Wearing a Dress and Blazer — Instead of a Suit

Dresses and blazersIs an outfit composed of a blazer and a dress an acceptable substitute for a suit? Reader B wonders how to mix dresses with blazers for a fairly conservative space (the DA’s office):

I start work at a DA’s Office next month, and I’m trying to round out my work wardrobe. My difficulty is this: I despise pant and skirt suits. (Yes, I recognize they’re a necessary evil and yes, I own several.) I vastly prefer to wear work-appropriate dresses (always with sleeves) with blazers that I can throw on when I need to go to court.

How do I go about matching blazers with dresses? Must they come as a set? Be the same fabric? What about colors and necklines? Basically, I have a closet full of gorgeous work dresses, but I need more blazers if I want them to work at the new job.

Hmmmn. Reader B, you’re definitely going to have to learn the ropes at your office before you buy any more dresses, because in some very conservative offices — with some judges — a dress with a blazer on top is likely not going to cut it in terms of formality. Hopefully this won’t be the case where you are, but I really caution you to play it conservatively for the first month or so and wear the separate pant and skirt suits you own, and the few matching sets (dress + blazer) that you own.

As for how to mix a dress and blazer otherwise for work:

  • Make sure your blazers are loose enough to allow you to wear sleeves beneath them. One of the main reasons so many sheath dresses are sleeveless is because no one likes that bunchy look of sleeves stuffed in blazers, particularly when a knit collides with a knit. So, when buying blazers to wear as a separate, I’d make sure they’re a) loose enough for sleeves, and b) lined if you plan on wearing them with knit dresses. (I love ponte dresses as much as the next person, but I always think the sleeves are super bunchy beneath anything but the loosest top layer.) You may even want to take your blazers to a tailor to see if they can add lining if that’s an issue.
  • Look for dresses with thicker fabrics. They resist wrinkling, hide undergarments, and generally have a more structured look, which helps them pair better with blazers, as guest columnist Yuli Ziv wrote when she described her perfect office dress. The ideal fabric to look for here is a tropical wool, but thicker pontes and various polyester blends can also help. I’d avoid silk and jersey dresses if this look is supposed to be comparable to a suit.
  • If your dress and blazer do not match, make sure it looks intentional by wearing blazers that have a distinct fabric or color. To wear a blazer as a separate, look for neutral ones with texture — tweed, boucle, a thicker wool than tropical, a nubby silk… or look for colorful ones that pair well with your neutral dresses.
  • Obviously: the dress should be totally appropriate on its own. Appropriate hem length, appropriate neckline, not too tight, not too loose.

Readers, what are your thoughts? Do you think that in some places a blazer + dress will be acceptable in court? What guidelines should Reader B follow when looking for blazers and dresses to pair together?  

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Comments

  1. For it to be of equivalent formality to a suit, your dress and blazer must, in fact, be a suit. In the same fabric, the same color, bought together.

    • Maddie Ross :

      This. If the same material, designed with the intent to be worn together, I think they can be the most formal of female options.

    • I agree about equivalent formality, but at least in my larger Midwest city, a blazer/dress combination would be fine in most of our criminal and juvenile courts. Definitely suss out your judge(s) first.

      • lucy stone :

        Rural midwest here, but this is completely acceptable for anything other than a civil jury trial in our courts.

      • Southern California here. I work with an appellate attorney, in a building with lots of women attorneys. A dress and blazer are fine, in pretty much any venue here, as long as the dress is professional (covers the chest and is not too short). Some women wear suits with pants. Some very successful female attorneys never wear a suit! The Court here certainly does not care these days as long as you are professional and presentable. And it doesn’t seem to matter to a jury if the female attorney wears a dress or a suit – as long as she is confident, prepared, neat and crisp.

    • Diana Barry :

      +1 million.

      If suits are required YOU MUST WEAR A SUIT. There are suits available where one of the pieces is a dress.

    • lawsuited :

      I agree. To me there is no difference between a pant suit, skirt suit and dress suit. In order to be a “suit” the jacket and pant/skirt/dress must be identical fabric. Anything else is separates, which, at least where I am, is not formal enough for court.

    • I disagree that they have to be part of a suit. The pairing does have to look intentional though. I frequently wear tailored solid dresses with coordinating tweed jackets, even in trial.

