ask the readers: urging an employee to dress more formally … to help her advance, not because she’s outside the dress code

I’m throwing this one out to readers to weigh in on. A reader writes:

One of my direct reports is interested in eventually moving into management roles with more responsibility, and we have set development goals so she has a path to work toward that aspiration. I have a great relationship with her, I believe she has solid potential, and I want to mentor her as much as I can.

One aspect I am not sure if I should approach is her clothing. Let me be clear — she wears business casual that is entirely appropriate for our office. However, it is on the casual end of the range and very plain, e.g. khaki pants and a long sleeve tshirt, no accessories. As I evolved in my career, I came to adopt the “dress for the job you want” philosophy and made a concerted effort to upgrade my wardrobe; this does not come naturally to me and I’m not interested in fashion, so I had to work on it. I have definitely observed that I am taken more seriously and afforded more respect when dressed more formally and stylishly. I am concerned that my report’s level of dress might hold her back. Should I mention this in some way, and if so, how can I bring it up without being insulting?

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 571 comments… read them below }

  1. nuqotw*

    Just be direct. Someone was direct with me about this once (in a job/career that I have since left, but that’s another story) and it was good because I wouldn’t have gotten the point otherwise. She just sat me down and said to dress up a little more, wear some make up, jewelry, and have fun with it. Some will debate the appropriateness of telling a woman she ought to wear make up and jewelry when the men clearly don’t, but that was the reality of that line of work and I appreciated her forthrightness. (And I got promoted later that year, for whatever that’s worth.)

      1. Chrissi*

        I think so. In this case what she’s describing is someone that is dressing very casually, in my opinion – khaki’s and a long-sleeved T-shirt? So I suspect she just wants her to upgrade to just black slacks and nicer tops. The jewelry is optional, to me. The make-up – eh, that depends. If she never ever wears make-up, I don’t think she needs to start, at least in this office where their definition of business casual sounds very casual. However, if she wears make-up sometimes and not others, then I think that can be part of the conversation.

        1. AnonEMoose*

          In my current office, khakis and a long-sleeved tshirt wouldn’t be that unusual. We’re definitely on the casual end of business casual; it’s not unusual for the manager two levels up the org chart from me to be seen in jeans on casual days, and I don’t recall ever seeing her wear makeup.

          (And for me, being able to wear plain tshirts is a real boon. I’m busty, I loathe minimizer bras, and that makes finding button down shirts that fit a real pain.)

          But all that said, I think that a conversation along the lines of “I think you’re awesome, I’d like to see you advance, here’s something you should know that I think will help you. No it’s not entirely fair, but it’s the reality” would probably go a long way.

          1. fposte*

            I’m reminded of an open thread awhile back when somebody talked about trying to wear what seemed to be the going outfit of buttondown, trousers, and a necklace at a conference and found that the higher-ups were doing something to make it work in a way she wasn’t. That’s why I think this is about knowledge, and why describing the item of clothing isn’t enough to convey what’s going on here–a buttondown and trousers can be a lot of different outfits and hit a lot of different levels of polish.

            1. Mints*

              Polish can be hard to figure out. Younger workers (or maybe it’s more about background) might need to do some legwork to figure out what it means, concretely. And then there’s actual shopping and trying things on. It’s an investment

              1. fposte*

                That is so true–we’re not good at articulating what makes you look polished in a way that differentiates from somebody wearing the same things who doesn’t (I loved CEMgr’s example of the guys in khakis below, which is about as close as you can get to minimal pairs). That’s why I’m trying to coax the OP away from making it a conversation about formality, because I don’t think it has to be about that–it’s about looking like you did this on purpose, not by default.

                1. PEBCAK*

                  I started getting monthly shipments from Stitch Fix…they send me stuff that is perfect for work, but I would never think to buy myself.

            1. MousyNon*

              UGH. Also, why the hell is every bra in my size “full coverage?” DO THEY KNOW HOW LOW CUT THEY MAKE SHIRTS NOW?!

              ….lol this post has totally sparked my fashion-frustration.

              1. O*

                I will say that is one of the only reasons I still shop at lane bryant, their bras, and their jeans and slacks, everything else ridiculously expensive, and never quite looks good enough

                1. Cassy*

                  Look for their 50% off everything sales online. They have had 2 in the last month or so and I buy my bras during this time. If you get them delivered to the store, you can try them on there and if they don’t fit, return them on the spot. Although if you get measured by someone there beforehand, you’ll know what size you are and don’t have to worry about returns.

                2. Celeste*

                  What are we, twins? I’d like to sit down with their buyer and talk about the needs of older women who need polished plus size clothes for work.

                3. Meredith*

                  I was totally repelled by LB when I was there last month for jeans. Almost everything was low-quality and trashy looking, and really quite pricey. I’m a larger, 30 year old lady who just wants some decent-looking work clothes that won’t fall apart in 5 seconds! Lands End is becoming my go-to for staples.

                4. Bea W*

                  I’d like to sit down with their buyer and talk about the needs of older women who need polished plus size clothes for work.

                  Same for professional women who only fit in junior size clothing. Ugh. Don’t even get me started. Even if I were 14 and not the reverse, I still don’t want that awful combination of plumber’s crack-muffin top thing going on.

                  One of my plus size friends totally scores at the Macy’s near her, and usually finds things on sale. I’m not sure if they are all like that or she’s just incredibly lucky.

                  Meanwhile, I’m still wearing my girls’ size 16 slim khakis I ordered from LL Bean many years ago. These things last forever apparently, which is good, because it’s too hard to find pants that fit, and sizing and cuts are always changing, and not always in ways that flatter my boyish figure.

              2. Zahra*

                Which size do you wear? I’m a 36I and can find bras that are not full coverage easily enough. Of course, I pay my bras 80-200$ apiece and baby them. I currently have 3 that fit really well and plan on adding one per season until I’ve got 6 or 7 that fit, so I don’t have to wear a bra that’s just too small or wash them every other day.

                1. Michele*

                  I am not sure where you live Zahra but if you are ever in NYC make an appointment with Linda the Bra Lady. Her team is amazing. If you tell them you can only spend $45 on a bra they will find one if your size at that price point. They even have the matching panties. I actually recommend her to all of my friends. She has 2 locations one by Bloomingdales and one in Murray Hill.

                2. Blue Anne*

                  Replying to Michele –

                  I have to be honest, I’ve heared amazing things about Linda the Bra Lady, but when I was last home in New York I went to her location near Bloomie’s and really wasn’t impressed. I’m always a bit shy about that kind of shopping, but… I told them the size I thought I was, “but I’m not sure anymore” and was handed a pile of bras in that size, little to no fitting done. They had me in and out in 15 minutes with two ill-fitting bras. Kicked myself about it, but couldn’t return them because I flew back to the UK soon after.

                  Wouldn’t go back, personally.

              3. Stephanie*

                Not the cheapest, but Nordstrom has a good selection of non-granny floral bras (there are even some colors aside from tan!). Nordstrom Rack sells the clearance stuff from Nordstrom (although it may be hard to find a neutral-colored bra there). Specialty lingerie shops are good as well. If you’re ok doing online bra shopping, Zappos has a decent selection.

                And yeah, minimizers make me look like a budding powerlifter.

                1. Ethyl*

                  Nordstrom carries Elomi, don’t they? I LOVE mine, and I think they make a lower-cut one. One of the best things I did was go to a dedicated lingerie place and get properly fitted and get a couple of bras that really fit ME (Victoria’s Secret fitters do not know what they are doing, IMO).

                2. O*

                  Specialty lingerie shops are awesome, way over the top expensive, and they suck you in by bringing you the most beautiful bras you’ve ever seen and then you ask how much and want to cry. I usually splurge once a year with their cheaper ones, and a sports bra. The good fitters don’t even need measuring tape, that was the best moment in my life.

                3. Nusy*

                  This thread was worth stumbling onto just for all this advice! Thank you, ladies!!! I have been in sure need of something that holds, preferably doesn’t cut my shoulders bloody, and is actually available in my size!

                  I agree on Lane Bryant… they’re pricey and not that great, but what’s a girl to do when she has little to no bra budget…

                4. Stephanie*


                  In a specialty shop, they bring out all the pretty bras and one can almost hear “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka playing in the background. And then I’m brought back to earth when I see the $197.80 price tags.

                5. Zahra*

                  If your bra straps are cutting into your shoulders, you are wearing the wrong size. The band should hold the majority of the weight. Even with I-sized cups, my bra straps don’t hurt at all. In fact I barely feel them during the day. The straps are about 3/4″ wide for the bra I have on and it’s a bit larger than my usual bras. I prefer 1/2″ and none of my bras have padded straps, although all have underwires. Underwires don’t usually hurt if they are the proper size.

                  The proper way to measure a bra:
                  Take your band size in inches. Round to the nearest even number. *Do not add anything.* This is your band size.

                  Measure your bust at the widest. The difference in inches will determine your cup size. 1″ is A. Each additional inch, you go up one cup size. My measurements are 36″/45″. 36I.

                  The band should be snug, but not tight (too tight, go up one band size at a time, too loose, go down). It should also be lying straight across your back (riding up = too loose). Your breasts should not bulge outside your cups (if so, your cups are too small, get a bigger cup size). If you lift your arm, the band (or underwire) shouldn’t lift much from your body. The underwire should go around your whole breast. If you’re big busted like me, it should arrive in your armpit. If it’s too small, it’ll dig and hurt.

                  If the bras you’re trying don’t quite fit, you can try going up/down one “equivalent size”: take one size away from a measurement, add it to the other: I could go 34J or 38H.

                  A proper fitting bra is like putting on the most comfortable shoes. It feels great and your clothes will look/fit better.

                6. O*

                  Yes, I think the first one I ever tried on was $250, and I had to spend ten minutes talking myself out of it. After growing up on beige and white lingerie from department stores, that underwires would pop out of after six months, lane bryant was my nirvana when they started selling lingerie. For about two years every time I went in, it was a compulsion to take advantage of their, buy this many for this price, or bogo. Pretty sure I have two month supply of underwear. :)

                7. Turanga Leela*

                  I’ve had great luck with the Bounce website, which sells different bras for small, medium, and large chests (meaning we’re not all trying to make the same thing work). There are some beautiful bras and a GREAT selection of sports bras.

                8. Jessica (the celt)*

                  Ethyl, I absolutely love Elomi, because they are pretty true to size (which is important if you can’t shop in stores to try things on because you have a larger cup size than the ones they carry). I usually buy them from a variety of places: from Amazon (yep, they have some and sometimes you can get a good deal on them!) to Bare Necessities to (which is British, but they have excellent prices and a good return policy).

                  For those that haven’t discovered the awesome-ness that is Elomi, note that Elomi uses the British sizing system (which I actually prefer, as it makes more sense to me), so adjust accordingly. And they have cute chemises and swimsuits, too, which actually have a real band/cup like a bra and fit just like their bra sizes.

              4. PJ*

                Wachoal has wonderful bras. Great support, low enough for fashion, makes you proud to be a girl, and COMFORTABLE. They cost $60 each. I can find them on sale once or twice a year for $40 or less, and I stock up.

                I got myself fitted by a pro at Macy’s. I wore 34C’s for years. I walked out of the store with 36DD’s, and suddenly my life changed.

                Still can’t fit a button-down over ’em, though. It’s shells and tees for me.

                1. Aimee*

                  I walked into a Macy’s once and asked for a 38 C. The woman took one look at me, said, “Oh, no honey. You are a 36DD,” and my life was changed.

                  (Then I had another kid, and had to start all over with the sizing).

                2. Jessica (the celt)*

                  I can’t wear button-ups either, and I’ve tried everything (including the fashion tape).

                  Aimee, a friend blogged online that she had discovered how to size herself, and she posted her entire process. I went ahead and did what she said, and it changed my life, too! I went up six cup sizes and down four inches in band. I reluctantly ordered some bras in that size, figuring I’d just have to send them back, and was shocked when they actually fit me! I was always told at fittings (in places like Lane Bryant) that “some people just don’t ever get the center of the bra to touch their sternum,” and I was surprised to discover that if I wore the right bra size (which those fittings places don’t carry), the center did touch! Huh…

              5. Nancypie*

                This is why camisoles are a staple of my wardrobe. Lace trimmed, plain, black, white and beige- one of these looks good under almost any top that otherwise looks too low.

                1. fposte*

                  J. Jill had these amazing featherweight tanks a few years ago, and I wish I’d bought enough to last me forever–you can put them under *everything* without bulking up.

                2. AVP*

                  I love these Uniqlo heat-tech tanks that have half-inch straps – they’re really light and thin, but with real shudders and none of this shelf-bra nonsense.

              6. VictoriaHR*

                Because so many women have back fat issues that they want to keep contained.

                Personally I just bought a 3-pack of Rhonda Shear “Ahh Bras” and called it a day.

            2. NutellaNutterson*

              I hope others in this reply thread will see this, because I am a new convert to the “your band is too big, your cup is too small” movement for properly fitting bras!

              A little google will turn up a lot of great advice.

              1. Jessica (the celt)*

                This comment is dead on! I discovered that just a little over a year ago, and it changed my entire wardrobe situation. (Although I still can’t wear button-ups, but I’m okay with that.)

            3. Windchime*

              Yes, nothing like having my considerable bust shoved over underneath my armpits. Yes, that might make the profile flatter, but from the front it makes me look a mile wide.

          2. Chrissi*

            After I wrote that I wondered if maybe I am just biased against khakis. I think what I’m imagining are the tapered leg pleated Docker type khakis from the ’90’s that always looked awful on me. But also, I just don’t see many people wear khakis here (Chicago). Men in the summer, I guess, but almost never women.

            1. Bea W*

              Ugh no. Pleated khaki’s for women went out with the 90s, straight front, various leg cuts. Tapered legs seem to be coming back, but they are more in the “skinny” style rather than the poofy around the thighs, skinny in the ankles style. I just like normal legs…at a normal length. The other thing that drives me nuts are these super long inseams made for ridiculous heals. My legs are already kind of short. add 2 inches to the inseam, and my pants look frumpy and I’m stepping on them.

          3. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

            I don’t think the choice is between t-shirt and button-down shirt, though. I think I own two button-down shirts (and hardly ever wear them because of gapping issues) but I certainly don’t wear plain t-shirts to the office. There are such a wide range of blouses, embellished t-shirts, crochet-lace tops, tunics, pretty light cardigans, flowy boleros, etc., that you can spice up your wardrobe without ever resorting to a button-down.

            1. Mallory*

              With my large-busted situation, I don’t really wear button-downs or plain (crew-neck) t-shirts, either. I do wear some of the more dressy-type t-shirts (V-neck or a low scoop because high necklines don’t look good on the larger chest).

              The thin/lightweight fabric of some dressier t-shirts is not very figure-flattering — they tend to cling and/or show little bumps and ripples that no-one needs to see — so I make sure to buy blouses of a good, mid-weight fabric.

              I do spend about $80 on my bras, so I only have 3 of them. I think they’re Wacoal. I was going to buy just two of the same kind, but the saleslady talked me into getting a “t-shirt bra” in my size. I was irritated with myself at first for being upsold, but I wouldn’t trade that bra for anything now. It isn’t as comfortable as the other two, so I only wear it when I need extra lift or need to dress up. It is really low-cut and doesn’t give “quadruple-boob” effect when worn with flimsier-fabric, dressy clothes.

              1. O*

                Tshirt bra was the first bra I bought from lane bryant, and like you wouldn’t trade it. It took a lot for me to even try on a bra with a little padding, I was like, I’m big what the heck do I need with a bra that has those padded fronts. Haven’t looked back, but my absolute favorite that I own like six, are the balconette bras, best thing in the world!

          4. Jess*

            Erm, there are a lot of other options for women that aren’t button down or plain t-shirts. I am also busty and I almost never wear button-downs. I do wear plain v-neck shirts often but only in very casual situations. There are lots of cute blouses that are dressier than t shirts without having buttons (and even have stretch!).

            Also, you need to find a new source for bras if everything is full coverage. The European brands are really the best bet–Fantasie, Freya, Panache, Claudette etc are usually much cuter than the usual American options. That being said, I think that Curvy Kate is American and it’s pretty cute, too. The bras are more expensive but worth it, imo.

            1. Zahra*

              Yeah, most of my bras are European brands. I usually don’t look at the price tags when I’m trying on clothes or undergarments. I keep the ones I like aside and look at the price last to make my choice. I may decide that a very cheap piece can “fund” a more expensive one that I really liked.

            2. Eden*

              If it makes anyone feel better, I don’t think the problem with button-down shirts in confined to busty ladies. I am as small as they come, and my single button-down shirt gaps if I so much as reach for my keyboard. Ugh.

              Somewhat OT, and maybe this is different if you have an actual bustline, but WHOSE idea was it to make bras with many poinky hooks right where you lean back on them? Why aren’t all bras front-close? Does this closure fail if you’re larger than an A cup? I would love to hear opinions on this from the well-endowed.

              1. AnonEMoose*

                Front hooks don’t work so well for me; they’re not as practical if you’re well-endowed. The trick with the hooks is to make sure that the part underneath them extends beyond the “eye” part a bit. Then there’s some padding so the hooks don’t poke.

                1. Jan Arzooman*

                  My back-hooked bras hurt when I lean back against them, my front hook bras (or sports bras, which I’ve resorted to on occasion) have straps that tend to show on a lot of shirts. Hard to win.

                  I do think it’s funny how this thread has morphed from “dressing for the job you want” to bras … it IS a pain in the butt finding good bras for a reasonable price. In general, it’s not always easy finding clothes that look right for a reasonable price. Sometimes thrift shops are the way to go.

              2. Blue Anne*

                I think I need to bite the bullet and sell on my much-loved collection of Thomas Pink shirts, as I’m never going to be able to wear them without a boob gap again… not because I’m super well-endowed, but because my upper back has just become so broad from my weight-lifting.

                So yeah. I think no matter what your physique, if you’re female, there’s a high probability that button-up shirts just won’t work. Someday I’ll be able to afford a tailor…

          5. giggleloop*

            I am another person that can’t do button downs because of chest issues. But there are so many other options you have! I LOVE Calvin Klein tanks…. they seem to be the only ones that hit me in the chest correctly so I don’t show cleavage… and they are long enough that they don’t ride up. They have ones with lace trim and ones with satin trim that I love. I watch for them on sale on the website and snag them when they get under $20.00. I can afford to buy all the colors I want and they work well under cardis, blazers, sweaters, etc.

            1. Mallory*

              I’ll have to look up the Calvin Klein tanks. I’m always looking for tanks or sleeveless tops that give good underarm coverage. It seems like the ones made for either busty or plus-size women have these giant gaping armholes that have always puzzled me.

            2. carlotta*

              If you are in UK or willing to ship, get thee to Pepperberry (the clothing store of Bravissimo). They have button downs etc with more space for larger busts. I bought a load of stuff in the sale and now have lots of lovely office and evening wear which fits and was very inexpensive.

        2. nuqotw*

          I think so to. The message should be tailored of course to the office. I think my office was more formal than OP’s office overall. I just meant that there’s no need to beat about the bush or feel awkward about this message. Sorry for any confusion.

    1. ADE*

      I struggled with this too on my first job.

      As a manager, I would encourage you to say something like, “Take a look at how so-and-so and so-and-so dress. Look at how their dress helps them gain respect from peers and colleagues and superiors. What aspects of their manner of dressing would you be comfortable adopting?”

      Mentioning certain stores or brands can also be helpful, but I would suggest for women being mindful of body types. Not all brands flatter all figures and certainly women with atypical body types/weights are going to struggle even more.

      As a clueless fashion person I found that once my wardrobe started coming from Jones New York I could stop thinking about what I was wearing and look night.

      Some people are also very open to helping clothing-clueless folks out. This might be a situation in which one team member helps another?

      1. theotherjennifer*

        This is exactly true – there was a woman I admired when I first started out in the workplace – always classy with a jacket a scarf or a pretty accessory – and a GOOD HAIRCUT. Gah I work with someone now who looks like she hasn’t washed her hair in a month and it is nasty and off putting. Certainly not professional in any way.

    2. Iro*

      I think it’s crossing the line to tell a woman she needs to wear make-up and jewerely to work. If it’s not demanded of men it shouldn’t be demanded of women. I’ve never worn make-up in my entire life I and never plan to however I am taken very seriously at work due to the caliber of my performance. We also have plenty of senior leaders who forgoe the jewlery, but do wear the more busniess appropriate pieces such as watches, office shields, etc.

      That being said, I think it is fine to tell someone that they should strive to dress towards the business end of the office scale. Something like “You mententioned you are intersted in pursuing a management career. You may have noticed that, despite the official code being business-casual, senior leaders tend to wear suits everyday. It’s part of our leadership culture at XYZ company and if you are serious about pursuing {x position} it’s worth dressing for the role.”

  2. Chocolate Teapot*

    Could you tell her what you say in your letter here? Emphasise the “dress for the job you want” aspect and say it helped you?

    1. A Jane*

      I agree with this approach here. It allows you to have a communication on presentation versus actual style of clothing. If your direct report has further questions on specifics, you discuss how you transitioned.

    2. rando*


      Right now, she is dressing at the more casual side of the “appropriate clothing” spectrum. If she wants to move into management, she may need to move into the more formal side of the spectrum. If there is a difference between the way people dress at different levels in your work environment, dressing “up” may play a role in moving “up.”

      For example, she is wearing khaki pants and a plain shirt. She may need to upgrade into darker, high quality pants and some sort of jacket/blazer over her plain shirt. If she were a he, he may need to wear a higher quality pants, higher quality shirt, and a tie to have the same effect. The goal is stepping up a notch.

      I don’t think her clothing needs to be more feminine. I personally find wearing a well-fitted dress and heels is much easier than find a pair of pants that fit well, but pants can easily look professional when they fit well. Jewelry helps someone look put together, but I usually don’t bother out of laziness. A nice looking watch may help the impression though.

      Also, fit and tailoring can drastically improve the way someone looks.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        I second dark pants and blazers. Shoes can also make a difference–dark heels or nice flats/boots look more powerful and professional than clogs or casual shoes.

        Again, I would emphasize that you’re not criticizing her personal style or saying that she looks inappropriate. You are suggesting that if she wants to advance, she needs to dress like a manager. If she’s very young, this is also about dressing to look older and more authoritative.

        Last suggestion: steer her to the Corporette site. It’s been very useful for me and has helped me transition from black pants/t-shirts every day to wearing colors, patterns, and accessories.

        1. Jessa*

          Also if there are particular people who are similar in size to her, that you can point out and say “Like Sofie, or like Janice, is what I mean.” Examples are golden sometimes, when it can be hard to get “not that shirt, but one like it that’s darker or thicker material or oh heck, what Louise is wearing today for instance.”

  3. Kerry*

    If you meet regularly with her as part of your managing her, just bring it up. I’d love hearing this if it were me. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, just something like, “Hey, we’ve talked about your wanting to move up in your career and I wanted to bring up something that I think will help you – dressing a little more smartly can help present yourself as someone with more authority. Just something to think about, but it could make more of a difference than you think,” or similar.

    1. Career Counselorette*

      I was going to say, if you have regular check-in meetings or performance reviews with her, you could bring it up there exactly as you’ve done in your letter or as Kerry has done.

      It is unfortunate that for women it’s sort of a double-edged sword (i.e., you shouldn’t HAVE to wear make-up or jewelry to be taken more seriously), but I agree that it does make a huge difference. It suggests being comfortable enough with yourself and your authority to make the workwear your own. In my observation, dressing in only the bare minimum for business casual without accessories or styling of any kind suggests a kind of neutral and inoffensive approach, which doesn’t really serve anyone who is trying to advance professionally.

      1. BB*

        I think the same advice would go for a man who wears khakis and a golf shirt everyday. He is going to have to put some more effort into it if he wants to get taken seriously.

        The thing is though saying to a man ‘hey I want you to advance so start dressing for the job you want’ isn’t as tricky as it is with women. It seems more that if a man heard that phrase, he would take it at face value whereas a woman might wonder if there is something else behind it. And I’m not saying that happens all the time or the situation is never reversed.

        1. Career Counselorette*

          Well, it’s been very culturally pervasive for a long time that women are purely decorative or valued only for their appearance and not for their abilities, particularly in work environments. So it really is all about the delivery and emphasizing that it is more about the effort and the implications of “dressing for the job you want,” rather than the fact that women “should” be putting more effort into their appearance.

          For what it’s worth, though, I agree that anyone who wants to be taken more seriously at work, regardless of gender, could benefit by putting more creativity and effort into their professional appearance.

        2. He Man*

          Apparently, as the sole representative of the male gender in this thread I need to ad my $0.02.

          I used to wear jeans and golf shirts. Mind you this was in an environment where we went out into the field (as in real fields with grass and bushes, etc.) fairly often. In my annual review my supervisor said “You should wear a tie.” I said “Ok.” End of discussion.

          I then started wearing dress pants, a dress shirt and tie. For the first month I would get daily “You got an interview?” comments and then they died off.

          Everyone else still wears jeans and a golf shirt. I did not get a promotion, a pat on the back or anything else.

          1. TheSnarkyB*

            I get what you’re saying here but I think an important part of the letter points out that it isn’t about dress code. If your boss just said “you should _____” you might not realize that this was a mentoring move rather than a matter of policy. The OP here seems like they want to convey something more specific and direct than what you’re talking about here.

      2. Meg Murry*

        I think this might come off better if you do it in more of a mentoring lunch setting and less in a performance review setting. So its less of a “my boss says I need to dress nicer” directive rather than “my mentor says this is what helped her get to where she is now” suggestion. I’ve had former bosses that served as mentors to me (both while I was their direct report and after we’d moved positions) and this is the kind of advice I’d have appreciated from them, but outside the formal review process and definitely not in writing.

