Guest Post: How to Wear Color to Work

Dressing with Color at the Office | CorporetteColor at the office:  We’ve talked about it in specific contexts — pants, suitsnails, tightsshoes, and even how to start buying colorful prints — and in today’s guest post, my old friend Theresa Lesh gives you some helpful guidelines on how to wear color to work. Theresa is one of the best dressed ladies I’ve known since high school — she actually has a background in fashion design and currently works at a creative products company in product development. A huge thanks for the tips, Theresa! – Kat.

I love color and am very picky about it — always have been. I LOVED my mega box of crayons and the range of hues it offered up: red-violet, magenta, violet-red, violet… and I used each one differently. I scoffed at red, blue, and green as basics and instead used brick red, midnight blue, and forest (or pine) green for cars, sky, or trees. Today I am still quite particular about specific tones or hues I prefer; however, I am much more open-minded, and even look at “odd” colors as challenges. With what other color could I pair that bizarre chartreuse to make it sing? What would be a great pop against a (drab) grey?

I admit going through a period of time where I wore all black — didn’t we all? But when I did, I always liked to choose one thing to accent/pop or stand out in a small way. Favorites were items such as a black Nicole Miller scarf peppered with all sorts of Barbie icons (shoes, lipstick, her iconic signature) which I still have (and wear) today, or floral patterned tights (typically worn under a long black skirt). I saw these things as private jokes with myself, as you could only see the Barbie icons when you were close to me, or the flowers on my tights when I sat down and crossed my legs. (Pictured: Nicole Miller scarf, available on eBay for $149.)

Over the years, I grew away from the all-black ensembles — I do still wear black, and sometimes head to toe, but not all day, every day — and I started to play with color in a bigger and bolder way. After college, I fell in love with lime green, which I think became my gateway to COLOR, as it opened my eyes to all sorts of fun, vibrant shades, and each year I get more and more adventurous and more and more colorful in my wardrobe. During the gray winters of Ohio, I feel as if bright color can be a fantastic pick-me-up, both for me wearing it and those that may pass me in the hall.

Granted, I work for a creative company, where one may see a mix of suits and ties to jeans and Chuck Taylors in a single meeting (though not TERRIBLY often), so while I am not IN the creative division, per se, there is probably more flexibility in my office than a “big law” firm. How far is too far with color? That is up to you, but it’s not to say you cannot make forays into color in a more conservative working environment.

If you want to experiment but are not sure where to start, take chances — start small. There are so many fun necklaces and earrings available at various price points, so you can easily get a great statement piece to “try it out.” If you are scared to commit, or don’t have the funds to commit, start at Charming Charlie’s or Francesca’s for a fun, chunky necklace in a bold color.

Scarves or pashminas are a GREAT way to add color, and it’s not as big of a color commitment since you can limit the wear for your trip into the office under a (black or tan) coat, or throw it on in your office if it gets cold. Plus, while scarves are “IN” now, they are always a classic accessory, depending on how they are worn. Whether you are looping it around your neck, using one as a belt or headband, or tying it to your purse, it can add a touch of fun and whimsy, and if your office is as cold as mine is, you’ll be glad to have that pashmina handy to wrap around your neck and shoulders while you shiver at your desk.

Once again, it doesn’t have to be a large financial commitment, especially if you are unsure of HOW MUCH color is right for you. I’ve grabbed some great shawls from street vendors in the city over the years, which I wear all the time (my favorites are either hot pink or bright orange) and get constant compliments. If you are a little more timid, there are plenty of pretty pastels out there that are soft, more neutral, and not as shocking.

Shoes are another great way to play with color. As Kat herself notes, purple is a great color shoe to pair with a navy suit. It starts the experimentation, and one day, you might find yourself wearing those purple shoes with a GREY suit. If you prefer flats, ballet flats come in a multitude of colors and patterns, offering great options for a bit of whimsy, especially if you choose a color or pattern that doesn’t completely match the rest of your ensemble. Leopard flats are great with all black as well as with colors like darker red or teal. It’s a way to have fun on a smaller scale away from eye level.

If you are a bargain hunter, look for sales on colorful shells or camis to wear under black or navy suits. A fun color can brighten up your face and your view of the day, especially when the winter is long and dark and gloomy. Reactions to others SEEING your pops of color can help change your attitude, because as they smile over the jelly bean colors, you can’t help but smile back. And over time, as you come to feel more comfortable experimenting, you’ll get a better feel for how far you can push it, how far you WANT to push it, and eventually, you may end up wearing kelly green cords and a pink plaid shirt (together!). Have fun with it!


* As always, this guest poster has been invited by Kat to post on a subject of interest to the community. We value having different and diverse voices here, and indeed part of the benefit of guest bloggers is broadening the dialog beyond Kat’s own views. To that end, please note that opinions expressed by guest bloggers, like opinions expressed in comments, do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Kat, Katfry LLC, or any of our sponsors or other contributors.

N.B. PLEASE KEEP YOUR COMMENTS ON TOPIC; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. 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 I highly value all comments by my readers, I’m going ask you to please respect some boundaries on substantive posts like this one. Thank you for your understanding!


  1. In the Pink :

    Above all, I would think about color saturation/intensity, knowing one’s color “wheel” (as in last Friday’s post I think), as well as scale and orientation/placement of the accent color.

    I’m all about color and have worn the 1980s black with pop of color. Yes Indeed John Molloy.

