How to Blend Conservative Style with Business Casual

how to blend conservative style with business casual

2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to blend conservative style with business casual, but you may want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.

How should you follow a business casual dress code (and avoid looking overdressed) when your personal style tends toward classic, understated, and conservative — without buying an entirely new wardrobe? Oh, and also: you’re in a technical field, you’re the youngest employee in your office, and the only woman there besides the secretary. Reader K wonders:

I have recently started at my dream job which is a technical one and I work with men only (besides the receptionist). I am on a very tight budget but have invested in basic pieces such as good quality black suits, classic dresses, blouses, black pencil skirt. The dress code is business casual. Yet the other day I wore a classic grey dress, black blazer, heels, and pearls and the CEO made a comment before a meeting insinuating I was overdressed. He wears cords and a polo everyday. What can I wear to work? I prefer to wear more conservative clothes and feel more professional in blacks, and greys and dark color palettes with a small pop of color (like a maroon or emerald blouse). I am in my early 20s and look especially young and am the youngest in my office and prefer the clean cut conservative professional look so am at a loss of what to wear. Any help would be much appreciated.

We’ve talked about how best to dress in business casual in a male-dominated, technical workplace as a younger woman, dealing with other women’s backhanded compliments about dressing well, and being told by a male boss that you dress too well and need to dress “frumpier,” but not exactly this.  Personal style is often important, but sometimes showing that you can “read” company culture requires dressing in a different way than you might otherwise.  Furthermore, when you look young, it can come off even worse — like you’re playing dress up.  So here are a few ideas about how to blend conservative style with business casual…

  • Don’t wear structured pieces together.  A sheath dress and a blazer both sound like awesome building blocks for a wardrobe — but when you wear them together it gives a more uptight vibe.  Try wearing the blazer with pretty much any five-pocket pant, or as a way to give structure to some looser, more flowy dresses.  On the flip side, try wearing the classic gray dress with a looser, flowy cardigan, flat boots and dark tights.
  • A small signature piece of jewelry is ok, but know when to downplay it.  One of my old friends has a signature pair of pearl and gold studs that she always wears, even though the rest of her wardrobe has always had the full range from conservative to wild — it’s a nice consistent note throughout her wardrobe.  In the outfit you note, the pearls sound like they really gave a more conservative vibe to the outfit, whereas if you’d gone with a fun statement necklace it might have given the outfit an edgy but still professional vibe. Even wearing the pearls with a brooch or a colorful scarf would have been a nice way to take the focus off them. (And I say this as someone who normally loves pearls!)
  • If jeans are appropriate, get a few pairs you feel comfortable wearing to work.  Denim has a way of making any outfit more casual, even if it’s dark rinse trouser jeans.  This is probably the most budget-friendly thing I can tell you — buy one or two nice new pairs of jeans, and the rest of your wardrobe (pumps, blazers, button-fronts, pearls, whatever) will all be much more wearable.  Another great option: pants that have five pockets, like most jeans do.  These may be corduroys, khakis, velvet… whatever. On top, chambray shirts have been huge in recent years, and can be a great layering piece beneath cashmere sweaters, blazers, even sheath dresses, to make outfits more casual. (Pictured at top: Halogen® Long Sleeve Chambray Shirt, $68 at Nordstrom in regular and petites.)
  • Get inspiration online.  I’ve been following the Pinterest board for “Work Outfits,” and I think the vast majority of outfits I see are business casual — which would be perfect for Reader K.

Ladies, what is your advice for reader K?  What are your best tips for how to blend conservative style with business casual?


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business-casual-adviceHow to Blend Conservative Style with Business Casual


  1. Anonymous :

    Well for starters don’t wear blazers. Or suits. Ever. They’re not appropriate for your job. Your clothes are sending a really judgy message about your company culture and your boss has reprimanded you.

    Get over you personal style and buy a pair of cords. And one of jeans. And casual jersey dresses. And cardigans. And stop finishing every look with pearls.

    This is your dream job. Dress like you like it.

    • You’re obnoxious.

      To the question asker – I agree very much with the suggestions in the post. Keep your classic pieces like blazers and dresses, just be sure to tone down the formality with a necklace/scarf/shoes/cool tights/some other accessory that’s a little fun. The great thing about those options (with the exception of maybe shoes) is that they’re things that are easy to buy cheaply/on trend and then not be sad when they wear out after 5 wears bc they’re not trendy anymore anyway.

