What Makes a Sweater Appropriate for the Office?

Laurie B 'Retail' Cardigan When I look through stores for something to post for the morning’s TPS, I see a ton of sweaters that strike me as inappropriate for the office, and it’s surprisingly hard to put my finger on why. So I thought I’d start a discussion today: what makes a sweater inappropriate (or appropriate) for the office? (Pictured:  I just ordered this cardigan at the big Nordstrom sale going on today — here’s hoping it’s versatile enough for both the workday and the weekend! Laurie B ‘Retail’ Cardigan (was $128, now $75).

For my own $.02, I often pass up sweaters and cardigans that are
too chunky — while a really chunky cardigan can look great with leggings or jeans, it has to have a certain professionalism for the office, I think — either shaped like a blazer, or the ability to be belted
too “hot mama” — if the model is wearing it skin-tight, or if it dips too low in the front, then it may be better for a night out than for the workday…
too “holiday” — sequins, velvet, sparkly buttons — all of these things might be great to wear to an office holiday party, but not for the regular workday
too … schlubby — I don’t even know the word to define this! I think this is a common problem with longer sweaters, like the boyfriend sweater trend or the waterfall cardigan trend. For my purposes, I’ll often I try to imagine whatever sweater I’m considering with a pencil skirt or sheath dress… and then I try to imagine a teenager wearing it with leggings and Uggs. If it looks better on the imaginary Ugg-clad teenager, I generally pass it by…  The sweater I just ordered, for example, might be better for pairing with jeans on the weekend (but the positive reviews still made me add it to my bag)…

What are your thoughts, readers? What makes a sweater appropriate (or inappropriate) for the office?


  1. I’m particularly interested in what makes something “too chunky” — both in cardigans and in regular pullover sweaters, because I do think there is line here, but I’m not quite sure where it is. I love sweaters with texture and want to know which ones I can wear to the office. Right now, I err on the side of “little to no texture” unless its super-cold and I think that’s an excuse to get away with something. :)

    • I feel comfortable with texture – seed stitch/cables, provided it’s a finer gauge. For me, a thin cabled cotton or cashmere cardigan = work; classic Irish fisherman cabled cardigan = weekend.

      • Maybe it has to do with whether something will keep it’s shape during the workday? I often think of fisherman knits as getting very stretched out…

    • I think it also has to do with your frame/body type. I think of “too chunky” to mean something that looks really thick, heavy, and or baggy on you. This will vary depending on the person wearing it. But something that’s cozy and big to wear on weekends might look a little casual or even sloppy for work.

  2. Anonymous :

    I have a coworker who twice in the last week has worn sheer/ribbed sheer sweaters with nothing underneath except her bra. Now THAT’S inappropriate. I also don’t see how it keeps one warm…

    • Anonymous :

      I always wear a sweater next tot he skin to work as do most of the other girls in our office. I find it comfprtable and warm.

  3. Argh. Like most things on this site, it depends. Both on the sweater and on your workplace. If I was to identify a common theme in my “work appropriate” sweaters, it would generally be a fine gauge knit… Although I’ve worn “chunkier” knits to the office without complaint. What you wear underneath can make all the difference, I think. If I’m wearing a chunkier (think fisherman-type) knit cardigan, I wear a classic button down or cami underneath and keep the pants/skirt classic and tailored. A finer gauge knit (think the Jackie J.Crew cardigan) can be ok over more trendy, voluminous shirts. Oh, and turtlenecks should always, always be fine gauge if you wear to the office. If you can hide in the neck, it’s too much for the office.

  4. I almost purchased the following “seasonal” sweater . . . http://oldnavy.gap.com/browse/product.do?cid=60783&vid=1&pid=792309&scid=792309002.
    I envisioned wearing with a long sleeved black silk knit tee and my grey/black/white tweed pencil skirt.

    Of course, now that I have read some reviews, I realize it may be too ill-fitting . . but pretend it is not (gasp) synthetic, and not (Gasp!) from Old Navy — is it office appropriate for a 29 year old lawyer on a Friday at a firm??? thoughts?

    I like the snowflakes, but paused to question whether it was too old lady or tween!

    • Leather trim :

      Definitely not old lady or tween, but to me it screams “sitting at home by the fire sipping cocoa” rather than law office. That said, I’d probably still wear it on casual Friday. =)

    • I want to be wearing that right now! It looks so soft and warm.

      That said, I have a feeling that it’s the kind of thing that I would wear and start feeling like it wasn’t appropriate around about 10:30, and then have an all-day episode of feeling uncomfortable and awkward and wondering if I should just go buy a black cardigan from H&M to make it through the day.

      It could be perfect for the days leading up to the holidays, though, when people start wearing jeans and rolling suitcases around the office.

      • I totally see that with a black tissue turtleneck, dark wash trouser jeans, and some chic boots…but again, either on casual Friday or the days leading up to holidays, where people are in and out any way.

