What to Wear Beneath a Suit Jacket

what-to-wear-beneath-suit-jacketsReader E wonders what blouses, shirts, and tops you can wear beneath suits…

I’m wondering if you can give some advice on the best shirts to wear with suits. I have to wear a suit every day for work, but I often take off the jacket at my desk, so I need shirts that (a) work under a suit but (b) are not sleeveless and (c) don’t come untucked (which is unfortunately the case for most button-up shirts I’ve found). Do women need to wear button-up shirts like men? If not, what is the best type of shirt? Are sweaters too informal?

Views differ on this, so make sure you observe others in your office to suss out the dress code.  Personally, I think almost anything goes under a suit, provided that doesn’t show skin. Still, some of the tops I’ve found that don’t work well under suit jackets include:

-------Sponsored Links--------

  • Cowl necks of any kind. They look lovely by themselves, but the cowlneck just never seems to sit right with the lapels of the blazer.
  • Sleeveless. Reader E mentions this one, and I agree with it, if only because I will do anything to avoid frequent trips to the drycleaner — in addition to being expensive, it’s bad for the environment, bad for the garment, and doesn’t always get rid of odors and stains (and sometimes seems to magically set them). Wearing short sleeves beneath blazers and suit jackets helps prolong the number of wears before you need to visit the drycleaner.
  • Tank tops. I know, this is Hollywood’s favorite thing to layer beneath suits — a skintight camisole. But in addition to being sleeveless (see above), they’re just a leeeetle bit too sexy for the office if you take your jacket off. Never, ever wear something under a suit jacket that you can’t take off — even if you have no intention of taking your jacket off during the day. Temperatures vary, and sometimes heavy lifting is required (particularly if, say, you’re a litigator reviewing boxes of documents for doc review).
  • This is a caveat that I’m throwing in based on the picture above:  I would not wear anything that hits below the hips.  I’m sure someone out there has successfully worn, beneath a blazer, a scarf top (like the one pictured), a tunic, or even done the dress-on-top-of-pants look that comes and goes out of fashion, but ultimately: if you’re working in a conservative office, stick to hip-length tops.  (If, however, you’re more adventurous than I, you can purchase the scarf top seen above at Bloomingdale’s for $195.)

I know one friend who considers square-necked sweaters to be the ideal thing to wear under suits; I’ve worn anything from scoop necks, boat necks, V-necks, crewnecks, and turtlenecks, in every fabric from plain t-shirt jersey, silk, merino wool, cashmere, rayon, and beyond. Personally, I don’t feel the need to tuck tops in — in fact, I almost only do so if I’m wearing an unfitted button-down shirt.  (We’ve actually had a conversation before about whether you must tuck a blouse in with a jacket.) And while button-up shirts can look crisp and clean (and certainly can be worn under suits), I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they need to be worn under suits. After all, they often gape (showing skin and breaking the cardinal rule), and ultimately are more difficult to care for than a simple silk sweater or t-shirt. In fact, if I had to choose one thing to wear under a suit jacket, it would probably be a silk sweater, whether short-sleeved or long-sleeved.

Readers, what say you? What do you consider the perfect thing to wear under a suit jacket? What do you avoid wearing?

Psst: Check out our Guide to the Best Tops under Suits!


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest


  1. Lefty lawyer :

    My preference is a woven silk t with a round (crew) neck with short or long sleeves, but I can no longer find. Does anyone know of a source?

  2. Can no longer see this site at work, I’m getting a 403 error. Anyone else? Is this permanent?

    • The site has been loading very slow on Firefox and the comments won’t load at all. Very frustrating!

      • Kady, are you on IE8? I need to figure out wtf is wrong with some cache settings — need to keep them tight until Friday but things shouldn’t be *this* bad. Grumble.

        • I’m having trouble on google chrome.

          • I’m on google chrome (and I tried on firefox too) and I couldn’t see any of the posts from yesterday — all day! It was sad.

        • I’m not seeing the above problem, but the issue I am seeing (on Firefox) is that when I go to the website, I see the last post from Monday, but if I hit the home tab, today’s posts load, with comments. Its been happening on and off for me since Thursday?Friday? when everyone else started having issues too.

          • yep, definitely the cache settings. i’m going to read some more documentation tonight and figure out if there are easier ways to fix this — just trying to keep the website up and running in the event of a traffic spike. (i was expecting it last thurs., but it may be this thursday — if it doesn’t happen then I’m turning off the cache settings til I know how to use them!)

