where’s the line between pretty clothes and professional clothes?

A reader writes:

What is the line (if there even is one) between pretty and professional? I’m not quite a grad, but I’m trying to get part-time or temp work, and that’s included a few interviews. While I’ve felt professional enough, I’ve always wondered if it came off that way to others.

For example, I wore a dress with short sleeves, a shallow neckline, but it only came down mid-thigh (I wore it with tights and flats) to an interview. Something like this? Or this? Or even a foofy skirt like this one.

I guess in some part, I worry that wearing skirts/dresses that end above the knee (even if I wear them with leggings or tights) just comes off as either inappropriate or young.

I think it’s obvious that what I wear to feel pretty isn’t the same as what I’d wear to feel professional, but what sort of overlap is there? I know what business wear looks like, but I don’t know what the area between formal business wear and jeans-appropriate workplace looks like.

I wish I could give you one clear formula, but it’s really, really dependent on your field and even your geographic area. That said … those dresses you linked to do read pretty young/casual and are short! The second one’s spaghetti straps are too bare for most offices, but it would be fine with a sweater or jacket (and a few more inches at the bottom hem). With the skirt in the third photo, the poufiness, the material, and the color are making it read more social than work. (That midriff-bearing top in the third photo is definitely not okay regardless of field, but I think you were only talking about the skirt with that outfit.)

In all cases, skirts and dresses that end at mid-thigh are generally not what you want at work — you really don’t want to go shorter than just above the knee.

But overall, you really need to know your field. That can be hard when you’re new to the working world, which is why the advice for new grads is generally to default to generic business wear until they’re able to get a better sense of the norms in their industries. And on one hand, that’s sensible advice — when you’re just starting to build a reputation, you want to be known for the quality of your work rather than your fashion sense, and it makes sense to err on the side of caution when you’re still figuring things out. On the other hand, though, there’s often more room for deviating from the generic than that advice allows for.

One helpful rule is that you can often appear professional with one particularly girly element to your outfit; it’s when the whole outfit is super froufy that it starts looking unprofessional. So, for example, a bright pink blouse could be fine when it’s paired with a grey suit but not if it’s paired with a pink skirt. Or ruffles might be fine if they’re on a grey or black shirt, but less so if they’re on a purple polka dot dress. (But that one element should generally not be skin — i.e.,  don’t expose mid-thighs, cleavage, your back, the entirety of your shoulders, etc. Ugh, writing this out makes me feel so prim.)

To get a really general idea of what business casual or business semi-casual usually looks like, take a look at Banana Republic or Ann Taylor. Their sort of stuff isn’t your only option, but if you’re trying to visualize the basic boundaries, they’re a pretty good baseline of what generic business wear looks like.

And if you’re thinking that it’s awfully interesting that all these standards say that you can be feminine but not too feminine, yes, that is indeed a thing about our ideas of professional dress.

{ 682 comments… read them below }

  1. alexalapitica*

    I’m a pretty girly dresser in an office with no real dress code (no jeans, but people wear anything ranging from business casual to full suits) and none of those dresses are appropriate. Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Wet Seal, and stores like that generally don’t have much office-appropriate stuff. For inexpensive mall stores that have decent business casual, Allison listed some good ones, but H&M isn’t bad either if you know what to look for. If you have more money and really want the retro/feminine aesthetic, Modcloth has a lot of nice office dresses – some of their stuff is a little…cutesy for work, but there are really solid dresses in there too.

    1. Spotlight*

      I’m so glad I work in an environment where I can wear all my Modcloth dresses. My manager loved the dress I wore with corgis and bichon frises printed on it.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

        Our younger women are all about the Modcloth! I love looking out and seeing such pretty clothes. I going to have to ask someone to get that corgi and bichon frise dress.

        Alison’s advice is 100% on re starting point before you get a read a on a place. Wearing pink with pink with pink shoes in our world would be fine but you can’t know that until you are somewhere for a bit, see how other people are dressing, and take a thought to how people who dress XYZ way are perceived/job level, etc.

        1. Murphy*

          I’m in my late-30s and a Director and I”m currently sporting a ModCloth blouse and blazer today (with a pair of wide-leg plaid trousers). My office is fairly business casual and I’ve found a lot of their stuff perfect. Highly recommend.

        2. AVP*

          I love Modcloth and Everlane if you don’t mind buying off the internet and have a pretty liberal dress code. Modcloth runs ornate and Everlane runs plain, so they work really well together.

        3. snuck*

          Pink with pink with pink aka Legally Blonde isn’t the look for science/maths dominated spaces… just sayin’. If you want to be taken seriously then you need to be a bit serious. And if you are younger, or younger looking, or in a male dominated workspace and female (and probably vice versa) then you need to make a bit more effort to blend in.

          I’ve seen very senior managers of large corporates carry this look off well – the girly look with immaculate heels, floaty to the knee skirts (or pencil skirts, but less of these interestingly), and pretty blouses with a tailored pretty jacket over the top. It can be done, but I also see corporate PR photos of these women in grey business suits – it seems they dress for the occasion, just as smart high powered men choose their ties and suit fabrics to send a message your clothes can too.

      2. Christopher Tracy*

        I too wear ModCloth dresses to work all the time (75% of my wardrobe comes from them), and people are always complimenting me on my looks, including executives. But my aesthetic at work is very Jackie Kennedy anyway so the modesty/old-fashionness of it all is probably refreshing given what some of the other people in my company wear.

        Anyway, I agree with alexalapitica – Forever 21 and the like are probably not good places to shop if you work in traditionally conservative environments, even ones like mine that allow employees to dress business casual. Their clothes are way too casual for anything outside of the fashion industry and possibly somewhere in LA.

      3. Oryx*

        My Pac-Man dress I bought from there got a ridiculous amount of compliments and totally fits the culture here.

      4. Elizabeth*

        I’ve definitely got a dinosaur dress from Modcloth that I can and do wear to work. I get lots of compliments on it! But obviously I work in a very casual environment.

      5. BTownGirl*

        Second that :) I burst out laughing when I read this one, because I actually own a purple polka dot dress with a ruffled neckline that I’ve worn to the office to many compliments hahahaha! AAM is so right, it really depends on your office!

    2. sparklealways*

      Seconding H&M as a great place, especially at reasonable prices, if you know where to look.

      The Limited is also good.

    3. Total Rando*

      New York and Co is also a good option for some office appropriate clothing at a decent price point. (Not everything is office approved, but it’s got some good basics).

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        The vast majority of my wardrobe is NYC because their petites are petite enough for me.

        1. Bonnie*

          I’m 5’1 and skinny ankle pants have been a godsend! Gap, OldNavy, and Banana are all carrying them now.

          1. Ruthie*

            I love the Old Navy pants that are supposed to go a little about the ankle, because as someone who is 5’0 who needs the waist a little roomier, I can size up and have them hit my ankle instead and no one knows the difference! I just wish they lasted a little longer.

        2. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

          Same here! They closed the one in my local mall and I wanted to cry,

      2. Kelly L.*

        NY&Co! How I mourn having sized myself out of them. When I wore like a size 12, they were a godsend. They had great clearance sales too.

