The dream of the 1890s is alive in my work dress code
September 29, 2013 12:05 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way for a woman to wear classic menswear?

I just started a job as a barista in a third-wavey sort of coffee shop. Luckily there's not much of a dress code, but the manual specifies that we wear a vest, tie, or suspenders with a button-down shirt and pants. Hats are encouraged but not required.

The button-down shirt I've got covered, and pants I can manage. I'm not an incredibly curvy person and in fact I look perfectly OK in menswear-inspired clothes. I also like menswear and would love to incorporate more of it into my wardrobe.

My real question is about accessorizing.

What's the best way to wear some combination of a tie, vest, or suspenders (and maybe a hat?) without looking like a complete tool?

Can I make this actually work for me, as opposed to being a bare minimum standard of complying with the letter of the law even if I look not great? Are there specific cuts or styles I should be looking for?

Is there something traditionally feminine that would fit the requirements? I'm imagining a sort of Gibson Girl look, but with pants rather than a hobble skirt. Or maybe something a WAC or Rosie The Riveter would wear?

I would love specific brand or item recommendations, with a few caveats: I need to get this stuff soon, and it needs to be relatively affordable and replaceable. I make and serve coffee for a living, so something that can withstand having coffee spilled on it (or be easily replaced if ruined) is probably best. Stores located in the LA area are great, as are convenient web resources like Modcloth or Zappos. If you know that Forever 21 has this right now, point me at it!

(I am in my early 30s, female bodied, and wear regular store sizes rather than either petite or plus. I am short and small of bust. My overall aesthetic is pretty tomboyish already, but not butch.)
posted by Sara C. to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (21 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think the Girls in Suits tumblr could be inspiring. (Check out that Gwen Stefani outfit, though I'd choose a different hat.)

Lands' End and Jones New York both make button-down shirts that are tailored for people with busts. JNY is often on sale at Macy's and LE runs frequent sales (or try your local Sears if they carry it). Alternatively, try thrift shops. They're a good choice for fitted vests, which don't show up in a lot of regular stores.
posted by wintersweet at 12:09 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you're allowed to roll/cuff your sleeves, look at tutorials on how to stylishly roll/cuff men's shirts to the elbow—I've always found that looks better on me and somehow emphasizes my figure/looks less frumpy when I have to wear long-sleeved dress shirts. Rolling/cuffing looks good with vests, too. And yeah, seconding thrift stores—you'll have a better choice of looks, and there are always men's suit/vest combos around to pull from.
posted by limeonaire at 12:15 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: it's super easy to find vests in thrift shops, and depending on your size you should check out either the boys or mens dept. too. I personally think vests will be way easier to pull off then either tie or suspenders because they're pretty curve-friendly (unlike suspenders!) ties are also easily found at thrift shops. Can you wear a small scarf around your neck in a tie-like fashion? this is pretty common in women's workwear from the 40s on.
posted by genmonster at 12:35 PM on September 29, 2013

There's the Annie Hall look, of course, but that's tricky.

Bolo tie, perhaps? Again, tricky to pull off without the whole Western ensemble, but it's one way to satisfy the tie requirement in a way that's closer to wearing a necklace.
posted by holgate at 12:57 PM on September 29, 2013

Diane Keaton's been doing this quite successfully for years. Maybe take a look at her photos to see how she does it. Definitely, the hat adds to her look. A lot of the pictures show her either wearing baggier pants and somewhat undone clothes (like a vest that isn't fully buttoned), or completely tailored and put together, but with a big feminine accessory like a wide belt or heels. Plus the hat.
posted by Houstonian at 12:58 PM on September 29, 2013

The Goodwill in Glendale at 1600 E Colorado always has nice men's long sleeved shirts (it's right by the 2.) Rolling up the sleeves looks more relaxed, and lighter weight, rather than oxford cloth. You might even be able to get away with larger boys' shirts. ( I don't know why this particular one has such great shirts, but it's better than any other I've ever found.)

