Back-Handed Compliments at the Office

Back-Handed Compliments at the Office | CorporetteHow do you deal with back-handed “compliments” at the office? Reader B wonders…

I am a 30 year old lawyer working in Washington, DC. My late 20’s/early 30’s professional female friends and I have experienced a strange and disconcerting dynamic amongst women in the workplace: getting negative comments from other women for being smartly/well- dressed. These outfits, I believe, would objectively be considered professional, age-appropriate, and well-fitting: tailored suits in feminine cuts, pencil skirts to the knee, or pumps with a modest heel. They would certainly be similar to those depicted on the Corporette website. The comments often take the form of backhanded compliments, such as, “That shirt makes you look soooooo thin.” They may also be cautionary, like “Wow, you had better be careful not to hurt yourself in those heels”. This feedback comes from women at a similar professional level and more senior employees. It most often comes from women whom are a generation older and seem to be, at times, more about our size and age than what we are wearing. It also seems to be more of an issue in government and non-profit environments, as we haven’t noticed it to be a problem in the private sector. How should we respond to this type of feedback? At what point should we give in to workplace pressure to dress in a more bland way versus continuing to wear clothing that makes us feel sophisticated and professional?

This issue comes up a lot, and as your friendly blogger I see both sides of it: the younger women wondering why these older women are giving them these back-handed compliments, and the older women asking me how in the world they tell someone they’re dressed wildly inappropriate for the office in a casual way. I’m curious to hear what readers think about this.

A few thoughts:

  • I think you always have to interpret what they’re saying as constructive advice for how to dress for YOUR office. Remember, ladies, just because something is featured on Corporette or in another “wear it to work” source doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for YOUR office, because every office has its own peculiarities. These older women are — hopefully — trying to convey to you that something about your clothes is inappropriate for the office.  The flip side: just because they’re saying these things doesn’t mean that they’re right, either — they could be jealous, they could feel threatened by you, etc, etc. But every time I’ve been on the receiving end of these kinds of compliments (and trust me, I have) I’ve studied what I was wearing, studied my office, and tried to make an educated, objective decision whether to stop wearing whatever was so offensive. These would be my interpretations of some possible “compliments”:
    • “Don’t hurt yourself in those heels” = “You look like you’re having a problem walking in those shoes, which is inappropriate for the office.”
    • “Oooh, cute dress — do you have a date tonight?” = “You’re dressed for your date, not your job, which is inappropriate.”
    • “You look sooo thin in that shirt” = “Wow, that is tight! Should I really be able to count your ribs?”
    • “Gee, I never would have thought to wear a corset top with a suit!” = “Why are you wearing a corset top with your suit?”  (Pictured: Victoria’s Secret.)
  • In the instant it’s said, this is your response: a cheerful “Thanks!,” possibly followed by a compliment about her outfit or, should you choose, a note about your own attire. “I was inspired by Boss X’s great outfit on Friday,” or “I feel like I could run a mile in these heels!” or something positive. I wouldn’t talk about it more than that unless you’re in a formal setting (HR office).
  • Here are some guesses as for why this issue comes up in government and non-profit offices but not the private sector: a) there are probably more older women in general there since there is often a promise of a better work/life juggle in those environments, b) they tend to be smaller offices with their own “personalities,” and c) they probably don’t have a separate HR department or other formal ways of telling you that you’re dressed inappropriately.  But, like I said, those are just my guesses…

Readers, how do you deal with back-handed compliments? Also, I’m really curious — would you rather someone say directly “that dress seems a bit inappropriate for the office,” rather than paying you some false “compliment”? For those of you who have tried to tell someone that she was dressed inappropriately, how did you do it (and what was her response)?


  1. I’ve had a related problem — male partners half jokingly commenting on how well-dressed I am and how much money I must spend on clothes. I’m in BigLaw in DC. Nothing I own is obviously labeled (with the exception of a Burberry trench and then only the lining). I’m a very conservative dresser, so I don’t think the comments are hints that I’m inappropriately dressed — just a comment that I seem to wear higher end clothes. Pretty sure it’s a product of being in DC — I probably look a little more NYC than most. Always wondered how to handle.

    • I find your comment very interesting. While I just came from DC to NYC, I felt as though the women in my office in DC were dressing more fashion-y than those in my NYC office. Before I came up here, I would have assumed it was the exact opposite. Just a comment to support the statement that it is necessary to adjust to your current environment. That being said, no one in my current office wears heels and I continue to wear mine as I feel more polished in heels than loafers/flats.

    • MaggieLizer :

      We had a thread about this a little while ago. Considering my student loan payments are almost double my (high!) rent, and I religiously stalk sales, comments about “how rich [I am]” or “how much money [I] spend on clothes” really get under my skin. I usually say something about about snagging it at a great sale. If it’s someone who’s repeatedly pestered me, I’ll say something like “I sure am glad I get such good deals at sales so I can still pay down my student loans quickly!” or if they’ve really p*ssed me off, “Isn’t this skirt great? It cost less than your lunch today!”

      • SF Bay Associate :

        I really love that last response, Maggie. Tucking it away for future use.

      • Lol, I do have a habit of bragging about how cheap my clothes are, mostly because I’m just so darn proud of any good deals I get, even though I know it’s in bad taste to tell people how much things cost. I’ve been known to respond to a compliment about my outfit with, The whole thing only cost me $50!

      • Growing up Irish-Catholic, when someone comments on a new clothing item, I actually CANNOT restrain myself from telling them the sale I got it on. Its hardwired into my very existence. Because to buy something full-price for most of my irish great aunts or aunts would have been essentially a capital crime.

        • I do this too– the minute someone says they like someone, the price & store pops out of my mouth.
          ESPECIALLY WITH MY MOM– Even if I buy something full price, I can’t ever bring myself to actually tell her that I spent full price on it. It’s a compulsion.

      • WorkingMom :

        I once (well actually twice, same person) had a coworker comment, “You always look so nice and put together, you must have gotten a raise!” This comment came in the women’s restroom after she complimented the skirt I was wearing. Ironic part… that skirt is nearly a decade old, and the top I was wearing was a “new to me” hand me down from my sister; the shirt was about 6 years old. I had not gotten a raise, I simply was trying to wear more of the clothes I never touch!

        I found it to be funny – how people interpret what you wear, etc. I just smiled. The same coworker made a similar comment again about one month later. Again I just smiled. I figure, if what I wear leads to people to believe I am “skyrocketing” professionally and getting raises all over the place, so be it!

    • The manageing partner has to aprove all of my clotheing for which I seek my 20% reimbursment. So that is the PRICE I pay for getting 20%. He get’s to look at it, and then coment on how it fit’s after I buy it and wear it.

      I know it is a little wierd, but with the price’s being so high, and my need to look good, I do NOT mind his coments. He is NOT allowed to touch, so that is where I draw the LINE.

      • Are you kidding? Your managing partner gets to inspect and comment on your clothes?? That is STAGGERING!

      • That sounds a little creepy.

      • I think this doesn’t just sound a little creepy…but like straight-up sexual harassment.

        But before we jump to any conclusions.

        Does your managing partner inspect anyone else? By that, I mean EVERYONE else. Every man in your office too. Do they get their outfits checked out and approved?

        I think what makes this really troubling is your comment of “he does not get to touch, tee hee!” The fact that you have to make that line and distinction is heavily disturbing (and slightly call-girl esque, but hey maybe other firms do this too?)

        Sexual harassment is not a price anyone has to pay as a condition of work.

  2. That may be very much a DC issue as well – if you’re not wearing a Dress Barn polyester pant suit with chunky flats, you may be an oddity in some environments… I’m sorry to say this as I have some government clients who dress well, but that’s particularly true at several government agencies, where professional seems to be understood as frumpy.

    • Yes, the women in my office are very casual, bordering on frumpy. I’ve been trying not to fall into that trap, and keep getting comments about it. Whenever I wear a blazer people ask me if I have an interview, and I always want to respond, “Do you really think I would wear non-matching separates to an interview? Are you crazy?”

      Interestingly, the men in my office tend to be more dressed up and a couple even wear suits, whereas the women are wearing jeans, maxi skirts, leggings under dresses, and club-type dresses with a blazer thrown on over.

      • associate :

        I could have written everything you did. One lady in particular always ask me “where I’m going” if I dress even slightly over business casual. I guess she thinks I should only be wearing a suit if I’m going “somewhere” that day. Last time she asked, she also said: “Why are you always wearing nice outfits.” I told her I buy clothes I think are nice, and then I wear them. Simple as that.

        • Everyone in my office asks that of someone wearing a suit because, well, that’s the only time anyone is ever wearing a suit and it’s nice to show interest and wish them luck if they have a hearing or settlement conference or client meeting. (Granted, if someone did it all the time, we’d get used to it and stop asking.)

      • My boss asked me if I was interviewing one day in front of my director. I immediately responded that I would never interview in a brown suit. After hearing these sort of comments anytime I looked particularly well put together, I gave up. My dry-clean only clothes hang while I revert back to Gap pants and long sleeve shirt from whoever is having a 2 for $30 sale. If I want to “fit it” and get buy in from my coworkers, I’m stuck shopping Kohls.

        That said, I now have much better relationships with my coworkers, my frumpy attire makes me look older than 25, and I no longer get the back handed comments. It’s depressing to see the clothes in my closet I can’t wear, but I genuinely need to have excellent relationships with my coworkers. So I guess that means dressing like them too.

        • This is called “know your office.” Success!

          We can’t always show our truest selves at work. I’m amazed this comes as a surprise to some commentors today.

          • I agree. Relationships with coworkers and your boss trump all. I’m surprised at how much push-back this fact seems to generate. I don’t see it as a female issue either, usually. Most men would rather not have to wear slacks, a tie, or other male get-up to work either, but by golly, they put up and shut up.

        • I’m 26 and just returned to working in the public sector after a 3 year hiatus. I am better dressed than my (female) superiors on staff, but my attorneys praise me regularly (male and female) for looking like a professional. I refuse to let suits sit in my closet while my fellow secretarial staff frump around in wrinkled khakis, sneakers and what could be argued as a patterned t-shirt, not a blouse. I may be the youngest but I want to dress in case I run into our chief, not so I look 25+ years older. Don’t let yourself get down by their shortcomings. You want to dress your best, not the worst.

          • Anonymous :

            Agreed! I can’t believe the poster above let herself get bullied into settling for her non-best. She essentially dumbed herself down so her coworkers didn’t feel pressure to look better at work too. A leader would have let herself shine, forcing the others to step up their game.

          • yes! Isn’t there a phrase “dress for the position you want, not the position you have” ? My office is casual, some of my coworkers look borderline sloppy, but I just don’t feel comfortable dressing like that. So I generally look to my boss as a guideline and ignore any off handed comments.

    • I agree. I don’t think one should be put down for dressing crisply. The first female Speaker was well dressed without showing skin. That’s the look I’m thinking of that often gets put down. I just smile and say thank you.

      • Isn’t that what Clinton and Stacey from ‘What NOT to Wear’ teach? You can look polished and stylish, letting your personality show through with modest accessories without looking trashy or like a bag lady. Love that show!

