2018 Update: We still think this is a great discussion on how to find fun but professional patterns and colors — but you may also want to check out our Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women, our discussion on capsule wardrobes for work (using lots of color!), and our four-week work outfit challenge!
How can you find fun but professional patterns and colors? How can you integrate colors and patterns into a business casual wardrobe in general? Reader S wonders:
The only black piece of clothing I have is one blazer and I don’t have a single white thing. You could find me in a floral skirts with striped tops, long bright dresses, and when I occasionally wear jeans, I always pair them with shirts and blazers. My favorite patterns are stripes and florals, favorite colors are purple, red, orange. Can this ever be professional? I feel very uncomfortable in black and would hate to give up my favorite pieces. The field where I hope to find a job is business causal.
Great question, S! (Pictured at top: maybe an example of what NOT to wear, via stock photo site Stencil.) We’ve talked about how to start wearing prints, as well as how to mix prints — but not in a long while (other than this brief mention in our post on how to shop your closet and Play Clothes). So let’s talk about it. First: I don’t think there is anything inherently unprofessional about prints, colors, and patterns — indeed, some of the most adventurous dressers, who mixed prints and patterns in the boldest ways, are some of the male partners I knew at my old law firm.
The easy advice here is that it’s very, very easy to throw on a solid cardigan or blazer that picks up one of the colors in your print, throw it on with a neutral trouser or skirt, and go to work. But let’s have a bit more fun with it…
Layer multiple patterns and anchor them with a solid piece, either in a neutral (black or white) or a color from one of the prints. (Check out our new Professional Prints board on Pinterest to see the pictures bigger, and click through for the sources.)
Play with texture and color (example at top). Pictured above — I love the way the striped, ribbed pattern on the skirt plays with the checkered pattern of the merino wool sweater.
Use polka dots or stripes as a base for other patterns — it’s hard to go wrong mixing them!
Another great combo: brown prints (often animal prints) paired with black and white. This is a new one to me, but I think it really works in all of the pictures.
Mix black and white prints for a fun look. This is one of the easiest ways to get bold with prints, and still look professional. Studying the pictures above, I think that one big pattern, combined with a second, smaller pattern, works the best. The first, second, and sixth photos all combine an anchor piece — a solid black or white blazer or blouse — to make it just a bit more conservative.
Readers, how do you find fun but professional patterns and colors for your work outfits? Do you think there are limits on what patterns, prints and colors can be professional? Do you have any favorite ways to mix colors or prints? What are your favorite examples of fun but professional patterns and colors for the office?
A Nonny Moose
Leaving professionalism aside, all these outfits look to me like they belong on a early to mid 20something. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in a conservative office, or a not conservative office in which you want to project authority, I don’t think these outfits are a good choice.
I dress by the rule “match the men” – they’re in boring suits and so am I. Maybe I’ll get picked on for taking that approach, but when you’re one of the only women, you don’t want to stick out/highlight that more than necessary. Maybe that’s why I like fashion blogs… I can dream of a more exciting work-wear environment.
The reader is planning to work in a business casual environment, so these would be fine (substituting jeans for pants where appropriate). Also, you can apply these same principles to skirts and blazers to make it dressier.
Anon in NYC
I tend to agree that the look skews a bit young (and now 20’s are young to me. Sigh). I’ve tried incorporating prints and patterns into my work wardrobe, and I’ve come to the realization that while I think it’s a cute look in theory, I feel more confident and comfortable in my plain and simple clothes.
Are 20s NOT young to some people? Children, perhaps?
I’m in my mid-twenties and I’d completely agree. When I first started in an entry level job, I wore a lot of stuff like this. As I’ve started to move up the ladder, I’ve started moving toward solids & more muted colors so I look a bit older/more mature.
I am big on all over prints, though (like a DVF printed wrap dress).
