Sheer Blouses: Some Don’ts Should Stay Don’ts

xojaneA reader alerted me today to a post on XO Jane about a fashion editor wearing a sheer top to work, entitled “DO THIS DON’T: WEAR A SHEER SHIRT TO WORK.” Uh, no.

Now, as this editor admits, she’s never worked outside the fashion and beauty world, so maybe our resumes just aren’t lining up — but even for a creative field, this is the kind of look that would just make me think “Wow, that poor girl must not realize her top is totally see-through.  Maybe I should tell her?”  In fact, I disagree with almost every single line in her column.  So I thought I’d give my take on dressing in semi- or totally-sheer looks for the office, compared against her tale…

1.  “Yesterday I knew I wouldn’t have the chance to stop home after work before going out that night, so I wore this completely see-through, sparkly Isabel Marant top with a tuxedo jacket.”  Dear readers, there are these amazing things called “handbags” — sometimes called “purses,” “totes,” “briefcases,” or even just “bags” — into which you can put all sorts of things, including changes of clothes.  Now, with all due respect to this editor, perhaps she had a big work function that night that required her to wear an edgy, sheer top.  But for more conservative fields like law and others, the message you broadcast when you wear eveningwear to work is that your evening is more important than your day — not a good message to send.

2.  “In real life the nude bra underneath wasn’t visible, so I sort of looked topless, albeit glittery. Like a figure skater.”  I’m going to step away from the proposition that it’s ok to look like a figure skater at work, and instead focus on the first part of the sentence — “in real life the nude bra wasn’t visible.”  Bob, can we have a big gameshow “unnnh” wrong sound again?  If it’s visible when you take a picture of it, I’d say your bra has a 95% chance of being visible anywhere.  Just because the lighting in your bedroom doesn’t detect it doesn’t mean that the lighting in your office — or the coffee room — or the conference room — won’t be the same.  In fact, I would advise all of my readers that when you’re in doubt about the appropriateness of an outfit, take a picture of yourself on your digital camera that morning and check it out.  Sheerness, visible pantylines, wrinkles, stains, and more will all be visible.

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3. “…You could always layer a nude cami under either of these options, but I never do, since adding another top ruins the way your see-through one naturally hangs.”  I’m going to disagree with all of this.  I think a good quality camisole will never ruin the way a blouse hangs on you — if it does the camisole is way too big or the blouse is way too small.  I’d also argue that for the workplace, you should never wear a nude camisole — stick with black or white.  The reason?  So you don’t look naked beneath your clothes.  While the editor describes wearing the sweater to a big meeting where “no one gave her a second look,” I’m sure that wouldn’t be true if she worked in a more conservative industry.  You never want people to have to take a second — or third — look at your outfit, because while they’re inspecting your outfit, they’re not listening to what you’re saying.  Worse, your coworkers should never feel like they CAN’T look directly at your outfit for fear of seeing something they shouldn’t.  (For example, that really nice, married, older male boss who has a daughter your age — he may be too embarrassed to look at you, or purposely avoid working with you in the future if you dress like that.)  A plain (non-lacy) black or white camisole makes it clear that they can, in fact, look at you.

4. “[Wearing a nude cami] defeats the purpose of wearing a sheer shirt.”  What is the purpose, exactly?  Is it “to show your bra”?  Because if that’s the purpose, why wear a top at all?  I would argue that there are some sheer fabrics — silks, cottons, even the occasional chiffon — that add an interesting drape, or a lovely softness, or even the perfect misty white, that make them worth wearing to work, despite the fact that they’re sheer.

I would say, obviously, that sheer or semi-sheer tops are still risky for the office (see my points above in #3), but possibly acceptable if accessorized appropriately — with a black or white camisole — or even a turtleneck — beneath, or worn under a vest.  Readers, what do you think of the XO Jane article?  Do you wear sheer tops to the office?


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  1. Ooh, this brings to mind a question. I’m looking at the Zoey Pullover from Anthropologie (in white), with which I’d wear with a white camisole + blazer or cardigan on top. I am in a creative field (arts/entertainment) but going to an industry conference. It’s a daytime event. Can I rock this during the day? I going for a low-budget Stella McCartney thing, fwiw.