  3. I would say the other reason it might come up at government and non-profits is that sometimes, those women might be expressing something about the level of formality for the office. It may be a fair complaint – e.g., if you’re meeting with a certain disadvantaged client base that your non-profit works with, it might be disadvantageous to be too formally or nicely dressed – or it may be jealousy of some sort, or it may just be a note about fitting in with the office culture.

    • Em, I came to say something similar, but I think your assessment is much more generous than mine is. I found a lot of folks I worked with in the government/non-profit sector felt that their choices to not work in corporate environments were deeply personal and value-oriented decisions, and they saw anything too corporate as an affront to their egalitarian mission. I think there was also a lot of, “We’re going ‘good work’ so nothing else (how we look, the efficiency of our organization) should matter”. Part of me admired their idealism, but ultimately I found it seemed even more superficial than the for-profit world and bailed for Big Law. Ironically, I feel much more valued for my work product than my appearance here.

      • I’ve definitely seen the attitude you describe in non-profit environments I have worked in. I also believe I have seen more interpersonal drama among co-workers in non-profits and I always attributed it to the same reason. IE, that “mission oriented” people tended to be a little more sensitive (and sanctimonious) than others. I’ve seen this in stories I’ve heard from friends in nonprofits too. Does anyone else have this expereicne?

        • I absolutely had this experience when I worked for government. When I was a legal intern, the more senior women in my office made me come into the library every morning and “twirl” while they critiqued my outfit. They often commented on how much my suits cost, how I must not manage money well if I had so many clothes, etc. I always dressed very conservatively, and bought low level matching suit pieces at Macy’s when they were on sale. I had many suits that cost less than $50!
          Later, at a different government office after graduation, I often received comments for not duplicating an outfit for several weeks. They kept track. I always dressed conservatively since I appeared in court daily, but it was still an issue. I used to bring my lunch in TJ Maxx bags so they could see I shopped at discount stores. Men never said anything – it was always the women. Once I abdicated to corporate, I noticed a significant difference in the attention paid to my clothes. I was merely told I looked nice or well put together. It’s so nice to have people look at my work product instead of my suit!

          • Anonymous :

            I recently resolved to be kind to other women — to be conscious not to critique their clothing choices, and more serious decisions like whether to have a child or not, etc. — and it is unbelievably hard! But I think it’s worth it. After all, men DO NOT seem to put each other through the same hell — why should we?

      • At a previous non-profit internship, I once overheard a discussion of a potential hire:

        Speaker 1: He was a good candidate, but I’m a little bothered he didn’t wear a suit. (Interviewee was wearing jeans and a button-down)
        Speaker 2: Why should he wear a suit? We don’t wear suits here. They’re stuffy and corporate.

        He didn’t get the position, but this was because a ringer for the position interviewed the next day.

      • martyr complex

  4. I am not a fan of this tactic, as the “backhanded comment” strategy seems to me to be both passive aggressive and snarky. If there’s truly inappropriate dressing going on, a few kindly presented and straightforward comments are likely to go much farther than some insincere and insinuating fake compliments.

    • Agreed, because: If the person you’re talking to is truly dressed inappropriately and does not seem to realize it, what makes someone think that the same person will be able to pick up on feedback in a backhanded compliment? Out with it, I say – through the proper channels, of course.

      • Anonymous :

        Exactly, which is why I always interpret backhanded compliments as mere jealousy. If there were any validity to the backhanded insinuation (such as that you’re dressed inappropriately), there would be no need to hide it under a compliment — it would simply stand on its own. So basically, any underlying message that someone is trying to communicate via a backhanded comment is a BS message. Jealousy is b*tch but highly detectable.

    • Agreed. Backhanded compliments don’t convey any truly clear, useful information. They just convey that the speaker is acting like a b*tch.

    • The OP doesn’t say anything about what kind of non-profits, but the ones I’ve been involved with have generally followed a “women’s lib” idea about women’s appearance, and therefore preferred clothing that is not restrictive or dangerous (I’m sure you’ve seen the posts on what high heels can do to your back over time, not to mention the difficulty you’d have running or doing other normal human movements in a pencil skirt or heels). My guess is that the comments come from that direction, whether they’re meant to lead you to think about cultural meanings of clothes or are just comments. You might want to think about how you fit into your firm’s culture or try to engage one of these commenters in a longer conversation in an unguarded moment. If you’d rather skip the Second Sex et al, you could just keep your heels under 2″ and wear skirts that give you room to move. You don’t have to be frumpy to be comfortable.

      • sorry. That’s not where this should have gone. Maru, agree with you totally, and what you say applies universally!

  5. Anonymous :

    I’ve experienced something like this first-hand (not backhanded compliments, but more like puzzlement, i.e. “wow what pointy shoes!”). I just dealt with it by a smile and a nod, or by agreeing (“yes, they are pointy!”).

    As it turned out, the woman who was the most critical of my clothes later revealed a number of personal issues and went on leave. Sometimes, its not about you, its about how the speaker perceives him/herself and their own life.

    • Agree with your last statement. It seems like a company dress code would put an end to this kind of mischief in the workplace. It should be discussed upon hiring, or maybe in an interview along with the “culture” of the workplace.

    • Some people just have different styling preferences, as well. A colleague who frequently wears animal prints and low-cut, cleavage revealing sleeveless blouses to the office with capris will comment on my wardrobe – pointy shoes, blazers, neutral colors, etc. I don’t care – I don’t comment on her appearance, but I would never wear what she wears to the office, so I don’t expect her to understand my appearance or wardrobe “message” either. What I’m wearing has worked for me so far (promotion, raise, increased visibility) while she’s stayed in the same spot, so I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing. OTOH, if I weren’t going anywhere and she were rising in the company, I’d revisit her comments and consider working a little leopard print into my wardrobe. Some women are just snarky people, but it’s a mistake to take any of it all that personally.

  6. I usually (try to remember to) respond back with a very friendly/flattered/non-confrontational, “Oh, you think so?” and then direct the convo to something about them. “How was your weekend?” type of inquiry. Not worth my time to get my undies in a bunch trying to figure out what people mean when they say something like this (often easier said than done if you’re like me and hypercritical of yourself!). Of course, I’m assuming there is no question about whether you are dressed appropriately for your office and that your clothes are well-fitting. :)

  7. Hahah. I love the “they make comments because they’re jealous of me” line. Ladies, 99% of the time this is just not true. The person is either genuinely complimenting you (“that shirt makes you so thin” could easily be a genuine, though admittedly awkward, compliment) or your manner of dress is too tight/flashy/skimpy for the office. I suggest that you swallow your ego long enough to consider the possibility that their statements are valid!
    And for the record I am a fit, attractive professional in my early 30s.

    • Completely agree with Sarah. I am a very fit, attractive professional in my 40s, and guess what–I’m not jealous of you! My life is so much more awesome now than it was when I was in my early 30s–seems to me the envy is the other way around.

      It’s is most likely a sincere compliment, and they are trying to be sensitive, or being overly sensitive in how they communicate that you are inappropriately dressed.

    • It’s definitely true more than 1% of the time. Before I was a lawyer and an assistant, there were cliques among the support staff at the three places I worked that were essentially haters – they would get together at coffee breaks or lunch and talk trash about other women. After I became a lawyer, I experienced older female partners saying negative things to me about the female summer associates or new associates, stuff like “It’s not a beauty pagent,” or “Someone needs a makeover.” Usually the comments and trash talking weren’t really warranted, but people can be mean spirited. We have kind of a tabloid culture, and a lot of people can’t limit their harsh judgments to just celebrities.

      That being said, some people are just socially awkward. Our firm receptionist once exclaimed, in front of me, my 60-something male partner, and a client, that my “legs are never-ending in that skirt! Where do they stop?!” as she mock bent to the side, like she was going to look up my skirt and check. All you can do is laugh and say, “Oh, you’re so funny!” and change the subject.

      • THIS happens to me OFTEN. Drives me totally up the wall!

        So far, I have had people in HR and other lawyers comment on “how long” my legs are. As in “i wish I could have some of your legs”, “God, you have the longest legs”. etc

        Ewwwww people, stop staring at my body! And no, I do not dress provocatively or wear short things. In fact, I mostly wear pants.

        • Really, any kind of direct comment on the state of your body is inappropriate at work. Compliment my clothes, maybe even say “That looks real nice on you”, but SHEESH, don’t comment on my tiny/huge/long/short/full etc ANYTHING.

        • Pants+ heels elongates legs
          But the comment is still unacceptable.

    • THIS. Sometimes tone is lost on people, particularly when they don’t know each other very well. Sometimes questions about whether a boyfriend or a parent bought you something is just an awkward attempt at a conversation. I try and assume that people mean well unless what they say is something altogether inappropriate for work and should not have been asked (the date question would annoy me to no end as it is not anyone’s deal what I do after work).

    • I agree that many of the statements quoted here could just as easily be genuine compliments or attempts to start a conversation. Without hearing the tone of the statements or knowing their context, it’s difficult to tell. I doubt most women of my generation consider telling another woman how thin she looks to be criticism. Similarly, women who didn’t grow up wearing heels really do wonder how women manage to spend a whole day in stilettos. That said, if someone says to you “Wow, that skirt is really short,” or “Did you buy those flip-flops at the beach last week?”, you may have a problem.

    • Anonymous :

      Um… yeah right! Maybe the other way around. Negative comments are almost always an expression of jealousy, I have no idea where you get that 99% of compliments with a “but” factor are genuinely meant to make the receiver feel 100% better about themselves. Please.

    • Agree. Jealousy will most often show up in a long-term pattern – and then, it’s usually less jealousy and more territorialism or feeling threatened for a variety of reasons (the boss is a horndog who is focusing on your legs to the detriment of both your and her hard work and she’s been around him long enough to know that …. or you’re way younger and she realizes you’re likely to get more visibility as a result than she will … or you’re infringing on her turf in the work area and she’s not too happy about it). Most women at a certain professional level aren’t going to be all that jealous of anything someone else has – if they want it, they will just go out and get it. An exception might be a spouse / significant other / serious relationship, but you shouldn’t be bringing all that information into the office regularly anyway.

  8. I work in GVT in NYC and would never wear heels except to court – it would really stand out in my office as too dressy and corporate. Everyone dresses very formally – blazers, etc. but always wears flats. I think to the extent these comments have merit they are trying to point out that a “corporate” look isn’t always spot on for a formal gvt/non-profit office.

  9. I have found that the jealousy from older women is not about youth-but disposable income! Alot of the older women in offices that I have worked in have children, and spend most of their money on private school tuition, SAT prep courses ect….so they are often uncomftable seeing a single you woman dressed well. After getting a partuclarly generous severance bonus, I bought my first coach bag and had one of the bitchier sancti-mommies in the office tell me “oh that’s $500 that could have been spent on a kid’s after school programs – it must be nice to be so selfish” WTF!!! NO ONE ASKED HER TO HAVE KIDS!!!

    • I have to say, I don’t get those comments about clothes but I do get them about everything else and it drives me nuts. “Oh, what did you do this weekend? Saw a movie? It must be nice to have time to go to movies.” “Oh, you’re going on vacation this summer? That’s nice; you don’t really get to go on vacation when you have kids.”

