Going-Out Clothes and Young Professionals

Going Out Clothes for Young Professionals2018 Update: We still stand by this advice for going-out clothes and young professionals, but you may also want to check out the great reader discussion on general going-out clothes after age 25

Once you get to grad school, can you stick with your “going out” style from college, or is it time to make some changes? Reader C wonders how to dress for a night out on the town when she’s out with new friends from grad school…

I have a strange request/question. I’ve begun learning all about clothing for work, interviews, etc., and now know the difference between business casual and chic casual. My problem is that during my undergrad, “going out” almost certainly meant tight shirts, tight pants or leggings, and high heels, as well as blow-out hair and smokey eye makeup. Jackets were a never, and cleavage was a must.

I was recently invited to go out with from friends from my new school, and pretty much realized that I don’t know how to dress like a grown woman when I’m doing something super casual with friends, like going out for a few beers or even out dancing. I still want to look the part in some ways (these are, after all, my future colleagues — I don’t want to be remembered as “cleavage girl”), but still dress to have fun.

Please teach me to be a respectable adult, even while I’m supposed to be out having fun.

Great question, and I’m torn between a few thoughts. First: you’re in school; if you’re going out with friends it shouldn’t matter too much. On the flip side, I think it can make an impact on how people remember you, and the bigger the dichotomy between your work or student persona and your “weekend persona,” the more people will remember it.

I would also note at the start that if you’re going out on a weeknight (and it’s a schoolday or workday tomorrow), you probably don’t need to change what you’re wearing too much — similar to my general desk to dinner rules. Freshen up your makeup (maybe add a smoky eye OR a bright lip); consider changing into more festive shoes or a nicer blouse, or even adding a statement necklace — but keep it similar to what you wore that day.

But — if staring at your closet on a Friday night still fills you with angst, here are some thoughts:

  • Find out where you’re going. If it’s somewhere out and about, you can call the bar or restaurant and ask them what the dress code is, if you’re unfamiliar. In NYC this can range wildly — ripped jeans to laid-back dresses to leather hot pants or some sexy-mama dress.
  • That said, unless you’re going somewhere very fancy, it’s hard to go wrong with jeans in a dark rinse and (if somewhere cold) the highest boots you can walk in. I’d add a v-neck top in a solid color on top of that — even do the “blank slate” white or black if you want to. Then, top it with layers that you feel good to you: a wrap, a moto jacket, a kimono (trendy!), a long cardigan — even a fitted blazer. Another option: a classic little black dress can be great if you’re out with friends (IMHO, less great for a first date — too fancy — but that’s me.)
  • Pick one feature to emphasize. If you have great legs, great — do a miniskirt on the weekend, or wear very tight jeans with rips. If you like your bust, put the girls on display a bit. If you like your belly, go for the crop-top trend. But don’t feature more than one thing at a time. (And please avoid the fluorescent mesh tank top with nothing underneath.)
  • Know the local etiquette behind how walkable your outfit should be. In some cities, it’s totally appropriate to wear heels you actually can’t walk in — in other cities it’s far more likely your new friends are going to be annoyed if you can’t walk a block. (You can always bring City Slips or the like in your bag.) Another thing that can look really young: dressing totally inappropriately for the weather, such as bare legs with a miniskirt and tank top in January, with no coat.

Readers, what are your thoughts — what is the difference between college going-out dressing and grown-up going-out dressing? What did you wear on nights out with grad school or new work colleagues? (Do you remember any big gaffes, either of your own or someone else’s?)

Psst: we’ve talked before about how to fit a social life into a busy calendar. 



  1. Just be yourself. If they’re gonna be your friends, they’ll accept you as is. It’s going out, not anything else. Stop overthinking everything.

    • Seriously, I do the smokey AND bright lip with neon clothing bright and early on a Saturday morning because you know what? I DO WHAT I WANT.

  2. I wouldn’t worry about your clothes. Just wear what you like. The kind of stuff that people remember years later and that could negatively impact you professionally is if you weren’t that friendly, you were always gossiping about everyone else, or if you appeared to have a drug or alcohol problem. Just focus on getting to know these people. Your style will evolve organically according to your taste and your budget.

    • +1000. I’m a pretty conservative dresser, and will notice AT THE TIME if someone is wearing something that I think is a wee bit scandalous, but years later? Nope. Won’t remember. I’ll remember if you were the one constantly cheating on your spouse, or if you were the one who always over-indulged and needed your classmates to help you walk home at the end of the night, or if you were the d-bag study partner who never contributed to groups but then expected all the credit for a good grade, but a low-cut top? I won’t remember that (and even if I did, assuming I’ve seen you in professional contexts and your attire is equally professional, I won’t care).