  2. Public Defender :

    I don’t know where you practice, but I am a public defender in the bay area, and both the PDs and the DA women often wear dresses with blazers to court (non-matching). I’ve never worn a non-matching one in trial, but have seen lots of DAs do it, even in trial.

    • Yes, I can get away with blazer’s in the summer for the office, but in Court, it is STRICTELEY matching suits, with 4″ Closed Toe Pump’s for me. Thank Gawd I have Mason to carry my pump’s in the summer b/c there is melting tar in the street that you can get your heel’s stuck in. Fortunateley my Nike Air’s do NOT get stuck. YAY!!!!

    • Canadian Lawyer :

      You would be shocked to see what people where to Chambers here (not the same as chambers in the US, here Chambers is where we do interim applications in a traditional court room setting). For the most part people dress in a proper suit (nylons for women if wearing a skirt) but it amazes me that the outliers get away with their attire. I have seen a courderoy jacket, I have seen a cardigan instead of a jacket (surprisingly the judge said nothing) and I have seen UGGS (although it was in provincial court, still not acceptable, ever – again judge said nothing). Not worn by lay-litigants, but by lawyers. In that context, a dress and a non-matching blazer are considered completely fine.

      For trials though we must wear robes, with a waist coat and tabs. It is an option to wear a special waist-coat-like dress to wear instead of the waist coat, although I’ve only really seen a couple of women do it.

  3. Anonymous :

    I’m a prosecutor and wear a dress with a blazer to court all the time. I agree with the public defender above in that I’ve never worn a non-matching skirt/blazer in a jury trial (when I normally just wear a suit), but almost any other court appearance in this jurisdiction is fine in a dress and blazer.

    • +1 re jury trials :

      A suit is a must if you are going to be selling your case to the strangers in the box. And in some locales, jurors, particularly women, can be judgmental about pantsuit wearing women attorneys.

    • Anon Pros :

      This is my situation exactly as an assistant prosecutor. I wear patterned or colored dresses + blazer to court 90% of the time. The other 10% are jury trials when I wear a skirt suit. Pants are typically just for office days, though that’s a personal style/confidence preference, not because of formality.

  4. I drive by a courthouse every day and it seems like such a mismatch when the general public wears its third-worst t-shirt with words and flipflops in the summer.

    I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think that a formal dress is more formal than a suit, but it is hard to find a dress like that (it would be some sort of lined wool with sleeves, like if you had a Hugo Boss wardrobe maybe). Not finding that, Talbots does a lot of sleeveless-dress-with-jacket offerings in each catalog. A lot of my in-court-every-day friends don’t have a lot of $ to spend on clothes, so I see them wearing safe picks bought on sale, even if they are not crazy about them. Express maybe? But I agree: it’s too early to stock up. Get through the first week or two to see what will really work for you.

    • Anonymous :

      No dress from Express will be more formal than a suit.

      • Totally agree. Express would probably be a way of adding to an existing suit wardrobe that will be in heavy rotation (while not costing too much).

        Formal dresses are so, so much more expensive. I think part of why a great dress seems more formal than a suit is that the annoyance of finding a shirt goes away. I hate button-fronts and some blouses are too fun/pretty/don’t stay tucked in / are a pain to iron / are not quite grave enough.

        • Also: a suit can be any old suit. Even if frumpy / dated, people just see “a person in a suit” and then tune out the details (especially if it is solid / dark).

          Dresses have traps for the unwary. Suits are in some ways a lower hurdle to cross well.

  5. To echo previous comments–I currently hold a senior position in government, but I started out in Big Law in the late 80’s, and even in those times I concluded that a matching dress/jacket combo is more conservative than a skirt suit with a blouse. (I’m old enough that I’m surprised to hear you mention a pant suit as a more conservative option than a dress/jacket combo.) IMO many blouses, whether worn with skirt suits or pant suits, are prone to gaping, sheerness, distracting or fiddly necklines, etc., and a jewel-neck dress avoids those problems. My daily look is a tailored sheath with contrasting jacket, and that’s more than adequately professional in my field.

    Maybe it’s just because it’s a pet peeve of mine, but inappropriate blouses are one of the biggest sartorial errors I spot in the young female attorneys who appear in my forum. (Number one is the stripper shoes/no nylons combo.)

