2022 Update: I still agree with my advice in this post, but you can also check out our latest discussion on what not to wear to work.
So there’s this great piece on USA Today about how “business casual” can be confusing to some people — this one 24-year-old PR executive was shocked (shocked, we tell you!) when she wasn’t allowed to attend a meeting dressed in Bermuda shorts and flip flops.
So I thought it might be fun to have an open-thread today about what attire makes you really raise your eyebrows. Obviously, every office is different, but I think we can all do a public service by listing which garments and accessories someone might want to think twice before wearing.
For my own list:
- Any shorts (or any pants that are less than full length — ankle-length pants and capris will be questionable at some offices!)
- Flip-flops (whether they’re plastic or leather, rethink)
- Sandals of any kind; peep toe shoes are also often questionable at the most conservative offices
- Tall boots (even knee-high used to be questionable, but over-the-knee styles are definitely questionable)
- Anything that is overly noisy in the hallways (flip-flops are the primary offender here, but other things qualify also — corduroy pants, for example)
- Denim, or items cut like denim (e.g., 5 pockets) — cords, khakis, etc.
- Lace or sheer clothing
- Sleeveless tops or dresses (worn without a cardigan or blazer on top)
- Any item that can be worn to the gym (sneakers, yoga pants, terrycloth wristbands, large shapeless t-shirts)
- Anything too short, tight, or low-cut
Readers, what “think twice” list have you compiled from your time at the office? Any fun “I couldn’t believe she wore that” stories that you’d care to share?
Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law– “Dress for Success Chapter” (this is literally the entire chapter).
“I don’t care what you look like as long as the brief is good.”
Because everyone’s outrageous stories seem to be about assistants, I’ll share one about someone who is superior to me. As context, we work in local government where people dress all over the board. This is more, “I think she got dressed in the dark” than inappropriate:
Hair, obviously greasy
Light blue button down
Light yellow cardigan, poorly fitting
Dark green and blue plaid pants. Seriously.
I was sitting in a meeting with her and couldn’t stop staring. While she is not someone who’s style I would ever emulate, it’s usually not this bad. And for the sensitive: yes, I am being catty and judgmental. :-)
Wonder if this is a depression or psych issue. In all seriousness, maybe her life is rough and she’s given up.
Oh, I don’t know. There’s more than one senior female partner at my firm who dress in ways that would have Stacey and Clinton on What Not To Wear using a backhoe to dump their wardrobe into the garbage can at the beginning of the show. They’re not depressed, though; they’re just senior in their profession, don’t care about clothes, and are good enough that they don’t actually have to care. They’re at the point where their reputation, seniority, and work speak for themselves.
Plenty of chaired, tenured profs dress like this: elastic waist pants, polo shirts, baggy mid-length skirts with sneakers, wildly striped socks, crazy hats… and sometimes all at once! They’ve made it, and now they’re gonna do what they want.
I was *amazed* when one of those profs gave me advice about dressing for my new job. She told me that in the early days, she always wore skirt suits with heels, hair in a bun. Now you’re more likely to find her in a tie-dyed t-shirt.
We have one employee like that. She’s very high level and has twin toddlers, so some days she will look like she just rolled out of bed and threw on the first thing she found. It’s not that she doesn’t know how to dress or is depressed, but sometimes she just doesn’t have the time.
business hanging out
The worst I’ve seen is a woman with a very generous hourglass figure wearing a spandex dress that hit mid-thigh in the front, and about 2 inches below derierre (sp?) in the back! Every step she took swooshed the back of the dress up another half inch, and I just worried that at any second her “business” would be all over the office! Why, WHY would you think this is a good idea? To be fair, this same woman also wore the type of strappy tank top one would normally wear under a completely buttoned shirt (in case of gaps) as her shirt for the day. She had a thin jacket over it, but you could see EVERYTHING. Again, “business” all over the office!
sounds like you’re talking about my boss!
I’ve seen pencil skirts where the slit is cut too high in the back and The Business is clearly on display.
This very much needs to become a Corporette meme. For business, you must dress to cover The Business, at all times.
I would say, unlike everything else that is a relative contraindication and the sage advice of “know your office/culture,” covering The Business is something we can all agree on. This thread has made me giggle more than once today.
I actually have seen The Business once. A coworker wore a skirt suit with much too short pencil skirt to work and subsequently to a patio happy hour. The pencil skirt barely covered her butt, and when the wind picked up the right way, I saw buttcheeks more than once. I was mortified (kept thinking – what if she wore that suit to a client event?) but didn’t know how to tell her that the booty, it was a-showing.