      You know, if I had my druthers I’d be married and contemplating having kids right now. My life hasn’t worked out that way yet; stop acting like I’m a bad person for enjoying the life I do have.

      • In general the people I know with kids go on vacations and to movies far more than I do.. horrible vacations to Disneyland and on Disneycruises and to movies like Skrek 7 or whatever but it’s not as though they live in a box…

        In addition, 1/2 my current income goes to rent, another almost 1/3 goes to student loan repayment so if I choose to live on toast so I can go to Prague for new years or buy a pair of shoes that is my choice. ^_^

      • Seriously you should look one of those women dead in the eye and say that. It’d shut up the entire office for a year. It would be awesome.

        • I bet everyone who judges your outfit or designer bag or material possessions and blames their kids for not being able to have such things is engaging in some or another form of conspicuous consumption themselves, whether it’s through making sure their seen “raising perfect children” as some form of selfless martyr, and “sacrificing” to send them to “private school and tuition and after school care and ….” or some other measure.

          There are those who see children as making their life richer, and the others just continue to see the world as a race to obtain material possessions, and don’t value their family for it’s intrinsic value. For the second group, I have little sympathy.

          My parents always managed to take us to 4 star resorts on holidays, when we were growing up where we could kayak, catamaran, and kite-surf, pay for our private schooling, and give us everything we needed, despite both parents being pensioners. If someone said something to me like they say to you Em, I’d look them dead in the eye and just say “I guess it comes down to priorities, and what you value spending your money on.”

    • Anonymous :

      I think these are the kinds of comments where its not about you — the moms probably wish they had more disposable income. I’m guessing that its not meant to be an attack on you.

    • In my situation (below), I think there’s a disposable income thing too. Not a jealousy thing, necessarily, but a consciousness of someone’s own financial situation. Or in some cases, a consciousness that some people are underdressed? Bad attempt at self deprecation?

    • I don’t think the Coach bag comment you mention falls under the category Kat is talking about. What that sanctimommy said to you is rude and unacceptable in any environment.

    • I get these types of comments about how I spent my weekends and free time from older women who have kids. Lots of “must be nice” type comments. I just want to say, well, I’m 25! You were 25 once, right?

      • I don’t think you should be offended by “must be nice” comments like that unless they are said with a real edge. As a mother of two young children with a wonderful husband there are still times I wistfully recall my indulgent days of only having to be responsible for myself, having free time to do whatever I chose to do, having a bit more expendible income to spend on myself, blah, blah, etc. I’m glad I was able to enjoy those days when I had them, though, because I would never trade them for where I am now. Just enjoy it and I, in turn, try to remember to pay attention and thoroughly enjoy my moments and life now, too.

        • I completely agree with this comment. I think those women are merely trying to connect with you by recalling those childlless days. They remember how fun those days were, but likely would never trade them for the joys they experience now.

          • It’s all in the tone, but it just always makes me feel awkward like I’m being selfish for just living my life.

        • And please remember that you may be talking to a woman who is struggling with infertility and may very well be thinking, “Must be nice that she gets to have kids.”

        • I don’t think the words “must be nice” would ever cross my lips in this context, but I do frequently find myself commenting on things I did before the boy when I’m speaking with young single people. In my case it’s not jealousy or whistful thinking, just an attempt to respond with something similar to what is being said. I see what you mean tho–must sound like the reverse of the guy who relates my son’s tech use to his own, unintentionally implying that I am the antithesis of the hip young user Apple claims its products will turn you into.

      • I just say, “Oh, it’s completely fabulous! Did I tell you about the concert we went to last night? Oh, and I got 12 hours of sleep the night before that….”

    • $h!t like that, you know, I just . . .

      My response is usually “Oh no you don’t. There’s only room for one of us up on this cross.”

      It’s exhausting dealing with all these participants in the Oppression Olympics, I tell you.

      • Kanye East, I am tucking that comment away for the b*tches at my kid’s preschool. That is awesome. You know, not wearing flip flops and sweats every day does not render one an unfit mother! :)

      • It’s hardly oppression Olympics if the person pointing out that she has chosen a life that precludes her from going out is regaled with stories of after-hours fun, or otherwise subjected to evidence of said fun.

    • I have told people I can’t have kids.

      It ends the conversation.

      • That is always my thought. Having children isn’t always a choice, whether it’s biological or not having found the right partner.

        • Indeed. I always wonder about this supposed choice people assume I am making to not have kids. They have no idea if I can afford a kid, can physically have a kid or if I have anyone in my life to have a kid with (due to the lack of sperm banks in Canada you generally have to find someone even if you want the kid on your own).

    • I -am- an older woman, and it’s always younger women who bleet out snarky things like “I haven’t been to the movies since kid-in-junior-high was born” when I discuss the latest film festival/trip. I never fail to brag just a bit about how pleased I am I never had kids, and how my life’s been soooo much more interesting :-). If pushed on the topic, I can always come up with an anecdote about a friend’s kid who’s back living at home at 40/starting to do crack, to rub in a bit that having kids as old-age insurance is really not that reliable. I know many of these girls think I’m weird or abnormal for not doing my biological duty, so I’m pleased to let them know their stereotypes of lonely old age aren’t quite accurate.

      That said, I think jealousy is a much more common phenomenon among younger women in general. In my time :-), we were pleased to see other women at work, we used to cultivate female solidarity.

  10. Why not just call them out on it to see what they really mean? Wouldn’t that be better than guessing?

    “Don’t hurt yourself in those heels” – Response: Yeah, I tend to prefer wearing high heels. Think they are too much for work?
    “Oooh, cute dress — do you have a date tonight?” – Response: Why do you ask? Think it is to casual for work?
    “You look sooo thin in that shirt” – Response: I’ll take that as a compliment, but do you think it is too tight on me?

    • Good idea–and I don’t even think this is “calling out.” It’s trying to turn it into a productive exchange. If the commenter doesn’t mean anything by it, she’ll ease your concern and, internally, take your question as a heads up. If she does mean something by it, here’s her chance to be direct (and she sees you won’t get defensive or catty). This hasn’t happened to me much, but if it does I will try this response.

    • I like this idea.

    • Me too. Especially if you could come back with one of those in a tone that makes it clear you’re open to constructive feedback on your attire.

    • downstream :

      this is excellent advice. As a bonus, if the person really is trying to compliment you, you’re letting them know that their complimenting skills are not up to par.

    • DC Darling :

      This reads as incredibly needy and insecure. If I was to give a compliment along the lines of “dang look at those heels. Be careful girl!” I’d be annoyed if someone constantly and consistently felt the need to ask for approval.

      • I didn’t mean that this should be a response every time someone receives a compliment. I think the point of the person’s question to Kat was that it was not clear to her that she was receiving a compliment. I think in such a situation, if she is truly wondering, she should just find out what the person means – (1) is the person providing an indirect criticism of what she is wearing or (2) just a sincere compliment that was not conveyed correctly.

      • Anonymous :

        “This reads as incredibly needy and insecure. If I was to give a compliment along the lines of “dang look at those heels. Be careful girl!” I’d be annoyed if someone constantly and consistently felt the need to ask for approval.”

        How in the world do you consider “dang look at those heels. Be careful girl!” to be a compliment?! It’s not a compliment, it’s commentary that you think her heels are too high, which questions her judgement for wearing them — and questioning someone’s judgement is never a compliment. What’s wrong with people?!

    • You go girl! That’s assertiveness; standing up for yourself without tearing others down. It’s kind of like killing with kindness.

    • Rather than calling-out, I think it’s a straightforward request for clarification. If people are feeling a bit uncomfortable about telling you straight out, and pussy-footing around with these backhanded compliments, having you take the conversation to a direct mode will be a relief. And most likely you’ll get a direct comment next time.
      But I’d second many here in saying that if you get a lot of these remarks you should be paying a lot more attention to what you’re wearing in the context of your particular office…

    • Anonymous :

      This is a great idea. Defensiveness is never productive and this minimizes the chance that your outfits will be conversational fodder in the break room.

  11. @ LilacWine re Escada Essentials :

    I am interested in this new line, especially the suiting components. But the website shows the Essentials line as casual clothes. Is it different in the stores? Do all Escada stores offer the same range?

    • I noticed that on the site too. I’m not sure if there’s some other part of the Essentials line that they’re not advertising heavily since the prices are so non-Escada. I was personally at the Escada store in Boston, and the Essentials stuff there is on one of the sales racks right now. If you have a store near you, it can’t hurt to go in and ask (especially when there’s a chance you could get a full suit for under $500).

  12. You Don't Say :

    Usually a back-handed compliment would be lost on me. If you’re not direct about something I’m not going to spend the time to figure out what you were really trying to say.

    TJ —

    How do I include my potential future children in my financial planning? I’m 31 and before I met my SO I planned on remaining child-free. However, he really wants children and I have changed my mind about having them (I’m ok with this decision). However, I’ve never factored the cost of children into my financial planning. I understand the everyday costs like diapers, clothes, childcare etc. But what about long term costs like cars, college and weddings? Do most parents making good salaries save for these things in addition to saving for their own retirement?

    For a little more background – I grew up in a poor family. I paid for undergrad myself and got scholarships and loans for law school. My parents have never been, and will never be, in a position to help me financially.

    TIA for any thoughts/suggestions.

    • Anonymous :

      Yes and yes. Get thee to a financial planner (or DIY) to estimate college costs, how much of college you are willing to pay (private? public? neither?), etc.

      Over that, its time to start planning for retirement. You can borrow for college, you can’t borrow for retirement.

    • Second the advice of YES.

      Start saving. I would save for retirement first. Max out your 401(k)/IRA/whatever you have.

      If you don’t have one, meet with a financial planner ASAP. Often initial consults are free, and then you can continue to use them or not. Advice will often include paying off high-interest debt first, even before saving for retirement.

      My mom also came from a family without financial resources, and had to figure it out on her own. Her retirement plan is, uh, quite risky.

    • This wont work for everyone, but when I was a kid, my parents opened a special college account for me and put in whatever they had been planning on spending on birthday/holiday presents and then giving me something small like a scarf to mark the occasion so I wouldn’t feel left out (especially when I was younger). My grandparents did the same thing. As I got older and my parents had (much) more money, they started making the maximum contributions to my 529.

    • I recommend you look into a 529 plan as a vehicle for saving for college (or even private school.) I also recommend you get some really good term life insurance while you are young and healthy. There are various rules of thumb – 5 to 10 times annual salary. It should be enough that someone could easily raise your child without your income if anything were to happen to you. Same for long term disability insurance.

      Good for you for thinking about all of this.

      • PS. Any financial planner will tell you your own retirement should come before college saving for your children, if it’s a choice of one or the other. But once you’re comfortable you’re saving enough for retirement, definitely look into the 529 plans.

        • Another anonymous :

          Second this. There are no loans for retirement.