    • Ooo, pretty top. I think that this outfit would be totally fine for most work situations, although I don’t know very much about industry conferences in the creative field – assuming that the look is not “suit” (I’m in law, so it often is), I think that you should go for it.

  2. I’m an undergrad (junior), and I only wear sheer tops without a camisole underneath if the top is nearly opaque and it’s really hot outside and it’s the weekend. Or possibly if I’m going out. But I tend to stick with dark sheer tops because it really does just look ridiculous to have your whole damn bra showing under your shirt. What an asinine article. Has anyone seen that episode of Daria that makes fun of Jane Pratt? Particularly spot-on regarding this article.

    Here’s the first part of that episode:

  3. Wow, can you say, “desperately seeking attention”?

  4. Rural Juror :

    A young (late 30s) partner in my office recently wore a sheer blouse to work under a suit. I was in her office and she had the blazer open and I could see her whole bra (nude). I guess the shirt was working when her blazer was fully buttoned, but maybe she forgot(?!) and unbuttoned? Or maybe it didn’t seem so sheer when she left the house? I was pretty mortified. I didn’t know where to look. She is normally very stylish and appropriate and I look to her for inspiration on what to wear, but this was just indecent.

    • Blondie, Esq. :

      You raised a really good point here – this sort of dressing makes other people uncomfortable!

  5. I was on vacation in Philadelphia a few months ago when the weather turned really hot. I had packed only long-sleeve tops, so I told my SO that I just needed to run into the clothing shop closest to our hotel to buy a cheap T-shirt. Fifteen minutes later, I emerged from Urban Outfitters, empty-handed and with a dazed look on my face. As he has never seen me come out of anyplace ever without a shopping bag, he asked why I had not bought anything. “Everything was … see-through,” I stammered. And I mean everything. I would have had to buy three items and layer them to even walk down the street. I like lace, I like sheer sleeves, but I do not like this trend.

  6. I asked in last week’s open thread about a half sheer blouse – top part over the breasts down to right above the belly button is sheer. Not for work. I received positve responses. I am assuming this is a completely different thing because its only the tummy part that is sheer.

    (in the mint color)

    For the record, I am of the age where I saw the blouse and it reminded me of this: (bottom outfit)

    Which, I know is a terrible reason to buy it consider both she (wearing the outfit) and I (lusting after the outfit) were in high school at the time of the wearing/lusting. But, I did it anyway.

  7. Hahah, this is an awesome post! In all seriousness, I do have one sheer pale pink accordion pleat blouse that I wear to work. Hard to explain, but it is lovely under a navy suit. I wear a cami underneath (nude, because white would just look weird for reasons I can’t articulate). It is a little high maintenance, because I don’t take my jacket off when I wear it (which I know breaks a Corporette rule). But it looks so awesome that I do it anyway.

  8. I bought a sheer houndstooth print top at Talbots today. Final sale. It does have a cami with it. Is this a don’t? I was planning to wear it with a v-neck cardigan.

  9. Anonymous :

    I even thought J Lo looked inappropriate wearing a sheer blouse sans cami on American Idol last night. I would understand it in a video, performance, or nightclub appearance, but as a judge during auditions in a convention center, she was “at work.” Perhaps I am being overly prudish, but I thought it looked ridiculous, and the fact it had a high tie-neck only made it worse, not better. It would have been beautiful, law-office-appropriate wear with an appropriate layer beneath.

  10. Diana Barry :

    There was a feature in Lucky this month about how to wear sheer stuff to work. UGH.

  11. This might be weird, but I just wear a white cami every day to avoid the “is it or isn’t it sheer” question. I have a whole stack of them that I get at Loft for like $4 a piece when they’re having one of their sales. They’re also great because I tuck them and they stay tucked – so if I’m wearing a sweater or something that isn’t tucked and need to carry around a file box or something – I know I’m not flashing my stomach or back or something.

  12. Me too. I wear a cami, tucked, under everything. I never have to worry about gap-age, at top or bottom. Also absorbs sweat on those trying days…

  13. I would never wear anything sheer to work, ever. When in doubt: picture the men. My company is very male. I get to wear color, skirts, etc. next to their blue shirts, but things that remotely cross the line= no. Even with sweater on top. Sorry, just don’t think conveys serious professional even then.