    • Anon Boston :

      hexicon, when you say that “stripper shoes/no nylons” are a pet peeve of yours, do you mean any female not wearing nylons to court or do you mean that in combination with wearing stripper shoes?

      • Not hexicon, but a government lawyer barely over 40 who finds bare legs amazingly inappropriate in court.

    • And what do you mean by stripper shoes? I’m old enough to remeber when a 3″ inch heel was thought slutty and unacceptable, although I now wear them—and taller— to court regularly.

      Yes, young ‘uns. There really was a time, not all that long ago, where anything stilletoish or more than a couple of inches was seen as unprofessional in the courtroom.

      • Still is. If you are appearing in front of any judge over 45 (pretty much all of them), you are taking a chance with the super high heels and bare legs. Plus, it is tacky.

        • As foot ware goes I defer to function over fashion. I never wear anything much beyond an athletic style shoe. Nothing with a smooth sole, even a ballet flat is safe. As a woman with a disability walking is a chalange. That I am present under my own power trumps any shoe formality issue. If it were my wedding I would switch from my black rubber soles “sensible” shoes to white and get out my bedazzled. I can’t foresee anything more inappropriate than stumbling across the floor, landing on my keister trying to impress anyone with a stupid shoe choice.

    • Anonymous :

      So true. I am glad to read all of these comments because I struggle with being a full time vial painter and looking as a professional at the same time. I am trying to merge my two selves. I got many ideas from reading your responses. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  6. “How do I go about matching blazers with dresses? Must they come as a set? Be the same fabric? What about colors and necklines? Basically, I have a closet full of gorgeous work dresses, but I need more blazers if I want them to work at the new job.”

    My advice: spend a day or two (at least one of those days should not be Friday) at the courthouse, observing what the attorneys wear. You will get a better idea of what your wardrobe is supposed to be than we can give you.

    • Yes, go to the courthouse and observe the other attorneys. This will also help you realize that the threshold is much lower than you think. Not to say you shouldn’t make an effort to rise above, but I have seen attorneys appear for hearings in a dress and a cardigan. I do not, not, not recommend that, but it at least made me feel much more secure about wearing something I previously questioned, like a dress and blazer.

      • Anonymous non suit wearing litigator :

        I’ll wear a dress and a cardigan to court. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I hate Blazers. They don’t work with my body type.

        • Jen S. 2.0 :

          To me, a cardigan dresses an ensemble down, and brings the level of formality way down. That may well be appropriate for what you’re doing, and that’s fine, but a cardigan likely is not dressing your outfit up.

        • Men aren’t wearing cardigans to court.

      • Rural Juror :

        I once saw a Crown attorney run a preliminary in a cardigan. It was a murder prelim. People still talk about it. That and the out of towner who wore a “Gone Fishin'” tie to an aggravated assault sentencing.

  7. Anonymous :

    While in general I agree with the above advice, you should wait until you start work and see what others are wearing.

    I’m a prosecutor in a major office in a major city (not federal). While I like the ideal of us dressing formally as we represent the People….. realistically, in my jurisdiction, any dress with any blazer (including knits) is more than fine. The public defender is probably wearing leggings as pants with uggs. Many of my colleagues get 100% of their wardrobe at loft, target and old navy. So wait and see – things might not be as formal as you’d expect.

    • National_Anthem :

      Ha, yeah, one of my dear friends who is a public defender has a black pair of uggs that she wears to court all the time. She calls them her “office uggs.”
      Absolutely wait until you start and then take cues from other people, but it’s likely your nice dresses with blazers will be fine.
      Signed,
      Someone who recently saw an attorney appear in federal court wearing a yellow linen sundress that had clearly been balled up in the back of her trunk for the last year, topped with a plaid cardigan. And sandals.

    • Senior Attorney :

      OMG I posted below before I saw this. But yes to all of it.

      I was starting to think I lived in an alternate universe…

    • Absolutely. In part, because criminal attorneys (on both sides) are poor.