Tie and vest or suspenders and tie, but not all three at the same time. Bow ties are cute, too. And a newsboy/flat cap.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:07 PM on September 29, 2013

I'd take a look at some queer / tomboyish blogs:
Qwear eg search for 'suspenders'
tomboy/femme style.
Tomboy Style
Faintly Masculine
Femme Tomboy Fashion/a>
WILDFANG - they sell 'tomboy' clothes

Tips to mix menswear and femme-y styling:
- Scale: eg small bowties and small suspenders
- Consider fabrics and textures in neutral and masculine color schemes
- propotion - mixture of some baggier and some trimmer pieces
- accessories like slighty femme neck scarves or clutches
- small flourishes like these metal things on the collar
- jewelry. Again, think scale and texture. Dainty jewelry mixed with menswear is sort of a femme-tomboy thing - a chunky necklace here would look out of proportion, or too masculine.
- show some skin: whether with an unbuttoned shirt, rolled sleeves, rolled pants, or some combo of the above.
- feminine hair and makeup with menswear
posted by barnone at 1:26 PM on September 29, 2013 [14 favorites]

I'd head to Goorin Brothers To try on hats. They have a nice selection, both in style and price.
posted by asphericalcow at 1:26 PM on September 29, 2013

Best answer: Tie and suspenders, tie and vest, but never all three. Also never suspenders and vest. (Also never suspenders and belt, but you knew that.) Seconding, but for the record that has been sitting in this comment box for an hour or so while I've been watching football and wondering whether or not to bring up fedoras.

But I disagree about men's shirts. Men's (or boy's) vests are fine, and plentiful, but stick with button-up shirts fitted for women.

Get one or two skinny black ties. Get a snazzy bow tie. Consider a bolo tie.

Mens jewelry is pretty easy to find on eBay; you'll want a tie bar or a tie chain to hold those skinny black ties to your shirt (when you're not wearing a vest).

Bowler or newsboy, but hatless hair-up is just fine.
posted by carsonb at 1:27 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wild West mercantile has fantastic items like this Scully vest. Frontier Classics is another great brand to look for. Try using SASS (Single Action Shooting Society) as a search term on Ebay for more ideas.
posted by Requiax at 1:27 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Annie Hall! I don't think that would be "tricky" as holgate says — I think that would be a natural look for you. I mean, look at that picture.

If I were in your situation, I'd get a few dark ties in colors like red, blue, and purple (classic colors for men that are still fairly unisex/feminine) from a budget or thrift store. Those colors are so versatile you won't have to worry much about matching them with a shirt and vest. Coffee stains would be relatively inconspicuous on a dark tie. As far as patterns, I'd tend toward solid, dots, or paisley. Tie it in a half Windsor knot and wear it loose, the way Jim Halpert usually wore his tie on The Office.

I've found Men's Wearhouse to be pretty reliable when it comes to ties, and it looks like almost everything's 40% off on the website right now. You can find plenty of decent ties at Nordstrom Rack in the $15-25 range (here's a link filtered to $50 or less). You could get some very appropriate solid dark ties from Banana Republic; they're usually about $60, but if there's one in LA having a storewide 40% off sale, that could be a good deal. Make sure to avoid "extra long" ties.

Wear a vest — charcoal grey or navy would be a safe bet. I don't recommend suspenders or a bowtie. I realize a bowtie has the advantage of being more out of the way when you're working with coffee, but I picture it being less flattering, and it would run the risk of seeming geeky, clownish, or overly self-conscious. (I assume you wouldn't want to tuck in the necktie if the place is this fashion-conscious, but that would be another way to avoid stains.) The Annie Hall look seems like the perfect way to go — appropriate to the dress code and the setting, retro, subtle, hip without trying too hard.
posted by John Cohen at 1:53 PM on September 29, 2013

Check Janelle Monae. One accessory thing I noticed is that she seems to go quite oversize and flamboyant with her bowties and other neckwear (she wears the fuck out of an ascot, for instance), which is totally something you could copy. She also goes quite high-waisted with the pants, which I think helps make it look more femme.

The rest of it I think is just smart tailoring and/or custom pieces (vest is cinched at waist etc).
posted by en forme de poire at 1:55 PM on September 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I asked this recent question about androgynous bow ties suitable for a small-ish woman's frame. Many of them are smaller, or have interesting fabrics, or a nice texture.
posted by barnone at 2:11 PM on September 29, 2013

Sadly not in LA, but you might find Junky Styling A good source of inspiration, they recut men's suits into interesting womenswear and accessories.
posted by tardigrade at 2:29 PM on September 29, 2013

I think that would be a natural look for you

The tricky part of the Annie Hall look is below the waist: as Houstonian says, the baggy trousers play an important part, and are the most 70s bit of the ensemble, and that may not be what the dress code is looking for.

