2018 Update: We still stand by this advice on the best summer work clothes and how to look professional when it’s hot— links have also been updated below. You may also want to check out our our latest discussion on what to wear to work in the summer.
What should you wear — and not wear — to look professional (and stay cool) when it’s hot outside? Which summer work clothes are the best? We’ve recently gotten two reader questions on the issue. First up, Reader M wonders:
Hi. I’m 30 years old. I am a rock and roller. Meaning that I work in the music industry. In the past my job was to chaperone the concert site. I was very good at my job. Got a new job in Orlando, FL, that has me now working at a desk. I am now a supervisor. I came into this job in the fall so I had some leftover black wool slacks, nice dark wash denim, and black sweaters to get me through. It’s now almost spring (feels like summer) and I don’t know how to do professional for summer. I work in a business casual environment, which helps. I like to keep all of my color in accents like purses, shoes, scarves, etc. I wear monochromatic. It’s my signature and super versatile when starting a new wardrobe. Can you advise cuts, fabrics, etc. of office appropriate summer wear for a newly professional, young lady like myself that’s trying to beat the heat without looking like a concertgoer?
Reader T also wonders:
I am heading to D.C. from California this summer for a legal externship, and am in need of advice on the dress code in the legal world when it’s 95 degrees. I worked on the Hill for several years and (sadly) recall a lot of flip flops and sundresses during the hotter months. I imagine that this won’t be the case in a legal setting/government agency, but I would love some basic outfit formulas, fabric suggestions (is tweed taboo?), and other ideas for a 30 yr. old to look like a lawyer while fighting the humidity and sticking to a budget.
In terms of outfit formulations, my go-to looks are boring, but they’re classic for a reason: think sheath dresses plus a blazer (to be added once you’re inside), and nice, lightweight trousers (look for cotton or cotton blends) with a nice tee and a classic pair of pumps (and ideally a matching blazer). As we’ve noted before, natural fabrics like cotton, silk, and linen are going to breathe a lot more than non-natural fabrics, so do pay attention to that when buying new pieces. (Also: pay attention to the laundry instructions. That $20 pair of pants starts to look less appealing — and less of a deal — when they start to smell to high heaven after two wears and the only way to launder them is to get them drycleaned.)
We’ve talked about how to stay cool during a heatwave, but here are a few fast tips for cooling down quickly (or to stay cool enough to avoid completely wrecking your clothes):
- a simple fan, carried in your purse or bag — yes, you’re expending more energy as you fan yourself, but the bit of a breeze can be amazing if you’re stuck on a hot subway platform
- an ice-cold can of soda, held against the inside of your wrist, the back of your neck, or even the back of your knees
- convenient ice packs — there are even necklaces designed to be iced and worn!
An opening caveat: As we’ve noted in previous discussions, this is very much a “know your office” situation. If you’re working at a NEW office, though, or are still learning your office, you should wait until you see someone significantly more senior than you break these rules before you consider it “office culture.” (For example: if you’re a summer associate at a law firm and see a first-year associate wearing sandals, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ok for everyone to wear sandals.) It’s a bit of a spectrum, but here’s my list:
Probably not ok…
- Sandals of any kind (shoes that expose at least three toes per foot)
- Shorts (and yes, despite our April Fool’s shorts suit roundup a year ago, we do include short suits on the list of NO)
- Completely wrinkled clothes (linen has its own challenges, but it shouldn’t look like you balled it up, packed it in a suitcase, and then decided to wear it)
- Short skirts — there is a spectrum here, but for business it really should be as close to your knee as possible!
- Spaghetti-strap tank or other top that makes no effort to hide bra straps (or worse, requires you to wear a strapless bra)
- Off-season items such as heavy tweed, boucle knits, thick wool trousers (but the thin, light seasonless wool is, you know, seasonless).
- Tights are probably not ok… but pantyhose may be required. (See below.)
- Cleavage of any kind. If at any point you look down during the day and see your bra, you need a camisole. (You may want to check out some of the newer demi camisoles if the idea of another layer makes you swelter).
Probably ok except in the most conservative of places, but KNOW YOUR OFFICE (and your situation — I wouldn’t wear any of the below on my first day or a day with a big meeting)…
- Peep toe pumps (a bit of toe exposed)
- Bare arms (i.e., sheath dress or nice top with bra straps fully covered)
- Cropped pants — in the almost 6 years of this blog’s existence, they’ve gone from being rare (in our 2008 poll, 65% of people agreed that they were inappropriate for work) to commonplace (in our 2012 poll only 20% of people hesitated to wear them to the office). Last year we even gave advice on how to wear ankle pants to work! Six years is a long time for fashion, but a short time for conservative offices… so if you wear them, wear them with caution.
- Bare legs. This varies HUGELY by office and by region — in most places, I’d guess, it’s a “of course you don’t have to wear pantyhose every day!” situation — but on Big Days in a lot of places (court appearances, client meetings), they may be expected.
Ok in all places, I’d guess:
- Sleeveless dresses, tops, tees, and blouses, worn with a blazer or cardigan
- Sleeved dresses, tops, tees, and blouses, worn by themselves
We’ve also talked more about how to build your wardrobe for a summer internship, with what I think is still a solid list of the minimum pieces you should buy.
Readers, what are your go-to outfits for the summer? What fabrics and styles do you avoid?
Picture below via Stencil.