        A lot of my current stuff is from Cato. Not all of their stuff is officey, but some of it is.

        1. Jb*

          They actually go up to an 18! That’s the size I wear, and I’ve found lots of good trousers on clearance.

          1. Kelly L.*

            Alas, I’m more of a 20 now, but that’s great (and I think maybe new?)! This was years ago and I don’t think they had 18 back then, but I’m happy to see they have it now!

            1. Phyllis B*

              The Cato’s in my area has plus sizes. I found an adorable outfit for a wedding. Walked in and saw skirt/sweater/jewelry that was perfect. I bought the whole thing off the mannequin. Which I know does not have anything to do with office wear; just wanted to say the Cato’s in your area may have sizes you can wear. At my local store they have two entrances. One just say Cato’s, the one next to it Cato’s Plus. Also, maybe on-line options?

      3. BeautifulVoid*

        I don’t like the way their pants fit me, but other than that, almost all my work tops and blazers come from NY&Co. Some I’ve had for years, they hold up pretty well.

    4. AndersonDarling*

      And you can get good deals on the JC Penny Worthington brand to get basic pants/skirts and jackets. They frequently have 1/2 off sales.
      I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that I could have done that instead of saving up for months to buy one suit at Ann Taylor.

      1. Renee*

        When I was a litigation attorney, I had a ton of Worthington basics. My boss was heavily into fashion, and she was regularly shocked by what I was able to buy at JC Penney. I mixed in better pieces like shells and dresses, but it’s hard to go wrong with a store that has about ten different styles of a skirt for any season, and five or six different jacket styles in the same or coordinating fabric. The jackets and skirts are all lined too, which was a requirement for me.

    5. MindoverMoneyChick*

      I second (or may 5th) this comment. My firs thought when I saw the link was Forever 21 is “going out” wear not business wear. It’s just not going to have much that will work. And I come from a very casual office environment, were jeans are fine, but those dresses wouldn’t read quite right.

    6. Mona Lisa*

      Yes, this is exactly how I feel about this, too. I’ve generally worked in more casual offices, and I would think the items the OP linked are too short for work.

      I would push back a little against the right above the knee guideline though. I’m pretty tall for a woman (5’10”), and finding items that fit that rule is pretty difficult on my budget since I’d have to special order them. I typically stick to 3-4″ above my knee as an acceptable length (longer if I can get it), and I frequently get complimented on my professional wardrobe.

      1. KR*

        I agree with this if OPs workplace seems cool with it – definitely feel it out before bringing out the pretty shortish dresses! I’m short and I can’t wear longer dresses – they just erase my legs and make me look way too young.

      2. Stan*

        I have a theory that some of it is about the colors and fabrics. If a dress is shorter, but is made from a heavier blend fabric and a more “professional” cut, then it seems fine to me. But, if it’s made from a lighter fabric and tends toward “froofy”, then it seems too short for work. So a gray, woolen blend sheath dress would be fine, but a pink cotton sundress with a slight A-line of the same length would read as not work appropriate.*

        *All of this is dependent on overall office culture, but I’m thinking of my own more traditional setting.

        1. Sadsack*

          Yeah, I have noticed that some skirts seem on the short side but still OK if they are more straight or structured, but if the skirt is light with a lot of movement, the back kicks up pretty high! I have noticed this a lot at work and assume that the women do not realize how far up in the back their skirts swing. I try to test it out in the mirror when I get a new dress or skirt.

          1. TootsNYC*

            That’s because most clothes are made w/ the hemline leve, as if you have no butt. If you have tht tiniest bit of extra rear end, or if you hips are tilted a bit, your skirt will ride up in the back–especially if you move, because the body bends forward at the hips.

            i noticed that the skirts at Emporio Armani are about 1 to 2 inches longer in the center back, when they’re on the hanger. The designer has accounted for the fact that swomen have rear ends, and also that the body bends forward at the hip.

            1. Sadsack*

              I get what you are saying, but that isn’t exactly what was referring to. Some skirts look long enough in the front and back when standing still. It is when we walk that some skirts start bouncing around, bouncing so high up that the entire back of the thigh almost up to the butt is exposed.

          2. snuck*

            It also depends on the job you are doing.

            I once had a staff member who decided she didn’t care that the guys in the office could see her daks when she was stacking the photocopier with paper. She told me this when I firmly told her to not wear her staff uniform dress into the office again until she had lowered the hem back down to where it belonged. (She had taken a shell style dress from knee length to near mini, she wasn’t going to be able to sew it back on… but the policy was clear you weren’t to alter the work uniforms to that extent – hems yes, redesign to something that showed your knickers if you picked something off the floor with bent knees… gone!)

        2. Anxa*

          Yes, I have a skirt that borders on being a mini, but reads as a pretty conservative skirt when paired with the right tights, shoes, and tops. It’s wool, gray, with subtle pin stripes. There are places I wouldn’t wear it, but my current work environment is very casual, but on a few days where it’s very cold out, I wear it to work.

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            Angela on The Office wears skirts that are a little short sometimes, but she is so buttoned-down in the style, cut, color, and coverage that it reads very conservative. Plus she’s petite, which I think allows her to wear the shorter skirts. Short skirts read as more proportional on petite women than they do on tall women.

          2. MsCHX*

            +1 as a fairly conservative dresser and HR goon (haha).

            Short by itself isn’t “bad”. Short plus frilly/frou-frou/lightweight fabric/”twee” prints…that can read poorly. Nothing makes me happier than a shortish dress or skirt in a straight or VERY slight A-line with matching tights in winter. Black. Grey. Camel. I think I need one in a wine/marsala color!

            Oh wait, I’m getting off track :-p

        3. MindoverMoneyChick*

          Yes. Early in my career (mid-90s) I wore short wool skirts with blazers and tights in the winter. Think Alley McBeal, but a little bit longer. And I got compliments on having such a good professional wardrobe for an entry level employee. Length is just part of the equation.

        4. designbot*

          yes! Structured (read: heavy, stiffer) fabrics are your friend for workwear. They stay where you put them, don’t flounce around, and generally read as “serious.” At my work it’d be totally fine to wear a t-shirt of almost any kind, include with silly sayings or illustrations, with a stiffer pencil skirt, but the floofy skirt linked to above would require a blazer to balance it out. When everything you wear is in light/airy/flouncy fabrics, the overall impression adds up to “garden party.”

      3. NewBooks*

        I’m not particularly tall, but I do have very long limbs. I’ll wear 3″ above my knee in a dress and sometimes a skirt. I always get compliments on my wardrobe as well (librarian – university setting).

      4. Meg Murry*

        I think in this case, since Mona Lisa is so tall, I’d say a safe rule of thumb would be “80%+ of your thigh is covered” plus “still covers 60%+ of your thigh when seated”. 3-4 inches showing on a very tall person is probably a similar proportion of leg to 1-2 inches showing on a shorter to average person.

        But when in doubt for a new employee who is average height, I’d lean toward as close to the knee as possible.

