships are in a different position, and quite an enviable one.