Ask Belle: Conservative Office Attire

Oct 19, 2011

Belle,
 
I recently began my first job out of law school as an associate at a very formal and conservative law firm. Suits are considered to be the appropriate attire for attorneys in our office (even on Fridays) and I am bored out of my mind after just eight weeks. Almost all of my office fashion role models are men and I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to my options. Do you have any suggestions on looking very professional without necessarily wearing a matching pant or skirt and jacket each and every day? Additionally, do you have any thoughts on ways to appropriately accessorize a suit in ways that would make it even slightly less boring?  
 
Thanks! Lauren
Unfortunately, very conservative often equals very boring.  If your office is as conservative as you say, there may not be much that you can do.  But let’s talk it out and see what we come up with, shall we?
 

Index Dress in Wool Crepe (J.Crew, $188)

First off, dresses.  I’m sure there are offices where anything without a jacket is considered faux pas, but there are a lot of professional dresses on the market right now that might work for you.

This dress is made of suiting material, it’s fitted and it has a longer sleeve. To pull it into a look, you add a belt at the waist to provide added structure.  Throw on some sensible pumps, closed toe, under 3.5″.  Keep the jewelry to a minimum, one bracelet, earrings.

I also know a few attorneys around town who wear DvF wrap dresses on Fridays.  They avoid the bolder prints, and have them altered or wear camis underneath to keep them from being too revealing, but whether that would be acceptable really depends on your individual office.

 

Suit: Rebecca Taylor Crepe Blazer ($171) and Ruffled Crepe Skirt ($125) Blouse: Theysksens Theory Cropped Tank ($88)

Bag: Marc Jacobs Totally Turnlock Laptop Bag ($248)  Shoes: Michael by Michael Kors MK Flex Open Toe Pump ($98)

I buy all of my suits from one of three places: J.Crew, The Outnet or eBay.  The outfit above represents how I like to wear my suits.  In fact, I actually own everything in the set above except the laptop bag. 

I like a suit that’s different.  I like a suit that’s feminine.  And I like to wear it with printed, silk or textured blouses. I mostly leave my jackets unbuttoned because I hate being caged, but I’ll fasten them up if I have important meetings.

Now, interesting suits are not easy to find.  I check websites regularly, search eBay daily and hit thrift stores as often as I can hoping to find suits that are a bit different.  And, when in doubt, I stick to my J.Crew basics.

This would probably be too out there for a very conservative office.  But if you wore a black tank that came up a bit higher or a tie-neck blouse in grey or white, maybe you could wear suit like this to work without breaking too many rules.  If you wear a blouse, however, I recommend a belt to reinforce the structure.

 

Polyvore Set Here.

It’s difficult to make a basic suit look cool, because suits are meant to evoke sameness.  They are the uniform of the white collar worker. 

As I said above, I like to wear interesting, colored, printed or textured blouses with my suits.  Here, I added a teal blouse (it’s sheer so you’d need a cami) to bring a trendy color into the mix.  I also added a laser-cut belt, which I would wear high enough that it exposed some of the teal through the cutouts.  I’d also wear it under the jacket, not over.

Also, with suits, it’s important to wear statement jewelry.  Dainty pieces just get swallowed up by the heft of a suit.  So make sure the earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings have some gravitas.

Polyvore Set Here.

It’s easy to create a non-suit with separates.  You could wear a colored blazer with neutral trousers–say, navy pants with a red jacket.  You could wear a printed or striped blazer with a black pencil.  You could also wear a patterned skirt with a neutral blazer like in the look above.

This navy and beige printed skirt is a basic shape with a bold pattern.  I added a very fitted blazer, so that there was no need for a visible blouse (though I would recommend a nude, sleeveless tank underneath).  I added a simple blue pump, a vintage-looking coin bracelet from Rebecca Minkoff ($75!) and a pair of citrine stud earrings.

If the print on this skirt terrifies you, this patterned pencil from Jones of New York is navy and white but more basic.  No need to rock the boat too much!

Suits are tough, but what you can wear definitely depends on your office.  If yours is a very conservative work environment, try my friend Kat at Corporette, she caters to NYC lawyers who need to be more buttoned up and uniform than the average D.C. woman.

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  1. Ms. B says:

    excellent

  2. LM says:

    Thank you so much for this post (and to the emailer, for the question!). I'm a graduate student that will be in DC in January for a week long institute course & networking events and I've been trying to figure out what wardrobe pieces I may need to pick up between now and then. The men were told that jackets & ties were a good bet 90% of the time, but us ladies were given no guidance and the idea of being in a business suit all week seems very drab to me.

  3. Emme Gee says:

    Nice post! Have you ever ordered from Dorothy Perkins, and would you recommend it? Thanks.