Huge pet peeve:
I’m not a “real” corporette. I manage a dog daycare, and when I have office and marketing days I get to wear my nice grown up clothes. All other days I’m a uniform diva.
BUT…just because the uniform for my employees is jeans and logo tshirt, doesn’t mean you get to be covered in dirt or holes. I work with a lot of 18-20 year olds, and they honestly don’t know what professionalism is. Part of my job is to teach them, so when they’re done with college and start their jobs they don’t embarrass themselves in the corporate world.
If you’re achieving anything…you’re a real corporette.
You are living my dream. I debated opening a dog daycare before they became popular. There was only one in my state and it was just $5 a day at the time! I decided to go to law school instead. Now every major city has 5+ dog daycares and they charge $20+ per day per dog. Sigh.
For some reason, dropping my dog off at daycare makes me reevaluate my life choices every day…why am I working a job I hate so I can pay other people to spend all day with a dog I love? I am totally envious of you, Atlantia. Rock on.
I work at a bank, and we had someone get injured. She showed up for the next little while bra-less, and with no shirt under her jacket. Other times, she would wear a cut-to-the-sternum sweater and no bra, and she couldn’t get away with the no-bra thing any more than my grandmother could have. I was completely astounded.
Oh, I forgot to mention she had her arm in a sling. Apparently that was her excuse for showing up without her clothes on.
It sucks, but I can kind of see it – if you live alone and your arm is hurt badly enough that you can’t get on a bra or a shirt, your options are limited (though there must surely have been some sort of shirt she could have gotten on the same way as the jacket or sweater . . . .)
When my arm was in a sling, my roommates dressed me and my boyfriend washed my hair. I never thought about how impossible it would have been if I lived alone. In retrospect, I probably would have asked a friend to stay with me or asked a coworker to meet me at the office early to help me button up.
I used to work for a firm that set an all-time low in terms of appropriate dress for the office. The dress policy was “business professional” during most of the year. However, on non-court/EBT/client meeting days during the summer, we could dress casually, the interpretation of which was left to the individual. The associates and support staff handled things well. Men tended to wear either khakis or dress jeans with polo shirts and blazers. The women wore sheath dresses, knee-length skirts, dress jeans, dress pants, nice tops, with cardigans or blazers. Then, there were the partners. One partner, who was the oldest in age yet the youngest in terms of seniority, always dressed nicely. The others? Shorts. Bermuda shorts. On men over 50. With the worst legs you’ll ever see inflicted on human beings. My supervising partner was the youngest (46) and had a penchant for madras shorts, topsiders, and Yankees team player shirts, all of which were apparently purchased in his sophomore year in college, judging from their condition. Worst thing about it is that they dress casually ALL YEAR ROUND – they consider it a perk. When I was interviewed, my partner wore a faded checked shirt and jeans that looked as if he’d spent the previous day wearing them to clean out the garage. I honestly believed that he was an HVAC repair guy when he first walked into the room.
Another no-no: unwashed hair! This should be obvious but I’m amazed at how many otherwise well-dressed attorneys have greasy, unkempt locks..
Would be a bird nest with daily washed hair
I think unkempt is the key word here. I don’t wash my hair more than once or twice a week in winter (more often in summer), but I style it every day/keep it neat and I doubt most people would ever know I didn’t wash it every day.
I’d agree with you on the flip flops and any gym wear. But aren’t jeans what everyone means when they say “casual Friday?”
Not everyone. I think it’s a know your work place kind of deal. “Casual Friday” for my job means a dress (non-suiting variety — can be wrap or shirtwaist, etc.), or a skirt + sweater, or plain pants (*not* jeans or cords) and a cardigan, etc. Never ever jeans.
I saw a woman wearing a tie-dye floor length dress and another woman wearing black suede pumps that had clear lucite heels to our swearing-in ceremony. We were explicitly told that business formal dress was required. The woman with the shoes didn’t stand out until we were lining up to sign the book. The woman wearing tie-dye however, stood out right away. Definitely not in a good way.
For those of you the other day who were looking for maxi dresses/skirts – I ordered this long skirt from old navy, and it is AMAZING. Very soft, flowy, and the cut is unbelievably flattering. Don’t know how long it will last, but I plan on wearing it to death. I do wish it came in more colors… I usually only wear Old Navy for tees to wear as cover ups/to work out, but I’m really pretty impressed with this skirt. As a bonus, hubby loved it too!
