Are Scarves Professional Enough?

Are Scarves Professional Enough? | CorporetteAre scarves professional enough for conferences? Are there some ways of wearing a scarf that are more professional than other ways?  How, in general, do you dress for a male-dominated conference?  Reader A, writing from Europe (and a very male-dominated profession), wonders:

Maybe this is a cultural issue, but I’d never, ever, wear a scarf to a conference. Ever. At the office, sure, if there’s no meetings. At a conference, however, there is no more surefire way to be treated like a hostess/secretary/admin than wearing a scarf. The women who actually have those jobs are all colour-coordinated, but that doesn’t help. All people see is scarf or no scarf.  I think it’s a real shame, as I like scarves and the femininity they bring to an outfit. Instead, I’ve settled for statement jackets, or a skirt or shoes that “pop”.

Is this because I’m in a (very) male dominated business, or is it a Europe/US thing?

We’ve talked about how to wear scarves, as well as how to pack and what to wear to conferences before, of course, but this is a new one — and a very interesting one, given that scarves would never strike me as something a) unprofessional in general, b) hostess/secretary/admin.  When I worked at a very male-dominated law firm, one of the female partners I worked closely with — who certainly commanded respect from everyone — was known for her collection of Hermes scarves that she would wear long and loose beneath her blazers, a bit like the “drape scarf with bomber jacket” look above from Wendy’s Lookbook. (If you haven’t seen it, her scarf-tying tutorial is pretty awesome; the screenshot above is from the “companion” video. Another great resource generally: Une Femme d’un Certain Âge.)

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The next person who comes to mind when I think of scarves is an intern I worked with a few years ago, who often accessorized a simple long-sleeved t-shirt or sweater with a scarf wrapped loosely around her neck, almost like a cowl (as pictured in the blue/black picture above — that’s the DvF Hanovar Scarf, available for $165 at ShopBop.) It always struck me as a professional, put-together look.

The ONLY scarf look that I can think of that has negative connotations — for me at least — is the “flight attendant/50s schoolgirl” look: a scarf tied once, tightly around the neck, with the ends left out (as in picture #3 above.  Gorgeous scarf, though: it’s the Pucci Swirl Silk Scarf, available at Ventee-Privee for $89 (was $250); click here for an invite if you’re not a member.)  I’m sure I’ve seen women pull it off in a stylish way, but I feel like it’s a hard look to make modern unless you also have the benefit of being French.

Now — maybe what reader A is getting at is that a scarf is a more feminine look.  But both of the women I mention above (the partner and the intern) wore very simple pants.  In fact it’s almost hard for me to imagine how something as simple as a scarf could be seen as “so feminine that obviously she’s the hostess.”  Pink glitter platform heels, sure.  A mini-skirt, sure.  Even big tacky jewelry (a la Melanie Griffith’s “before” in Working Girl) — sure.  But a scarf?

Readers, what do you associate with scarves?  What is your favorite way to wear them for work?  In general, what do you wear for a conference in a male-dominated profession? 

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  1. I work in the US diplomatic community and it’s a bit of joke that ALL the female ambassadors — and the women gunning for promotion to ambassador — seem to wear scarves. The scarves are lovely, rich, silk scarves, worn knotted loosely in front, or tucked into the neckline of jackets. These are powerful, accomplished women who can hold their own in any environment. I doubt they would be wearing scarves if they didn’t read well both in our culture and in others.

  2. Silvercurls :

    !!? It’s never occurred to me that scarves convey anything other than “I love this item because of its (choose one or more) great graphics / interesting texture / fantastic drape / vivid colors (bonus points if they pull your outfit together) / etc.” However, ymmv: I’ve also spent most of my career in nonprofits, academia, and other settings not known for having a formal dress code. Following a hunch I searched Google Images for
    Nancy Pelosi, Hilary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, Johnetta Cole, Donna Shalala, and Marion Wright Edelman and found…not many scarves (a few on Pelosi, but she seemed more inclined to statement necklaces, if she wore any accessories in her collar region). Exception: Dr. Edelman, whose photos showed either scarves or multicolored, multi-textured, large-beaded necklaces. Marissa Mayer? No scarves. Sheryl Sandberg? Ditto. Katie Couric? Almost no scarves.

