I Can’t Wear a Suit — But Want to Show Authority

I Can't Wear a Suit But Want to Show Authority -- How? | Corporette

2017 Update: We still stand by our advice on how to show authority without wearing a suit, but you may also want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.

What do you wear when you want to show authority without wearing a suit?  We’ve talked about what to wear when a suit doesn’t feel right, but Reader R is looking for authoritative clothes that aren’t intimidating and travel well…

I recently started a new job as in-house counsel. As part of my responsibilities, I will be traveling internationally to conduct audits and give training sessions. The job is great, but I’m not sure what to wear! My de facto would be to wear a suit, but my boss suggested that I should avoid wearing suits, since the appearance of a “suit” tends to make people nervous. Some relevant factors: (1) I’m often the only woman in the room; and (2) I’m also often the youngest person in the room.

Basically, I need pieces that say, “Position of authority, but non-scary” and travel well. Help!

Congrats on the new job, R!  One of my older friends was a lawyer for a TV network in the 80s, and I remember her telling me that she would leave her suit jacket in her office when she had to go talk to the comedy writers or producers — it was less intimidating, less “this is coming from The Man.” So you’re not alone in wanting to thinking about what your clothes say to people.  For my $.02: Put some thought into exactly what response you want from people.  For example: Do you want them to respect that your word is the final word, and they should do what you tell them? (Play up the authority.)  Do you want them to come to you with problems that might not be communicated to the home office otherwise?  (Play up the approachability, but keep some authority.) Do you seek to really understand their problems and make friends in the office? (Turn the authority way down.)  (As for the “looking younger” part of your question, you may want to look at our older post on the difference between acting young and looking young at the office.)

For my $.02, I would go with what you feel most comfortable in, and modify that (taking into account, obviously, the office culture for where you’re going). If you’re comfortable in:

  • heels and fashionable business dresses — emulate Claire Underwood (second mention today!) from House of Cards, who always looks authoritative without wearing a suit. Think structure, structure, structure, and look for dresses in subdued colors and suiting materials (similar to those in our roundup for simple sheath dresses).  Another approach: the blazer + dress approach, with the dresses being of a non-suiting material.  Think wrap dresses, ponte dresses, even knit dresses — prints, colors, all are OK — but expect to put a subdued blazer on top of them. (You could also do a cardigan here, but in my mind it doesn’t have as much gravitas as a blazer.)
  • jeans and sneakers (and jeans are appropriate for your travels) — get a good collection of blazers and fun necklaces to wear with dark rinse jeans and heels. You can play with color if you want to (try, say, a teal jacket and a long red necklace), but you can also keep it on the more subdued side (black blazers as separates, black t-shirts, and silver/gold jewelry).  (If jeans aren’t appropriate, I’d find a flattering, wear-with-everything trouser or pencil skirt for you and then take this approach.)
  • Trousers and flats — go with fluidity.  Drapey trousers, loose blouses — and if possible, wear quality accessories like a great watch, a good set of pearls, etc. (Depending on where you’re traveling to, though, this may need to be rethought — jewelry is easily stolen from hotel rooms, packed bags, etc.)

Readers, how do you dress when you want to be the “non-scary person with authority”?


  1. I think this is the perfect opportunity for sheath dress with contrasting blazer or architecturally strong dresses (more toward sheath than not). That way you are polished, formal, but not really in a suit.

    Your job sounds fun!

    • Concur. I’m in-house and travel regularly, and I want to convey “authoritative but not stuffy”. For me, this translates to structured dresses and non-matching blazers (and the dresses can always stand alone, minus the blazer, too).

      • Oh, and since the OP’s question mentioned it, I’ll add that I am also (1) frequently the only woman in the room, and (2) frequently the youngest person in the room by at least a decade.

      • Yes, this could be me also, especialy b/c I am now manageing Mason. As a newly MINTED partner, I have to be authoritative to Mason, and make sure he does NOT do anything stupid that make’s me look stupid. So clotheing is a part of it. I must dress professioneally and be authoritative, or Mason will walk all over me.

        Right now, my Dilemna is to figure out how he must act at work with Lynn. I am positive he is haveing sex with her OUTSIDE of work, but I must make sure he act’s professional 100% of the time at work with her. Otherwise, peeople like Madeline will question my own professionealism for failure to properly manage Mason. It is the manageing partner’s job to manage Lynn, but she is NOT the probelem. It is Mason, who is agressive sexually toward’s her, kind of like a hungry lion lookeing for food, (with Lynn being the meal). YAY! I have it tough as a manageing attorney at the firm and a partner. I hope he does listen to me. FOOEY if he does not, b/c we do NOT want employment litiegation here at the firm. We are to small for that b/c everyone would know everything, b/c everything would be in the pleeading’s which are public. FOOEY!

    • Wildkitten :

      Blazer and heels!

      • Meh. I think blazer and flats are fine as long as the flats are of the structured, polished variety (not the elastic side variety, the rosette on the toe variety, etc).


      • How very Judy Garland- Get Happy!

