Whether it’s written down or informal, every office has a dress code. For some, it’s staid and rigid. For others, it’s loose and informal. A dark business suit and sensible shoes for a Senate hearing room, ripped jeans and cool boots for the Vogue board room. But for most of us, it’s somewhere in between.
These dress codes have names–conservative, professional, creative, and business casual. These words mean different things to different people. What flies in one office, may be taboo in another. And we’re all just trying to learn the rules, so we can figure out how far they’ll bend in the name of personal style.
Over the next four weeks, I’ll do my best to demystify these office dress codes and provide realistic advice on how to navigate these fluid classifications, starting with the ‘conservative’ office.
Your clothing helps define you. It influences how people perceive you. And when you work in a conservative office, conformity and appropriateness are the name of the game.
Sometimes following arbitrary rules about attire is maddening. Business suits are difficult to find and expensive to buy. Tailoring is a hassle. High heels hurt your feet. After nine hours, even well-fitting pieces fit like straight jackets. And don’t even get me started on much impact gender politics has on office dress codes. But for the good of your career, I encourage you to look past the frustration and the hassle.
When I walk into a boardroom, courtroom, or committee hearing, people judge me based on my appearance. They silently assess qualities like intelligence, professionalism, and personality. Their thoughts are impacted by their own biases about age and gender, but also shaped and swayed by my appearance. When dressing for work I have two goals: 1) not to create a negative perception that I have to overcome, and 2) to project that I belong in that room and in that role. And those two things are never more important than in a conservative work environment.
Suiting Majorca Simulated Pearl Studs // Theory Gabe Stretch Wool Blazer and Pencil Skirt // Proenza Schouler Printed Blouse // Louise et Cie Jacee Pumps
Dress Shashi Katerina Hoops // BR Herringbone Luxe Blazer // Iris & Ink Ivanna Ponte Dress // Nine West Flax Pumps
Separates Kenneth Jay Lane Art Deco Brooch // Mango Textured Cotton Jacket // Michael Kors Sleeveless Blouse // Armani Collezioni Wide-leg Trouser // Dr. Scholl’s Kimber Flat
You Need a Blazer. The unifying element of all three outfits is the jacket. Regardless of whether you wear it every.minute.of.the.day, you should have a jacket with you at all times. If you’re a woman who wears a lot of long sleeve dresses, and doesn’t want to choose a new topper every morning, I would advise you to keep one or two neutral jackets (I would wear black and white) in your office. There were many times when I worked on the Hill and at the court, when I suddenly needed a jacket because I was invited to a meeting that wasn’t on my schedule or there was an emergency. Be prepared.
Suiting. Theory is the basic suiting brand that many women swear by. Personally, their bottoms never fit me right. If you have a little bit of splurge money, I would go with an Elie Tahari or Hugo Boss suit. If you are on a budget, Calvin Klein and T Tahari are my favorite brands. If I need to hunt for something else, Dillard’s and Macy’s are where I start.
When choosing a blouse, you can use this opportunity to add color to your wardrobe. I prefer jewel tones like emerald and amethyst over brights and pastels. I also wear a lot of pale neutrals–grey, blush, ivory, etc.. For this outfit, I chose a subtle, neutral print, which is another favorite of mine. I probably own too many white/black print blouses.
As for the style of shirt, my preference is always to wear a silky blouse. I don’t like button up shirts with suits. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just not what I prefer. I find a bow blouse or placket blouse to be a bit softer.
Dresses. A reader was telling me last week, that the blog has too much black. So here you go, navy, the other white meat.
This Iris and Ink dress has all the elements I look for in a work dress. It’s fitted, it’s structured, and it has a sleeve. My go-to dress brands in the mid-price category are Black Halo and Reiss. Budget-friendly brands include LOFT and Ann Taylor, which always have sales, and Tahari. Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack are my first choices when I need to hunt for something new.