      5. Lauren*

        Ok, look at the links. Dresses say ‘ Model is 5’10” and 5’11” and 5’9”- If OP is shorter, then the dress will be a bit shorter too.

        1. Lauren*

          I mean longer. I’ve gotten Forever21 dresses that on a 5’9″ model look to barely cover them – but on me – i am 5’4” and its just above the knee for me.

          1. Kelly L.*

            I got so annoyed over a Lane Bryant dress once that I wanted to be short. It was daringly short in the ad, and sequined, and looked perfect for NYE! Woot! And then I got into the store and tried it on, and on 5’6″ me, it was to the freaking knee, and ran way loose too. And to add insult to injury, the back was as plain as a generic t-shirt–they’d cheaped out and only put the sequins on the front. Nope!

        2. Tall & Complaining*

          Sorry to nitpick, but check the garments’ measurements before you buy. Seeing a model who shares your height is, unfortunately, not enough to go on.

          I actually have the same height and measurements as one or two models on the F21 site. I can’t shop there.

          The average woman in America, for example, is 5’4″. Clothes are made for women closer to this height, not those of us 6″ taller. Photos can be shopped, show models in misleading poses (slouching can make a shirt or dress look longer), or hide fit problems (pants too short? add boots – no problem!).

          1. Tall & Complaining*

            I meant to add, but deleted while editing: Basically ignore the models, whether they’re close to your own measurements or you’re using them to extrapolate. Check dresses’ measurements and compare to what works on your own body.

            1. BeenThere*

              This this this! I have a long torso and even those boxes they send to you how with a personal stylist never get me the right shirts. I’m 5’8″ and skinny. In my home country I would be a medium in the US I’m an XS or XXS in some cuts ( no boobs hahah )

              The only store that works for me is JCrew, they are one of the few that have Tall blazers below a size 6 and there shirts are nice and long.

          2. Ellie H.*

            Also, because the models are so skinny the clothes will always look longer on them than on someone less skinny, because they can hang farther down.

          3. Melissa*

            I’m 5’4″ (but plus size) and I find that nothing is built for my height. I have to order petite (length) on all pants because everything is too long. Maybe straight sizes are different (never shopped them as an adult unfortunately), but many plus size clothes assumes a woman more like 5’6-7″.

            1. Honeybee*

              I’m 5’2″ and I wear straight sizes, and it’s the same thing – I think most brands assume that the buyer is in the 5’6″ to 5’8″ range. I have found certain (expensive) brands are better on the length – Frame and Paige jeans, for example, I can buy without alterations. But it’s one of the reasons I got the Nordstrom debit card, because it comes with $100 of alterations every year and you can get them done in store. Less expensive brands almost always leave me with like 3-4″ of extra fabric unless I buy short sizes. And I can’t do petites because I’m not really petite, I’m just short. Even if I size up in petites it fits me all weird.

          4. Alienor*

            My daughter is 5’9″ and can almost never wear dresses or skirts from Forever 21. If it’s at all above the knee, it turns into a micro-mini on her.

          5. MsCHX*

            Not to mention proportions. I’m 5’5″, my daughter is 5’8″ and we have the same torso measurement. She’s all legs. EVERYTHING looks short on her.

      6. First Initial dot Last Name*

        As a tall (and fairly modest) person, I found skirt/dress extenders to be a magic solution for regularly available skirt lengths. I have found them on etsy and have a few, basic black chiffon tiered, a modern pink ruffle (that’s not really a ruffle), and a sparkly one for when I have an opportunity to wear sparkles. There are a lot of lacey froofy versions but with some persistence, you can find them in more chic styles. Without skirt extenders I’d be wildly inappropriate!

        1. Suz*

          I’ve never heard of those before. Thanks for the tip. I’ll have to look for them.

        2. Honeybee*

          I’ve never heard of this before but now that I Googled it, I wonder why they’re not marketed more prominently!

    7. KR*

      I got my work slacks at Loft and I LOVE them! All the other work slacks I have ever found were cut for someone older than me and made me look frumpy (no offense to women older than 22, I’m just really petite so everything slightly too big looks frumpy on me!). The slacks I found at Loft were closer fitting near my waste and rear, the PERFECT length (no trimming with a low comfortable heel) and they had tons of different options in the clearance rack.

    8. Lillian McGee*

      My “nonprofit casual” look incorporates lots of stuff from Target. Their basics are pretty great and I absolutely love their funky cardigans (when in season). And the scarves!

      I also do Stitch Fix which hooks me up with cute blouses pretty much every time. Cardigan, blouse, black skinny pants is pretty much my uniform.

      1. Perse's Mom*

        I rather like the Ava Viv line at Target. I’ve managed to find a number of nice, colorful tops that pair well with both slacks and jeans.

        1. Ann Furthermore*

          Yes! I bought what is described as the “Short Sleeve Drapey Tee” in just about every color/pattern they had. It’s perfect — nice and long, and looks super cute with either a knee-length pencil skirt or a longer straight tube skirt. I wish they came in every color under the sun, because I’d buy all of them.

    9. Former Banker*

      I’m going to disagree with Forever 21 not being office appropriate, only because, as a plus size girl, they have a great selection at a reasonable price. You can definitely find office appropriate stuff there if you look hard enough (and are short – they do have some short hemlines!). The majority of my wardrobe is from there, and people can’t believe it when they find out that’s where my clothes are from. It’s all about how you style them! I almost always wear a cardigan, make sure my cleavage isn’t showing, and my skirts hit at or below the knee. The more casual pieces don’t get worn to work.

      1. New Girl*

        I have also found some cute tops from Forever 21 for the office. You just have to look around!

        1. Emilia Bedelia*

          Agreed- I wouldn’t wear any skirts or pants from there, but it’s great for blouses/tank tops to wear under cardigans. The current trend of loose, blousy, printed woven tanks is great for my work wardrobe. I have a lot of colorful tank tops that look skimpy on the hanger, but look great with a cardigan and pencil skirt.

      2. SL #2*

        Oh yeah. 40% of my work tops are from F21. Their contemporary line is much more office-appropriate than their other lines!

      3. TootsNYC*

        true, but when someone is a rookie at knowing what qualifies as “office appropriate,” Forever 21 is not the best place to start, because you do have to be so discerning. Better to practice with “training wheels” at some place with a default setting that’s more office-OK.

      1. dawbs*

        And, OP, budget can be killer; a few well chosen pieces can be rotated through (my Express suitcoat and 2 pairs of pants and one skirt can make 5 or 6 outfits w/ tops), but it’s also a way to find sizes and get 2nd hand.
        I know what size I take in Express and The Limited’s clothing, so when I go to thredup or the local thrift store or one of the other places to get 2nd hand clothes, I can zero in on the size I need, and buy 5 Express size L shirts for $5 each and be done.

        So find a few brands (preferably good brands–and preferably brands that don’t change up their sizings ever 3 months) and find your size as a starting reference.