        • Penny London :

          These are my favorite flats. They are comfortable yet dressy. I always get compliments on them and they look great with sheath dresses. http://www.zappos.com/ivanka-trump-laura-black-patent

          • I like those. Got my daughter some Trump Pumps for Christmas, they are making nice designs these days.

  2. If it were me, I would still wear a suit, but *not* a skirt suit, and I would dial down the formality of the piece under the suit jacket. So — black, navy, and/or charcoal trouser suit with a more casual shirt underneath. No silk shells or button-downs. Say something like a Breton striped jersey top.

    Another option — black trousers with a jacket/blazer that is *not* a matching suit jacket but instead mixes things up somehow — a tweed fabric, or a black safari style jacket or a black asymmetrical/moto style knit jacket, or one of the colored ponte blazers with contrast trim.

    Also love the tailored sheath dress idea, with or without a blazer. It’s just that I have fewer of those in my actual closet!

    • IT Chick in MN :

      If you already have several suits and are despairing of getting sufficient wear, treat them as separates. Careful selection of shoes and jewelry can really dial down the formality. When I’m working with a client with a more casual dress, I try to mix things up more. So the formal pumps get mixed with a dress or more flowing pants. A more formal skirt gets a less formal shoe, a fun scarf, or a fun necklace.

  3. Diana Barry :

    Ditto to emulating either Claire Underwood or Jackie on HoC – both wear really structured dresses and look GREAT.

    I would have trouble with this because I tend to get cold – so the structured dress by itself is not enough. I would add a blazer in that case.

    • I personally would go with Adele from Dollhouse ;o)

      • I remember her. She had great clothes – all those lovely soft blouses and pencil skirts. I’m currently a fashion fan of the ladies of Suits: Jessica, Rachel, even Donna. Donna wears the most beautiful structured dresses that give her an authoritative but not dominating air.

  4. Senior Attorney :

    I show my authority by wearing bright colors, high heels, animal prints, leather… basically pushing the boundaries of “office wear.” But I’m a generation older than Reader R so I get that my approach probably wouldn’t work as well for her.

    I think my best advice for this situation is this: Whatever look you choose to adopt, spend the money and buy noticeably high quality pieces. This is not the time to wear your separates from the Loft or Target, you know? At the end of the day it’s the quality of the cut and fabric that really conveys authority.

    • +1 Senior Attorney & totally concur. Not an attorney, but in my male dominated field nothing says [email protected]@ like some high heeled, pointy toed black boots and a tasteful but striking outfit that conveys my authority. Loving the fashion perks of being “of a certain age.” ;)

  5. In-house Europe :

    I haven’t commented in FOREVAH but I wanted to follow up on this – can anyone link to blazers that work with dresses? My suit jackets all look…wrong. I think they need to be shorter maybe? Help!!

    Also, I had a total lean-in moment. Left work on time (at 4 pm) to pick up kiddos and managed to negotiate a seriously tough contract in between dinner and bedtime in a series of short calls. Got my baby cuddles AND killed it at work. Rawr!!!

    • Wildkitten :

      Is it the blazers that aren’t playing nice or the dresses? I assume the reason the, for example, JCrew suiting jackets look so well with the JCrew suiting blazers is because of the tailoring of the dress. How are you suits not working?

    • That’s awesome!

    • In-house Europe – I think that – in order for a blazer to work over a dress – it has to be (1) not suiting material (2) Not truly formal or appearing as if it’s originally part of a suit (3) balance the dress. So length might be a problem. CapHillStyle blog has some Q&A on blazers as does the blog alterations needed.

    • I read something interesting (linked from here, of course) that said in general, dress/skirt jackets should be shorter than jackets-with-pants blazers. So that might be why what you have now looks “wrong” but you can’t put your finger on why.

      • In-House Europe :

        Thanks everyone! I think that indeed, the problem is that my suiting jackets are all too long and not fitted enough to wear over dresses. Guess I will just have to do some shopping! ;)

  6. TO Lawyer :

    I think long-sleeved dresses would do the trick – and hopefully you won’t be cold if you don’t want to add a blazer.

    But I’m also on team blazer on everything

    • Purse Dilemma -- MZ Wallace :

      Can you post links to blazers you like? I am debating a black jcrew schoolboy, but not sure how that would look with what I have.

  7. Claire Underwood is tall and slender. She can wear anything and look graceful and authoritative at the same time. How about suggestions for a short person, with extra credits for curvy and “youngest in the room”?

  8. I’d actually suggest pants, really elegant flats, and a weighty cashmere v-neck with a button-front underneath. Cashmere looks soft, and people feel comfortable around it. Pants and really nice flats are authoritative, as is a button-front shirt. Then you can wear some earrings with a little visual impact.

    • I’ve always had trouble with the arms being too tight/the look not being smooth if I try to wear a button-down under a cardigan. Should I be sizing up or are there just some styles that work better?

      • I don’t have this problem with v-necks. With cardigans, I just think you need a heavy weight, i.e. cable knit, or serious Scottish cashmere like Brora’s. It also helps to anchor the sweater cuff on the shirt cuff.

