In my many years of working as a financial auditor (exciting stuff, I know), I have visited many clients across a plethora of industries with vastly varying dress codes; from a non-profit land preservation organization in the middle of a small forest to the warehouses and back offices of various industrial manufacturing companies to the posh penthouse palaces of private equity firms, I’ve seen a slew of acceptable office attire. Despite this exposure, however, I likely haven’t visited your office so I can’t be an expert on the definition of your specific office dress code. While I offer the basics of staying classy and polished at work, we can’t forget one of the best guides to what works in your office throughout the year ~ other well-dressed women in your office.
Take a nod from the professional women around your corporate environment that you admire or feel are leaders in your company or organization. What do they wear to work everyday? Chances are they set the tone for acceptability. If you see them wearing something that might be a bit more edgy or fun than your initial envisioned boundaries, make a mental note that you can probably stretch a piece in a similar way as well. So many offices have varying dress codes, particularly for women, that it can be challenging to decipher exactly where in the spectrum of casual to business professional your office expectations lie. But in many cases, the well-respected women who have been around the office for many years have either figured out what is acceptable or even created the boundaries of what has become “the norm” in your corporate arena. Industry, geography, client-interaction, and so many other factors can play large roles in what makes the grade and what leaves you a topic of conversation for all those noticing you for the wrong reasons.
That’s not to say you should dress the same as the biggest baddest female boss in the office just to impress. It’s more important to make sure your style suits your tastes, your budget, and your body. It’s perfectly acceptable (and preferable, in my opinion) to dress your age. For example, there’s no need to wear a high-end patterned skirt out of your price range just because the boss wears it. Instead, focus on the style, silhouette, fabric, etc.. of her fancy-schmany skirt, and then know that something similar in your price range will be a great option for the office. Use those female leaders as inspiration and guides. For the most part, they must be doing things right to be where they are…
On that note, it’s good to remember that one funky or less conservative piece in the office probably means the rest of your outfit should be relatively understated.
For example, I combined this bright blue dress with a hot pink sweater. The colors make a statement, no doubt, so I ensured that the silhouette and style of the dress and cardigan remained quite conservative. The length of the dress along with its high neck in combination with the conservative sleeve coverage from the cardigan offset the louder colors.
On a similar note, the pattern and color of the striped skirt and bright pink shirt, respectively, draw a bit of attention. To keep it work appropriate, the skirt has sufficient length and the blouse has a neck line that certainly won’t flirt with becoming revealing (even as I bend over and move around throughout the day) A camisole underneath the blouse further ensures no slip-ups or sneaking out. This outfit may not be appropriate for an important client meeting or promotional discussion with my boss, but it allowed me to weave in some fun, bright colors at the office without loosing the professional tone of the attire.
The dress below runs a bit short for my office. The tights along with the muted color of the dress help to prevent from accentuating the slightly short length of the dress. I also threw on a black cardigan upon arriving at the office, though I didn’t include it in the picture. While some offices may consider it appropriate, sleeveless tops don’t make the best professional impression in many corporate settings (not to mention their tendency to allow the bra straps to sneak out on occasional – an absolute “no-no” in the office). So while I wear them to keep cool during my commute, I don’t generally rock sleeveless tops throughout the day.
At times, I throw on a pair of knee-high boots for an office ensemble. While there are many ways to keep them classy, tread carefully. This article of clothing can quickly turn from a classy, winter-friendly footwear option to a not-so-office appropriate shoe better suited for a night on the town (or the corner…). Though not necessarily required, I only wear boots with tights (partially for comfort because I find the calves of the boots irritate my legs without tights). Further, ensure that the skirt lands at a proper length – not much shorter than just above your knees, but no so long that it reaches your boots (as that begins to look silly in many cases). Here are a few examples of how I have incorporated knee-high boots into my cubicle closet.
In the end, notice what other more senior and well-respected women wear in the office. Do they wear bright colors on occasion? Do they wear colored tights or only black or nude nylons? Do they wear knee-high boots or do these seem to be off limits? Certainly bring your own taste and style to your cubicle style, but use those women as one source of inspiration and a gut check on acceptability when you think you might be walking the line.