Ask Belle/Discuss: Oval Office Style

Feb 13, 2012


Hey Belle – 

I saw this picture the White House released through their Flickr page the other day.  I wanted to get your thoughts on it. 

In it, there are 10 senior staffers meeting with the president and the new chief of staff in the Oval Office.  Of the 12 people total in the room, four are women.  Of the four women, only one appears to be wearing a suit or a blazer and that’s Valerie Jarrett, the highest profile woman in the room.  The others are Counsel to the President Kathryn Ruemmler; Nancy-Ann DeParle, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy; and Alyssa Mastromonaco, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations.  These three women appear to be wearing cardigans and sweaters.  

What are your thoughts about these women’s professional style?  I can’t think of a more important occasion to wear a suit for – an Oval Office meeting with the president.  But that’s what I would do – maybe these women are already important enough to not need to wear a suit?  But what does it say that all the men in the room are wearing suits?  All politics aside, I’m just completely puzzled by this picture and I wanted to hear your take on it.

Thanks! BC

The appropriate dress code for the Oval Office was often discussed during the Bush White House.  Bush Sr. had a stringent dress code of suits and ties for men and dresses and skirts for women in the Oval.  George W. Bush reinstated this dress code and maintained a no-jeans weekend dress code.  This dress code was relaxed by President Obama, to the chagrin of some and the cheers of others.

When I was on the Hill, my Boss maintained a strict no-denim dress code.  At times, it felt positively Paleozoic and unfair.  However, once I stepped outside of my office and saw staffers in clothing that I wouldn’t wear to a bar in Podunksville, Oklahoma (no offense OK residents), I understood where he was coming from.

As for this photo, I don’t think anyone is inappropriately dressed, and if the President has decreed that less formal dress is fine, then I don’t think anyone is faux pas.  It is a President’s prerogative to decide how his staffers should dress.  It may not be my preference, but setting the Oval Office dress code is a problem that I won’t have for a few more years (kidding).

I certainly understand what you are saying, however.  I would hope that I would wear a suit more often if I worked in the West Wing, but there’s no way to know that for sure.  Perhaps, once you’ve worked there for awhile the White House starts to feel a bit more like your office and a little less like the West Wing.

What are your thoughts on the White House dress code? And do those of you who don’t work in politics particularly care what staffers wear in the Oval?

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  1. ellen says:

    This is clearly a meeting among the President's leadership group — ie a less formal meeting held on a regular basis to brainstorm. How anyone could characterize Kathy Ruemmler, clearly the best-dressed woman in the White House, as inappropriately dressed should pay more attention to her style. She is a roll model for all of the women in the executive branch. Just because men feel the need to choke themselves in a tie, I don't think women have to follow suit to look professional. A dress and a nice cardigan (and I feel pretty sure these women aren't wearing jc penny's), accessorized appropriately fits that bill. And, if I was working those kind of hours, I believe I would keep my flats on and keep my heels in a drawer in my desk.

  2. Joey says:

    looking at this photo, i wouldn't begrudge any of the other women for their choice of cardigan or pullover sweater for an oval office meeting. they all look professional, and business-like, and no less dedicated to doing their jobs. this coming from a girl who advocates for conservative “take me seriously” office attire. the “tone,” as it were, of their attire is oval office-appropriate.

  3. Okie Girl says:

    As a resident of Oklahoma, no offense taken. I've been to many weddings where not only the men, but also some women, were wearing jeans.

  4. SJ says:

    I can't speak for that room because I don't know the culture of the West Wing, but my rule for myself in my office is that if the men are required to wear coats and ties, I should wear the female equivalent.

  5. J says:

    I agree, SJ. I am also surprised by how many females on the Hill don't wear a jacket to staff their Member at committee hearings and markups when men are expected to have a coat and tie on.

  6. DallasSkirtEnvy says:

    I would say Valerie Jarrett looks down right frumpy and the other women look both well styled and appropriate, but then I would also argue that a good cardigan set with attractive jewelry is as formal as a jacket and tie.