I like a lot of these and could see them working in my office. Some, like the polka dot/gingham/chambray combo, not so much. Shana at The Mom Edit did some office-friendly pattern mixing recently that I thought worked well for a more casual office: http://themomedit.com/2014/09/the-mom-edits-fall-workwear-edit-nine-easy-pieces-starring-mixed-prints/
If I wore a TOKYO graphic tee to work twice in a week (or once, ever) people would definitely notice. Does she work at a record label? I’m glad I don’t have to pull together work clothes that are also edgy enough for artsy jobs. I do not have that skill set.
I think shapes matter here. If you’re doing a bold print, it’s easier to pull off at work if it’s a traditional silhouette. On the other hand, if you want to wear a full, pleated skirt a solid dark color or at least a very subtle pattern is probably better.
Agreed. I work in a conservative office but frequently mix patterns and textures but stick to classic shapes, e.g. printed pencil skirt and polka dotted shell in the same color family.
For some reason, I cannot wrap my brain around pattern mixing. If I wear a pattern, it is usually just one item of clothing and the rest of my outfit is solid and matches some color in the pattern. Or I will wear a dress in a bold pattern and keep my shoes and purse neutral.
I’m with you. Every time I try, I end up changing into something more boring and neutral. I even have a hard time wearing bright colours to work and it’s not like my office is that conservative. I just have a mental block for some reason.
Last winter I bought blouses and sweaters with a pattern to mix with my solid colour clothes. Every time I put one of them on and went to work, I twitched all day, wanting to take them off. I felt like I stood out and wasn’t comfortable
I have the same thing going on. It’s a challenge. I’m looking at these pieces with more interest because I have a few these-should-work-together moments, and may overthink the matching this-hue to that-color.
Scarves are currently helping me to break out of this.
I’m no fan of pattern mixing (at least in part because I can never pull it off, but also because I think it’s too busy to look at and therefore distracting), but I DO like wearing patterns. Geometric, florals, stripes, dots, whatever makes me happy. I’m in a pretty conservative industry (politics) and I’ve only ever gotten complimented for my patterns and bright colors. But, I do have a big personality, so it kind of goes with who I am to be wearing something that pops.
I don’t usually mix patterns but today I did a brown polka-dot sheath, owl-printed scarf, and a solid pink cardigan. With snake-print shoes. That worked, but the snake and the polka dot prints were very subtle, as were the owls (tone-on-tone). Still looked professional, I think, but I do work in a biz casual office.
I haven’t gotten into pattern mixing yet, but if I were to find the right pieces, I’d be all about it. I love the idea of something like a gingham check with polka dots or stripes.
I work in business-casual (tending toward casual), so maybe my perspective is skewed a bit, but I don’t see patterns as young, but rather, as fresh. I own my fair share of solids and neutrals–and I love them and wear them all the time–but incorporating prints, to me, allows me to extend my wardrobe infinitely.
I have found, with age, that I am doing a lot more “coming into my own” especially as regards my wardrobe, than I was when I was younger. I shied away from bold prints, and tended more toward muted colors & solids. Maybe it’s because I’ve established myself in my position, and I don’t need to try to lay low or fly under the radar as I did earlier in my career. Perhaps I see it as I Can Pull This Off. There are still a lot of prints that I do feel are a little young, and I see that in our thrift shops, because a lot of the people casting clothes off are college kids. There’s nearly a generation that separates me from the current group of college kids, and I feel that is reflected in my choices as opposed to theirs.
I also think there is a distinction between patterns that read as solids, and bold patterns, and perhaps those prints are a little easier to incorporate and/or mix in a more conservative environment.
I completely agree about being more comfortable with fashion risks as I get older. Today I am wearing three different patterns/textures and live the outfit but would not have worn it 10 years ago.
Um, this post did not answer the reader’s question. If she had asked “how do I mix patterns” this post would have been responsive. It sounds like the reader has no issues wearing patterns whatsoever. However, to her question of “Can this (boldly colored patterns) ever be professional?” My answer would be “sometimes.” I find that cost/quality really comes into play with the professionalism of patterns. Eg: my tie-neck blouse from Target looks fine in a solid, but in a pattern, it definitely looks cheap./unprofessional. Additionally, some bold patterns add more of a “frump” factor, which I think is exacerbated when worm by older age groups.
