What can a woman wear to an office with a business formal dress code?
July 17, 2013 9:20 AM   Subscribe

I need to make sure I have the right wardrobe for my new job. The new gig involves a business formal dress code. As a woman who has never worked anywhere with a strict dress code before, I am a bit confused/concerned about what to wear to the office. Is it okay to "recycle" the essence of the same outfit throughout the week, like guys tend to do?

I'll be starting a new and exciting job soon. Part of the new gig involves me getting a new wardrobe. That is to say, the "dress code" at the job I'm currently leaving is basically anarchy. This new job, on the contrary, has a strictly business formal dress code most of the time. When I asked for the official policy, the HR rep sent: "Women’s Attire: Acceptable attire includes: business suits, pantsuits, business dresses, coordinated skirts, blouses, sweaters, and blazers; and dress shoes." So, for a man, I assume it is okay to cycle through 1-3 suits throughout the week while just changing out the shirt and tie. Can a woman get away with doing much the same? Is it okay for significant pieces of an outfit to repeat, almost like a "uniform"? Also, can one wear a dress or skirt (of appropriate length, of course) without pantyhose? It's kind of embarrassing to have to ask this kind of question, but this is a job I'm really excited for and I really want to prepare well, especially since, while I do have a few pieces in the closet that are business formal compliant, I will likely have to invest financially in some new threads.
posted by Angel de Lune to Work & Money (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The pantyhose question will absolutely depend on your office; you'll need to check with other women who work there.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:26 AM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: Absolutely on the "recycle throughout the week" plan. Some nice trousers in black or charcoal go with everything and can be worn repeatedly and in a variety of different ways without looking too much like a daily uniform. Also a neutral skirt (pencil or A-line) at knee length in a neutral color will be useful. Besides, if you're dry cleaning -- you'll want to get a few wearings out of them. Depending on where you are, hose/stockings seem to be not much worn these days unless you need them for warmth. You may want to be careful with shoes -- open-toed shoes that edge too much into sandal territory are somewhat of a no-no in dressier places (My point of reference is from working at the State Capitol in Texas -- southern, dressy conservative, but hot as blazes. It may be different in different places.)
posted by pantarei70 at 9:27 AM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: When I was working in a strict dress code environment, I tried to have at least five suits that were acceptable at all times. I think you can probably get away with a repeat with at least one day in between if you are wearing really generic suits, but I'm not sure they even make those any more. Build up your wardrobe over time. Take a look at Ann Taylor and Talbot's. Both are good sources for women's business attire that won't break the bank.

Whether or not you wear hose depends in part on your locale and the accepted norms there, and also in part on the business itself. Because they did not specify hose, they may be okay without it -- since the late 90s, this has become more and more acceptable due in large part to Ally McBeal. It's more European to wear sheer hose, but sheer hose may be coming back in style in the US, thanks to the fascination with Katherine Middleton.
posted by janey47 at 9:29 AM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: So, for a man, I assume it is okay to cycle through 1-3 suits throughout the week while just changing out the shirt and tie. Can a woman get away with doing much the same?

Unfortunately. . . possibly not. Depends on whether you're going to be just around the office or going out in public, dealing with clients, etc. Unlike with men, if a woman in a professional environment wears the same thing two days in a row, it will be noticed, and more than likely commented upon, though probably not to her face. This is inappropriate (and just plain wrong, I'd argue), but saying that doesn't make it any less true.

Fortunately, women's clothing can be a bit more flexible, or at least diverse, than men's clothing. And women's professional clothing can be a lot more mix-and-match than men's tends to be. I've seen women in professional environments wear the same skirt with two different blouses for an entirely different effect. Add different jackets, and you can get a lot of distinct outfits from relatively few individual items. So you can definitely get away with wearing the same articles of clothing more than once a week, sometimes even two days in a row, but you'll probably need to be careful to change enough of your outfit so that it doesn't look like you're doing that. It takes a little more creativity than the guys generally need to display--we can wear the same suit three days in a row as long as we switch out the tie--but you can definitely use the same articles of clothing in numerous outfits.

All of this sounds dreadfully stuffy and superficial, but hey, that's professional attire for you.
posted by valkyryn at 9:32 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies everyone. There isn't any face-to-face client interaction involved with this position, since you mentioned it. And in terms of the pantyhose, I live in Chicago and it doesn't seem to be very popular to wear pantyhose with my generation, but some of the older ladies in my life have a different point of view.
posted by Angel de Lune at 9:35 AM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: I think you're totally fine wearing the same suit and changing out the shell, as long as the suit isn't hot pink or otherwise extremely memorable. I can't tell you what a single one of my coworkers wore yesterday.
posted by something something at 9:36 AM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: Yes, you can "uniform", in fact, that's mostly what I do, although I wouldn't wear the same dress more than once a week. Skirts and pants I usually let air out a day or two between wearings. Ideally, you'll have enough clothing to get through 2 weeks without any obvious repetition.

