Are Skirts and Dresses Unprofessional?

Are Skirts and Dresses Unprofessional? | CorporetteAre skirts and dresses unprofessional? What if you have a boss who has a firm opinion, one way or the other? What if you have a boss who forbids YOU from wearing dresses and skirts, when other women in the office can and do? Reader A wonders…

I recently started a new job in a creative industry, and our offices are officially business casual but usually just regular casual. My boss hates that I wear dresses and skirts. She told me that looking feminine in the workplace is bad for careers and she only wants me to wear jeans or khakis if she’s in the office and I can only wear skirts when she travels. I’ve abided by it for a couple months since she was really persistent about it, even though other women in the office wear skirts. I’m confident that my skirts are not inappropriate length wise, they’re standard work skirts from Macy’s and Lane Bryant. Nothing ruffly or lacy either.

Anyway, my manager is leaving the company, but now I feel insecure about my clothing. Is it a bad move to wear skirts and dresses several times per week?

Wow. Honestly, your former manager sounds super annoying — particularly given that other women in the office wear skirts! I can only assume it’s a personal problem with you (something about your style irks her) or she is being sizeist, whether consciously or unconsciously. (The other possibility I thought of after Googling Reader A’s email address: The manager felt threatened professionally by Reader A, who already has an established, successful career — and wanted Reader A to look less managerial.)

Whatever the issue: I’m sorry you had to deal with it, and I’m glad the manager is on her way out. We’ve talked before about when feminine clothes are unprofessional, as well as how to look professional in a business casual environment where the guys are in jeans and hoodies, but not all at once. So let’s discuss.

  • Know your office. You say other women in the office wear skirts — how are yours different, if at all? Are you wearing them with much higher heels that you wear with pants? Are the women who wear them in different roles than you are (for example, much more senior or much more junior/administrative)? Reading office culture — and fitting in — is an important part of your job. You don’t have to give up your entire personal style, but you do have to learn when to play it safe — years ago we had a successful goth lawyer guest post on this very topic; we also recently discussed how clothes are only “empowering” if they actually help you get power. Without seeing your office it’s hard for me to make suggestions, but when I hear “creative business casual” I think of a shirtdress with flat boots, for example, or a sheath dress with a jean jacket and a scarf instead of a cardigan. We’ve talked about how to transition a conservative wardrobe to a casual office before.
  • A feminine style is one thing; being in costume is another. This doesn’t sound like it’s an issue with Reader A, but I’ll mention it briefly. If you tend toward a more girly style — A-line skirts, high heels, full makeup — you may be crossing the line from “dressed up” to “in costume.”  Particularly be wary of more vintage styles for the office.
  • Start slowly. Since you’ve been abiding by your manager’s weird “rules,” the office may perceive this as a style change — so start slowly. Wear one dress a week, not all dresses. See how people react, what comments you get. On the days that you aren’t wearing skirts or dresses, dress up your pants outfits as well — wear a blazer with jeans, or a feminine cardigan with khakis. (Some of our advice on dressing for a promotion may help bridge the gap between your jeans wardrobe and your dress/skirt wardrobe.) If you have a favorite pair of shoes you wear with your skirts or dresses, wear them with your pants and see how it goes.
  • Get an honest second opinion. If after a few times of wearing a dress you still feel uncomfortable, talk to your HR department or a more senior colleague you trust to give you an honest opinion. They know your former manager, your office, and you, so they may be able to give you better insight here.

What are your thoughts, readers? How would you handle this (now, as well as with that manager) if you were in Reader A’s shoes? Do you think dresses and skirts can be unprofessional?  

(Pictured: Hollywood 819, originally uploaded to Flickr by Jessica Hartman Jaeger.)


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  1. Are you punking us Kat? Obviously skirts and dresses are fine. I can only assume the managers problem is that she is cray hella sexist.

  2. I disagree with the use of “girly” with A-line. Because pencil skirts look weird on me (gape at the waist, tight through the bum and hips), I love my fuller skirts.

    • Same build, same opinion. I bristle at the idea that curves are unprofessional.

      • Anonymous :

        I think you’re making a leap there to go from Kat calling A-line skirts “girly” to that meaning she said curves unprofessional.