        • I know lots of people and financial planners love to say this. (Suze Orman is obsessed with this idea, for one).
          I have to say, I think one’s values must be taken into account.
          Some parents consider it their moral obligation to provide a college education for their children. Others consider it their obligation to provide a high school education for their children. Both are perfectly reasonable and responsible. But I wouldn’t dismiss the parents who feel deeply committed to paying for their children’s college education if at all possible. Some people find it very rewarding to know that they did provide this to their children, and I wouldn’t take this away from them if that is something they prioritize. Everyone’s values are different. Similarly, some religious parents will forgo almost every expense besides food and rent/mortgage to be able to send their kids to religious primary and high school. Is it great for the parents financially? Of course not. They could get “free” public education for their kids. But for them, this is simply not an option. Similarly, for some parents it is not an option to not pay for college for their kids if at all possible, and they would in fact forgo a more comfortable retirement to do so.
          To add to this, nowadays “you can get loans for college but not for retiremen”, is a bit less relevant. College can be up to $50,000/year. Yes, one can take out $100,000 or $200,000 in loans, but is that reasonable when jobs for college grads are in low supply? Not so much anymore.

    • Ditto on the financial planner. Although it’s a depressing experience – my husband and I went for the first time a couple weeks ago and the long-term costs are staggering. Better to know what you’re dealing with and plan accordingly though.

    • Carl Richards :

      Check out his recent post on the NYT “bucks” blog about discussing these issues with your spouse — early and often.

      • SpaceMountain :

        And today’s column in the Washington Post by Michelle Singletary about parents who have the money but refuse to contribute to their children’s college education on principle.

    • As a fellow grew up poor with no help, made good (well, trying to), I’ll chime in the opposite – if you want to save up for those things, great. But if you don’t, I wouldn’t sweat it. For me, knowing that there was no parental money for college was very helpful – I earned an awesome scholarship (to a state school) and was responsible for my own expenses. My experience was that the kids that were responsible for their own way treated college very differently than those that had more parental help. As for cars, I really don’t see any reason to buy the kid a car, or at least, the sort of car that would require saving up. Let the kid get a p/t job when the time comes, and earn it. Or, at most, get them a beater. If you want, you can help with insurance and stuff, but that’s not likely to require saving up. Weddings are way down the road – plan for a contribution, but, again, not something so big that you have to save now.

      Regardless of what you plan to do on those things, retirment absolutely, positively is more important than any of those. Congrats on meeting your special someone and good luck!

      • I second that Lyssa. I think that my much younger sister, who was supported in style through the most lackadaisical of degrees, did not get any real favors. My odd jobs alphabetizing in the library certainly were more helpful work experience than her get-a-discount-at-macy’s gig :-). But seriously, I got an education because I wanted one, while she never had a shred of direction, and I think supporting myself was a privilege in retrospect. Made me focus, get down and work, and hustle to finish. It also incidentally allowed me to choose the sciences that my parents frowned on, another great plus.

    • You Don't Say :

      Thanks Ladies! I will start with a financial planner and go from there. Also, the articles and different views on contributing to education costs (and other expenses) are eye opening. All of this is new to me so the advice is much appreciated.

      • Away Game :

        Pick what’s important to you and nevermind what the rest of the world is doing. Mr. Game and I are helping with college via 529s. We plan to save enough for four years at a good state school for undergrad or two years of private; the kids will have to figure out the rest. If the markets do well, fine, we’ll contribute more if the kids are responsible with their grades and other financial decisions. We’re willing to help with small, beater cars when they are young adults, but they are in charge of gas always, and insurance starting in college. Weddings – they are on their own. If they are financially responsible, and we can swing it without impacting our retirement plans, we may help them with a housing downpayment later (“may” and definitely “help” not “provide the downpayment.”) Whatever you decide to save for, start saving now!

        • I’m not a parent, but this type of mentality is the one my parents (who had means to help) adopted, and I always appreciated it.

          I got help with everything I NEEDED until I was able to help myself. My parents paid for college (I had a scholarship that made my private school less than a state school). They provided some help in law school that amounted to using the additional money they had stashed that wasn’t used on college.

          However, and I think this goes without saying: it’s important to have this conversation with the kids. I knew growing up exactly what my parents were willing to pay for or help me pay for, and where I would be on my own. This ended up making me respect my parents on multiple levels: a) that they respected/trusted me enough to tell me the truth/not let me have unreasonable expectations and b) that they respected themselves enough to put their retirement and financial stability as a major priority. The end result is that I’ve always been pretty self-sufficient, and now also value saving.

          • Anastasia :

            Wondering if ELS is my sister… My parents had plenty of money, but I didn’t often get anything I hadn’t “earned.” I had a part time job in high school and biked or drove the family minivan until I saved enough for a car. Although my siblings and I all had college funds, we knew the finite amount we could have per year, and chose schools and got scholarships and jobs accordingly. My parents volunteered a small 4 digit amount to my wedding, which I thanked them for but didn’t try to negotiate higher. End result: parents have healthy retirement accounts, I have a healthy respect for work and money and understand the relationship between the two.

            Interestingly, I read an interview with Ivanka Trump, who said her parents did the same thing (although on quite a different scale). Parents paid for boarding school, but she earned her own spending money. Parents paid for a coach class ticket to Europe, but she had to pay to upgrade if she wanted to join them in first class.

        • My parent’s have done this too. They have good jobs & have always helped me when they can. I in return, have always tried to spend their money wisely by working during the summer, doing jobs at school (like being an RA), going to a state undergrad, & getting lots of scholarship– and most importantly doing well in school & in my extracurricular activities. Not to say there weren’t bumps along the way, but knowing my parents are there for me financially when I have needed them (& when they can afford to be) & knowing that even if they can’t help me financially, they will always support me emotionally has really helped me become a strong and independent adult.

  13. I get some similar comments where I work (government) and I thonk sone of it is bc it appears that I spend a lot of money on clothing, whereas some coworkers are openly strapped because we work in govt (lower paychecks for sure). I also work in a group that mostly performs different functions than I do, so I don’t feel bad if we are dressed dissimilarly. I just take the compliment and move on.

  14. I work in DC, at a federal agency with a scientific mission. Throughout my career in science, which covered academia, the biotech sector, the contracting/consulting sector, and now federal government, there is a suspicion of people, particularly women, who “dress too well” which can mean anything nicer than a t-shirt or button-down and khakis. The implication seems to be that if you care about how you look and spend time and money shopping (and I’m not talking a lot of time or money), having your hair done, or wearing make-up, you couldn’t possibly be serious about your job. I’m not sure if that is the case in other fields, but it is definitely an issue in science.

    I think desigirl also is right – despite what you may read in the press, government work is not all that lucrative. DC also has lots of nonprofits, at which I imagine the pay also is not great. Put not-great-salary with high cost-of-living and then add on kids (which I agree, nowadays it’s a choice to have children), there’s not much left for clothing, although I do think there are plenty of lower-priced options around now and not much excuse for full-metal frump. It also may be that people who have been working in an environment where nobody dresses well are a bit worried when they see other colleagues stepping it up – may make the powers-that-be decide that everyone else needs to step it up, too.

    • I’m in a similar place and agree. The only people that consistently dress well are in our leadership offices– people that regularly interact with the public and the media. When I wear a suit left over from my private sector days, I get a lot of compliments and raised eyebrows. Sometimes I just want to look polished, people!

      • I think that’s a “Know your office” situation. Sounds like your office doesn’t really love suits.

        • Anonymous :

          I find your “know your office” comments extremely weak. If someone doesn’t have the personal resources (a good eye, money, style) to dress like anything other than a Frump, why should I lower myself to your awful standards? Because ‘everyone else is doing it’? Are we talking about the office or the sandbox here?

      • I kinda hate the “know your office” rule, because that means I would have to wear ill-fitting pants, preferably polyester with extensive pilling, usually too short; sweaters, ditto; short-sleeve button down shirts, boxy fit; and shoes that look like something a toddler with orthopedic problems would wear (apologies to toddlers with orthopedic problems). Oh, and no makeup, and bonus points if it looks like you did nothing more to your hair than run a comb through it after washing it. I don’t want to follow this “dress code” – I like dressing nicely and currently, and I like wearing fun shoes. Nothings nuts – my heel height is usually between 2 and 2.5 inches, but I like shoes in colors besides black or brown. I wear stuff from places like Loft or Old Navy, Boden if there’s a good sale, and I usually wear layers so nothing is very revealing.

        I’m at peace with the fact that I’ll have to work a bit harder to get people not to underestimate me based on my appearance. But life is too short for baggy, pilled pants and worn-out chunky shoes with giant rubber soles!

        • Hear Hear! I will dress appropriate for work in that I will wear relatively conservative items of clothing . However I am NOT dressing like my office does. I don’t wear clog mules and won’t, I am 20 years younger than everyone I work with, and I like the “pulled-together” look makeup gives me.

        • Yeah, but you don’t want to stick out as the “high-maintenance” woman either. Make sure the impression you’re giving is one where the focus is on your work, not your fashion.

          Sometimes that means wearing something more drab than you’d prefer.

          And like it or not, there are people in this world that think pretty women aren’t smart. So maybe it’s ok to not work so hard to be the prettiest girl in the room.

          • I think it’s time to make people get the heck over that cr8p.

            To paraphrase Jess on New Girl:
            “I rock a lot of polka dots. I *have* touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I hate your pantsuit, I wish it had ribbons on it, or something to make it just slightly cuter. And that doesn’t mean I’m not tough and smart and strong!”

          • no need for the hostility. If someone assumes your fashion interest takes away your time/energy away from your work, it could very well be that she’s been given the cool fashionista treatment by people assuming that their good looks and style make them into superior beings. No, creating a stereotype is not the appropriate response to middle-school level attitudes (at whatever age), but further fanning the flames doesn’t help anything. Far better would be to make sure your attitude doesn’t convey that you would ever have anything against someone who wears polyester (because you wouldn’t right? That was just your totally objective description of wardrobes. Physician, heal thyself!)

          • Whether they think I’m a high-maintenance woman or not is pretty irrelevant to me. Are we discussing dating or work??
            The fact that I am at least 10 years younger than anyone with a similar title and I consistently get rave reviews on my work is all I need.

            I’m pretty. Deal. Don’t deal. Either way it is YOUR problem. And repeating it to me is not going to make it stick as MY problem. Sorry, I’m not 12 with an insecurity complex. The fact that you think someone should “dull” themselves to defeat the assumption that pretty girls aren’t smart is sad, and illogical. Instead, women who are both should BE both.

          • There are people who think that smart, aggressive women are b*tches. Maybe we should dumb ourselves down for them.

            I may have described their wardrobes in an unflattering manner, but believe me, I am much more judged for wearing shoes with heels than I judge them. I work with very smart, high-achieving people, and I know how they dress has no impact on their work. I just wish they’d extend me the same courtesy.

          • Totally agree with JenK.

            I’d also like to point out that this is an era when there is a lot of hostility between the science-for-its-own-sake world and that of corporations that do their best to cut every penny while reaping every reward. So I don’t think it’s inappropriate for a person committed to the science side to make a point of not dressing corporate. While you may think you’re merely dressing “nice”, your suits may well be interpreted as being on the ennemy side.
            It is possible, you know, to dress nice without wearing a suit or heel. I don’t wear pilly polyester, but I do wear more casual styles in very good fabrics, it shows. And good fit and colors that suit me are free, as far as I’m concerned.

  15. Anonymous :

    It’s hard to tell from what’s posted what is really going on. I will say though, that sometimes I notice women my age (late 20’s/early 30’s) wearing things that could be posted on this website, and it just looks out of place for reasons that are hard to pin down.