  8. Anonymous :

    Where I practice (DC/Northern Virginia), women frequently wear the dress/jacket combo in both federal and state court. Your mileage may vary – as many others have echoed, I wouldn’t do it for a jury trial but for something routine in front of a judge only, I think it is fine. Some people pull it off better than others, of course. I’ll note that I’m currently 6 months pregnant and the dress/jacket separates combination has been very helpful. I haven’t purchased a maternity suit, but I did purchase a couple of very basic maternity dresses that I can wear with blazers for court appearances. Today for court I wore a black dress with a blue/grey striped suit jacket.

  9. Separates can be dressy enough for court, federal, appellate even. The dress and blazer do not have to be out of matching suiting fabric. I have been a federal clerk in a major metro area on and off for 10 years, and I am certain of this. Anyone who cares is idiosyncratic. You can (and should) dress for a picky judge, but it as an absolute fallacy to say that for any kind of court as a whole that separates are “inappropriate.”
    The more women who continue to follow, and instruct other women on, arbitrary rules for what constitutes court-formal dress are just being snobby and clubbish. There are literally maybe a dozen judges left in the country who care, and they are *wrong* to care what women wear to court.

  10. Do you think there is a difference in court formality between the east coast and the west coast, for example New York and Los Angeles?

    • NY’er here. I don’t go to court without a suit, although my practice is exclusively federal, to the extent that might make a difference.

      LA friend never wears a suit. Usually, she wears slack and a dressy blouse. Throws a blazer on if it’s cool. That would NEVER be acceptable in NY as far as I can tell.

      • Senior Attorney :

        I’m in the LA area and you wouldn’t believe the getups I see in court. I once knew a public defender who wore flip-flops (with big jewels on them, already) to court every day. And I saw a private defense attorney try a whole case to a jury wearing leggings-as-pants. Madness, I tell you…

        • Anonymous Associate :

          I don’t like the jacket/dress combo. I feel like I don’t look uniform with my male colleagues if I am in court, etc.

          I am a patent litigator and have a national (federal) practice. I have been absolutely shocked by what I see attorneys wear in court in many jurisdictions, including C.D. Cal. I saw a women wear a white cotton suit with 3/4 length sleeves and capri pants, with a ruffled orange shell and orange high heeled sandals. SO I am not sure going and “observing” is good advice.

          I work for a New York firm and it is expected that I will wear a real suit to court. I look terrible in pants, and am always worried someone will judge me for wearing pants anyways. So I stick with traditional skirt suits (jacket and suit). In places like CA/FL etc., I’ll wear a sleeveless shell under my jacket. In places like east coast/TX/WI I usually stick with an oxford shirt unless it is really warm outside.

          • (Ducking) I think the white and orange outfit sounds great. But I’m not a lawyer…

    • I clerked in federal court in NYC and now practice in SF. Yes, there’s a difference. New York is absolutely more formal. That said, a well tailored, not casual (e.g., not knit) jacket over a similarly formal dress would be fine for appearances outside of significant arguments, I think, and probably fine for anything other than a jury.

  11. Another DA :

    I agree with the PD and DA who posted earlier. A matching skirt suit is pretty much required for jury trial, especially when you are new to the office. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend deviating from matching skirt suits or pant suits on a daily basis at all, until you’re past your probationary period.

    Many of the women in my office, including myself, do wear dress (or pants) and non-matching blazer/cardigan combos to court, and no judge has complained, but most of us didn’t do that until reaching a certain degree of seniority.

    • Anonymous :

      This. At the beginning of my career (a public defender in court every day), I wouldn’t dream of wearing anything other than a matching suit – although not necessarily a skirt suit – for trial, or even for non-trial court appearances. This is especially true for the probationary period; I have seen colleagues not pass probation due to their inappropriate wardrobe. However, as I’ve become farther along in my career, I regularly wear non-matching yet coordinating dress/jacket combos, even in trial.

  12. My work wardrobe consists almost exclusively of sheath dresses with non-matching (but of course coordinating) blazer. Of course, I’m a transactional lawyer and don’t got to court so that’s different. My biggest clothing struggle is appropriate dress length, but that’s the subject of a different discussion.

  13. Anonymous non suit wearing litigator :

    I’ll wear a dress and cardigan to court no problem. I practice federal civil litigation. Blazers look ridiculous on me and make me very uncomfortable moving around. Cardigans make me feel more relaxed. If I’m relaxed and can actually talk to and connect with the jury they will forgive the lack of ‘formality.’ Plus I’m generally over formalistic on mannerism and the cardigan helps temper that. I would be completely ineffective in front of jury wearing a formal suit. You have to find a style that won’t piss off the judge and that you are comfortable with. Then again, I’m a solo so I have no partners dress code to deal with either.

