Reader Mail: What to Wear to Sunday Brunch?

One of our readers wrote in with this intriguing question:

My boyfriend and I were recently invited to Sunday Brunch at a senior partner’s house, and I’m really unsure what to wear. I’m worried about being over/underdressed. We’re in the Northeast, so it will be chilly, and the crowd is not strictly work people. If you have any suggestions, I’d really appreciate it.

First, congratulations on being invited to brunch at the senior partner’s house — that’s usually a great sign when someone more senior to you takes a personal interest in you and your career. Now, regarding brunch: Do you have an idea of who else is invited? (Clients or friends?) What sort of activities the day will entail? (Anything sporty? Or is it high tea?) Is your partner or his wife very religious — would they possibly be offended if you were to wear jeans? Finally, are there any other associates (who’ve worked with the partner before) you can ask for advice?

Our best suggestion, on the limited information we have, is to advise you and your boyfriend to go with the “competent but cool couple” look. By which we mean: dark, non-ripped jeans for both of you, blazers, and shoes (not sneakers). Dark non-ripped cords would also be fine for this kind of function (as long as the corduroys aren’t cut like jeans — check to see if there are 5 pockets are not.) (For some reason, cords cut like jeans strike us as more informal than actual denim.) For your outfit, if you have trouser jeans or anything like that, we would choose those; wear them with your best pair of boots. You could top it with a velvet, corduroy, or wool blazer (some suggestions below). Because you don’t know exactly what the temperature will be — if it’s “nice” fall weather it could be outside on a porch, or if it’s freezing fall weather but your partner is an environmentalist who doesn’t believe in heating the house over a certain degree — we advise dressing in layers (perhaps a v-neck sweater with a crewnecked t-shirt beneath). You can still show more personality than you might if you were meeting with the senior partner and clients — by adding funkier jewelry and wearing your hair down, if you want to — but you should still look like a competent professional.

If you want to veer on the side of being a bit more dressed up, we would still suggest wearing trousers and a blazer, or perhaps a sweater. While dresses are great for every day at the office, at a casual social event like this one you might run the risk of looking too much like the girlfriend of the person who’s been invited to the event.

If you’re worried even this will be too formal, stick with dark jeans (not ripped), a funky or nice pair of sneakers, and a sweater that’s a bit more casual — a hood sticking out of your blazer, perhaps.

Update: Wow, we’re getting a lot of feedback telling us that we’re completely off the mark.  We stand by our comments that a dress is totally inappropriate for this affair — do NOT focus on looking pretty.  You’re not meeting your boyfriend’s parents.  And depending on the activities of the day — some partners have horse stables on their properties, others may have driving ranges — jeans are entirely appropriate.  If there isn’t going to be activities, though, and it’s just brunch, go with trousers and a blazer.

Some wintry blazers we’ve noticed and might suggest, after the jump…

Photo credit, above: Sun Day Brunch, originally uploaded to Flickr by darkmatter

Women: Velvet blazer - Brinjal purple

Women: Velvet blazer – Brinjal purple
, available at Banana Republic for $175
Women: Tweed hacking jacket - dark brown

Women: Tweed hacking jacket – dark brown
, available at Gap for $68.50 (was $99)
Nanette Lepore – Sneak Out Knit Jacketicon, available at Saks for $231 (was $385)


  1. I totally disagree…
    Brunch should be more formal than that. People go to brunch after they go to church. Do you wear jeans to church on Sunday morning? No.
    For the guy – khakis, button down shirt
    For her – a cute dress, tights, and cute shoes

  2. I totally agree with the last commenter — completely off the mark. Since it is probably quite chilly in the Northeast (as opposed to the South, where I was raised), she can almost certainly get away with a very nice pair of slacks. Extra points if they are wide-legged, and either camel or a nice herringbone pattern. She needs to wear perhaps a very nice sweater set (permits her to layer down a little if it is overly warm in the house), and you never go wrong with a set of pearls, particularly if it is a Sunday.

    That look will work regardless of what others wear: it perfectly bridges. The guy definitely needs to wear nice slacks, a button down, and a blazer.

    I wouldn’t wear jeans to that event if my life depended on it. If the senior partner turns out to wear jeans, fine – I still want to be more dressed up than that.

    In the interests of full disclosure, my office doesn’t even have a casual Friday. Seeing me in anything except a full suit (of armor) IS seeing my casual wear.

    I suppose it matters whether this is in NYC; otherwise, she needs to be more formal than what you suggested.

  3. I agree with H if the reader is in the WDC area. NYC seems to have more latitude. That said, I would probably wear the same outfit in either city, ie nice tailored pants, and a nice cardigan or jacket type sweater to be deconstructed enough for the weekend, but still more dressed up. Underneath I would have a cami + a vneck long sleeved top such that, if the day turns out to be more casual, I can always take the sweater/cardigan off and look a little more dressed down. And IMO it’s worse to be underdressed than overdressed.

  4. NO jeans. Completely inappropriate. And absolutely nothing wrong with a dress or skirt.

  5. Agreeing with the above – you can “casual-down” slacks and a nice top, but there’s no hiding a pair of jeans. In Philadelphia…

    For her – I’d wear either a thin turtleneck or tee and wrap sweater or the Nanette Lepore blazer above with gray/herringbone/camel wide-legged slacks, either with low-heeled nice boots or ballet flats. Maybe have a fun bracelet/ring in your purse to slip on if others turn out to be more casual.

    For him – khakis/slacks with a collared shirt under a sweater. A blazer runs the risk of being the only person in a jacket.