  7. Anon says:

    Do you know what strikes me about this? Not that they're not wearing blazers – I agree with Dallas that their jewelry and styling makes them look professional – but that three of the women appear to be wearing flats. Flats to me are the inappropriate element. I think high heels are really necessary for the Oval Office.

  8. b23 says:

    I agree with SJ. Women should dress equivalent to men.

  9. Serena says:

    Even if Obama did institute a less formal dress code, it looks like these women are adhering to the Bush dress codes — they're wearing dresses or skirts. Did the Bush dress codes specify skirt suits? I'm not sure that the relaxation of the dress code is really pertinent here.

    I do think that a professional dress can be the woman's equivalent to a man's suit. I don't think it has to be a skirt suit, and I think a dress can be more formal than a pant suit.

  10. Adrienne says:

    Part of the mystique of the Oval Office is the tradition that is involved there. President Reagan wouldn't enter the room without a jacket and tie, and I think that is suitable gravitas for the most respected office in the world.

    We all know that the real work doesn't happen in the Oval Office, but it needs to be accorded with respect. It's ceremonial to be there. I deeply believe that both men and women should wear business attire when working there.

    Women have a little more flexibility than men when it comes to business attire. Washington is still very much a man's world, and women should make an extra effort in their attire to play the game. Wearing flats or cardigans is simply not appropriate in the Oval Office.

  11. r says:

    I agree with SJ and J. If men are wearing coats and ties, I make sure to wear a jacket. To me, wearing something less formal says that I am less important (or take my job less seriously) than the men in the room. I don't think a cardigan counts as a jacket.

    I think the flats are definitely appropriate. Those women are likely running around all over the place!

  12. Anon says:

    Yes! I agree with other Anon, what jumped out at me were the flats. I think professional dresses are as dressy as suits.

  13. s-p-s says:

    Great discussion. Regardless of the items of clothing, all of the women appear to be wearing neutrals such as black, white, and navy. Wonder if an unspoken rule is muted, neutral tones (perhaps with bold accessories) that are akin to men's muted, neutral suits (perhaps with bold ties)?

  14. ADL says:

    As someone who loves to wear flats and at one point had to wear flats due to knee issues, I would say flats are entirely appropriate as long as they aren't frumpy looking (subjective opinion, granted). My former boss (very conservative MOC) also regularly chastised me when I was wearing heels, as I would be running after him on marble flooring and he'd cringe; he would have preferred me to wear flats, especially when the evacuation bells rings.

  15. arlington says:

    In defense of ladies, I feel for anyone who is above a size 8 when trying to build a wardrobe of formal office clothing. Unlike men's clothing, it is downright impossible to cobble together an affordable conservative office wardrobe that acceptabley fits and doesn't leave tight band marks. It is like medieval torture devices meant to simultaneously create emotional and physical discomfort. And that I why I suspect you find more women less strictly dressed – it is just easier to keep your mind on your job in stretchier materials. And flats.

  16. M says:

    First, if we're going to technical about dress codes, for men business suits and jacket/tie are not the same thing. “Jacket and tie” is less formal or for non-work times like dinners, cocktail parties, etc. I actually think that men do themselves similar disservice in the workplace credibility department when they wear blue blazers and khakis when they should be in a suit (this is where I give a pass to interns though).

    But in terms of this photo, I think it makes a big difference that they all appear to be wearing dresses (less clear on DeParle, but I think so). While jacket over a dress is best, I think that dresses and suits are basically equivalent for women and the cardigans are fine. Also, I know this is the President/Oval Office, but it also appears to be only a staff meeting–I would judge them more if there were outside officials here and they weren't wearing jackets.

  17. R says:

    I have to disagree with the notion that if a man wears it, I should wear it or risk seeming less important…I think a woman wearing a stuffy pantsuit looks like they aren't confident in who they are, where a well-dressed woman in feminine clothing looks like she belongs.

  18. Anne says:

    I think everyone in the photo looks professional, and as a wearer of dresses, sometimes having a nice cardigan is imperative in order to prevent wearing the same basic suit jacket three or four times in a week over dresses. However, I would sooner die than wear jeans to the White House (even on a tour), I don't care what the rules are. I'm with your former boss (and mine): Some places are sacred. No jeans, no shoes that go 'smack.' All you Rainbow flip-flop wearers, I'm looking at you.

