Reader Mail: What to Wear for a Corporate Photograph?

what to wear for a corporate photograph2018 Update: We still stand by this advice on what to wear for a corporate photograph, but you may also want to check out our more recent advice on corporate headshots

Today’s reader mail asks an excellent question: what to wear for a corporate photograph?

I am a mid-level commercial litigator with a small firm in Chicago. In a couple of weeks, a photographer is coming to the office to update everyone’s website pic. I was wondering if you could provide advice on what the best look is for such a picture, obviously a suit, but is a shell better than button down, etc. Also, any tips on the best way to wear hair and the appropriate jewelry.

This is such an interesting question, particularly because, in many offices, you don’t get a chance to take these photographs that often — so one photograph could be your “face” in the office phone book and on the web for the indefinite future. For our $.02: You want to look neat and professional, but also attractive in a non-sexual way. We would also aim to look “friendly” and “trustworthy.” (Our theory here is that your pedigree will likely be listed alongside the picture — your schools, your honors — but your personality will, most likely, be absent. A future client, a recruiter, or a partner from another office will see that you’re smart and accomplished; but the photo also has to convey likeability.) (Also, it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that future dates and ex-boyfriends can all find this picture if they Google you.)

To start, we would recommend first looking at the existing pictures for your firm. Particularly, flip to the female partners — what are they wearing? Our guess is that they’re wearing a classic suit and pearls. In light of the debate about how to wear shirt collars, we would recommend wearing a collar-less shirt (just our humble opinion), and the best pair of pearls you own. (If you own real pearls that are not very expensive, you may actually want to a) go to a jewelry and try on a set of expensive pearls to see what the difference is, and then b) buy a fake set that approximates the expensive pearls as best as possible.) For the picture, you might also want to go for very traditional post earrings — think David Yurman, diamonds, or, again, pearls. Avoid trendy or loud pieces at all costs (unless you’re actively trying to stand out as an eccentric genius, but that is far more difficult for women than men).

In terms of makeup, we would again look through the existing pictures — our guess is that the women partners are wearing very neutral makeup. Focus on looking awake and alive — for us that means wearing (at least) undereye concealer, curled eyelashes and mascara, blush, and a matte, light-colored lipstick; we also refer you to CityGirl’s recent excellent review of office-appropriate makeup.

Hair, to us, is the biggest question, because a lot of the considerations of the real-live working woman’s hair-do (attractiveness, comfort, neatness, time involved, staying power, functionality (keeping hair out of your face)) are a moot point for a photograph — you can comb your hair once and have it look perfect (or even have it blown out), and then revert to your low ponytail. If you have long hair, we might suggest a half-up look; we might even wear it long and loose provided that it’s very neat. Whatever you do, avoid the Aqua Net or any dated look — the blog After Ellen recently reviewed some celebrity photos, and the results weren’t pretty. (Poor Renee Zellweger!)

Readers, what say you? What SHOULD you wear for a corporate photograph?


  1. Thanks for the shoutout. My biggest recommendation is to wear liner on the upper lids – it really helps with the whole awake/alive thing :)

  2. will the photo be in color or b&w? if b&w, go for slightly more contrast in suit vs shirt or it will easily look monotone (and be careful with makeup colors that may look too dramatic – especially lipstick).

    if you have long hair, don’t brush it all behind your shoulders (makes your head look like it’s poking forward) or have it all in front (gives the impression of hiding behind your hair). and try not to just force a smile – as anyone who’s watched ANTM has heard, smile with your eyes!

  3. Bobbi Brown’s new book has some tips on make up for photographs, or make up tips for brides are appropriate. Basically, remember that flash is going to pick up any shimmer and magnify it. You are going to definitely want to wear some thin liner–possibly on the lower lid as well, depending on how it looks on you. You want your eyes to be defined and focused without looking overdone. Avoid colors other than neutrals. Make sure you brush any clumps out of your mascara. A soft blush in a natural color–like how you look when you flush only toned down is a good idea, but easy on shimmer. (Nars Penny Lane) You want matte-to-creamy lipstick in your-lips-only-better colors like a dusty pink or mauve (Clinique Tenderheart, Bamboo Pink, Beauty)–bite your lip and see, or up to a shade darker than your gums. No shine on your nose–powder is your friend in photos. Consider the high def makeups if you’re really concerned. Sephora has it as a keyword–Smashbox and Make Up For Ever (their loose powder is awesome) have some….Smashbox has a freebie deal if you buy anything at lunchtime on Tuesdays and Thursdays, BTW.

    • Great tips! The everyday glossy lipwear many women wear doesn’t look fabulous on camera. Your tips are spot on.

      Also, it’s wise to stay away from the dewy fresh skin look and go for a more matte look to avoid looking greasy.

  4. I recently came across my mid 1980’s partnership photo taken for the Firm brochure (websites were still in the future). Note to self: perhaps the teased fringe, spiral perm,blue eyeshadow/mascara combo, huge tortiseshell specs and midblue suit with massive shoulder pads teamed with hawaiian type shirt underneath was a bold move, but at least it made me smile 23 years later!!! Even better, it made my 16year old say “cool… were really retro mum!”

