How to Dress for Work in Different Cities

how to dress for work in different citiesHow does work attire differ from city to city? Are there any guidelines women can use when trying to dress for work in different cities like NYC, Chicago, Miami, or San Francisco? I’ve gotten a few reader questions lately about dressing for different climates and different regions of the country, so let’s discuss.  After all — if you’re a woman dressing for work in Silicon Valley, it’s going to be a bit different than New York, versus Miami, versus a more Southern city — and if you’re a new transplant to a city it can take a bit of getting used to. We’ll try to give our best advice on how to dress for work in different parts of the country, but readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts! So let’s talk about regional style differences — how DO you look great for work in different parts of the country? How does work attire differ from one city to the next? Does “conservative office attire” look the same from city to city (seasonless wool suit, blouse, classic pumps) or are there variations? What are the biggest differences you’ve noticed in regional style? 

Pictured, clockwise: NYC / Miami / San Francisco / Chicago. All images via Pixabay.

Here’s some of my best advice for how to dress for work in different cities:

Get used to what the temperature feels like in your city before you build your work wardrobe.

70 degrees in San Francisco feels very different than 70 degrees in New York City than 70 degrees in Miami — humidity and wind play a huge part, as well as what season you’re coming from, if that makes sense. 70 degrees in fall in New York City means it’s time to pull out your light jackets, your light sweaters, your corduroys and tweeds — but 70 degrees in springtime might be time to switch into lighter weight pants, go without a jacket, ditch the tights, and more.

Notice which colors people wear often when they dress for work.

New York is much more about muted neutrals — many people have an entire wardrobe in black, gray, white, and navy, perhaps with the odd pop of color here or there.  Meanwhile, readers have noted in the past that pastels are much bigger in the South. (For some reason, I think of Miami as being white, beige, and pastels.) Wear what you feel comfortable in, but if you’re striving to fit in, you may want to add a new pant, skirt, or blazer in a different base color to better blend with your colleagues.

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Know the general propriety level in your city, but especially in your office so if you break it when getting dressed for work, you do so intentionally instead of accidentally.

A girlfriend of mine is a partner in a Miami law firm, and she wears sheer blouses to work beneath her suit jackets. In New York a sheer blouse with a camisole would be fine — but in a Midwestern city you’d probably want to err on the side of “no sheer blouses.” The point here is not that there is a “right” or “wrong” answer — and hey, someone has to be the first person to do it at the office before it becomes acceptable — but just that if you’re new, you want to at least study your office a little before you start wearing whatever the heck you want to.  Other particular things to take note of in your office (that may vary widely even within the same city):

  • pantyhose — do people wear sheer hose? black hose? tights? bare legs?
  • five pocket pants like jeans, corduroys, ankle pants, leggings, and more — do people wear them to work at all? Only under certain circumstances, like casual Friday?
  • jewelry like pearls, watches, bangles, dangly earrings — I always thought my pearls were a great purchase when I was still in the legal game in NYC, but once I transitioned to a more casual non-profit office I only wore them to conferences and other suit-occasions.  On the flip side, I know that friends in more Southern cities like DC and Atlanta wear pearl earrings and necklaces whenever they want to (their also a lot preppier than I am in general though).  But if I were to suddenly move to San Francisco or Austin, I’d probably hang back to watch office culture before I wore my pearls.
  • sleeveless looks — this varies widely from office to office, so know yours — it doesn’t mean you HAVE to wear a cardigan or blazer on top, but pay attention in a new office to what other people are doing.
  • sandals and boots – in some offices it’s really weird to show your entire toe; in other offices toe cleavage is fine or a peep toe, while in a third office only a closed-toe shoe will do. Same with boots — in some offices a bootie or a knee high boot is going to raise eyebrows; in others it really won’t.

Ladies, what do you think — how does work fashion differ from city to city? What are your best tips for how to dress for work in different cities? To answer, please be sure to include general city or regional information, a general description of your office (very conservative, business casual, etc) and give us general style notes about your city.

How to Dress for Work in Different Cities: Tips for Businesswomen from NYC to Miami to Chicago to San Francisco and beyond! how to dress for work in different cities

 

Comments

  1. travels for work, works in nonprofit at director level :

    Cleveland/Columbus Ohio- editor’s pants from express and a solid color sweater or top with a topper or accessory

    Miami- brighter colors in tops, more skirts, often see women in fancy versions of flip flop type sandals

    NYC- lots of black, riding boots, cross body bag, fewer bright colors, more eye makeup

    LA- ombre is seen often, more relaxed style jewelry/hippy styles, changes of clothes in the trunks of cars just in case

  2. Man I love being a woman but this all seems exhausting. Not a criticism of Kat or the post, I think it’s spot on but men generally have way less room for missteps. I think it also differs from office to office – I’m at smaller firm so sometimes I can go a bit trendier or edgier than I would at a small firm.