  19. N.M. says:

    I'm surprised the White House doesn't have the same dress code as the Hill. I work for a House committee, and when we're in session, we are supposed to wear suits. The reasoning is that we might have to brief a member, run to a hearing, get caught in the elevator with someone important, etc., and we need to look professional to show respect to members of Congress. I wouldn't have a problem with staff at the White House dressing like this on weekends or when the President is out of town, but I would expect any day the President is in the White House, suits should be worn.

  20. SM says:

    Completely agree with R–I think the whole “mystic” or “show of power” argument is antiquated. If the woman is professionally dressed, as these women certainly are, and if she is good at what she does, then there should be no need for her to feel inadequate for not wearing a suit. Truly powerful women exude power because of who they are.

  21. BN says:

    I am so glad I am not the only one who looked at this picture and thought, wow, look at all those men in suits/ties and all those women NOT in suits.”

    As Adrienne said, DC (or substitute politics, consulting, lobbying, law, etc.) is a man's world and we should show them we belong there. Sure, if you can't do the work, then looking the part is irrelevant. But doing the hard core job and looking like a secretary isn't the solution either.

  22. K says:

    As a former appointee, I believe cardigans and business dresses are completely appropriate for work in, or out of, the White House. I personally feel the wearing of stockings/tights/pantyhose, sleeves and a neutral color pallet is key to a more formal appearance. Also, the quality of your clothing plays into the formal factor. If your cardigan or skirt is made of cotton it will come across casual. I tend to agree that heels are more appropriate than flats, even if it is a kitten heel. However, I do not think a suit is required every day.

  23. devinzgrandma says:

    Despite a somewhat relaxed dress code, while I was a legal secretary for a very senior partner at a top-tier firm in D.C., I ALWAYS dressed more formally than my peers, and was often mistaken for an attorney. While some may experience a full-body shudder at that remark, it was meant to be a high compliment and was received as such. “Dress for the position you want, not the position you have” is a wonderful motto, even if the position you want is NOT to be an attorney (or the President of the United States). Respect, particularly for a woman, is hard to earn and harder to keep. Dressing like a top professional, despite whatever dress code is in place, is just smart business.

  24. CR says:

    I tend to agree with the majority of commenters that the women look professional. I personally would wear a suit, but I tend to like them and feel comfortable in them (mostly because I don't care for skirts and wear pantsuits instead).

    Belle – I'm curious to hear your perspective on the heels v. flats divide that's come up in the comments. You've mentioned that you predominantly wear flats or kitten heels; how do you employ them in your outfits in a professional manner? Do they convey a different authority level (other than height – my main love of heels is based on the fact that I'm 5'11″ in them and can stare most men in the eyes)?

  25. JA says:

    If you look closely at the large version of the image, it is clear that two of the women are, in fact, wearing high heels. It is unclear what the bottoms of Valerie Jarrett's shoes look like, though they do appear to be flats. The only woman who can be confirmed to be wearing flats is the first one on the right.

  26. Nellie says:

    While I acknowledge that a cardigan (even a nice, muted one over a structured blouse/dress) is less formal than a suit jacket, it's also important to remember that for men, there are fewer shades of gray for business attire. They pretty much only get some form of suit, jacket, or tie and the line between professional and unprofessional is pretty clear, especially since when you compare it to what your colleagues are wearing. Cardigan vs jacket to me is such a fine line.

    As a petite and curvy women it is so hard to find a suit jacket that both fits and is comfortable – it's usually one or the other so unless I am in a really formal setting I opt for a cardigan. I acknowledge that I would look more professional in a jacket no matter what I was wearing, but I also think being confident in what you wear and having it fit well and otherwise flatter you is important as well. If I was gunning for a more leadershippy position at my job (or had one) I would probably wear them, but I think it's more important to invest in a professional-looking, pulled-together outfit than regardless there's an arbitrary collar and buttons. That's a luxury men don't have, due to what i described above.

