Ask Belle: Toning Down Your Look

Sep 15, 2014

Dear Belle,

I work at a [Cabinet] department headquarters.  The department does not have a dress code, each section sets their own standard.  The sections I have worked in seem to have a business casual dress code, however, when we were to go out in the field we were expected to wear a suit.

I have recently taken on a new position with a new manager in the same department.  I was surprised by my new colleagues’ reaction to how I dressed in the field.  It was kindly explained by my colleagues to not wear a suit instead I should dress business casual, no blazers.  My manager confirmed this as well.  Should I conform and not wear a suit or adopt the business casual dress?   BTW, I will be visiting the same vendors and contractors as I did in previous roles when I was expected to wear a suit.

Love the blog, G

This is a complicated question.  You don’t want to dress in a way that will alienate your colleagues, but you want to project professionalism in the workplace.  Where does the balance exist?

You shouldn’t wear a suit if you’ve been asked not to wear one.  A suit is business formal, and your workplace is clearly uncomfortable with anything above business casual.  I disagree with their dress code, given that this is an Administration office, but such is life.  So definitely, no suits.

Despite your supervisor’s opinion, I think there is a happy medium here that involves the occasional blazer.  Not the staid suit jacket kind, but the fashion-forward, but still professional, kind.  There are several looks on my Business Casual Pinterest board that fit the bill.  This one and this one are good illustrations of what I’m suggesting.

Try jackets in bright colors, like this River Island blazer.  Or go for textured jackets, like this Mango jacket with large buttons.  And I love a cloth moto jacket with a fun, printed blouse underneath.  You can use relaxed cuts, bright colors and bold prints to tone down otherwise dressy pieces.

The fact that you will be interacting with people who you have a pre-existing relationship with is a good reason not to dress down too much.  These people are in your professional network, and could be important to your future career prospects.  But you don’t want to alienate the people you work with now, so dress down, but not all the way down.

I recommend creating a look that includes jeans, flats, good-quality blouses and sweaters, and the occasional blazer or jacket.  Dress well, but don’t dress up.  Losing the suit will probably be enough, especially if you replace it with dark denim and casual footwear.

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  1. Anna says:

    I think this is one of places where the greater ambiguity in women’s fashion is an advantage. Guys have very specific types out of outfits that conform to specific styles of dress, but as a woman, you can blur the lines a bit. I’d invest in a few structured dresses. They would be appropriate in a more formal business environment, but don’t look too out of place in less formal settings. You can bring a blazer like the ones Belle mentioned for meetings in the field and switch to a cardigan and/or flats in the office to soften it a bit.

  2. Anon says:

    I must be out of touch, because I didn’t realize jeans, even nice ones, fell under the label of business casual (which in my mind equates with men’s khakis and polos); I thought they were just casual. Am I that old-fashioned now?! I’m only 32!

    When I want to dress down from a suit, I choose a ponte dress or a pencil skirt in a color other than the standard suiting colors. (For example, I have ponte dresses in kelly green and dark plum; pencil skirts in cobalt and wine.) I still wear the classic shapes I feel comfortable in and feel are appropriate for projecting the professional image I want to send, I just change up the colors and fabrics for a more relaxed vibe.

    I think G shouldn’t go too casual with these important contacts. If they don’t wear jeans at their office, she shouldn’t do so when visiting them.

    • Anna says:

      Agree. Definitely look to the dress at the site you’re visiting. If you’re going to a construction site, business casual is fine, but if it’s a formal office, definitely don’t dress down.

    • Belle says:

      Depends on the office. Everywhere I’ve worked, with one exception, casual is jeans with nicer separates. Personally, I think it’s loads easier to dress up jeans than khakis. Adding blazers and cardigans to khakis usually strikes me as a bit matronly, though it can look nice. I’m assuming that if her co-workers are against even the wearing of blazers, jeans are probably fine, but maybe not.

  3. Daneille says:

    This solution is genius!

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