    Was at international negotiations in a foreign country last year. Two women my age and younger- in a room full of a few hundred mostly old men from countries around the world- wore short, tight skirts. It was so embarassing. All the men did not take them seriously, and I hated being potentially grouped in with them despite my black and grey suits. It always amazes me what people think they can ‘get away with..’ sure you can, but you can also lose all respect and credibility. Again, when in doubt, picture male businesswear. We don’t emulate it, but no reason to push the boundaries.

    • I’m with you on this– while it’s not right for someone to not take these women seriously just because they were wearing short, tight skirts, that is a common enough (if unfair response) that they should be more aware.

      There used to be a woman in this company who always wore dresses from bebe that were at least 1 size too small or, short tight skirts with skintight tops with deep v-neck lines.

      She’d also wear super-high stilettos and would totter around everywhere on them. If you saw her with other people in this company, you’d think that there was a time-space continuum rupture, and that she was suddenly plucked from the hostess-stand at a popular nightclub and dropped into a business-casual-but-mostly-just-stodgy financial services place.

  14. anonymous :

    I can’t help thinking about the debacle a few years back when a Glamour Magazine editor or blogger told Cleary Gottlieb lawyers (or summer associates?) that wearing one’s hair in a natural style was too “political.”

    What are these idiots doing presuming to advise working women? They are clueless. The fact that women’s mags and the fashion industry don’t exactly have the best interests of women in mind makes it worse and even more unfathomable.

    • Philly inhouse :

      Agreed. That’s why I prefer blogs like this one from people in the field versus some magazine or fashion editor’s opinion. The comments are as useful as the posts themselves.

      I do wish I could find a nice blog for weekend / date / smart casual looks that wasn’t just some rehash of the magazines, preferably with a somewhat local (Philly / mid Atlantic (not NY uber trendy)) flavor. You Look Fab is pretty good for basic principles, but her actual recommendations don’t usually inspire me at all (e.g., the ruched sweatpants up now – really??)

  15. anonymous :

    I don’t know that it’s unfair for them not to be taken seriously. Part of being a business person or professional is an awareness of how to present yourself and how you are being perceived. If you’re presenting yourself like a kewpie doll, you’re either daft or trading on your looks. Plus, you’re undermining other women. There are ways to be young, cute, and look businesslike.

    Men have it much easier, but even they make sartorial compromises to fit in. They dress to be taken seriously above all else.

  16. Blondie, Esq. :

    I love your take on this ridiculous article!! I’m personally not a fan of the sheer top “trend” in general, but I can’t think of any office situation where it would ever be appropriate. (My caveat is wearing a sheer top over a camisole, which one of my friends does and looks fantastic. On the weekends, of course!)

  17. I don’t see how the choice of outfit of a 20-something woman in a creative industry undermines other women. In fact, it’s this type of thinking, which embraces the attitude of those men who undermine a woman’s intellect because of her perceived sexiness that cripples women’s efforts to be identified by things other than her gender. If a person does not take a woman seriously or gets uncomfortable around her because she is “sexy”, it’s his or her damn problem. You don’t have to dress like Dorothy Zbornak in order to prevent the possibility of ever being found sexy at work, that’s a losing battle anyway. Being professional does not mean we have to hide our bodies beneath layers of clothing just to spare someone’s feelings of shame or discomfort. I personally would not choose to wear a sheer blouse to work because it’s not my style nor it is acceptable in my office. The definition of sexy in my office would probably be high heels and a tight-fitting pencil skirt, and I don’t hesitate wearing either within limits because I actually am more confident when I’m pleased with what I see in the mirror. Intelligence and femininity are not mutually exclusive, and if someone thinks they are, there’s nothing you can do about that except for being the best you can be professionally because you will be judged harshly by *sheer* virtue of your sex.

  18. The really sad part of this is that someone is going to take this article seriously and think it might be okay to wear a sheer blouse to the office. Figure skating attire has two places…on the ice, obviously, and at a Halloween party. Not at the office.

  19. Like you really need another comment but WOW! This person is insane! You should absolutely not wear a sheer blouse to work!!

  20. What a hero. That’s all I can say.

    This is something a very dumb teenager would do. It’s like, unspeakably obvious that you SHOULDN’T do that, no matter how “boyish” your figure is.

    By the way, I REALLY like the font on your page. Just thought I’d let you know!