      • Anonymous :

        I agree with this, but will caveat that I do remember the people who dressed way inappropriately for class (so, girl who we sat across from in T&E whose cleavage was so exposed on a daily basis that we sometimes saw n*pple–yeah, we’ll remember her). Do not remember what people wore out.

  3. mother of wee girls :

    Ahhh — I have had numerous “leggings are not pants” conversations with the spouse for when he needs to pick out an outfit on the fly. Now it seems that legging ARE pants for going out purposes (worn where? and with what else?). I give up on this.

    • Before I noticed your handle, I read this as “I’ve had to tell my spouse he can’t wear leggings out” and got a good chuckle :)

    • Does the whole “leggings are not pants” thing apply to children as well? I dress my daughter in leggings all the time. Sometimes her shirts are long and cover her bottom and sometimes they don’t. All the leggings I have ever seen for children are thicker material and cut a little loose, not the thin, skin-tight ones made for adults. Is this really inappropriate?

      • Anonymous :

        I think that they are not full-on pants. If worn with a tunic-length shirt, they are OK. But not with a short top.

      • I don’t think it matters for little little girls – like the under 8 crowd. If you’re still dressing your daughter, I think you’re fine – a much larger percentage of kids’ pants have elastic waistbands so I think the line gets blurred. I think it’s more of a thing for the pre-teen and teen crowd.

        • For little girls (or boys!), leggings are totally pants. But of course I am of the camp that very little children don’t need to wear pants at all.

          • I don’t think my daughter ever wore pants that were not leggings until she was 6 or 7. Babies shouldn’t be stuck in jeans! Pants are such a passionate subject.

    • jumpingjack :

      For adults, it needs to be replaced with Tights Are Not Pants.

  4. TJ: I had an inappropriate relationship with a coworker while we both were otherwise involved. It ended, thankfully, when I moved several hours away. We both remain in the relationships that we were in at the time and I have been happy to not have to worry about it for the past year or so. How do I respond to a missed call and a “let’s catch up” text? I would love to just ignore it, but that seems rude; we’re in the same industry and it’s not unlikely that our professional paths will cross in the future.

    This is of course a problem of my own making; lesson learned, truly. That said, I would love any help on navigating this.

    • Anonymous :

      Ignore it.

    • Anonymous :

      Can you just let it go? If you cannot, examine what you want: backsliding? possible professional contact?

      If you must reply, I’d text something like: Crazy busy; what’s up?

      That way, he can respond and maybe shed light on whether he’s intersted in backsliding or just wants to network re job change or the like.

      My $ is on #1 b/c I’m a cynic like that.

    • Ignore. Not rude. If he for some reason needs to speak to you about something work-related, he can call back and leave that in a message or send you an email etc. If he said “let’s catch up”, we alllllll know what that means.

    • I was in a somewhat similar situation and I agree, you should ignore it. If it was work related, he would go out of his way to say so. The reason he would say so is that, if it was work related, he would be worried about giving the wrong impression and would go out of his way to say something like “hey I’m about to make a pitch to company X and I know you used to work there, would love your insight!”

    • Pretty Primadonna :

      Do not engage. Ever.

    • Thanks for this, all. Deleted the text, deleted the number, will sleep better tonight.

  5. The opposite of this :

    I dress appropriately All. The.Time.

    To go out to a club (say Vegas or somewhere warm), can I wear something like a DVF Reina dress with heels? I don’t do tight or cleavage (have none, but I don’t do sternums, either), but I could do “a wee bit leggy.”

    Or do I need to try harder?

    • Anonymous :

      Do you want to look like someone’s mom who isn’t comfortable where she is? Live a little!

      • Disagree. Wear what you want. I’m also not a wearer of low-cut or tight, but there are a LOT of awesome options for Vegas/club/whatever that are more covered-up and conservative but still miles away from Duggar territory.

        • Totally not a sister-wife type dresser. It’s more that I’m always cold and some places are too generous with the A/C, so I love that the Reina has sleeves. And I err on the side of Birkenstocks in my off-time, so usually I am in a Birkenstock-appropriate bar. And I am fond of eating and drinking, so I avoid tight things so I don’t have to feel pressure (or pressure to suck in my tummy). So, cold + granola just seems out of place in Vegas (or most places other than college towns). And if I go out for drinks after work, I’m usually in a sheath dress and heels already and just go in my work clothes. Thanks! Will figure out this fancy bar thing.

    • Pretty Primadonna :

      I think this would be fine. To punch it up a little, wear statement jewelry and heels. Have fun!

    • That dress will look out of place at a club. I’m generally cold, and for a club, I’d wear something like a pretty flowy top in a dark color with interesting detail with skinny jeans, heels, and interesting earrings. A wrap dress looks like you got lost on the way to the club.