        1. irritable vowel*

          Second the thrift-store suggestion! Almost all my work clothes come from second-hand shops. Some of the places being suggested here might seem dauntingly pricy to someone just starting out (no way I could have afforded Banana Republic or Ann Taylor new in my early 20s), but you can get so much of their stuff for practically nothing, with still a lot of life left in it. Obviously some things will be out of fashion (too-wide pant legs, etc.), but it’s a great way to figure out what works on your body and in your workplace without dropping a ton of cash. I make enough now that I could afford to buy new clothes, but I still rarely do!

          1. E*

            Another plus to thrift store shopping is that you can try several different brands in one place and determine quickly what fits you from a specific brand. I would never have tried Ann Taylor Loft if I hadn’t found several pieces from the local thrift store over a few months. Now I know my size and that their petite pants fit me perfectly, so I’d be willing to buy online from them on clearance or from thredup.

        2. Nunya*

          Oh yes. The only jeans I buy anymore are NYDJ, so that is my first stop at thrift stores. I’ve also had good luck buying them on ebay for like $20 for nearly new.

      2. themmases*

        I definitely recommend Express. I get all my work pants from there; they keep the same few cuts going every season so if one works for you, you can buy it forever. They are machine washable yet last forever. I used to have two pairs that I wore weekly for three years, that still looked good and I only got rid of because I lost too much weight to take them in more.

        Express is the type of mall store that will send you more coupons the more you go there. IMO unless you need a full work wardrobe urgently, it’s worth it there to buy a piece or two a month, buying just enough to maximize what you get from one sale, because they’re going to hand you a coupon for next month with your receipt.

        1. madge*

          Yes, the Editor pants are the absolute best. I’m 5’4″ but the petite size fits perfectly.
          Also agree on the coupons and the last time I was at Loft, they did something similar (it’s been several months ago, though).

          If you have an outlet near you, the DKNY outlet sends frequent coupons and has great quality. My favorite pair of lined, black dress pants is from there and they were something like $40 with that day’s sale and coupon, plus there was another coupon given out at checkout.

    10. Kyrielle*

      The first dress here would work in my office; the second wouldn’t; the skirt in the third might.

      But…I’m in an office where a male coworker shows up regularly in cargo shorts and this is considered reasonable. That would not fly in many offices even where jeans are welcome. (A manager I know here was told he needed to “dress up” a bit if he wanted to enter a manager role. It meant he had to wear a button-up shirt instead of a t-shirt with his jeans. Formal, we are not.)

    11. BananaPants*

      It’s such an unfortunate name but I’ve found reasonably priced business casual clothes at Dress Barn. As a bonus, they have plus sizes, which Ann Taylor and Banana Republic do not.

      1. Mrs. Psmith*

        Yes yes yes to Dress Barn for good business casual (and also weekend casual and slightly more formal clothes too). I was so turned off by the name for years and then was forced into one by my sister and was amazed at their selection of clothes. They also aren’t just limited to dresses too, they’ve got skirts, blouses, sweaters, slacks, etc. It’s now my first choice when I need to find a new dress/skirt/top for any situation nicer than a “throw on shorts/t-shirt” event.
        Plus I love that it’s one of the few places I’ve found dresses with sleeves longer than cap sleeves. The trend for a long time was sleeveless/cap sleeves, which I like, but was making me get tired of the cardigans-all-the-time ensembles.

      2. Adonday Veeah*

        Another vote for Dress Barn. They have good prices on good basics, and some fun stuff to mix in. Alas, I no longer live in a town where they have a store, so I have to make a special run a few times a year. Their sizes are pretty reliable, however, so once you know your size shopping online is easy.

      3. A Non E. Mouse*

        I second Dress Barn (and also hate the name).

        They also usually have quite a robust clearance section as well, so a little digging can go a long way.

        What I really really like about them is most of their shirts are a little longer in cut…I have to raise my arms overhead quite a bit in my job, moving cables/machines around, and the extra inch or two keeps me covered.

      4. Tardis*

        I LOVE the stuff at Dress Barn, but I have the opposite problem: they don’t carry anything smaller than a 4, so everything is too big for me. I drool over their inventory, though!

    12. Turanga Leela*

      It is expensive to start a new work wardrobe. I’d use Target as a stopgap and then look for sales other places. When I was starting out, I looked for sales at Boden, Loft, J.Crew, and the Limited for casual work-y things. It’s also worth going to your local Macy’s or Dillard’s, which will have workwear sections with totally acceptable things in them. Also, Chico’s markets to an older demographic, but they have very nice blazers, and they make the world’s most perfect three-quarter-sleeve work t-shirts: they’re opaque, they’re long enough to cover the top of your pants, and they come in a million colors.

      I have bought many dresses at Modcloth, but their allegedly work-appropriate dresses are often very short. Consider yourself warned.

      1. the gold digger*

        Once you know how different brands fit, you can also buy on eBay. For skirted suits at least, I have had a lot of luck that way. I know that in Ann Taylor, I am a 6 but at Banana Republic, I am an 8.

        I would suggest also finding a consignment store in the wealthier part of town, where women wear their outfits only a few times before moving on. A few basics – a black skirt, a blue one, a red one, a black or a red jacket, and then some white t-shirts from Target – can take you a long way.

        1. junipergreen*

          Love the suggestion to check out consignment stores in ritzier zip codes.

          It’s also great to hit up consignment stores during seasonal/weather transitions, when everyone is doing their closet changeover and clean outs! (Also I think people are still reading that Marie Kondo book!)

        2. LizB*

          I get so many of my work clothes from consignment or thrift stores in the wealthy part of town. There’s a goodwill out in one of the fancier suburbs of my city that is amazing for work wear. Designer tops for $10 or less? Yes please!

          1. Partly Cloudy*

            I’m jealous. I’ve browsed the rich Goodwill by me, and the designer stuff is STILL out of reach.

            1. dawbs*

              Sometimes you can find out when the thrift stores have sales (which seems redundant but isn’t).

              The Volunteers of America stores have 50% off everything on the last Tuesday of the Month.

              The Goodwill has them on certain days (but it’s not something I remember–it’s something I have to find on their website) and student and military discounts on Tuesday, senior citizen discounts on Wed (I think. Those may vary). If you get on their mailing list, you can find out when those are.

        3. Annie Moose*

          Thirding the ritzy secondhand stores, not just for work clothes but any formal/dressy clothes. I’ve gotten shoes, dresses, everything, sometimes with the original price tags still on them!

        4. Kittymommy*

          Oohh, ebay! I get a ton of my Antonio Melani there. A lot of their stuff is great for more formal work settings.

        5. Partly Cloudy*

          Funny-but-not-funny story: a friend of mine went into a nearby secondhand store near the wealthy part of town. She was on her way to help me move, so she was in workout clothes, hair up, no makeup, etc. but just decided to pop in since it was on the way. The salesperson basically “Pretty Woman”ed her and said she didn’t think they’d have anything that fit my friend’s style and all but asked her to leave.

        6. Blurgle*

          The Junior League consignment store in Calgary used to be the best place on Earth. Dior suits, $20.

        7. KarenD*

          People have mentioned thredup several times; I have found a few other sites that I actually like better.

          Swap.com has a massive selection and frequent codes and sales; their prices are also consistently better than thredup.