        1. Meg Murry*

          And I should add – one of these mentors also gave me Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and David Allen’s Getting Things Done in the spirit of lunchtime mentorship – I consider advice on what to wear along those same lines, a personal tip less than a performance review.

        2. D*

          Agree 1000000%.

          This kind of soft advice is exactly what mentors are for.

          And although I understand the commenters’ concerns about thinking that attire shouldn’t contribute to how someone is perceived, the fact is that it does contribute. Personally, I’d rather play into the system and advance than be passed over due to something completely within my control.

          If the mentee is not receptive or doesn’t change her dress after the initial advice, don’t repeat it. But do give it in a friendly way.

          If anyone is interested in reading more, there was a thought-provoking post about this topic on Corporette in the last couple of weeks. I’m on Team Amy for this one.

        3. Puddin*

          MM – I agree. A performance review can be racking enough without comments about personal style being thrown into the mix. In addition, I would plan an “oh crap’ strategy in case your employee takes it poorly. People can be very touchy about their appearance. Take a moment to consider possible unintended hurt feelings and plan for an appropriate response to those that may come up.

          1. Jessa*

            Also, it just occurred to me, this may be an income thing. They may not be able to afford the next level up, because what they have is what they wear and it’s not in the budget to get anything more. You might want to find out if there’s one of those women to women clothing places that help when you don’t have the money for the “next level up” outfit. In case the negative that comes spilling out is “can’t afford that, thanks for the advice that I know about but can’t take.”

              1. Judy*

                Even if you find black slacks for the same price as khakis, the dressier fabrics snag much more easily, etc. So generally you’ll be replacing slacks sooner than the twill khakis. Or at least I do.

              2. Tris Prior*

                Right, but if all you have is khaki right now and there is no budget for something new, then you’re stuck with what you already own. Been there. Glad the dress code at my work is “don’t be naked and don’t wear stuff with profanity on it.”

                1. Hunny*

                  I was thinking the same thing as you. At my first job I was much more dressed up then my coworkers because I couldn’t afford to buy any new clothes and only had the interview/special event attire my parents had bought for me while I was in school.

                2. TootsNYC*

                  Add a scarf, jewelry, a cardigan. A dressier belt.

                  And, OK, you can’t afford new pants now. When you DO get to the point of buying new clothes, get ones that say, “I’m more grownup than the people I work with.”

                  There’s “dress code” (a requirement), and there’s “sending a message with clothes and grooming” (an option). Sure, it’s not fair to require a woman to wear makeup.
                  But women who do wear makeup often come across as more authoritative. (When you think about it, they’ve successfully added one more dimension to their grooming–that’s a skill or achievement–say someone who never, ever wears it.)

              3. Mephyle*

                Black slacks don’t cost more than khaki ones.
                On the other hand, if the budget is too tight for new purchases, it isn’t relevant that the next step up might not cost more than what one already has.

                1. Mephyle*

                  Oops, didn’t mean to pile on. All those other comments that said the same thing weren’t there yet when I started writing.

                2. TootsNYC*

                  But hearing this sort of input now may mean that when this ment-ee *is* ready to buy clothes, she can get ones that send the message she wants to send.

            1. EvaR*

              I know this is an older thread, but this is basically my issue, and I wanted to bring up something that wasn’t touched on. For me, the income issue is that my weight fluctuates quite a bit, and because of my income I can’t afford at the moment to have both a work and home wardrobe. There are charities in my area that offer work clothing, but the way they are set up means that I would have to take time off from work in order to visit them, and they often don’t have items that work for me, and when they do, there is a limit on what items I can take and how often you can take items.

              So when you’re buying something that you need to be able to wear to work and also to the laundromat, the mall, etc. it’s a different ball game than buying things you only wear to work. So many of my coworkers, for example, wear heels every day. My direct supervisor often behaves like she HAS to wear heels even though she regularly complains about wearing them. I always wear flat shoes I can walk in to the office, because I am not always sure when I’ll have the money to replace shoes that wear out and I can’t count on always having another pair to change into.

  4. Coelura*

    Is it really necessary? I am allergic to most fabrics except cotton and can only wear gold or silver – no costume jewely. It limited my wardrobe severely, so I choose to wear very plain clothing. This choice has not limited me in my career at all as I’m an executive at a fortune 100 company.

    Perhaps a suggestion that she meet with a color analyst & style specialist might be more in order. I did build a specific style that is plain (as it only has cotton in it) with some help with my look.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Not saying you need to be Miss Jazzy Fashion-Forward, but there are interesting cuts and necklines and colors patterns you can use. There are lots of ways to go a little wild with fashion, even within your allergy restrictions. =)

      1. ArtsNerd*

        That comment was for people who *want to* have fun with it. If your tastes run more conservative or plain, and you’re not running into any issues, then by all means continue!

    2. Juli G.*

      On the other hand, I’ve never seen a female or male executive that doesn’t dress sharply. And that includes a woman who dresses in what you might call a more masculine style – she still looks very put together.

      Of course it’s possible – you prove the point. But in a lot of industries and companies, it can be a strike against you and it sounds like that may be the case at OP’s company.

      If the employee can feel comfortable doing it and is medically able to, there’s no reason to make life more difficult. Especially for women wanting to move up!

      1. CEMgr*

        I agree, Juli. This issue is darn near a gender-neutral one on the tech industry in Silicon Valley. With a few high profile individuals aside (Zuckerburg, Jobs…), every director and above I’ve ever met wears clothes that average noticeably more polished, higher quality, and better fitting than the troops wear.

        If the male SV VP wears “khaki” pants, they fit perfectly, are in a heavy, expensive-looking fabric, and are perfectly ironed; worn with a well-pressed dress shirt (V-neck undershirt underneath for manly decorousness), polished loafers or slip-on shoes, with a coordinating “casual” (real leather, but maybe a bit thicker or woven) belt. The watch may be old-school or fashion-forward but it will be expensive and well-selected. Everything looking like it was selected by his Nordstrom personal shopper and prepped for wear by his valet.

        1. Jen*

          Yes! Everything about this. It’s less about the specific items, and more about how you’re wearing them. I work in tech, and regularly see CEOs and the like wearing jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, like the rest of the developers, but their jeans are well-fitting, high-quality denim, their t-shirts are flattering, and their shoes are trendy and scuff-free.

          Bottom line is, they look like they purchased their clothes and dressed with intent, rather than bought whatever was on sale (or free, in the case of those pervasive XXL vendor t-shirts) and pulled out whatever was on the top of the ‘clean’ pile that morning.

        2. Mints*

          I get the picture you’re painting, but it took me some hardcore staring at bystanders to figure this out on my own. It was lots of this guy looks rich, this other guy looks sloppy. What’s the difference…
          I think I’m able to see “polish” now, but it was definitely a learned skill

          1. Jessa*

            Exactly. You look at two people in the exact same clothes and have to figure out why one looks like rich and the other a schlub.

      2. Lora*

        Eh, I’ve seen executives who dress very, very casually, down to ripped jeans and faded sweatshirt. It REALLY depends on industry and size of the company.

        In biotech/startup culture, you can wear really grungy jeans and an ancient tee shirt–as long as the tee shirt has an MIT or Harvard logo on it, preferably MIT. My old boss was a senior vice president, and he wore his New Balance sneakers and MIT sweatshirt until they fell apart. Didn’t hurt him any.

        Most of the lady executives in my field go for “quirky” rather than “polished”. Clean, un-faded jeans and a top you might find at a craft fair/art show, maybe a turtleneck in winter, funky glasses.

        For me personally, I have three “looks”: the Client Presentation Look, which consists of a light wool pencil skirt and matching jacket (Theory, Tahari), silk shell, heels or nice boots if it’s winter, hair pinned in a loose bun, hipster glasses, earrings and possibly a necklace if I’m feeling adventurous. Then there’s the Everyday Look, which is slacks (Ann Taylor, Limited, taken to the dry cleaner and tailored), some sort of blouse or sweater, possibly a Business Casual (think JJill) blazer, boots, hair pulled back in a tight bun or braid. And there’s Networking Party/Drinks: slightly above the knee shift dress with a cardigan or blazer over it, heels, earrings and *either* a necklace *or* rings.

        Regarding jewelry and allergies: freshwater pearls go with just about everything and are not terribly expensive, nobody’s going to be checking whether you’re wearing a Grade A $50 necklace or a $10,000 strand of Mikimotos. I also have a set of silver and mother-of-pearl earrings & necklace that an auntie bought for me at a craft show years ago that looks nice against black or grey. And I have a few little silver rings I got from Pandora. That’s it. Nothing fancy.

        This would not fly in, for example, finance. On Wall Street, you pretty much hand Nordstrom’s your credit card and hope for the best. But I’m an engineer, so I’m overdressed most of the time.

          1. Lora*

            Aww, thanks! It took years of dragging people who are very much into fashion to Neiman-Marcus with me, though. And when I say “into fashion,” I mean, they sew knockoffs of haute couture in their spare time and design their own wedding dresses, sort of thing. Not label-obsessed. My favorite spring/summer dress, which looks absolutely gorgeous (soft blue silk sheath with light green chiffon overlay that is embroidered with blue patterns), was a thrift store find. I’m terrible at fashion myself, I mostly let other people pick things out for me–and all my work clothes are black, grey and brown, with the odd wine-colored blouse here and there, so I don’t have to think about matching anything in the morning or worry about spilling coffee on my shirt.

            I am not half as stylin’ as the ladies in the Financial District. They have, like, Armani Collezione everything, and spend a LOT of time on their hair in the morning. Weirdly, not so many of them get anything tailored, I see plenty of women who are wearing what are obviously high-priced clothes that fit them horribly, wrinkle inappropriately, too-long hemline on pants, etc. Since NM and Nordstrom’s offer this service free, and usually same-day, I just don’t get it. If I’m spending $2000 on one outfit, that thing better not just make me look stunning, I expect to be bulletproof and leap tall buildings in a single bound, too!

            1. nyxalinth*

              Same here! MST3k and I go way back. Reminds me: I ought to try to find one of the shorts on Youtube that had to do with hiring back in the 50s for off-topic day.

    3. Anons*

      You can dress very plainly both formally and informally, though. A button-down shirt with black slacks is more formal than a long-sleeved t-shirt and khakis, for example.

    4. Rayner*

      I don’t think it’s necessarily about jewellery – I can’t wear much because I just break it all the time, or lose it, and I’m not into investing in stuff that I can’t wear the hell out of – or make up but just about general appearance, and putting the best foot forward.

      Like, for example, the difference between a tailored blazer or an off the rack one, or a pair of scuffed shoes and a pair of polished ones, no matter how expensive or cheap. The whole impression should be – this person came to work to work and do so professionally, not this person rolled out of bed and grabbed the same things they always did.

    5. Stephanie*

      The employee in question could still dress “plainly” in natural fibers, but just make sure everything’s tailored to fit and made of substantial material (i.e., no super thin cotton blouses).

  5. fposte*

    Sure! This isn’t a correction, this is part of broader guidance about her future. I don’t think it has to be touchy.

    Clothing is a tool. Knowing how to use it as a shortcut to making your case for yourself is terrifically helpful, just like knowing how to use any tool is helpful. Whether you like it or not, people will interpret your clothing–why not use that to your advantage?

    1. Kelly O*

      I tend to agree with this line of thought.

      Whether we like it or not, our appearance matters – I’m sure many of you have seen the photo series with the same woman in different levels of make-up, and how she was perceived by people as far as professionalism goes.

      Being able to use the tools at your disposal to project the image you want is valuable, and you certainly don’t have to spend a mint doing it, or even do things that you feel aren’t true to who you are.

    2. Sigrid*

      That’s exactly how I’ve always thought of it (and now that I am in a position of having mentees, that’s how I phrase it to them) — your appearance is a tool. You can — and should — consciously choose how to wield that tool.

  6. Madge*

    It really disappoints me that in this day & age we can’t look past the clothing issue. It’s so shallow to base one’s opinion on the shoes or Khaki pants someone wears or the suit they’ve chosen. I know people will say, “That’s just the way it is”. That is an apathetic answer. If companies have adopted a business casual dress code then why do you have to dress up to be taken seriously? I’d say to all of you, stop judging business casual harshly & start seeing people for who they are & what they contribute. Then maybe we can change this & other archaic unwritten rules.

    BTW, I am not speaking about inappropriate clothing.

      1. Zahra*

        Even a pin on your shirt? I can’t wear belt or jeans without an underlayer, because nickel irritates my skin and it is a regular feature of belt buckles and jeans buttons. I could still use a pin on a shirt, because it would not rub on my skin.

        If you can wear only gold or silver jewelry, you can always upgrade a piece at a time. Actually, depending on your finances, I recommend upgrading your wardrobe gradually. You can see the difference between what suits you and what looked cool in the store and discover what you like (and looks nice) vs. what looks nice (but don’t like all that much).

        In general, I recommend not buying a piece if you’re not convinced it looks good on you or that you would wear it. The people pleaser in me had a hard time with this lesson, but I now apply it as much as I can. Even if my shopping partner or the salesperson tells me the shirt/dress/whatever looks terrific on me, I won’t buy it if I’m not convinced I look good in it (and the salesperson gets -10 credibility and -50% chance of me returning to the store for a future purchase if they tell me it looks nice when it obviously fits wrong). It might be 50% off, but it’s still money down the drain if it’s never worn.

        1. Cat*

          Yes, but a pin on your shirt is not usually what people are talking about when they tell women to wear jewelry – that isn’t going to fulfill your obligations to be conventionally feminine, if that’s what is being pushed on you by your office.

        2. Madge*

          Again, I cannot wear jewlery because of skin tags. The rubbing hurts & promotes more skin tags. I also don’t wear collared shirts for the same reason. Pins/brooch really aren’t my style & look very dated & old-fashioned.

          1. Sanonymous*

            If you ever wanted to wear some jewelry, you could go with cufflinks. Cufflinks always polish off an outfit, and don’t rub on your skin. I don’t wear them, but I’m pretty tempted to get a top just to wear some.

            1. Blue Anne*

              I can say from experience it is a pain in the butt to try to find female shirts that fit properly with no boob-gap AND have french cuffs. This is sad for me, because I love cufflinks.

        3. Cath in Canada*

          I have the same problem with jeans buttons. My cousin taught me a great trick: cover the skin-facing part in clear nail polish every few weeks. No more skin irritation!

            1. Sanonymous*

              Most jewelers are also happy to replace the finding with something better (usually gold, for a fee) for those with sensitive skin.

              I’ve found nothing better than stainless steel. Prefer silver myself, but I’ve never had a client who had problems with stainless. (Knock on wood)

              1. Windchime*

                I am allergic to nickel. Lots of costume jewelry that says “surgical steel” seems to be full of nickel and I have an almost instant reaction to it. But I can wear stuff that is labeled “nickel-free” without a problem, as well as most sterling silver. And of course gold, but I don’t have a lot of that because it’s expensive.

                1. Bea W*

                  That’s good to know about “surgical steel”. I thought it was just me. My favorite earings ever were real gold and pearl studs because they were the most comfortable ever and never gave me problems. Plus I got them when I was 10 and ooooo real gold and pearl. It’s what I imagined rich people would wear.

                2. Glor*

                  As a note, in terms of metal purity, you want to avoid “surgical” steel [as you found out!] and go for “implant grade stainless steel.” Generally 316LVM, actually. Cheap earrings irritate the heck out of my piercings, but I wear that steel and titanium literally all the time and have zero problems with them.

                  Just figured I’d throw that out there!

    1. Schnauz*

      I agree with you, but this is not an issue that will be solved from the bottom up.

      I am just as professional in my jeans and tshirts as I am when dressed up. I do not feel some sweeping tranformation, some superhero upgrade in my professional skillsets and arsenal when I put jewelry and makeup on or slide on heels. If anything, heels are my kryptonite! If I cut my hair into a fauxhawk or dye it green, I haven’t suddenly forgotten everything I know.

      But, many people do support dressing up as increasing professionalism and until the people with the power to hire/fire come online then it will not change. Even when you look at the “rebels” of silicon valley, even the tshirt and jeans crowd is overwhelmingly doing “nice” jeans and tshirts and maye blazers. They’re not dressing like bankers necessarily, but they’re not what I’d call saturday casual either.

    2. Kelly O*

      I truly don’t feel this is archaic, Madge. And it’s not about forming an opinion of someone because they choose to dress simply. I joke about my own “uniform” at work and it’s very very simple.

      The first impression people have of us is our appearance, whether we like it or not. It’s not even about “dressing up” as part of being business casual, but taking the time to choose things that flatter you, that project a pulled-together and professional appearance (even in a casual environment), and looking like someone in charge.

      You can choose to wear accessories that work with your particular dermatological need – and it doesn’t have to be a necklace. It’s amazing how small things can change the way an outfit looks. Those plain khakis and t-shirts? Toss a casual blazer on over it or a structured cardigan, and I would wager the difference would be notable. A pin, a scarf, a bracelet, a nice watch, earrings, even a ring can be a simple touch that finishes something in a way that projects a more composed appearance.

      Again, these do not have to be expensive or time-consuming things, but they can make a world of difference, especially for young professionals trying to be taken seriously in the workplace, or those who want to move to positions of authority.

      It may not be pleasant, but it’s something we all do to a degree (making assessments about people based on how they appear/present themselves.)

      1. Jax*

        Khakis and long-sleeve t-shirts alone sound awful. She might as well have “I’d rather be at home!” printed on her T-shirt.

        My office wardrobe is a lot of dark gray or black dress pants ($20-$40 per pair, similar to khakis), cheap camisole tank tops with lace at the bottom (maybe $5 each?), and lots of fitted cardigans I picked up at Target and Goodwill over the years. Also a pair of black heels because I don’t like my pants dragging the floor since I’m too tall for average and too short for talls.

        My point is I have the same time, energy, and money invested in my outfit as a girl in khaki pants and a t-shirt. It doesn’t take much to step it up–and yes, cardigans are awesome. :)

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I’m too tall for average and too short for talls

          Just here to nod along. . .I’m too tall for shorts and too short for average. Such an annoyance. Women come in more than 3 different heights.

          Otherwise, I wear more or less what you wear. I like form fitting sweaters and button-ups, too. If you find things that don’t have to be hand washed or ironed, it’s just as easy as t-shirts. (Although, in the summer, I wear short-sleeved t-shirts with a more formal pencil skirt and jewelry, and I think that works okay. The long-sleeved t-shirts don’t seem to have the same flexibility to dress up or dress down.)

          1. giggleloop*

            I’m too tall for average and too short for talls
            I have embraced skirts and dresses for precisely this reason. I realize that they aren’t for everyone, but it’s the best solution for me (it also helps because my hips and waist are two different sizes, so I have lots of trouble with pants in general).

            1. Bea W*

              I have the same issue with hips and waist and still can’t find appropriate skirts to make it work (again most work clothing sized for adult women is too baggy or loose). It’s as bad as trying to find pants that fit. I have some dresses I like to wear in the summer, but I’m not a big dress person and they’re not as versatile as skirts.

              My sister is a big fan of the dress. It works well for her pear shape. I wish I could lool that awesome in a dress.

          2. Kelly O*

            It’s so nice to see people too tall for regular but too short for tall lengths. Tailors are nice, but it is a royal pain to not be able to just walk in and find a pair of pants that doesn’t make me look like I’m waiting on a flood.

            1. Bea W*

              I’m often too tall for petite/short lengths and too short for regular. Damn long torso/short legs things going on.

      2. Bea W*

        Again, these do not have to be expensive or time-consuming things, but they can make a world of difference, especially for young professionals trying to be taken seriously in the workplace, or those who want to move to positions of authority.

        IMHO – it’s doesn’t matter how snappily one dresses, it’s really the work ethic, integrity, treating others with respect, and results that gets people taken seriously in business. I feel like the quoted statement is really misleading, as if dressing up is the difference between being taken seriously and not being taken seriously, and that’s actually pretty far from the truth. First impressions do count up front, but not near as much as the subsequent behavior, interactions with others, and the way you conduct yourself. Being taken seriously in the workplace is the result of a bunch of other things, many of which have nothing do with with style or clothing. Clothing can be a part of the total package, and even then I would argue that it’s a lesser part of the package than people are lead to believe.

        1. fposte*

          I actually thought Kelly O’s “world of difference” had an implied “to your presentation” attached to it–I would agree that without that context it’s overstating, but I think it was operating within that context. I also think it’s really, really situational. Meeting clients for the first time a lot? Dress matters. Dealing with your colleague on the other side of the room every day? Not so much. Pharmaceutical rep? Dress matters. Physicist? Not so much.

          And actually,

          1. Kelly O*

            Exactly. It’s exactly like a presentation.

            You could have two presentations with exactly the same substance – one message could be plain black writing on white slides presented by someone speaking in a monotone without looking up; the other with well-placed color, images, and charts presented by someone who changes inflection and tone, and who engages the audience.

            You’ll get the same information from both presentations. But most people will remember the one that had a graphic or chart that caught their eye, or an engaging speaker, or something that on the surface would seem to be quite fluffy or superficial. But it matters. Maybe not to everyone, and maybe not all the time, but it does matter.

          2. Bea W*

            Yes first impressions matter in business and it’s totally situational. Appearance carries more weight for someone who is client or public facing often as part of their job. It’s a big influence for men and women in job interviews (and first dates) because there’s little else to go on. It’s less important if you sit at a desk all day and interact with co-workers and depend on good reviews and earning respect from within to get ahead. Your co-workers figure out pretty quickly if you can actually play the role you dress for everyday. So if you stink at your job no amount of visual presentation fixes that.

            FWIW my field is definitely on the casual end and largely internal facing. No one gets ahead by dressing up since dressing up isn’t what delivers quality data for analysis. That might be nice though if every time I handed off data for clinical analysis while dressed in a suit made it super clean and usable.

    3. Rayner*

      Unfortunately, this doesn’t help the OP or her ‘protege’.

      It’s not a bad thing to encourage people to dress more formally, and to perhaps elevate their dress style up a grade – from business casual to business professional, for example.

      It doesn’t mean that people will immediately change their opinions of a person if they’re wearing a certain brand of shoe or if they’re wearing khaki’s, but it can lend a person an air of quiet confidence and power. Look at the difference between wearing a suit and wearing jeans, or wearing a hippie broomstick skirt versus a smart pair of cropped trousers and a blazer combo.

      It’s very nice to say that “we should judge people on what they do not how they look!” but that’s not the whole picture. Appearance, especially when they don’t have much experience to counter a bad one, is important.

      At this stage in the direct report’s career, where she’s looking to build credibility and reflect a good image of the company and her own abilities, having a smarter, more professional appearance ups her game.

    4. fposte*

      I don’t think you have to, I think it just makes it easier, so it’s worth understanding the possibilities. It’s also not a question of business casual vs. business not-casual–it’s about using what you put on your body to be part of the presentation you’re aiming for. Places where it’s desperately uncool to be in anything but jeans and a t-shirt are places where presentation matters more, if anything.

      Think about an actual presentation. That should be about the words and ideas, right? Not whether the presenter mumbles or drones or has bad slides or misspells the words on them? But nonetheless, we pay more attention to somebody who speaks clearly and confidently. On the audience side, sure, it makes sense to argue that droney guy made really good points and should be listened to–but if you’re a presenter, it makes sense to understand how to present more effectively.

      1. Bea W*

        In that example though, when someone is giving a presentation, the quality of the speaking and materials are what make or break the presentation. If your speaker mumbles, they will fail to communicate the “words and ideas”. The same applies to bad materials that are difficult to understand or don’t present the words and ideas clearly.

        I see your point, but a presentation is maybe not really parallel. It’s more like food presentation. If the weird stuff on your plate looks kinda sloppy and gross you might hesitate to try it, but if it is nicely presented to look appetizing, you might be willing to have a taste. Both plates might be great, but it’s easier on some people to try the one that looks more appetizing.

    5. BethRA*

      We can talk about how shallow it is to judge on appearances all day long, that won’t change the fact that it happens, and dress/visual presentation can impact someone’s career.

      Pointing that out, especially to someone who’s looking to us for career guidance, is not apathy. And it does not mean that this direct report suddenly has to start wearing make-up or fancier clothing – it just means they can make more informed decisions about their appearance (and I say that as a 46 year-old woman who refuses to wear make-up, among other things).

      1. Annona Miss*

        I agree that we can talk about how shallow it is to judge on appearance, but it still happens. It will probably always happen.

        Part of the judgment, unfortunately, is very very shallow – how symmetrical are your features, how clear is your skin, what’s your waist-hip ratio, etc. A lot of that is genetics, but time, effort, and probably money can affect these things. The other part of the judgment, however, is judging your effort and your choices. The person with the purple mohawk, black lipstick, and neck tattoos is choosing to present themselves very different than the person in a dark suit, shiny shoes, understated makeup, and sleek hairstyle.

        If someone wants to be perceived as a sharp business person who routinely make the extra effort necessary, it’s not going to be helpful to dress in a way that conveys “I aim for the bare minimum of acceptability.”

        I’ve recommended to female staffers that they dig through the archives on Corporette. The threadjacking is insane (and will make you really appreciate Alison’s moderation), but there are a LOT of useful tips if you dig through it.

        Also, a friend pointed out the double-seamed pants such as khakis (and jeans) were by default always seen as more casual. I’d never paid attention to the outside seams of my pants, but when I heard this, my khakis got downgraded to weekends only.

        1. Kelly O*


          I’m so glad someone else feels that way about the Corporette threadjacking. I love the blog and some of the comments, but it’s crazy weeding through to what I need or want to see.

          Love, Alison. Mean it!

