2021 Update: We still stand by this advice below, but you can also check out our more recent discussion on how to avoid professional frump.
We got this reader mail a little while ago, and it seems appropriate in light of the response to this morning’s cardi set (wow, you guys did NOT like that).
Here’s my question: What makes a work outfit frumpy or dowdy? Here’s why: I’m a 41-year old attorney with a private firm. My work wardrobe has evolved from that of a newbie lawyer wearing a skirt suit and hose every day to that of a more seasoned professional in an increasingly casual workplace.
My clothing spend has gone more toward the casual/funky/weekend and less toward classic suiting. I’ve recently moved to a larger law firm, and have taken a cold hard look at my professional wardrobe. With the help of a digital camera, I’ve come to realize that some of my old standards now seem downright frumpy. Those pieces will not be going back into my closet. The irony is that I’m earning more income than ever, but am having a difficult time finding professional pieces that I love. It’s like I’m having trouble figuring out how to dress my middle-aged professional self. So I ask: What mistakes do professional women commonly make that might be upping our frump factor?
A few of the answers I know: Failing to tailor clothes to fit our bodies, wearing our skirts too long and our pants too short, choosing “tan” hosiery. I also might need to break my addiction to shopping at discount places like Marshalls or TJ Maxx. At this point in my career, it’s probably time to be prepared to shell out the bucks for higher-end pieces.
Like we said: totally appropriate for today’s discussion. Some thoughts, off the cuff:
– Wearing clothes that don’t fit — too tight? too loose? not well proportioned for your body? — all of these are problematic.
– Wearing the wrong accessories. We get it if you don’t like 3-inch heeled stilettos. However, it’s incredibly difficult to look good in a pencil skirt without wearing these kinds of shoes. Which means you have two options: don’t wear pencil skirts, or wear them with stilettos. Similarly, a lot of women have a “set” jewelry wardrobe — they always wear the same necklace with the same earrings with the same watch with the same ring. That might be fine for the earrings and the watch, but that one necklace will not always be appropriate with every top. A simple pendant necklace might look great against the bare skin of a v-neck, a set of pearls might look great against a boatneck — and so forth. Be careful to reassess every outfit.
– Not knowing your body type. For example, the cardi this morning — which has a boxy fit and a shortish waist– might look great on a petite woman who doesn’t have much of a waist, whether because she’s heavyset or because she has a boyish figure. (That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.) On a tall woman, it would look horrible; almost juvenile. It would also look horrible on someone with curves.
Another example: There are many (maaaany) skirt suits that hit at the knee or just below and have a slight ruffle or kick-pleats at the back of the skirt. If you happen to have wide calves and/or wear low-heeled (or chunky) shoes, odds are that the ruffle/kick-pleat is making you look frumpy. (And is it just us, or is it difficult to find a skirt suit in which one’s butt looks good? We know, not the object of a suit, but still.)
– Wearing clothes and accessories that fit you in outdated ways — the single most classic example we can think of here are pants that fit you that are hemmed too short, or worn with heels that are too high for the pants.
– Sticking with trends of yesteryear. We just recently realized that a pointy-toed pair of expensive boots that we had bought a few years ago were, well, just too 2003. They have since gone into the closet, under the theory that we will take them out again when the trend returns, but in reality will completely forget about until we move.
If there is a defining look to a season — a color, a certain puff to the sleeve and/or shoulder pads — be sure to recognize when the season is done, and retire the piece of clothing appropriately.
– Frizzy hair. Look, we hate high maintenance beauty things, and we’re certainly not suggesting you dye your hair — but the sad fact (which we’ve been acquainted with since we were 26 (damned bar exam)) is that gray hairs stick up and refuse to lay down. In fact, we’re not even sure that dying your hair would fix this problem.
Take care to reassess your beauty regime and make sure that your hair is being conditioned properly and that, if necessary, you’ve added hair spray/other hair product to your regime.
– Hair that hasn’t been rethought in several years. You see this a lot with anchors on local tv — it’s as if they found one look that worked for them sometime in mid-95, and haven’t updated it in too long. Find a stylist you can trust who updates your hair accordingly. It might also help to find a celebrity doppelganger. (This was, as some of you may have noticed, all the rage on Facebook a week or so ago.)
As that person updates their hairstyle through the years, assess whether that look will work for you.
– Bad underwear. If you haven’t bought a new bra in several years… look into it, as those things stretch out over time. Get thee to a place where they do fittings, and get an appropriately-fitting bra.
All right, readers, do chime in — what are your thoughts on what makes something frumpy? How do you avoid the frump?
I’m surprised no one has mentioned this….
NOTHING is schlumpier and frumpier than poor body alignment – bad posture, hunched shoulders, walking duck footed (your toes pointing outward – I see A LOT of this), head down, shuffling stride, tense face/not smiling and/or sitting with legs splayed out. I don’t care WHAT you wear, if you don’t carry your body (and face) with grace, you will always look frumpy.
Really? Stilettos? I can’t imagine giving up pencil skirts just because I don’t wear stilettos. I’d wear three inch heels, but screw risking twisting my ankle for fashion!
Spike heels aren’t really work-appropriate for me in a field that often requires a good deal of running/walking around without any notice (journalism). While I’ve been known to pair pencil skirts with flats in a pinch, my more put-together option is a pair of black leather wedge pumps (https://www.ninewest.ca/product.asp?productid=9177).
They’re sturdier and more supportive than spike heels, yet the slim wedge and and almond toe are feminine and keep the skirt in proper proportion.
I suppose they may be a riff on the Kate Spade wedges that were declared the “Female Politician Shoe” in 2010 (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/24/nyregion/24bigcity.html). While mine aren’t quite as well-constructed as the Spades, I prefer the more delicate toe, the lower heel and the matte leather.