    • And there is a difference between an A-line skirt and a circle skirt. The circle skirt is going to be much, much fuller, and is going to read more 50s housewife than will a simple A-line skirt.

  3. When working in a plant environment (as an engineer) skirts and dresses can be perceived as unprofessional because you don’t look ready to throw your coveralls on and go out and save the world. But in the same company in a corporate setting, or if your job is entirely indoors (like accounting), they’re perfectly fine.

    Anyway, that’s the only example I can think of where skirts are unprofessional. I have a hard time understanding the restriction in a creative company, especially when other people in similar roles wear skirts!! It really does sound like (a) a stupid boss or (b) sizeist.

    • Meg Murry :

      Yes, I agree, the only way I could see skirts or dresses being unprofessional is if it prevents you from actively doing your work, or appearing like you can’t do your work at a moment’s notice – for instance, if you work in IT and need to crawl under someone’s desk to plug and unplug cords into their tower regularly, or in a lab where you shouldn’t have bare legs. I know my mother grew up in a time when she had to wear skirts to school every day (and hated it), and then went to work in a place where she needed to be able to bend, lift, climb ladders, etc at a moment’s notice, so she pretty much always wears pants, never skirts or dresses except to weddings, etc. She’s never come out and said it directly, but I’m willing to bet in her mind, a skirt or dress would be unprofessional in her field

      Otherwise, I suspect this is just a case of a manager who has a personal preference and is imposing it on her employee as if it is a rule. Maybe she had to fight being the only woman in her role/department, and doesn’t want to remind any of the “good old boys” that they are actually women? Maybe your industry has a terrible glass ceiling and she doesn’t want to get caught up in it? Are the other women in the office who wear skirts and dresses only in more traditional female roles, like administrative assistants and receptionists?

      I’m willing to vote with others that your manager is crazy, and you can probably start easing back into skirts and dresses once she is gone.

    • Senior Attorney :

      Yes, I can see this. Obviously if you need to climb ladders or whatever you need to be properly dressed.

      But for an office job, this is just nuts.

      • Years ago (in an office job), I was in charge of my office’s computer troubleshooting and would occasionally have to crawl under a desk or on one to check connections, unplug this or that, etc. I never wore skirts because I never knew when that would be required. Thankfully, that’s not longer the case.

    • Brit Chick :

      I feel like there’s a slight overlap in thinking here between unprofessional and impractical.

      Wearing a skirt to a job that requires putting on overalls or crawling under desks would make the skirt an impractical choice, not necessarily unprofessional. There may be the option of changing the bottom half of the outfit before undertaking certain tasks (e.g. before putting on overalls), and it might be acceptable to do that.

      What may be considered unprofessional is the lack of judgement making such an impractical clothing choice would imply.

    • Agree with this. Skirts, dresses, high heels, neckties, anything with an open toe or open heel, and really anything too dressy is unprofessional because you need to be able to go into a lab or a job site. That attitude has largely translated to our non-lab sites and staff, with the exception of the “big” meetings, where neckties and dressier clothes are still allowed. A skirt would be a marginal choice though. A few people (men and women) try to push the unspoken rules, but their clothing choices are definitely discussed.

  4. Dresses and skirts in general are 100% appropriate – whether a certain dress or skirt is is another question.
    I think probably many people in the office must have noticed that this (former) boss is crazy, and are aware of her bizarre rules so will understand if Reader A changes her wardrobe after crazy boss lady leaves.

    • This. I learned my lesson last week regarding whether certain dresses are work-appropriate. I bought a navy dress in (what I thought was) heavy jersey with a T-shirt neckline and hemmed just above my knees. Perfectly appropriate with a blazer? No. No one said anything but I felt underdressed all day. Objectively, nothing wrong with the dress but it was not appropriate for work.

      C’est la vie. I now have a new weekend dress.

  5. This seems way overthought. Crazy Manager says Reader A can’t wear skirts. Reader A knows of no reason she can’t wear skirts other than Crazy Manager. Soon Crazy Manager will no longer be Reader A’s manager. Seems like the problem has solved itself. What am I missing?

    • Diana Barry :

      +1. Sounds like Crazy Manager has browbeaten Reader A into thinking that dresses and skirts are not OK and now she is questioning her own judgment.