          /end tangent

          1. Windchime*

            I so agree. It’s like sometimes the commenters are just waiting for the post to be put up; it doesn’t even matter what the post is about, because the comments are so unrelated! But there is a ton of good work-related fashion advice there, so I like reading that site from time to time.

          2. TheSnarkyB*

            I think Corporette’s actually a great example of what we’re talking about here! I don’t go to that website anymore or use it, mostly because of how it looks. (Maybe my image of it is out of date, it looks okay on first glance now.) If it were more streamlined and polished looking, the design wouldn’t detract from the experience/the information they’re trying to convey. I think the same argument can be made about the comments sections over there.

        2. Pickles*

          Corporette’s gotten less useful lately for me, because a lot of what I’ve seen lately is increasingly less professional. Just my opinion, of course, but there seem to be a lot of too-high heels and too-low necklines lately (not to mention stuff on babies).

          CapHillStyle is another good website that I’ve come to like a lot more.

          1. Sigrid*

            +1 recommendation to both Capitol Hill Style and The Classy Cubicle for work-appropriate fashion blogs

  7. Schnauz*

    I think you should phrase just as you have here. Assure her that her clothes are entirely appropriate for where she is at now, but encourage her to dress for where she wants to go. Assuming that others are your level and higher do dress more formally, tell her to look at higher management and how they dress everyday. Let her know you feel it helped you to be taken more seriously and that while it *may* not hold her back, why let something so simple and controllable even be a minor factor in holding her back?

    If you have this type of relationship, maybe offer tips. Reassure her that this doesn’t need to be an overnight transformation, add pieces to her wardrobe as her finances allow. Perhaps even suggest a few key pieces.

    I don’t know if this would be helpful, but if she’s skeptical use those corporate head shots as an example. If she were having a professional photo taken, would she wear her usual khakis and tshirt?

  8. plain jane*

    I would present this as a performance vs. perceptions thing. That one of the things about management is that it isn’t just tangible performance, but also how others respond to you (above, below & peers), and what tactics people use to get that respect & trust beyond the work itself. Perception becomes more important as you move from being an individual contributor to a manager.

    So I’d talk about not just clothing, but also speech patterns, tone (for women it’s generally good to use a lower vs. higher pitch), communication approach on projects and achievements…

  9. LBK*

    I’m looking forward to seeing people’s thoughts on this subject, because this is a discussion my manager has had with me a couple times now. He is very, very into “dress for the job you want” and thinks I’m going to struggle to move up if my clothes aren’t perfectly ironed every day and I don’t wear a suit when I’m around management. I do exactly what the OP says – I dress appropriately and within the dress code, but I admittedly don’t put much extra effort into it. It’s just not important to me.

    I do understand that realistically, apperance impacts what people think of you. First impressions are heavily visual and there are very few people who can truly make an unbiased judgment on you that doesn’t factor in appearance, so I don’t think my manager is 100% wrong, but I think the advice is often overapplied.

    The last time we talked about this, he brought up an example of a guy he worked with who always wore a suit even when the dress code in the department was casual. He said it got the guy attention and people remembered who he was because he was “The Suit Guy”. I think that is idiotic, and if people are going to think of me as one aspect of myself I’d much rather be “The Responsive Guy” or “The System Guru Guy” instead of some stupid aspect of myself that says nothing about my work. Furthermore, I don’t want to work for a manager who wouldn’t hire me because of my clothes even if my work is great.

    My point is, OP, do you think that the rest of her work speaks for itself? If so, can you help her learn to promote her talents and gain visibility for her skills? That will probably be more effective and more useful for her in the long run. The next job she gets may be a super laid back tech office where even the C-levels where jeans every day. At that point it will be useless to have spent so much effort on her appearance, and she’ll be better served by knowing how to make her achievements stand out instead of her clothes.

    1. Zahra*

      First, you have to be careful about being the “Systems Guru Guy”: you should not be promoted because you’re good at what you do, but rather because you’ve shown the qualities needed for the next step up (which may be very different than those you display now).

      Second, it doesn’t have to be either/or. You can decide to stand out through your accomplishments AND try to dress a bit more smartly.

      1. LBK*

        Sorry, I only meant that in the sense of gaining visibility. I’m well aware that being a good individual contributor doesn’t necessarily make you qualified for management and that the skills required are very different.

        I do dress “smartly” in the sense of being more interesting than my coworkers – I wear lots of different colors and styles of clothes, vs. the usual white/blue shirt and black pants most of my coworkers wear daily. But I think it’s goofy to be the only one wearing a suit every day in order to “stand out” or “look more professional” or whatever.

        1. Jax*

          I don’t know if you have to wear a tie at work, but I read that one should never wear a tie without a jacket unless you’re a bank teller or a 12 year old boy at a wedding. I thought it was hilarious and showed it to my husband, who scowled and continues to wear his tie without a jacket to work each day.

          Maybe your manager just wants to see you add a jacket to look more together, and move you from “bank teller” to “promotable material”? If he’s so hung up on suits, it might be more the suit jacket he’s missing than a whole coordinating formal suit.

            1. Jax*

              He started ditching the tie and just leaving the top button undone, which makes him look 1,000 times better.

              (Or he rips the tie off before he gets home and I have to see it. Either way, I’m happy.)

          1. LBK*

            Our entire office wears ties with no jacket, suits aren’t part of our dress code. Even my manager, his manager, and his manager’s manager don’t always wear a jacket (but they do wear one sometimes, not just at meetings when it’s considered required).

    2. OriginalYup*

      I completely get what you’re saying. I used to work in an environment with your’s boss’s mentality x100, and it felt very superficial and unbalanced. A much-beloved coworker hit his patience limit with the attire stuff one day and blurted out, “If me wearing a tie to work is so bloody important, why don’t I leave the tie on my chair while I go deal with the crashing server and you can just talk to the tie?”

    3. LeeD*

      If your manager has brought this up a few times, could it be that there’s something else going on here? It’s a little odd for him to mention it repeatedly if it’s just a general comment about how to position yourself for the future. I don’t know how you normally dress, but you admit that you don’t put a lot of time or care into it. I wonder if he’s saying, “Dress for the job you want!” but what he really means is, “You look sloppy and it’s holding you back,” or “I’m reluctant to send you into meetings where everyone else is much more put together.”

      1. LBK*

        Honestly, I think it’s just that he personally puts a lot of stock in appearance when he judges people, especially their level of professionalism. He knows the quality of my work and that I’m one of the more professional people in the whole department when it comes to communication, but I think he wants to make sure others that don’t work with me as directly aren’t judging me.

        I think it comes from a good place, but it’s still annoying.

    4. BB*

      How do you handle this in casual offices where everyone wears jeans? I’d assume if someone started showing up in suits that they were interviewing elsewhere….

      1. LBK*

        Honestly, I’d just start assuming that person was a dbag who was trying to get promoted via gimmicks instead of talent.

        1. Lily in NYC*

          Then wouldn’t you be doing just what your boss does – making assumptions based on appearance?

          1. LBK*

            I guess I think of it as those kind of cheap tricks AAM always discourages like sending weird presents with your job application or a video resume. It’s an attempt to “stand out” for something superficial instead of standing out by being outstanding.

            1. Anonymous Analyst*

              However, the opposite is also true: AAM encourages sending well written, error-free cover letters that fit the formality of the job and industry. I don’t think any of us would advocate sending a cover letter with typo’s or one that we didn’t proofread because “we just don’t care” for that level of detail. Nor would we start an e-mail with “Hey Client” if we worked in a law firm.

              IMO, dressing professionally is the same thing. (Note: I am not advocating for dressing expensively, in brand names or to reinforce gender stereotypes.)

              1. LBK*

                Having typos and grammatical errors in your cover letter isn’t meeting the expected standard, though. That would be like the office dress code being shirt/tie and you show up in jeans and a hoodie.

                1. Anonymous Analyst*

                  Is it though? Companies don’t provide a style guide with job ads. In fact, some companies don’t even ask for cover letters any more, just resumes, yet the general advice here is to send a cover letter anyway.

                2. KellyK*

                  A style guide is for the super-nitpicky stuff, though. No one reasonable is going to care whether you use serial commas in your cover letter, or whether you use “email” rather than “e-mail.”

                  If you’re drawing an analogy between cover letters and office attire, I would put typos and spelling errors in the category of having stains or wrinkles on your clothes—regardless of what the expected level of dress is, it’s sloppy.

                3. LBK*

                  A style guide isn’t the same as using correct spelling and grammar. Grammar might be excusable as sometimes more informal writing doesn’t follow strict grammatical standards. I don’t think there’s a workplace in the world where they wouldn’t expect you to at least attempt to spell things correctly, especially in an important communication.

              2. LMW*

                I think it’s more like using flowery or cartoonish font in a cover letter or resume, rather than a more standard professional font. The content is the same, but the presentation can be very different.

        2. Doreen*

          I’ve worked in places where nearly everyone wore jeans, and even there people were peceived differently depending on whether they were part of the jeans,sneakers , T shirt crowd or the jeans, nicer shirt,boots/shoes crowd. Dressing more formally doesn’t have to involve suits.

          1. annie*

            I agree. I work in an extremely casual office (jeans and tshirts/sweatshirts) but as I’ve gotten older/wiser, I try to dress up a bit on days where I have a meeting, presentation, contact with outsiders, etc. No one at my office cares or notices probably, this is just my own personal principle. For me this means “nicer” jeans maybe in a trouser cut with a belt, nicer flats or boots instead of sneakers, and a cardigan over my plain tshirt, or a “nice” shirt (blouse or sweater) instead of a plain tshirt.

            I will say that if someone started showing up in suits every day, yes, they would get taken aside and talked to, because it would be super weird.

      2. Kai*

        If someone started dressing more formally just out of the blue, then yeah, that would seem to weird to me. But some people just like to dress nicer as a regular part of their work day. It seems kind of petty, but I know that I feel sharper and more focused on days when my outfit is especially well-put-together.

    5. Meg Murry*

      In a former job our one and only IT guy liked to wear a suit fairly regularly. He wasn’t especially quick or responsive and we used to grumble that he only wore suits because no one was going to ask the guy in a suit to crawl on the floor to unplug their network cables or change the toner in the printer. It got him out of a lot of work and gave us one more piece of ammo as to why we hated him (besides the fact that he snooped in our email, never returned our calls and refused to do his regular everyday job duties most days …)

    6. Observer*

      You can be the “awesome suit guy” or the forgotten person who is “awesome” when people are reminded of it. The point here is not to use clothing to overcome poor performance. Rather it’s to insure that they remember the person, and in a favorable light.

      Also, especially in technical types of fields, you want to make sure that you (generic you) don’t leave an image of “that geek” who probably lives in a server farm, but “That great technologist” who really knows what we need to get our work done. Fair or not, the way you dress makes a difference to that perception.

      1. Jen RO*

        Well, in all the software companies I’ve worked, wearing a suit = you are going to an interview. (And you have no clue about the industry anyway, because no one wears suits even to interviews.) Wearing a suit in day to day life would get you labeled Suit Guy, but in a bad way.

        1. LBK*

          That’s exactly my point. Being labelled Suit Guy is not a good thing, IMO, because it means there’s nothing else worth remembering about you.

          1. Bea W*

            So this.

            This thread also illustrates how dependent the whole “suit guy” thing is on the specific environment. Dressing up in some places may be the equivilent of dressing down in others. For instance, I knew someone who worked in a NOC, and when she did she stocked her wardrobe with what she refered to as the “geek uniform”, khakis and polo shirts. When she took a different job in the corporate offices she switched to dress slacks, blouses, and accessorizing. As they say, “When in Rome…” Context is so important. You can’t just suit it up and expect the same results everywhere.

    7. Bwmn*

      I think that the OP is probably more well versed in the specific field and the kind of impact that has the potential to make.

      I work in a field where the ‘dress code’ can range from “please not too many holes in your jeans” to three piece suits and ultra formal cocktail parties – all within the same organization depending on the day. And while being good at my job 90% of the time doesn’t depend on what I wear at all – that 10% still clearly matters .

      That being said – I think that in terms of “dress to impress” or “dress for the job you want” doesn’t have to include everything. I don’t wear make-up, so I make sure to focus particularly on elements of my clothing and having a piece of jewelry. I have other colleagues who have a more simple style of dress so they focused on making sure it’s tailored and do wear make up. Basically it doesn’t need to be all or nothing, but rather picking some aspects that are the most enjoyable/least difficult.

    8. Sam*

      We have a very responsive System Guru Guy who is awesome at his job at my office. He’s also the one who is on the casual end of the appearance spectrum, wears the “interesting” colors, and doesn’t respond to feedback from his manager to dress more professionally. Realistically he’s not likely to be promoted any time soon, despite being good at his job. The choices he makes about his appearance send signals to everyone else (whether he intends to or not) that he lacks gravitas and can’t be taken seriously. He keeps applying for promotions thinking the system is going to change, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t, but realistically, if he’s going to wait for our corporate culture (I’m in finance) to make a major shift, he’s going to be waiting a long time, and he has to decide if this principle is more important than the promotion.

  10. OriginalYup*

    If you feel like this is an important component for advancement in your workplace, then you should discuss it with her. Not to make her do it, but so she knows it’s an actual thing she should be conscious of. Personally, I’d frame it within a larger conversation that includes other hidden values at your organization, like (I’m guessing): being early for meetings, always referring to management as “leadership” rather than “C Suite,” or never working from home on Fridays. That way, the message is “here are important things you need to know about moving ahead here” rather than “dress up to get promoted.” The appearance stuff takes place within a larger framework of perception.

    1. C average*

      I don’t have a mentor, but if I did, this is EXACTLY the kind of stuff I’d want to learn from them.

      1. Lucy Ricardo*

        I agree with C average. I started an office job a year ago after 6+ years in retail and thankfully my coworker mentored me because she knew I wanted to move up. One of the things she mentioned to me (gently) was that I might want to put a little more effort in my appearance. I was grateful that she mentioned it because after years of retail, I didn’t know how to dress for an office job.

      2. annie*

        Me too, this is totally the type of “inside info” that you really want to learn from a mentor. I think having the dress conversation as part of this context would be a great way to approach it. Other “coded”/culture things I might mention if it was me having this conversation are what time people run out out the door (try to not do it at 5:00 on the dot every day), what is important to the team’s culture (go to lunch with those two guys on your team once a month or your relationships won’t be as good as they could), quirks of the boss (i.e. she really likes everyone to stop by and say hi/chitchat once a day at least), etc.

    2. Jessica*

      I think the other suggestions here are helpful. I would not want a mentor talking to me about my clothing and style though. I think the only exceptions would be if the mentee is physically blind or if the company is set up in small branch offices so she doesn’t really have a chance to see for herself how the managers dress. Assuming she can see them, she can decide how much she wants to follow their example.

    3. some1*

      Yes, I like the idea of making the clothes suggestion part of a larger conversation, especially since the LW acknowledges that that her coworker is presently following the dress code.

    4. summercamper*

      I think this is an incredibly helpful comment. I’m a lot like the mentee in this situation – my work clothes fit the dress code but are admittedly plain and non-polished. A lot of the reason for this is that I’m entering the professional world after taking a detour into adventure camping post-college. Up until 6 months ago my entire wardrobe was based around North Face and the like. So it is hard for me – both financially and because I have zero sense of style – to make the switch to a more professional look.

      I can tell you, though, that I’m embarrassed by the clothes I wear to work most days – so if my supervisor pulled me aside and handled this in a really direct way, I would be mortified and probably get defensive. That’s why framing it in a larger “hidden values” discussion is so helpful. Bonus points if this discussion takes place over lunch. I’d be super-mortified if it took place in my boss’ office during a performance review, when I’d already be emotionally on edge.

      If I were the mentor in this situation, I’d try this more gentle approach first, assuming that the mentee already senses that this may be holding her back. You can always get more direct the second time around, but it’s hard to backpedal when you’ve embarrassed someone.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I like this suggestion to use it as part of a big picture discussion. You can also work in one or two things that she does right and tell her to keep doing those things. In other words, the discussion does not have to be a list of negatives.
      My current boss tells me what I am doing right more so than many of my previous bosses. I make sure I keep doing those things AND I am able to expand on what she considers good ideas so that I end up with some great ideas. This is because she is telling me what works as well as what does not work- there’s opportunities in both areas.

  11. Cat*

    One thing I will say – and I think this depends on your workplace – is that not everyone succeeds in the same way. I actually do know a fair number of women who have been extremely successful dressing like you describe (except when necessary for a specific event but even then, we’re talking about the bare minimum of dressed up) and with no make-up or jewelry. That’s obviously not going to be a go in every industry, but I think it is a possibility in more than people think. In the end, I think that in a lot of places, it’s about confidence – if you are someone who feels better when you’re dressed up, you’re going to project better; if you’re not, you’re not and people will pick up on that.

    So I guess my question is – are you in a fashion forward workplace where everyone who succeeds dresses up? Or is their a mixture? If the latter, does your employee look out of place because of her dress or because of her bearing? Are you thinking that improving her dress will improve her bearing? If that’s the case, that might be something to address instead of how she’s dressed; if she can improve how she projects herself, she might improve her dress as part of that, but she might not and that would be fine too.

    1. Cat*

      I will also say, I absolutely reject the idea that women are required to wear any particular feminized type of clothing in the workplace, including makeup or jewelry. If your workplace de facto requires this of women, you should rethink and address your culture immediately. Having a culture where people are expected to dress sharply is one thing; putting particular gender requirements on people is an entirely different thing.

      1. Anon*

        In my office , I think dressing up might or might not help.
        But there are women in management that dress like men ….

        1. Simonthegrey*

          By dress like men, do you mean “in suits and ties and jackets” or “pants,” because I don’t know if the latter really is dressing like a man any longer.

      2. LMW*

        I remember at my first corporate job (coming from the more casual world of publishing), I always thought my VP looked incredibly polished and she wore basically the same thing as the men at her level: Well-tailored trousers, a button down that fit and a jacket. No accessories, and never saw her in a skirt.
        I tend to like more feminine clothes, and I felt like I had to step it up a notch so I wouldn’t look girly, I’d look polished. It was good to have that type of role model around.

    2. Judy*

      Another question to ask yourself, if a man wears khakis and casual buttondown shirts in the winter and khakis and polos in the summer, would you be having this conversation? Because that’s what pretty much every guy wears here, even the Division VP. I’ve seen him sometimes in dress pants and dressier shirts, maybe 1-2 times a month, but the only time I’ve seen him in a suit is in a photo.

        1. drives me crazy*

          I agree with thinking about the conversation as if the employee was male. How would you speak to a man who wears plain t-shirts and plain khakis everyday? He would need to “dress for success” as well in order to demonstrate his seriousness for moving up. Ugly clothes on anyone signals that they might not be as motivated to achieve as someone who puts a lot of time into their appearance.

        2. Us, Too*

          I don’t think so. I’d be having the same conversation with a man who wore khakis and long sleeve tshirts to work every day if that wasn’t the norm for the role he wanted to be in.

      1. JT*

        I do think this applies to men as too. Corporate men in most places I’ve worked are expected to dress to a certain standard, and if they don’t it would become a problem. If an employee wanting to advance was dressing on the low end of the spectrum, it would for sure hurt his chances.

        I do think there is a double standard to a degree, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that this doesn’t apply to men.

        1. FurnitureGal*

          Agree – I managed a male employee a few years back and had to have this conversation. He badly wanted to move into a supervisory role, but showed up for work regularly with uncombed hair and in wrinkled & sometimes dirty clothing. Our culture was relatively formal and he regularly skirted the bottom end of the dress code. We had a discussion about perception and how looking more professional would help him attain his goals. Unfortunately, he never implemented those suggestions (he was a just a person who didn’t take much care with his appearance) and today he’s in the same role as he was then as leadership refuses to place him in a position where he’d be in higher profile meetings or interface with customers.

          1. Simonthegrey*

            My husband and I have had to to have the “you have to shave more than 2x a work week.” He will go to work with 3-day stubble, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it is out of place for his work environment. I can see it, but he honestly doesn’t.

      2. AnotherAlison*

        Someone mentioned it above, but I think there is a huge range of polish achievable with the same basic pieces.

        The guy who is in wrinkly, misshapen, too short/too long Old Navy khakis and the guy who has on an ironed pair of perfect fitting J Crew khakis are not in the same group. You don’t have to have on a suit, but your outfit still needs to be a step above, no matter what gender you are.

      3. Bwmn*

        I think that when talking about dress in regards to moving up, sometimes there is an issue more about context than actual garments – and I do think that this applies equally to men and women. I have two bosses – one dresses nearly exclusively in very tailored jeans with a button down/blazer look and looks far more stylish and put together than my other boss who wears wrinkles slacks with various business casual tops. Regardless of where jeans fit into the dress code – the one boss always appears far more polished than the other. Whether this does/doesn’t matter – denim boss reached this level of management in his early 30s whereas less put together didn’t reach that level until his early 40s.

        So I think a discussion of this nature in regards to mentoring (more so than management) is probably most useful if it focuses on thoughts of overall presentation more so than specific items. Perhaps investing in dry cleaning, an iron, and some tailoring is all the mentee really needs to do? Maybe all the plain tops can stay if some dark slacks/skirts are mixed in? Maybe switching to a more formal shoe? There are lots of ways to approach being more polished/professional without assuming it needs to be full make-up, lots of jewelry and high heels.

      4. Sigrid*

        It certainly can apply to men equally. My husband is an engineer at a consulting firm, and it is absolutely required for the men to look just as polished as the women when interacting with clients. (A day with no client-facing duties has a more relaxed dress code.) In fact, according to him, the dress code is pretty much the same for both men and women — khakis and a more casual shirt/blouse when in the office, dress slacks and a button-down shirt + blazer or suit jacket when meeting with clients. Women can wear skirts when meeting with clients, but generally don’t for practical reasons (see below).

        Of course, half their meetings with clients are in the field, which can cause problems…. You’re still expected to dress nicely, but you might have to put on waders to climb through mud. I have some hilarious pictures to prove it.

  12. Julia*

    Absolutely sit down and talk with her…be direct and also say you are telling her because you think she has potential and you don’t want that one thing to hold her back. I once had an employee in a similar situation who took the suggestion very well! She went to Nordstrom and got a Bobbi Brown makeover and worked with a sales associate to amp up her look and was later promoted. She was not offended.

  13. LCL*

    Just tell her the way you laid it out in the email. The way you presented it was clear and kind. You won’t be saying she’s defective, you will be telling her how the game is played.
    If you want to be over the top helpful, tell her also of shops that sell the kind of clothing she needs, and information resources.

    Just be aware before you say anything, if she is over about 5’8″, or heavy, her shopping experience and choices may be limited. Though it is better than it used to be. When I was younger people would tell me I should dress better, but not tell me how to do that. Or they would suggest stores that only sold clothes for tiny people, in junior sizes.

  14. Suze*

    As someone who works for a manufacturing company with a very casual dress code, I can totally relate to OP’s concern. Too many times the khaki/button down oxford shirt looks like a uniform, especially on a woman. My own awesome manager (a female) wears this uniform look every day. I dress in tailored pantsuits, dress pants, jewelry. Plant employees have told me they appreciate my dressing for the job and that it conveys that I am serious and professional about my role here.

    So yes, I would speak with her about it and I love the idea of dressing for the job you want. And, a person does not have to spend a ton of money on a new wardrobe. There are clothing outlets everywhere. I frequent Kasper’s.

    As much as I love my manager, I am sometimes embarrassed by her appearance, especially when we meet with folks from government agencies. I have been mistaken for the manager on many occasions, and I attribute that to the way I dress.

    The other factor is the idea that if I person knows they look good, then they feel better about themselves.

    1. Madge*

      “Too many times the khaki/button down oxford shirt looks like a uniform, especially on a woman.”

      Kind of a sexist thing to say.

      1. LBK*

        I get her point, though – that it’s not an outfit a lot of women would naturally choose for themselves, so it looks like it was picked out for them by the company. Not that some women don’t wear that by choice, but you typically see more men than women wearing a polo/button down with khakis even outside of a work context.

      2. Kelly O*

        I don’t think it’s meant in a sexist way at all. (And, just to be clear, while I understand some people’s sensitivity to the issue of sexism, I think the collective “we” is much too quick to jump on the subject. There are differences between men and women – referencing a difference does not make you sexist.)

    2. Chrissi*

      I work for a government agency and when I go to visit companies, I have mistaken a manager for someone lower ranking because of how they are dressed in comparison (!) to everyone else.

      I’ve also had the people I’m meeting w/ tell me things like, we wear jeans on Fridays so feel free to wear jeans (if we’re meeting on a Friday) and I just can’t bring myself to do it. I don’t wear a very formal suit in that case, because I want to blend at least a little, but the fact of the matter is that I am representing my agency and I need to look professional.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I had this problem in a retail store. It did not endear me to the real store manager. At all.

  15. O*

    Is it entirely possible that she knows this, and while it is “dress for the job you want”, she knows she’s not that close yet, so doesn’t want to spend the money/time on the wardrobe yet? Bring it up if you want, point out that the management positions, tend to wear more business formal than business casual, but only if everyone does (in my opinion), and if they don’t, this is just something you do, just have a conversation about how at other jobs the dress codes have been much more formal, or this practice has been something you favor and believe has helped you in your career, but certainly isn’t necessary for her to do if she doesn’t want to.

    On a side note, my first real internship was at a federal agency, and first thing I noticed was that while almost all the women dressed up, jewelry, pantyhose, etc, the men who weren’t in the two senior positions totally wore slacks/jeans with casual collar shirts. I went in-between, nice jeans/slacks with sweaters or nice shirts, but I really don’t do make-up or jewelry often, and I was completely fine with it.