          And Schoola.com benefits local schools – and for those who love Modcloth, it seems that Modcloth donates quite a bit of its surplus to Schoola! (Search the “new with tags” stuff to see that and other surplus.) The prices are generally higher than Swap but Schoola also does frequent codes … most recently 50 percent off.

          1. OlympiasEpiriot*

            My son’s school does Schoola, nice to hear of someone shopping there! (I hadn’t heard of it before he entered and I don’t do much clothing shopping on-line, so I live under a rock.)

      2. L N*

        Fwiw: I have like, absurdly long legs and I don’t have length issues with modcloth. Granted, I do not need professional wear most of the time, but I find at least their plus size stuff is always a good length. Plus their product reviews usually feature a lot of customer modeling so you can see it on a variety of body types to really judge the length.

      3. Collie*

        I got most of my starting work wardrobe from Goodwill. I later moved on to Ross and sales racks at other stores. Piece by piece.

      4. SaraV*

        I’m going to second Dillard’s if there’s one near you. “Basic” pants in different cuts and lengths, and very reasonably priced. If not every month, at least every other month, towards the end of it, they have great sales where you can take an extra 30-40% off sales priced items. I’ve found some great things there.

      5. Person of Interest*

        Love love love Boden! They have such cute prints, and I think more of their stuff fits into a professional wardrobe than a lot of ModCloth stuff.

        1. Christopher Tracy*

          Boden is really expensive though – much more so than ModCloth. And I find their petite section to be lacking.

    13. L N*

      I do think modcloth is a good compromise, especially if you like vintage stuff. Watch for sales. F21 DOES have some office appropriate stuff, but it takes doing.

      Modcloth has great pencil skirts and dresses with cap sleeves and collars, which really does a lot for the professional look. I think an a line skirt like that would be fine in a neutral color unless it’s a really conservative office, but probably not pastel pink.

    14. AMG*

      Another girly girl here. Try Banana Republic and White House Black Market. Accessorize to make it prettier: Don’t forget to wear the appropriate lingerie. No bra straps, visible underwear lines, lacy underthings with sheer clothing over the top, etc.

      Other things that work well: silk, cashmere, pencil skirts in a neutral color. Good quality and good fit is key.

      1. AMG*

        Also consider the possibility of working as seasonal help at your favorite clothing store to get the discount and build up your wardrobe. I did that for years and entered the workforce dressed for success!

      2. Nicole*

        As an ad-on to this–I really love the Extra Petite blog (http://www.extrapetite.com/) for help choosing work clothes. Her original goal was to focus on being a fashionable professional when you’re very petite, and admittedly it has turned into a more general fashion blog, but she still has a lot of posts and general advice about looking cute but also professional and put-together in the workplace.

      3. Ann Furthermore*

        Visible bra straps — my biggest pet peeve. I just bought a new top over the weekend that has a sheer strip down the back. It’s cute, but normally I wouldn’t buy something like that because of the bra strap issue. But it was the absolute perfect color to go with a new skirt I bought, and I’d been hunting high and low for something to wear with it. So I bought it, and wear it with a nude colored camisole underneath.

        1. Kathryn*

          For things like this, I either have a tailor put in bra strap…loops (don’t know what they’re called but they’re an easy add for a tailor) or use fashion tape. I love fashion tape…

    15. Aardvark*

      A lot of my early work wardrobe came from H&M! (And Target.) I’ve also had some luck at stores like Nordstrom Rack, but those require a bit of a competitive shopping mindset and a high threshold for disappointment. TJ Maxx/Marshalls can have some great bargains too, though you have to be kind of careful about the fabrics. I’ve found lot of the stuff they carry is weird acrylic/poly blends that cling. I also used to live near an outlet mall and got a lot of stuff there. Calvin Klein’s outlet store had amazing sales–Target prices for much more interestingly-cut shirts!

      Also, some of the places like Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft routinely and ruthlessly discount their stuff. In the last week, I’ve gotten 17 emails from Loft,Ann Taylor, and their outlet cousins. Many of these include 20% off coupons. If you like the look of a store but they’re out of your budget, subscribe to their mailing list and wait a couple weeks :)

      Also, if you can stomach getting to the mall at 9 AM on a holiday weekend with coupons in hand, the sales are usually worth it. I usually do a major shop on Labor Day weekend and again on President’s Day, and only do little bits of shopping in between.

      1. the cake is a pie*

        Yeah, Loft (and the Limited, too) have basically trained me to wait until they’re doing 40% or 50% off everything sales. They happen so frequently.

      2. Ann Furthermore*

        I’ve had good luck at Marshall’s, but for some reason I never find anything I like at TJ Maxx. I’ve found some nice stuff at Ross too. But with any of those places you have to be willing to spend the time to pick through all the crap. There are good deals to be had on nice clothes, but so much of it makes me wonder what was going through someone’s head when they chose a fabric or print.

    16. Alli*

      The Old Navy Pixie pant (comes in ankle length, or full length in a few colors) is a great just-starting-out basic. They’re cheap, slim cut so they look nice with drapey tops (but not skinny enough to be in the legging category), machine washable, and mine have held up pretty well.

      1. JAM*

        I’m an admin and they are exactly the right kind of pant for me to wear to work. I need more colors and patterns though!

    17. Tomato Frog*

      I got my work-horse work dresses from H&M and Old Navy. The H&M dresses are lined and the Old Navy ones have pockets!My tip for shopping for work if you’re anything above, say, 5’3″, is to buy tall sizes.

    18. Ruthe*

      The cut of the clothes and their appropriateness also depend a lot on body type.

      If you’re curvier, you will have a hard time wearing shift dresses and skirts, for example. I absolutely dread shopping for work clothes because a lot of dresses, pants, and skirts that would otherwise be professional look inappropriate on me. I’m petite, but the clothes that are small enough for me to wear are too tight in the chest and bottom. That means that even at J. Crew or Ann Taylor I have a really hard time.

      It took me a while after graduating to realize that even though I could fit into clothes from the juniors section, they didn’t really fit with my age or office anymore. As a general rule, anything from the juniors section or Forever 21 isn’t going to work in an office. H&M is iffy. Zara is probably a better bet, but use your judgement on things cut too high or too low.

    19. Blue Swan*

      I will add to the Modcloth recommendations. I have six “Luck Be A Lady” dresses in a mix of solids/prints that I dress up or down, depending on the event. I am pear-shaped, so sheath dresses do not flatter me at all. I found fit-and-flare to be a respectable/professional cut for me.

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        Those are the exact dresses I wear! Closet London does such a good job designing work-appropriate, yet fashionable vintage style clothing.

      2. Anonymousaurus Rex*

        I bought and love this dress! But it’s borderline too short on me for the office. I’m 5’8″ish. I wear it with tights and a blazer, but it might have to go into storage for summertime. :(

    20. Anonamoose*

      Actually, I’m wearing slacks that I bought at Charlotte Russe 10 years ago (yes, I cannot believe they haven’t fallen apart yet = miracle), and they are super professional – long loose gray slacks with thin print stripes that you have to be close to see. They DO have professional clothing but you have to look hard for it, and usually they only have a couple of things at a time.