  6. I’m with the above even after the update. If no one has mentioned to her that he has hobbies like a farm or a boat, she’s likely to be inside the whole time. Always better to be overdressed than underdressed. I work for a pretty young casual firm in DC and despite that fact that jeans are more than acceptable at our holiday party, retreat, etc., if a partner invited me to brunch I’d stick with slacks.

  7. Associate :

    Seriously? You’d wear jeans to a work function? It may be at a partner’s house, but it’s still a work function. Absolutely, nice slacks, at least.

  8. totally agree with the above: definitely NO to the jeans. (even if you’re in nyc!!) i’d consider something along the lines of a skirt with boots and a sweater with some personality. far FAR better to look a little over-dressed than to show up looking like you don’t care at all. (maybe ok for the boyfriend to do the jeans and blazer thing though.)

  9. I am the reader who sent the question. Thanks so much for all of the feedback. This is definitely helpful. I thought I’d answer some of the questions in case the information changes anyone’s opinion. I do not believe there will be other activities (Partner’s house is in the city – not NYC though). The guest list was described as an “eclectic mix” including friends. I do not think clients will attend, but I am not sure. The partner is religious. Unless this radically changes the opinions it sounds like trouser and a blazer is the way to go. Thanks!

  10. If the partner is religious, the woman should not wear pants- end of story. Although the partner probably has enough sense/savvy/class not to make his/her personal views obvious at work, if you know enough to know the partner is religious, avoid pants, which are generally frowned upon for women in the traditional circles of all major religions.

  11. Associate :

    As a male, I would wear flat-front charcoal trousers, a light blue french cuff shirt, and a black or navy blazer. It is November, and will likely be cool.

    Ultimately, I would err on the side of business casual vs. casual.

  12. Lawyouranidiot :

    “which are generally frowned upon for women in the traditional circles of all major religions.”

    WTF? As someone who is very active in a large traditional protestant church, I just don’t understand where this person is coming from. Going to church ain’t like it was in the 1930s. Women aren’t expected, or even frowned upon for wearing pants.

    If it’s cold, wear pants; if not, your choice. I agree with most of the commentators on the jeans — Don’t wear them. They may have climbed to the status of “business casual” in the younger crowds, but the older folks definately don’t understand.

  13. goingconcern :

    I am troubled by the suggestion of french cuff shirt w/ a blazer. That’s wildly inappropriate. Save the french cuffs for suits. Button-down-collar dress shirts for blazers.

  14. “Some partners have horse stables on their properties, others may have driving ranges”

    WTF? This isn’t the Great Gatsby. Here’s an idea: ask what the dress code is.

  15. Wearing pants or not has nothing to do with how religious Senior Partner is. Wearing jeans, maybe. Either way, pants are fine, jeans not.

    You just want to be dressed appropriately (i.e. don’t show cleavage (wear a tanktop), don’t wear see-through top without appropriate coverage underneath, no mini skirts (just above the knee is probably ok, don’t show your naked belly…) – just don’t look naked or provocative. Which is the same rule you should follow for a professional look anyway.

    And fall skirts or dresses with boots or shoes are in fashion and totally ok. Just look professional, and not too homey or frumpy. But staying close to your normal style is alright (if you wear flowery dresses with a blazer to work, it should be ok to wear the flowery dress to brunch… if you really want to.)

    Otherwise, I’d agree with the majority… Good luck!

  16. goingnowhereconcern :

    A french cuff shirt with a blazer is not wildly inappropriate, it’s just a little amateurish. In a casual dressy younger setting it would be fine (though not here b/c sr partner = old school). What is wildly inappropriate is a shirt with a button-down collar — in any circumstances!

  17. I’m with “woman.” A senior partner suggests a partner a certain age or more (let’s say 40-45+). The fact that it’s a Sunday Brunch also denotes a certain age or style (Sunday brunch isn’t the most popular among the young and hip). Add to the mix that the partner is religious, which further suggests a bit of conservatism in him, his family and some of the friends who’ve been invited. You have to remember that while the senior partner might not care, his wife is the hostess, and she may.

    Therefore, jeans are way too risky for a Sunday brunch. Dress slacks are fine, and a dress or skirt is PERFECTLY appropriate. The fact that you’re not in jeans on a weekend doesn’t suggest you’re stuffy (I wear skirts and dresses on the weekend). And it’s never inappropriate to overdress a little in respect to your host/hostess. Though, because it is Sunday, if you do wear slacks, I’d add some color.

    If there’s any chance you could be outside on grass, wear flats or wedges (heels will sink). And your boyfriend should be pretty J.Crew invisible — slacks or khakis, button down, and a sweater or casual blazer on top.

  18. California Associate :

    Holy crap, you people are putting WAY too much thought into this. I’m with Snert — what is you ASKED what the dress code was?! Jeez.

  19. Anonymous :

    1. I would not worry about the possibility of stables and driving ranges on the partner’s “property.” Whoever wrote the original post has obviously seen Cruel Intentions one too many times, lol. (Also, even if your boss is named Kimora Simmons or Donald Trump, if the brunch is in a home in the city proper, their home will definitely not have any of this kind of stuff.)

    2. Most major religions do not frown upon women in pants. This is 2008, not 1708. In fact, a nice pair of tailored pants is probably the safest thing you can wear in autumn, both in terms of weather and in terms of appropriateness.

    3. I would wear a “business-casual” version of my usual wintertime work/professional style. I would avoid jeans and sneakers. I’d veer toward tailored pants (or maybe a wool skirt if it isn’t super cold) with a nice work-appropriate sweater. If I’m taking public transit in NY or DC I’d probably wear a dressy flat or low shoe.

  20. Jeans are okay for Sunday brunch with friends in the city, but not at a senior partner’s house.

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