      And keep your pearls! There is nothing about a set of pearls that can’t be casual and fun. You’ll grow into your style, and soon no matter what you wear it will be synonymous with professionalism because of the fine work you do. Good luck!

    • Wildkitten :

      I agree with Anonymous – if the CEO has commented that you in a dress and blazer is inappropriate, a blanket rule to not wear blazers or suits (at least for a while) would probably be a good first step.

      I disagree that her blazers are being judgey about the company – I think they’re probably about wanting to project confidence. But apparently that doesn’t work for the company/clients, so she has to find a new balance.

    • Maybe I’ve just had a long day but, ffs, no one needs this much attitude, anonymous. Quit being a b* for no reason. Tired of seeing needless ugliness.

      Also, she didn’t “get reprimanded.”

    • Senior Attorney :

      I agree with Anonymous, too (though certainly not with her tone — good grief!). If you are being reprimanded about your clothes (however gently) you need to change PDQ. The last thing you want to be seen as is That Uptight Woman who doesn’t fit in to the company culture.

      I don’t think blazers are totally off the table but you need to style them much more casually — say, corduroy blazer with jeans and plaid shirt and boots.

      • As someone who works in a business casual environment, there was a former employee who wore more formal clothes and had an uptight personality. The two seemed to be related, as she had to be sent home every few months due to working more than the maximum number of credit hours.

    • You should know better :

      Internet anonymity certainly gives people a false sense of bravado. False, because I doubt this poster would have the courage to say this Reader K in a face to face setting. This comment is so rude and so unkind that one wonders what would provoke such a reaction.

    • Blonde Lawyer :

      Agree w/ anonymous but I read that you are on a tight budget. Consider shopping thrift stores and consignment. Buy one good pair of dark jeans that you can wear a few times/week. No one will know they are the same pair if you alternate the tops. What do you wear on the weekends? Can you incorporate some of your casual clothes with your strict business clothes. For example, wear a weekend sweater w/ the suit pants that you own.

      • I second the consignment or thrifting options. If it is something you would consider then there was a discussion on this site a couple weeks ago, search for it for tips.

    • Anonymous :

      I agree, except I don’t think you have to lose the blazers completely. Don’t wear a suit. It’s inappropriate for your job. And don’t wear the outfit you described, which is practically a suit (conservative dress, conservative blazer, pearls, heels). Style blazers over more casual dresses in fabrics like ponte and in colors other than black and gray, or wear them with jeans. I work in an office that’s on the casual side of bus casual and I wear blazers multiple times a week. Nobody has ever suggested I dress too formally. I don’t think you need to run out and by a whole new wardrobe tomorrow but I do think you should work on adding more pieces to your wardrobe that are appropriate for your workplace. I’d focus on adding a few good cardigans in various colors, brightly colored blouses, and dresses in more casual fabrics (Target and Old Navy usually have a good selection in the $20 range). A purple blazer and navy ponte or jersey dress may technically be the same articles of clothing as a black suiting dress and gray suiting jacket, but they look totally different and way less formal. You don’t need to get rid of your formal clothing (except maybe your suits, if you don’t want to split them up and wear them separately). You can mix and match your more formal pieces with more casual things. A classic black pencil skirt can be a workhorse even in a bus casual office, if its paired with flats, brightly colored tops, and sweaters rather than blazers for warmth.

      And I’d lose the pearls – that doesn’t cost anything and expensive jewelry (particularly pearls, for some reason) reads as “fancy and dressed up.” You may find that a lot of your existing outfits fit in a lot better if you stop wearing the pearls and switch out the heels for flats.

  2. Moonstone :

    What a shame that the first comment is so unkind. I know that in my early 20s — the OP may even be at her first job — I needed some advice on how to fit in. OP: Get a few pairs of pants that fit well. You can still wear blouses, just in more casual fabrics. I looked really young in my 20s and found the key was to project confidence and speak up. I’d stay away from hoodies and graphic t-shirts, even if everyone else is wearing them. Best of luck.

    • Or maybe wear your graphic t-shirt under the blazer? I’m just thinking that mixing some of the “classic” pieces with some of the more trendy/relaxed pieces is the middle ground the OP needs here. Trying to think of a TV style person to emulate. Haley from Modern Family? Bernadette from BBT? I’m sure someone else will have a much better suggestion.