          • just karen :

            I am having exactly the same problem on Chrome

        • having this prob on a windows machine, in IE7, IE8, Firefox AND Chrome

      • Ruthy Sue :

        Some posts/comments seem to be available on the plain htt://corp… site, but not when you add the www. I’m using firefox.

  3. I agree with pretty much all that Kat said (I only ever wear sleeveless under a blazer if I know that the blazer is going to the cleaners before another wear.) I read somewhere that studies have shown that people take women more seriously when they have a collared shirt- which makes sense, I guess; we tend to associate the collar with high-powered people, so I usually wear one when I want to look extra-polished. I’m comfortable with them if I’m wearing my blazer, but hate the look of a tucked in button down on its own on me (I think I’m short waisted or something? No matter how low-slung my pants are, I always feel like I’m in “mom-jeans”), so if I think I might take the jacket off, I usually aim for a sweater. I’ll note that, as a member of the A-cup squad, gaping isn’t a big issue for me with button-downs.

    I think the best thing, though, as always, is to just try things on together. I’ve had plenty of shirts that I thought wouldn’t work with a suit, but did, and ones that I thought should be no problem, but wound up looking weird.

  4. “This is a caveat that I’m throwing in based on the picture above: I would not wear anything that hits below the hips. I’m sure someone out there has successfully worn, beneath a blazer, a scarf top (like the one pictured), a tunic, or even done the dress-on-top-of-pants look that comes and goes out of fashion, but ultimately: if you’re working in a conservative office, stick to hip-length tops.”

    I would add to this that it is imperative to avoid wearing things that are going to look like a big horizontal stripe right across your butt after you put the jacket on, which is what happens when people pair a shorter jacket with a longer top. I see girls do this occasionally and I have yet to see someone on whom it looks good. Maybe if you are exceptionally tall and thin, it would be fine. But if you are even slightly bootylicious, it draws attention to the one area of your body that doesn’t need additional highlighting. The jacket – then wide stripe of random fabric- then pant effect is very jarring and unflattering. Before wearing that trendy layered look out the door, check the rear view.

    As for what I wear under suits – mostly short-sleeve silk knit tees/sweaters. Jones New York has my favorite ones; they’re available in white and black at Macy’s. Wintersilks also makes good ones.

  5. my personal preference is anything with sleeves that is not a button-up shirt, but on the rare occassion I wear a button-up my husband is convinced I look loads more professional.
    I like non-sheer sleeved silk or silk/cotton blend blouses in the spring and summer. in my experience, these are easier to find in patterned fabrics which doesn’t bother me — generally geometric or abstract florals, which always pop nicely with a navy suit.
    for fall/winter i prefer wool/cashmere sleeved sweaters – have several solid colored ones from banana republic.
    I’m also a fan of tory burch silk jersey button-up blouses, they don’t get messy at the collar or untucked at the waist and they also don’t gap at the chest because the silk jersey has so much weight to it. i’ve only ever seen patterned versions, but some prints are not too loud. i have 3 total – 2 very demure tonal prints and 1 very loud fun print and i’m very pleased with them and would buy more if the right print popped up.

  6. My favorite top to wear under a suit jacket is a silk blend knit, square neck, short sleeve top from Tahari at Macy’s. I bought it for $30 or so, and I see versions of if all the time in the suit section there (couldn’t find a link). It travels very well, doesn’t make me sweaty, and it doesn’t need to be tucked in. I have one in black, one in egg shell, and I’m looking for one in cranberry. Ann Taylor sells similar tops. Silk blend knits lay nicely under jackets and don’t bulk up either.

  7. I generally don’t like wearing button-down shirts. They never look right on me.

    I usually prefer wearing a sweater in the winter or a lighter weight t-shirt of sorts (professional looking, of course) in the summer.

  8. A cowl neck under a jacket can look good, if the neckline is not too dramatic. I have a dusty-purple cowl-neck sweater I got in the fall from Ann Taylor that looks great with a gray pantsuit I wear.

    For projecting a powerful image (i.e., not necessarily every day), nothing beats a well-fitting button-down collared shirt, particularly one with a covered placket (wouldn’t that mostly fix the gaping issue some people have?).

    • I also have a couple non-bulky cowl necks that look fine with suit jackets or blazers. I think the trick is that the fabric needs to be thin, so that it doesn’t look bulky under the lapels.