  5. I was going to suggest brown liner on the upper lids, but CityGirl beat me too it. It’s the best way to make your eyes seem awake.

    Also – don’t forget to put your tongue at the roof of your mouth when you smile to eliminate double chin! I don’t know how or why it works, but it does.

    • Thanks for the tip about the double chin – some of my photos (especially taken from an odd angle e.g. me sitting and photographer standing) tend to make me look double or triple chinned. I’ll try the tongue thing next time.

    • Great tip, I’ve never heard that one before!

  6. Oooohh…super-great post idea. I’m anxious to see what everyone has to say.

  7. Any suggestions for women who can’t wear jewelry? I break out in a rash even if the tiniest bit of metal touches my skin, so I don’t really own any jewelry. Would it be better to wear a non-collared shirt with a higher neck or a collared shirt to add interest?

    • Mel-

      Have you tried wearing titanium jewelry? I have the same problem you describe (I can’t wear gold, or silver, or surgical steel, and certainly not base metals) and find that titanium does not irritate my skin as other metals do.

    • Wearing a collared shirt will frame your face nicely. Wearing a necklace would do the same thing, but since jewelry irritates you, definitely opt for a collared shirt.

  8. I’d say to avoid “fashion” at all costs, both in clothing and hairdo, unless your office takes pictures every year or so. Go with something as classical as possible and take the colors that suit your skin-, hair- and eyetone best, never mind if those are not “summery” enough. Something that looks fashionable right now might look horribly dated as little as two or three years from now (I’m thinking of those shirts with big ribbons or ruches around the neck and chest area, as well as of ruffled-edge jackets here, for example.)

  9. Mel –

    Cover the metal that will be touching your skin with transparent nail polish. It doesn’t last more than a few days and only really works well on small surfaces (such as the hooks of earrings), but it’s better than nothing. (Afterwards, remove leftovers with nailpolish remover and cover it again.)
    Check out your local fair trade/global kind of store and markets though, and (not sure if this store operates outside of western Europe), Bijoux Brigitte. Sometimes, there’s a necklace out of beads that is elegant nonetheless. Bijoux Brigitte in particular often has all sorts of beaded necklaces out of porcelain, glass and gemstones like moonstone, onyx, garnet, turquose, jade, malachite etc, often with the beads quite small and woven into intricate patterns (although you’ll have to wade through the hippie-huge-chunks-of-aura-stones to find those).

    Also, jewellery out of leather and the like can be interesting, even if a little on the funky side:

  10. Mel – can you do pearls on a ribbon so that the ribbon ties behind your head (and is hidden from the camera)? I have sensitivities to metal, but I can wear surgical steel posts so I have no ideas for earrings.

  11. That’s a possibility, but I don’t see myself buying pearls in the first place since it’s just not something I see myself wearing. In terms of my sensitivity, it is pretty extreme. I’ve had to stop wearing watches even with the plastic backing still on because my wrist will break out. The only earrings I’ve been able to wear are the tiny gold hoops they put on babies when they get their ears pierced. I’d prefer some suggestions for how to give interest (via color or neckline) that don’t require me to wear any jewelry.

  12. i second the thoughts about make up. basic is best, but be sure to wear some make up is a good thing–even if you don’t normally wear make up to the office (those bright studio lights are not your friend!).

    re: jewelry: aside from basic pearl earrings, in lieu of a necklace or a pin, i wore an hermes scarf under a black jacket.

  13. I’d also suggest contacting the photographer to ask for recommendations regarding the best colors to wear and those to avoid, especially if he or she has already scouted the location for the shoot at your firm. While I think a nice set of midlength pearls can be a beautiful and timeless accessory, they are not for everyone. Plus, I have this odd vision of seeing tons of future professional pics with everyone wearng pearls and looking a bit like they belong in a 50s yearbook. I recommend that women wear a beautiful piece of “signature” jewelry (a more valuable piece that expresses your personality and style), either earrings or a necklace — as long as it’s professional.

    Also, different necklines (and colors) flatter different faces. You might want to take a digital camera and take some test headshots at home of proposed outfits (just the top half :) and make-up, and see what you think is most representative of you. Show them to some friends whose opinions you respect and whose own profile pics look great and get some feedback. You probably do need to wear a bit more make-up than you normally would for daywear, due to the photographer’s lights — but avoid looking dated or overdone.

  14. Another suggestion is to also look at the photos from your competitor firms. That’s who people judging you on your internet pic/bio will be using for comparison. If they look sharper than your firm’s pics, take some notes on why you think they look better. You want to keep with your firm’s style but there’s nothing wrong with improving upon it. Sometimes the style of the pictures makes it hard to compare but you can get an idea of which hairstyles, shirts, jewelry, etc. look good. This is especially helpful if your firm doesn’t have a lot of females or doesn’t have many your age.

  15. One more thought: ask the photographer or responsible person at the firm what kind of picture it will be. Just a head-shot? Any larger? In my former firm’s picture, it was basically just your head … nothing more than an inch or two below your chin showed. Other firms have done larger shots, with more of your body showing. See, e.g., White & Case head-only shots vs. Sutherland Asbill Brennan almost-to-waist shots vs. Skadden mid-chest shots.