    1. some1*

      “Bring it up if you want, point out that the management positions, tend to wear more business formal than business casual, but only if everyone does (in my opinion), and if they don’t, this is just something you do, just have a conversation about how at other jobs the dress codes have been much more formal, or this practice has been something you favor and believe has helped you in your career, but certainly isn’t necessary for her to do if she doesn’t want to.”

      I think this is an important point. If anyone at your org in senior managment dresses business-casual, it’s going to be harder for her to take this suggestion seriously.

      I used to work in a casual office where even most of the VP level folks wore jeans most of the time, but my direct supervisor would ding people on their performance reviews for wearing jeans (which were allowed).

      Tl/dr: if the culture at your org rewards dressing up, mention it. If it’s just your personal preference, I think that’s important to acknowledge, as well as the point that other’s have made about woudl you be as concerned if you thought a male coworker was dressing to casually to get promoted.

  16. Sally*

    Do all managers dress up? Or rather fall on the dressier side of the business casual spectrum? Do people currently not take this employee seriously? I ask because if she falls within the dress code and isn’t wearing inappropriate clothing then maybe there’s something else in the employee’s performance or mannerisms that make her seem not serious. Honestly, I don’t know about this one especially because she’s not dressing unprofessionally now. I think it depends on the overall company culture.

    1. Chrissi*

      When my co-worker was promoted to being our manager, her boss (the person that promoted her) told her she needed to start dressing more formally. There were two reasons for this – one, she had gotten into the habit of dressing more informally than most of us, and two, she is a very tiny woman who looks much younger than she is, and dressing more formally made her look closer to her own age and, therefore, I suppose, made her seem more authoritative. Also, it should be noted that the boss is now the Big Boss (head of the office here) and she requires every person in a manager position to dress equally formally, man or woman.

    2. some1*

      I’ve worked at two different places where a female supervisor dressed like she was 20. A 20-yr-old going out to the club.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        I knew a female manager, mid-20s, who wore a tutu and ostentatious designer heels to work. This was not in the fashion industry.

  17. MousyNon*

    While I think OP’s heart is in the right place, this rubs me the wrong way. Putting aside the fact that, provided an employee is dressing appropriately for the workspace, I don’t believe people should be judged based on how “formal and stylish” they look (and that we shouldn’t perpetuate that habit), there may be other factors at play here that would make such a suggestion pretty offensive.

    For example: Maybe they can’t afford “formal and stylish.” Maybe (and I speak as a plus-sized lady) there simply aren’t many options they can buy that would make them look “formal and stylish” because of sizing issues. And just how far are we willing to push this notion–will she have to wear make-up? Straighten her hair (which, by the way, carries it’s own significant baggage)? Wear high-heels? Pencil skirts? Not to mention, it’s completely possible this person PREFERS to dress in a less feminine/gender-normative way (which “stylish” and “accessories” would seem to imply is counter to the OP’s expectation).

    If the workplace is business casual, but senior executives tend to dress formally, then I think it’s probably reasonable to note that meetings with senior executives will require a more formal dress. But this sort of scenario only requires one or two “formal” pieces for use during specific situations. It won’t require an entire overhaul of her wardrobe, and certainly won’t require that she change who she is.

    1. O*

      Ugh yes, as a plus size, I completely dreaded the possibility of getting a job that might require more than nice jeans. Trying to find professional clothes that aren’t flowery or animal print (neither of which look good on me), or something with actual sleeves that doesn’t annoyingly require extra money for a jacket to cover up the arms, is next to impossible, and completely forget affordable. To be honest I would love to add just some regular shirts with collars (since my office would care less) to my wardrobe, but finding those in plus size for less than $80, forget it.

      1. MousyNon*

        Ohhh shirts-with-collars. Where plus size girls have the unenviable choice between: “Sloppy Sack Cloth” and “Button-busting-boobies.”

        Finding a damned collared shirt that fits is like the fricking holy grail of plus-size professional clothing.

        1. ExceptionToTheRule*

          YES!! God forbid you have shoulders & a small bust and try to find a pull-over shirt. To get something that fits through the shoulders, the neckline shows every bit of your bra.

        2. Stephanie*

          I keep trying on button-ups and shirt dresses in vain like “Nooooo, maybe this will be the one! Must try on.” And then it either looks like “Sexy Secretary” or “I’ve given up on life.”

        3. Us, Too*

          I don’t even bother with typical button down shirts with collars – too much tailoring is required to get them to fit properly and sometimes it’s completely a lost cause regardless of tailoring.

          1. O*

            Completely agree, I can’t do the really professional ones, long sleeve, button down, collars, but I have found the more relaxed ones, three quarter sleeves, different material, fit a little better and work nice with a lacy undershirt, but trying to find one that does work :p and forget about just trying to find a nice collar shirt, like a polo.

        4. Windchime*

          Don’t forget the embellishments and glitter. Because all ladies who are larger want to wear big, sack-like tops with giant flowers and/or “bling”.

          1. O*

            OMG all the sequins! Or the random transparent parts of the shirts, no I do not want my professional work shirts to be transparent on the upper arms and shoulders.

            I would have to say my biggest pet peeves are practically everything is low cut, just because I have big boobs does not mean I want them showing, at all (I’ve gotten more comfortable with it than a few years ago, because my self-esteem as gotten better, but still), and the fact that all short sleeves are, are those crappy half sleeves: I’m big, my arms are big, please for the love of god, give me a regular sleeve on a t-shirt. So I’m usually stuck wearing three-quarters or long sleeve, which in the south in the summer. :0

            1. O*

              I just want to say this has been an awesome thread, I know it got a little off topic, but I don’t have any friends that are as big as me, so this has been a great shared bitch-fest. Thanks, it really helped.

              Although I was near a mall yesterday and it totally made me want to go shop, luckily I was able to resist.

      2. Cassy*

        Have you seen the InStyle brand button up white shirts? They are 60 and you buy them based on bra size.

    2. CanadianWriter*

      I agree 100% with everything you said here.

      Especially the hair straightening, oh boy. I could rant all day about that.

      1. MousyNon*

        In college, I was told by a “career counselor” that curly hair wasn’t professional, and that I should straighten it or put it back during an interview. I asked her if I should try bleaching my skin as well, y’know, to look more professional.

        She got very huffy after that.

      2. C average*

        After straightening my naturally wavy hair every day in college, I decided I was done with products and irons and blow dryers forever. (I did keep my blow dryer because it’s handy for waxing my skis, though.) If I could have back the hours I spent torturing my hair into submission, I would do SO MANY other things instead. What a tragic waste of time that was.

        1. Simonthegrey*

          I was told when I was young by an aunt who was a beautician that I should straighten my hair; it’s curly on the underneath but not the top, so I have a weird combination. I have never done so regularly as an adult, and I don’t feel it has hurt my chances at jobs. Of course, I am not trying to climb any ladders, and would be most happy wearing jeans 24-7, but my hair honestly responds so much better when I don’t try to straighten or blow-dry it than when I did.

        2. Stephanie*

          Occasionally, I miss this the sleekness of relaxed hair. But, man, I do not miss all that time in the salon.

      3. C average*

        So I’ve got a variation on this topic (if anyone else is still paying attention to this thread). The other day, over lunch with my manager and two members of my immediate team, the subject of grey hair came up. (My manager and colleagues are thirtysomething; I’ve just turned forty.)

        My colleagues all indicated, with a lot of waving of hands and horrified expressions, that they hunt out grey hairs as they emerge and pluck them, and that they plan to dye their hair if/when they start to get a lot of grey.

        I have the opposite outlook: I like the touch of grey I’m starting to develop and have no plans to pluck, dye, or otherwise get rid of it. I’m a natural brunette with quite a bit of natural curl. I usually wear my hair back in some kind of braid or twist. I work in a creative role at a creative company and tend to dress very plainly but with funky jewelry and glasses. (I have a style that’s very much my own and is probably a little bit dressier but a bit less on-trend than my colleagues’.)

        My colleagues seemed mildly horrified that I’m planning to not fight my grey and that I’m somewhat looking forward to being the slightly bohemian woman of a certain age I’ve secretly always looked forward to being. I don’t intend to change my plans, but it did make me wonder how big a deal a woman with greying hair in a corporate workplace really is. I’m looking around and seeing that a lot of guys here have grey hair and a lot of women here have hair that is clearly not the color nature gave them. Not too many grey-haired women, though.

        1. Stephanie*

          I started getting grey hairs in my teens. I used to pluck them and then had too many for that. I’ve thought about dyeing it, but I find dye dries out my already dry hair even more. I just embrace it.

          However, I will say that I’m in my late 20s and most people peg me at that age (or younger), so age discrimination may be more of a factor for you. Does your company really value youth?

          1. C average*

            We value youth and athleticism. (We’re a sportswear company.) I’m usually pegged younger than I am because I’m very athletic and active. I hope I won’t be discriminated against as I go grey. I’d honestly never thought about it before this thread and the other day’s conversation. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

            I have never dyed my hair; I really don’t even cut it. (I braid it and cut off the end probably every 8 months or so to keep the ends from splitting.) I really love having hair that’s easy and cheap to maintain. It would take a lot to change my mind on this.

        2. Jessica (tc)*

          On my mom’s side of the family, the women go completely gray either by the time their 20 or within a few years of turning 20. My mom warned me of this so many times, but I apparently inherited my father’s hair instead (yay!), and I’m still all non-gray in my mid-30s. I’ve decided that I’m not going to dye it when it starts going, though, because that’s more money and time that I have ever invested in my hair and I just don’t plan to start. My paternal grandmother’s hair turned a beautiful white, and I’m hoping that mine will be similar instead of the coarser gray that my mom’s side tends to be.

          (As a side note, do redheads tend to get white instead of gray hair when they are older more than other hair colors? My grandmother was auburn, and as I said, hers was simply gorgeous when she was older. I have redheads on both sides of the family, and all of them that I’ve seen in their older years turned white-haired as well. I have a lot of red in my mostly brownish hair, so I’m hoping if the above is true that the red-to-white will at least counterbalance some of the gray I’m expecting.)

          1. Jamie*

            My hair is auburn, redder when I was a kid, and now that it has it’s share of – let’s call it platinum – strands coming in it appears to be the snowy silver my mom had which was gorgeous.

            She had that beautiful white which shimmered.

            I have no idea if mine is like that or not, since I used to rip them out and now I take other measures. Just recently I got some light copper highlights put in, because it makes the – platinum – less noticeable.

            And also, as we age (I know you aren’t – speaking of my 40 something self) lighter hair is kinder around the face and so getting some highlights framing it really kind of jazzed it up.

            But I’ve seen redheads in my family go gorgeous silver/white and others a kind of sandy to light gunmetal. I think it’s a role of the dice – at least in my gene pool.

            (Oh and speaking of aging – again, just me – as a PSA they’ve discontinued L’Oreal Youth Code facial wash which was the best facial clenaser ever invented ever – in all time. But they haven’t announced it on the website – I had to find out by trying no less than 6 stores this weekend to be told by all no longer stocking it.

            I bought enough on Amazon to last me about 1.5 years and by then I’ll have to find something else. Or just give up on skin altogether.

            I don’t get it – all the stores said they couldn’t keep it on the shelves, it was a huge seller. My guess is it was relatively inexpensive for the YC line so they will retool it and bring it back with an improved label and a higher price tag.

            Which I will pay.

            1. Jessica (tc)*

              Darn. I guess I’ll hope I got my grandmother’s genes for the hair, because hers was that shimmery white you speak of. It was so soft, and we would just rub her head whenever we walked by her chair or when we were giving her a kiss or hug. She would sometimes yell at us to quit messing up her hair if she’d had it “done” recently, which meant cut and curled. She never dyed it.

              I wanted her hair when I was a teenager, because it was so darn soft. I have a lot, a lot, a lot of hair, but it’s super fine and super straight. Every person who’s cut my hair has commented on how much hair I actually have, given how straight and fine it is. The reds are more coarse than the browns and dark-blond pieces, so some sections of my hair feel more course than others, if I have more red in them. I just have really weird hair. I finally discovered when I cut my hair off for charity that it does much better when it’s around chin length, because the weight of all the hair doesn’t pull it down so much, so it feels like it has more body to it. That was only a few years ago, so it was a revelation to me!

              And I feel you on the discontinued stuff. Every time I find something that I love, the company discontinues it. This has happened with the past six types of pants that I’ve liked (dress pants, casual work pants, and jeans alike) as well as the only scented lotion I’ve ever found that doesn’t make my allergies go nuts, and those are only in the past year.

    3. the_scientist*

      I agree. It’s tough because perception is reality and the reality is that we often perceive people who dress “sharply” as being inherently better at their jobs (and the people who are total slobs are often assumed to be so brilliant that they can get away with it! see: prof or hobo?).

      But, there needs to be a line. If your workplace “unofficially” requires formal attire, why are you not revising the dress code to make it official? Don’t make people play guessing games about what they should be wearing to be successful.

      I would explicitly stay away from mentioning the need to dress in a more “stylish” fashion, because that’s a useless and unhelpful term. OP’s definition of “stylish” might include heels and accessories but it’s possible to also be completely stylish without those things; it’s just a different *type* of stylish.

      I also agree with your point that “formal and stylish” leads quickly into problematic, gendered (and racial) expectations, if “formal and stylish” means straight hair, makeup, jewelry and skirts/dresses, hose and heels. I would advise that the OP stick very, very strictly to only discussing her mentee’s clothing. Stay away from hair, makeup and jewelry, because those are personal as long as someone is well-groomed, none of your business.

    4. fposte*

      I definitely take the point that this can go in a direction that is really problematic; I also think “formal and stylish” are vague and possibly misleading, and that this discussion would need to move beyond those to be useful.

      But there are ways to convey more expertise and authority with one’s clothing that are based on understanding rather than brand-naming or seasonal-trend-identifying, and having that understanding can give you more tools and choices than not having that understanding.

      1. MousyNon*

        Frankly, there are only a couple of things (that I can think of, at least) that somebody could say with respect to professional wardrobe that aren’t gender, race or class normative:

        “Wear darker colored trousers or (if they wear them) skirts”
        “Wear jackets every day”
        “Ensure you’re always neat and pressed”

        All of those things could easily apply to men as well as women, and to white people as well as minorities. Everything else–from hair to accessories to shoes to the type of “blouse” she wears to makeup, even color schemes carries significant baggage that can’t be decoupled.

        1. fposte*

          Of course it can’t be completely decoupled, but neither can language, and we sure tell people about the importance of understanding its significance in the working world. I don’t see how silence serves the OP’s protegee better.

          Admittedly, the OP was sounding more directive than I think the conversation should really be–I like ArtsNerd’s post, for instance, as a great exploration of the possibilities of factors rather than as a dictation of an appropriate businesswoman’s uniform. But I think you’re underselling the possibilities here of a discussion about clothing, like any aspect of presentation, having possibilities beyond the utilitarian.

        2. Us, Too*

          Pretty much. Can I just throw out ONE single piece of advice that I think can make just about any outfit look better regardless of gender?

          Iron or steam it. I am amazed at how few people bother with this. UGH.

          1. LBK*

            I mean, I hang my shirts up straight out of the dryer, so they may not be perfectly pressed with creases on the sleeves but they don’t look like I pulled them out of a crumpled ball in the corner of a drawer. If they’re really that bad – like, huge, visible wrinkles – I do iron them before work.

            1. Us, Too*

              Whether this gets you a tidy look or not depends on the shirt and your dryer. For me the biggest offenders are cotton woven fabrics – they’re almost always going to need an iron unless you have some fancy, schmancy dryer.

              So for those, I sometimes cheat. :) I’ll add a sweater or jacket over the shirt and only iron the part of the shirt that shows – typically the collar, front and maybe the cuffs.

              Even when I’m not wearing a sweater or jacket, running an iron quickly (no more than 2 minutes tops) over the “important” and most visible parts of the shirt can make a world of difference. In order, I always tackle: the collar, the cuffs, the button area of the front and if I have time remaining I’ll run the iron over the front of the shirt and then the back. But, sometimes just the collar, cuffs and button part is enough. :)

          2. MousyNon*

            Having a steam setting on my dryer has been so amazingly convenient. When I move out I’m going to miss it :(

        3. Kelly O*

          But y’all, seriously.

          Things like ironing your shirts is just universal grooming. And as much as I try to be sensitive to issues of gender and race, I think we can go a bit over the top in being sensitive to that.

          **Before the mob forms, let me clarify please***

          I’m a woman. I’m a 50 pounds overweight woman with pale skin, who is not a stick. I wear glasses. I have flat feet. I can’t do a high heel.

          So, when someone gives me advice about how to dress “up” a bit for a position, they are going to tell me about adding a layer to help streamline my midsection, and how to use belts, jewelry, and color to my advantage.

          I’m going to get advice about polished flats and wedges, or lower heels that don’t make my feet look like battleships.

          I’m going to hear things about long hair (if I had it) needs to be neat and look polished, whether it’s down or up. I’m going to hear “don’t come to work with wet/damp hair” – even though I wouldn’t dream of that personally – but because it’s applicable to me.

          Shirts for women are often called blouses. It’s an established thing. It’s BEEN an established thing for a long time. Tim Gunn is not going to stop saying “blouse” because someone thinks it’s sexist to just not say shirt. There are all kinds of shirts out there, and blouse is more a descriptive term for a dressy ladies’ blouse. Guys are not going to wear blouses (as a general rule.)

          I don’t mean to sound the way that this probably sounds, I just wish we could focus less on whether someone is going to get offended by using a word like “blouse” when describing a type of shirt. It’s not about being sexist, or racist, or classist or whatever.

          You can find plenty of work-appropriate separates at Target, or Wal-Mart – trust me, I buy things there and I don’t like looking “cheap.” If you just don’t want to, that’s fine. Don’t. If someone gives you feedback that it would help you and you choose to ignore them, fine. Just ignore them.

          But can we PLEASE stop slapping labels on people because they’re giving advice that might be different than our own? Or even just plain old not applicable to me based on who I am? It doesn’t do anything to advance the discussion, and it makes things devolve into completely unrelated debates.

          1. MousyNon*

            Who’s labeling anybody? To clarify, I’m labeling the socio-normative expectation disproportionately levered on women and people of color with the terms “racist, sexist, classist”, I’m not labeling a person with those words, so I’m not sure why you’re getting defensive. And why are you so focused on the term “blouse”?

            “Not going to work with damp hair” would fall under my bullet point above as “neat and pressed,” so I don’t disagree with that part of your comment.

            As to the rest of your point:
            –Not everyone can wear belts (I certainly can’t–they dig in unpleasant places and are outrageously uncomfortable).
            –Not every woman wants to wear jewelry. Not every woman wants to wear traditionally feminine colors.
            –Not every woman can wear wedges or flats (flats, for example, give me horrible shin-splints); and not every woman wants too, even if they were able.
            –Not everyone has immediate, convenient access to a Target or a Wal-Mart.

            Finally–a person has every right to say whatever they’d like under the guise of “helpful advice.” I, in turn, have the right to tell them that that advice is unhelpful and adheres to sex-race-and-class-based-judgments that are inappropriate in the workplace. In absolutely no way am I required to “ignore them,” just as they’re not required to bite their tongue on advice that is none of their business.

            If you (general “you”) choose to give unsolicited advice, you don’t get to police my response. Period.

            1. fposte*

              Once you start on personal preference, that’s a whole nother kettle o’ fish, though.

              There’s no doubt that dress is, literally and psychologically, a very personal issue. But I think one drawback to overfocusing on the politics is it makes it sound, completely inaccurately, like there are few to no people with little money or in non-majority groups who use clothing for effective presentation. And that’s easy to disprove just by looking around, and I think that the OP’s protegee deserves a chance to be one of them.

            2. some1*

              I have access to Wal-Mart, but choose not to shop there because I disagree with their labor policies.

          2. Duckie*

            You can only find clothing at Walmart or target if you’re a certain size- I am a 00 on top and nothing in those stores fits me. Or most cheaper stores due to vanity sizing.

            1. O*

              I tried their in store plus sizes once, dear lord the self esteem hit, everything they had, I had to try on two sizes bigger than what I was everywhere else.

          3. KellyK*

            Personally, I think any clothing advice that turns into “Your body type is wrong; here’s how to hide it,” is overstepping and inappropriate. The examples you give about streamlining your midsection and not making your feet look like battleships (even though they wouldn’t be phrased quite that bluntly from someone else) don’t seem like appropriate things to say to a coworker, subordinate, or mentee.

            It doesn’t matter how many layers or dark colors or other “flatter your shape” tricks I wear, I’m still going to look like a woman who wears a size 22-24, because I do.

            My feet are flat and wide, and I can’t wear heels. But even if I did wear heels, I would still have flat, wide feet.

            The only time body size or shape should come into it is if clothing is tight or ill-fitting or revealing. (And even then, it’s not really the body shape as much as it is the combination of a particular shape with a particular piece of clothing.)

            1. Jen RO*

              I would personally love advice about making my body look better than it actually is. I think makeover shows, while they do go overboard sometimes, are really good at showing that yes, choosing the right clothes matters!

              1. KellyK*

                Sure, but someone on a makeover show volunteered to be there (even if not initially—I don’t know if the “coming up to them on the street and staging a fashion intervention” schtick is real or staged). Advice that someone has asked for is different than random unsolicited advice.

                If you don’t like things about your body, and you want to hide them, that’s totally your call. But someone else (particularly a *boss* and a *mentor*) pointing out your so-called physical flaws is really overstepping.

                1. Jen RO*

                  Well, it shouldn’t be the start of the conversation, but it could progress to there. If the employees asked the manager for detailed advice on clothing, I think it would be OK for the manager to explain things like Kelly O suggested. (Though it might be awkward with a manager of the opposite gender! I can imagine having this conversation with another woman, but with a man, not so much.)

            2. Kelly O*

              I’m not saying that.

              At all.

              It seems what I’m trying to say is getting lost, and honestly I’m done trying.

          4. Sharm*

            I’m totally with you, KellyO. You’ve articulated it better than I could.

            I don’t understand people listing laundry lists of exceptions either, as an attempt to discredit what another has said. People are sharing thoughts from their experience. Of course it won’t apply to every single person. Do we need to disclaimer this for every post we make? The constant dissection and self-righteousness I see here is getting so tiresome.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I agree. If a suggestion doesn’t work for you, no one is going to force you to use it. You can ignore it!

              Kelly O’s point is that in this realm, advice will differ depending on the person in question.

  18. Mena*

    Ugh, this reminds me of my self-appointed mentor in my first professional role. She decided to be my mentor, probably at the direction of the CEO. I politely resisted this relationship as I lacked respect for her in several ways.

    Anyway, one day she hands me “Dress for Success” and tells me she thinks I should read it. I vaguely thanked her. This woman’s style of dress was absolutely hideous (cut, color, accessories, shoes – you name it). I took the message though (and just ignored her poor example) and worked hard to look at those I wanted to emulate. Yes, fake it till you make it works.

    One thing no one considered though: I didn’t lack the judgement of dress/style and certainly never wore anything inappropriate BUT I did lack the financial resources to dress how I wanted to for a long time.

    She may understand how to dress for success but lack the financial resources. I came to look at clothes as an investment in my professional future and budgeted accordingly.

    1. Zahra*

      Yes, this! Also, if you can suggest her a few tips to get stylish clothes for cheaper:
      – Warehouses stores that get end-of-season or end-of-line clothes. Some chains will have that kind of stores for their own stock, so you already know you’ll find styles you like.
      – Shop sales: January for winter clothes, July for summer clothes. If you’re building your wardrobe with classic pieces, you’ll be able to reuse them the next year. Warehouses may get leftovers of January and July sales around mid-February and mid-August.
      – If she’s comfortable with it, some online stores will give the great deals. I know I shop at Zulily from my kid’s clothes, but I’m still gun-shy about ordering my own, since sizing is so variable between different brands.

      1. fposte*

        Also, look for various online guides on how to identify reasonable quality in clothing, so you’ll get your money’s worth out of it. Find a tailor–alterations are worth more than multiples. Lay out your clothes the night before so you’re not literally dressing in the dark in the morning and making decisions based largely on visible crumplage.

        1. Simonthegrey*

          You could also learn to sew and tailor your own clothing. Not a sexist comment – my dad taught me how to hem up my pants to the right length because my mom hated sewing, and my husband is better with the sewing machine than I am. I take in my own shirts, add darts if they are boxy, hem sleeves and pant length, and it helps the overall appearance of not having shown up to work in some other adult’s clothing.

      2. V*

        Thrift stores / secondhand stores. You won’t find everything there, but you can score some amazing deals on things you would never otherwise afford ($300 name brand leather jacket for $13 is the best I’ve done). Frequently you can get slacks for $10 or less; tops are a bit trickier but you can usually find nice sweaters or jackets.

        1. the_scientist*

          I see everyone suggesting thrift stores as a way to build a more professional wardrobe but I’m going to disagree slightly. I’m not hating on thrift shopping; I’d like to do more of it, and I have found great stuff in the past. But thrifting properly takes TIME, and it also takes energy, and if you need a suit or blazer for a meeting next Tuesday, it may very well be that you can’t find one at a thrift store! To build a wardrobe solely out of thrifted goods you need to dedicate a significant amount of time on a regular basis to digging through racks and trying things on. It also depends on your neighbourhood- I live in a hipster area and everyone wears thrifted clothes, so the stores in my immediate vicinity are picked over. We don’t know what else is happening in this woman’s life- does she have the time, energy or willingness to dig through racks and racks of stuff? Does she live in an area where she’ll find good stuff at the thrift store and not waste her time? Does she understand to look for good quality fabric, and what makes an article of clothing well-made?