    • Rainbow Hair :

      I agree, it can be exhausting.

    • I guess… but my fiance dresses differently when he is in Miami for business vs. Boston for business.

      • Anonymous :

        Yeah, there are some differences for men too, although not as drastic. But I love getting dressed and matching my style to locale and having fun with clothes, so I’m not complaining.

        • Anonymous :

          And I don’t think you HAVE to dress differently for each of those climates. If you wear a seasonless wool suit, you’ll look fine anywhere, I would guess.

          • In Florida, I can’t imagine the suit or even thin “seasonless” wool. Miami can be dressier, but I don’t think they go that far either.

    • Anonymous :

      This is how I felt reading the thread on really extensive skin care routines the other day (as highlighted by the commenters’ SOs who thought that the results looked unnatural). You do you and all of that, but by participating in that kind of thing it does create expectations the rest of us have to fight.

      • “by participating in that kind of thing it does create expectations the rest of us have to fight.”

        Yes!

        That’s why I’m here.

    • I agree clotheing is more difficult for us then for men, but think of the great FASHION we get to wear, rather then the drubby suit’s men wear. All they can do is get LOUD tie’s to wear or green socks. FOOEY! I prefer the designer clotheing, some of which is edgey, but it makes us look great. And there is NO substitute for 4 inch pumps! DOUBEL YAY for those! And if it wasn’t for fashion, what would we ladies have to talk about? NOTHING meaningful. I get tired of thinking about men all day. They can be very dull also.

      • “And if it wasn’t for fashion, what would we ladies have to talk about? NOTHING meaningful. I get tired of thinking about men all day. They can be very dull also.”

        You are joking, right?

  3. I think these “differences” are mostly in the details. Seasonless wool suiting and close-toed shoes (heels or flats) are always your safest bet anywhere I would think. But I think that’s true going from region to region and from office to office–when you’re in a new place, go conservative until you get the lay of the land and establish a reputation for good work and then get creative.

    One thing I think about living somewhere without a real winter, sometimes rules for seasonal color palettes get discussed on this blog that just do not seem to apply to Houston. People seem to be much more willing to wear just about any color any time of the year when it’s routinely 80 degrees in January. The rest of these issues seem to just be personal style choices to me.

  4. NYC to Dallas :

    I noticed when I moved from NYC to Dallas- I had a closed full of polished, tailored, black clothes. With some jewel tones. Shoes were all dressy and close-toed. In Dallas, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Much more color, feminine details, and more liberal with the shoe styles.

    I bought a green dress for this spring. Baby steps.

    Then found out I may be transferred back to NY.

    • Total hijack- how did you feel about the nyc to dallas transition (social/cultural aspect)? I have been considering a similar move.

      • NYC to Dallas :

        Love it, actually! I’m thinking of staying here LT (next relocation notwithstanding).

        I don’t do suburbs, so if you’re in NYC, and you don’t do suburbs either, know that there are some gorgeous apartments in downtown and uptown with all the amenities and much cheaper than NYC (think floor-to-ceiling glass windows, balconies, pools, concierge). I prefer walking to work, and I can do that here every day. There’s also a trolley/lightrail system if you plan your residence accordingly. Lots of wealth in Dallas, so plenty of good shopping.

        It’s more diverse than I expected (I had never been to TX before this transfer, and envisioned a bunch of old white men in cowboy hats). Dallas is growing at breakneck speed with people from everywhere, so it’s not a purely “Texas” culture. I find the East Asian cuisine lacking here, but comparatively feel that NYC falls behind on the full glory of Tacos and TexMex. Tons of stuff to do, culturally & socially, both with the Arts and outdoors. Check out Klyde Warren Park.

        Biggest adjustments for me were getting used to using a car again (you’ll still need one here) and the weather. Super hot in summer, but I love having the sun and (comparative) warmth year round. The only “oddness” I’ve noticed so far is that most of my coworkers do prefer a more suburban, quiet life with yardwork, house renovations, etc. Plenty of stuff for urbanites, though!