  3. There are two things I suggest Reader K can do. The first is that if the boss wears corduroy pants and a polo, what is everyone else wearing? This will give you more insight–if everyone else is wearing corduroy pants, then the dress code is informal but not jeans and shorts informal. If everyone else is wearing jeans and athletic shoes, then you know the corduroys pants are the “formal” attire. Make sure to observe on different days, my experience is people tend to be more casual on Fridays, and a bit less casual on days with external visitors.

    The second thing is to do as Kat suggests, and adapt some of the things you already have. Jeans and a blazer work, or jeans with appropriate heels for those pants plus a sweater. Or, a pair of dark corduroys and a sweater or shirt. I also work in a tech environment, and find I can make some dresses look more relaxed by wearing them with leggings, tights, and flat shoes or boots. You want to avoid anything fussy, or what I think of as dressing with this plus this plus that plus the other thing. If everyone around you is wearing two things (pants and a polo) then you want to aim for three or four things, not seven.

    As far as the pearls? I wear mine with jeans and a sweater or jeans and a shirt and blazer or jeans and anything I think looks good!

    • Wildkitten :

      I do think the wear-them-with-everything pearl attitude is geographic.

      • I grew up on Oregon and don’t remember anyone wearing pearls ever. Maybe I just didn’t run in the right circles, but there must be some sort of geographic component, right?

        • I think it’s an east coast / preppy thing. If there is a standalone Lilly Pulitzer store in your town, pearls are probably OK all the time. If people routinely say y’all or play lacrosse: also probably OK.

        • Second. Also Oregon, also no pearls ever. Maybe freshwater pearls in an interesting design.

      • Interesting – where are the pearls-with-everything and pearls-with-nothing geographic areas?

        I’m in the Northeast and see a lot of pearls.

        • Senior Attorney :

          So Cal. Pearl earrings are worn here but classic strands of cultured pearls around the neck? Notsomuch and certainly not with jeans.

        • Blonde Lawyer :

          I think pearls are a very southern belle thing but I could be wrong!

          • Anonymous :

            I’m in the South and really only see pearls with structured pieces or pastels. In contrast, I see people on FB wearing pearls with anything and everything, and honestly, it makes one wearer in particular look like a man dressing up in grandma drag.

        • Another Engineer :

          Midwest (and have also worked in the Mid-south) – they’re fine here with business casual. Jeans, probably not.

          • I’m also Midwest (small town midwest, not big city midwest). I haven’t seen pearls on anyone under the age of 70 in years. Which makes me sad, because I love pearls.

          • lucy stone :

            Also small town midwest. I wear pearls on the regular but I am definitely a bit of a preppy. I got a fun sterling silver/pearl necklace with an interesting design that I wear a lot since it is “edgier” than my single strand. I wear my single strand a lot for court appearances but have also worn it with a cashmere sweater and jeans on a casual Friday.

        • Sober Sally :

          Bay Area. Don’t see many classic pearls – except on very conservative, usually older women and/or in very stuffy lawyer/banker environments, like in court. I associate them with East Coast prep style, though I could see a certain type of hipster young professional rocking them ironically (because pretty much anything goes here, with enough tattoos and chutzpah).

      • In the Pink :

        Maybe if you wear a strand of pearls simultaneously with a strand of colored beads/stones, or with two metal chains? A more modern take will seem less formal.

        As everyone says, you can “dress down” blazers with more casual slacks, jeans, and skirts. Maybe a skirt that has a louder pattern or some embroidery on it … in a contrasting color so it doesn’t look matchy-matchy.

        I’m always struggling to be more casual when I take my wardrobe (90% biz stuff) out socially…so I’ve been working hard on it this year. In my 50s I actually got my first pair of skinny/straight jeans – as in not bootcut. I got the velveteen ones from talbotss and they may read a bit nicer than jeans, but you could be comfortable in them and not feel like you’re wearing “jeans” to work. I also like their straight cut colorful cords.

        An armful of colorful bangles also might help bring the blazer into casual territory. There are tons out there for low prices, maybe even some of those multiple thing bangle sets or the wrap-around leather ones?

        • I used to wear my pearls with other types of necklaces and strands of beads, etc. And it looked fabulous!! But then, my mother-in-law pulled me aside one day and gave a mini lecture about how all those other necklaces were probably damaging my pearls. So after that I still wanted to combine them because it was such a beautiful look, but I stopped doing it because I felt simultaneously shamed for my ignorance and also a bit concerned that I actually might damage the pearls. Alas…..

