2018 Update: We still stand by this advice on whether you can wear a dress and blazer instead of a suit; you may also want to check out our Ultimate Guide to Business Casual. In related news, we just had a discussion on where to find suits with dresses instead of skirts, as well as a discussion on how to wear a black dress with non-matching blazers.
Is an outfit composed of a blazer and a dress an acceptable substitute for a suit? Reader B wonders how to mix dresses with blazers for a fairly conservative space (the DA’s office):
I start work at a DA’s Office next month, and I’m trying to round out my work wardrobe. My difficulty is this: I despise pant and skirt suits. (Yes, I recognize they’re a necessary evil and yes, I own several.) I vastly prefer to wear work-appropriate dresses (always with sleeves) with blazers that I can throw on when I need to go to court.
How do I go about matching blazers with dresses? Must they come as a set? Be the same fabric? What about colors and necklines? Basically, I have a closet full of gorgeous work dresses, but I need more blazers if I want them to work at the new job.
Hmmmn. Reader B, you’re definitely going to have to learn the ropes at your office before you buy any more dresses, because in some very conservative offices — with some judges — a dress with a blazer on top is likely not going to cut it in terms of formality. Hopefully this won’t be the case where you are, but I really caution you to play it conservatively for the first month or so and wear the separate pant and skirt suits you own, and the few matching sets (dress + blazer) that you own.
As for how to mix a dress and blazer otherwise for work:
- Make sure your blazers are loose enough to allow you to wear sleeves beneath them. One of the main reasons so many sheath dresses are sleeveless is because no one likes that bunchy look of sleeves stuffed in blazers, particularly when a knit collides with a knit. So, when buying blazers to wear as a separate, I’d make sure they’re a) loose enough for sleeves, and b) lined if you plan on wearing them with knit dresses. (I love ponte dresses as much as the next person, but I always think the sleeves are super bunchy beneath anything but the loosest top layer.) You may even want to take your blazers to a tailor to see if they can add lining if that’s an issue.
- Look for dresses with thicker fabrics. They resist wrinkling, hide undergarments, and generally have a more structured look, which helps them pair better with blazers, as guest columnist Yuli Ziv wrote when she described her perfect office dress. The ideal fabric to look for here is a tropical wool, but thicker pontes and various polyester blends can also help. I’d avoid silk and jersey dresses if this look is supposed to be comparable to a suit.
- If your dress and blazer do not match, make sure it looks intentional by wearing blazers that have a distinct fabric or color. To wear a blazer as a separate, look for neutral ones with texture — tweed, boucle, a thicker wool than tropical, a nubby silk… or look for colorful ones that pair well with your neutral dresses.
- Obviously: the dress should be totally appropriate on its own. Appropriate hem length, appropriate neckline, not too tight, not too loose.
Readers, what are your thoughts? Do you think that in some places a blazer + dress will be acceptable in court? What guidelines should Reader B follow when looking for blazers and dresses to pair together?
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