I wear a ton of patterned dresses, but pattern mixing still gives me pause. I have a navy-and-white printed skirt that I wear with a navy-and-white top with narrow stripes and i think that looks pretty good. Any of these more advanced options and I feel out of my depth.
I agree that this post did not really answer the question. “Can this (boldly colored patterns) ever be professional?” was the question, & the reader stated she will be work in a business casual field, & she likes bright colors, patterns like stripes and florals, & hates black.
I’d say, yes, bold patterns & bright colors can be professional, especially in a biz casual environment. Stripes, in particular, are easy to incorporate & you’ll find wide & narrow stripes in most any garment year-round. A striped skirt, jacket, or dress with some structure will give it a more professional air. Same with bright colors — structure &, of course, good fit, will always make it look more professional. Florals can be harder because they can look too casual, too evening wear, or even too young/girlie. Look for muted florals, be conscious of the pattern’s scale & how it looks on your frame (petite women can be overwhelmed by large florals, for example), & avoid pastels or anything tropical as those can read casual.
Easier than pattern mixing is simply adding one print to a solid outfit, & no, it doesn’t have to be black if you don’t like it. Just pick a coordinating color to the print. A pattern near the face will draw more attention, so be aware & use this to your advantage or downplay, as you see fit. Also consider patterned accessories, like striped or floral shoes or a bag or outerwear, with an all-solids outfit, for any time you feel like you need to tone it down but still want a touch of personality.
Are there any patterns of prints that you all would say are not office appropriate? Are polka dots too frivolous? Gingham too homey? Leopard too racy? I bought a comservatively cut snakeskin print dress (I’m wearing it now, actually) and my Mom gave me the side eye when she saw me in it, saying “that’s a whole lotta lizard.”
Personally, I would (and have) worn all of those prints, although usually as an accent or a top with a solid blazer or cardi over it. And I love a good floral. I would draw the line at a cutesy/hipster print: bicycles, kittens, hot air balloons….unless the print was exceptionally subtle and clever.
I have heard commentary that some people find leopard trashy. I assume those people are just jealous of how awesomely I pull of wearing leopard. Meow. (That said – I would never wear any of these delightful patterns to a job interview.)
Yes, it’s true, they are just jealous! ;)
Thanks for the answer and for all the comments! I love the suggestions for different outfits even if they seem quite muted when it comes to colours. I recently started working in a business casual environment but my “problem” partly solved itself out – I moved from all year warm country to country which actually has fall and winter. With the dropping temperatures, I started wearing darker florals and prints which to me look more professional. I am looking for some bright coloured coats for the winter but I will leave my red and floral midi skirts until spring/summer.
I wouldn’t wear any patterns to work – most of prints using the pictures of animals or real life things (glasses, cars, cats, swallows,…) read to casual and childish to me. Animal prints, on the othe hand, can look insanely chic when worn in the right way.
I really like a lot of these outfits, but agree some of them are more casual Friday than everyday. Most of them are very polished and fashion-forward and I would enjoy wearing them (especially the stripe and polka dot combos) even if it were just on the weekend. I’m a lawyer so I tend to always be kind of dressed up even when I don’t have to be, but I guess it’s a good thing because I don’t have to have a completely separate casual and business wardrobes.
I think, as someone said before, shape is important, but so is color. If you’re wearing classic shapes; mixing only black and white patterns (or possibly neutral leopard print or navy and white); and just doing small pops of color (red watch or earrings or a colored shoe) it will come off as classic and chic. I think a muted plaid pattern could also work, but you would have to make sure the outfit is more classy than lumberjacky.
My opinion may be skewed on these outfits as I’m only 28, (I know a lot of people said they look young) but I think a lot of these would look great on my mom who is 60 too!