      • Me too! I grew up in Massachusetts, and a few years back had most recently been working professionally in Europe, when a job offer in Houston became available. Never realized how many black clothing items I had, and now get the importance of tropical-weight wool. I started small as well, looking for brighter tops while still wearing the dark/neutral bottoms I love. Agree with the shoe comment – I love that I can wear open-toed, professional looking shoes to work, but still have to remind myself each fall that it’s not time for a new cashmere sweater and that rain does not equal cold, it means 100% humidity! Personally, I enjoy the lack of snow, my colleagues are incredibly friendly, and the lower cost of living compared to the east coast has been really good financially.

    • Chicago to DC :

      I went through the same thing in a move to D.C. from Chicago. My wardrobe was all tailored dark suits, closed toe medium height heels, and very little neutral makeup. My necklines were and still are high, I never show shoulders and bare arms, and my skirt lengths are conservative.

      Within 6 months, people had had multiple conversations with me about my birthright trip and whether I had spent a year in Israel. This is fine, but the occasional long black skirt with a nice top is not an automatic giveaway that someone belongs to the tribe.

      But they also told me to buy some pink and that Southern women apply makeup with trowels.

      The pink lightweight dress jacket was among my first steps to transitioning. I now have a lot of color in my closet, though no pastel and wear so much more makeup. I lack the common beauty pageant and debutante experience.

      I still cringe at women who appear to have forgotten to wear pants to work (super short dresses and shirt dresses), the club and sexy fashion shoes and boots, the cleavage, the dark bras under light sweaters, the snug sweater dresses, oy, a lot of the sexualization of women’s presentation here. I realize and appreciate that a lot of women are laughing all the way to the bank, but as an earlier poster noted, I have to exist here,too. I am not quitting the workforce after age 30, and while sexy shoes and short hemlines are great for 2 AM on a Saturday, less so at meetings on litigation hazards.

      I never have any of these issues with male coworkers. They display bare shoulders or open toe shoes or visible undergarments. But they get so excited when a woman colleague does. In Chicago, HR would likely talk to women about the hemlines and the visible undergarments.

      • DC Professional :

        Interesting. I’ve lived/worked in DC for 6 years, and the only women I’ve seen wearing club-like attire are the interns that come in every summer. My regular wardrobe sounds very similar to your Chicago wardrobe – dark suits, high necklines, conservative skirt lengths, minimal or natural makeup. Most of the professional DC women I know are the same – perhaps a bit preppier as Kat mentioned (pearls, pops of color, fun prints), but the majority definitely do not commit the professional fashion faux pas you mentioned! Oy, indeed.

  5. charlotte atty :

    I’m in Charlotte at a big NY/Chicago based firm and I was previously at a large NC based firm. Both had “business casual” dress codes.

    My current firm is far more relaxed in terms of dress code than the previous firm (it’s a huge deal if one of the guys is wearing a tie (transnational practice)) and we have an optional jeans day every Friday, so that likely has something to do with it. Another difference I find very interesting is that, compared to my previous firm, all of the women dress very on trend here/wear a higher quality or more designer items. (Although, that could have to do with getting paid more.) Generally the women wear well tailored dresses/pencil skirts and everyone wears lots of colors. And it’s standard for people to be wearing high end ($300+ a pair) heels. But no one ever wears a suit (men or women). At my prior firm, although it was a “business casual” dress code, you were expected to wear a blazer instead of a cardigan and not wear flats… ever. And people generally dressed in a rather dowdy manner.

    My husband works for a different large NC based firm and although that office was technically business casual, all the men wore full suits and ties every day and all of the women wore dark colored suits with neutral/traditional colored tops. And if they wear skirt suits, they wear hose.

  6. I work in banking in St. Louis-business casual office. Lots of dresses (especially in summer months.) Definitely nothing too “sexy.” Conservative in that respect. No cleavage, nothing too short, too tight, etc. Open toe is fine, sandals likely frowned upon.

  7. When I was in consulting, the New York office, even on casual friday looked like Chicago (my current city) dressy primarily due to everyone’s clothes fitting them properly and adding some sort of statement. This was especially true with the men in our office. Side note: Men who wear clothes that fit them well have a special place in my heart. In Chicago, the office is fairly casual even on regular work days.

  8. Anonymous :

    Worked in DC previously and Portland OR now. Obviously women wear pants in DC, but I think the percentage of women wearing pants on a given day here is closer to 80 or 90 percent, whereas at least half would have been wearing skirts in DC. Also a looooot more room for funky hair colors, piercing, tattoos, etc here.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I’m from the PNW and live and work in NYC now. The PNW is much more casual than NYC. Never noticed the pants thing, but absolutely agree that so much more stuff like piercings and tattoos fly there and are more frequently displayed.

