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.
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.