Ohhhh I’m so tempted to buy that green print maxi dress! Probably can’t go wrong with $35!
2 fun interview stories.
I once interviewed a guy who showed up in flannel sweatpants and a fleece jacket. The impression I got was that he rolled out of bed, put on a fleece jacket and his glasses and went for his interview. Ew.
Another time I interviewed a woman who wore a very low-cut blouse. It was a very pretty blouse, and she wasn’t very well endowed so there was no cleavage visible; nevertherless the whole interview I found myself wondering if she was wearing a cami underneath, and whether I had just caught a glimpse of her bra. I can’t imagine how distracted the guy interviewers must have been. As I closed the door when leaving the room, I saw that the top of her thong was showing – not just peeking out, but a good 1.5 inches above the top of her pants!
In college, I used to work at an uber-conservative law firm where I got sent home almost daily for wearing “inappropriate” attire (no nylons under a skirt, a top cut too low – even though I was wearing a camisole under it – etc.) Now, I work at a more laid-back firm where we can wear sleeveless tops, open toed shoes, and best of all NO NYLONS. I love it. I could never work in a place where I can’t wear my peep-toes!
A couple things – I work in government in DC, so we’re business casual unless we have a meeting that requires a suit. Our field office staff frequently has to actually go out in the field (one day I spent 5 hours hiking through a ranch), so our field offices are very casual – hiking boots, jeans, t-shirts, etc., and a lot of the DC staff started in the field, so that definitely influences the office culture.
So nice cropped pants, the kind that are made out of the same material and cut similar to slacks, pumps or ballet flats, and a nice top will fly here. There are also women that wear boots here. So will sleeveless tops, although our building has wildly varying temperatures, so I always make sure I have a jacket or sweater, either for when the AC kicks in or if I get pulled into a meeting I wasn’t planning on. Unannounced meetings are generally more casual, but not so casual that sleeveless is okay. When I say sleeveless, I mean a top that fully covers my bra straps, not a tank top. Visible bras are always a no.
I’ll also add that I’m about the same age as the woman in the USA Today story. I can “express” myself through my dress without being told I look inappropriate. Fun jewelry and colorful (but appropriate) tops, or a lot of printed skirts all get me compliments, including from supervisor. But I also know that there are some situations where I want people to focus on what I’m saying rather than on what I’m wearing. Your outfit should never be a distraction. Your fashion sense should enhance your credibility, rather than force you to compensate for it.
I do think that clothes help express who you are. But just like I wouldn’t walk through my office cursing and then explain it as “expressing myself” if someone called me on it, the clothes I wear need to be appropriate for the office, since I want to “express” that I’m a professional.
USA Today PR-Exec seems to think it’s all about her. Her needs, her comfort, her feelings.
Wait until she finds out it’s not all about her. It’s about what’s best for the company.
If I’m “expressing myself” through my fashion choices at work, I’m “expressing” that I’m a smart, sophisticated professional woman.
I’m coming into this discussion late, but I think a beautiful tunic of the right length plus leggings can look wonderful in any setting – this year. Maybe not last year or next year, because it’s in style right now. Preferably a tunic with buttons down the front.
I could only wear that if I came into the office on the weekend. Otherwise, that’s a total no in my business casual office. What’s in style or trendy at the moment really only affects the cut or embellishments on what is appropriate here. For example, a pencil skirt versus an a-line skirt — but both would be to the knee or close to it, in a good fabric, and fit well. We have someone here who tries to wear trendy weekend clothes like tunics and leggings and people definitely count it against her.
I work at a finance firm on the west coast, it’s definitely more casual than east coast financial attire, and very rarely do we have client interface. Only 2 of the top 4 men in the office wear ties or jackets regularly, and there are only about 5 women who are NOT in supportive roles. For the men in the office, its generally rolled up sleeves, open collared shirts, etc. But a lot of them wear fleece vests over their shirts – it’s casual.
But for women the rules are a lot wider, especially since there are so few of us – we’re all generally fashion forward. I am a big fan of dresses – always in a dark hue. They are comfortable, easy, and I can be confident that they look good. I try to avoid anything too tight, as I am in shape and I do get comments/oogled if my body shows too much. My biggest concern is usually skirt length. Occasionally, if I have dark tights I will go 4-5 inches above the knee, but more or less I never want to risk it, so I stick to 2-3 inches above the knee – any longer is hard to find! Most of the Banana, Jcrew, Ann Taylor skirt/dress lengths are too short in my opinion, and I don’t consider Express “real” business attire. Same with VICTORIA SECRET’S “business attire” – give me a break.