    Not to mention I'm sure this photo is simply a staff meeting and these women probably wear suits on similar and definitely more formal occasions. Again, except for the absence of a suit jacket, they look perfectly professional to me.

  27. RMS says:

    I think everyone in this picture is dressed appropriately. Skirts are appropriate lengths, legs, arms, and chests are covered, and no one appears to be wearing anything cheap looking or ill fitting. The women all look professional because they look put together. Their outfits are not like those of young staffers who wear baby doll dresses then think that throwing a cardigan on makes it professional. These are deliberately put together outfits composed of quality pieces in neutral colors.

    I do not think that women must wear jackets just because men are wearing jackets. The article Belle linked to says that Obama implemented a more lax dress code, and it appears that the women in the photo are following that dress code. When I get dressed in the morning I do not think “I have to wear a jacket because I know [male coworker] is going to wear a jacket.” I think “this skirt/sweater combo is appropriate for business casual” or “I have a meeting with a client today so I should wear a suit.”

  28. GoGoGo says:

    (sorry if this gets double-posted.)

    Gut reaction: seeing this picture, I was most struck by how comfortable the female staff in the foreground looked–and, as a result, how powerful. Who but the highest echelon of influence can look at ease and focused in the Oval Office? It's an image of the office in work-mode rather than ceremonial, and I think all the staff fit appropriately in that context.

    If I ever had the opportunity to visit the Oval Office, it would be in my most formal and conservative power-suit, no question. But then, this is a different circumstance we're observing here. How does the “dress for the position you want” rule apply when one is, say, a White House Deputy Chief of Staff?

    (Another common sight worthy of discussion: the senior female Member dashing down the hall for votes in her orange wool jacket and dress with the big flower pin, and the junior LA clicking behind her in heels and sharp navy suit.)

    More observation than opinion.

  29. CML says:

    I agree that everyone in this photo looks appropriate. I think that suit/blazer vs. cardigan/sweater is up to you. About a year ago I starting strictly wearing suits or at least a blazer/skirt or dress combo on in-session days here on the Hill. Personally, I feel more comfortable, confident, appropriate, etc. But on days when my boss is back home and we're out of session, I don't find it necessarily mandatory to wear a jacket. It is all personal preference.. I recommend gauging one's own office and daily circumstances!

  30. KJ says:

    I know this is a fashion blog (why I read it) but I think the unspoken thing about that picture is that those women are sitting in that room because of their experience and intelligence- not what they've worn in the past or that they dress to fit the men's dress code. I think as long as your cardigan/ dress/ skirt/ or suit are well fitted, neat, and look pulled together you are just appropriate as a men's suit and tie. I have seen some women wear suits left over from their intern days that are ill fitted or with inappropriate tops underneath that look worse than a pencil skirt and cardigan. This goes the same with flats, as a person who has to run between meetings or recover from my last marathon I think my ballet flats look just as appropriate as someone wearing heels.

  31. Danae says:

    To be honest, I wish all the women simply weren't slouched or wringing their hands. Posture and poise will dress it up every time.

  32. Bush intern says:

    when i was an intern in the Bush ('43) white house, i was required to wear a jacket, regardless of the day- whether we would be staying in the EEOB or would be over in the WW. i hated it, because as a college student, i didn't have the ability to afford multiple suits, but i worked with what i could to look professional every day, even if it meant wearing the same jacket styled differently a few times a week. BUT— i felt a greater sense of respect for the job and a level of professionalism i never did in any of my other countless political internships, i think in part due to the formality of dress. as we all know, our outward appearance have a strong impact on our mindsets– and i think this one is important…ESPECIALLY in the most important office in the country.

  33. Kim says:

    It is interesting – many commenters stated that the women need to wear a suit to command respect…but you don't get to the Oval Office without already commanding respect. So maybe it works for them.

  34. GoGoGo says:

    Belle had a smart post a while back about Secretary Clinton and the media coverage of her bad hair days. It's a good read for anyone who missed it. (Going off what Kim said.)

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