      That said, they have a lot of pseudo suit stuff which can be really confusing to young women. I remember they had what would 100% be a professional looking suit jacket and pencil skirt combo, but it was tan and the jacket was cropped. If you actually wore it, it would look like a stripper playing dress up (not that there is anything wrong with that), not something you’d wear for an interview.

    21. Sunflower*

      It’s possible to find professional clothes at Forever 21 but my issues are with the fit. I tried on a super cute, but also professional dress from there. It was a sheath dress and only came in S-XL and for those dresses to fit right, you really need to have it in numbered sizes. It was just all wrong on me.

    22. EP*

      Old Navy & Gap outlets tend to have tall sizes and online has tall & short/petites.
      If you have time spend an hour at Marshalls or TJ Maxx.
      If you’re plus sized – sign up for the torrid, elloqui, ashley stewart, and lane bryant email/text alerts you can get stuff on really good deals (example: today torrid is doing 40% off an order of 4 or more items including clearance).
      Also eshatiki.com is a great site – not cheap but you can customize the clothes for a small upcharge (less than $10) including adding sleeves, adjusting the length, & style of neckline. Everything you order requires your height, so if you are short (I’m only 5’4″) something that says knee length is going to end up knee length not mid calf. (Honestly the dress I wore yesterday is a maxi dress on me (hits me about my ankles) the email from the store where I bought it had it hitting the model mid-calf).
      If you have a bit of money and a Facebook account look up LuLaRoe(90% of their sales are online) – their dresses and skirts are cotton stretch prints & solids and aren’t cheap but hold up (today I’m in their Cassie skirt which is a long pencil skirt – I’m short enough that it sits from my upper waist/right under my bust down to just above my knee) . While you might need to look closely at the formality the length/modesty should work fine.

    23. OP*

      Thanks for the ideas! I’m a college student with very little spare money, and while I’ve thrifted a few more formal pieces, I’d like to keep an eye on places I can reasonably afford that people seem to agree have good pieces.

      1. Nerdling*

        I love Modcloth’s sales (I’m 31 but was very much in your shoes when I first started my current job). I also recommend checking out ThredUp – I’ve had some luck with them lately. If there’s an area of your town or region that’s more upscale/wealthy, visit the thrift stores there (I found a Chanel suit at a thrift store in Northern Virginia once).

        I’ve found that starting with a few basic pieces and then gradually filling out my wardrobe from there – and using jewelry from places like Forever 21 that’s inexpensive but eye-catching – helps a great deal. While I now love White House Black Market, there was no way I could afford it in college. I could barely swing NY&Co or Express during sales for dress shirts! Don’t be afraid of A-line dresses if that style flatters your figure. Just don’t go in for the ones with floof underneath. Aim for solid colors or simpler patterns. Invest in a decent blazer once you can afford it. Camisoles and cardigans and scarves can add color and coverage and just generally be your friends.

        Good luck!

        1. Nerdling*

          As an idea of what I tend to wear now, yesterday I had on skinny navy blue slacks that I got on sale at WHBM but that I think you could find something similar to at Old Navy, an orange tank from Old Navy, a navy blazer with a cream/polka dot lining that I got on sale at Modcloth, navy heels from Modcloth, and a statement necklace that I got in a subscription box for about $8 but that you could find something similar to at Forever 21. I also have a couple of A-line dresses in floral patterns that I wear with blazers or cardigans and heels. I also like wrap-style dresses, including a silk one I got off ThredUp recently for $9.

      2. Turanga Leela*

        Good luck, OP! I’m aware that this doesn’t work for everyone, but if you have family who are in a position to buy you gifts, consider asking for work clothes for your birthday or holidays. When I was first interviewing for jobs, I asked relatives for a suit and accessories, and they agreed to buy them as a “birthday” present even though my birthday wasn’t for several months.

        1. Lizketeer*

          This is what I did, and it was great.
          We ended up buying some more formal items that I pull out maybe twice a year now, but it’s nice to have them in the back of the closet just in case

      3. EP*

        I get this! I was out of work for 18 months and the residual is how cheap I am- if you like a brand shop their sales and get on their email lists, also shop out of season – look for late winter/spring stuff now.

      4. Liz*

        When I was starting out, my best investment for summer was a nice short-sleeved bolero, light enough for hot days (I’m in Australia). I still have it — it made it possible to wear singlet tops that were otherwise inappropriate, provided I remember that I can’t take it off. Once I had that and a couple of nice camisole tops, I concentrated on building up a collection of skirts and trousers, and didn’t think have to about shirts again until the end of summer.

      5. Bryson*

        Another vote here for Target, especially online, for some business casual tops. You can even find some pieces on clearance that could be under $10. Also, Dickies work pants are machine washable and affordable at about $20/pair. They also sell them at Walmart.

    24. JeanLouiseFinch*

      Actually, when it comes to wearing a sexy-ish dress to an interview (as opposed to wearing that dress to work), ask yourself if you would want a job that you got only because you wore a sexy dress to the interview.

    25. Honeybee*

      I’m a girly dresser in a super casual office (jeans and T-shirts and sneakers are not only fine but regular) and I wouldn’t wear any of those dresses to work, nor have I seen any women around here wear anything like that.

      Some of H&M’s dresses can go a little short depending on your height but they’re better than F21 and Charlotte Russe. I love Modcloth’s stuff, especially their tops and dresses.

  2. Q*

    I think it’s mostly a matter of opinion and my opinion the first two are too short and the last one is too loud. Remember that you will probably spend a lot of time sitting and the skirts are going to ride up.

    1. Anonamoose*

      Ugh, that riding up skirt thing is so true (and uncomfortable when it happens in a meeting). Don’t do it!

  3. AndersonDarling*

    I agree with Alison that you can find one part of your outfit to pop. A big statement necklace, edgy shoes, or a bright top are great with the customary skirt/pant and jacket/cardigan. You can let the little pieces show your personality because a little goes a long way in the office.

    1. WorkerBee 23*

      Yes to all of this. I also like scarves – lightweight in the warmer months, heavier in the winter. Scarves are a great way to bring color & pattern into your otherwise-mundane workwear. Plus, you can get them fairly inexpensively. I think a scarf with a blazer & dress trousers looks really sharp.

      1. Jb*

        I am addicted to scarves. There is an online store called Shop Miss A where everything is $1, and I buy all my scarves there. Shipping is very reasonable and I have never had any issues with them.

        1. Lindsay J*

          Ooo looking this up, thank you.

          I recently decided to simplify my casual wardrobe (that isn’t dresses) to a pair of blue jeans, a pair of black jeans, shorts, and a bunch of solid colored t-shirts. I’m planning on using scarves to dress this up and $1 sounds like my kind of price lol.

        2. WorkerBee 23*

          Thanks for that link! I typically get mine from Target or Old Navy which are pretty inexpensive anyway, but I can’t turn away from $1! (Bonus: if someone compliments your scarf you can obnoxiously state “THANKS, IT WAS A DOLLAR!”)

