Trends and the Conservative Office


2016 Update: We still stand by the general advice in this article — but you may also want to check out our latest discussion on trends to NOT wear to work.

What trends can a younger woman safely wear to work?  You don’t want to dress too “old” — but you also doesn’t want to appear too trendy and/or in styles that are inappropriate for workwear. How do you find a balance so that you look professional without feeling like you’re wearing someone else’s clothes? Reader K wonders…

Would you be interested in doing a feature directed at the youngest of your audience? 23-26yo females? This would be regarding the interface between young/trendy and office appropriate. While a lot of the items TPS features are great-looking, I can also see a way in which it might be premature for a younger demographic to be shopping in those styles. I would like to look dignified, for example, but not necessarily older than I aHow to Know Which Trends to Avoid at Work | Corporettem.

This is a great question. The conservative office is all about the classic, chic look — you will always be well served to have a crisp white blouse, a simple sheath dress, a pair of great pumps, and a well-tailored blazer and matching skirt and pants. That said, there do exist trends within those relatively narrow boundaries, and THOSE are the trends that I think you can experiment with, without too much fear that they make you look inappropriate. So let’s dig in.

First, let’s define the kind of trend we’re NOT talking about for a conservative office:

  • It is never body baring (that crop top will have to wait for the weekend). It never exposes skin (or makes someone else worried it’s suddenly going to). It is not reminiscent of the boudoir in any way (so I really don’t like lace for the office, for example). So even though I’ve seen some killer dresses with bared backs lately (I mean, c’mon!) I’d stay away from them for work. Also — I have seen kimonos listed in the same category as blazers on store websites, and I haven’t been able to figure out how I feel about them — but I think they go in the inspired-by-the-boudoir category for work.
  • It can be a “new look” — as long as it’s been around for about five years. For example, over the knee boots have only been a big thing for a year or two (unless you are actually a pirate), and the track pant trend is way too new for the office. Be particularly wary of thinking something is OK for work just because a brand that you normally associate with work attire is selling it. I was at a party recently and a young, cool female partner was griping to me about having to reprimand younger associates about track pants. “I don’t care that they’re Theory,” she quipped. (Also on her list of no-nos: the top knot.)
  • It never defies logic.  The peep toe bootie, the hi-low dress, the jumpsuit, the culotte… no, no, no, no. If you work in fashion, great; wear harem pants and kimonos with a crop top and go to town — but if you work in law or for a bank, it is perhaps ill advised.

So here are the kinds of trends that we’re actually talking about being acceptable for work, then (although, of course, KNOW YOUR OFFICE):

  • Colorblocking — it’s been a big trend for a few years now and continues to be strong
  • Colors — for example, the color of the year is Marsala
  • Collarless blazers are more modern than classic blazers (see the Theory suit we were discussing yesterday)
  • Peplum (this detail on blazers, blouses, and even dresses has been super hot for a few years now)
  • Ankle pants for casual days
  • Fit and flare dresses
  • I’m seeing a trend for mesh, which I think is more inspired by the activewear trend and not lingerie — approach with caution, but I think it can be all right, as in this dress
  • Any trend inspired by menswear is usually OK — e.g., oxfords, loafers, the gingham that’s everywhere right now (I love this drapey gingham blouse)…

Pictured below, clockwise:  OTK boots, gingham blouse, kimono, loafers, crop toptrack pants


If you think I’m crazy, check out some of the comments on posts where we’ve talked about fairly mild trends like braids, ankle pants, or even our recent post on the crossbody bag. Another post that may be helpful to you as you weigh these issues: our discussion on “empowering clothes” vs. dressing for power.

Readers, what are your thoughts — what trends are acceptable for a conservative office? Do you agree with my rough breakdown?



N.B. These substantive posts are intended to be a source of community comment on a particular topic, which readers can browse through without having to sift out a lot of unrelated comments. And so, although of course we highly value all comments by our readers, we’re going to ask you to please keep your comments on topic; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. Thank you for your understanding!


  1. I’m impressed that you found a dress with mesh that is, indeed, office-appropriate (though I think the effect might be muted or ruined by a blazer or cardigan).

    Despite the exposed zipper, that is a really nice dress.

  2. This is a great topic, Kat! I think it all depend’s on the type of busness you are in. If you are in an artsey field, then a young woman can dress VERY fashionabely, and even provocativley. On the OTHER hand, if you are in a CONSERVATIVE field, like law, you should be CONSERVATIVELY DRESSED, even if you are ONLEY in your 20’s. It does not change once you start to get older, or a partner, like me. Even when I was young, I was carful NOT to dress to provocativley b/c I alway’s was concerned that men would be to grabbey, either my boobie’s or my tuchus. And that would even be worse when I was young, then now, when I am in my MID 30’s, and a partner. I see that less men are interested in me now for MARRAGE then when I was in my 20’s. FOOEY!

    I think the rule should be: THINK where you are working and whether you are worried that men could get to grabbey. To maximise your look, dress as provocativeley as you can SHORT of induceing men to grab or worse. But as long as your manageing partner is OK with your clotheing, you should be OK. YAY!!!!!