      • I have this problem always. I just gave up on the style.

        • It is possible to find sweaters with roomy arms/shirts with non-bulky arms. On the other hand, it’s not like it’s a required skill or anything:).

    • I prefer trousers and cardigans, but with heels not flats – especially for situations where I want to have more authority. Even in tech I never felt like it was too formal (although that may have been because there weren’t many other women to compare my wardrobe to) (please ignore dangling participle).

  9. Penny London :

    I am also in a very male dominated office and field and until recently was usually the youngest person in the room. After ten years of trying to figure out what works I’ve realized it’s all about feeling comfortable with what I’m wearing. I’ve spent so much money on suits I never wear because I feel uncomfortable in them and always feel like I’m playing dress up. It doesn’t help that I have a very large chest so it’s hard for me to find suit jackets that look and feel good. So my go-to outfit is black dresses with jackets (usually from Boden so they are fun and not overly stiff) with patterned tights (usually from Spanx- no fishnets) and flats. I’m not a big jewelry person but I wear a big really nice watch. When I travel to the UK, I trade my flats for tall black boots (also flat) for warmth and comfort.

  10. What about rolling/pushing up the sleeves of an open blazer over your dress/top? I do this all the time and it makes me feel professional yet still relaxed, like I’m ready to get to work. Also, I think direct eye contact and strategic note-taking convey more authority than what you wear.

  11. Penny London :

    I also wanted to mention that you don’t want to forget about your after work hours outfits. If you are having casual dinners with coworkers you still want to look nice. I always seem to forget about this part when I travel. I would have a pair of comfortable black pants with good walking shoes and a pair of nice jeans on hand with a mix of shirts and sweaters you can easily layer.

  12. CA Business :

    When I’m traveling and meeting clients for the first time, I love the look and feel of a great fitting slack and a tucked in freshly laundered button down. Add skinny belt, kick-butt pumps, power watch and I feel like I walked out of a JCrew catalog. I’m going to echo the thought that you have to find what makes you feel the perfect blend of casual/authority.

    My 2nd choice is a mis-matched blazer a top a pencil skirt and tucked in flowy top.

  13. Dark pants; grey, brown, black. Great for lots of travel. Lafayette 148 has some great styles.

    Bright blazer in a pattern, fun tweed, or just a single bright color. Lafayette again, or just wander around at Nordie’s and see what looks interesting. No dark colors, and choose shorter jacket styles that hit at mid-hip.

    Basic shell or (my fave) silk charmeuse button-down. Wintersilks has some reasonably priced ones, as do Talbots and the other usual suspects.

    Sounds like your job involves a lot of standing and walking, so I’d skip the high heels and pointy toed shoes and avoid foot surgery in 10 years. Clark’s or Dansko’s — yes they’re ‘old lady’ shoes but you are trying to look older, right?

    Good luck!

  14. A pencil skirt or other well-fitting skirt with a nice sweater is what I turn to when I need to be professionally dressed for a meeting or a lunch, but a suit is too much.

  15. My favourites for professional travel
    : Better-quality knit or jersey dresses in dark colours (Max Mara and its sub-labels have suitable versions every season). Polished and serious-looking without being a suit, suitable to wear after-hours with flats, easy to pack, comfortable if you have to go straight from airport to office or vice-versa.
    : Jackets from the Japanese label Issey Miyake. The label is best known for its brightly-coloured big-volume exotic pleats, but they also carry navy and black jackets in the signature pleats every season. These read like classic tailoring with a pair of same-colour or off-white dress trousers, but feel like a comfy cardigan (the pleats are stretchy) and can be rolled/ scrunched up to nothing for packing.
    : Wide silk trousers with classic jackets – either a 2-button lapel style or a cropped collarless Chanel style one, mix off-white with navy or black plus tan shoes and gold jewelry. If the jacket and the accessories are polished enough, no one will register that you’ve got on the equivalent of luxury pajama bottoms.

    I am one of those ladies ‘of a certain age’ who no longer worries about conveying authority with my outfit, but I do stick to a rule of only one potentially distracting design element at one time ie. I happily wear colours, prints, fluid fabrics, interesting volume etc etc but only one at a time. This is a lesson retained from the nineties, when pashminas were a new thing, and I watched a senior lady successfully turn her constant fidgeting with a brightly-coloured version into a distraction for the whole table-ful of negotiating principals and advisors.

  16. I always find a black turtleneck goes a long way. Simple, pairs well with both skirts and slacks, and packs well, too.

  17. I suggest dressing like a guy but in a feminine way. Business pants, a blouse with a feminine print or touch. Simple jewelry. The dresses and the rest make you stick out in this environment. Same with heels. Bring the blazer, take it on/off as needed.

  18. MissDisplaced :

    For a suit look without being a suit, I like swapping the blazer from a pant or skirt suit for a button up cardigan with maybe a silky or simply t-shirt or shell underneath. It still has the feel of suit, but more casual.

    I’ve also seen the same look with a “boyfriend” cardigan and a wide belt.

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