      • Pretty Primadonna :

        Ditto. I wear pearls with formal wear as well as casual gear on the weekends, even with jeans. I’ve been told I’m a Southern Belle. ~shrugs~

      • West Coast high tech — can’t recall seeing anyone wearing pearls to work in the past 15 years. It’s too preppy, too trying-to-hard for work or even too wedding-y.

      • I’m in the Bay Area high tech scene and love me some pearls. But I wear them sparingly (mostly stud earnings, not necklaces) and kind of ironically, because pearls + pastel sweater set would be WEIRD here. Think pearl studs with a plaid button down, skinny jeans and boots. The long heirloom strand sadly stay reserved for fancy occasions.

        I was in a very similar situation to Reader K about four years ago and I wholeheartedly agree with Kat to add some nice jeans in and mix your blazers, heals and silk tops with more casual pieces. Essentially, I tried not to wear more than two ‘fancy’ pieces (jewelry included) in one outfit. I also branched out to more casual costume jewelry, since I felt like it toned down pieces in a way ‘real’ jewelry can’t.

        Finally, I advocate for not entirely ditching your style just because no one else is wearing it. Yes, tone it down, match the culture a bit better, but if you love sky high heels and they make you feel powerful, wear them (with jeans) because ultimately you feeling like you’re dressed to kick a** is what matters.

    • I definitely think wearing 2 pieces is more casual than 3. Wearing a just a blouse or sweater with your pencil skirt or suit skirts/slacks will help dress things down. Also try a crew or v-neck sweater over your blouses instead of a blazer or cardigan. Another option is a pullover sweater over a dress with a belt at the waist. Cheaper clothes tend to look more casual than high quality fabrics, so pick up a few cardis/pullovers from your favorite bucket 1 stores to dress down your classics.

  4. anonymama :

    If you are working in a business casual environment (and it sounds like it’s towards the casual end of business casual), and you’re new and trying to fit in, do not wear a suit. Instead of wearing what you feel like are “grown up work clothes”, try to think of it as wearing an outfit that is “appropriate for the event” i.e. casualish work environment where other people are wearing polos and cords. If you’re wearing one more formal piece, dress it down with a more informal one. Wear a pencil skirt with a tshirt, or a blazer with cords/jeans and a more relaxed top. I think in some technical professions it can make it seem like you are not part of the team if you dress noticeably very differently from everyone else, especially if you are new and no one knows you yet.

    • Another Engineer :

      Your comment about adding a t-shirt reminded me – I’ve had issues in male engineering environments where men don’t understand “nice” or dressy t-shirts. To these guys, a shirt is either collar or no collar.

      Just a caution – see my other comments below about the binary fashion mind of most technical men.

      • Ohhhh male engineers… my husband wears a plaid shirt and khaki’s every day, and is one of the nicer dressed men in his office. They had to send out an email telling them all that they should wear a jacket to the company Christmas party, ties optional.

  5. Try sweater jackets and cardigans instead of blazers and tailored jackets. I also work in a business casual environment, but I am not a business casual type of gal. This simple substitution allows me to pretty much wear my whole wardrobe without threatening anyone with an overly formal way of dressing. I wear a lot of heels, tailored skirts, silk blouses, dresses, etc. and super nice jewelry. But once I pop a cardigan on — it’s like I’m Mr. Rogers! Totally non-threatening.

    • Great advice!

    • Yes to the cardigan, which is why I don’t often wear them in my semi-formal office: It often softens the outfit. Similarly, clothing designers (nordy’s catalog, talbots etc) often show suit jacket sleeves rolled up. I wouldn’t do that in my office but you could in yours. You might also have success in wearing a jacket but taking it off and putting it on the back of your desk chair all day. Just don’t wear it into meetings.

  6. I worked in business casual office that was part of a large bank, so it was definitely a “professional” atmosphere, and I often wore blazers and pearls, but very rarely dresses or heels. And definitely not all together.

    With a dress/blazer combo you can wear low heels or flats and a funky scarf, and you’ll feel put together without looking like you belong in a different office.

  7. Own what you wear – if someone comments, just say that you love the dress or felt like dressing up today. It might just be a comment that you don’t need to seriously read into.