      Reader A – don’t question your own style. Wear whatever you want!!!

  6. This type of behavior from a supervisor seems like gender discrimination that should be reported to HR. It doesn’t sound like the concern is anything regarding appropriateness of the attire, etc., other than it is “feminine.”

    • Wildkitten :

      I don’t see how prohibiting skirts in the workplace is discrimination. Companies are allowed to have dress codes. This sounds crazy but not illegal, to me.

      • It’s discrimination because other employees are allowed to wear skirts. This seems like a dress code that is applicable only to the OP.

        • Anonymous :

          While this is discrimination in the sense that Reader A is subject to a different “dress code” than her peers, it is not discrimination in the legally actionable sense of the word.

  7. This is totally a click-bait headline. Of course skirts and dresses aren’t inherently unprofessional, and it is absurd to think that someone would need a gradual transition to wearing skirts in the office, or would need to gather second opinions on what is appropriate dress (or if a dress is appropriate). I think it’s part of a despicable larger trend of trying to make women question every little thing they do or say or wear.

  8. A friend of mine was told she needed to wear hose or tights and was really annoyed because it seemed like that wasn’t the rule for everyone else. What my friend failed to recognize is that she wears clothing that is too tight and too short and when she crosses her legs or just sits, it is somewhat alarming to witnesses. When she wears things that fit she looks beautiful and well proportioned but that unfortunately is rarely the case. This may not be the same type of situation but I wonder if the supervisor is just crazy/rude/awful, or if she doesn’t know how else to deal with someone who is wearing clothing that is inappropriate because of fit or length.

    • Wildkitten :

      This is a good point.

      • Get Off My Lawn :

        It certainly is a possibility. I recently went to a social function where I was easily a generation to a generation and a half older than most of the guests. Dress was smart casual and a number of the young women looked wondeful. Standing up. When they sat, oh my. I saw six pairs of panties. My husband saw panties. We compared panty notes on the way home. I suspect I am a bit older than most of you here. Is it really ok to show your undies in a social setting, or is it me? I feel old. Get off my lawn!

    • I can see this being a factor in this situation. As a heavier person I find it very hard to find suit skirts and dresses that look both professional and fit in a way that is appropriate. Just a bit of tightness in a skirt can put it over the line of too short or too tight. I’m in professional services so I tend to gravitate toward pants to avoid the situation and blend in with the men. Now I’ve lost about 40 lbs and find it easier to wear dresses and some skirts, although I’m still cautious about the situations when I’ll wear them. I want to be noticed for what I’m saying not the fit of my outfit or bare legs. That’s more about *my* choice of what’s appropriate.

      I wonder if this boss felt the FIT of Reader A’s clothes were inappropriate but this was the only way she could come up with to express that. I don’t agree with setting that kind of “rule” for a mentee or employee, but its a touchy situation to navigate.

      • MissDisplaced :

        Agreed. Being heavier myself, I shy away from skirts and dresses unless I can wear full opaque black tights with them (not possible in summer). Standing up, they are fine, but well as you mention, sitting is another issue.

    • That’s possible. Certainly some of the younger women I see around campus could benefit from a pair of tights.

    • Brit Chick :

      Has anyone ever told your friend what her clothes look like to other people (too tight, too short and showing her lady parts!)?

  9. The only time I can think of when I had to blatantly ask someone not to wear skirts and dresses was because this particular person wouldn’t be mindful of how she was sitting. I had to have the same discussion regarding pinning certain tops or wearing camis so she wouldn’t flash people. It was especially awkward because she was my boss at the the time.
    I did have a boss tell me that I couldn’t wear skirts without nylons because I was too pale once…

    Unless it’s a safety hazard, which it doesn’t appear to be, then don’t stress it!

  10. Anon in MA :

    Seriously? Kat, I think you’re way off base here. Any workplace environment, especially one that’s creative and business casual is an appropriate setting for a skirt or a dress. The supervisor is leaving. What can she do to punish the letter writer? Probably not much. I’d keep wearing what I feel comfortable in. And jeans to work? I wouldn’t feel comfortable in those, at all, just because of how they look on me. And an A line skirt can be perfectly flattering especially on a plus size woman such as myself. I have a small waist and big hips/but, so an A line skirt with a fitted blazer or a cardigan looks really good, much better than a pencil skirt or even pants that gape at the waist.