Strangely enough, it got me thinking about sub fusc, which very much isn't a model here, but you can see how the women's string tie fits in, hence my thought about the bolo.

With regular ties, the thrift store route can get you a lot of tie (or a lot of ties) for not much money.
posted by holgate at 2:35 PM on September 29, 2013

Best answer: if you're looking to femme things up a bit, you can wear a very fitted mens shirt with a very fitted vest. like, very fitted. i have a vest from h&m that is an extra-small (i'm usually a medium -ish) and i wear it buttoned up (usually over a tank top but that doesn't sound like an option here, sometimes i will wear a fitted collared short sleeve shirt). if you do it up so it's snug, and if you get a women's vest, it will emphasize your curves in that "she has a little waist" way. even if you don't.
posted by andreapandrea at 3:06 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I recently bought suspenders from this online store and they sent buttons to sew into my favorite pants along with my order. Took me 25 minutes, but I sewed the suspenders into my favorite jeans, and now I'm rocking the button-down / t-shirt with suspenders look.

It is hawt and highly recommended.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 6:30 PM on September 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Goodwill and Salv. Army often have beautiful silk ties. I used to use the sash from a dress as a tie because I liked the print. Learn to wear striped, tattersall or other shirts with a patterned tie; this works especially well with a vest.
posted by theora55 at 7:16 PM on September 29, 2013

Also never suspenders and vest.

As a lifelong wearer of braces and occasional wearer of three piece suits, I disagree with this. I do not know how else one would hold up their pants. (I think a belt's buckle might bulge through the waistcoat a bit) I would say, of course, that the braces such be under the vest/waistcoat. I coordinate (not match) my braces with my tie.

I agree with the advice that the clothing be very fitted. I think a necktie would work better than a bowtie. I do not recommend a bolo. You also may wish to consider shirt stays to keep your shirt tucked-in and neat; I wear these. I like that Scully vest. Bear in mind that the bottom button of a vest/waistcoat is left unbuttoned.

Lastly, please wear braces, not suspenders. (in other words, button-on, not clip-on). Buttons can be easily sewn into the waistband of your pants. You also may wish to view the male fashion advice subreddit.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:16 AM on September 30, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the advice! Girls In Suits is my new favorite thing!

Luckily, I have about a week's worth of button-down shirts already, so at the moment I'm not in the market for more. Though at the rate I spill steamed milk all over myself in the attempt to do latte art, I'm sure I'll need more eventually.

Re all the thrift store advice: good call! I'm already a dedicated thrifter, and for some reason I didn't put together that I can easily find all this stuff at goodwill.

I had originally nixed the idea of vests, because I thought they specifically don't look good on women. But the Girls In Suits tumblr has me convinced I can rock one. I especially like the vest + tie combo. I'm leaning more towards neck ties right now rather than bow ties, mostly because I suck at tying bow ties, refuse to wear a clip-on, and doubt I'll find them at a thrift store anyway. But I'm open to a bow tie.

Re suspenders/braces. Unfortunately, because I'm on a tight budget, and I'm going to be wearing whatever it is mainly with jeans, it's unlikely that I'll start out with braces and sew buttons into all of my pants explicitly for brace-wearing. But eventually, maybe? And I'm definitely down with the idea of skipping suspenders until I can afford to do it right. Right now I'm pretty agnostic about Doing Menswear Correctly in this situation, especially since I'm being encouraged to wear a hat indoors, which already violates every rule in the book. It's a $10 barista gig. I'll wear clipped-in suspenders if it's the only thing keeping me within dress code standards.
posted by Sara C. at 12:45 PM on September 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I hit some thrift stores today and am now armed with the vest from a teen boy's first suit and a couple of ties. My budget being what it is, I'm going for more of a prep school look and less of a pitti uomo type aesthetic, for the moment.

If nothing else, I can go as Annie Hall for Halloween. (Check the photo in my profile!) Thanks, all!
posted by Sara C. at 8:26 PM on October 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

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