  4. V says:

    Loved this post!

  5. Lauren says:

    Belle,

    Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. I love your outfit choices! I definitely plan to incorporate your advice into my work wardrobe. Thank you for the great post and for the WONDERFUL blog!

    Lauren

  6. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    Well-made scarves in interesting prints and quality fabrics can also help you break the blahs. Find some youtube videos to learn different ways to style

  7. Marta says:

    Love the Michael Kors skirt (the last one) and it's a steal! Too bad it's sold out!

  8. Valerie says:

    The DVF dresses are great with a blazer and simple pumps. The only thing I'd warn everyone about is that they don't fit ladies with larger cup sizes very well…anything above a B cup and it takes major alterations to fix (my tailor actually had to add a cami-like fabric in front).

  9. Erin says:

    Lauren – as a DC lawyer, I'd say that you can wear suiting separates (non-matching jacket and bottom), structured dresses that are not sleeveless, and suits in fun and feminine colors and subtle patterns. Around the office, you could wear a cardigan instead of a jacket, but always have a jacket handy. You can have fun with your shoes – stick to closed toes and low- to mid-heel, but it's fine to wear animal pattern or colorful shoes. It's also fine to carry a feminine bag. For jewelry, keep it classic and elegant – gold or silver, pearls, and small gemstones. Too much sparkle is an evening look (except for an engagement/wedding ring) and costume jewelry can look cheap unless you are able to select it and style it impeccably. I love to wear silk scarves, because they are very elegant and add a feminine touch and flash of color. If you like nail polish, stick to conservative colors; keep your makeup simple.

    Basically, for accessories, stick to one eye-catching accessory. Less is more in a conservative workplace. But it's not necessary to dress so plainly that you fade into the woodwork.

    It takes a long time to adjust to a formal law office dress code. Most recent graduates only have conservative suits in dark colors and only pair them with white or cream blouses. You don't need to do that anymore, but it'll take a few years until you can build up a wardrobe of suits that will prevent you from getting bored. I suggest that you check out Filene's (both the F Street and Connecticut Ave) one for a good selection of suits at bargain prices. I also would suggest Brooks Brothers (if you're an ABA member you get a discount) and Nordstrom (I like Tahari, Nanette Lepore and Classiques Entier). A lot of my friends like Theory and BCBG but I've never tried either.

    Congrats on the new job!

  10. Katherine says:

    Great post! My experience is that DC firms are actually a bit more conservative than NYC ones in general, but I do love Corporette. Lauren may want to check out the Theory outlet in Leesburg. Their suits are conservative but stylish. I feel put together and not dowdy in them.

  11. Lauren says:

    Thanks for all of the advice! Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), I'm in Tampa, so I'll have to check out what's available in this area.

    Do any of you have any thoughts on a printed skirt with a jacket? I love, love Belle's idea with the Michael Kor's skirt, but I'm a little worried that might be pushing the envelope.

    Thanks!

    Lauren

  12. C says:

    I came to a full stop at this line “she caters to NYC lawyers who need to be more buttoned up and uniform than the average D.C. woman.” As a huge fan of both blogs, and a NYC lawyer originally from DC, I have to disagree with this statement. In my opinion, NYC lawyers are actually LESS buttoned up than the average DC woman and have much more flair. Let's not forget Meredith's Makeover from the Season 2 premiere of Tim Gunn's Guide to Style shall we? https://www.bravotv.com/tim-gunn039s-guide-to-style/season-2/merediths-makeover

  13. heatheresq says:

    My first post here! Just started reading a week ago and I like what I see.

    C: Agreed that New Yorkers are a lil less buttoned up than DCers, but still agree with Belle's statement about Corporette. The blog often targets NYC lawyers that work in conservative offices (but still want to be fashionable). I don't know if that's how the post was supposed to be read but that's what Kat's blog does.

  14. Charleigh says:

    I love this post. Fantastic work Belle!

  15. Roberta says:

    Great post. These are really fantastic ideas. I'm a DC lawyer, but work in government, so I only have to look very conservative sometimes. ūüėČ However, I used to work for a Federal judge in Tampa, and I sympathize with Lauren. Tampa's both conservative and ah, how shall we say, not exactly the most fashion-forward place. But you can definitely mix separates and be properly attired – like a patterned jacket with a black skirt. Dresses are great, but keep a jacket handy – I always have a black one in my office. Pops of color with blouses or jewelry or a scarf will also make a conservative dark suit more fun, as Belle shows. It does take a couple of years or more to build that wardrobe, feel out how far you can really go, and put all the pieces together. The vintage/secondhand shops in Ybor might have some fun things you could use. Good luck!

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