  11. Black Heather :

    I would not wear skirts or dresses in the workplace because I think showing your calves is unprofessional. Men have their legs fully-covered, and if anything women’s legs are considered more attractive, so there is all the more reason not to draw attention to them in a professional setting. To me it’s the same as not showing cleavage. I do realise this is a minority viewpoint here.

    • “I do realize this is a minority viewpoint here.” – well, I’m glad that we got that straightened out!!!!

      mind blown.

    • …Ellen…?

      • Exactly! I thought Reader A could be some version of Ellen! Or maybe her manager is Ellen, promoted?! I can’t remember Ellen’s position on skirts. She does have a nice Tuchas though.

        Business clothing is inherently unfair in many ways. Men often must wear ties. Woman have many more blouse options than men. Men must wear pants, women can wear skirts or pants. Overall, women have more options than men in clothing. The consequence, however, is that everyone gets to have a judgmental opinion on women’s clothing. To butch, too feminine, skirts are too dressy, pants aren’t dressy enough, high heels are mandatory, high heels are too sexy, long skirts are too weird/conservative, shorter skirts are too sexy, must wear hose, must not show panty lines. . .

    • Oooooooooooooooooo I wouldn’t want to *distract* a man with my saucy calves.

      I really *should* be required to modify all of my *my* behavior because some men can’t control theirs.

      Yeah, that sounds fair and like I’m living in an egalitarian society.

      Sarcasm off.

    • I plan to distract all the men with my saucy calves so that they make many mistakes and I rise to the top.

    • Anonymous :

      I think showing your jaw is unprofessional, and men have more attractive jawlines than women, so all men should be required to wear balaclavas in the office.

      • lots of hilarious posts in this thread, but this might be my favorite. i’d take it one step further — cheekbones need to be covered, men must wear full face ski masks.

    • Ok, I kiiinda get where this poster is coming from. I’m very careful about the situations in which I’ll wear a sleeveless sheath by itself. The men in my field are always in full suits, and a sheath, even a professional wool one, doesn’t hit the same formality note.

      Think of all those female Fox News anchors sitting around a couch in their dresses with arms and legs (and more often than not, thighs) showing vs. their male counterparts on the same couch wearing a full suit. It does send a sexism message.

      But I still wear a dress or skirt suit to work every day.

    • Anonymous :

      Geeze people are mean on here. “Why can’t we all get along?!”
      I *kind of sort of* see where Black Heather is coming from. Dressing feminine does in some work environments make you stand out as “other.” I think in certain situations (especially where there aren’t a lot of female role models, and there might be some cultural biases around females moving up the food chain) unfortunately it’s still better to wear well tailored tasteful female versions of the male uniform (button downs, blazers, pants, etc.) IMHO.

      To each his own…

      • Yeah, sorrynotsorry I respond harshly to sexist ideas. I don’t have to *get along* with sexism.

        “Dressing feminine does in some work environments make you stand out as “other.”

        Challenge your assumption here: that women in some work environments are “other.” This assumption is problematic. This viewpoint may exist, but I’m not going to accept that as ok and tailor all of my choices accordingly.

        “unfortunately it’s still better to wear well tailored tasteful female versions of the male uniform”

        But what if this uniform shows off the curve of my butt? Or my b00bs? Or my waist? All of which are probably more “attractive” than my calves. See the problem here?

        • Anonymous :

          Whether you like it or not, women in some workplaces are still viewed as the odd ones out. Sticking your butt and boobs and calves in everyone’s face isn’t going to force feminism on the male hegemony. Good luck with that approach.

          • Well, the approach of trying not to stick out isn’t working either, so perhaps it’s time for us to wear our sheath dresses, do good work, and not allow males in the workplace to treat us differently because of it.

  12. I think that skirts and dresses aren’t inherently “professional” or “unprofessional,” since there’s such a wide range of styles out there. Heck I rarely wear pants to work! I agree that there are certain fashion statements that are probably too girly for the office, and others that may be danger zones depending on where you work, but to outright say that women should wear pants in order to be taken seriously as professionals is absurd and borderline sexist – it implies that being female is unprofessional.