          1. WorkerBee 23*

            Also – amazon.com, especially if you’re a Prime member. I’ve found some great scarves for <$5 a piece, free shipping!

        3. OhNo*

          +1 to Miss A. I don’t wear many accessories, but I’ve gotten some fun stuff from there in the past. The best part is that I never feel bad if I don’t wear it super often, because it was only a dollar!

      2. notfunny.*

        yes scarves! a great way to dress up plain cotton sweaters and button downs! they are also on sale occasionally and a great way to change up your wardrobe inexpensively – and if you run cold they definitely help.

      3. Click*

        Literally reading this in a basic black dress, tan flats and a super pretty flower scarf. I’m all about scarves, year round!

    2. Sarahnova*

      I am a statement necklace addict!

      Sharp tailoring with a statement necklace always looks slick, professional, and fashionable, and shows a bit of personality.

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        I just bought a bunch of statement necklaces last week while in Vegas at Du Barry Fashions, oddly enough a place where showgirls and strippers shop, and these necklaces are stunning vintage-inspired pieces. They will definitely spice up some of my more bland pants/shirt combos. + 1,000 for statement jewelry of all types!

        1. Joline*

          Were you there for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend? It was June 2-5 and I think they had field trips to Du Barry.

            1. Joline*

              Fun! My cousin and his wife’s group won a couple of awards so it’s been showing up all over my news feed on the Facebook again.
              Seems to be a good scene if you don’t die almost instantly in that kind of heat (which I do).

                1. Joline*

                  Yep! Screaming Chicken Theatrical Society. They do tend to be. I’ve never been to BHOF Weekend but I’ve been to some of their performances in Vancouver and the humour is often a huge part of it. :)

  4. TotesMaGoats*

    My rule of thumb is that if a skirt or dress is so short that I feel uncomfortable without wearing tights then it’s too short for work. I’ve been at a lot of academic conferences lately and seen A LOT of skirts that were inappropriately short for work paired with tights as flats. It really doesn’t detract from how short the skirt is in my opinion. Especially if you are tall. Us short ladies can get away with some short-er things but not by much.

    Today I hosted an event for a local non-profit professional group where my president was the guest speaker. I’m wearing a black and white (tiny) checked sheath dress that has a thin bright pink belt. The neckline is fairly high and the skirt ends just above my knees. The arms are bare, obviously, but it’s also super hot today. I also wore hot pink patent leather platform heels. Hey, they match the belt. At some places I know the shoes wouldn’t work but since my president was in jeans and a tshirt, we get more flexibility.

    Pretty and professional do go together. And honestly pretty easily. You just need to be strategic about it. Spend good money on a couple neutral colored suits (or pants and skirts if that’s more appropriate to your role) and then you can buy season appropriate things that pop.

      1. Mona Lisa*

        The description sounded great, but the clothes are even better. I love your outfit!

    1. LAI*

      I agree with your rule of thumb now, but the problem is that I had much different standards when I was 21. I look at some of the skirts I wore in college and they are ridiculously short – I can’t believe I went out in public in them.

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        My parents were pretty strict growing up on what we could and couldn’t wear, so I guess it bled over. My mom also made me change a shirt once before we went to work. My first year out of college, we worked at the same place (different offices and she was much higher up) and I lived at home while my fiance and I saved money. She wouldn’t let me out of the house and explained why my shirt was (too tight and sheer) inappropriate.

      2. irritable vowel*

        Age does have a lot to do with it, I agree. When I was starting out in the workforce in the late 90s, I dressed like Rachel and Monica on Friends because they were cute and stylish (short skirts with tights, jumpers, etc). If I were 40 back then, I absolutely would not have dressed like that. I think it’s okay to dress more youthfully when you’re younger, as long as it’s appropriate for your workplace.

    2. Graciosa*

      I think sometimes people think about this a little differently at the beginning of their careers than they do further on.

      Power is attractive.

      There are certainly pretty clothes that can contribute to a powerful look, but the overall impression from powerful leaders is generally not sweet / cute / young type pretty. I’m trying to imagine the powerful female leaders in my company wearing a short floral sundress for example, and the only way I can envision it would be if they were attending a beach event where everyone else was in swimsuits. It just doesn’t fit into an office.

      I would suggest the OP look at what powerful women leaders wear in the office if she aspires to that kind of a role.

      It doesn’t mean wearing only gray – people who write about the impact of statement pieces are absolutely correct – but office feminine is not at all the same as college student feminine.

      I have even seen situations when the worst dressed person in the room is the most powerful, and dressing that way at the right level (jeans in a roomful of suits) is actually a message.

      Every company has an unwritten code for this stuff, and you can learn it with careful observation.

      *If* you want to, of course.

      I sometimes forget that not everyone wants to be promoted – which is fine – but those who do need to pay attention to those who have and choose accordingly.

      1. fposte*

        This is an excellent summary. I suspect too that a lot of the things we talk about as “pretty” or “girly” (note that that’s a juvenile term there) are pretty cheap to make. It’s patterns and colors and spaghetti straps and short hemlines and inexpensive fabric. It’s not tailored materials with seaming to shape in decent weight natural fiber, because those cost a lot more to make. (Obviously this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is an overall tendency, especially at the more budget-priced end of the clothing spectrum.) To some extent, they’re selling college people and new grads “pretty” because that customer can’t afford to buy the well-made stuff, or at least not much of it.

      2. Christy*

        I think your first point about powerful women and their clothing is usually true and also a byproduct of a culture that continues to associate “female” and “feminine” with unprofessional. From a fashion history perspective, the clothing that most people associate most closely with “professional” tends to have been derived from menswear (middle-class European menswear at that) and was specifically designed to align women with men in the corporate environment. Further, because people who are currently in powerful positions usually have a lot of experience, they are also often (not always!) older than entry-level employees. Depending on the industry, it’s likely that many of these women were the first women to hold leadership positions in their company or organization and, regardless of their personal style, have likely been socialized to avoid “feminine” styles in the workplace.

        Keeping Graciosa’s observation in mind I think is really helpful when one is trying to fit into workplace culture (especially if one has a different background than most of one’s coworkers) and it is not the OP’s (or any individual’s who has pretty limited power) job to change this culture. However, I really hope that this culture continues to change and evolve. Personally, “girly” (I’m thinking pastels, embellishments such as ruffles, etc.) is not my style at all, but expanding our culture’s definition of what makes a person look “professional” is one part of the very important work of diversifying the corporate workplace.

    3. NolongerMsCleo*

      I cringe so many times at work when I see girls in skirts that are too short walking up the stairs. That skirt becomes a lot shorter and the people behind you get a show, especially if the skirt is flowy.

    4. OP*

      Thanks for the help! And pics as well! I’m trying to get some neutral, versatile pieces, but it’s hard when you don’t really have money to spend. Thanks for the tip.

      1. SusanIvanova*

        Get one or two good blazer/skirt/slacks combos and mix it up with different tops. I got a lot of cheap silk tops from Wet Seal: tanks with wide shoulder straps – not spaghetti! – and long-sleeved button-downs.