I don’t have any problem wearing open-toed or tall high heels. It has become almost a conversation piece – my shoes. I feel that with a conservative and less fashion-forward approach to my attire, I can be trendy and young (23) with my shoes. Its the only thing I allow myself – and a 4 inch shoe with platform doesn’t make me amazonian – rather it makes me fit in with the rest of the men – I’m an average 5’5″ in height.
I still vividly remember the assistant who wore a sateen shorts warm up suit (matching silky short shorts and a little zippered jacket) in bright blue with yellow piping. Not only was it “something you’d wear to the gym”, it was also crazy noisy — you could hear her outfit down the hall. And not only was it shockingly inappropriate for a corporate law firm — she wore it with great pride, as if she thought she was the cutest girl at the firm that day.
My perpetual struggle: What clothing both looks professional and accommodates my ADD. I can only focus by frequently shifting physical position …. so that highly professional wrap dress and blazer doesn’t look so classy when a coworker sticks his head in and I’m sitting half cross legged with my knees up. I have very classic feminine sensibilities, but I’m done with wraps and A-lines. Pleated skirts and Katherine Hepburn-esque wide leg trousers , please, for the twitchy among us.
First, I wonder if men are having these types of discussions right now…
Second, I am disgusted by the choices that clothing designers give to us. Blouses are being made too low-cut, and I do not want to add another layer underneath a blouse. I should not have to. It takes forever to find a suit with jacket AND pants pockets (they would not dream of doing that to men) Why is it that clothing designers assume that women WANT to walk around with a purse into their business meetings? Almost all oxford blouses have a bit of spandex in them now, which makes it near impossible for me to wear since I am large-chested – all blouses pucker so that you can see my bra when I turn to the side! Stupid, stupid, stupid. I am also awaiting the day when they will add enough padding AND toe room into our work shoes. I have yet to find a man who gets ingrown toenails because of the shoes he is required to wear with his suits.
The sad part is that if I were to wear comfortable loafers to my job (and I am a Type 1 Diabetic highly prone to many foot problems) then I would be be shunned by not the males of the company….but the catty females who abide by these foolish fashion rules.
Good for the men for not falling prey to idiotic fashion trends.
I recently had a conversation with an male analyst who works for one of my male customers. My customer is older and generally formal. He told me that he overheard a conversation between my customer and another employee. The conversation was about the type of point on a collar, basically saying that the following items were totally inappropriate: a button-down shirt with a forward pointing collar. a wide collar, no undershirt beneath a shirt, a skinny tie and a tie with a wide knot.
I didn’t even know collars came in different styles on men’s shirts. So I guess some men talk about it.
The only thing I would add is pigtails. I know it’s not clothing, but still… Not acceptable.
Is it really horrible to wear those “professional” or “Dress” bermuda shorts?
Wow. I’m glad I didn’t go to law school.
I work for a great company in the Southeastern US. I own one trouser suit (which I never wear), no skirt suits and LOTS of capri pants and sleeveless tops, and wear open-toed shoes almost exclusively from May until October. My boss wore white “short shorts” to work the other day and a sun dress cut low in the back on another day (a little too revealing even for me!) and she’s 50. Lots of folks around here wear shorts, flip flops, jeans, summery dresses and we frequently show our arms!
I am in the software industry, which is much more laid back than law I guess, and our “customer-facing” employess dress it up a bit more but definitely southern business casual most of the time, with suits if really needed. My company is consistently at the top of the great places to work list – maybe it’s because we’re so comfortable!!
Another thing…what’s wrong with un-painted toenails, if you’re nails are neat, clean and feet are cared for? It’s natural!
My BigLaw firm was meeting with a ReallyBigLaw firm to discuss merger of firms. One nearly 40-year old female partner came to the meeting with long stringy blonde hair not styled, beige short skirt suit with cleavage showing, cork wedge sandals with shiny gold uppers. Even I (20 years older and known to wear casual/comfort items to work on occasion) was shocked. Other partners said she looked like a working girl, and, frankly, she did.
I have been in the process of upgrading my wardrobe to get back into really great dressing, and I must admit, it feels great to be dressed well! I am appreciative of the advice, discussion and shopping tips on Corporette!
I’m working as accountmanager and wearing this winter leather black thigh high boots to the office. Í wear these under a black dress lenght just above the knee. Ladies what do you think about these?