          Sorry, I know this is a long rant but I’m tired of people offering “just go to a thrift store” as if it’s an easy solution to upgrading a work wardrobe, which is something I’m in the process of doing, because it’s not always easy. Also, bedbugs.

          1. Sunflower*

            Like everything in life, when it comes to fashion, there are trade-offs. If you want to walk in a store and walk out in 10 minutes with a beautiful new wardrobe, you have to be prepared to spend money. If you’re looking to save money and don’t have a lot of time, then you might end up at forever 21 with clothes that fall apart or fit awkwardly. If you want nice clothes at affordable prices, you’ll have to spend some time digging through thrift stores.

            Also, like with other fashion, a lot of people mix thrift store items with nicer items. Like a person could spend money on a good, versatile blazer and then buy some easy deals to wear with it.

            1. fposte*

              And shopping/self-clothing also genuinely does require some education and development of skills, which means it gets easier to find what you want once you learn how to do it. In the meantime, it can feel baffling and daunting, but so did most skills we’ve all attained over the years, whether it be riding public transportation or making a stir-fry.

              1. Sunflower*

                Yes this so much! Sometimes I look back at things I wore last week and think ‘OMG what was I thinking’ I get a lot of clothing ideas off Pintrest- it’s so easy to type in ‘cute work clothes’ and BOOM tons of ideas. It’s a big learning curve but I think it’s definitely worth researching and trying different things to find what works for you and what doesn’t.

          2. Laura2*

            +1 million

            I love thrift stores, but they’re not universally great. Some of them have shit clothing. Sometimes clothing looks good in the thrift store mirror (if they have one), but looks shabby next to a new pair of pants because they’ve been sitting in a thrift store for eons. Sometimes the clothing is really, hilariously out of date.

          3. ElizabethWest*

            You’re right, so you have to build it into your routine. We have a store that sells department store remainders and irregulars here. I make it a point to stop by regularly (mostly on weekends) and whip through the racks where I know they put stuff that I need that might actually fit me. Because I make a regular sweep, it doesn’t take as long to dig through their merchandise because I know where they put stuff.

            So far, I’ve found:
            –$135 pair of Birkenstocks for $25
            –a $360 leather parka for $71
            –three Chadwick’s of Boston blazers, IN MY SIZE (Tall 18), for $12 each
            –a red wool Liz Claiborne coat for around $50

            If you have a store like this nearby, it’s a godsend. And the rest of my wardrobe comes from Walmart or mall sales (I’m trying to upgrade a bit from Walmart, even though I mostly wear jeans and polos or company t-shirts to work).

            1. ElizabethWest*

              Another thing I do is when I wash my Walmart clothes, I put them through a damp dry with a fabric softener sheet and then hang them up to dry all the way. It keeps them looking nice longer.

              1. Sunflower*

                I don’t put anything from H&M or Forever 21 in the dryer- I hang almost all of it to dry, even if it’s a cotton shirt. And some stuff I won’t even put in the washer

          4. Cara*

            I agree. Although I love thrifting, it does take a lot of time and there are no guarantees. I spent almost two hours at Goodwill yesterday and left empty-handed. The jackets I tried on were too short in the sleeves, the pants had dated cuts. These details matter if you’re trying to look polished at work, so it’s important not to compromise, but a lot of the time that means your search efforts are wasted and that can be really frustrating. Presumably the subject of this question is wearing khakis and t-shirts because it’s easy. Telling someone who hates shopping to “just go thrifting” is like giving someone who wants to learn algebra a calculus textbook.

            1. the_scientist*

              Agreed. Like I said I don’t hate thrifting and I do regularly visit Winners/Marshall’s etc because I am young, poor and trying to build a work wardrobe. But I have to be in the right mindset, with the right amount of time to go digging through racks and racks of clothing. I tend to approach shopping like a surgical strike, most of the time- when I’m buying new, I browse the stores’ websites in advance, get an idea of what I’m looking for and wait until there’s a sale (a good chunk of my work wardrobe is from LOFT because I am little) so I’m not always up for rack diving.

              The savings in time buying new is sometimes worth it, for me at least.

              1. EG*

                I love Loft! Fortunately someone (or several someones) seem to be keeping a small supply of this brand at a local Goodwill, so my wardrobe is nicely stocked with basics that actually fit my petite frame.

                1. C average*

                  Last summer I happened onto the garage sale of a woman who had fabulous taste and could’ve been my body double. Score!

        2. Persephone Mulberry*

          Amen! Since discovering a couple quality resale shops in my area, I can’t even bring myself to set foot in a traditional clothing store. $90 for a sweater?! $40? No thanks, I’ll keep an eye out for something similar for $15 at my favorite reseller.

          (And interestingly, I have much better luck with tops than bottoms.)

          1. EG*

            Same here, thrift stores and consignment shops are wonderful bargains for quality items. For less than a Walmart shirt (that won’t last long), I can buy a high end shirt. The only disclaimer is to look carefully for small holes or defects, as I’ve sometimes missed these.

            Tops are also easier for me to find than bottoms. Being petite is hard to shop thrift stores for, so I’ve learned to alter the hems myself.

      3. ArtsNerd*

        Another option is a clothing swap. It takes less sifting than a full thrift store, plus it’s a social event and free. If you don’t feel like planning one yourself (or goading a friend into planning it – which is my strategy for my entire social life) you can look into Meetups and the like.

        There are almost-definitely going to be female-only due to cultural norms, as much as I think guys would benefit as well.

    2. Sunflower*

      Exactly! Business clothes are an investment in your future and you don’t have to spend a ton of money on them. I definitely don’t have a ton to spend on clothes but there are so many ways to make old work and to take one piece and make it work in 15 different ways. Today, there are SO MANY blogs and outlets for people who are on a tight budget. I recommended this down thread but I read a blog called ‘J’s everyday fashion’- she doesn’t dress overly formal but always looks well put together and she shows you how to set a clothing budget. There are so many ways to look professional without spending a ton of money and it’s important to look at this as an investment, not a fashion show.

      1. Kelly O*

        I will say that I try to buy the best I can afford when it comes to basics – things like solid pants, skirts, dresses, that sort of thing. But I’ll look for less expensive options in the blouse department.

        I also have to be careful with shoes, so for me a good pair of shoes is an investment, but I will wear them enough to make the cost per wear, not counting the “not constantly wishing I’d chosen different shoes” thing, worthwhile. And you can find good deals on things like that at DSW or TJ Maxx.

    3. S.A.*

      That’s exactly the problem I have and in addition I work both indoors and outdoors. How fun is it to try and design a wardrobe that is both professional and durable?

      It’s not and I’m not paying an average of $30 a “blouse” that must be layered because it’s too thin to wear on it’s own. This junk shirts get snagged, torn and stained too easily. I don’t care how carefully you wash them they always shrink.

      To avoid looking dated I started getting tops and pants that don’t look dated and can be combined with other items to be dressed up or down. I wonder if the OP has taken this into account.

  19. Christy*

    I think if you’re going to say anything/something to her, you should leave makeup/jewelry out of the conversation entirely. There’s a lot of room to dress up khakis and a t-shirt without getting into the whole gendered discussion of jewelry and makeup. I would talk about what you, LW, wear around the office and how you decided to wear that. For instance, I decided to only wear dresses and cardigans to the office. That’s my work wardrobe. I’m instantly more put-together than I was in jeans/pants and a shirt. There’s much less room for error. I also keep heels at my desk, and I always have a pair of fancy shoes to wear around the office. It’s helped–I’m definitely seen better like this.

    Of course, I also cut my hair short so I wouldn’t have to worry about doing my hair–I figured doing nothing with short hair looked more professional than doing nothing with long hair.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      I agree. I think people are caught up in specifics but there are lots of ways either gender can alter their wardrobe to make a more professional appearance:
      -Fabric choice
      -Cut (either off-the-rack or taking things to a tailor)

      Also, my emergency heels-and-blazer in my office have saved my butt in so many unexpected meetings. “Uh-oh, I’m wearing jeans… Voila! Now it’s sassy professional-casual. Now, let’s get down to business.”

      My “doing nothing” with longer hair = pulling it back in a ponytail or bun. Works pretty well.

      1. fposte*

        This is really nicely put, ArtsNerd. I think it’s about thought and knowledge, not about formality or femininity. It doesn’t even mean she can’t wear a buttondown and khakis any more.

      2. Christy*

        Yes, definitely. I didn’t think my ponytail/messy bun looked too professional, which is why I went short.

        Honestly, I think a good place to start is saying to the employee: “You should be at least in the more-professional half of outfits here. Look at what other people wear and see what works for you.”

  20. Who Are You?*

    I have had two managers give me their opinions on my clothing. For the record they were completely different conversations. One conversation had to do with completely updating my wardrobe and accessories so that I was more in line with the vision they had for their company (note: the updates were req’d to be done by the following Monday, on my part-time wages, and it didn’t matter that part of my job required daily handling of shipments that often caused rips and stains in the clothing I had previously worn). The other conversation had to do with the amount of cleavage my manager thought I should show. That conversation was a personal attack though…she and I never meshed and her comments on my clothing went so far over the line that I had to approach HR about it and was told that my outfits were completely professional.

    However…I tell you all of that to tell you this: it was a horrible, uncomfortable conversation to be on the opposite end of. In the first conversation, I wasn’t making a lot of money and was dressing in clothing that was serviceable, clean, and appropriate for the job I was doing. My employer wanted outfits that came from the shops this season and when I wasn’t able/willing to do that on their time frame I was fired. It was horrible! I felt like I wasn’t attractive enough to even be working. With the second conversation, even though I knew that the comments came from a personal issue my manager had with me, as someone who has been well endowed since middle school, I felt judged for the size of my breasts.

    If you decide to go forward with the conversation with your mentee, I’d tread carefully. For all you know, there could be a reason why she dresses plainly: body issues, financial issues, religious issues, etc. I have no advice to give on how to phrase it though.

    1. Jen RO*

      But the mentee *wants* to move to management. I don’t, and I would feel insulted if my manager started discussing my sense of style. But if I had made it clear that I want to move up? Then yes, I would appreciate the conversation, even though I am sure it would be awkward as hell.

    2. Lynn Whitehat*

      Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. There are other reasons she might not be able to change her look right now other than she never heard of dressing for success before. Budget, body image issues, lack of time. I remember people taking me aside and talking to me about looking more polished when I had a new baby who was not sleeping through the night, I was still losing the baby weight, my marriage was on the rocks, and we were going through the Renovation Project of the D-mned. No, I was not buffed and fluffed every day during that period, not because I didn’t know better, but because I absolutely did not have the bandwidth.

  21. EM*

    I don’t know…at one of my old companies, the dress code was very casual — to the point that many employees wore jeans every day. The executive leadership team did dress more formally, but I think if one of the lower level employees (even managers, just not on the exec level) were told to dress up more, they would be pretty upset. Most of the employees felt that the dress code was a nice perk of the job so if they were told they had to ignore it to be promoted, I don’t think they would have taken that too well.

    1. some1*

      I worked somewhere like this, too. If you sat in a cubicle (vs an office) and dressed up more than khakis on a typical day than you were seen as stuck up.

      1. Jen RO*

        Last summer we received an email along these lines: “Client XYZ is visiting. Please don’t wear flip flops and shorts tomorrow!”. And it wasn’t a hypothetical situation.

  22. Nancy*

    My workplace is fairly casual, but managers tend to dress more formally than other employees. I know that I’ve tried to dress more formally since I promoted to a management position, and I do think it helps me be taken more seriously.

    I think it might help to phrase it in terms of formality rather than femininity. I think you can make your wardrobe more formal (thus showing respect to the role and need for such formality in certain business situations) without having to perform femininity through make-up, jewelry, etc.

    (I like wearing jewelry, and wear light lipstick most days, but those aren’t the main ways I show formality in my appearance. For me, the main goal is to look neat and tailored, and you can do that without necessarily conforming to feminine standards.)

  23. C average*

    This is a really interesting discussion.

    I read an article a couple years ago about how President Obama had routinized certain aspects of his life, including which suits he wore, because he wanted to save his decision-making capacity for the important stuff. (The article is here, if you’re curious:

    I loved that idea and began consciously adopting this approach myself. Every day I wear a black, grey, or print dress, black shoes, pearl earrings, and my hair pulled back. I don’t wear makeup. I’m sure I have colleagues who find my style boring, but I love never having to ponder what to wear. It simplifies my mornings and frees up my mind space for things that actually matter. My workplace is full of creative hipster types, and while my style isn’t inappropriate, it is unusual for this particular office. No one else here dresses like I do.

    If people told me my style was holding me back at work, I’d acknowledge mentally that they’re probably right, but I don’t know if I’d change what I’m doing.

    1. LMW*

      I worked with a young lady (23-25) who always looked incredibly polished and put together, even though she was a little bigger than average and I got into a waiting-for-the-coffee-pot conversation with her where she told me her secret: She confines herself to just two or three colors (black, grey, and then a color of the season), and if she finds something that really works well (fits, looks professional), she buys multiples. I had never realized that she basically wore the same thing every day because she might wear black with grey one day and grey with black the next. Plus, she was the queen of accessories. I’ve adopted the black and grey mantra since then and it has really made pulling together outfits faster and easier.

      1. doreen*

        I do something similar, although more than two or three colors. Pants are basically black, gray or beige. And then comes the color- I shop in an outlet store that has coordinating everything, so if I find a sweater I like there will be coordinating shells and tanks. I buy multiples of each- for example, the coral sweater, the black sweater, coral print shell,solid coral tank (and of course I always have black tanks) . Makes it a lot easier to get dressed in the morning and no more ” Does this match”?

  24. llamathatducks*

    Meh, reading this makes me feel sad (and very lucky to be working at a really really casual company).

      1. Ali*

        Me too! I’m looking for jobs right now and have a blazer/dress pants for interviews, as well as a cardigan set, but I work from home and dress doesn’t matter. I visited my company’s satellite office in person this past summer, and even my old boss (my boss now works out of the main office across the country) was very dressed down…button down shirt, shorts and sneakers. My current manager wears baseball caps to conference calls. No one is totally sloppy looking, but we’re such a casual company that you’re not really expected to dress nice if you want to get ahead.

        Hell, when I was promoted, I had never met anyone from the company in person…

    1. Jen RO*

      I love being in software development! 90% of the time I wear jeans, coupled with anything from geeky tshirts to casual tops (H&M, C&A and the like, but I don’t think they exist in the US). And in summer I can wear sleeveless dresses without anyone freaking out :)

  25. Rayner*

    I would definitely put this in context of ‘things management roles need but aren’t talked about’ so you can talk about the psychological things that don’t always appear in handbooks and such.

    And I wouldn’t focus so much on the make up or the jewellery front – people have very different views of this, so I would focus on things like:

    1. appearing polished so things ironed or pressed, no stains, or creases.
    2. wearing clothes appropriate for the office (no super high heels because WALKING, avoiding XYZ)
    3. recommending tailoring, which can be cheaper for some people (or they can do it themselves).
    4. Moving up the spectrum to business professional, away from business casual so people see her start to make that transition away from the rest of her co-workers.
    5. Suggesting a few brands if you feel comfortable, that you think are within a good budget for this person (no designer brands!)

    You want to make this a conversation with not a “You have to do this to succeed” but a “these things all helped me to create an appearance that makes me look professional and in control. It could be very helpful for you to think about them too.”

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      Um. I wear at least 4 inch heels every day. Walking in heels is a skill that takes practice. If you look like a newborn deer in heels you shouldn’t wear them. Otherwise, I’d just be way too short.

      1. Rayner*

        Of course, I was talking from personal experience. I have seen women wearing sky high shoes and staggering around the office – or immediately removing them as soon as they’ve walked across the lobby because they can’t actually walk in them.

        I face the same issues in one inch heels so you know. I don’t have room to talk.

        If you can rock the hell out of high shoes, then go for it. But it’s about being able to do that XD

        1. Lora*

          Had to chuckle–while I wear boots for everyday (ankle or the tall almost knee-high ones with pants tucked in) because I never know when I’ll get a call to do field work, if I’m doing a client presentation or networking thing, I wear at least 3″ heels. Or higher. I’m average height, but I like the authority-establishing aspect of magically becoming Tall. It’s really noticeable, how people treat you with more deference.

      2. Sunflower*

        All I can add is everyone can complain about how you shouldn’t be judged on appearance- and you shouldn’t- but you can’t deny that the more put together you look, the more professional you’ll be looked at in people’s eyes. No one is going to get promoted because they dress well but coming to work everyday showing you put effort into your dress shows you care about your job and yourself- and those are 2 things higher-ups will consider when thinking of promoting you. No one should force you to do anything but dressing well will only help you.

        I want to suggest a blog I read called ‘J’s everyday fashion’- she is very fashion forward, buys on a tight budget and manages to mix in a lot of casual wear with work clothes. She doesn’t wear suits or super formal wear but she looks so good and so put together. Even if you work in a more casual office, you can still look put together and professional without wearing a suit or spending a ton of money. I’m sure there are tons of other blogs like this and this suggestion is more about looking well put together than spending money on looking fabulous

        1. the_scientist*

          Really, J’s everyday fashion? Not to pick on you, but there is nothing I would consider professional about almost all her outfits- too tight, too short, I can smell the cheap polyester through the screen.

          Also her shoe collection is atrocious. I’m a shoe snob, though- when it comes to heels, if it’s not real leather, it’s not worth it.

          1. Kelly O*

            Yeah, I don’t care for J either for many of the reasons you listed.

            For work ideas, I like the “Outfit Posts” blog – she’s thinner than me, but the concepts are definitely transferable. “Nine Thirty to Five” is another good one – they’re lawyers, but the things they wear are absolutely appropriate for most office environments. “Putting Me Together” is great for more casual workplaces (and she’s a big fan of showing you how, not just the end result, so you can see the difference the jacket/scarf/belt/extra layer makes.)

            1. the_scientist*

              I’ll have to look at Putting Me Together! I like “work clothes, I suppose”, “Extra Petite” (she is really petite-focused, though, and her constant humblebragging about how tiny she is can be quite grating) and “Professionally Petite”. Obviously, as a petite lady I gravitate towards blogs that cater to that demo, but Professionally Petite would be a blog that women of all sizes could get inspiration from, I think- and she’s a lawyer, so she showcases a range of outfits from full-on formal suits to weekend casual wear.

              1. the_scientist*

                Oh, and I forgot to mention my all-time favourite style blog: Academichic! They don’t update anymore but all their archives are still there- 4 ladies with different bodies, different aesthetics. All smart, and they posted some really thoughtful pieces in addition to outfits.

              2. Kelly O*

                Do you ever read Wardrobe Oxygen?

                She’s fairly cool because even though I don’t always like her style, she’s very good about being positive about your body image and finding ways to wear things you love in a way that flatters you, even if it’s not what would traditionally be considered “appropriate” – example? She wears booties. A LOT. An excessive amount for me personally, however she has thick ankles and most people start advising against wearing things that cut you at the ankle. But she loves them, she wears them anyway, and if you don’t like that, keep it to yourself.

                There are absolutely ways to wear what you love and still make a good impression.

          2. Sanonymous*

            Well, I guess this is a great example of how fields differ in professional norms. I was actually more intrigued when I read your negative review, so I went to look – and DAMN! This is great! I can’t afford all of her budget, but I love the way she shows different looks, and these are looks that I can put together.

          3. Jen RO*

            Actually, the kind of stuff she seems to wear (I only skimmed through a bit) would be perfect for my office. Any more elegant than that would make you stand out in a bad way.

      3. ElizabethWest*

        *sigh* I used to wear them, and then I hurt my back. Now I can only wear kitten heels, which are hard to find. Or boots with those big low heels.

        I have a pair of sparkly Italian spike heels and I refuse to get rid of them, even though I can’t walk in them anymore. They’re too pretty.

    2. LBK*

      Yes, that last paragraph is key. It should be presented as a suggestion for the employee to keep in the back of her mind, and then it shouldn’t be brought up again if she decides not to do it. Make sure she’s aware and then let her deal with it if she wants to.

  26. TotesMaGoats*

    I think there might be an opportunity to say something but I honestly couldn’t tell you what or when. I work in academia and so dressing up is the norm for me. I don’t suit up everyday but if I’m going out in the community or meeting with higher ups, I do. I actually love my suit collection and have to resist buying more. And I’m short (4’11”). Knowing what was work appropriate was something I learned from my mother and from being in the work place. She is a high level administrator at a college as well.

    From time to time, I do talk with my own boss about what we are wearing to an event as we have shown up in matching suits on more than one occasion. That’s not cool for prom or work! It doesn’t help that we could almost pass for sisters.

    1. fposte*

      “I work in academia and so dressing up is the norm for me.”

      Wow. That’s the opposite of the norm in academics here, though it does sound like you’re talking about admin which is very different.

      However, I think you’re also giving a good example of what thoughtful clothing can do for you–when you’re 4’11”, clothing can be a great shortcut to say “I’m a responsible professional adult, and don’t freaking mess with me.”

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        Yes. I’m on the admin side. I’ve actually had someone say to me “are you old enough to do this job”? So, I try to look my age at least.

  27. AAA*

    I’m kind of curious of how this makes a difference if the manager were a man. Maybe I’m showing my own biases here, but while I might be receptive to a female manager giving me advice to kick my wardrobe up a notch, that kind of advice coming from a male manager would make me fairly uncomfortable. I can imagine “wear some makeup”/”dress up a bit” being taken very differently based on who is giving this advice and the perceived power structures here.

    Is there an appropriate way to coach someone of the opposite gender on these kinds of appearance issues? I’m leaning toward the “dress for the job you want” angle…

    1. Persephone Mulberry*

      I think a male mentor can have this conversation with a female mentee, but agree that it might be awkward in a strictly manager/subordinate relationship. In any case, the mentor could certainly do the same as the OP and use himself as an example – as has been discussed already, there are facets of professional dress that are gender neutral(fabric quality, fit, small details like polished shoes vs scuffed). And/or he could reference one or more female employees who have stepped it up in the wardrobe game as good people to study/emulate.

    2. Aisling*

      In my first office job out of college, I did have my male manager (I’m female) sit me down and explain that I’d been working for awhile now (about 8 months), so it was time to start dressing up. He hadn’t said anything before, knowing I was just out of college, in case money was the issue. He told me to look at what the other women in the office were wearing, and to start tailoring my look towards that. He never mentioned make up or accessories; this was solely about the clothing. Our office didn’t have a specific dress code at the time, but in practice it was a business casual office, and I was sporting jeans everyday. It was an uncomfortable discussion for him, but I really appreciated it. And it was totally appropriate that he said something to me.

    3. K*

      I had a male manager who I deeply respected take me aside just before he left to join another company to talk to me about this.
      I would often wear trousers with jumpers or plain tops instead of the more formal skirt suit combo.
      It was horrid to hear ”You should think more about how others are percieving how you look and try to dress smartly and stop changing your hair” (I’d gone from having white blonde very hard to maintain hair down to a natural brown in a few stages).
      I actually cried when I got home after that talk and felt like everything I owned wasn’t good enough and that as everyone had already formed an opinion what would be the point in changing.
      I got myself together and made more of an effort with wearing suits instead of just business casual and I actually felt better about myself, and I think it was well recieved.
      I’ve now moved into a new company and always make the effort to look polished all down to this one guys comment.
      Was it hard to hear at the time – yes
      Do I wish he hadn’t said it – no
      At least now I’m always prepared to jump in to client meeting without worrying about if they think I’m smart enough.

  28. Julie*

    What if you ask her whether she wants any coaching in that area? I realize that by doing that, you’ll be letting her know that you think she needs coaching in that area, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. I agree with other commenters that if you talk about it the way you talked about it in your email, it will probably go over well.

    1. Kelly O*

      I have a question about this line of thought.

      If the OP was trying to figure out how to coach someone on presentation skills, or inter-office communications, or dealing with customers, or any other sort of presentation/the impression you give people, would you also ask if she wanted coaching?

      Because at least in my experience, coaching has been something that happens when there is an area that needs work for whatever reason. And there wasn’t “would you like me to coach you on this” but more “I know this is part of your career plan and this will help you get where you want to be.”

      Historically, the best advice I’ve received has not necessarily been the advice I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed at that point in my career/life/whatever.

  29. Scott M*

    Just be sure you are more specific when you talk to her. If someone told me I should dress more “formally and stylishly” I would have no idea what that meant (Tuxedo? Suit and Tie? Does stylish mean certain types of patterns on shirts, etc?)

    1. Laura2*

      Yep. “Formally and stylishly” might be confusing to someone who doesn’t really care about clothing and style and who doesn’t know anything about it beyond the dress code for a particular office, or who doesn’t associate “formal” with “stylish.”

    2. Emma*

      Reminds me of Jim’s sarcastic tuxedo-wearing in response to Dwight’s office memo on following the dress code on the American version of The Office.

    3. Windchime*

      Yeah, maybe it’s because I’m from the ultra-casual Pacific Northwest, but when people say “dress formally”, I start having panic attacks because that means I need to go shopping for a gown.

      I think that this kind of discussion would be very tricky indeed, but if I were to have it, I would probably talk about dressing at the next professional level. Because that means something very different to me than “start dressing formally”.

  30. BCW*

    To me, it really just depends on my company. In my current, and last position, everyone from the ground floor guys to the COO and President wore jeans and a polo or button down. Unless you had a client meeting, if you wore anything more than that, you would look odd. So while I agree with the “dress for the job you want” aspect, you have to look at what people higher up are doing. It sounds like maybe a button down shirt could be an easy way to get your point across. But my question realistically is do you think others really notice this? I know you say you were taken more seriously, but is that because you started carrying yourself differently when you dressed up more more than just because you wore a different outfit?