For the jacket in this outfit, I chose a soft neutral to add a bit more color. This blush blazer from Banana Republic is a nice winter/spring transition piece. I would also have considered this red blazer, if I wanted more punch.
Separates. I don’t often wear pants, but this is an outfit that I would wear tomorrow. When all else fails, a black outfit with a white jacket is crisp and elegant. If I haven’t sold you on the power of the white blazer yet, I recommend buying this $50 jacket and wearing it with your favorite black separates or work dress. Then, see if you don’t find yourself reaching for it all the time.
Let’s talk for a minute about the fit of the pants. In my opinion, skinny trousers are more casual than wide leg or slim cut ones. I’m not saying you can’t wear a suit with slimmer trousers, I’m just saying that before you do, look at the senior staff or partners and see if they are. If not, I would save them for Fridays.
Shoes. For a conservative office, pointed-toe shoes are always more formal looking than round toe. This is especially true for flats. These Dr. Scholl’s heels are a great option under-$100. Over that number, I like the M. Gemi Fortuna. Beyond that advice, I think neutral, sub-3″ heels are your safest bet until you learn the ropes. If you want to push the envelope a bit, I would do it here. A colored or animal print shoe (if appropriate for your office) adds a nice pop.
Accessories. I tend to keep my work jewelry on the subtle, safe side. A pair of stud earrings, a pair of hoops, a delicate pendant, a long necklace, and a brooch. I don’t wear bracelets because they tend to bang on the desk thanks to my tiny wrists.
Tasteful statement jewelry is a great way to breathe life into your wardrobe. I love a chunky collar necklace with a crewneck top. A stack of bracelets with a dress is also a nice option. Or wear a hair clip with a bit of personality.
Undergarments. Perhaps the largest difference between a conservative office and its more liberal brethren is on the topic of foundation garments. To work in a conservative office, you probably need to wear nylons. We all hate them, no one is going to tell you how great they are, but this is our lot in life. I’d like to force some of these men to wear a pair in the humid days of August and see how long nylons remain part of the dress code.
I wear Donna Karan Nudes or Wolford. As for Spanx, I wear them with dresses to prevent visible panty line when necessary. Though they can be so uncomfortable at the end of the day, I would rather just wear the thong.
The last element we need to discuss is camisoles. This is one area where the gender politics is unavoidable. The idea that my bra strap or a little bit of cleavage might scandalize my colleagues is maddening, but I try not to dwell on it. I like these Nordstrom camisoles in spaghetti strap and wider strap. They come in several colors and don’t bunch up. Though, pro tip, you may want to tailor them, as they are a bit long.
Yes, this is a lot of information, but think of it as a reference post. If some day you wind up in an office with a different dress code, you can always turn to this War & Peace size tome for guidance. Check back next week for professional attire.
Lauren Lewow says:
Such a helpful post for women in many fields! Also love the pale pink blazer for spring <3
Thank you, this is great! Quick question about shoes in the colder months. Is it best to wear weather appropriate shoes for commuting and keep heels/flats at your desk? Or would booties with a short heel and pointy toe be appropriate, for example?
Either option sounds fine to me. As long as your commuting shoes are as professional as you can make them, you’re in good shape. I wouldn’t advise a pair of hot pink boots or something.
Alexandria Knox says:
Really helpful post. I am still pretty new to politics and need all the help I can get. The white blazer is sold out. Do you know of any other similar ones? Thank you for all you do.
The $50 one, I assume. I would look at Zara, as that’s where my white blazer is from. Or I would try Off5th or 6pm.com.
There is this white blazer at Loft that is currently 40% off:
Alexandria Knox says:
Wow, thank you so much! I picked it up today!
I am in.love. with the printed blouse from the suiting collection, but not the price tag. Did you come across similar patterns in the a lower price point?
No, sadly, and I looked. If I find something, I’ll post it in another way.