    Next I checked Google images for the 2013 meetings of ACS (American Chemical Society), SWE (society of women engineers), and ABA: two scarves at ABA, suits only at ABA, biz casual at the other two. My sample could surely be improved–more conservatives? business execs? etc?–but I gotta go back to work now.

  3. Diana Barry :

    Not re: whether professional or not, but scarves are the one thing that I buy and then NEVER WEAR. Except for winter scarves worn with parkas. I just can’t figure out how to make them look nice.

  4. I almost always wear a scarf in my office or at conference because I am inevitably freezing in overly air conditioned spaces. I’m typically in business casual environments and have never thought scarves looked unprofessional. However I can see how some scarves may be t0o casual to be worn with a suit. I also work in a male-dominated industry but I don’t mind looking “too feminine” since I’m not about to dress like one of the boys. No offense to the older male engineers I’ve worked with but I’d rather not take fashion cues from most of them!

    • Hahahaha could not stop laughing at that! I too work in a male dominated field (electrical engineer) and I never hesitate to wear scarves, or dress feminine for that matter. The only way I can think of wearing a scarf that might connote admin is if it’s tied around your neck 50’s style.

  5. My husband is in commercial real estate, and he can spot a residential real estate agent from a mile away. The giveaway?? A scarf, and a brooch. I don’t wear scarves (small law firm partner here).

  6. I like the look of scarves, but don’t know how to wear them. I think the small silk (“flight attendant”) scarves are professional while the long (“cowl”) ones are casual.

  7. In Forbes 2013 list of the world’s 100 most powerful women, nine of the women wore scarves (not counting the women who were wearing them as part of non-Western dress, e.g., Indira Gandhi), plus this, which looks professional as all heck:

  8. Biglaw here and I wear scarves a lot. Never occurred to me that someone would think flight attendant. Not particularly worried about that. I wear a lot of pretty conservative pant suits, so to me, scarves are a good way to add some color and personality without seeming frou-frou.

  9. Scarves are great, and very feminine if worn right. They also are professional if worn right. I recommend to all.

  10. I think there is a huge difference between a high-quality (not necessarily designer) silk scarf, and a textured, “crafty”-looking scarf. The former is much more professional. I do think, however, that if the admins/staff/hostesses at a conference are wearing some sort of color coordinated look that includes a scarf, it’s best to not wear one so you aren’t mistaken for a staffer when you’re not.

  11. Love scarfs :

    I have a flight attendant scarf that I have now deemed to be a tie-on-handles-of-shopper-style-bag scarf. So, it is casual to me. It might be a scarf for a shirt with a small neck opening again, but I haven’t tried that in ages.

    I think that scarves are awesome, but also a good way to waste a lot of time getting ready in the morning.

    I have a Hermes one that was my paying-off-law-school present to myself. I like to think that I’ll pass it down to one of my daughters some day (so do I need another to even it out — two daughters, one scarf).

  12. I think it all depends on the quality of the scarf and the design. A beautiful scarf can add a memorable pop to a conservative outfit and can definitely appear professional. I would stay away from the cheap, polyester ones though – those read more admin or flight attendant.

  13. I’m just as confused as everyone else here. Scarves not professional? Huh?

    I don’t wear scarves because I like to play with them and I worry they’ll be a distraction (same reason I avoid click-y pens). But I do bring along a scarf/large wrap to conferences or large meetings where rooms tend to be air conditioned to 55F. I usually wear it around my neck (if I’m near a vent) or on my lap.

    • I do this too. I generally keep a pashmina overthe back of my desk chair to wrap up in if it gets chilly (a draped or cowl look like in picture 1 and 2). It would never occur to me to wear a scarf with a suit or as part of an outfit in a business casual office – I’d only wear it to keep warm in that environment. I love scarves for dressing up casual relaxed outfits though. They can be so comfy and cosy as well as pretty (big scarves you can wrap around a couple of times), and I used to wear them to work when I worked in an office with a casual dress code.