  3. I think if you’re 23-26, take your professional fashion cues from J.Crew or J.Crew Factory. They’re not dowdy, they’re just classic. You won’t look like you’re playing dress up in your mom’s closet. And if they sell it in the **suiting section** of their website, you’re pretty safe as far as trends go. (Notice that I did not say “follow what their models are wearing,” because they are often wearing ridiculous things.)

    I would take care with fit and flare dresses. I think many of them look too twee for the office. The younger ladies here wear the ones that hit a few inches above the knee, and it always makes me think of little girl party dresses. Combined with their long sorority girl hair they haven’t yet learned how to do anything with, it’s just a really young look that doesn’t inspire confidence.

    PS to the universe – does anyone else not get how colorblocking is a trend? It’s just wearing solids!

    • Anonymous :

      I laughed at your sorority girl hair comment because I am a 38 year old woman that wears her hair pretty long because I haven’t figured out what to do it “yet.” Ironically, in college, it was short (the “Rachel,” of course), but every time I’ve chopped it as a grown-up, I’ve deeply regretted it. So I continue to wear it long (to my bra band). Its healthy and (usually) clean.

    • Must be Tuesday :

      This is good advice.

    • Anonymous :

      OMG JCrew is the definition of dowdy.

  4. Killer Kitten Heels :

    I think one of the best ways to “show your age” when you’re on the younger side in a conservative office is through accessories. Sure, I’m in the same black skirt suit and silk shell as the senior partner, but she’s wearing classic pearls and I’ve paired my outfit with a long layered necklace or a trendy-ish scarf or my wine-colored pumps in place of classic black. I also get “trendy” with my hair – right now, a dark brown asymmetrical pixie cut with semi-hidden purple highlights. It’s subtle and not at all office-inappropriate, but it’s also not usually a haircut seen on a 60 year old (although any 60 year old who rocked my haircut would be extra-cool, as far as I’m concerned).

    To me, what “ages” most classic workwear is almost always how it’s accessorized, not the clothing itself.

    • Semi-hidden purple highlights sound cool… but also not necc. conservative office…

      • Killer Kitten Heels :

        It’s hard to explain in writing, but it’s never been an issue, and I work in a conservative field in an even-more-conservative office (and they hired me like this, and I had my hair like this at a prior, similarly formal workplace that also didn’t have a problem with it). A good stylist can make this work.

  5. By top knot, are you referring to the hairstyle? That doesn’t bother me as much. What do others think? Unprofessional?

    • Wildkitten :

      They remind me of high school sports.

    • Depending on the level of messiness, top knots look like weekend wear or formal wear. Not business wear. Low buns FTW.

    • Anonymous :

      I have no problem with top knots. Headbands, on the other hand, always scream childish to me

      • Anonymous :

        I’m the opposite. I think the most important point in the article is “does not defy logic.” Headbands are logical, because they’re useful for keeping hair out of your face. Top knots are NOT logical, because they’re significantly less practical than a normal bun. My head hurts just thinking about having a lot of hair precariously balanced on top of my head…

    • Pretty Primadonna :

      I’m unbothered by topknots at work in a business casual environment. I would not feel comfortable with this hairstyle in a super-conservative office, though.

    • Meg Murry :

      I once heard someone on thiss!te refer to a trend of wearing sock buns that looked like “a bagel on top of your head” – if that is what you are referring to, or any of the messy buns on top of your head, I say not professional. Low buns or maybe ballerina style back of the head – ok. Bagel or bird’s nest or braided coil of rope on the top of your head – not professional outside of creative offices, IMO.

  6. Sydney Bristow :

    I’m in a biglaw office in NYC that isn’t super conservative, but I’ve seen the younger associates wearing ankle pants and some wear colored or printed pants on Fridays. That and accessories seem to work well around here for trends.

    What took me by surprise today was walking past a conference room where there were 3 men in suits and 1 woman wearing leggings and a long blouse. I think that is pushing things too far regardless of where you fall on the leggings as pants issue. If she were wearing normal dress pants or even perhaps black ankle pants it wouldn’t have jumped out at me even though she still would have been less casual than the men.

    • anon-oh-no :

      Im in biglaw in Chicago and I wear ankle pants almost every day that I am not wearing a skirt/dress. including with suits and including to court. [For example, I have the j.crew super 120s navy pinstripe suite, which now has an ankle length pant option. its a true ankle pant (not a capri), so i see no reason not to wear this classic suit with a modern twist anywhere i would wear the suit with the regular length pants.

      [I also wear headbands a lot, though likely wouldn’t wear one to court and i wear lace without thinking twice]

      I hate big categories of “no, nos” think with just about anything, its about the rest of your outfit and how you wear it. If you are put together and carry yourself well, its unlikely anyone is going to think you look anything other than great.

      • I’m in biglaw in DC and even in our not very conservative office ankle pants are not allowed per the dress code. That said the dress code is not adhered to strictly.