If it’s the print you’re after there are a few at Loft, but the shapes are different. They do have one that is b+w, delicate pattern (softish stripes), and a higher, conservative neckline: https://www.loft.com/loveline-ruffle-neck-blouse/428760?skuId=22385901&defaultColor=4899&colorExplode=false&catid=catl000011
And they’re all 40% off today!
Excellent post, Belle. Thank you!
Two more additional suggestion for formal/conservative work dresses — M.M. LaFleur (which you’ve previously recommended) and Lafayette 148. Lafayette dresses tend to be expensive, BUT can be snatched up at deep, deep discounts on Neiman Marcus Last Call (and sometimes Gilt). I find the brand’s variety, fit, and quality have added a lot of oomph to my wardrobe, and they certainly have “staying power” in terms of how many mornings I reach for them. If you catch a good sale, Lafayette dresses usually run in the $100-200 range.
MM.LaFleur was a game changer for me. I was so dissatisfied with clothes shopping I was going to start making my own pencil skirts. I mean, I still might, but the Noho skirt showed up in my Bento and now I don’t have to. It’s practically perfect (I might tailor it a bit in the waist). Looking at all the other beautiful clothes they offer almost makes me stop dreaming about being able to wear sneakers to work. Almost.
Also agree on M.M.LaFleur. They aren’t as cheap as some other places, but the quality is great and I love how you can filter the dresses by body type. My coworkers think I’m nuts to spend that much, but for someone with a pretty severe pear shape, their dresses fit me like none other.
Alex at MM.LaFleur says:
Hi ladies! Thank you so much for the MM love. We’re delighted to hear you’re enjoying your MM pieces, and we look forward to seeing what catches your eye next.
Love this post and I’m looking forward to reading the others!
Related, but slightly off topic- When commuting to a conservative workplace, what do you do when you have to march past the whole office to get to your desk to change shoes, etc.? I feel as though I’m expected to be “on” as soon as I walk in, but I’m still wearing my coat/hat/commuting shoes. I don’t want to be the person who refuses to stop and talk to a coworker because I have to change my shoes, but I also hate getting sucked into lengthy conversations about work issues when there’s still snow in my hair and slush on my boots.
I don’t think this is an issue. The only way it could be is if you might see clients on your stroll in. I would think just looking for a pair of commuter shoes that still look somewhat professional might be your only solution. Maybe a pair of comfortable, but simple flats?
I bought the Sorel Leah wedges earlier this winter and I cannot recommend them highly enough. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B018UZM6SK/ref=twister_B01I9V5H2M?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1 They are comfortable, are good for all but over 6 inches of snow, and they look professional enough with work pants or black tights that I don’t feel like I look like a slob coming into the office. One day, in a pinch, I even wore them to court with black pants and didn’t feel like they stood out.
Love this post! These are fool-proof formulas.
Absolutely love this content!
In other people’s experience, are hose a definite in a conservative environments? Maybe my workplace is on the edge between conservative and professional. I work at a DC big law firm that is on the more conservative side of things culturally – traditional dark suits are extremely typical and frequently worn (especially on certain floors / around certain practice groups) and if you aren’t wearing a suit, a blazer with a business dress or a blazer with separates is the norm. However, absolutely no one wears hose – not even if they are wearing a suit, not even if they are in court (even first chairing things). It’s possible that some of the older male attorneys if they were directly asked about it would think we all should be wearing hose, but it’s pretty universally acceptable by the women here that hose aren’t mandatory or even typical. Is my office an outlier? That being said, you’re right that it’s better safe than sorry to err on the side of wearing hose in a conservative environment until you get the all clear from other women there.
No, not a definite. But I have worked in offices and heard of offices where they were required. So I just err on the side of caution and give the advice, so that if that’s not where you work, you can simply ignore it. However, I always wear them on job interviews, because you just never know what the office culture of the place you’re going to will be.