    I know I am going to get a lot of heat for these next comments – BUT – ‘well-fitted’ looks very different on different body types and means different levels of fitted to different people. A young female with a nice body wearing something that is ‘well-fitted’ will probably attract some glances. In my observations and experience, wearing a jacket lessens the attention on your body. I notice some people wearing things that they probably consider ‘well-fitted’ but to my eye just look tight. Imagine a scenario in a hall or on the elevator – 4 or 5 senior partners or execs walk in, all wearing dark, conservative suits, and then someone in her late 20s wearing a ‘well fitted’ pencil skirt, 3.5 inch heels, and a ‘well-fitted’ (clingy) bright colored sweater. Having seen this first hand, it is awkward! Clearly that attire in not in line with that workplace, yet still is similar to attire depicted on Corporette.

    • long time lurker :

      I agree on the jacket. It really does “professionalize” things. I probably wear a jacket most days at this point, even if I have it off in my (hot) office.

      Also I think pencil skirts can be dangerous. Given the fitted shape, it really needs to be the correct size/cut for your body or it is very revealing of your shape. Not that showing your shape is “bad” or “wrong” but I have seen men on the street deliberately checking out the backsides of ladies in tight-ish pencil skirts. This is not the type of attention I would like at work. Therefore I try to either wear a jacket or a longer/looser cardigan to cover up/balance the look.

    • The term “sweater girl” was coined for a reason.

      • Solo Practitioner :

        What does this term mean? I’ve never heard it.

        • A 50s term for a girl who wears a bullet-bra and a skin-tight sweater. She may be taking dictation, but she has other ambitions, and they don’t involve crunching numbers..

    • We’ve also discussed here recently that young girls get out of school with TV ideas of what well-fitted means. If they saw their mother dressed for work, they assumed they’re frumpy, it’s a teenage thing. And this leads to skin-tight clothes generally, even if they cover enough of the poor girl. While you may see these clothes on corporette, and even see them on anorexic models who wear them skin-tight, that is not how they are worn in the real world. Normally, in business, you want to have people pay attention to what you’re saying, and not to how “well-fitted” your skirt is.

  16. Depressing Finances :

    I just looked at my savings/investments. Over the last three months, I added 1.1%. But the total fell by 1.5%. I know that it is all invested wisely and appropriately and that I need to stay the course. But it is depressing.

    • Seattleite :

      Dollar-cost averaging is your friend. (But I’m in the same boat, and do feel your pain.)

    • TurtleWexler :

      I keep reminding myself that buying low now is a very good thing — my retirement contribution this paycheck buys 6.3 shares instead of 5.8 a few weeks ago (or whatever) so overall I’m getting more for my money. Then I try to be optimistic that those shares will actually increase in value before I actually start drawing on them. Then I curse at people who play stupid games with sickeningly large sums of money, thereby causing me to have to go through this thought process in the first place. Sigh.

    • Try not to look!

    • The New Yorker financial page from a couple months ago recommended only checking your investments yearly (sounds like you’re already quarterly). You can’t control it, so don’t get upset about it. It’s like getting on a late train. Once you’re on you just let it all go…

  17. I have gotten the “you are so dressed up” type comments all of my life. I grew up with a mother that was extremely glamorous and put together always (and also got these comments), so I tend to strive for that. I don’t really care if people comment, I say thank you and move on. I don’t think having your hair, makeup, and outfit looking nice within certain limits can mean you are unprofessional. However, I don’t understand the indirectness!!!! If I thought someone was a slob, which that seems to be increasingly acceptable these days, I sure wouldn’t make back handed compliments about their clothing. I would probably keep my mouth shut 99% of the time because its none of my business. If anything, I would tell them directly that I thought they were dressed too informally or try to start a conversation that lead into giving them some helpful clothing suggestions.

    If you are seriously concerned that your look might be inappropriate for work then I would follow another poster’s advice about asking them directly what they mean.

    • Jacqueline :

      Totally agree. I think American society has become so casual that ultra-casual is the norm and a polished, dressed-up appearance will inspire comments whether we like it or not.

    • It sounds like you are not following your own advice?

  18. So I probably fall into the demographic of those making the comments to the OP. I’ve worked in management in government, non-profit and the private sector and had to deal with these situations.

    A few thoughts: my experience in the private sector taught me that the men in charge were total chickens*ts when it came to dealing with inappropriately dress female subordinates. They would run for the hills screaming before they would deal with it. My response was to tell them they were doing these women a grave disservice by not pointing out to them why their clothes were inappropriate and were indirectly limiting their career potential. They didn’t get it.

    I think Kat and the other posters are probably correct – while some may be jealousy (really, do you think most frumpy women don’t know – granted they may not care, but they know – they are frumpy?) and are being snide, but I would guess that most are trying to indirectly point out something that doesn’t fit into the office culture – e.g., too tight, too high, too low-cut, etc. And while it may feel passive-aggressive to some, I’d also guess that it may just be some women’s way of “warning” a fellow colleague that something isn’t right and she doesn’t feel comfortable saying it outright because she isn’t your boss or your mother.

    • It’s less important whether this is about jealousy or about trying to be helpful–

      The problem with these comments are: they can be interpreted in many ways so they don’t work. They do not clearly convey the message to the young worker that she’s dressed in appropriately. Between doing something [email protected] and ineffective like giving these “compliments”, saying nothing, or being clear (but kind), the last two options beat the heck out of the first option.

  19. Gooseberry :

    Toronto ladies, my husband and I are visiting over the last weekend in May (birthday present to me!). Any “must do” ideas? Also, looking for a couple of cool, chic restaurants. We don’t really care about what kind of food it is — we like EVERYTHING — but definitely looking for a hip atmosphere and good food.


    • Not entirely sure how chic it is, but Kit Kat restaurant is fantastic. It’s definitely fun -it’s got lots of salvaged interesting things around the place (old totem poles, wacky art), and I’ve ordered anything I didn’t like there.

    • Totes McGotes :

      Must Do = the Bata Shoe Museum. Boom.

      My boyfriend was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed it.

      • Gooseberry :

        Totes McGotes, sounds AWESOME! Plus, it’s *my* birthday, after all.

        Thanks for the suggestion CommsGal — I’ll look it up!

      • S in Chicago :

        Totally agree on this. My husband is so not a shoe guy but that place is just fascinating and he enjoyed every minute. Anyone with an appreciation for history or different cultures (or fashion!) will find it interesting. I also really liked their modern art museum. Not huge but a lot of fun and great gift shop if your taste falls that way. Got one of my favorite watches there.

      • How did I not know about this? Now planning this as an addition to my next trip to Toronto!

    • I’ve left so I don’t know what’s super hip right now but Bestellen is the restaurant of the Top Chef Toronto contestant – definitely a cool place.

      Lee- the restaurant of Susur Lee is one of the best places to eat in Canada.

      The Art Gallery of Ontario has a restaurant close to it called Art Square and it makes the best crepes in the entire world – definitely eat there.

    • yay my city! I was going to recommend Lee’s for sure – it is a little pricey, but very worth it. Other restaurants that are trendy and have great food: the dining room at the Drake Hotel, The Fifth Grill, Brassaii (note this turns into a club after but if you’re not into that, the food is good and if you leave by 11, you’ll miss that scene), Marben is tapas and a wine bar. If you like sushi, Blowfish is fantastic but again, pretty pricey. There are two locations – go to the one on King Street West. The other location is in the financial district, which will likely be pretty dead on the weekends).

      There’s a great brunch place around the St. Lawerence Market called petit dejuner.

      In my single days, I loved hitting the clubs (actually I still do) but when my boyfriend is around we tend to hit nicer bar/lounges where we can have a drink and a conversation. One of my favorites is Paramount – it’s on the 51st bloor of the Manulife building in Yorkville and if you get a table outside, you can see a fantastic view. They also have great food. Also check out the Thompson Hotel – the lobby bar is pretty trendy but they also have a fab rooftop bar.

      I know this is late in the day, so respond if you get this. Otherwise, I’ll post it in tomorrow morning’s thread.

      • Gooseberry :

        Lily – this is AMAZING! I can’t wait to check these places out. Rooftop bars are the way to my heart. Thank you!

    • Torontonian :

      Gilead Cafe is a fantastic restaurant with a cool but casual atmosphere, tucked down a gentrified alley on King st. east. Walking up Ossington is great if you like cool vintage shops and the Golden Turtle is an excellent hole in the wall very authentic Vietnamese restaurant there. Also communist’s daughter is a very hip(ster) place for a drinks there (if you can find it/get a table). I also love Kensington market for a good wander on a Sunday morning, especially in spring! Welcome to my city!

    • Gooseberry :

      Wow! You ladies ALWAYS deliver. It’s amazing. Thank you so much for all this great advice!

  20. So – I am one of the older and more well established women in my workplace. I have been known to hand out a compliment (“Love your shoes” or “You are always so well dressed – I always look forward to seeing what you’ll be wearing next”) but when I do, the compliment is genuine.

    If I think you’re dressed inappropriately for the office and I don’t know you well and frankly have no interest in your career, I’m not going to say anything at all.

    If I care, then I’ll say something. It will be direct and not a back-handed compliment. But then again, I’m a direct type.

    If I really really care, I’ll offer to go shopping with you.

    I sincerely doubt the comments referenced in the letter to Kat have anything to do with jealousy.

    • PT Lawyer :


      • PT Lawyer :

        I completely agree, but I also think that in some limited circumstances, there can be ageism. I’m 42 now, but at my first job (paralegal in biglaw, age 22), I was reprimanded for having a too-short skirt.

        At the time, I was wearing a 26-inch long skirt from Talbots, which at my 5-11 height came to just below my knee. I am not kidding. I was absolutely devastated and I didn’t have any other money for clothes (annual salary then: $26k). I cried for a week.

        • Formally reprimanded for a below-knee skirt? That sounds bizarre.

          I remember 20 years ago the style was midcalf skirts (which in hindsight – can we be honest – did no one any favors) but I can’t imagine it being the dress code. Weird!

        • Something similar happened to me at an unpaid internship. At the time I worked in a windowless office where no one saw me and I never went to court or met anyone. I am forever happy that the internship no longer exists and is now some sort of co-op job where the poor kid will at least get a college credit in compensation for buying a new wardrobe.

    • I like you :)

      There are some consistently well-dressed polished women in my building who have said these nice things to me, and your comment makes me happy. I aim to be this person “when I grow up.”

  21. Having worked as a government lawyer in DC (now at a firm here), the unfortunate reality in many DC government and non-profit agencies is that well tailored and polished modern clothing is unusual and may make you stand out. While I would be careful about obvious luxury brands like Chanel or Louboutin, as these will generate negative attention in DC public sector jobs, I don’t think there’s any reason you should change how you dress as long as it’s not too tight/revealing/etc. A well tailored sheath, even if not at all revealing, will flatter the body for most women and may generate ‘you look thin’ comments. There is no reason that you shy away from looking professional and polished simply because it is not the norm.