  7. Biz Cas Anon :

    So relevant! Yesterday, at my fairly conservative business to business casual office, one of our mid-level employees was wearing leather (pleather?) leggings with a long blouse. She was pulling it off based on her personality, but it was a surprise!

  8. Anonypotamus :

    Stop trying to make marsala happen.

  9. Anonymous :

    Over the knee boots have been a thing for 5+ years. Maybe it’s just in the last year or two that they are everywhere, but fashion-y people have been wearing them since 2010 or so.
    I think you can’t judge by how long the trend has been around. As a young, junior person you have to take cues from other women in the office. If they’re wearing a trend you can too. Otherwise stick to classics. Much better to risk being slightly dowdy or frumpy than to wear something inappropriate.

    • I’d even say they’ve been around since way before 2010 – one of Anne Hathaway’s outfits in The Devil Wears Prada includes them (my favourite one, with the blazer)

  10. TO Lawyer :

    I’ve struggled with this a lot, as I’ve been working in a law firm for almost 4 years and I’m relatively young (and look that way) and petite, so it’s hard to strike a balance between youthful and professional without being too trendy. I work with a lot of men in their 50s so I don’t want any of my trends to confuse them and make them think too hard about what I’m wearing.

    My office is probably somewhere between business formal and business casual for the lawyers. I don’t wear suits generally but I wear a lot of blazers. I try to choose blazers that are professional but with interesting details to make them a bit more modern. I do like collarless blazers for this.

    I agree with the accessories suggestion – I wear a lot of chunky or long necklaces. Shoes can also help. I wear a lot of shoes that while professional, are more interesting than black round-toe pumps – either colours, or t-straps/ankle straps. I also have a cute pair of lace-up oxford-like heels that I get a lot of compliments on.

  11. Brunchaholic :

    You can pry my track pants out of my cold dead hands. I wouldn’t wear them to meet a client, but why the hell not provided that:

    a) they are a conservative color (navy or black)
    b) they are a conservative suiting-type fabric (as opposed to cotton or something very shiny)
    c) the rest of the outfit is toned down
    d) it’s a normal, run-of-the-mill day at the office

    Don’t get me wrong, I wear tops that barely show my collarbone and I would die before wearing a top knot to work or even over-the-knee boots honestly. I just love my track pants.

    • Track pants must have a new definition now. I’m thinking the swooshy, shiny, navy blue elastic waist pants with the white Adidas stripes down the side that I wore over my uniform shorts when going to track meets.

      • Yeah – I’m wondering the same thing. Aren’t track pants an athletic wear item? I’m struggling to imagine track pants made out of a conservative suiting material.

        • I think now there is a fashion thing with pants in nice fabrics that are cut sort of like sweatpants… Loose-fitting but with sort of cinched-in ankles

  12. I don’t work in a conservative environment (and never did), so take this with as many grains of salt as you like. However, I (haven’t we all?) was once the youngest in a professional environment, and I feel like part of being young/entry level (or even just young and junior) is paying your dues. Including fashion.

    Your trendy clothes will make you stick out as young, and potentially all of the perceived bad things that go along with being young. I think that it is really better to pay your dues, so to speak, and wear the classic, timeless pieces. Accessorize, as others have pointed out, with necklaces, colored flats or tights, scarves, etc. Wear a classic pencil skirt with colored tights and heels or boots. Wear your dress pants with colored flats. Add a statement necklace or earrings or scarf to a suit. You will be perceived as mature, but not dowdy. You aren’t trying to play dress-up. You don’t need to.

    Once you do get more into your position at your office, and you get some years under your belt, I feel like, even in a conservative environment, you have some more flexibility with trends. You will have established yourself as competent, trustworthy and capable. I feel like, then you can express yourself through fashion trends a little easier without eliciting askance looks from coworkers. But, until then, pay your dues and let the fun fashion stay in the closet until the weekends.

  13. Coach Laura :

    You might also limit yourself to one “trendy” item per outfit. For example, I think that the gingham blouse that Kat posted would be ok with a pencil skirt, dressy pumps and a bold but not outrageous statement necklace but the same gingham blouse with cropped pants, and outré footwear, for example, might be too casual.

  14. I’m glad you give the OK to menswear-inspired stuff – my love affair with brogues is ongoing and I can’t see it ending any time soon. I also really like that they make me sound like a man when I walk – is that completely superficial? Probably.

  15. Mrs Grievous :

    If someone wore ankle pants at the first law firm I worked at I think the office manager would keel over. She once told a lady wearing an ankle length skirt that she wouldn’t be caught dead going out of the house in that outfit without pantyhose.

    I once accidentally wore leopard print mocassin style sherpa lined house shoes to my current job and my boss said she loved them. We’re not super conservative, but this lady is always beautifully dressed.

    I always think those boots look too piratey for the office, but I guess to each her own if your company allows it.

  16. I really do not understand the hatred towards ankle pants, but I guess my office is more casual- the men often wear khakis and a button down (or sometimes even a polo). I normally wear pencil skirts and a blouse (never a suit or blazer). I think it is definitely a know your office situation, though I’m not sure I would ever think twice about them. They have been around for years…

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