  13. Gosh, as someone who wears skirts and dresses exclusively, I can’t imagine what I’d do / say in response to this. I’d need an Ellen-style clothing budget as I don’t have a single pair of pants in my wardrobe.

    • lawyerinChi :

      Me, too! Also, I have a very high waist and very full thighs–if the pants are not basically yoga pants, they don’t fit me and aren’t comfortable, so given my shape/weight/height, I appear much more professional and appropriate in a skirt than trousers.

  14. This is ridiculous. At one time, all that was appropriate for women to wear were dresses/skirts. Now it’s “too feminine?” We just can’t win.

    That said, I think there is a time/place for both pants and dresses. Making sure they are conservative enough, etc. is crucial in the office. I work in a casual environment, but still try to be conscious of my outfits.

    Thanks for sharing!


  15. I work in tech. In my previous position, dresses and skirts were not acceptable. Also wool pants. Casual was taken very seriously and this is frequently the case in the industry. I have changed jobs and now can wear whatever I want. I immediately went back to skirts and dresses because I look best in them. So should your reader.

    • Anon in MA :

      No wool pants? What if you’re cold? Or live in a northern climate? Were there wool investigators touching fabric to tell? LOL

      I worked from home for several years at a digital advocacy organization. When it came time for a video call, I’d remember to put a bra on. One coworker would do calls in a nice shirt and boxers. When we got together, most people were extremely casual in jeans and t shirts. But I like to dress nicer in capris, dresses, or nice pants/shirts. Maybe a t shirt with a blazer. I would have had a serious problem with people saying that was too dressy.

      Plus, it came in handy. My executive director would show up to formal meetings in khakis with a button down and sweater. Totally inappropriate when everyone else was wearing suits. I don’t think he even owned a suit.

    • What the heck is wrong with wool pants? Did they have someone go around checking fabric content labels?

  16. Wow, mean girl alert! I doubt her Macy’s and Lane Bryant apparel is making her look like Jessica Rabbit. Manager has issues – and yes, sometimes middle-aged women are the worst to younger women.

    Reader A didn’t become a firmly established professional by dressing like a hussy. But her manager might be insecure.


  17. elizabeth :

    these sort of posts really irritate me. not because of poor reader a. but because it seems like we (ie women) are what we wear, which is ridiculous. it’s true, i’ll grant, that impressions go a long way (particularly in the business world), but there is such a thing as overthinking and stressing about things that are just. not. important. my point is–i HIGHLY doubt there are any men sitting around thinking about whether to wear the casual polo shirt, or the casual linen shirt. wear what makes you feel confident. stop worrying about your clothes and focus on your work. and for the love of pete, stop brow beating other women about their style choices.

    end. rant.

  18. I think what is considered “Work Appropriate” is no longer a no brainer for most people. I work as a consultant in accounting. Every single day, I’m surprised at what people wear to work. I see girls in skin tight short skirts that show half of their thigh. I personally would never wear this to work, but there are certainly a lot of women in their early 20s who do not understand that this is wildly inappropriate. I also see people wear white sheer blouses with a black bra. I’ve seen girls wear pencil skirts so tight, I can tell exactly what kind of underwear they are wearing. I’ve seen tops or blouses that are right for weekend wear, and not for the office, at work. Also, if you are wearing those heels to the club, those are most likely not appropriate for the office. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but I see an awful lot of sundresses or clubwear at the office these days.

    Personally, I never wear pants to work. I can’t find pants that fit me decently. So skirts and dresses are my only option. I never want anything shorter than about 2 inches above the knee, and I make sure no one can tell what kind of undergarments I’m wearing. I’ve bought a few dresses that I had to donate because the material is simply too thin. Thin fabric has overrun the market, as has sheer. It’s cheaper to have thin and sheer garments mass produced. Sitting down, pull your skirt or dress so that your legs are still covered, just because you’re sitting down doesn’t mean you can sit without a care…

  19. Anonymous :

    My boss has a no skirts rule (which includes dresses): no skirts to court or client meetings. He has lots of reasons he thinks are valid for prohibiting skirts in these environments, including that old men judges will look at 30-something-year old legs and it’s not worth taking the risk that a judge or client takes even a second to think about your legs (even just from the knee down).