  22. There’s dressing for your office, and then there’s looking like everyone else in your office. My roommate works in a gov’t office filled with women who have been in that department, and often that exact same job, for upwards of ten years. They dress frumpier than my high school algebra teacher (no offense to the stylin algebra teachers out there), and they tend to be overweight (not that I’m skinny -I’ve got about 20 lbs to shed myself).

    When she started running and play soccer three nights a week, she shed a good bit of weight, and the comments started immediately. “You know, it’s not healthy to lose a lot of weight quickly.” “You look so skinny -are you having problems in your personal life?” “You look great! I can’t deprive myself like that.”

    She bought some pretty new clothes since her old ones didn’t fit and she felt more confident, and the comments came in a torrent. “Why are you so dressed up?” “Do you have a date tonight?” “Are you doing a presentation today?”

    My roommate is not exactly a fashionista, and these new clothes were along the lines of fitted blazers, wrap-style full-coverage dresses (with flats!), and tailored pants – nice, but certainly not expensive. Not corporate, high-powered business style, just nicer than the loose, shapeless tops and straight trousers she used to wear, and her clothes were still way more casual than my wardrobe. Being the non-confrontational sweetheart she is, she quickly gave in and went back to wearing the shapeless clothes that everyone in the office approved of.

    So yes, actually, I would say that in these kinds of situations, it IS petty jealousy.

    • I absolutely agree. I have a friend who wears blazers, at-the-knee pencil skirts, and 2-inch heels for work. Nothing is short, tight, revealing, or expensive–it’s just put-together, and she also happens to be tall and attractive. Her frumpy coworker always makes these types of comments to her. As someone objective to the situation, I can assure you that these comments must only arise out of jealousy, because I guarantee that in no way, shape or form are her clothes inappropriate.

    • Or not jealousy, but they’re feeling threatened. (Especially if you’re younger than them, or on a more promising career track.) Snarking about your clothes is an expression of Tall Poppy syndrome, cutting you down so you don’t threaten them.

      Basically, you’re not allowed to look better than them, because it makes them look bad by comparison.

      (That’s my experience, anyway, in this office populated by frumpy women who have worked here for decades…)

    • Anonymous :

      @ CommsGal – couldn’t agree more! I’ll actually add on to your point — it’s both jealousy AND bullying. Bullying someone into feeling insecure for looking better than you. Some people are so pathetic.

  23. Semi-early threadjack. I’ve been at my new, small (4 attorney) law firm for exactly 3.5 months now. I’m finally settling in, and I think I really like it here. Last week I got a phone call from a pretty well known recruiter (at least her firm is well known) about another small firm that is about a block from where I am now. 13 attorneys this time. I sent her the resume just to see what the response would be, but let her know it would have to be incredibly amazing to top where I am and, once she told me what the practice area was, I turned it down. It is heavier into workers comp than I like to be, since I like to work more in contract transactions/litigation. Anyway, I said I wasn’t interested at this time.

    Today she called me and said she had some feedback from them on my resume…and said that out of at least 30 they have looked at, they thought mine was the most impressive. This recruiter tells me she passed on the fact that I like where I am and don’t want to be seen as a “ship jumper,” and they appreciated that but still want to talk to me. I caved and said I would meet them for lunch. I can’t imagine what kind of amazing deal they would have to offer me to make me move….I already know it is about 17% more money, BUT once my probation is over where I am (Aug. 1) I will probably be able to get that (or more) here.

    I’m so confused now. Thoughts? Help? Please?

    • I’ve never worked with a recruiter… but it sounds like she missed the message that *you’re not interested in their practice area.*

    • RussiaRepeat :

      Whoa, not cool. A recruiter is supposed to get your specific approval to submit your resume anywhere. I would not have agreed to the lunch because I would have hung up on her after I heard what she did.

      Now that the lunch is planned, I suppose you may as well go and hear them out, and perhaps ask pointed questions on the practice mix so even if they’re offering six weeks vacation and no minimum billables you can keep in mind whether it’s something you want to be doing.

    • Take the compliment. I think you are enjoying the flattery of their interest, but remember the recruiter gets paid for setting up the interviews, so she might not have told them the whole truth.

      While the 17% increase would be great, if you have an opportunity for a similar increase in a few months at your current firm, the financial aspect goes away. Either way, you haven’t been at your place for very long and I think would have a hard time explaining such a short stint on future resumes. That being said, stay in touch with the other firm and thank them for their interest. Once you have another year under your belt you can re-evaluate your interest.

      • RussiaRepeat – I think you are right. I’m going to be asking some pretty specific questions on this one. JB, I agree with you as well. I went a year once without a single nibble on my job search, so I think I was enjoying the interest a little too much. I have to keep in mind that recruiters are sales people!

        I think I would have a hard time explaining such a short stint as well, and I told this recruiter as much, and she in turn told ME that she told the firm that I really wanted to be loyal to my current employer. I don’t know what she is thinking, but I sure don’t like the way this is panning out. She also said “oh well, at 4 months it looks better on your resume than 6 months.” What? Who said I was going anywhere in 6 months? (Unless, of course, my dream job in government materializes, but no one would begrudge me that!)

        At this point, I think I am only going tomorrow to see the firm face to face and set the record straight about whatever the recruiter said. Very strange because this recruiting company is pretty well known in my area.

    • I know several people (all men — hmm) who insist on sending out their resumes and interviewing at least once a year. They say it keeps them, their interviewing skills and their resumes sharp. And it lets them network a little.

      I say treat it as a practice experience!

  24. Call me naive, but I wouldn’t think twice about most of these comments, although I think it’s hard to believe that someone would ask you how you could walk if your shoes truly are mid-heel.

    But a lot of people are socially awkward and are just saying something to try to be friendly/make conversation and I wouldn’t read too much into it. ( Like “That shirt makes you look soooooo thin.” As I don’t wear skintight tops, I’d think they were just trying to be nice. And if they aren’t, oh well. Not my problem.)

    • Totes McGotes :

      Agreed – especially if the commenter is not up on current trends.

    • I find with older women I have to be careful about compliments- I told someone once her statement necklace was bold and I meant it in an entirely good way and I had to immediately clarify what I meant.

  25. I will add that I did get those kind of comments when I was in academia, because there’s a belief that you can’t be intellectual and wear makeup or nice clothes or generally have any pride in your appearance at all (if you are a woman). But honestly, I love fashion and I didn’t care. That’s probably part of the reason I’m not in academia any longer.

  26. I’m in this same position. Problem is that I’m a law clerk and on a B-U-D-G-E-T so I have a hard time trying to “dress down” the professional clothes I’ve already spent money on. I feel like I have “work clothes” and “play clothes” and very few things intermingle. I was told, “oh you know you don’t need to dress up. we know you are going and going from class…” but I certainly don’t want to feel like the most under dressed person in the office or get taken to court and have to feel awkward in khakis.

    • lucy stone :

      When I was a student law clerk I wore my suit bottoms with play tops a lot. I’d wear my nice Talbots suit pants with an oxford and cable-knit sweater, or a nice long-sleeved tee and scarf. I’d still have my jacket there, but that way I didn’t seem quite as overdressed. This was also when I started wearing fun shoes all the time.

      • Good advice lucy stone. It’s not because you have a suit in your closet that you have to wear it as such :-).

  27. Anonymous :

    Important to note for both the senior office members and the ‘new girls’:

    Office cultures change.


    people change.

    Office style can and should and does change with times. But/and/however, young women new in offices become mature women senior in offices, feeling fresh or frumpy and generous or grumpy themselves. Ourselves. Don’t put yourself on one side or the other.

  28. Oh, I dunno. I don’t read criticism into those comments. I read generalized, culturally-approved (although not me-approved!) attention to bodies and appearance. “You look so thin” = generic woman-to-woman compliment, in a society where thinness = attractiveness = good. “You’re going to break your ankle in those heels!” = awkward compliment regarding youth/stylishness/etc.

    • Agreed. Similarly, “I miss the days when I could see a movie” is not necessarily a statement of jealousy or criticism. It may just be a simple attempt at friendly banter, or a self rumination by a tired woman. May I very gently suggest that some of the posters in these threads seem to be a wee bit overly sensitive? Ladies, men don’t ruminate over office banter this way, and I don’t think we should either. Life is too short.

  29. What to wear to a Sunday afternoon symphony? Everything I own seems to fall in the category of work wear, evening wear, or casual, none of which seem appropriate. Thanks in advance!

    • TurtleWexler :

      Matinees are usually pretty casual, more so than evening performances. I’m a regular symphony-goer and I see people in everything from jeans to furs and sequins, so it’s really up to you. Personally, I’d go for a pair of nice linen trousers if you have them, along with the type of top you’d wear under a suit jacket. Blazer or cardi, as concert halls are often on the chilly side. Basically, if you go for a business casual look, you should fit right in.

  30. Lydia-
    I think your advice is fantastic! I tend to be quite defensive in response to certain comments, but your suggestions would work really well.

    The backhanded compliment I can’t seem to shake whenever I reveal my age (I’m 29) is, “Wow, you look so young! I thought you were 19 or 20!”

    While I am grateful for my youthful appearance, it hurts my feelings when people misjudge my age. I feel like my professionalism is called into question when I am perceived to be a full 10 years younger than my actual age. I don’t talk about my age unless somebody asks, and they often seem surprised that I’m quite a bit older than their original guess. I wear my hair conservatively (pulled back in a low, neat, bun/chignon), dress appropriately (bust is covered, legs are covered, arms are covered, and heel-height is no more than 1-inch), and take pride in my neat and tidy appearance. I do wear make-up to work, but my “office” face consists of powder foundation, blush, and mascara. I don’t wear eyeliner or heavy eye shadow to work. I am not comfortable going without make-up because I still have quite a few scars and dark spots from my previous bouts with cystic acne, but I use a light hand and light application to gently conceal any perceived “problem” areas. Overall, my skin looks much younger than my age thanks to a combination of sunscreen and years of professional treatments at the hand of my Dermatologist. Having a youthful appearance is certainly a compliment, but I worry that I am somehow perceived as less accomplished or experienced when I am mistakenly labeled as a much younger woman. I have almost 8 years of experience in my professional field with many above-average performance reviews and associated promotions. I want people to perceive me as the late-twenties, early-thirties professional woman I am; not a youngster with limited professional experience who just graduated from college. When people assume I am as young as 20, I have to believe that they also mistakenly assume I am just starting my career and have limited experience.

    I am absolutely sure that my clothing and appearance is appropriate for my office, and if anything, I dress more conservatively than required. Is it possible that I look like I’m playing dress-up? By wearing classic and tailored clothing with understated jewelry and neat hair, am I giving the impression that I’m “playing dress-up”?

    Any advice for a non-defensive reply to the shocked co-worker who thought I was a decade younger than I am?

    • Totes McGotes :

      What you just said. “I’ve got a great dermatologist.”

      Or, if you really are worried: “Why, do I act like a kid?”

      • Totes-
        Those are both great!
        Thank you.

        I would love to tell someone I am 29 and hear them reply with, “Wow, you have great skin for your age” or “You have so much energy for your age.” Those are two legitimate reasons why I might be mistaken for a much younger woman.

        • Totes McGotes :

          Well there you have it! Also, you can throw out a “Just young at heart, I guess!” here and there.