    That said, the thing about overdressing is that you seem like you’re missing social queues or aren’t friendly/don’t blend well with your fellow coworkers. I work in tech and overdressing isn’t going to hold you back, it’s just that it can make you seem a bit weird. We had an intern who kept wearing ties and people kept wondering what his problem was – it’s dumb when you think about it, but it was almost like he had read some book about what to wear to work instead of doing what we, the people in the actual company he was working for, were doing. Here nobody will promote you based off of what you wear, you either have the skills or you don’t and people don’t take kindly to posers.

    What do you wear on your off days? Integrate some of that into your work wardrobe. Some more business casual outfit formulas could be things like 1) pencil skirt + silk blouse + cardigan 2) colorful ankle pants (or jeans) + button down + blazer or cardigan 3) suit pants + short sleeve solid tshirt + fun necklace 4) dress + tights + boots + cardigan (if it’s a flowy dress you can do a blazer, but don’t do a blazer with a structured dress if you want to look casual). If people wear jeans, wear your jeans sometimes. If you’re cold, try wearing a scarf (not a silk scarf) to tone down a more formal outfit.

    • Don’t take this personally, but it’s social cues, not “queues”.

      • Senior Attorney :

        I was standing in the social queue the other day when somebody told me I was overdressed…

    • Meg Murry :

      If its a technical field where you occasionally get dirty or interact with factory workers that get dirty (like engineering for manufacturing), being overdressed can hold you back though. Even more so if you actually have the opportunity/occasion to get dirty yourself from time to time. I agree with others that your description of your outfits is a lot closer to business formal than business casual or even polo shirt casual. I’d definitely recommend mixing some more casual pieces in with your current wardrobe to tone the formality down a little.

  8. One thing you could do is to wear your button downs untucked with a sweater over them. Even over a pencil skirt, the vibe is casual without seeming to be too slopy.

    A decade ago I would clutch pearls for wearing an untucked shirt at work.

  9. I agree with the comments about substituting cardigans for blazers. I work in a very business casual office. Most of my co-workers and boss wear jeans on a daily basis.

    In the winter, I usually wear black or gray pants along with a knit top and cardigan. Sometimes, I’ll wear a pencil skirt with tall boots and a sweater. I’ll also pair a denim jacket with non-demin skirts or pants.

    If you are allowed to wear jeans, try a dark rinse or trouser jean. I’ll usually wear jeans on Thursdays and Fridays. Sometimes I’ll wear a knit blazer and patterned top and jeans.

    In the summer, I wear dresses all the time with a cardigan as a topper. I like the ponte knit dresses from Land’s End. I’ll also wear skinny jeans or black pants and flats.

  10. Diana Barry :

    Kat – a tech note – I am now getting autoplaying ads with sound! Argh! Any way to turn those off?

    • Mountain Girl :

      I am too. These just started today. I didn’t keep the site up long enough to see what the company had the disturbing advertisement. Sorry.

    • I haven’t seen them yet — can you tell me which spot, or which ad it is? (I just started having another company manage my ads below the fold, while another one does most of my above the fold ads). TIA!

  11. A Special Case :

    This is the type of question that confirms for me I’m in the wrong profession. An earlier discussion chain regarding ankle-length pantsuits had me wondering. Now I know.

    • What does this even mean?!

      • anonymama :

        I’m guessing either:
        a) she works in a very formal environment but would rather wear polos and cords
        b) she works in a casual environment but would rather dress up
        or c) she wishes she were a fashion advice blogger and could tell people what to wear ;)

  12. I think most of the advice here is spot on. Even though you feel more professional in more conservative clothes, it’s a good idea to tweak your style abit to fit in better with your co-workers. I identify with some of what you express, in a work setting a blazer definitely makes me feel more polished. So you can keep the blazer but pair it with jeans or khakis. You can also try blazers in less traditional cuts: I have a black blazer that is flowy in front so it provides some structure but still has a casual vibe. If you like button downs, you can also experiment with vests. It’s one of those menswear looks that can look casual or funky depending on what you combine it with on women. Finally don’t be afraid to experiment with color–so long as it’s not overly bright, color doesn’t necessarily make an outfit less professional. Hope this helps.

  13. In-House Europe :

    Mr. Rogers cardigans FTW! I do the same in my all-male engineering environment – scary lawyer becomes nice lawyer with a cardigan. Magic, I swear.

