Reader Mail — Is vintage appropriate to wear to the office?

2017 Update: We stand by this advice on wearing vintage clothing to the office, but you may also want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.

The other day, we got a request from a reader asking whether vintage fashions are ever appropriate to wear to the office or to court.  At the guts of her request, she asked:

Does the fact that a suit is vintage make it too costume-y?  Does it depend on the styling and the pattern (read: no fur collars, no plaid or speckles)?  Does it have to be very plain in color and details (read: black, navy, or grey only)?

This is a very interesting question to us, because we see her concerns — vintage suits are frequently more body conscious than today’s suits, and a lot of the details that went along with the vintage suits — the blood red nails and lips, the wild hats, the pin curls, the elbow-length gloves, and the seamed stockings — are more the province of a a Halloween costume than of a professional reputation.  But a lot of these suits, such as the brown one pictured (link courtesy of our reader!) don’t look, by themselves, that costume-y.

That said, we see no problem with wearing vintage, so long as you don’t adopt the entire vibe of the era. For example:  if you wear a vintage suit with vintage-inspired shoes, wear more neutral makeup, with a modern bag and simple hair.  On the converse, to maintain a sense of continuity in your styles, you could wear a more modern suit with vintage shoes, or go for a pin curl look with Benetton.  We would try to stick closer to neutral, basic colors and avoid more garish ones, but keep in mind that we’ve seen quite a few fur collars, speckles, and plaids in stores recently, so use your judgment.  Your goal should be for people to think of you as a stylish but competent lawyer, not as Dita von Teese‘s legal eagle cousin.

Things we would avoid — particularly in front of a court, or a boss — would be any suit featuring serious shoulder pads, stripes going in different directions, or anything requiring a corset to fit into. (For example, see the suit worn by Rossalind Russell in the opening scenes of His Girl Friday — absolutely stunning, but not something we’d wear in front of a fact finder.)  These pieces can be bought and broken up — for example, Russell’s striped suit jacket would look almost tame with black wide-legged trousers and a simple white blouse or t-shirt — but we wouldn’t chance wearing it in front of someone who thinks you’re a little girl playing dress up.

rsvp - Lani (Black Leather) - Footwear

As far as shoes, we think the only goal with shoes is to avoid anything too revealing (open-toed shoes are generally not acceptable in some parts of the country; some people think even toe cleavage is too much) or too dominatrix-inspired.  We think vintage-inspired shoes with a modest heel height (like the RSVP pair the reader suggests) are acceptable.  Again, we would stick closer to conservative styles — spectator pumps, thicker heels like those of the 60s — but again, if worn with a modern suit this shoe would add a nice touch of personality.

Readers, what do you think?  Are vintage fashions appropriate for the office?

The original reader’s full letter (slightly edited), after the jump:

Hi there–

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I had a question about vintage and vintage-inspired apparel in the corporate workplace.  I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the appropriateness of vintage for the corporate or semi-corporate environment. I’ll be doing public interest, but I’ll be in the courtroom a lot, so it’s looking like it’ll be a lot of suits and closed-toe shoes, even though it’ll be summer.

Example 1: Shoes.
rsvp - Lani (Black Leather) - Footwear
So in my travels on Zappos, I came across these rsvp – Lani (Black Leather) – Footwear.  Clearly vintage-inspired, with the curvy sides and heel.  Does that take away so much from the formality of them that you couldn’t wear them, say, to court?

Example 2: Clothes.
Likewise, there are some badass vintage suits on eBay. I know I’ll have to wear suits, and it would be awesome to be able to spice up the Benetton and Ann Taylor with something a little more my speed. Here’s one for the sake of example (pictured).  So, something like that, that’s in great condition and is very conservative, and, in my opinion, very chic — what’s the verdict?  Does the fact that it’s vintage make it too costume-y?  Does it depend on the styling and the pattern (read: no fur collars, no plaid or speckles)?  Does it have to be very plain in color and details (read: black, navy, or grey only)? Or is a vintage suit just too Mad Men overall to be worn as work attire? (I’m aware, alas, of how Mad Men has irrevocably taken the vintage work dress and made it the exclusive province of women who don’t want to be taken seriously. Sigh. There goes my plan.) I know that it’s not good to look too sexy-secretary, and the body-consciousness of vintage (plus the vintage vibe of the contemporary sexy-secretary look) would seem to lead it to trend that way. So, what do you think? Appropriate? Sometimes appropriate? Not appropriate?