      • Ever since reading this thread all I have been seeing is women rocking scarves and looking professional and stylish doing it. I guess I’m just more aware of it now!

  14. oil in houston :

    TJ – my brother has requested a present that I can’t seem to find anywhere, and I was hoping you could help…
    He is after a holder for his 2 Mont-Blanc pens (I know, first world problems…). he is a lawyer, so wants something elegant and classy, but wants it modern as well… and that’s where I have problems. The official Mont-Blanc ones look great to me, but he finds it too classic…
    anyone has any idea??

  15. Killer Kitten Heels :

    I wonder if this issue is more specific to the question-asker’s particularly company/industry/environment – I’ve worked in several different law offices, and often, there are certain items that are worn frequently and widely by the support staff (in one office, it was Coach bags; in another, it was twin-sets). Those items then tended to get associated with the support staff, and the female (attorneys, in my case, or I guess executives in a non-law office) would avoid those items for that reason, even though there’s nothing inherently “unprofessional” or “wrong” about carrying a Coach bag to work or wearing a twin-set in a business casual environment.

    FWIW, I’ve seen scarves done beautifully by professional women I really look up to, but I’ve never managed to pull a scarf-based work look together that works myself. (I wear scarves frequently in casual settings and love them.)

    • I think that’s a likely explanation for this reader’s issue.
      If that’s the case then she shouldn’t wear them.

      I work someplace where the Coach bag is a support staff flag.

  16. A very high quality silk scarf has always been analogous to a high quality man’s tie in my mind. But I tend to only notice the women who look powerful and professional, not the one that look cheap or frumpy.

    I don’t wear my scarves very much anymore since menopause wants to make them feel like I am in an oven when I do, but when I did one of my favorite ways to wear them was tied in a loose Windsor or 4-in hand knot.
    (Yes, I learned how to tie a man’s tie. And no, I don’t remember why.)

    • Tying scarves as a man’s tie is one of my shortcuts for putting them on quickly, and professionally, in the morning.

    • Just a point of interest – in the UK it’s quite common for women to know how to tie men’s ties since ties form part of the standard school uniform – I had to wear one from the age of 4 to 11 (my secondary school had revere collar blouses instead).

      So I’ll definitely try that!

      My tip for making scarves not fall off is to tie the pointy ends together when a square or rectangle scarf is folded into a triangle, and then you can wear it like an infinity scarf.

  17. Scarves are a wonderful alternative to jewelry. I love that scarves add color and punch and no noise. (yes Bubble Necklace – I’m looking at you).

    Smaller scarves look great on casual Friday wrapped twice around the wrist and knotted…oh and they don’t make any noise either. (unlike the stacks and stacks of bracelets clunking/clacking/clinking together trend)

    I agree with other commenter that quality silk scarves are a whole other thing from the crafty/gauzey/cotton kind.

    I have found a dozen new ways to wear my scarves with the use of scarf buckles at this website.

    Click on videos down the right side.

  18. I think both look 1 and 2 are a bit too casual because the scarves are large. I think that would work better with a smaller scarf. As shown, it’s the type of thing I tend to do when heading out somewhere after work to give what I’m wearing a bit more personality.

    Look 3 seems fine to me, although not quite my style, the only thing about it that seems remotely “flight attendant” is the short sleeved shirt.

    I love scarves and wear them frequently. Sometimes in lieu of a belt, sometimes around my neck, sometimes tied around the handles of my handbag.

  19. Anonymous :

    I have to say that I saw a woman on the DC metro yesterday wearing a cobalt blue dress, and a blue/green patterned scarf and she looked so darn chic. I think she was european.

  20. Baconpancakes :

    It occurs to me that a scarf on a woman in a suit, worn as Meg Whitman of the forbes article does, or loosely knotted almost like a cravat should be analagous to a man’s tie in formal dress. Most women don’t look good in a tie due to the chestal area, but if they wear a plain white button down with a suit, the look is severe and boring. Add a scarf, and you’re on equal footing with men in their ties in professionalism. (The discrepancy between men’s and women’s professional wardrobe restrictions has always bothered me, although I admit I enjoy the wider variety of clothes we can wear.)

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