    • Another Engineer :

      This is hilarious! I was going to comment “add cardigan, take off blazer” but several of you have already beat me to it. Seriously, this works. I think for most male engineers, a blazer = super dressy no matter what you pair it with.

      Also, you want to wear flat/sensible shoes to demonstrate that you’re not afraid to run out in the plant at a moment’s notice (even if such a run would require changing to hardtoes anyway). Heels don’t translate well with our crowd. I wear a lot of Clarks.

      I think if you do the above – no blazers, no heels, add cardigan – the rest of your wardrobe should be fine. As a younger woman, dressing up a touch more than the guys is not a bad idea, so long as you do it in a way that their binary little fashion minds can process and understand.

      My wardrobe today: Beige dress pants, button up shirt from Lands End, magenta merino wool cardigan from BR, brown clarks, and yes, PEARLS. The guys around me are in dockers and polos as usual.

    • lucy stone :

      So true! I work a lot with our engineering staff and my usual casual Friday outfit is a blazer, tee, and jeans. The blazer freaks one of them out almost every week.

  14. Seventh Sister :

    Guys are not always the most diplomatic or knowledgeable about clothes. There’s no need to wear exactly the kinds of pieces that they wear, but dialing it down might make everybody more comfortable. Jeans with a blazer, funky cardigan with a dress, etc. Also, don’t feel like you have to be super super serious because you are wearing serious clothes. It’s still OK to make small talk, discuss a movie, and so on.

    As for heels, I say wear the kind/height you feel comfortable wearing in your office. If you are tottering around, it doesn’t look v. confident.

    • Another Engineer :

      I like this rule for heels – I think it gets down to the underlying problem with wearing heels in a technical environment. For me, I’m still not going to wear them – but for the OP, I think if you really want to wear heels, Seventh Sister gives good advice for which ones and how to wear them.

  15. I also look very young and work in a male dominated, business casual office and my most used pieces are a few pairs of patterned ankle pants in dark colors (black, gray, navy) from Express and BR. I wear them with low heels, dark sweaters, statement necklaces, and occasionally blazers. I think of them as non-horrible lady khakis.

  16. As a female working in a technical, very male heavy profession, here are my thoughts:

    1) Dress as if you might need to actually do physical labor (pants instead of skirts, flats or low boots instead of dressy high heels, closed toed shoes, no long artificial nails). It’s a bit weird, but in a technical profession you’ll get more respect if you look like you could be climbing ladders, walking on the shop floor, etc.

    2) Do NOT dress like the office admin / secretary; this depends on your office, but in mine in means avoid lots of unnatural makeup, don’t wear a big poofy hairdo, don’t wear lots of large jewelry, and don’t wear a shirt which is low cut enough to show your camisole underneath.

    So going back to the outfit you wore to the meeting – I’d say you were overdressed for any business casual office I’ve been in, and if your boss commented on it then things definitely need to change. You can still use the basics, but you need to mix things up instead of throwing everything formal in there at once. For example, wear your classic grey dress with leggings, a scarf, and some low ankle boots. Wear the pearls with black slacks and a nice top, but no blazer (throw on a sweater if you’re cold).

    Honestly, I’d ditch the heels and blazers entirely for a while, especially the more classic / formal ones. If you’re the only female in the office, you might also get better results if you don’t wear dresses / skirts. If one of those things (heels, skirts, pearls, blazer) is really your thing, then you can keep that one, but that’s your one formal/girly element, and the rest of your outfit should be much lower key.

    You could also try throwing in a couple bits of geeky / techie flair (D20 necklace? Caffeine molecule earrings?).

    Personally, I wear a button up long sleeve shirt (color varies, I’ve got 7-10 which I rotate through), grey or black slacks, and a pair of doc martens into work every day – which fits in well at my office, where the guys generally wear button up or polo shirts with khakis or slacks. I do wear my (waist length) hair up in a bun with some hairsticks, and I buy tailored shirts which are flattering on my shape and not too low cut, but make it clear that I’m female. You don’t have to look exactly like one of the guys, but if you’re doing tech work you don’t want to look like a very formal lawyer (there are lots of things on this blog that I like, but wouldn’t wear into the office), or one of the company VPs at a Fortune 500 company.