    • Anonymous :

      If you’re in Vegas, they may not want to let you into certain clubs with that outfit, depending on the night. Yes, it is shallow and terrible. It is the way it works, though. It would also be pretty hot – if you’re in a packed club, it’s always a million degrees. However, I say you wear what you like and you feel comfortable in, and you don’t worry about it.

  6. jumpingjack :

    Kat, I’d like to thank you for the screenshot and link to one of my many favorite scenes from Girls! Perfect choice!

  7. Anonymous :

    Honestly turning up at a law school friend thing looking like a sorority girl does get you noticed. Turn it down a little! Maybe don’t do tight, high, blown out, AND made up and just pick 3 of 4.

  8. For clubbing in Vegas with your preferences I’d do a sleeveless shift dress with a little bling to it, with heels and fun hair/makeup. I’m hardly an expert, though.

  9. why no jackets?? :

    Can someone explain the no jacket/coat thing to me? I live near a huge fratty college campus and see this all the time, even when there is a foot of snow on the ground or the temperature is way below freezing. I’m only a few years out of undergrad and this was absolutely not a thing when I was in college, but I also went to a very different kind of school. What am I missing? Are jackets considered uncool? I see it on guys too, lots of them walking around in the snow in basketball shorts and hoodies all winter.

    • Anonymous :

      Because then you have to keep track of them when you are at the party / bar / club. It’s sometimes easier to do a mad dash than keep track of a jacket.

      • Bingo. Jackets are $$$. So is dry cleaning, if people spill & puke on your jacket.

      • Meg Murry :

        Yes, this was usually the reason when I was in school (in a cold, snowy place). There was also a chance of them getting forgotten, or stolen (or someone accidentally picking up yours by mistake, since everyone had one of 3 black peacoats from JCrew), or beer spilled on them, or someone puking on them, or the room with the coats being locked because people decided to hook up in that room. Or at best, they would stink of beer and smoke for days to come. We usually all met at whoever’s dorm/apartment/sorority house/whatever that was closest to where we were going, and left our coats there.

        • I had no money as a student and didn’t want to pay the $5 or whatever it was for coat check.

    • jumpingjack :

      I’ve been told that, at least for the women, they want to look cute entering the party, and a coat doesn’t look cute.

      Even my 19 year old self thought this was ridiculous. Frostbite is not cute.

    • I agree with others that the logistical aspect of going-out-with-a-coat deters college students. There’s an old episode of This American Life called #1 Party School, focusing on student social life at Penn State, in which the reporter talks to a few women all dressed up to go out but wearing scuzzy sweatshirts (which they call “frackets”) over their going out clothes. A fracket, it turns out, is a portmanteu of “fraternity jackets” or the outerwear you wear to a fraternity party where it might get spilled on/vomited on/smell smokey/get lost/whatever.

      • DisenchatedinDC :

        I went to Penn State – this is totally a thing. Though it wasn’t just fraternities – I had friends get their jackets stolen/lost/etc at bars and all over the place. People who did wear jackets to frats would just grab whatever when they left, not really caring if it was theirs.

        This is probably why I also didn’t go out much.

    • I went to a state school (where it snows, too) for what it’s worth. I’m a few years older than you, but this was definitely a thing. Yes, coats are a pain to deal with once you get to wherever you’re going. There’s the issue of someone taking your coat, purposefully or not. There’s also the issue of forgetting it. And getting puke/beer/other alcohol on it.

      But you’d pregame, put on your beer sweater, and do your best to deal with the cold. If you partied hard (which I admit I did back then), it wasn’t a big deal to be freezing.

      Nowadays, I have no idea how I did that. I don’t really go out anymore unless it’s a place I can sit and put my stuff down. #gettingold

  10. Anonymous :

    I would say “you do you” and wear your own style. The exception might be avoiding over the top dressing if everyone is meeting at a dive bar.

  11. From my observations, it just seems like going out clothes have evolved over the years. In college, it was awful satiny camis or empire waist tops and dresses that made anyone look like they were wearing maternity clothes. Tight tops and cleavage. I feel like now, it’s more about loose, flowy camis or chic blouses and fun jewelry. Jeans and boots are great or heels. Oh and in the winter I have a bunch of (tasteful) sequin tops :)

    It’s kind of a know your audience or environment thing. I’m not ruling out short/tight/cleavage bearing dresses, but I would only wear them to a club or Vegas (or bday/bachelorette party). This was much more commonplace when I was in college, but now, not so much.

    Shorter dress is still an option but opt out of body-con when you aren’t sure about the audience.

  12. Can’t go wrong with dark wash jeans, cool/sexy/plain/whatever shirt, and a great blazer. Accessorize at will. That is acceptable (and can be made to be sexy, kick-ass, demure, casual, fancy) depending on the cut and color.

  13. Interesting point of view :)