  31. Lily in NYC*

    This one is easy – honestly, if OP is a manager she shouldn’t have a difficult time addressing it with coworker – because it’s helpful advice, not criticism that she is doing something wrong. This is the type of conversation a good manager should be able to have with direct reports. If coworker feels insulted, then she might be too thin-skinned (unless it is brought up in a bad manner or something).

  32. Chrissi*

    I think what’s important is how she dresses in comparison with everyone else. If she’s the most informally dressed person in the office, even if it falls into your company’s definition of business casual, then I think you definitely need to have this conversation.

    The concern that I would have (this may be a regional difference – upper Midwest here) is that khaki’s and a long-sleeved t-shirt is what the interns or very young employees would wear. If you are trying to advance in your position, you don’t want people to perceive you, consciously or not, in that way. I don’t see that this is any different than dressing more formally for interviews. If she’s looking for advancement soon, then her job right now is kind of like a really drawn out interview, kind of. And while her co-workers and direct manager who intimately know her work probably aren’t influenced in their opinion of her by the way that she dresses, the higher-up people that would be making a decision about promotions and only see her from time to time are more likely to perceive her differently.

  33. kac*

    I think you’re in the perfect position to talk to her about this *because* you aren’t overly interested in fashion. You can share it as personal advice that has helped you, and speak to it’s value despite being additional work/sometimes a pain.

    1. Lynn Whitehat*

      Yeah, I think sometimes people who are into fashion for its own sake don’t get what the problem is for the rest of us, and can make it worse. I can feel my gut clench when they start in with the “and it can be super-fun! Creating your own personal style!!! :-) :-) :-)” Look, it’s never going to be fun for some people. I think when talking to someone not naturally fashion-inclined, it’s better to frame it as “knowing how to dress is a professional skill everyone needs, like being able to give a non-embarrassing presentation”. Rather than “you’re the only square who doesn’t see the fun in primping!”

  34. lachevious*

    Reading through the comments, I don’t think this has been mentioned yet (if so, I apologize!):

    When I “dress up” for work, it’s a nice (but not too expensive) suit. When I wear what my Big Law office considers “business casual”, I dress in slacks, nice-ish blouse, cardigan (to cover tattoos), and flats. This is more comfy, but I feel like it makes me feel slouchy and at times, frumpy, and those interior feelings may be picked up and perceived as “less serious/professional, etc. by others.

    I tend to feel more professional in the full suit, and I feel that I project a more authoritative/professional presence (especially when paired with heels). It definitely makes me feel more confident.

    Maybe that’s just me.

    1. Cat*

      I’m not in BigLaw, but I’m a lawyer, and I think the dress norms are the same here – full suit for a “public” event; cardigan for a normal day. I think the relationship between clothes and affect is complicated, and a combination of personal and social constructions. For me, the suit does feel . . . important, somehow, when I’m acting in the public role as a lawyer. But that doesn’t mean I feel the need to wear it everyday; when I’m in the office, the day-to-day cardigan feels more “work ready.” Like, we’re here to do the non-glamorous, roll-up-your-sleeves work.

      I think this is all going to vary a lot from person-to-person and workplace-to-workplace, though.

      1. lachevious*

        Yes! I’ve always been in support staff roles, so I am glad for my flats and wash and wear attire.

        The last time I wore a suit was when I interviewed here, but at several old jobs, suits were mandatory (and pantyhose for trials in TEXAS and ARIZONA). Running around dressed that way was awful!

  35. Us, Too*

    OP left out a key detail. How she dresses and how her team members dress relative to the dress code are irrelevant. What matters is how the people in the role that her employee wants dress. THAT is how the employee should be coached to present herself. It is not essential that the employee exactly mimics these people. That is creepy and weird. Instead, she should seek to match the formality of their appearance and marry that to her own style.

    There is no need to violate any personal beliefs about makeup being sexist or refusing to wear wool because it is cruel to sheep, etc. I also think it can be accomplished in a very small budget with a little bit of planning, patient shopping at consignment stores for good deals, and a decent tailor – regardless of your size.

    There are certainly exceptions for some industries – e.g. if you want to be the editor of Vogue, you better be prepared to shell out some serious cash and be ready to look fashion forward. But for the “normal” person this really isn’t that complicated. :)

  36. Office Mercenary*

    Can anyone recommend reasonably priced brands for professional clothes? I hate shopping but can’t avoid it forever…

    1. Chrissi*

      You’re probably going to have to be more specific. For some people reasonably priced is $100 for a shirt, for others it’s $25. Also, define “professional clothes” – do you mean very formal suits or more business casual like slacks and a top?

      I always want to go to Corporette for recommendations for clothes, but I think it’s geared towards lawyers and more formal corporate offices and the clothes are just too formal and too expensive for me.

      1. A Jane*

        Seconded on Corporette for work appropriate recommendations.

        Fair warning that many of the recommendations are over the $150 range, but it does give you an idea of what to look for when you’re looking for options within your budget.

        1. Persephone Mulberry*

          I enjoy Corporette as well – I don’t work in law or even a particularly corporate environment, but I’ve learned a lot about what people with bigger budgets than mine choose, and I watch for those brands at my favorite resale shops.

      2. NutellaNutterson*

        I love Corporette for clothes recommendations, too. Though hilariously their “ultra casual maybe in summer” recs are my region’s “whoa, fancypants!” looks.

        Or, as I said to a friend from out of town who thought he needed to get changed before a nice dinner out: “I can’t see your toes or knees, you are already dressed for dinner!”

    2. lachevious*

      If I know it will fit (I have a few brands that I always look okay in), I order my clothes off Amazon. Or, if I have extra cash – Kohl’s and Sear’s usually has reasonably-priced business wear.

      And, there are always thrift stores!

    3. KJR*

      Don’t forget TJ Maxx/Marshall’s if you have any near you. Not to sound like I’m repeating their commercial, but they really do have designer clothes for a lot less money than you would pay in a department store. You just have to be willing to weed through a lot of clothes. They are sorted by size though, which is nice, and they have a pretty decent size range as well. Nice shoes/handbags/jewelry/accessories as well.

      1. Windchime*

        I wish I could find clothes at these places. I get quickly overwhelmed by miles of racks of clothing that all seem to be jumbled up in no particular order. Some people find it to be a fun challenge, like a treasure hunt; for me, it’s such a chore that I usually leave empty-handed.

    4. Rachel - HR*

      I have purchased almost all of my business clothes at Marshalls/TJ Maxx. I have a few pieces on the side from Ann Taylor Loft and NY&Company. I get compliments almost daily on what I’m wearing (that said, I dress more professional than 90% of the staff and I work primarily with women).

      1. Chrissi*

        I get stuff from Marshalls/TJ Maxx too, but sometimes I can’t bring myself to sift through the racks. My go to places for work clothes are probably Kohl’s, Macy’s (when I can afford it), Ann Taylor Loft, and Lane Bryant for pants. I also shop the clearance racks at Banana Republic and Gap from time to time – there can be some really spectacular deals in there.

        1. Judy*

          Are there any places that offer help any more? I remember in the early 90s, Casual Corner offered a (free) service, that you could call in and say “size 10 pants, dark colors, 5pm” and when you walked in at 5pm, there would be a dressing room with lots of pants for you to try on. I so loved that.

          1. Persephone Mulberry*

            Nordstrom still offers free personal shopper services. You can even request an appointment time online and specify what you’re looking for. I was considering going this route when I was thinking about buying a new interview suit.

            1. Windchime*

              +1 to Nordstrom. Lots of their clothes can be very expensive, but they also have good sales that make it more reasonable. I’ve found a great salesperson; I can send her an email and tell her I need pants or sweaters, and when I get there at the appointed time, she’s got a roomful of stuff for me to try on. It makes shopping so much easier.

          2. Kelly O*

            I used to LOVE Casual Corner! My very first suits came from there, years ago, when I worked in “corporate” at a bank.

          3. Elizabeth*

            I’ve done that with my local JC Penney’s, when I’ve needed a new outfit for an event. The last time was “Size 16, black ankle length skirt, dressy sweater or blouse, high end black hose”. The blouse was a buttondown brick red silk satin, and everything was waiting for me in the dressing room at 4:30. It all fit, I took it home, and at 7, we were at the event, appropriately dressed.

        2. NutellaNutterson*

          You probably already know this, but the Macy’s sale racks can have great clothes for far less than thrift stores, even. My summer wardrobe of cotton pants were all bought for less than $10/each. I’m a big fan of those sale racks!

      2. giggleloop*

        I am also a big Marshall’s and TJ Maxx fan. The key for me is learning a few brands that I know fit me well and knowing some that really don’t fit me well. It makes the miles of racks less intimidating. (I do stray from it, but when things get overwhelming, it is easier). I do the same with main stores (I’m another Banana Republic fan!) and I stick to the clearance racks in these stores.

    5. Sharm*

      I love Banana Republic for work, which is pricier than many of the other suggestions you received. However, I stay strictly to their 40%/50% off sales, and sales racks. I personally love the quality and feel very polished in their clothes. I’d like to save more money by going to Marshall’s/TJ Maxx, but save for one dress, I’ve never found things I like there.

      Contrary to most people here, I actually like clothes, so maybe my advice doesn’t work for you. But, I do think BR offers simple, clean clothes that work for many professional settings.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        Similarly, I wear tons of stuff from sales at J.Crew, Ann Taylor, and Boden. Get on the email lists so they send you coupons and sale alerts, and if there’s something on final sale that you want to try on, call up and ask, “I want to order this but I’m worried it won’t fit. Can I return it if it doesn’t work out?” Sometimes they will let you.

  37. A Teacher*

    I actually teach in a district with NO dress code for the staff/faculty. While my principal can have a “dress expectation” and it can even be brought up on our evaluations, it cannot be enforced due to our union contract. The thing is, although many of us wear jeans on days other than Fridays, they actually look more professional than some of the teachers that “dress for success” and wear their pleated khakis with frayed bottoms or dress pants that are ill-fitting. Telling people how to dress can be a touchy subject and I am actually glad I teach where I do with no dress code because it lets me be me.

  38. Stephanie*

    I sort of struggle with this when it comes to interview clothes. I’m pretty busty, so button-ups are tough without dropping a lot of cash and doing lots of tailoring.

    So I wear a v-neck shell under a suit. I wonder if it looks a little too Miami Vice-like (obviously, I’m not wearing neon colors).

    Suggestions on how to dress the suit up more?

    1. fposte*

      I think a shell under a suit is fine–that doesn’t sound underdressed to me. You could add a scarf or lapel pin if you wanted additional detail (pocket squares can be nice too, but if you’re busty you probably 1) aren’t buying suits with pockets there and 2) don’t need anything colorful just above your chest).

    2. Chrissi*

      I really like V-neck shells under suits (I am also busty). In that case you have a lot of (for lack of better phrasing) open neck space, so I think the first thing would be a necklace – either something smaller that hits right at the small of your throat or something big and chunky – a statement necklace. Depends on your style. If you’re not into necklaces, go for earrings that you can see (especially if you have short hair like me – they’re easier to see). I wouldn’t wear large hoops or very dangly earrings, but smaller hoops or tear-drop type earrings are great. I don’t know if you can tell, but I love jewelry. I usually buy more interesting jewelry and then apply sparingly, but that works because I wear fairly plain clothes. If you tend to wear more stylish clothes than me with lots of prints, then you would want to make the jewelry more understated. I never wear both earrings and a necklace unless the earrings are tiny (I’m currently wearing tiny stud diamond earrings – like really tiny), but I’ve seen other women wear both and it looks great.

      Also if you are better at scarf tying than I am, you could wear a scarf tied around your neck, especially w/ a V-neck. I can’t seem to pull them off and I am extremely jealous of people that can.

      I think you can change the style of any outfit by dressing up or down the shoes, jewelry, hair, and make-up.

      1. Schmitt*

        I’m a recent scarf convert! I felt totally self-conscious the first few weeks, but kept at it and now I own /four/ ;)

        1. Stephanie*

          I had that same reaction as well to my first scarf. (“Everyone must think this looks goofy.”) And now I think I have a scarf problem. When I moved, I had a box that was mostly scarves.

    3. D*

      A necklace? A scarf? A lapel pin? If you’re trying to look dressier, a shell in a lux fabric, like silk, can elevate things.

      A shell under a suit rather than a button front shirt is business formal, and the v-neck sounds fine as long as you’re not showing cleavage.

      Depends on your industry obviously, but mine is very conservative, so there’s really only so much one can do to make an interview suit have any personality.

    4. Mints*

      My go-to interview shirt is like a high scoop neck. It’s beneath the collar bone but way above cleavage. It’s patterned color, and I really like it (Calvin Klein btw, which always fits well and I’m super excited when I find it at Ross)

      1. giggleloop*

        I love Calvin Klein! Love finding stuff at Ross/TJ Maxx/Marshall’s. I also stalk the sale section of their website, and I’ve gotten some amazing deals. It’s one of the few brands that I can pretty much guarantee a solid fit when I buy online.

        1. Persephone Mulberry*

          I stalk the clearance/outlet section of the Coldwater Creek website. Some of their stuff is verrrrrry matronly, but there are some surprisingly cute things as well, and nice basics.

          1. giggleloop*

            That’s how I feel about Chico’s …. a lot of it is not my taste, but every now and then, I find something really cute for a good price!

            1. Turanga Leela*

              Ditto. Chico’s solid long-sleeve t-shirts are my go-to for under suits. They’re long enough, and the white is opaque.

      2. lindsay j*

        I am a Calvin Klein fanatic. All of their stuff, from dresses to jeans, fits me perfectly. And I find a lot of it at Ross and Marshall’s. The Ross and Marshall’s prices are usually cheaper than even their outlet store prices, as well.

    5. Persephone Mulberry*

      I rarely put a button down under a jacket – partly because of the busty issue, but more because I have a short neck and narrow shoulders, and I feel crowded with multiple collars going on. I lean toward the high scoop shell with a statement necklace.

      1. Anonna Miss*

        Same here. I rarely put a button-down under a jacket. Too many collars to futz with, and I really don’t want button issues such as pulling/gaping/popping off in a situation where I’m suited up.

        I usually wear a silk shell or lightweight sweater under a suit jacket, or some other knit with a high scoop neck. If I want to dress it up, I go for a silk scarf. I like the occasional necklace, but if I’m in a stressful situation such as an interview or tense client meeting, I don’t want the metal bothering my skin. (When my blood pressure goes up, my collarbone area tends to get red and blotchy, so best to cover it up.)

    6. O*

      I’ve found it kinda helps to wear the suit jacket in and if it’s more casual remove it when you sit, or if you know it’s not super formal to carry the jacket, to let them know, why yes I do know how to dress professionally. But I’d be totally fine with what you described, unfortunately if I tried to dress it up more, I look like an idiot

    7. Sharm*

      Banana Republic has really nice, loose chiffon shells in interesting patterns (not loud, just eye-catching enough to contrast with a plain suit). They’ve been a god-send for me. I think I have two or three of those, and I rotate them in with a nice black skirt, or, when I’m interviewing, the skirt and a suit jacket.

      I am terrible at accessorizing, but if you’re into it, a nice statement necklace, brooch, or scarf could help. If you’re a shoe person, keep your suit plain, and have some bright/patterned shoes. Again, that might depend on your office, but I love the look when others do it.

      It sounds like you have a more formal dress code than I do, but if you have the option, I wear a lot of cardigans with shells and skirts, and also love structured dresses.

      I’ve never worn a button-down shirt in my life and never will!!

  39. Jess*

    I also wish we, as a society would move away from these looks-based judgements.

    The thing is, if you really want to look polished and stylish on an everyday basis, it’s a decent amount of work and expenditure, especially for women: purchasing clothing, drycleaning, dealing with pet hair, hair cuts, colors, straightening, skincare, makeup application, hair styling, ironing, etc., in addition to normal health and grooming upkeep. It’s like committing to a new hobby, the purpose of which is to look like you have money, which can be rather hard when you don’t.

    1. KellyK*

      Definitely. (I wonder if some of the reason it’s such a contentious issue is that the people for whom it *is* a hobby, one they like, are the ones setting the standard.)

      1. Hiding for this one*

        I wonder about that too. But it’s the major stores that set the tone for whatever trendy stuff trickles down to Walmart and Target.

        I have a teenage friend whose family has money and who wants a career in fashion. She wants to be a buyer for a top store, and as she put it, “decide what the rest of the country is wearing.” This out of the mouth of someone who introduced the topic by saying, “When I was with the personal shopper at
        [Fancypants Place]….” which caused me and our other young friend to look at each other like “Yeaaaaah….can’t relate to that!”

        Lucky for us, this young person has a really good sense of classic style! I think she’ll rock at this career. And I don’t think the rest of us will end up looking like runway clowns. :)

    2. Us, Too*

      I think you may be putting more on the “women” plate here than is strictly required for professionalism. I take about the same amount of time to dress for work as my husband does. Neither of us dyes our hair or does any sort of hair acrobatics beyond blow drying it every morning so that it’s tidy. Granted, I do apply some tinted sunscreen, powder, and blush every morning, but he has to shave and do plucking/trimming of any stray hairs that sprouted overnight. So it’s a wash there in terms of investment. Honestly, I’d be surprised if it takes us more than 30 minutes to get from bed to front door every day and that includes all the normal hygiene stuff that we’d do regardless of whether we went to work or were staying home. I don’t understand how anyone would see this as some big investment or hobby.

      1. fposte*

        I do think that it’s somewhat more work for women regardless of field in that the appearance “encyclopedia” is bigger–even if what you ultimately decide to do doesn’t take more resources than what your male colleagues do, you’re likelier to have to wade through more data to figure it out.

      2. Jess*

        Yeah, but not everyone has that easy. Some people do require more work to look polished (I know this from personal experience) because they have difficult hair, complexion issues, etc.

        The woman in the question is already doing fine as far as the basics (which is what you seem to be describing) but the OP believes she needs to do *more*, i.e. more makeup, fancier clothes, accessorizing – all of which equal more time and money.

        1. Us, Too*

          I don’t understand why it takes any longer to put on a pair of dress slacks and a nice sweater instead of khakis and a long sleeved t-shirt. This needn’t cost much more, either, if you shop conservatively.

          OP may have been thinking of makeup, accessories, etc, but let’s be honest here – I don’t think there are too many scarves, tubes of lipstick or shoes that are going to turn a pair of average khakis and a long sleeved t-shirt into a polished professional look. (I’m assuming we’re not talking about a really nice pair of khaki colored slacks and a silk blend t-shirt here).

    3. Sharm*

      I get where you’re coming from. But it doesn’t have to be onerous if you don’t want it to be. I shower at night, so from the moment I wake up to the moment I walk out the door, it takes me 30 minutes. This includes making the bed, making my lunch, listening to the news, and checking my email.

      For me, I have a somewhat limited wardrobe of clothes to wear, so I just have the same outfits for two or three weeks, with some variability here or there. I do wear makeup, but only eyeliner and lipstick. I don’t do anything to my hair except brush it out. I purposely get haircuts that are easy to maintain, and only go once or twice a year at that.

      I like looking nice, even though I agree with you that looks-based judgments are not optimal. But I think in most cases, not playing the game at all can hurt you. You don’t have to if it bothers you so much. But I just contend that it doesn’t have to be that painful.

      1. fposte*

        Agreed. I think that between the fact that this is a very personal area and it’s also one where ROI is hard to predict, people are really skittish of the value of change. And I sure get that–that’s why I don’t brick and mortar shop for clothing any more. But once you move through the learning curve and find a routine that works for you *and* represents you well at work, it’s not particularly time-consuming–it’s just getting there that can be tough.

  40. Rebecca*

    How does this apply to casual workplaces, where workers never see their contacts face to face?

    I drive to an office, only to log in remotely and interact with people that are hundreds, or even thousands of miles away. I never see them, and they never see me (hopefully we’ll never get webcams). I wear jeans, nice tops, athletic shoes or casual shoes, etc.

    The company I work for now doesn’t give raises or merit increases. Wearing nicer clothing or more jewelry isn’t going to change that.

    1. fposte*

      If you know it doesn’t help in your workplace, then it doesn’t help in your workplace. Think of it like Excel tips–if your office doesn’t use Excel, it’s not going to get you anywhere. But you might want to keep them in mind in case you leave for someplace that does use Excel.

      1. Sunflower*

        Exactly. However, if you are ever in a job where it’s a casual office and you want to look more professional, it’s about looking put together. Wear flats instead of sneakers and different colored jeans or tights. I find the easiest way to make a causal look put more put together is adding in a color/colorblocking or adding a statement jewelry piece like a necklace.

    2. EG*

      I think a key is to make changes that increase your confidence in your image. I am completely uncomfortable in a dressy suit or fancy dress, but can wear minimal makeup and a nice sweater set with dress pants to feel like a million bucks if everything fits right and complements me.

  41. AAA*

    I know this might not get any traction this far down the comments, but I have a fashion/professional dress-related question:

    Advice for looking professional and “put together” when commuting in by bike?

    I started biking to work (6 miles each way) earlier this year for health and environmental reasons. I really don’t want to give it up, but I know that my “professional look” is suffering as a result…I feel like I’m now wearing the same 3 wrinkle-free dresses every week that I can stash in my bag and throw on when I get here. Plus accessories and hair styling are out the window.

    Any advice for how to look put together and professional in this situation? I like the “office blazer & heels” advice!

    1. KellyK*

      Maybe get a few more of those wrinkle-free dresses, and maybe some wrinkle-free cardigans or blazers to go over them (or, if the jacket isn’t wrinkle-free, keep it at the office.) As long as you’re not wearing the same thing all the time, a dress with a jacket, blazer, or cardigan is pretty put-together. As far as accessories, depending on the bag, you could keep jewelry in it, if there’s a small zippered pocket. Tucking a scarf into the bag might work too. There might also be some jewelry that would be compatible with bike-riding. (I’m thinking rings, but I don’t know if that would be uncomfortable with the handlebars. A necklace tucked under your shirt might be okay too.)

    2. Just a Reader*

      A fabulous bun (donut bun maybe) and good-sized stud earrings would help with the above-the-neck presentation.

    3. Cath in Canada*

      I cycle to work too, although I’m lucky enough to have a shower and locker at work.

      Accessories can absolutely be done – you just have to pack them securely, in a little box or bag or something, and put them on when you arrive. (I carry accessories more often than I actually remember to put them on, but I do carry them!)

      As for clothes – I find that pants with a bit of lycra in them, and most tops, do OK if I roll them rather than fold them, and take care not to pack anything else on top of them.

      Safe ride, bike buddy!

      1. Cath in Canada*

        Also, if you’re not already using panniers, make the switch – SO much better than a backpack in terms of capacity, things not creasing (because a backpack – and therefore its contents – moves around a lot more), and general sweatiness.

    4. Sharm*

      I second the panniers advice!

      Could you keep things at your desk to help freshen up? I’m thinking stuff like a small towel, wet wipes, dry shampoo, deodorant, etc.? I sometimes pin my hair in little twists at the front to prevent helmet-head; not sure if it works so great, because the real issues is my head sweating! So that’s where a towel and dry shampoo work for me.

      Good luck!

      1. FormerPhotog*

        Oh! Ban has new deodorant wipes that are like a shower in a pack. If I fix my foot so I can run more, I’ll be bringing those in for work.

    5. AAA*

      This is excellent! Thanks!

      I just invested in a pannier bag, and I’m SO happy I did! Makes a huge difference!

      I think one of my biggest problems is getting used to packing everything the night before and double checking it in the morning before my ride–there was that one awful time that I forgot to pack a real bra and had to spend the day with my sweaty sports bra under my work clothes… but I’ve learned that lesson!

      I like the idea of pants with Lycra in them! I used to wear pants and button down shirts to work all the time, and I kind of miss that now that the button-downs are out of the questions because…wrinkles.

    6. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

      Wrinkle releaser spray! Keep it in your desk at work. It actually really works (for me anyway)

    7. Emma*

      I’ll post them when I get home, but the blogs I read (Let’s Go Ride Bikes, Lovely Bike, Prima Cyclista, Commute by Bike) have tidbits about commuting in your work clothes.

      I would also check out BikeForums. There must be a thread or two on commuting without looking like a MAMIL. :)

      I’m building up a bike to commute on this spring/summer and I can’t wait!!!

  42. Canadamber*

    I’ve seen a few suggestions of makeup here. I never wear it, although I probably should sometimes conceal pimples, so I might find concealer. Do you think it’s really necessary? I hate wearing makeup because I always seem to smear it, and it’s a pain to put on, and yeah.

    1. fposte*

      It’s field-dependent, but generally, no, I wouldn’t say it’s requisite. I only started wearing makeup occasionally when I was well into my work life (I think you’re in your late teens, right?). If you want to play, YouTube videos are great, and getting older is great for caring less what people think :-).

      1. Tina*

        I always manage to get lipstick on my teeth. So much so, that I’ve started joking that maybe I should just apply it to my teeth and hope it ends up on my lips!

        I rarely wear make-up, but when I do, it’s often to cover up acne. Unfortunately, my acne got worse as an adult, not better.

        1. VintageLydia USA*

          I haven’t found a lipstick that didn’t fade in 5 minutes. I lick my lips too much and end up using a ton of balm. I use tinted lip balm instead if I want color (I’m blessed in that my natural lip color is quite nice, though, so that’s pretty rare.)

    2. Just a Reader*

      Personal bias, I think even minimal makeup looks a lot more polished and I wouldn’t be caught dead without it.

      But if one is otherwise well groomed, I don’t think it’s mandatory in a work environment.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        Agreed. I look very blotchy if I don’t wear powder, and that affects my confidence. The confidence is more of an issue than the blotch.