    • Agreed – I also wear cowl necks under suit jackets, although usually with those that have more curved lapels that flow gracefully with the lines of the top.

  9. I wear cowl necks under suits all the time – in fact, it is one of my more preferred looks. I am very busty, however, and the cowls expose enough of my neck that I don’t look like a stuffed sausage, and I think, frame my face so I don’t just look like a big pair of boobs struggling to escape from a jacket. I wear a small lapel pin instead of a necklace. I admit, it’s a little awkward with the collar, but I get tons of compliments. The key is that the cowl can’t be very thick or of heavy material, and the jacket tends to look better open. I also don’t appear in court, and most of my suit-wearing is for presentations or networking functions where I can be a little more dressy than conservative. H&M makes great, thin cowls (cami required) for under suits. I also do t-shirts of nice material (not thin cotton but something with heft, also often from H&M). With a necklace, no one realizes it’s just a tee.

  10. Old Navy’s Ruched V-Neck Tees. I wait for a sales and buy every color. I wear them under suits, sweaters, cardigans, wrap dresses, you name it, and by themselves on the weekend. I just wish they made in them in prints.


    • How low cut are those? I’ve been looking to get more v-neck tees, but I have trouble finding ones that aren’t too low cut.

      • Sorry if this is TMI, but I think it helps to know when talking about whther something shows clevage or not – I’m a size 12/14, 34D and hourglass shaped. I get these in a large and have never once felt that the V went too low. I actually find that the neckline is wider than it is deeper and ends up looking like a hybrid scoop/v-neck. The ruching also gives a little extra boob room without turning the whole shirt into a sack. With regular straight cut tees, I end up in a sack if I fit to my chest, or with sausage chest if I fit to my waist, so I’m a big fan of the ruching. The material is thin but it’s soft and doesn’t add bulk, which is another reason why I love these tees.

    • I second this recommendation. I love these, in the long-sleeved version. On me, the neck is a perfect non-cleavage V. I also love that they come in tall. I recommended them on a similar post a couple of weeks ago.

    • I own several of these because they go on sale a lot and are comfy and great for traveling. I would never wear them under a suit because I am rather large chested and they show far too much cleavage. I also think the material is quite thin.

  11. I very much like the look of a collared shirt with a jacket, but I personally hate all button-down shirts, because I’m apple-shaped and they never EVER fit me properly. So bye-bye collared shirts; I stick with nice tee-shirts or short-sleeved sweaters (or long-sleeved, in theory, but I’m always hot, so I’m often uncomfortable with long sleeves under a jacket). What I love is all the tops with interesting neckline details that are popular these days – shirring or lace or ruffles or the like; I think they add some nice interest when paired with a suit. You do have to check to make sure the shapes of the two necklines work together, though (and over the top ruffles or beading probably wouldn’t work in a lot of offices). I also really like tucking a scarf in the neckline of a jacket, which can dress up a plain tee shirt.

    However, while I get the dry cleaning issue, I also very much like sleeveless tops with suits. I have broad shoulders and large-ish upper arms, and sleeves under jackets tend to bunch up and bind and annoy the crap out of me. I find sleeveless tops MUCH more comfortable, enough that I’ll put up with extra dry cleaning.

    • Me too! I was feeling a little awkward since I usually wear sleeveless tops, unless it’s really cold. I’m just uncomfortable with sleeves under a jacket. But I never take my jacket off.

  12. I see a lot of “I hate button downs” comments here and I have to say, I do, too, except that I really love the way they look!

    The only solution I found is, oddly enough, from VS.

    They make a bodysuit (I know, so 90’s!) button front shirt, which looks classic and awesome & comes in lots of colors. A friend who always looked very polished & never “untucked/rumpled” in her button fronts turned me on to them in law school. I have a white and blue that have both held up well, though, admittedly, this was a few years ago and maybe quality has taken a hit. Anyway, at $38 they seem a great deal.


    • AnonInfinity :

      Do you have to iron it? I hate ironing :(

      • I do iron but I also iron non-iron shirts. It’s not particularly cumbersome (at least to me).

    • I’ve been eyeing those for years on the keeps it tucked in theory, but afraid they would look odd (and yes, I had the bodysuits, with the little snap crotches, in the 90’s! I wore them with my tight-rolled jeans and scrunchies.). I’m glad to see the VS ones recommended.