      • I’d just say “thanks! My mom was a stickler about sunblock growing up”

    • just Karen :

      From what you have described, I think that there is a good chance that you have pushed too far into the conservative camp in terms of style. There is also just a good chance you look great and youthful and the person at issue never thought of how their perception of your age could translate to perception of your competency. If you think you may look like you are playing dress up, my recommendations would be to consider a shorter haircut – I am always amazed at what a huge difference that one thing can make. And a little mascara could go a long way, too. As for the tailored, classic clothing, you might be amazed at the difference in total appearance a great haircut, light eye makeup, and some accessories would make. So seriously, 99% odds are you’re fine, but those are my suggestions if you are really worried about it.

      • Karen-
        Thanks for the insight. I agree that most people don’t consider how their perception of my age could translate to a perception of my competency. That’s what I’m really worried about. I am admittedly sensitive about this issue. I have an exceedingly hard time separating youth from inexperience. In my experience, they often the same thing.

        • Inexperience is not the same as incompetence. Youth and age may display one or the other indifferently, and sometimes both ;-). But it’d be good if you’d cultivate a more trustful attitude towards the brains of your juniors. You don’t want to turn into a bitter 40 year old, do you?
          And as a aside, Karen is likely right. Haven’t you seen a 25-year-old with totally white hair, how much younger they look? You may be suffering from the same thing, only with clothes and manners. Also, if skin is looking ‘old’ at 29, then.. probably you smoke :-)? Most skin should be just fine for a good long while yet. Your skin is not what’s making you look young.

    • I turn 36 today (!!!omg, I was 11 when my mom was this old!), and have just, in the past 2-3 years, finally stopped looking like a teenager. People are reguarly shocked at my age, (especially since I’m just out of law school and it would make sense for me to be in my mid-20s). It was the same when I taught high school – the first place I student taught, a teacher yelled at me for going into the staff room!

      I also worry about people assuming I’m young and flighty, especially as I am outgoing and maybe even the dreaded perky :p But I’ve decided to enjoy my youthful looks, and just show people how awesome I am at my job by being awesome at my job. And hell, being underestimated is not such a bad place to start – it means you’re regularly going to impress people!

    • Exactly! I have always had a young face and figure. Plus, despite living in SoCal, I never go in the sun so, even though I am in my mid-40s, I sometimes “pass” for my 20s. I always say “Oh, I’m not that young, I just have a great dermatologist.” Not only does it let people know that I have been in my profession much longer than they think, where I live it also has a certain cachet (she “has” a dermatologist; she probably gets cosmetic procedures; etc.) that imparts a sense of success. (Look, it’s the reality of where I live, what can I tell you?)

      What I find so interesting is that in my personal life, I am pleased when people think I am younger. (Funny story: when I met my husband, he was just off a divorce and lots of people know or almost know all parties involved. He and his former wife are both 4 years older than I. But lots of people, based on the above, thought I was at least 10-15 years younger and made the expected not-nice comments. I worried about it until a law partner of mine (female, early 60s) said “If you can still pass for that young, DO IT!.”

      • Jo March and Basics-

        Thanks! It is awesome to look younger especially since I’m currently single. I love my skin and think my Dermatologist is worth her weight in gold. Seriously, without her, my skin would still look like that of a tortured pre-teen going through puberty.

        I’ll continue to rock my confident and cheerful personality, and maybe I’ll grab a few extra business cards the next time I see my derm doc. When someone is surprised by my age, I can give them her card!

    • I think I know what you might be missing: gravitas.

      A 19yo woman with gravitas will be respected more than a 35yo woman without.

    • My normal response – I am in a very similiar situation – is “I will really appreciate looking 10 years younger when I’m ready to retire.”

    • girl in the stix :

      I have a picture in the attic . . .

  31. It was great to read all of the comments on this dress issue. Who knows why others are being snarky, whether it is for the sake of appropriate dress attire for the office or jealousy (some feel better about themselves if they can bring another down via negative comments.), but I say, “Be yourself!” If your office wears only flats but you like heels, I say wear heels! Who cares what others wear or say? Dress for YOU, not anyone else. I’m assuming you’re dressing appropriately in terms of fit and office attire, not club attire, etc. If your style speaks to you, that is all that matters. For those offices where frump is the norm, I say dress one notch better than everyone else. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have and do it with style and class. Don’t let others define you by your clothes!

  32. It may be jealousy, may be an honest if ineffective attempt to help, may be genuine. Only you know what you were actually wearing and whether it looks like your corporate culture. If it is frequent, do you have a mentor or trusted HR type at your organization you could talk to about it?

    On a side note, having worked at the Pentagon, I have been truly appalled at what some people, across ages, believe to be appropriate attire. Ranging from downright trashy to a woman I swear looked like a refugee from Whoville, hair and all

  33. The sheer fact that we have to have so many of these conversations drives me nuts. Men just get to put on a suit and tie. Or, if it’s business casual, khakis. Done.

    Dressing for your office requires: 1) paying close attention to the women around you, 2) figuring out how to dress like yourself and still adhere to these norms, and 3) creating a wardrobe that works.

    Everytime you change jobs you have to adapt your whole work wardrobe. No one here wears suits? Crap, I have to get a bunch of new “business casual” clothes.

    It’s endless!

    • downstream :

      Yes. Yes yes yes.

      The women who are offended by these comments seem overly sensitive. You think if someone told a man that he looked thin in his shirt, that the man would sit there and worry if he was dressed appropriately? No. He’d just say, Wow, this Brooks Brother’s pattern must really look good on me. And then he would go about doing his important man-work which is too important to be interrupted with him obsessing over what someone said about his clothes.

      Or you think if a man was wearing an Hermes tie, and his boss made a comment (nice tie, is it Hermes? Nice tie, must have cost a pretty penny!) the man would stand there stuttering about how he got it on sale or how it was a graduation present? No. He would say thank you and move on.

      Look, if a woman says something about your clothing, you have two choices: ignore it, or take it to heart and change. You can choose one or the other, but you really shouldn’t spend more than 20 seconds deciding and then once you actually decide, you need to keep calm and carry on. Sometimes it seems like we hold ourselves back more than anything else.

      • Amen.

      • I think you’re deluded about men’s indifference. They don’t comment about each other’s appearance unless there’s a subtext to it, whether licking the boss’ boots or putting down the upstart, and they definitely notice when a comment is made. They’re just better about blabbing about it to the rest of the office. If they mention it, it’s not to the women (or their wife sometimes). I can’t really tell whether discussing this on the net on a female-oriented site (no man would read something with ‘ette’ in the name, any more than I’d read any site with ‘sport’ in its name) counts as discussing it in public, for instance :-). But don’t think because you don’t hear men’s reactions that there aren’t any.

    • Funny comment for this site, and especially for this thread, in which SO many people have said that that sort of plain dressing and done is anathema to them.

  34. I just think this is a boundaries issue, like so many other things. Straightforward compliments are great and should be liberally distributed. Straightforward compliments are not subject to more than one interpretation: “I like your blouse”; “That’s a pretty color.” Anything else should just be kept to one’s self. I would make the following rule among co-workers: Thou shall not make any observation about another person’s appearance that is not a straightforward compliment.
    I would allow for narrow exceptions for a genuinely-trying-to-be-helpful coworker suggesting that some attire might be (1) displayed in an unintended way (as in, stickers on a new shirt or a split seam); or (2) office-inappropriate, but seriously only if this is motivated by a desire to HELP. Managers/ superiors have more license under the AEK rules to address unprofessional attire, provided they address it in a professional way, which to me is rarely done through making an observation that the subject needs to interpret (i.e., “what high heels you have!”).

  35. I work in a business casual environment and there is a wide variety of dress. I do enjoy clothes but I certainly shop sales and at reasonable stores. I probably have more clothes than a lot of people, but I also enjoy mixing and matching and using accessories to make things look like totally different pieces. I get lots of genuine compliments in my office which is great, but there are women who say things like, “your closet much be huge, you have so many clothes!” and “you must spend so much on clothes!” As some said, I think part of this is that I am younger (29) and married but with no children so I have the luxury to spend more on myself. People who say these things tend to be very plain dressers (black pants and a top every day)…but I still don’t like the undertone of “you shop too much/too frivolous/etc.” I can get past it though, because I am happy in my clothes and everything I wear is appropriate. The sincere compliments greatly outweigh the passive aggressive ones, so it’s ok!

    • Another factor is that for some people, their weight doesn’t fluctuate much (aside from pregnancy), so they are able to hold onto more clothes over the years.

    • Chellersm :

      I get similar comments about my interest in fashion and/or size of my wardrobe in a govt office. At first I tried to explain that as I had come from a full on conservative workplace part of the reason for my large wardrobe was the need to buy a bunch of business casual stuff to fit in when I changed jobs (plus an interest in fashion) but I gave up and now just say thanks. I have no interest in trying to explain that due to weight fluctuations I tend to have three sizes of clothes in rotation throughout my wardrobe … I’d love to be able to toss some stuff out but don’t want to have to buy that size all over again the next time I lose or gain.

  36. I’ve worked my entire career in DC nonprofits. There are definitely a lot of frumpy older types. I agree with previous comments along the lines of smile and say thank you, and if you really feel there is a concern, to ask the question, ‘oh, is it too tight?” or whatever. We have a wide range here, from people who go to the Hill every day and have to wear suits, to admins who never have to meet with an outside partner and can wear jeans, and interns who dress completely inappropriately, but that’s a tale we’ve all heard.

  37. I think it is never appropriate for an employee to tell another employee that their outfit is inappropriate in any way. That is the job of HR or possibly a lawyer in a supervising position.

    I do feel like some of the comments I get from older lawyers are bizarre- someone once asked me “Can you actually see in those sunglasses?” I still don’t know if that was sarcasm.

    In general, sarcasm is never helpful and can be completely lost on someone with different life experiences than your own.

    I am excited for my new job where only older male lawyers work.

    • So tired of 20 year old pontificating about how sarcasm is not appropriate. Maybe it’s rude, but it does make the teller feel better, not to mention the audience can appreciate too :-). And while we’re on the topic of jealousy, it seems that many who whine about it are simply devoid of wit.

      Good luck in your new job..

  38. WA Attorney :

    I ran into this problem when I was assigned to mentor a first year associate at my firm. She was having a work issue in that there was a perception that she was unprofessional and not too bright. HR informed me that her job was on the line, and they wanted me to give her some advice to help her change that image before it was too late. She had a bubbly personality and she put a lot into her appearance. Think Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Legally Blonde,” complete with bedazzled blackberry. Personally, I would describe her as very smart, but not necessarily wise. The conversation I had with her was difficult to say the lease. I took her to lunch and told how important it was to exude a professional attitude, and that dressing more conservatively could help her achieve that. I specifically mentioned the blackberry, but didn’t dwell on specifics. We also discussed taking on a more formal tone at work, especially with the partners. It was horrible. She nodded and said all the right things, but I couldn’t help but see how I had offended her. I felt that everything I said went in one ear and out the other, and it certainly broke whatever trust I had established with her. I tried to follow up with her several times, but I just didn’t feel like I was able to connect with her any more. HR informed me she had impressed a partner with some work she had done and would be working more with that partner, so I was happy for her. Unfortunately, she was let go within the year. This was a person with a lot of potential, but she just didn’t thrive at my firm because there was a misperception about her based on her appearance more than anything else. So, I agree with Kat to always consider where comments about your appearance might be coming from. It may just be an opportunity to see how others perceive you and to make a change if that perception is not what you would like it to be.