      2. Windchime*

        I wear makeup, but lots of women at my workplace don’t and I don’t think they are perceived as being unprofessional in any way. But then neat grooming and clean clothes go a long way in IT. :)

        1. Cat*

          I’m not opposed to makeup – I wear it sometimes, including for work events where I want to be especially “on” – but I think it is absolutely unnecessary: after all, most men go their entire lives without wearing makeup. How could it be necessary for women? Do we have some special X-linked gene that causes us to be unable to function in a professional setting without goop on our face? I can answer that: we do not.

          As for time and money – if it floats your boat, it’s not a waste. But attempts make makeup de facto mandatory for women in professional settings is absolutely a tax on the time, money, and energy of women that doesn’t exist for men. We really, really, really shouldn’t lose sight of that.

          1. Just a Reader*

            I was responding to the “time and money” comment–I’ve already said I don’t think it’s necessary in a work environment.

            And I have never heard of a company mandating it.

            1. Cat*

              Companies do mandate it occasionally, but that wasn’t what I was talking about – I was talking about the idea that you “have” to wear makeup as a woman to be professional, which leads a lot of women to feel it’s mandatory even if it technically isn’t. If they’re not wearing makeup of their own free will, that is a waste of their time and money.

              1. Just a Reader*

                Ah, I see. I think there are a LOT of industries and channels to blame for that!

          2. Gloria*


            As an aside, I feel despair when I hear of people claiming to be “unable” to leave the house or “not being caught dead” without make-up.

            I understand if you have a crippling self-image issue or are deeply self-conscious about something in your appearance. I do too. Please do what you feel is necessary to have some confidence/self-worth.

            But saying it casually, as just some kind of deep social taboo, is kind of a low-level slap to a lot of people who don’t wear make-up (rather like the skinny friend who blithely tells her overweight friend she’d rather be dead than a size 10).

            1. Just a Reader*

              I’m not sure why it would be a slap. It’s my personal preference for how I look. I don’t judge others for their preferences.

              1. KellyK*

                There’s a huge difference between expressing a personal preference for something and expressing shock and horror at the idea of being seen without it. Someone who says they wouldn’t be caught dead leaving the house without make-up is doing the latter.

                1. KellyK*

                  Wait, what? I’m referring to the exact language Gloria referenced when she said comments about not wearing make-up could be seen as a slap.

                  You asked why it was a slap and what was wrong with expressing personal preferences–I explained why someone who doesn’t wear make-up could see such strong comments as an implicit insult.

                2. KellyK*

                  Okay, I had to read waaay up to see that “I wouldn’t be caught dead…” was your comment. I know that’s common hyperbole, but it’s a pretty strong statement nonetheless. I stand by my comment that if you’re going to be that emphatic about your need for make-up, it’s going to come off as implied criticism of those who don’t wear it.

                  I’m not sure if this is veering into the nitpicky conversations about language that Alison asked us to avoid, but I think part of the reason “I wouldn’t be caught dead” reads so strongly and so negatively is that it’s very commonly used to criticize someone else’s appearance (e.g., “Look what she’s wearing! I wouldn’t be caught dead in that.”)

              2. Cat*

                I think this is part of a family of comments that are just better to avoid. As a general rule, complaining about a certain trait or thing when you know the person you’re talking to is *more* (or *less*) of a trait is bad form. Like, complaining about how old you are to a much older relative; complaining about how broke you are to someone you know is in much worse shape, etc. This more or less falls in that category – it often comes off as an implied criticism even though it’s usually not meant that way.

                1. Just a Reader*

                  I think this is directed at me? So…I need to not give my opinion and state a personal preference on a blog that is supposedly a place to share opinions and information, if it’s different than what the majority thinks?

                  I think people are trying really hard to create a criticism that doesn’t exist in this line of conversation.

                2. Cat*

                  No, I’m not criticizing you, and I kind of view this blog as an exchange of ideas that’s different than the conversations you’d have with a friend. I’m just saying that I see why people feel criticized by comments like “I’d never leave the house without makeup” (or stronger versions) because it can come off as an implicit comparison to the person you’re talking to.

                3. fposte*

                  I don’t see it as any more of a comment on what other people do than saying that you never wear makeup, though.

                4. Cat*

                  Eh, it depends on how it’s said, I guess. The weak form, maybe not. But if you said “I wouldn’t be caught dead leaving the house with makeup” to someone you knew always wore it, that would probably also come off as an implied criticism.

                5. Just a Reader*

                  I have rosacea, is the reason I wouldn’t be caught dead without makeup. If you like your skin and feel good bare faced, high five.

                  Honestly I think people are working to be offended here. It could just as easily be turned around to say the people who are so disdainful of makeup are offensive–and there are some of those responses on this thread–see a below comment in response to something I said about moving us back to the 50s.

                  I wish people would take things at face value and not get worked up for no reason. This entire exchange has done nothing but showcase divisive commentary, and in no way helps the OP.

                6. Cat*

                  I’m not working to be offended. I’m just saying these are sensitive issues and it often makes sense to think about the unintended messages sent by your words (which is something I think should come through for the OP by this comment). I totally feel you about having personal circumstances that lead you to wear makeup; I have stuff like that too. I’m betting when you’re talking about makeup with a friend who doesn’t wear it, they’d know those circumstances or you’d explain them; and I think that is

                7. Cat*

                  Whoops – got cut off. Just was going to say that I think that, if anything, is the lesson for the OP to take from these comments; these questions and conversations should be couched in context that’s sensitive to a given person’s circumstances and surroundings.

                8. fposte*

                  @Cat–okay, then some of the comments about people with no makeup have been implied criticism too.

                  But what’s the advantage of reading either or both sides like that? It just seems like exactly the kind of negative assumption/language argument that we’re trying to get away from around here.

                9. Cat*

                  I’m looking at it from the opposite perspective – the speaker’s rather than the speakee’s. I agree, it’s best to give people the benefit of the doubt; they’re probably not trying to insult you 99% of the time. But when you’re talking about these issues (as the OP is probably going to be), it’s a good idea to remember they’re loaded, especially for women. A lot of women in our society have had the experience of being mocked, judged, and belittled for their dress and appearance while simultaneously given the message that it’s the most important thing about them and while also being told that they’re vain, shallow, and frivolous for caring about their appearance. In that cultural context, I think it pays to be careful about how we phrase appearance-related things. So I’m all for discussing makeup and the like with friends, but I do like to think about what I say to make sure I’m not implying I think they should be spending more or less time on their clothes or makeup than they are. It’s not that hard to do and I think bears a lot of dividends.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I would interpret that as a sad thing for the person making the comment (because it sucks that they feel that way), not as an indictment of anyone else.

              1. Just a Reader*

                This is how it was intended, although I don’t agree that it’s “sad” that I don’t like leaving the house without makeup. This is the cultural norm where I’m from.

                1. Anonna Miss*

                  I’m with you, Just a Reader. I wear makeup every day. My skin is very pale – and not in a porcelain kind of way. More in an uneven, sun-damaged sort of way. Makeup evens out my skin and gives me a little color, so I look a bit healthier, and IMHO, better.

                  There are some women who look absolutely great without a speck of makeup, and kudos to them, but I’m not a member of that tribe.

                  I don’t find it all that productive to spend a lot of time railing at the world for not being the way it should be, rather than the way it is. But that’s me.

                2. Cat*

                  Anonna Miss, who’s railing? Saying makeup shouldn’t be a requirement for women is not railing.

                3. EM*

                  I’ll throw some support in for Just a Reader too — I certainly leave the house without make up on the weekends, to go to the gym, to walk my dog, etc.

                  But I very, very rarely — once in a blue moon – go to work without at least foundation, concealer, blush & mascara on. I feel that my skin looks very uneven and I unfortunately have dark under eye circles (hereditary) that make me look tired/ill if I don’t use yellow toned corrector.

                  I’ve worked with other women who routinely wear no make up and they look perfectly fine, but I don’t feel polished and put together if I’m not wearing any.

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Maybe sad isn’t the right word. But feeling like you can’t leave the house without altering your face in some way isn’t what I’d choose for myself or anyone else. (And I say that as someone who also prefers to wear makeup when I’m going anywhere where I care about how I look.)

                  In any case, I do think this is getting a little heated in places, and it would be good to keep in mind that we’re all just sharing our own opinions.

            3. Kelly O*

              It is my personal preference, based on my skin tone, my own coloring, and how I want to look when I go out.

              I always have on something, even if it’s “just” tinted moisturizer, eyebrows, and some tinted lip balm.

              I am not trying to “low level slap” anyone with that. It is my personal preference. Nothing more. Please don’t project on everyone who has a different comfort level than you.

    3. Aisling*

      It depends. I still have to cover pimples myself, and I’m at an age where most people don’t. On anyone else, if they have a pimple, that’s what I zero in on, since it’s such a different color than their skin. So, I use concealer and powder, as well as mascara and tinted lip balm. Minimalist, but makes me feel a bit more polished.

    4. Sharm*

      I wear makeup, which I guess puts me in the minority here, but in the majority of women I’ve worked with. I happen to love eyeliner, so I wear it all the time. But I just wear that and lipstick. Foundation/blush/mascara/eye shadow? Too much. I used to do more eye-makeup but moved to a warmer climate where everything melts. What I wear now takes me about 30 seconds in the morning, and since it makes ME feel polished, I don’t mind doing it.

      I’m a proponent of keeping it simple, if you want to wear it and it makes you feel better. But if you don’t want to wear it, that’s fine too.

    5. Cassie*

      Many of the women in my office don’t wear makeup (or if they do, it’s very very minimal so it looks like they don’t). I just use BB cream which evens out my skin tone and minimizes my pores and the appearance of pimples. It doesn’t make my face look flawless but I also don’t have a thick layer of goo on my face either.

      I also wear eyeliner, a very thin line right on top of the top lash line. My eyelashes are pretty thin and sparse – if my eyelashes were thicker, I wouldn’t bother. For my lips, I just use Lip Smackers to keep my lips from getting chapped (it also slightly tints my lips but doesn’t taste like lipstick).

    6. Jen RO*

      I wear makeup, but I hate foundation with a passion. I do look *much* more polished when wearing it, but it makes me feel like my face is dirty.

      It all depends on field and company, my suggestion is to see what your coworkers do and emulate them. Right now, I wear the most makeup among the women in my office… and I only have eyeliner, mascara and (sometimes) eye shadow.

  43. Anonymous Educator*

    Can you make it more about you and less about her? You can even phrase it very similarly to how you did in your letter:

    As I evolved in my career, I came to adopt the “dress for the job you want” philosophy and made a concerted effort to upgrade my wardrobe; this does not come naturally to me and I’m not interested in fashion, so I had to work on it. I have definitely observed that I am taken more seriously and afforded more respect when dressed more formally and stylishly.

    That way it’s less of a “Something’s wrong with you” or “This is holding you back” and more of a “This is what I’ve gained by doing such-and-such, just so you know.” And she can take that to heart or not.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This is good stuff on two levels- people like stories. They will listen to stories quicker than lists of things to do. Retention is better also. The other way this works is as you are saying, draw the attention back on the speaker who is giving the listener a glimmer of insight into the speaker’s life experience. Somethings just feel personal, but if the speaker is sharing on that level it makes the whole conversation more digestible.

  44. Lisa*

    She is dressing for work, but she prob needs to be told that she should dress as if she is going to a client or networking meeting all the time. There is a difference in what you choose to wear around co-workers (comfy biz casual) vs what you choose to wear around others in your industry (a step up, a little more care in clothing choices in the morning). I would frame it as ‘I wish someone had told me’ that this would have been helpful. She doesn’t need to wear dresses after years of khakis, or suddenly own an eyelash curler when she doesn’t wear makeup, but accessories go a long way. A nice watch and necklace and earrings go a long way to make khakis and a long sleeve shirt look more professional.

  45. Helen*

    Be direct but kind. Just FYI finance may be an issue. There have been many times where I would have loved to dress more professionally, but simply couldn’t afford to, especially because at the time I was junior.

  46. OhNo*

    This is somewhat off-topic, but since it’s to do with fashion I’m hoping someone might have some suggestions to offer here…

    I’m planning to make a pretty major change to my hairstyle in the next couple of weeks – going from about 18 inches of hair to full shaved or mostly shaved with a very short mohawk. (Let me state for the record, since I’ve been asked a few times already: it’s not for medical reasons, I don’t have cancer. It’s for gender presentation reasons.)

    Any suggestions on dressing that hairstyle up at the office? I was just planning to cover my hair with scarves or hats, but if anyone has any additional insight to offer, I’d love to hear it. If it helps, I tend to mostly stick to sweaters and slacks, and my jobs are business casual.

    1. Alex*

      How do you feel about makeup and/or accessories? I love the look of a shaved head with bold earrings and nice eye makeup, especially well-groomed and filled eyebrows. Jessie J (pop singer) recently shaved her head and I think she looks fantastic – she really lays on the eye makeup and big earrings. She also bleached her hair after shaving it which I think looks nice as well.

      Another thought that might be an alternative if you’re not into makeup/jewelry would be some really nice, chic, bold eyeglasses. Depending on your asthetic, maybe some wood grain frames would be nice. I still think a strong and groomed eyebrow is essential though – it really makes a person look polished in my opinion, regardless of gender.

      1. OhNo*

        I don’t actually wear make-up, but I might go through my jewelry collection and see what I can find. The only problem there is that I don’t have pierced ears, so earrings might not work out so well. Thanks for the suggestions!

    2. Turanga Leela*

      Just own it! It sounds great, and unless it’s a very conservative workplace, I wouldn’t feel the need to cover your hair.

      I don’t know anything about your gender identity, but the New York Times has had a few articles lately about dress clothing for transmen and butch/transmasculine women. I’ve seen people pull off tailored collared shirts, suspenders, and blazers very nicely. I also agree with Alex that jewelry and accessories can add polish. Particularly if you want to present as female, diamond stud earrings (faux diamonds work just as well) can dress up a short-haired look.

      1. OhNo*

        Oooh, I haven’t seen those articles yet, I’ll have to go take a look. Thanks for the info!

        Luckily I have a lot of scarves, jewelry and other accessories I can work with, so hopefully I can find something that looks classy without too much trouble.

      2. Us, Too*

        Granted, my field is not super conservative, but neither are we all attendees at cutting edge Fashion Week events. We’re largely a boring bunch. BUT…

        I’ve seen people with non-traditional looks who can pull it off. Their secret: they own it, they don’t do any half measures, and they clearly put a lot of thought and effort into creating not just a look, but almost a personal “brand”.

        For example, we sent a tech expert to a conservative client site and she happened to have pink and purple hair at the time. Normally she dressed in goth, but for the client trip she wore a black suit with a pretty edgy cut to it, a pink top and some goth accessories. This sounds terrible, probably, but it worked for her even if it wasn’t what anyone in that room would have ever thought to put on their own body. :)

        Another of my colleagues (a woman) wore exclusively what would traditionally be labeled “men’s” clothing, but the clothing she wore was always perfectly tailored from high quality materials, was perfectly pressed and starched, and accessorized to the nines (e.g. a nice, but masculine watch, men’s dress shoes, a leather belt, a nice briefcase). We had quite a few women who wore menswear inspired looks and paired them with more traditional women’s accessories to good effect as well. One woman did the reverse one time as well – she was wearing a shirt dress with a collar and she added a men’s tie to it! It was incredible.

        I wish I had the nerve and presence to do this stuff, but it really doesn’t work on me, unfortunately. :(

    3. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

      A good friend of mine rocks the mostly shaved head look. It actually looks really nice on her. She did it for a modeling job and got so many compliments that she just stuck with it. I don’t think that you would need to cover your hair with scarves or hats. It is a pretty acceptable way to wear your hair (especially where I live where it gets super hot). I like Alex’s suggestions about accessories though.. earrings, glasses, , eye liner, things to accentuate the new hair style and not necessarily cover it up.

    4. Stephanie*

      I can relate to your situation. I went natural two years ago (i.e., I stopped relaxing my hair). Since relaxing’s permanent, I had to let my course roots grow out and chop off all the straightened parts. Since I am impatient, I chopped off about a foot of relaxed hair and had about a 1/2″ of virgin unrelaxed hair (my Gravatar is right after I Big Chopped).

      I had this “OMG, I LOOK LIKE A MAN” reaction after I Big Chopped.* I also couldn’t do a ton with it until it grew out. If you like makeup, you can play around with that (especially since there will be a lot more focus on your face). Groomed eyebrows really help pull a short-haired look together. I have really coarse hair, so I prefer threading personally. But even then, just getting an eyebrow brush and some gel can help get the hairs all laying the same way. I’m a fan of bold frames or earrings as well (er, can you stand clip-on earrings?). I also think scarves work really well with short-haired looks.

      *I’m assuming you’re looking for a femme look. If not, ignore my suggestions.

      1. Us, Too*

        I’ve done super short haircuts before (3/4″ long max) and as I tend to go with pretty minimal makeup most days and didn’t speak much about my personal life at work, I was assumed by my small town Texas, heterosexual colleagues to be gay. (Lesbians didn’t make this mistake). It was a singular experience – one that I could never have had to the degree I had it with my choice of clothing.

        This was, perhaps, one of the most valuable personal appearance lessons I have ever learned. It taught me that the way I look is one of many tools that I can use to shape people’s reactions to me and assumptions about me.

        1. Stephanie*

          Ha, because you had short hair?

          I don’t think think any of my coworkers leapt to that confusion. I think they were just confused as I went from a relaxed bob to braids to a teeny-tiny afro in the span of six months.

    5. Tinker*

      I think it depends a lot on what you’re going for and on your body type.

      I wear my hair usually somewhere between a #3 guard and maybe an inch or so, lately, and am considering an orange mohawk for this year’s Tough Mudder. What I’d call “business casual” for me usually runs to men’s collared shirts in casual fabrics, patterned (e.g. Prana) with dark or black 501 jeans. Also a painted belt buckle in the shape of my state (there is a catch here) with the design of its flag, when I’m feeling particularly tasteful. Which is often.

      By this means I manage to not look like a cancer patient and actually maybe somewhat sharp sometimes, admittedly partly by causing gaydars to go off for a four-block radius. Also, the whole notion is kind of dependent on my having the sort of build where I can shop happily in the men’s department and the sort of surrounding community where I can do this with zero drama factor. Your mileage probably varies widely.

      Couple things I would say with some degree of definiteness: 1) I can’t quite see wearing a scarf on a head with no hair and not having it come off as being an outright signal of “lost hair due to unfortunate disease”. I’m actually kind of careful about wearing things like Buff scarves in the beanie mode because of this. 2) Once hair gets into the “extremely short” domain, small variances in the above-the-neck region make large changes in overall appearance — minor flaws in the haircut, how long it’s been since said haircut, eyebrows, type of glasses (I’m also mind-blowingly nearsighted so this is a category of its own for me), etc.

      I wear 10-gauge circular barbells in both earlobes, and the punky aspect of this makes the hair look more intentional — also seems to cause people in the know to think “alternative lifestyle earrings go with the alternative lifestyle haircut” and people not so much up to the minute to think “wearing earrings therefore definitely female”. This might be handy depending on how you’re wanting to come across to various groups of people.

  47. Bea W*

    I think this is one of those “Know your workplace culture” moments. If you work in a place where managers dress a bit more “up” than non-managers, the advice may be appropriate and welcome. However, if that’s not how the company or her field’s culture rolls, I’m not sure how helpful it would be.

    If this is how it works in your office though, be direct, and don’t make it about how *she* should dress and look. If she has a knee-jerk reaction or misunderstand that you are not criticizing her personally, your talk might not have the desired outcome. Talk about dressing as part of the job. Explain that while it is okay for most people to dress a bit more casual, managers are viewed in a different light, as authority, and (fairly or not) part of that is dressing up a bit more than one might as a non-manager.

    I know this can be a sensitive topic, especially for women, but I think if you approach it as a “job skill”, rather than a personal preference, it will be easier to understand and accept.

    1. Just a Reader*

      I like this.

      Really, it is a job skill. You’re presenting and selling a product–yourself–every day. And everything that influences how people perceive you should be a factor. Like it or not, dressing down can be detrimental in the workplace.

  48. Just a Reader*

    Honestly…dressing is all in the execution.

    Sometimes well-fitting pants and top with some nice accessories can look nicer than a suit, if said suit is schlumpy, ill fitting, wrinkled, drab, etc.

    Male or female, details/styling are key. A man with neat hair and fingernails and a nice watch, belt and shoes looks great if his clothes fit right. Someone else in the exact same clothing looks sloppy if his pants are too big or his shoes are scuffed.

    Women have it harder. It doesn’t have to be about makeup or jewelry but I do think accessories add polish–so maybe it’s nails and hair that are taken care of, a nice bag and a scarf instead of a necklace and a full face of makeup.

    It’s possible to look sharp and professional even in a casual/jeans environment.

    These are a few of my favorite sites for workplace dressing; the OP may find them helpful. (I think I heard about it here)

    1. Madge*

      A nice bag that no one sees unless you are leaving of coming into the building. Why a full face of makeup? We want to move away from the 50’s not back to it.

      1. Just a Reader*

        I said INSTEAD OF a full face of makeup–meaning that there are other ways to look polished.

        Feel free to throw out your own ideas instead of crapping on innocuous suggestions.

  49. Danielle*

    I don’t really think there’s anything you can do if she’s not outside the the dress code. If you’re close with her, it might be worth mentioning something in a casual way.. ie, “I love that shirt you’re wearing, it would look so nice with a pair of xyz earrings”. But if her personal style isn’t to dress up, there’s nothing subtle you can say (and maybe nothing even more direct) that will likely make her change unless she’s outside some sort of dress code. You really can’t instruct someone to wear earrings to an event or go buy a necklace to jazz up an outfit.

    It’s kind of sad that this is even a discussion, but I get it. Really, though, wouldn’t it be nice if it came down to that if she’s good at her job people will take notice, accessories or not?

    1. Anonicorn*

      I like that! I need to print it out and tape it to my closet door. Probably sad that a grown person can’t figure out how to dress herself properly by herself, but there it is.

  50. Wrench Turner*

    To me, this is as petty and insulting as it gets, and epitomizes why I want to get out of office culture and on to my own business. If this was a man, would this even be an issue as long as he was dressing appropriately?

    If she really wants to help, show how her methods, motivations and work techniques made her successful. Who did she network with? What personal development/continuing education was helpful? What pitfalls did she avoid? What trade groups, conventions, etc did she attend?

    “Dress for the job you want?” I want a job that cultivates and rewards my hard work, ethics, skills and talent and ignores superficial things without value. What does that uniform look like?


    1. Just a Reader*

      I think it would be an issue if the man wanted to get into management and was not conforming to what the office culture dictates for managers.

      Presumably the OP wouldn’t be flagging this if the employee wasn’t interested in a management role.

      I’m not sure how wanting to help someone take the next step in their career is petty or insulting.

        1. fposte*

          So are most of the ways we judge people in the workplace, though. Writing in Comic Sans isn’t a measure of anybody’s character, after all.

        2. Just a Reader*

          It’s not judgement. It’s career counseling.

          You seem to have a big chip on your shoulder re: appearance.

        3. VintageLydia USA*

          Everyone judges everyone else on appearance, in all areas of life, not just work. The world isn’t a 100% meritocracy, it never was, and never will be. Even someone who works for themselves will have to dress a certain way whenever they meet clients, for instance. Even tradespeople will get more work if their clothes are clean and taken care of rather than a slob who wears ill fitting and torn up clothes. Different jobs, different industries, and different workplaces all have what is considered appropriate dress. If you want to succeed you gotta play the game. You can only affect this sort of change from the top so being stubborn before you get there will get you nowhere. If you work in an industry where this doesn’t matter, awesome. I’m happy for you. But that’s not the case for everyone, and some of us actually enjoy fashion and makeup.

    2. Madge*

      Wrench – I totally agree. It should be about the work & I don’t want to work for someone that put too much emphasis on fashion. It’s just ridiculous.

      1. Career Counselorette*

        To reiterate: it’s not about “fashion.” Assuming that you are generally exceeding expectations in the work and demonstrating that you are doing 110%, it’s just another means of making clear to your superiors that you are interesting in advancing.

        I feel like if you get into the habit of outfitting yourself for work as if it were always an important day (read: NOT a formal day if it’s not applicable, just an important day), you’re more likely to operate in a different mindset, and also, important days don’t feel quite as high-stakes. I’ve had co-workers who dress like the OP’s supervisee most days, and then an important day rolls around where they do have to take it up a notch and dress formally, and their anxiety goes full-throttle because on top of all the responsibilities of the day, they’re like OMG I NEVER DRESS LIKE THIS I’M SO UNCOMFORTABLE. Taking a bare minimum amount of time to tie a patterned scarf or put on a new color of lipstick every day makes it less of a sharp transition to the higher-volume kind of responsibilities you’ll probably acquire as you move up the ladder.

  51. Smiles*

    I think it is a valuable conversation to have. My sister and I used to work together and I remember when she talked to me about improving my work wardrobe how offended I was. But, it was a life lesson I am so glad for now. It’s always harder taking constructive criticism from a family member.

    The tough challenge I have now is I work with a young woman who could use this talk…but I know that she is barely making above minimum wage (that is another story for another day) and I just can’t bring myself to tell a single mother who is already getting financial assistance from the government that she needs to spend more money on her work clothes. None of the superiors have complained or commented so for now I’m just letting it be.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Reframe it. Maybe she doesn’t need to spend more money, maybe she just needs to be more selective with what she does buy.

      This is a shot in the dark here- but many churches will help people with getting appropriate work clothes. And they do it without any expecting anything in return from the recipient. If nothing else, maybe you could ask the people who are complaining to you if they know of a church that would help her. (I hate it when people complain and then offer no solutions. Even a weak attempt at solving the complaint is better than no attempt.)