      • AnonInfinity :

        My sharpest outfit was, at one time, a yellow body suit with a pair of tapered black jeans. If I wanted to look like I just didn’t care, I’d throw on an unbuttoned flannel shirt and some Docs.

      • Honestly, I don’t think anyone can tell. It only looks odd with pants that are too thin to tuck into anyway (VPL — but then again, those pants are also going to show the bunching of any shirt that’s tucked in so . . . )

        And, I also was fond of bodysuits back in the day. The “in” thing to do, I remember, was to have a bit of skin showing so everyone would know you were wearing a bodysuit. So wrong!

  13. When not wearing button down shirts under suits, I tend to wear thin cowl neck tops or scoop neck tops (usually a stretchy jersey material) or silk blend tops – I prefer long sleeves or 3/4 sleeves under suit jackets, but that’s just me (i.e. I’d rather wear a thin long-sleeve top in summer under a suit jacket because the AC will make my office very cold). I love all the suggestions commenters are giving so am adding ideas to my shopping list :)

  14. The comments (and findings) on women in collared shirts are very interesting! I have always felt magically competent in a button-down, as if POOF! This collar means suddenly I know what I’m talking about! I own almost every color of button-down imaginable for this reason–during a confidence-shaking period, I need to be able to wear one every single day, for weeks! But I always thought it was just me :)

    As to what top to wear with a suit, I have a cautionary note on the suit-buying side: I find it incredibly annoying to have a jacket whose buttons come up too high. I realized too late that one of my go-to suits is like this. Almost no top other than a button-down works with it, because the lapels are so high that it makes it look like I’m not wearing anything underneath unless there is a collar sticking out. I wish I had thought about tops when buying the suit–lesson learned.

  15. My problem is related, but different. Here in Fla, hi temps are already around 80. I love the dress & jacket combo, but can never seem to figure it out for myself. For example, when I looked at all the death dresses in yesterday’s post, I didnt have a clue wc would work with what kind of jacket. I’m in a somewhat more creative field, so bare arms are OK, as long as it’s more of a polished shell and is not a lingerie look. Can anyone give guidelines on picking dresses to wear with jackets?

  16. How apropros, I was just discussing on the other threads how I wear dresses with suits. Obviously, my case is different but I’m ok with the way it looks. I just have to own it and strut it =).

    With respect to wearing dresses and jackets, I’ve found that you really need a jacket that works with your body type. For me, jackets that end above my hip and don’t have lapels are the winners. I have only one jacket with a lapel and comes down to my hip that works with my frame but I think that’s because it really nips in at the waist.

    • Anonymous Poser :

      Yes! Both body shape and owning your look are key!

      I am so late to the style/image game. Corporettes are a big help.

      Has anyone else heard that the new name for the “pear” shape is “triangle”? There are so many variables in determining body shape…I’m having trouble figuring out what mine is. It seems I can nip my waist in with a fitted sweater or jacket, but a belt just make me look larger than I am. ??

  17. Alias Terry :

    I have a question related to this: why won’t the tacky “sexy secretary/librarian” look die?

    Just this past weekend I turned to face a woman in a great jacket…with the top of her bright pink lacy push up bra peaking and her cleavage heaving over the top. Totally killed what otherwise would have been a great look. This was not at club at night but in the grocers in the day.

  18. Anonymous Poser :

    I like button-up shirts, and find they go well with nice, dark jeans (mine are from Ann Taylor), but have recently noticed that they are too much for me under a suit. Even one with small lapels. I am ample of bust, and adding a button-up shirt underneath a jacket tips the scale.

    Good topic! I’m glad to see the recommendations for places to buy appropriate short-sleeved shirts to wear with suits, since it seems I am in the market for a few…

  19. I generally shy away from the button-down shirts as well. My shoulders are broad, and I think I look like a linebacker in a button-down, especially if I wear it under a jacket.

    I found some very light-weight, long-sleeved shirts at Ann Taylor Loft over the winter. They have a nice drape on the front, and I love to wear those under jackets. They are very soft and appropriate without the jacket and require few accessories. But the material is very thin, so I wear a cami underneath, especially for the white one. Unfortunately I can’t find a link to them.

  20. Echo all the comments about not liking button-ups; they don’t stay tucked- when I wear them it’s under v-necked sweaters or such. Which does work well in a cooler climate and you don’t have to tuck.