I work at a large regional firm in Raleigh, and never wear hose, either at work or at court. The women I see who do are usually in their 60s – partners in their 50s and younger don’t. I think the world has moved on. Law school advisors still tell women to wear them as part of the “better safe than sorry” cadre of advice, but I actually went the other way. If a firm wasn’t going to hire me because I didn’t wear hose, or wore a pantsuit instead of a skirt suit, I was probably not going to enjoy working there anyway.
I’m a lawyer in NYC biglaw and despite working in what I would think would be one of the most conservative environments around, we definitely aren’t. Where are these places that require nylons?!
Since most of the women here never wear jackets around the office, the advice is to keep a full suit in your office for unexpected client meetings or court. So much easier than keeping several blazers and hoping they work with what you’re wearing.
Lady lawyer in hose (sometimes) says:
Atlanta and Birmingham to name a few places, I’ve worked in not-quite-biglaw in both of those cities and there are certain firms where wearing hose was still more common than not. I don’t know that it’s a regional thing, per se; it may just be some of those “good ole boy” firms.
Although my judge didn’t require it, I knew of judges in the courthouse where I clerked that required their female clerks to wear hose.
I work in a very conservative Wash DC based international financial institution – always suits, or dresses with blazers. Hose are not that common – not nude ones. I do see black sheer hose, and of course tights in winter. But nude hose are a rare sighting – at least rare on anyone under 55. Hose are definitely not mandatory – particularly in summer. Your dress code sounds exactly like ours.
I’m in central California and nylons are still holding strong in the energy industry. I’m either an outlier or I’ve been stockholmed, but I actually prefer the finished look of nylons–so long as they’re well chosen.
Love the idea of this series, and I have a request: can you also cover “casual” offices? I work in tech, on the engineering side, and the way to be respected in a meeting is to not look like one of the (usually female) project managers or other business -side employees. I really don’t want to dress like an introverted male nerd all the time though. The technical dress code is “no dress code” but the expectation is definitely more casual than business casual or “creative”.
I second this. I’m an engineer also and still trying to find the right balance after 10 years in the workplace. I like to wear at least a bit of a heel because I’m pretty short, but I hate being the most formally dressed (and the only woman) in the room.
I’m an engineer too, and it’s so hard to know what to wear when there aren’t many women around. My office is more business casual, but I don’t want to wear khakis and a dress shirt like my male colleagues.
Attorney in Chicago here. I now work at a mid-sized firm w a business casual dress code, but I worked at a large, very conservative firm in the past (same large firm, in both NYC and Chicago). While at the large firm, I never once saw anyone wear hose, whether they worked at the firm or were interviewing for a job. My friends who work at firms w conservative dress codes would say the same.
Yes yes yes! I work in the DC office of a major tech company, so we’re a bit higher up than hoodies and flip flops, but I find it much harder to dress for this “no dress code” environment than I have for others with more established norms. Your business-casual and creative posts might hit on this culture, but what do you wear when you’re in meetings with dudes in hoodies 75% of the time?
Big +1 for this! My company has gradually evolved from business casual to just casual. I would love to see some ideas for casual that aren’t “creative” casual. The guys here wear t-shirts so being too fashion forward makes me stand out in a bad way.
Another engineer here and I also support this! My office is bit more formal than business casual, but I can’t wear dresses or skirts because I can get called to the field at any time. I need to be formal enough for meetings, yet casual and practical enough to throw on a pair of steel toe boots.
Rachel C says:
I have 2 of the Nordstrom camis, and while nice, & don’5 love them for the cost. Also, they don’t breathe at all so during hot, humid TN summers I die in them. Do you have any suggestions for alternative camis? I would love if you would do an entire post on camis – styles, price points, etc.
apologies, I could have sworn I did this correctly but it looks like I replied to the wrong comment.
Just wanted to give a big THANK YOU for this post! It can be really hard to navigate the business professional dress code in a conservative office as a woman, especially if you’ve never worked in that kind of environment before. This was so helpful.
People who say no one wears hose at your office, you mean they wear tights, right? The idea of a business suit with bare legs sounds profoundly odd to me.