  52. Bookworm*

    Longtime reader, occasional poster! I work in the library field, and go with a good variety of no-iron shirts/subtly detailed blouses, pants, and heels. I wear wrapdresses in the summer as well as sleeveless tops and lightweight pants. Most of these purchases are from places like JC Penney, Macy’s, and Payless (love the ComfortFlex heels!) However, I do love the thrift stores around my area…great high quality stuff at low prices.
    I also wear subtle jewlry and make-up every day as well.
    To me, the most difficult thing is finding pants that fit (I am 5″1 and carry most of my weight in my legs). It just takes time to find an appropriate fit, and especially when you are you and just starting out, it’s always a good idea to invest in it if you want to be management.

    1. EG*

      I second the thrift store shopping idea. A new Goodwill went in just a few miles from my office, so I try to spend a lunch break every couple of weeks poking through the racks. I’ve discovered that I love Ann Taylor Loft style, and have a simple wardrobe now of dressy pants and nice tops. Consignment stores are often a great place for jewelry or scarves that add variety to an outfit. Also, don’t ignore the shoe rack at a good thrift store. I’ve seen like new Italian brand shoes (not in my size of course), and have several pairs of comfortable dressy shoes for $4-6 each.

  53. Michele*

    As someone that has worked in the fashion industry for 26 years including my time spent in retail during college. These comments have been really interesting to read. I share the mindset that you should dress for the job that you aspire to have. Being fashion forward doesn’t always mean to dress up. You can get so many fun ideas from magazines and people you see on the street. I think business casual has really gotten many stuck in a rut when it comes to dressing for work. No one wants to try anymore. It doesn’t have to be tee shirts, button downs, and khaki’s everyday! One of my favorite dresses that I have worn to interviews and fashion shows came from Target 8 years ago. You can add a great sweater over your plain tee shirt or tank top for a splash of color. As for make-up I usually only wear mascara everyday, that way I just look awake. Takes less than a minute.

    1. Just a Reader*

      I like this! We are on the dressy end of business casual (like suits aren’t out of line if want to wear one and jackets are an everyday occurrence) and it can be hard to jazz that look up.

      I loathe khakis. Just a personal preference.

      1. Anonymous Analyst*

        I agree. Sometimes, it seems there’s a backlash against those who don’t conform to the 21st century business casual wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts.

        Personally, I loathe jeans. I don’t like how they feel against my skin. Yet wearing them is considered a “treat” or a “benefit” at certain companies. Not wearing them can cause you to be labeled a d-bag.

        1. Just a Reader*

          Jeans give me angst. I’m still trying to lose baby weight and am in between jean sizes. It’s not at all a treat.

  54. Jubilance*

    Why can’t you just say to her “Jane, I know that moving into management is a goal of yours. Along with the other development activities you’re doing, I’m going to give you a piece of advice that was given to me. The adage ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’ is true in this company culture. I’m not suggesting that you spend a ton of money and overhaul your wardrobe, but know that part of being viewed as management material is your appearance. We can discuss ways to transition to a more formal wardrobe if you’d like to have those discussions.”

    Simple and direct. If she chooses not to take you up on it, then that’s her prerogative.

    1. Celeste*

      I like this–put it out there simply, and see if she is interested in pursuing it. There are lots of resources for polishing your image; if the OP is comfortable doing it that’s great, but this thread has shown a lot of resources to point her to. Mostly I think it’s valuable to look around (and especially up) in an org to see how people dress. It takes regional preferences into account more so than websites do.

    2. Darth Admin*

      +1 I love this script. It’s a great way to let her know this could be holding her back, while still leaving it up to her whether she wants to pursue it.

  55. Cruella DaBoss*

    I get a bi-montly email from
    Very helpful and shows that you don’t have to break the bank to look polished and pulled together.

    I had started with ny hair. I got the concept of “serious hair” after seeing”Working Girl”, I cut off my Jersey-girl-hair inot a short, chic bob and things started off from there. The higher-ups took notice and soon I was promoted over coworkers who had been there almost twice as long as I had.

    The conversation will be well worth the effort and I am sure it won’t be long she will be thanking you for the advice.

    Good Luck!

  56. Tinker*

    If the truth on the ground is that women at your office must accessorize in order to advance, and your mentee wants to advance, I’d tell her precisely that — the data about what is necessary per your observations.

    How she uses that data — whether to change (not, incidentally, “upgrade”) her look accordingly or to wear suits to a series of dentist appointments — is her business.

    Because of that latter case, I recommend being sure that what you say to her is firmly based on data about your specific company rather than an overall squishy philosophy about Dressing To Succeed (Supposedly) Everywhere (particularly if For Women).

  57. Jubilance*

    I’m kinda surprised, but not really, by the number of “this is insulting, you wouldn’t be saying this if this was a man” comments. Only the OP can make the judgement call on if she would have the same conversation with a male employee who wanted to get into management. From what I’ve seen in my tenure in 3 different Fortune 100 companies in different parts of the US and different industries, this idea of “dressing up” applies to both men and women. It isn’t just men or just women who deal with this.

    Are there companies/industries where your appearance means absolutely nothing? Absolutely. Are there executives who put little thought into what they wear? Absolutely. But the goal isn’t say this is a hard & fast rule – the goal is to give the OP advice on how to broach this conversation with her employee.

    In a perfect world everyone could go to work in their pajamas and work from home and have perfect work/life balance, but this isn’t the perfect world.

    1. D*


      I’ve heard men discuss other men’s appearance at length. Tie is too expensive. Tie isn’t expensive enough. Gray shirt. Wrinkled suit. Three-day stubble. Scuffed shoes. These are all topics of conversation I’ve heard, initiated by aVIP in my company.

      I often say that we live in the world that exists, not the world we wish existed. The fact is that in certain workplaces, employees are judged on their attire and grooming. If following those conventions will help me advance, then I’ll follow those conventions. If someone chooses not to, then that’s also fine. But it’s certainly worthwhile to give a mentee advice about following the conventions.

      1. lindsay j*

        This is exactly what I have been thinking while reading most of the comments, both in terms of the fact that I have seen and heard of the same issue holding men back just as it does some women, and the fact that we have to live in and react to the real world – not the world as we wish it was.

        (Please excuse my horrible grammar/punctuation here. Editing posts from my phone browser is problematic. )

    2. Josie*

      I agree, but I think a difference is the rules are a bit more nebulous for women. Men seem to have a stricter hierarchy of dress clothes and fashions don’t change dramatically, so it’s easier to say that a man should start wearing a tie, for example, to move the next step up. With women, you start getting into messier issues like why khakis and t-shirts can seem less formal than cropped black pants and fitted sweaters – both are business casual but one is a more current look. Unless the instruction is that she should start wearing suits, it’s hard to define the many stages in-between without referring to fashion and style.

  58. Darth Admin*

    I work at a scientific nonprofit. I’m a woman in administration, and I dress up because a) I observed that women in higher positions at our company do so, b) I manage a team of people who are older than I and I think dressing up helps project authority, and c) I feel more “at work” when I’m wearing dressier clothes. And by “dress up” I’m talking black pants, shell+cardigan or a sweater, and heels. I don’t do jewelry except for earrings and my wedding rings, and I don’t do scarves or pins or any of that because I don’t have the inclination or time to pull it together. I do wear make up too.

    I don’t think it’s insulting to give this employee the information that how she’s dressing now could end up holding her back from her longer-term career goals. What would be insulting would be to tell her she had to wear makeup, or 3″ heels, or skirts every day. Giving her the information just lets her process it and decide how or whether to use it. She’s free to say “Nope, this shouldn’t be important and therefore I’m not going to change” or “OK, I hate that this is something I have to pay attention to, but now I will” or “Oh thank god my mentor told me, off I go to Ann Taylor!”. Her choice.

  59. Biff*

    I don’t mean to the be the voice of dissent, but… I think it bears mentioning — sometimes you can’t find clothes. Literally can’t find them. I’m not my only coworker that has talked about this. It’s not that I don’t want to look nicer at work, it’s that there is nothing to buy, especially for those of us that are in the fitting extremes — very tall women, very short men, the very busty, the very slim. If my boss brought up my wardrobe, I’d probably just be honest and say “I’m trying to do what I can.”

    1. KellyK*

      Yeah, definitely. I got all excited about some of the shopping suggestions in this thread, and checked out TJ Maxx. Not a *single dress* in my size.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        I sympathize. I keep thinking that someday, someone is going to make a lot of money selling well-made, unfrumpy professional clothes in plus sizes.

    2. fposte*

      There are certainly people who aren’t going to be able to wear stuff straight off the rack without tailoring, especially if they’re only shopping brick and mortar.

      I realize that there are logistical complications in shopping online and that tailoring isn’t free, but but I think a conversation about moving into online shopping with its vastly improved size landscape and getting stuff tailored would be part of my conversation with a protegee in that situation.

      1. Just a Reader*

        I have to get 99% of my clothes tailored for length. It’s expensive and I factor tailoring into my budget.

        If I buy a $40 dress that costs $75 to alter because it’s lined, that’s not a bargain.

        1. fposte*

          Yup, absolutely. But it’s also going to serve you better than two $60 dresses that don’t fit you very well.

          And, of course, you build that knowledge into the shopping experience as well as expense–the blazer that will last you for years is worth getting the waist shortened on, but that’s too expensive to be worth doing on the tissue-paper dress that’ll be dead by the end of the summer, so I don’t buy it at all. And most alterations for length alone on skirts and pants aren’t going to run $75, thank heavens, even when you’re talking a lining.

          I think fast fashion has left people with a belief in what you might call “fast clothes”–that shopping means walking away from a store after half an hour with a big bag of clothes that all fit great. And I think that’s not actually all that common for anybody–plenty of people of all sizes are visibly wearing clothes that don’t fit them all that well–and it’s certainly not common for anybody in the “special size” category. But it’s also not an insurmountable obstacle, either.

          1. Just a Reader*

            Totally agree. I tend to shop at a few staple stores–Ann Taylor, etc.–for quality things that I know are flattering and spend the money on key pieces vs. loading up my wardrobe. But unfortunately tailoring is always an expense. Jackets are particularly pricey but, to your point, worth it.

          2. Biff*

            Sure, but plenty of people can’t afford tailoring. And it is not an easy skill to acquire (you will hose up a lot of garments learning.) I think people forget that plenty of jobs that used to pay good wages no longer do, and a pair of tailored slacks is simply unaffordable UNTIL you get to the job you need them for.

            That is, I couldn’t begin to afford to dress for the job I want, even though it is only a paygrade or two above me, technically. Those two paygrades mean it’s double my salary.

            1. fposte*

              Plenty of people can’t afford clothes, period. I think we’re all aware of that. Are you saying that there’s therefore no point in talking to the OP’s protege about how to do this? Because that doesn’t make sense to me.

              I’m not sure where you’re going with the wrecking of garments, by the way–that really isn’t a standard part of getting stuff tailored, and if somebody’s telling you it is, they go to a sucky tailor.

              Look, there’s politics, there’s economics, there are a lot of factors that affect how people make their clothing choices. But there are plenty of people who simply lack information, and who could afford to spend $10 to get their $30 sale pants hemmed if they knew how to do that rather than spending $40 on worse-fitting pants. This isn’t, if you’ll pardon the pun, a one-size fits all discussion.

              1. Anon For This*

                I think the “wrecking garments” was referring to acquiring the skill to do it yourself, rather than paying to have it done. Sure, if you have the skill, DIY is cheaper, so sometimes people recommend it. But if you don’t have the skill, you will kill some things as you practice.

                I agree with your other points. I would bring this up and let the OP’s protégé decide which portions are useful – making sure to bring it up respectfully, as information that can be used to whatever degree is possible for the protégé at the present time – but I wouldn’t hesitate to bring it up just because, depending on circumstances, it might be more or less possible to apply it.

                1. fposte*

                  Oh, that’s how bad I am at sewing–it didn’t even occur to me that that was what was being referred to, and I bet you’re right.

              2. Biff*

                It’s closer to 40 dollars to have pants hemmed where I am. Also, I was talking about learning to tailor yourself. (I can and do if I must, but I don’t like the job.) I just bought very good jeans (as my office is jeans, jeans, jeans as far as the eye can see.) They will cost me close to 120 dollars a pair after tailoring — and I’ll be doing the hems. I just don’t see that as feasible for some of my coworkers even if they wanted to.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It’s certainly true that some people can’t afford it. But it’s also true that plenty of them can, and it’s useful to provide information for them too. There’s a lot of “but that won’t work for me, because ___” in the comments on this post, but no one is saying that these suggestions will or should work for everyone. They’re saying these are some things that could be helpful to consider. If they’re not, then you’re free to decline them.

    3. Duckie*

      Yup. I’m a very tiny woman and mostly wear girl’s tops. I’m in grad school now, so it works fine, but they don’t make nice shells and blazers and work clothes for little girls. So I’m pretty much out of luck.

      I also wonder where people get the money to ‘invest’ in this stuff initially. I’m a first generation student, and the 15/hr I made between undergrad and grad school was more than anyone else in my family made. Where was that money supposed to come from? I can’t get it from family, I wasn’t making enough to buy them myself.

  60. Arjay*

    I had a boss who had this talk with me years ago. She presented it as “woman to woman” advice, which made it clear that it wasn’t official feedback or performance-related stuff. My wardrobe was sort of hit or miss, so she pulled me aside on a day when I was wearing something dressier and said that she had seen I was making efforts in that direction, and that she thought it would help both my presentation and my confidence to continue. She gave me some shopping tips too. She was very gentle and helpful, so it was easy to take her advice to heart and feel like she was invested in all aspects of my professional development.

  61. Dip-lo-mat*

    I would stay far far away from make up in these discussions. I would react poorly if someone told me to wear make up, and I’d ask which of the men in our office also received that same advice.

    If I were an employee who wasn’t breaking dress code, I would be open to hearing something like this: “We are a business casual office and you’ve been dressing appropriately, but I think you are ready for more responsibility, and a sharp professional look will help convey that.” That’s advice that is applicable to both men and women.

    I’d check out Bridgette Raes, who hates black and generally has the motto that dressing interestingly takes the same amount of time as dressing blandly (e.g. swap the black bag for grey, the black pump for magenta, the white shell for green). Her advice is great and she really walks readers through her process (

  62. Wapunga*

    I just want to mention that if you have this talk with your employee and nothing changes please don’t assume she is being disrespectful.

    I grew up poor. Not go to be hungry poor but definitely wearing hand me downs poor. I also was a very late bloomer and on top of all that I went off to college and lived in a city know for its casual dressing.
    I once had a manager that encouraged me to dress better as well. The problem was, I literally had no clue how to do it. It was something that did not come intuitively to me.

    What changed? An older friend of mine took me in hand and worked with me many, many times and that, combined with studying fashion blogs, I finally learned how to dress professionally and appropriately.

    On the flip side my spouse is a software engineer and in their section of the office all the IT staff dresses casually. One day his boss came around and tells the staff that they are having some very important clients in the next day and he wanted all of them to be shaved (where applicable) and dressed up. If they didn’t dress up he would be sending them home that day, without pay.

    My husband gets off of work, immediately goes out to get a hair cut. The next morning he shaves and showers and dresses in a suit and tie. When he gets to work his boss explodes with anger because my husband is dressed better than he is. He sends him home and tells him to come back dressed more casually (luckily no docking of pay).

    Now to be fair, the following day the boss did apologize profusely to my husband and told him he realized he had been a real ass to him.

    1. Susan*

      I grew up poor as well. As did my roommate when we were both interning in an industry where “dress-to-impress” was a good strategy. Her manager took her aside once and suggested she get some work clothes that were a little more… maybe plain was the word. I can’t remember. Basically my roommate only had two outfits or so that were work appropriate, but since they had distinguishing characteristics, it was noticeable that she was wearing the same thing 2-3 times a week. So my friend got some core pieces in solids and whatnot.

      This had actually been my strategy all along (I would wear dress black slacks and different color button-down shirts). But I feel like I would fall into the OP’s category of “definitely dressed enough for work, but not screaming ‘moving-on-up'”. I find it really hard to dress up a notch because that usually involves jackets and separates that just add so much $.

      However, I don’t think my friend was offended when confronted and I wouldn’t have been either. We both knew we wanted to dress better, so it didn’t come as a surprise. I think what would be helpful, though, is if it is about income level to share some tips on how to dress up without breaking the bank. And if it’s not about income, some people just aren’t fashionistas but I think would be perfectly receptive to advice. Fortunately, this isn’t one of those awkward B.O. conversations–it’s totally innocent and can be done with ease I think!

      1. Arjay*

        I think some of this can be achieved through regular mixing and matching. I once worked with a woman in a business casual environment where everything she wore was at the minimum level of dress code. She wore the most casual top, most casual pants, and most casual shoes allowed, so a typical outfit might be a plain tee shirt, cotton capris, and a flat sandal. None of the items individually was a problem, but they created an overly casual, unkempt look when put together. The tee with a pair of slacks, or a dressier blouse with the capris and a low heel, or a skirt with the flat sandal would have been better options.

        1. Just a Reader*

          A friend here today is rocking an Old Navy tee, a J Crew skirt from eBay, a big belt and some fun pumps. She looks fantastic, and collars are standard here.

      2. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

        When I was first starting out, my first office job required me to wear a suit on a daily basis. I had no money for this at all. I ended up getting some suits from the local thrift shop and I also raided my mom’s closet for some non-hideous pieces (her last office job had been in the mid-80s so you can imagine she had some pretty festive suits). There are definitely ways to dress up without spending a lot of money. I like the strategy of the solid color pants and then just mixing up the tops.

  63. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

    I think that just mentioning to her that she may want to try to dress more on the professional side will be enough. It does make a difference in how you are perceived and if she dresses the part, it will make it a easier for the higher ups to envision her in more of a leadership role. I would say something like “while our dress code is business casual, I find that those in or organization who area in a leadership role tend to dress more business professional attire” and then give her some examples. It may also be worth mentioning that someone once gave you this same advice and that you feel it helped you be taken more seriously for advancement opportunities. If you frame it as another tip and part of your role as an advocate and a mentor who believes in her potential, the conversation won’t be so awkward. I have had to have quite a big of conversations with employees regarding their attire… usually because they are dressing inappropriately. It is never easy to talk to someone about their appearance because it is a sensitive topic, but I think that in this case you should be able to frame it in a very constructive and non-embarrassing way, and since you are sincerely trying to help her, I think she will appreciate the advice.

  64. Mimmy*

    Oh I wish this post didn’t have 450+ comments! I too am pretty much a khakis-plain shirt kind of dresser and should definitely try to cull some tips from this. I’m petite everywhere except for about the middle third of my body, so finding clothes that look good on me and shoes that fit my baby-sized feet is next to impossible.

  65. Not So NewReader*

    If anyone is still reading- haha- I have a question.
    I really want to get a steamer for my clothes. What brands /models are good? I would like it to last more than 2-3 years and I find a lot of stuff now just does not last.

    Can I buy a travel size and use it at home and for travel, or will I end up disappointed if I try this?

    1. Sharm*

      I don’t know the brand, but there are several folks on my team that swear by a ~$30 steamer that Costco sells. I wish I knew more, but if Costco is buy you and you’ll be there anytime soon, go check them out for sure.

    2. Jennifer 3*

      I definitely recommend it. 10 years ago I asked the store manager at the Ann Taylor store what brand they used. It was Jiffy. I spent $100 on one and it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made. It paid for itself in about 6 months. At the time I was working in a very formal office, so being able to steam my suits was a huge savings. It’s heavy duty and has a large tank, so it has great output and works just as we’ll now as the day I bought it. I use it on my window treatments, table cloths, furniture slipcovers, shower curtains, and my clothes.

      I doubt you would have to spend that much today. At that time there weren’t any good floor/ stand types and I had not found a travel model that worked. Now Shark and Rowenta make a few models. I haven’t tried them, but I hear they’re good. My dry cleaner told me Jiffy makes a travel version- and she uses it, but I haven’t tracked it down.

  66. Callie30*

    This really depends on the field. Overall, I tend to respect people more that don’t wear too much make-up (or none at all) and don’t dress gaudy and over-the-top with accessories. Simple, but appropriately professional (FOR ONE’S FIELD), is practical and those are the people I tend to look more favorably upon.

    If she’s borderline/too casual for the role she’s aspiring for, then it certainly is a good idea to mention something.

  67. BritCred*

    Its not required to wear jewellery but it does help.

    Smartening up the dress standard can also help the wearer with their attitude – for example if you wear heels you walk differently. Same as “smile when you are on the telephone, it comes over in the voice”.

    And yep, it does help to be looking as what people describe as “not scruffy”. If you have the strut of management then you can get away with looking scruffy. But if you don’t you need to smarten up your image a bit to help you get to that strut and build your ‘persona’.

    I would say raise it with her softly in a “one thing that might help you advance is…” way. And mention that those who look smart have less barriers to being seen as an effective, management type person.

  68. Pickles*

    I had this conversation with a former boss as I was leaving for another job and asked for any advice that I hadn’t already received. He said that I could work on dressing more professionally and left it at that. I blew it off, until two more people gave me the same advice….the same week.

    So I’ve learned. I’ve looked at CapHillStyle, Corporette (sometimes too risque/bold for my taste), The Classy Cubicle, and Extra Petite (even though I’m not petite). This gave me a visual idea of what was probably professional attire. It’s not always on target – but I think Extra Petite sometimes has before and after photos that have visual impact, and I know CapHillStyle recently had a three or four step articulated process for putting together a basic piece, a finishing piece (blazer/sweater), and some accessories and jewelry. For me, this is overly complicated, but a blazer is often sufficient.

    Since I started dressing up more, senior ranking personnel have begun greeting me in the hallway as if they think they should know me. I have junior personnel coming to me more frequently for mentoring issues. I don’t have to worry about running back to the office for my “emergency blazer” if a meeting suddenly comes up. I’ve taken on a more senior role. And I’m warmer in the areas of the building that are freezing (although I also keep deoderant at my desk for the areas of the building without adequate ventilation).

    Yes, knowing your office is HUGE here, so you don’t end up as “the guy in the suit” who doesn’t actually do anything beyond wear a suit (we have several of those, sadly). But also know your role, where you want to be in a few years, what you’re doing that day, and at least consider the potential subconscious visual impact on authority. Sure, it’s unfair, and sure, everyone knows a guy in a t-shirt and jeans who’s in charge of something or other. But if you’re not in the role yourself, maybe you should try visually exuding confidence, and clothing helps with that. I’ve found a blazer helps me get over imposter syndrome better, too.

    And for crying out loud….don’t be the lone female wearing a cardigan, surrounded by men in suits. You know where I saw that? A photo, years ago, taken of White House personnel. Guess who looked more authoritative?

    So yes, OP, please, have that conversation, as awkward as it may be. She doesn’t have to take your advice, and you can coach it as “this is what helped me” to make it gentler, but it has long-lasting potential impact.

  69. anon all the way*

    This is so relevant to me right now because for the first time ever in my working life, I was called into HR (for another follow up regarding a completely different issue altogether, which was resolved and appropriate measures were finally taken to address intimidation of other co-workers towards me. It was terrible. But, I digress). Everything was going well in this meeting. I felt really good that a situation that was a hostile work environment had been addressed. Until HR brought up that I need to dress more “business casual.” I was shocked because this never was brought up at ANY workplace I ever dressed for. All were business casual. All my reviews pointed out how professionally dressed I was. The HR person even showed me pictures of models of wardrobes they found acceptable. I was slightly taken aback.

    I then asked if anyone had any complaints. She said, no, just one comment. I figured out who said it on my own, really. It annoyed me because this woman was supposed to be a mentor of mine. I took it personally and maybe I shouldn’t have. But for most of my life I was bullied and picked on in school for my wardrobe choices. Rest assured readers of AAM, I never wore anything inappropriate or tight fitting. But after suffering bullying at the hands of other women and cruelty from others for so many years in school, you can imagine what it did to my self-esteem. Being called a “dumpster” and being told they wished I was dead, didn’t exactly help. I realize of course that this issue was my own and all, but it does a number on your mindset, even when you work very hard to get over these issues.

    Anyway, my point is that I felt like I was transported back to the high school mentality, where girls are catty, petty and ridiculous to one another to cut each other down. Since it was a “comment” and not a formal “complaint” I viewed it as just another obstacle at an already challenging place I will have to overcome. Rather than fight back, I took the picture and simply said, okay well fine. This past weekend, I spent an extraordinary amount of money on clothes, just so that I wouldn’t hear any comments. I bought new slacks and button down shirts. It didn’t feel fair or right. But after being picked on for so many years, I just decided fine, there are larger fights in this world to battle. I also work in a place that is 24/7 and on my shift, there are less management people around in the evenings. Many of my fellow co-workers don’t dress up and I doubt very much they were spoken to about it.

    Yesterday the person I am pretty sure made the “comment” about my initial wardrobe complimented me on my clothes. I felt fine about it and just said thank you but I wished very much that I never had to change at all in the first place. So I would say that even with good intentions and good words, I think it’s just unfortunate that if someone is doing a good job or is a good worker to begin with. The cattiness, bullying comments won’t ever stop. But I’m reminded of To Kill A Mockingbird here, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

  70. Happy to Dress*

    A mentor of mine once said “Dress not for the job you have but for the job you want to have.” I’ve tried to take that to heart. Look at the pepole who have that job now and emulate their style.

  71. Karen M*

    Maybe plainer, casual clothes are all that she can afford! I’ve been there, especially when just starting out. You want to look nice, but you also need to pay rent and put food on the table.

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