    Stupid? Yes. Sexist? Yes. Do I really care? No. I just freaking wear pants if I go to court or a client meeting with him. This has minimal effect on my life. Quite frankly, I cannot understand the outrage here. Oh, and I am an employment lawyer.

  20. Anonymous :

    I wonder if the reader’s manager is just passing on her insecurity about being a woman in the workplace? I work in a construction/engineering field, so I wear pants 99.99% of the time, since there’s always a chance I’ll be called out to a construction site during the day. I can’t wear skirts/dresses to construction sites, just like the men of our company can not wear shorts at construction sites. It’s also possible all the women in our department wear pants because it’s a highly male-dominated field and we subconsciously wear pants to ensure that we give off the impression that we’re tough as the guys. *shrugs*

    For a creative company… there’s really no good reason for the manager to say that to her subordinate.

    • MissDisplaced :

      Pants fan here.
      I’m not sure it’s a “tough as the guys” vibe, but more of a COMFORT and practical point. Pants are generally more practical, in that you can bend over, move, squat, jump, and such things without worrying about showing skin or panty or the wind blowing, etc., etc. But I also get that some say for them skirts are more comfortable or fit better.

      I don’t believe either skirts or pants are more “professional” than the other, so I never got why the skirt suit is still considered to be the de facto uniform for court and higher level functions for women.

  21. Cream Tea :

    Unless the OP was dressing inappropriately and the manager couldn’t think of a PC way to break the news and instead went for this approach, this makes no sense. Period. Wear what you want, within the confines of office appropriate attire and spend your days killing it at your job instead of wondering what someone thinks of your outfit. It reflects far more poorly on our gender when we obsess over these minor, and frankly, harmful, issues, when we should be focusing our attentions on what matters.

  22. Okay…maybe this is too much information but I feel more comfortable in tailored dresses and skirts because I think they are more modest. Pants can fit around your curves and if you’re trying to hide your femininity, I don’t think pants are that great of an option. Pants hug your behind, hug your hips and thighs and if it’s not lined or the wrong fit, gives you a [email protected] toe which is a definite no-no. Sometimes pants wrap around the little tummy and throws everything off. Instead of pulling attention away from your gender, it seems to pull attention to your gender. I prefer skirts and dresses (at the right fit) that just drapes over my body.

    • MissDisplaced :

      For me, skirts get too short when I sit and they twist around or ride up my butt. They just don’t fit me right, and I feel like I can’t bend or move or walk in them. But to each their own.

  23. Boardroom Belles :

    What I find particularly baffling is that rule only applied when the manager was “in town” …

    • Anonymous :

      Frankly, the manager’s real problem with Reader A wearing skirts or dresses probably had to do with the fact that she didn’t want Reader A getting more attention than her (and thus feeling upstaged). Why else would she object only when she was in town, as opposed to out of it?

      Typical Queen Bee BS.

  24. I work in an office where the dress code is ‘smart’. My preference is for skirts and dresses, but some girls wear pants. Recently the officer manager felt that the dress code was not being observed and sent an e-mail to all the girls pointing out some lapses. Top of the list was wearing a coloured bra that showed through the blouse. Others were tight or short skirts making knickers visible; tops coming away from skirts or pants showing flesh. My pet hate is a woman wearing a waist skip under a dress which becomes all too visible when reaching up for a file from a high shelf.

  25. It all depends on the circumstances. I am a partner in a law firm. It is essential that my colleagues and I look smart and professional. I wear a skirt suit or a dress and jacket. The colours have to be sober and so it is grey, navy or black. My preference is for grey which I can lighten with a soft pink blouse or discreet jewellery. Last summer my assistant, Sarah, came in one day in a sleeveless yellow dress and no tights. When I expressed mild disapproval she said that she had no clients that day but was doing paperwork. Then there was a crisis, one of her clients had been served with an injunction and Sarah had to arrange an immediate meeting. I had to sit in on the meeting to reassure the client. Sarah learnt from that.