I’ve worked in a business casual BigLaw firm (business formal for client meetings/court) and at a business casual regulator (business formal for testimony/hearings/etc), both in NY, and very few people wear hose. Lots of bare legs with business suits, especially among women under 50 or so. I wear tights in the winter, but I haven’t worn hose since I interviewed in law school for 2L summer jobs. I personally don’t mind tights but hate hose and I don’t see the problem with bare legs if seasonally appropriate.
Nope, bare legs are normal for me. Tights only in the winter, no hose necessary in warmer months.
I’m heartened that you’ve included ponte along with actual suiting pieces. Is crisp, clean ponte (not at all pilly or stretched, etc.) acceptable for an interview? I’d love to wear the second option to my creative professional office, but I’ve wondered whether ponte was considered as formal as suiting.
Forever thankful that I work from home, and the only judgemental looks I get are from my cats.
Great post! Ubiqlo has great camisoles and t-shirts with either warming or cooling technology for the season and reasonably priced.
Barbara Lisette says:
I love some of the current suiting separates at Ann Taylor. I recently picked up their All Season Stretch Seamed Pencil Skirt and Dress and absolutely love both pieces. My last suit was from Banana Republic which I liked but lately I feel everything has been too big or oddly proportioned.
Belle, in terms of a white blazer, I always feel like I am wearing a lab coat? Is it just the blazer is too big/long? Suggestions?
My state government office is particularly frigid during winter, so I’ve always wondered what people do if they want to wear different colored skirts or dresses but not nude nylons. I have several navy dresses and light neutral outfits that tights would just look weird with. We also park three blocks away during the legislature session, so I’m not enamored of bare legs going to and from work.
Nude hose work. Look at Kate Middleton. Bare legs in 20 degree weather are not sensible. Nothing funnier than the bare legged brigade bundled up in cold offices. Guess what, you may be “fashionable” but you look ridiculous. And hose under pants are great for warmth in cold weather. Wear what you feel comfortable in.
Such a great post – thank you! I’m looking forward to the others in this series.
I so agree. While I know it has become the norm to not wear hose, I think it looks really strange in the winter or even in the summer if the woman is wearing closed-toe shoes. It is like a man wearing a suit, dress shoes, and no socks, or wearing shorts and dress shoes with no socks in the middle of winter.
Also, I hate to break it to you ladies but as we age, our legs start to go downhill. No one wants to see a coworkers veiney legs or saggy knees.
Note that I am in my 30s and feel this way. Hose all the way!
Love this post and looking forward to the rest of the series! This is so helpful in many ways. On the white blazer, I have one and love the concept of it. It is one that I leave in my office for emergencies. However, every time I try to break it out I feel like I stand out like a sore thumb in a sea of dark suits – mostly because I work with about 95% men. Any ideas for making the white blazer seem less harsh?
Love this. On a recent trip to the Middle East I was advised to only wear trousers, nothing form fitting, long sleeves, and high necks. Inot an easy ask, but I turned to jewel tones to keep from looking too austere.
Great post Belle!
Looking forward to the other dress code postings!
I’m an architect in my early 50’s in a professional / creative industry. I lean towards the professional look and always struggle finding creative pieces that don’t make me feel like I’m dressing too young. I love your blog!
Alexandria Knox says:
Could you cover black tie event attire and evening events? I am coming across those lots in politics and am not sure what to wear. Thanks again for all you do. I consider you and fellow readers my mentors.
Love the dress and how you’ve styled it!
If women get to ditch the hose, why should men still have to wear a tie? On a hot day, it’s probably just as uncomfortable. Personally, I’ ve always thought it should be an individual issue- if you have flabby, blotchy, or cellulite riddled legs, or if you insist upon not shaving so you look like a Wookiee from the knees down, then for the love of all that’s good-be a big girl and invest in some fine quality legwear. You look better! And, JMO of course, but if you are wearing a skirt suit with no leg wear, you look like you forgot something….especially in the middle of winter!