I work in a business formal environment and I own about 8-9 skirts, 4 that are lighter weight and summer appropriate and then the rest heavier wool. 4ish dress pants (not part of a suit unit) (mostly all heavy weight wool) and then 3-4ish dresses that are work appropriate. With those I can basically alternate cardigans, blouses, nice simple t-shirts and jackets and manage to go 3-4weeks without needing to dryclean everything. In the summer I wear mostly skirts and dresses, and in the winter I wear mostly pants or skirts+tights.

I don't own a skirt suit, just 2 regular black pants-suits, and generally those are worn one time each each week in winter (so I do two suit days a week in winter. I probably should get another one or two, but suits are mad pricy and need tailoring to look good). In the summer, I don't usually bother with a suit, but make sure to wear nicer heels, and to be more put together hair and makeup wise than usual on days when I have client facing meetings. non client facing days get slacks+ button down in winter, or pencil skirt and blouse in summer.

I only have closed toe shoes for the office- and 2 pairs live at the office permanently.

Speaking of which, you will now have dryclean only clothing, and it is VERY tempting to look around one weekend day and go "all these things need cleaning" and then end up with most of your wardrobe at the drycleaners come monday. (and a very high bill)

The pantyhose is office and region specific. I get away with no pantyhose, but I've noticed that the older women wear them.
posted by larthegreat at 9:37 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Get 4 suits and get the skirt AND pants option for each one (if they have both of course) so you can mix it up a little. I would go for 1 plain black, 1 black or dark gray pinstripe, 1 gray or navy, and 1 wildcard (not super wild, just if you see something that has 3/4 sleeve blazer or interesting checks or something you can do it).

Then get 3 or so more blazers to wear over dresses or skirts.

Get 5 long sleeve button down tops (2 white, 1 blue, 1 black, 1 fun color). If you are busty, look for the ones with the secret hidden button or hook and eye closure in the chest between buttons.
It is ok to repeat parts of suits in a week but not right away, so you can wear black pinstripe blazer and pants on Monday but wait til Thurs to wear black pinstripe blazer and skirt or dress.

Get as many work dresses as you can, they are a perfect uniform and easiest in my opinion to transition day to night.
Work dresses should not show any cleavage if possible, not show any bra straps, skim over your body but not really touch it, be made of woven NOT knit stretchy material, and be opaque so you can't see underwear lines.

I would wear hose and closed toe shoes for the first day or three and see what other people are doing. The first week is for making impressions on your coworkers so you want to seem professional and like you are taking this seriously and you are eager to get to work, and I think erring on the side of conservative is best in a business formal office.

Save your receipts from work clothes shopping, since this is a work-related expense you might be able to get some tax deductions.
posted by rmless at 9:39 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can absolutely cycle the same few suit separates if they are not memorable. By that I mean neutral colors, subdued textures, and classic cuts. You should not wear the red peplum jacket three times in a week, but the navy blazer? Sure.

I would probably buy three suits in three different neutrals that can be worn in all seasons (e.g., mid-tone gray, navy, and black) and I would vary up the types of pieces. For example, don't buy three skirt suits. Buy one skirt suit, one pant suit, and one jacket-and-dress suit.

Similarly, vary the tops that you'll wear underneath: have some woven and others knit, and with different necklines, collars, no collars, long-sleeve, short-sleeve, etc. People will remember you as the woman who always wears a turtleneck and a suit even if the turtleneck and suit are different every day of the year. They will likely not think of you as "the woman who every day wears one of three suits and either a tie-neck blouse, a cowl neck shell, a classic white button-down, a cardigan, or a cashmere v-neck."
posted by payoto at 9:41 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cycling 2-4 suits is going to be much easier for a woman if the suits are black or navy and a pencil skirt or pants. You can swap out the shirt, shoes and jewelry or leave off the jacket and no-one will really notice. It's much harder if the suit is the sort with a sheath dress or in a bold color or has style detailing (a flounce, a tulip hem, a skirt in a less traditional/conservative shape). I agree with the above-comment that you should buy suits with both a pants and skirt/dress option. ALWAYS have the pieces dry cleaned together, even if one piece has less wear between cleanings, to preserve the dye match.

When you swap out tops, you can really mix it up. Button-downs or knit tops (with or without cardigans). Tanks in higher-end fabrics with cardigans, coordinating blazers or open-front jackets, rather than the suit coat. Sweaters in the cooler months. Scarves or really eye-catching necklaces will play down the repeating of the skirt/pants. Men do this with ties--women have more options.

Add 3-4 dresses to your rotation and you can easily get away with 3 suits (black, navy, grey) and about a dozen tops, with a few cardigans, blazers and wraps.

