Earlier this year, a reader sent me a photo of a U.S. Senator wearing thigh-high boots and a mini-dress, and asked if I thought she was dressed appropriately. Her contention was that the outfit was too sexy, but that wasn’t my complaint. For me, sexiness is not a woman’s primary dress code concern, it’s informality.
Last week, the Montana Legislature hosted a Saturday hearing on healthcare. All 11 men were in blazer and tie, but only two of the eight women were wearing jackets. I watched the hearing for a few minutes trying to decide why this bothered me so much. The women on the committee were equally invested, equally intelligent, and equally important, but put a woman in a casual sweater next to a man in a full suit and the contrast is damaging.
As much as we try to change or deny it, the reality is that what we wear matters. Perceptions of our intelligence, work ethic, and professionalism are shaped by our appearance. And appearance, like so many things, is relative. Your attire is judged based on those around you.
If you work in a professional field where the men are almost always in suits, I implore you: wear blazers. Wearing a blazer reinforces your professionalism and creates visual equality with male co-workers. Visual equality may not seem important, but imagine walking into a meeting and there are two women sitting at a conference table — one in a striped pink sweater and another in a blazer — who would you assume is the elected official? What if they both were?
Realizing that this is an issue, especially for women who are in mid-level or senior positions, I wanted to write a post about which pieces I consider blazer and suiting essentials. So let’s talk about building a foundation.
Basic Suiting. Nearly every woman needs a navy or black suit. If you work in the government, law or finance, you likely need both. Wear a suit every day? You also need a grey suit.
When buying a suit, choose your separates (skirt or pants) based on which you will wear more often. Many women who wear suits regularly will buy the skirt and the pants that match the blazer.
There are a handful of go-to shops for basic women’s suiting: Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Talbot’s and J.Crew. These suits are mid-priced and can be tailored to look much nicer than their price would suggest. Plus, you can often find them on sale.
For department store brands, I like Calvin Klein, T Tahari, and Preston and York. These brands all make basic suiting that can help you build up your wardrobe. They also fall into the mid-price category with both pieces costing under-$250.
Beyond Basic Suiting. If you’ve been working for a few years, you may have all your basics covered. Now what?
First, I visit Saks, Bloomingdale’s, or other high-end department stores to do reconnaissance. I’m looking for designers who reliably make a few suits each year — Rebecca Taylor, Milly, Max Mara, etc.. Then, I search for those designers on Poshmark in my size.
You would be shocked how many women buy a $750 suit, wear it once (maybe twice), and then put it up on Poshmark for under-$150. And I am happy to profit from their back-of-the-closet clean out.
Other than Poshmark, I shop for unique suiting at Dillard’s, Lord & Taylor and Macy’s. These kind of old-school department stores cater to the Southern church crowd, and those ladies still wear suits. So if you want color or texture or unique shapes, shop there.
Blazers. Not a suits person? Just need blazers? This is the boat that many of us are in.
The three blazers that women need are black, white, and navy. These are the three colors that I wear most often, and they go with anything. When I worked in D.C., I kept a black blazer and a white blazer in my office in case I needed to spruce up an outfit quickly. They empowered versatility.
I try to push my basics a bit by choosing blazers with cool buttons, pleated shoulders (like the blazer above), or other simple accents. It’s a way to have basic pieces that aren’t boring, but there is nothing wrong with keeping it simple.
I recommend buying blazers other than your suit blazers. The reason being that if you dry-clean a jacket often, you will find that it lightens over time and may not match your separates after several cleanings.
It’s easier to find blazers than suits. In addition to the retailers already listed, I like H&M, Zara, Modcloth, LOFT and Boden for blazers. All of these retailers carry affordable to mid-price blazers. And they offer both the basic pieces you need and the more unique pieces you want.
Plus-size? I’m impressed by how many blazers Eloquii stocks. Lots of colors and styles to choose from, so give them a look.
So where do you buy your suits and blazers? Which do you consider must-have styles and colors? And have you noticed that having more options sometimes leaves women dressed more informally than men?