  14. This was my question! Thank you all so much for the input!

    I’ve actually interned at the DA’s office in question, so I know that my dresses and a general dress/blazer combo is appropriate court attire for everything but jury trials. No worries there, I’ve weeded out everything informal!

    For those of you mentioning cardigans, I vastly prefer them too. I usually wear a cardigan over my dress in the office and then change from the sweater to the blazer if I have to go to court.

    I really appreciate all the tips for exactly “how” to put the dress and blazer together! Thanks everyone! Time to shop for some more neutral colors!

    • Also, sorry I took so long to weigh in on the comment thread… but today was the first day of the bar exam! Thought a lot of you would appreciate that.

    • I rarely have to wear suits unless I’m going to hearing, but when I do, I prefer a suit dress/ matching jacket combo. This way I feel put together and don’t have to worry about untucked tops. I’ve had good luck with Calvin Klein suit separates, as well as Banana Republic. I try to buy suits with multiple matching pieces – jacket, dress, skirt (even the occasional pants, but I don’t look great in a pantsuit). This way I can wear the skirt/dress with a blouse or cardigan during regular workdays, and have the matching jacket as needed for court. I can’t stand wearing blazers/jackets, but that’s another issue (I’ll usually bring a cardigan to change into once I leave the court).

  15. I’m a student attorney practicing in the family division of our circuit court, and while myself and the other female student attorneys always wear suits to court, I’ve seen some…interesting…outfit combinations from attorneys. BRIGHT royal blue pants, a blouse, and a cardigan, or a black suit jacket, untucked shirt, and a flared skirt with 5 inch heels that must have had a 2 inch platform… I think a dress and blazer would look lovely and professional in comparison.

    Personally, I hate blazers with a flaming passion, but I do feel like when I’m wearing my whole skirt suit, I almost look like a real attorney and not just a student playing dress up.

  16. Admin (immigration) court in SF, non-matching sheath + blazer is fine. No one cares or notices unless you are sloppy.

  17. I’ve gotten great mileage from tahari sheaths. Great necklines and linings. No other brand has the same cut/fit. Calvin Klein is close, but linings have always been “bunchier” from a lesser sewing quality.

  18. SteelCityMagnolia :

    Some of the female anchors/reporters on our local news station are really good for doing the blazer-over-a-dress thing and let me tell y’all, they are. not. fooling. anyone. It rarely looks good, if ever. It doesn’t look like a matched outfit, it looks like a jacket over a dress and doesn’t look formal at all.

    When in doubt, wear a matched suit. I’m probably showing my age here, but I can recall when you could buy a complete set at pretty much any department store: sheath dress, dress pants, suit jacket, and occasionally a skirt. All the same color/material and you could mix and match at will. THAT you could get away with putting the jacket over the dress. But short, quick, and dirty rule of thumb is if they aren’t sold together as a set, itmost likely ain’t gonna work.

    And Uggs to work? Tacky as hell, but if you HAVE to do it, it’s (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) acceptable if and only if it’s -20 and snowing like a champ and you’re changing shoes the very second you get inside the office. And absolutely NEVER in court. Nothing screams “please don’t take me seriously” louder than a pair of Uggs.

  19. I’m not in court these days, in an F500 headquarters building. There are lawyers, fancy business people, marketing, a range, and of course CEO. The dress/blazer combo is very common and 100% acceptable. Outside lawyering circles, it’s more and more common not to wear a full matching formal suit, so long as you look business-appropriate for the occasion. We wear blazers a lot, but not too often with a matching suit bottom.

  20. I’m a prosecutor and I have court 4 days of the week. I have ten or so work dresses (mostly fit and flares and wrap dresses) that I pair with a black or grey blazer. It’s simple and works quite well. On trial days, I’ll wear a skirt suit instead.

    I try to stick with either solid colored dresses or uber professional patterns that go well with a black blazer. All of my clothes are meant to go well with a black suit jacket and black shoes.

  21. I’m starting as a first year attorney in two weeks. Suits only workplace. How many suits do I need?

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