I have been on my current job for 7 mos. my immediate supervisor which is a male had no issue with me wearing leggings under my dresses, once he started sleeping with his business partner, new dress codes have been established go figure?
At my office.. pretty much anything goes except shorts. On causal Fridays, I’ve seen jeans, tshirts, and flip flops, and no one thought twice about it. Regular days, there are plenty of open toed sandals/heels, cropped pants, khakis and twill and cords. There is no defined dress policy as far as I can tell, and no one really cares how you look. I assume this is mostly because there are no clients visiting, pretty much ever. One of the interns last year used to wear boat shoes and mini skirts on a regular basis, even to give a presentation, and she was quickly offered a job. I think its pretty obvious that they only care about work performance, not appearance, and that is really how it should be.
I am joining the discussion very late but I would like to say, like others have already, that business attire really depends on your kind of work place. I worked in an international organization for many years and so you would see all sorts of colors, fashions and what not. Many African women (myself included) wore bright printed traditional attires while some Asian colleagues wore saris with their traditional blouses which ocassionally left the belly exposed. As for business casual, oh my goodness, almost anything went and noone could say anything to anyone. I like that kind of environment.
WAY late to this thread but loving it!
I work for Ze Olde Aeroplane Company out here in Seattle; it’s your standard office environment, but given that it’s the PNW and it’s engineering, you ladies would not BELIEVE what passes for appropriate office wear here. We do have a dress code, but it consists solely of No Jeans except Casual Fridays, and most people aren’t held to it. I don’t even know if there is a dress code for women–some buildings don’t even have women’s bathrooms, still!
So, yeah: I see a lot of men’s examples, and there’s so few women here that there isn’t really a standard. Mostly the engineers and techs aren’t TOO bad–they wear standard old-dude khakis and non-starched polo shirts, or non-starched button-downs if they’re feeling fancy. A sports coat counts as a suit jacket here, and definitely generates the “What, are you interviewing today?” remarks. No ties. Plenty of them get away with standard old-dude faded jeans on a regular basis, with the big old wallet tumor in the back. Of course, a lot of people use the “I might have to go into the factory today!” excuse to wear jeans and comfortable shoes when we think we can get away with it, myself included. (Factory shoes: Serious Guidelines.)
That said, some standouts:
1. Mid-forties lady who sits by me who wears her gym stuff in every day. Too-tight exercise shirts, yoga pants, flip flops. All. Day.
2. Used to work with a guy who was 50 at least, 6’7″, and wore…a beret. Every day. THE SAME BERET. He used to have to bend to get through doors at meetings and you’d see his beret *just* clearing the door every time. Ridiculous.
3. Agree about loud shoes–I can’t stand them! Sounds so unprofessional. I actually had to change out of my heels when I was younger because I couldn’t walk in them properly (and wasn’t as good about re-heeling as I should have been) so you could hear me coming all the way down the hall: CLACK CLACK CLACK. My mentor at the time, a nice 45-yr-old dude, made a few gentle jokes about it to me and I caught on pretty quick.
4. And the crowning glory: 50-yr-old dude who showed up at my desk wearing a white short-sleeved button down shirt, too-short necktie, and tan polyester pants that were (but of course!) too short, so you could see his sporting white socks and black ergonomic shoes. Complete with pocket protector–really–and square-framed bifocals. I remember this because it happened to be April Fool’s Day and I thought, “Please tell me this is a joke!” Nope, no joke. He wears that stuff every day. Welcome to engineering, ladies!
I’m a statistician with a large non-profit research firm. I’m low man on the totem pole, but overall the office is super casual… it’s also in North Carolina, and the South has different rules. Flip flops are absolutely trashy, but Jack Rogers work fine. However, I’ll say… what about ponte cigarette pants like from J.Crew? I get that they aren’t appropriate for yalls law jobs or whatever… but I crunch numbers all day or do research in front of a computer. When I wear them, I always always always wear a long shirt. I mean there are men in my office who wear cargo shorts and t-shirts with sneakers… I think it’s only fair I can wear my ponte leggings. I’m also not really that big, I wear a size 4. I mean I have no intention of continuing to wear them as I get older, and I don’t really wear them when I have important meetings. Are they really that terrible?
I work in a very casual office. We allow jeans, as long as they are clean and nice, as well as sneakers. In the warmer months, polo shirts are the norm. I would agree with most of these. I have seen tank tops on some women during the summers, and they were totally inappropriate. Just because it’s warm does not mean that you can go sleeveless in the office. Wear a short-sleeved blouse instead.