    How you dress, what you do with your hair and what jewelry you wear, IMO, would be very dependent on the size/type of photo.

  16. I love the idea of taking some digital shots ahead of time to test out jewelry/necklines.

    One thing I *always* do is get my hair blown out before a professional photo. The hairdresser can manage to make it look smooth but not flat. Since the photo won’t capture any movement, that’s important.

  17. Having been through a few of these sessions, from a high-end firm where the photographer air brushed stray hairs away to a government identification with biometric readings, here are some tips I picked up from the photographers:

    No bold or small checked patterns. (That’s obvious but I’ve seen some new associates make the mistake.)

    If you have dark hair and will be wearing a dark suit, don’t wear a solid black shirt under the suit. The only contrast will be your face – you end up with a gothic look. Also, if using the photo for security, not marketing, purposes, biometric readers hate the black on black on black. (I learned the hard way, having to go through five different photo takes.)

    Avoid the bronzer (or just off the beach tan). This photo has to look real even in January.

    Don’t do a plain white shirt without a statement necklace or lapel pin. It looks uninspired. I think it’s classic but I kind of agree that it is a very safe look.

    Don’t wear red. I thought it was a power color but, according to the photographer, on women it becomes too much color. He’s kind of right if you think that red on men is limited to the red power tie against the backdrop of (usually) a white shirt. That said, deep brick red is a great color on me so I would consider it if the photo background is blue or cream (but not green).

    My personal two cents:

    Wear pearls if they are your style to begin with. If your personal style, mannerisms, haircut, and makeup don’t match, you come across like you’re playing dress up. Remember, if you DO land the client, you’ll be working with him/her. You want to convey YOUR professional image – not sell an image of what you THINK is professional.

    Lapel pins were always an option until Mrs. O. Love her (especially as a DC lawyer who wants some style in the city) but she has basically made lapel pins fashionable again. Three years or five years from now, they’ll looked dated. They will probably need another 10 years before they become classic again.

    Blue is a very classic color to wear under the suit. Purple is a popular color this year but what about in 2011 when your firm still hasn’t updated its photos?

    I also avoid a collared shirt. There’s the collar in v. collar out debate. Plus, you can get a wrinkled look if it doesn’t lay just perfect. If the photo is more wide angle, you can also get some gaps on the bustline.

    Enjoy the process. You’ll feel (and look) more approachable.

  18. My firm had a woman that did make-up before the photo. I ended up with a much different look than my typical work look. If your firm does this, bring in your own make-up and insist on neutral tones only–my photo ended up with eye shadow much bolder than I prefer.

  19. Mel – a scarf comes to mind?

  20. Our firm does a composite poster. IMO, the one woman that wore red, stood out too much in the composite , even though it was just her blouse. I think black suit with white collared shirt and hornrimmed glasses screams new attorney if you are under the age of 35. I like the look of a light blue shell under a black jacket, or a dark pinstripped jacket for more intrest. Earrings should be simple loops or studs, you dont want them catching too much light, or getting stuck in your hair at an odd angle. I dont wear much jewely in real life, so, I dont wear brooches or necklaces, and I think it looks fine. Apply lipstick (not red, see above) right before you have the picture taken.
    And in this day and age, the pics will be digital. Just ask the photographer nicely if you can have a peek, then make him keep taking them till you get one you like.

  21. housecounsel :

    Be careful with scarves. Bright scarves scream “Realtor” to me.

    In my last professional photo, I had my hair blown out and my makeup professionally done, and I’m so glad I did. I am not glad about the boring white shirt I wore under the boring black jacket.

  22. I recently worked on the selection of my lawfirm’s photos and learn something about what looks good and what not, once you receive the final product. So here are my recommendations:
    Collar vs. Collar-less. I think collar-less is safest. Wear a collar shirt only if it is perfectly ironed and the fabric is of outstanding quality. Medium or poor quality fabrics can be noticed even in a photo.
    Wear a suit that fits perfectly to your actual size (nor the size you used to be or the one you want to be).
    Wearing just a V-neck buttoned dark jacket looks great (obviously without showing cleavage).
    Since almost everyone will be wearing similarly, add a nice and discrete necklace or pendant for your personal touch. I agree that pearls are not the only option, but for someone who uses them frequently, she should wear them. I found a nice Elsa Peretti silver pendant that looked modern and still elegant.
    Earrings always should be small and discrete. You want to capture the attention to your eyes, not your ears.
    Invest in professional hair and makeup (this includes having your eyebrows designed). In our case, we arranged with the photographer an afternoon meeting so we could use our lunch time to go to the salon.
    Finally, this is not the time to make an “extreme makeover” or to get the trendiest haircut or coloring. Just stay classic, you’ll never know how long these photos will be online.

  23. I know this is late; but I wanted to add pay close attention to the color of your background in relation to your skin, hair and jacket choice. IMO, lighter colors work best. I once had a navy blue background and ended up with hair, jacket and background all blending together. :-(