I know you could probably break up the pieces, pair them with something more modern, and be good to go, but then you’re not wearing a suit, and you can’t go to court. Sigh.

Anyway, your thoughts on these issues, and issues about vintage generally (e.g. vintage but not costume-y clothes to work social events–yea or nay?), are greatly appreciated.

Love the site–although going into public interest means I only get to look at the Thursday and Friday TPS reports as even remotely relevant to my lifestyle. Ah, well.

Yours,

A reader

Comments

  1. As a litigator, I’d have to advise avoiding anything too notably “vintage” for courtroom work (which the writer says she’ll be doing a lot of). The main theme for the courtroom is always neat, pretty, boring and not particularly noticeable. You never want the judge to be distracted by what you are wearing — even to think about it much.

    I’ll never forget some of the stranger outfits I saw on lawyers when I was clerking — or how my judge (female!) said to me after one such outfit (a loud orange blazer with Alexis Carrington shoulder pads w/ lipstick to match) — “I couldn’t listen to word she said, I was wondering if she was colorblind.” We had a similar experience with a male defense attorney with a skull earring and a bolo tie (in New England!) so it wasn’t just a sexist thing.

    For courtroom time, “spicing it up” is never your goal, unfortunately. (When you get to be a name brand trial lawyer in Texas, you can work on your personal style then!)

    I have a collection of navy and black (one very pretty gray silk) conservatively cut (but well tailored — most of the people in the courtroom are still men, after all) that are my “going to court” suits. Court shoes are extremely comfortable mid height Stuart Weitzman (I find them more comfy…) pumps. The important thing for court and shoes, is that if you are up and down, long time on your feet, running around with heavy lit bags etc., you never want the judge to catch you slipping off your shoes to rub your aching toes — so leave the stilettos at home unless you’re a natural in them. By the same token, unless you are taller, I wouldn’t wear flats — I find that a mid height heel puts me at a better level at most podiums (built for men, all of them!) and gives me a little more authority.

    I’d wear a good condition, not too dramatic vintage suit to the office though, and my office is pretty conservative.

  2. Anything that you look at and say “wow, that’s a nice vintage outfit” is probably right out for court, and for a conservative office. But if it just looks like a nice suit (like the one shown in the post) it’s definitely fine for the office, and probably OK for court as well. For court, I’d go with unobtrusive aka boring looks only.

  3. I wore those exact pumps to all of my call back interviews in “big law” and received several offers. Paired with a more traditional/conservative suit I think they’re totally fine (though the heel is a little on the high side…) — no bias, of course. They’re also really comfortable for heels.

    In that sense, I agree with Corporette’s advice. Some vintage + some traditional/conservative = A-ok.

  4. Absolutely agree with Corporette! The best approach to wearing vintage in corporate office settings is to mix and match with some other modern, more “traditional” pieces. My general rule of thumb is to only wear one vintage piece in an outfit (my suit, skirt, brooch, handbag, shoes or overcoat). I would never wear a head-to-toe vintage ensemble.

    I would also add that many vintage pieces can easily be altered by a good tailor to help modernize the cuts. I’ve found that 70s era suits are particularly good for this. The jackets are often more fitted in the shoulders and sleeves, but the skirts have high waists and aren’t quite the pencil skirt look I’d like. For only a small fee, the skirts can have the waistband removed and the side seams tailored and you’ve got yourself a new suit.

    What I enjoy most about the vintage that I find is that they are clearly unique. I’ve had several female partners at the law firm I worked at, inquire about where I bought some of my outfits. They were always surprised when I told them they were vintage.

    If done appropriately, vintage can add a bit of uniqueness to your work wardrobe without being distracting or costume-y.

  5. If you practice somewhere it’s acceptable to wear pants suits to court you can get away with more distinctly vintage shoes because they’re partially covered by your pants.

  6. Dear Corporette,

    You’ve crossed the line…into the ridiculous. While inquiring minds want to know…seriously…you can’t just leave a little bit of your fashion personality at the door when going to work? That’s why this blog occasionally makes me a little sad–all these super-smart women discussing the merits of trivialitites. I know we all need an escape now and then, but…this is just too much.

    Vintage fashion, even when “tasteful”, is still just a hobby. If you’re a truly quirky, classy, pixie-sized dresser, you can pull it off, but otherwise…just play it safe and shop at JCrew, AnnTaylor etc. for suits. Shoes are a whole other beast, and vintage inspired details come in and out of fashion often.

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