        I love those days, though I’m sure I can’t get away with it at my current job :(

      • Maybe a casual day, but the pattern is too rustic for a dressy office.

        It would be cute over a gray sweater dress.

    • I like it but it is definitely casual.

    • Anonymous :

      Way too casual for my office.

    • My first feeling was that it’s a bit too casual. But, upon further thought I think you can make it work if you really dress it up. For example, fantastic black pants, bold jewelry (esp earings), great hair, and delicate pumps with higher heels. I can also see it with a black skirt, crisp white button down (if that works with your figure – that’s be too much on top for me personally), burgandy necklace, and tights. It’s probably not Monday-formal, but I can see getting away with it mid-week if you really pump up the rest of the outfit.

    • This would be fine on casual Friday at my mid-sized firm, and probably during the week with some of the styling suggestions mentioned here, but my office is in downtown LA, where it seems like there’s a little more flexibility in terms of what’s appropriate.

  5. By the way, Kat, I purchased that cardigan last month. It lives in my office for those days when I am a bit chilled . . .

  6. Kind of love my law office. This would be fine. Could switch to a jacket if I needed to go to court,but with black trousers and a turtleneck or something similar, it’d be fine. Am 32 yro attorney.

  7. PSA: Bought and love this “swazer” Sweatshirt/Blazer from LL Bean. I am wearing it w/ a gray v-neck, black pants, and nice black shoes. I bought the green and it is perfect for work and home!


    • I should add – pretty casual office. Anything but jeans goes pretty much. The small is cute and fitted.

    • On that note — any other recommendations for sweater-blazers? Am looking for one or two to add to the mix. Am checking out the LL Bean one now.

  8. I think the sweater pictured would look too sloppy for my office (small law). I stick with fine gauge knit sweaters, nothing bigger/chunkier than the “cambridge cable” from J Crew. No prints either. And then I usually wear a jacket over bc all the men in my office wear suits most of the time.

  9. Gotta say, that looks more like a nice sweatshirt (saw a similar one at target I want) than something I’d wear to the office.

  10. Agree that the swazer looks like a sweatshirt… And something my grandma would wear

  11. Too casual for me. I prefer a blazer or tailored button down. It looks nice on the model, though.

  12. Just a thought: the long wrap/waterfall/scarf cardigans that look like you could wrap up in them like a snuggie at your desk seem a little innappropriate lol.

    • I…had no idea that these kinds of cardigans aren’t appropriate. I work in a business casual office and some of the guys around me wear fleece vests and jackets (yes, I know, it’s sad) and we have people who wear the Christmas/snowflake sweaters freely throughout the colder season. I don’t think these are inappropriate in my office but knowing that they would look unprofessional in more formal offices definitely makes me not want to wear them at work.

      • My office leans more formal and I totally wear this type of cardigan. I think the key is not to look schlumpy or overly drapey. The loose, flowy style can look a little too casual when paired with other loose, flowy items. But I love a long wrap cardigan tied over a pencil skirt or fitted sheath.

        • LOL @ the fleece vests.

          And I agree, it depends on just how drapey the sweater is. I was thinking of some coworkers who always look super-bundled up, like they could take a nap at their desk. One even uses an actual blanket sometimes to cover up with.

  13. Hmm. This is kind of a toughie. “Sweaters” or cardigans made of T-shirt material are probably not office-appropriate, and I’m totally with you on the sequins or holiday themes. Other than that, I think any sweater or cardigan that is a solid, dark color is probably fine for most offices.

  14. Big Firm Lawyer :

    The sweater pictured is really only going to work on thin ladies I think. I just stick to regular button-down cardigans. My office is business casual.

  15. So I’m wearing a tan/ camel knee-length, appropriate neckline button-up dress (it does look more work appropriate than I’m describing it here, in that it’s an actual dress and not a shirt trying to be a dress a la H&M) with a thin, slightly textured brown sweater over it, thinking I look alright for a wednesday w/o the bosses, and as I’m reading this, someone came in to give me some papers and asked if I was selling girl scout cookies. Shoot me.

  16. Parisienne :

    I think the cardigan that looks good in the office is the exception. I do like the “swazer” from LL Bean, would wear that to work. Anything that is droopy or floaty will look bad in the office, I think. The type of lightweight pullover sweater which could be tucked in, whether it is or is not tucked in, is going to look good, provided it goes with the rest of the outfit.

  17. MissDisplaced :

    I think the key thing would be to think of the sweater replacing your blazer for the day.
    That said, it would need to be something more tailored to make it office friendly and not chunky or schlubby (though I admit some blazers can also run into the chunky/schlubby category).

    The good thing is that there are also plenty of these to be found!
    I could see a good number of these being office friendly and you could also add a belt to get more shape.

work fashion blog press mentions