    • +1 to this. Washable casual slacks that don’t fit tightly, cotton no-iron shirts, flats ( see posts on business flats vs casual flats), flats with half-inch heel (Clark’s) and stay with your conservative business colors. I wear a kind of menswear- inspired look. You can dress a half step up from the guys; do watch out for girly clothes and too tight or too low cut- this is all bad. Eddie Bauer might have some nice appropriate items. I’m older and mix in Talbots…

      • Meg Murry :

        +1 to washable
        As a quick rule of thumb, look around the room – is anyone else wearing items that look like they need to be dry cleaned or ironed? If everyone else looks wash and wear, and you need drycleaned and/or ironed head to toe, its probably too formal, which makes you look too “other” – which as the only woman, you don’t want to be. Not saying you have to go all the way to polos and cords, but meet them partway by adding a few more casual pieces to your rotation at least.

        Did you also move geographically – from a more formal area to more casual? My casual weekend clothes in an East Coast big city were still more formal than a lot of the people I worked with wore as work clothes in a small southwest town, and that took a lot of mental adjusting to recalibrate my level of formality and my wardrobe accordingly.

    • Inspired accessory suggestions, V!

      • Thanks! The d20 necklace is a real thing on thinkgeek; they have tons of cute, tech/geek appropriate jewelry (the DNA and atom earrings are also adorable).

  17. I think Kat’s advice is spot on. Sometimes dressing up to compensate for looking young only makes you look younger, especially if you’re dressing in such “classics” as pearls, etc. Also, I am getting a bit of a vibe from the letter that Reader K is very attached to the clothes she “invested” in buying (maybe that’s what her idea of a successful professional wears, maybe she likes dressing up, who knows…). If that’s the case, she needs to let it go. I don’t know if she bought the items she mentioned for this job or for her work life beforehand, but we all need to job for the environment we actually work in and I think everyone is allowed to deviate up or down within a certain range but no more. I think following Kat’s suggestions and incorporating some of her weekend clothes, it’s easy enough to adjust her clothes to fit in better without getting a whole new wardrobe.

  18. Having worked in high tech among engineers on the West Coast most of my life, I’d say most of this advice is useful. Essentially, you need to ditch the pearls & the heels & mix up structured pieces with casual. Pearls & heels read as very formal, fussy, uptight, & possibly too girly for a casual, technical, male-dominated workplace. They mark you as the outsider. Fine if you want to fight for your place all the time, but then realize that this is your cross to bear (which doesn’t sound like what you want to do, or else you wouldn’t have written in). Less formal jewelry or no jewelry. More casual shoes like ballet flats, ankle boots, etc.; get creative, you have choices.

    Blazers are OK but only if that’s the one structured item you’re wearing. Pair with jeans & flats or a knit skirt, tights, & boots, for example. Or wear a pencil skirt & a cardigan. You can wear casual shapes in conservative, classic color if that makes you feel more comfortable. Casual doesn’t have to mean loud, bright, or wacky. It primarily translates into less structured, less fussy, less tucked-in fashions in the office. It can also be less expensive, not necessarily cheap, but you don’t need to go buy a whole new wardrobe. Some fitted tees from Old Navy or the Gap, cardis from Loft, flats from DSW, a pair of jeans. 5-6 things to mix in with your existing items.

  19. I am in a business casual professional world too but I want to look put together, and I think you can easily do both. Try to relax your wardrobe a little and see if it helps. If I wear a blazer, I make sure it is a different color than my bottom-half and I roll up the sleeves. If I wear a button-up I don’t tuck it in, or I tuck only the front, or I keep the top two or three buttons open. I wear pointy-toed flats or heels with ankle-length skinny pants — more casual but still “my” style.

  20. Silicon Valley :

    Great post! I am a corporate trainer in Silicon Valley, and as a petite and young-looking professional, I try to look “put together” but not too formal. I need to be dressier than the casual tech workers I train, but I also want to be trustworthy and show that I understand my clients. (As Anon+45 said above, being too formal will make you look like an outsider.) In addition, most of the people I’m training are men, so I don’t want my clothes to take their attention away from the content. I have to think about things like what happens to my outfit when I write on the whiteboard, lean over a table, and squat next to someone who is seated. Also, I stand for hours on end, so heels are usually out of the question. My “uniform” is usually black slacks, blouses with a high neckline, and flats. When I train at more formal companies, I throw on a blazer and sometimes heels.