At my prior law firm jobs in Chicago (I'm at an NPO now, but this is within the last five years), pantyhose was only necessary for court appearances (and even then mostly at the Federal courthouse; I see lots of women without at the Daley center). I often see women without hose at the BigLaw firms where I spend much of my time in meetings. You don't get much more conservative than BigLaw. I'm in my 40's, so I can't quite bring myself to go barelegged to court, but I see it all the time. Just make sure you're in very professional shoes (no thongs, no open toes).
posted by crush-onastick at 9:42 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You guys are awesome, thanks so much for the great suggestions! Also, thanks for reminding me about the potential tax deduction for this wardrobe/work expense. That'll help the medicine go down a bit easier for me as my wallet gets lighter.
posted by Angel de Lune at 9:46 AM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: For an idea of how wardrobe mixing and matching works, browse Ann Taylor Loft. Jacket with dress. Jacket with skirt and top. Other jacket with matching pants and different top. Other jacket with skirt. Other jacket with dress. Rotate.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:47 AM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: I've worked in Chicago offices with business formal dress codes, and pantyhose would be considered overkill in the summer unless you are in federal court or some such formal thing. A bunch of skirts, dress pants and blouses with jacket and cardigans will suit you well. Be prepared for very cold air conditioning in summer. You'll need to dress appropriately for the steamy outdoor temps and then need a light cardigan or additional layer to make it through the day indoors in most downtown offices.
posted by readery at 9:53 AM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: And as an accountant, there's no possible way to take these kind of clothes as a tax deduction. Sorry.
posted by readery at 9:54 AM on July 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You should check out the blog Corporette- it's a style blog for professional women, and it's perfect for what you're asking here. Lots of good info about suits and business-appropriate clothing in general, and the commenters are great about coming up with recommendations for clothes.
posted by Tamanna at 9:57 AM on July 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have to dress quite this formally, but I do have a "nice" dressing office and have found a couple of tips that help get more wearings out of suits and dry-clean-ables. The main one is to only wear your work clothes while working. As soon as I get home, I change out of my jackets and slacks and usually work shirt, as well. Hang everything back up immediately, smoothing any creases from the day, and let it air out. Get a clothes brush and lint roller, and brush off lint and fuzz and dust from the day. Definitely brush cuffs and sleeves well as they tend to pick up dirt from tables and walking around. Doing this not only spares the clothes more wear but also prevents the kinds of accidents that come from rushing to cook dinner while still in nice office clothes. And getting them back onto a hanger right away keeps them looking very presentable for another day.

A steamer helps too.
posted by Miko at 10:00 AM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks again everyone, you've all been a big help.
posted by Angel de Lune at 10:08 AM on July 17, 2013

On the maintenance end, remember that if you've got a suit (jacket and pants and/or skirt), whenever you send it to be cleaned, you should send all the pieces together, so that any wear/fade from cleaning is uniform across all the pieces. Guess how I know this?
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 10:29 AM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is a trick I've learned far too late in life, but if you pick a small color palette, you can get a lot more mileage out of fewer items and spend a lot less time in front of your closet starting at that one piece that you really, really love but that doesn't play well with anything else in your wardrobe. For an office setting, I would suggest picking 2 dark neutrals, 1 light neutral (are you more of a bright white or an ivory sort of gal?) and 1 accent color.

Armed with those choices, you can get a skirt suit, a coordinating pair of slacks, and a cardigan in each of your dark neutrals, a solid knit and a solid woven top in your light neutral and your accent color, and a couple more tops that combine any of the colors in your palette. That's 14 pieces total (many of which you probably already own) and you can get several dozen different 3-piece combinations out of it. And if you have existing tops, jackets or cardigans outside your 3-color palette that still work, you will have EVEN MORE OPTIONS. The point is that your NEW purchases should stick to that 3-color palette for maximum versatility. On your next shopping round you can add in a solid dress or a jacket or sweater in one of your light colors, a bolder skirt or jacket that combines some of those colors, different weights for changing seasons, etc.
posted by drlith at 11:03 AM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also wanted to chime in that Corporette has great advice as well!
posted by radioamy at 12:26 PM on July 17, 2013

If you are lazy like me, I would suggest you purchase dresses that you can put a jacket or a sweater with. I work in a business where most people wear casual clothing, but I don't. I wear things that won't make me uncomfortable or feel embarrassed if I happen to be invited to lunch with the CEO of a major bank. I don't spend a lot of money so you can do it on a small budget, but dresses that are plain colors or same pattern from top to bottom are easily paired with a jacket to give a neat and corporate impression. Cache has great dresses that you can find and there is always a sale. Purchase a beige, navy blue or black (or all three) blazer and you will find that it will go with most anything. Cardigans in any color (solid color) usually can be worn with anything. In colder months, you can do the cardigan and the blazer. I wouldn't worry about pantyhose unless you are working with JP Morgan (where they will explicitly request all ladies wear pantyhose to work.)

Congratulations on your new job!!
posted by Yellow at 1:04 PM on July 17, 2013

I wouldn't rush out and drop a lot of cash on clothes right away. You already have some nice dresses and suits, right? Maybe wear those the first week and see how people are actually dressing in the office. Then go shopping on the weekend.
posted by bunderful at 2:00 PM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

How about a capsule wardrobe to start? Buy the basics, and then mix and match - and most importantly accessorize!! - to vary the looks. Here's a site that presents this well. Lots to choose from.
posted by seawallrunner at 8:47 PM on July 17, 2013

FYI, these kinds of clothes are probably not tax deductible, and trying could lead you to an audit.
posted by nosila at 11:41 AM on July 18, 2013

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