  9. Manhattan Lawyer :

    I’ma partner in a Manhattan litigation boutique. My non-suit wardrobe consists almost entirely of tailored sheath dresses with various sleeve situations, with some pencil skirts, silk blouses, tailored jackets, dressy cardigans, and slim-cut tailored pants thrown in. Nearly everything is in black or a black-based pattern, although I do have a couple of royal blue and jewel-toned items and a few whites, grays, etc. Always, always, always heels, which can include booties as well as pumps. Totally acceptable to have open-toed shoes with a good pedicure. Black tights in the winter and chilly spring/fall days; bare legs the rest of the time (unless I’m in court or have an important meeting, in which case I’ll wear stockings — and of course a suit).

  10. Going further :

    I wish I’d gotten here sooner. I’d love to hear comments on work clothes in Berlin and in North Rhine/ Westphalia.

    • And Hamburg – I’ve never seen so many navy suits on men in my life. (Just south of there, I remember an occasion where all the men turned up identically dressed – dark grey suits, white shirts, dark red ties. They looked like a wedding party!)

    • Germany/ North-Rhinewestphalia: Depends on the office a lot. Offices in Cologne (Biglaw) tend to be pretty casual (Think: Jeans and blouse for women, jeans and shirt for men, suit for court of course), Dusseldorf is more fancy.

    • In-House Europe :

      I’m late for this but a few things in Germany generally. 1. bare legs are not done – nylons (nude or black) or tights. 2. business outfits tend to be more functional, no ruffles or other “girly” frills.

      As for Berlin, it is super duper alternative/hipster, so work clothes are likely to be more modern/edgy. Think COS.

  11. Wisconsin :

    I work outside Milwaukee and I travel a lot. In my Midwestern suburb, people ask why I’m dressed up if I wear any dress or skirt (and I will get looks if they don’t cover the knee). No one (except nubes) wear blazers. It’s blouses/sweaters, pants, and closed toe shoes. Heck, I get stares and questions because I wear 2″ heels. A lot of women skip makeup (I’m an undercover make up junkie).

    My company manages to con a lot of young professionals from Miami to move up here. They tend to wear bright colors (even the men), tighter cuts (even the men), blazers, sheer tops, and skirts.

    In NYC, the most striking thing I noticed was that hemlines were shorter than in Wisconsin. Yup, we’re pretty dull here.

    That said, I’ve noticed my wardrobe generally works for all regions for my line of work. I work a lot in manufacturing, so it does skew practical and less dressy everywhere.

  12. It is really interesting to see the differences across the US.

    In the law business in Denmark (i’m based in Copenhagen), it differs a lot from working at a law firm to being in-house counsel.
    But even at the law firms it is very casual. Men wear suits of course when going to court, and women wears blazers with pants or skirts. But skinny jeans + blazer combo is not unsual either.

    For in-house it depends on the company, but I’ve been working at a big pharmacetical company for many years, and the dress code for lawyers are very casual. Women wear what ever they want, in any colour (Danish fashion is mostly black/grey/navy) and the men wear jeans and a pullover.

  13. I go to court all over Florida. In Miami, I would never wear panty hose and I feel stuffy in a match wool suit from Banana. I go for slacks, blazer, and peep toes or, even, high heel sandals. In other parts of Florida, pearls, skirt dress, and perhaps panty hose.

  14. Melissa Hoff :

    I am an attorney in SF and my office has definitely been affected by the tech culture here (everyone wearing jeans and hoodies, grown men riding razor scooters through the financial district). Everyone here wears jeans almost every day unless we are going to court (then, obviously, we wear suits) – the partners even wear dark jeans with blazers when clients come in for meetings. I actually had to buy an entire new “wardrobe” of jeans since I haven’t worn them this often since high school. Most of our clients are in the tech field, so even if a high-level executive stops by unannounced, he or she is probably wearing jeans, too. I think wearing dark suits every day in this culture would be alienating to our average client. However, I am torn on which I prefer; I miss my comfy skirt suits and wide-leg pants!

  15. High Tech Heavy Industry :

    Anyone have advice for those working in heavy industry? My clients are heavy manufacturers, shipyards, utilities, etc. and I am usually out in the field walking the plant floor. Bit of a juxtaposition, talking corporate partnerships and programs in the middle of cranes and fork lifts. This means steel toed boots and a hard hat, which is easy enough. But I have a hard time coming up with outfits that are business casual and can stand up to mud, oil, sparks, and chemicals. Would love recomendations on brands and outfits.

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