  21. Others have given lots of good advice. Just have to say I get SO TIRED of how hard it can be to fit in at work on the most basic level as a woman. Men don’t have to think about what to wear AT ALL. If it’s business formal, they wear suit/shirt/tie. If it’s business casual, they look completely appropriate and authoritative in khakis and polo or tee. If in between, khakis w/ shirt/tie/sweater is perfect. Women have no such uniforms, and business causal can be a total nightmare/ minefield. Ughhhhh.

  22. I’m an engineer in my late twenties in a male-dominated field and remember having a similar dilemma when I started. Here’s what I’ve figured out for equivalents to what the men at my company wear:

    -Regular wardrobe (when men wear khakis and button-front shirts tucked in with dress shoes): I might wear dress pants and no-iron button front shirts. Layering on sweaters and jewelry including pearls is fine.
    -Friday wardrobe (when men wear jeans with button-front shirts or polos): I might wear dark wash jeans or cords and a shirt with buttons. Layering on sweaters and jewelry including pearls is OK. I rarely see blazers with jeans.
    – When men are wearing ties: I wear same as regular wardrobe but with silk shirt and nice jewelry
    – When men are wearing suits: I wear a suit.
    – Shoes for any of the above, including suits: wear something comfortable, like Dansko clogs. Wedge shoes are OK.
    – Things that can read a little younger or less serious to me: ponytails, makeup, t-shirts, skirts/dresses, anything really trendy

    That said, the engineers I’ve worked with are generally friendly and open-minded, so it’s not a big deal if your outfit is a little out of place as long as you follow lab safety guidelines.

  23. I had this issue on starting in my current role (in my mid 20s, very young for the job, in a business-casual office but I’m often running around the country meeting ops staff who live in jeans, external clients in suits or anyone in between)

    It’s taken 18 months and some careful sale shopping but I think I’m getting there without sacrificing my style:
    – pencil skirt/trousers with knit t
    – button downs with sweaters or
    – dresses and cardigans – I’ll wear almost any dress but wraps, sweater dresses and sheaths are all good

    Colour doesn’t need to be everywhere but plain black can be a bit intimidating or add to the “trying to look grown up” look. Incorporate some of your weekend wear (dark 5 pocket pants, v-neck sweaters) and remember the power of accessories – colourful earrings, scarves or necklaces all soften formal outfits.

    Lastly – have fun with clothes – keep a less formal blazer to hand (not worn in the office) if it makes you feel more confident and develop your professional style.

  24. Michelle Howard :

    I’ve worked in software for 15 years. I’m going to go against the advice on this board, as a contrarian. Wear whatever the heck you please. Dresses, pearls, suits, fishnet stockings. In tech we are supposed to be a meritocracy, it’s suppossed to be about your ability to solve problems and be creative.

    A long time ago I gave up trying to “fit in”. I detested the frat bro tshirt, cargo shorts, REI dress code popular in tech in my city. I wear clothes because they cover my nakedness, and I wear stuff I love only.

    Interestingly, I started rocking my own style in the first of four pregnancies over 5 years. I gained and lost 60+ pounds with each, and maternity dresses worked better.

    After the pregnancies, I kept the dresses. I became an executive, I prefer suit dresses and (gasp) pearls. I also wear fuchsia and leopard on occasion.

    I’m a grown woman, I am a software expert, and I’ll wear what I damn well please. If my clients or bosses don’t like it, don’t hire me. I would not want to work anyplace that has a casual monoculture enforced uniform anyway. So boring.

    • While I fully agree with your sentiment, you’re missing the part where the OP said she “prefer[s] the clean cut conservative professional look.” Doesn’t sound like someone who is comfortable rocking fishnets, leopard, or fuchsia. She *wants* to dress dull, go fig.

  25. The advice about jeans has me thinking. Didn’t we have a discussion on here a while back about work appropriate jeans? I believe the consensus was they must be a dark wash and trouser-jean cut (i.e., not skinny jeans or anything tight enough to emphasize your rear). Am I remembering that correctly?

    Folks in my office wear jeans but I just can’t bring myself to get a pair of trouser jeans just for the office. First, I hate trouser jeans. I don’t find them to be flattering on me and they don’t make me feel current or confident. Second, jeans are expensive! If I’m going to buy something on the dressy casual side for work, I want to be able to wear it outside of work too. Fun tights, funky statement jewelry, colorful shoes, comfy wrap dresses, nicer sweaters – all of those things rank WAY higher on my list than a pair of jeans I don’t particularly care for and can only wear to work. Thoughts?