  39. I ALWAYS get the get the “wow, how do you walk in those heels” comment in my conservative NYC BigLaw firm. In reality, my heel are almost all 3.5 inches and NEVER higher than 4 inches, which admittedly is on the high end of what is appropriate, but I’m only 5’2 so I feel like I need the extra height to avoid looking up like a child when speaking to male attorneys who are frequently a foot taller than me. When I get backhanded comments from other female attorneys I usually just respond jokingly with “I’ve been 5’2 since junior year of high school, so I’ve had lots of practice.”

    To be honest, if you prove that you are an asset to the firm, people can make all of the backhanded compliments they want about how high your heels are or how much you spend on clothes, but at the end of the day, it’s all just background noise .

    • Nobody’s paying attention to the fact that many of these comments come from NYers, probably the only people in the country who truly walk :-). Four inches may not be crippling if you drive everywhere, but they’d be to most people in NY.
      And Lena, I feel for you, it’s easy to get intimidated by a lot of tall guys. But maybe now you’re a bit better established in life, you can let up on yourself and allow yourself to be .. short :-)? It’s not a flaw, really, most people will forgive you quickly. And your knees and back will thank you.

      An aside: everyone in France talked incessantly about how the previous President was short. Nickname: “the dwarf”, referring to the moral level as well. He wore those weird inside-platform shoes, he made his wife wear flats for the first time in her life, he flew around with his own mini-lectern, he demanded people shorter than him for ‘public’ photo ops.. His successor is if anything even shorter, from the inaugural pictures of them together. But I’ve yet to hear a single word about his size, even from his opponents.

  40. I work for a federal agency in DC and have not noticed a trend of back-handed compliments. Maybe my agency is different from others.

    Anyways, I agree with Kat’s advice except for one small point. I think that if you get these things repeatedly you should examine whether there is some veiled constructive criticism in them, that your skirt is too tight or your heels are so high they look unprofessional. It is probably worth asking someone you trust and respect to give you an honest opinion about the appropriateness of the particular item of clothing.

    I disagree slightly with Kat as to how to respond to them when it is very clear that there is nothing constructive about the remarks. Rather than saying “Thanks” and then saying something positive about your outfit, I think you should say “Thanks” and then say something substantive about work. Changing the subject like this conveys that you are not interested in remarks about your wardrobe and want to keep the conversation professional. If the remarks continue from particular individuals, then I would skip the “Thanks.”

  41. Amen sister! :

    100% agree. We have a backhanded complimenter at our office who says things like (real examples) (1) to a senior partner returning from mat leave after having a child at age 45: “wow, you look like you’ve got most of the baby weight off” (2) to a blonde lawyer with recent highlights “it looks so much better now… Before it was really… Yellow”
    I wish this person would learn to either say “you look great” full stop, or just say nothing.

  42. I work with someone who is one of those dicey ladies: very tuned in to gossip and gossipy, can be extremely helpful and warm when on your side, but it’s clear she always has a deep chip on the shoulder somehow. Eg- she organized and brought me a baby gift yesterday from the team; lent me a support pillow; comes to see how I’m doing. But, things I’ve heard from her this year: wow you look so sick and green today! oh poor you you are really having a hard time! or the best: i was telling so and so how we have this great up and coming leader under 30 at the company (meaning me), but xyz happened and so and so didn’t prepare her properly for that… well I am 35, and the incident in question was like nothing, smaller than a fruit fly, just something I complained about out of annoyance, not any kind of substance-related frustration or failure. Anyway- ladies can sure be doozies. Honestly, I like that a majority of my team is men- simpler!

  43. People don’t think about us nearly as much as we think they do. Sometimes a comment is just a comment. We are far too sensitive and need to move on before we make ourselves crazy trying to interpret things that likely mean nothing. Those women probably don’t even remember having said anything.

  44. Also I really fail to see how commenting on the height of ones heels is a backhanded compliment. I’ve had women say that to me and I interpret it to mean that they just aren’t comfortable walking in that heel height (regardless of what that is) and don’t know how some women can do it all day long. It’s a personal preference and nothing more. I never give it a second thought. Spend your time and energy elsewhere. This is not putting it to good use.

  45. long time lurker :

    This is appropo of nothing but I really hate when people say I look tired. This is always after a week spent in court, travel or days of deposition, and I think it is meant as a way of saying, go home, get some rest, you deserve it. But I’m always tempted to say, gee thanks for telling me I look like $hit!

  46. BigLawCommenter :

    Love this thread! When I was a first year at a well-known BigLaw national firm, the most senior associate in my department (a woman) told me I needed to talk to another first year about her clothing. She said the most significant partner in our department (another woman) was upset that the other first year (who was hired as a lateral when I was about 9 months into my job) was wearing short skirts and low tops, it had to stop and the partner wanted me to talk to her. Don’t you love how the partner told her to order me to talk to this woman?

    Although the other first year wore suits that were clearly expensive, her skirts were very short and the blouses, while of professional material, were invariably tight or low cut or both. To top it off, she wore sky-high heels. So I thought about my options and decided I had to talk to her. I did my best to be sensitive in talking to her, but it did not go well. She literally screamed at me, cried and left the office for the day. The main reason she was upset was because she had spent a ton of money on her clothes, but also because she she liked how she dressed and felt it was not mine or anyone else’s business how she dressed. After that, she and I had no relationship. Her clothing choices changed a little (ie, I noticed she was buttoning certain blouses a little higher) but not much. She and that partner never got along. If I was encountering a similar situation today, I would go to HR instead of handling it myself! Your thoughts?

    • Oh, no kidding, you should certainly not have been the sacrificial goat for that one! You should definitely have gone to HR, pobrecita, it would have been their job. I guess the partnership felt that they were being sensitive, that getting another first-year to talk to the girl would be lighter, less official and less painful than being raked over the coals by a partner. And to be honest I don’t think it’s unreasonable to get a woman to talk to her either, as a male partner discussing your low-cut blouses would definitely be inappropriate :-(. But it’s not surprising that a new girl would be unhinged by having her clothes criticized, and the money factor can be terribly painful as well. You can just get a skirt hemmed if you’re accused of being too frumpy, but you can’t add fabric where it’s missing.
      Very sad situation for both of you..

  47. Katharine :

    Why does the LW think these are “backhanded” compliments? That must be an exhausting and miserable way to live. I’d say just respond with a cheerful “thanks,” or “I don’t find it hard.” If anyone wants to express a problem with the way I dressed at work, they’d need to be a lot more direct than that because I certainly am not going to start examining everything everyone says for Hidden Subtext.

    The specific instances seem… perfectly innocuous to me. “You look thin in that ____” — in any workplace I’ve ever been in, the majority of women are either dieting or think they should be. My weight has fluctuated drastically due to health issues, and believe me, when someone says “you look thin in that” they’ve always meant, “you look great. I don’t think I look as great. Do you, perchance, have any actual Weight Loss Secrets that will work better than the (expletive deleted) WW plan I’ve been following since forever which has had little to no effect?” (I really wish that “you look thin” was not the biggest compliment our culture feels able to offer women, and that particular line of talk always made me uncomfortable because — as I said — health reasons — but I never felt it was maliciously meant.)

    As for shoes — I get that too. And what that usually means (I’m always happy to chat with people about shoes, I like shoes!) is “I really CAN’T walk in heels. I have foot problems/weird feet/never learned, and my one pair of dressup pumps leaves me limping for days any time I wear them — how do you do it?”

    I feel that either there’s a heavy load of context missing from the query, or the LW is reading wayyyy too much into things, myself.

  48. Not a lawyer :

    I found this conversation really interesting and wanted to raise a question: To what extent should one’s natural body affect one’s choices in office wear? And I don’t mean avoiding things that are unattractive, but as one poster mentioned above, a pencil skirt may seem va-va-voom on one woman and unremarkable on another.

    Case in point, this woman who claimed she was fired for looking too sexy:
    Video (staged) shows her in typical outfits, which seem perfectly innocuous and professional in theory but d come off as sexy because of her voluptuous body. Should she have tried harder to cover up, or is that just someone else’s problem? Really curious.

    One of my coworkers at a newspaper was very tall and model-thin. She regularly wore skirts that hit several inches above the knee, with dark tights. On my moderately curvy frame, I feel that they would look completely unprofessional (even at a paper, where the bar for professional dress is not high), but she looked just fine.

  49. There are some very helpful comments here, and I appreciate all of the wisdom. If you are getting regular comments on your work attire, why not just go to your immediate supervisor and ask about the office dress code or culture? It seems like this should be discussed when an employee is hired. That would be a simple way to remove all doubts about the appropriateness of one’s dress. Women can be so cruel to one another. Staff who are regularly “hating” on other staff members, be it about their clothes or anything else, are creating a “hostile work environment” and need to be reprimanded (and grow up!). I have to admit, I too cannot help but blurt out what a great deal I got on an outfit that I get a compliment on it. It’s a compulsion. LOL

  50. This used to happen to me when I worked at a DA’s office. A new female supervisor was transitioned in and was always commenting on what I was wearing. They were prima facie nice… but I had a weird feeling about them. Over a few months she became more snarky in other ways and was certainly treating me differently than my other team members in terms of work load and scheduling. I just sucked it up and dealt with it, but ultimately she ended up lying to management and obtaining approval to fire me. I guess I should have said something, but that seems like it could have resulted in a bad situation too… who knows what lesson I learned there. My work was more than good, I won the majority of my cases, my other supervisors loved me (and were not notified of my impending firing)… so I think this was an instance where I should have been more sensitive and perhaps DONE something about it. Hindsight…

    I was in court on a daily basis, so I wore suits – primarily Theory (I used to live near a theory outlet store). I am tall and thin and most would regard me as attractive. My shirts were not too low cut and nothing was flashy but everything fit well and I did wear heels that corporette would not approve of… though several ladies in the office wore heels well over 2 inches.

  51. I’ll continue to wear heels, because I don’t feel like hemming my pants.

  52. MovingMidWest :

    What ever happened to dressing for the job you want, not the job you have? I work in a corporate environment and there are two groups of women: those that are frumps and those that are ultra professional. Our CEO and President are both women with expensive taste–they look excellent, in well tailored pieces, sometimes in unusual colors. I dress like I could be called into present to our leadership team or a client at any moment, which happens from time to time. I would rather say a polite thank you to back-handed compliments about dressing too nice/formal than I would have to apologize to a superior for looking to frumpy/casual in an important meeting.

  53. When I left a former job as a government attorney, they had a little going away party for me. My boss (a woman) said to a group of 40 people “we will miss you so much…and of course, all of your outfits!” I think it was meant to be nice, but it still stings that she didn’t say they’d miss all the great legal work I did, just my clothes.

  54. Cruella DaBoss :

    I’m a blunt, straight-to-the-point, kind of woman. Tell me if you think I’m dressed inappropriately.

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