    I think the key is to know your color wheel and what is complementary to your complexion and then have a set of those colors in basics so you can insert color (color cardi, shoe, belt, shell, sweater, jewelry) in your favorite colors …

    For me, I have blue, purple, red, and pink in bold saturations in my closet to pair with white, black, grey, and navy neutrals.

    Love the OP’s comments about red violet, magenta, violet red, violet….all My favorites from Crayola days to now!

  2. (Former) Clueless Summer :

    Thoughts on not only color, but neon in the office? I saw a woman today in a light gray suit with neon shoes and a neon necklace and I LOVED IT but I wonder what people think of that. It’s such a trend right now. What about a navy suit with a neon silk shell as the poster suggests?

    • Veronica Mars :

      Hate it. HATE hate HATE neon. In all its forms. I think it’s best for traffic cones and supermodels.

    • Diana Barry :

      I saw a really cool navy dress the other day with neon green piping along top seams and a stripe at the bottom, and LOVED it. I think it needs to be worn sparingly though.

      • I love that combo of navy with neon green.

      • I have a grey dress with neon green piping and love it too. Just need to lose a few pounds so I can fit in it again.

      • I’m thinking of making a navy trenchcoat with neon green piping. One of my favorite Mad Men outfits is this navy suit Peggy wears which has really bright (almost neon) turquoise buttons.

    • I surprisingly love all the neon right now, but much more for athletic & casual wear. I think a little pop like piping, a stripe, accessory, or even one piece of an otherwise muted outfit is OK for the office. However, I wouldn’t personally wear it, just because I don’t typically buy work pieces that are trendy and may look dated quickly.

  3. Senior Attorney :

    I kind of feel like wearing color to work is like that thing you keep seeing on Facebook about having a “beach body:” 1. Wear color; 2. Go to work.

    Although I have to say I clicked on the scarf and I think the print is just awful for work… all that retro-looking-for-Prince-Charming imagery makes my toes curl!

  4. Posts like this baffle me, and I think that’s a regional/cultural thing. Maybe it’s because I’m from the south, but I have always worn a wide variety of colors to work without ever giving it a thought. Actually, one of the hardest things about dressing my pregnant self is how much of my wardrobe is black right now. It just seems so drab and unlike me.

    I probably wouldn’t wear a pink and green Lilly dress to work, but that’s because it’s casual, more than because it’s bright. I think as long as the cut and material of clothing is conservative, pretty much any color is fine. I particularly like pairing bright colors with navy. I have a bright pink wool blazer with navy piping from j. crew from a couple years ago that I love. I’ve always wondered why people don’t feel comfortable wearing colors. Are they afraid of someone noticing them? Maybe I’d be self-conscious about my love for colors if everyone around me wore black, but since I’m surrounded by other fairly colorfully dressed people (at a public accounting firm in the south) it doesn’t bother me.

    • AttiredAttorney :

      Same here. I have a hot pink sheath dress that I wear all the time, sometimes with a navy jacket, sometimes on it’s own in all its pink glory. Totally okay in my Southern office, too.

  5. I’m wearing a magenta cardigan over a mostly-navy dress with purple, green, brown, white, and magenta in the print. No color fear here! My shoes are, however, black. Boo hoo.

  6. I’ve been an all black woman at one point in my life but lately I’ve actually started feeling that color matters a lot at work. Power pink and power blue (electric kind) are my favorites for large meetings with a black jacket and tights to tone it down and make it simple. I’ve also been complimented that the colorful dressing energized the work environment and is a great thing. Of course one needs to stay in their own comfort zone and starting small is great advice. But corporate environments could do with a lot more powerful colors! Here are some of my examples:

    Seminar stage:

    Electric blue at the office by Vince Camuto:

    • Love the blue. Why do they make dresses clearly made for work with a big dip in the back! Banana Republic, I’m looking at you…

      • Exactly! Also odd cutouts and bling seems to be a thing with some brands even though the dress is clearly conservative and more work appropriate. I mean wearing color is one thing but deep dips at the back or front, bling or any cutout skin flashing is a whole other story – would not venture there.

  7. I’ve been on a hunt for printed/patterned blouses, since I have a lot of single color pencil skirts and cardigans or blazers without success. I mean there are plenty of patterned tops out there but somehow not quite what I’m looking for. (I don’t know what I’m looking for… I’ll know it when I see it)

    • My go to place for any printed clothes in Wallis, a UK store that ships worldwide I think. I do for more of their printed dresses – pretty much have a fixation on them – as they are a simple way to add color to a work outfit and there’s no need for accessories then. Quick to just slip on and throw a jacket over it.
      But they do have plenty of patterned blouses too in different cuts and their collection is quick changing.
      Love the age of digital printing :)[422010|334274]&noOfRefinements=1

      • Thanks Tina! I’m not familiar with this brand but definitely a lot of prints there I like! (Sorry for the late response, just came back to this after being really busy the last few days)

  8. I’m in New Zealand, where simply Not Wearing Black is both a staggering statement and a pretty difficult accomplishment, with the clothes in the stores. I’m with you on the lime green and magenta! And I’ve been working at making olive and navy my base neutrals, instead of black.

    I work in IT, surrounded by men dressed in black, gray, and blue. I do find that if I want to diverge into a more feminine silhouette at work (a dress, a full skirt) I feel more comfortable doing it in darker colors or neutrals.