      2. Calibrachoa*

        Check out your local macy’s clearance racks. The stuff that is 70-80% off is likely to be very wintery – or even christmassy – right now, but it’s cheap. Think 10 bucks for a pair of good trousers brand new kind of cheap. and they also have plus sizes.

      3. Cristina in England*

        Try the Vivenne Files blog about putting together a color coordinated wardrobe. It will save you money in the long run since everything will go together, and you can build it piece by piece. theviviennefiles.com

    5. SuperMama*

      Ugh, so I had on what I thought was a cute outfit: LuLaRoe leggings with a long Randy that fits like a tunic. I got talked to for not being business casual enough, and told I need to be more on the business side. I think a lot of the older generation sees these leggings and thinks they are the same as workout leggings, because they are patterned. Lesson learned!

  5. EA*

    I wouldn’t wear those dresses- not because i couldn’t get away with it (I am currently wearing white jeans and a nice blouse, because we are on the very low end of business casual), but because they make you look young. I already look solidly 6 years younger than I am, and I don’t want to exacerbate things.

    I see girls out of college pulling this – wearing tights with too short dresses – and no one says anything, but I think you want to start building a professional wardrobe. Banana almost always has sales, they are also a lot cheaper at the outlet store.

    1. H*

      I agree with this. I could wear those dresses to work no problem, but I work at a tech company and wouldn’t want to draw attention to being a young woman in a mostly male company. I find that dressing very femininely affects the way I’m treated. It’s sexist, but true.

      1. KR*

        +1 I’m in IT and I see it all the time. Have a vendor meeting today? I’m taking it up a notch in slacks and heels. Otherwise they won’t even talk to me, they’ll just talk to my boss. It doesn’t help that I’m his admin and I just like taking notes to keep myself occupied. I might as well be a brick wall unless I act like I’m a bad bitch and in charge.

        1. SusanIvanova*

          I’m a software engineer and normally don’t deal with end users, but back in the 90s our sales people wanted me to go to a finance company in Iowa because it was just so urgent! It wasn’t. I’d fixed the problem before they finished figuring out travel arrangements, but they sent me anyway because that company was just so big and important.
          They wanted me to wear a dress – not even a business blazer/skirt, which had long since gone to Goodwill anyway. I didn’t have one. I wore slacks, one of the silk tops I’d kept when I tossed the suits, and a jacket I’d swiped from my brother after his brief Miami Vice phase.
          Got there, and it was like I’d stepped back into the days of Mad Men. Men in suits, women in dresses, the devs I was there to meet – all guys – weren’t allowed to take off their suit jackets except when they were at their desks. But they said that when they came down to reception, they knew immediately that I was the person they were looking for.

  6. Sarahnova*

    I’m with Alison – the dresses you have linked miiiiiight be OK for a semi-casual or temp interview, but they read as “young” and “informal” and I’d definitely shy away from them for anything more formal, or for any new office job until you’ve established a norm AND taken into account what more senior people tend to wear, if you want to get promoted.

    1. sam*

      I would say for *interviews* in particular, you should err on the side of being more on the “business” side of any dress code (scaled up or down depending on the actual industry, of course). It’s generally OK to be the most conservatively/dressed up person when you’re interviewing – people expect you to be putting your “best face” forward in such situations.

      As a lawyer, I work in a fairly conservative LOB/industry, and while our office is technically business casual our group tends to dress pretty conservatively (we also sit directly above the e-suite, which affects things). If someone came for an interview here wearing anything other than a suit, it would be remarked on (not favorably), even though you don’t need to wear one every day – basically on the order of – does this person not realize he/she came in for a job interview?

      No one (or almost no one!) will judge you for erring on the side of caution.

      For every-day wear, if it’s business casual…I’ve had some really good luck over the years with Gap/Old Navy, particularly in the plus/near plus sizes (Gap “regular” goes up to 20). I have about a million simple knee-length black skirts that I can pair with any kind of top (sweaters, blouses, button downs, etc.), cute dresses, etc.

      I’ve also really been into the longer, really wide-legged culottes this past year.

      The other thing I’ve found, and this is just me – I find that everyone thinks I’m at least 3x as dressed up as I actually am if I’m wearing high heels. Obviously the feminist in me kind of hates that this is the case, but the short/kinda stout me has learned to embrace it. I wear comfy shoes to work and keep about 7 pairs of ridiculous heels in my bottom file drawer that I only wear around the (carpeted) office.

      1. Kate M*

        Yeah, I would never wear that dress for an interview. OP, you need at least one suit (assuming you aren’t going into a creative field or something, but by your asking for “professional” wear I don’t think you are), and always wear a suit to an interview. It’s better to be overdressed for an interview than underdressed.

      2. BananaPants*

        I bought a pair of Clarks heels recently and the shoes really do dress up my outfit. They are not a very tall heel but they definitely give a more dressy look than ballet flats did.

      3. OP*

        @sam That’s some really great advice, thank you! I also hate the idea that heels make you look more professional, but maybe I’ll finally get some use out of all the ones I own, finally. Also thanks for mentioning GAP, I never shop there so I had no idea their sizing worked like that.

        @Kate M: To be fair, I wouldn’t either. I have a charcoal grey pencil skirt and several blouses that I would normally wear, but it was in the hamper and I had to pick the dress last-minute. I have a pretty good grasp on what to wear to interviews, but it’s when I get into a job that’s semi-formal/casual I’m not sure I’ll know what to do.

        1. sam*

          OP – as with anywhere, those places (particularly when you get into the higher/plus sizes) can be hit or miss, but when they hit, you can have really good luck at really decent prices. No joke, when I find a pair of pants or a skirt that I like (because it is SO, SO rare), I will buy 5 or 6 of them because I know I will wear them into the ground – and you don’t want to get between me and an Old Navy 40% sale when there’s something I like.

          Between that and giant “statement” jewelry from H&M (which I get monster compliments on all of the time), I’m like the discount queen. The *one* time I bought a semi-expensive necklace from somewhere, it broke within a month. That will never happen again.

          I save my frivolous spending money for handbags and computer/photography equipment. and travel.

          Also, side note: did anybody see this Room for Debate today on appropriate office wear in the NY Times today? http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/06/07/what-does-appropriate-office-dress-mean-in-2016?ref=opinion

          The only thing that really annoyed me was the second guy who was basically lecturing women on the habit of wearing flip flops into the office – Dude, why don’t you spend a few days commuting on the subway in 3-inch heels and then tell me what I can and can’t wear to commute to the office.

          (Reminds me of the disaster that happened when my law firm brought in a fashion consultant a million years ago when things were going business casual – aside from the fact that 95% of the recommendations were for women, which…problem, she tried to recommend that women change shoes at a nearby starbucks so that no one would see them in the building lobby with sneakers/flip flops. Aside from the fact that we all kept our heels IN THE OFFICE, what did she think the nearby starbucks was going to do when 50-100 women showed up every morning to take their shoes off and not buy coffee?)

  7. Kt*

    My biggest peeve with these looks isn’t that they’re revealing, it’s that they look like something a 15 year old would wear to a dance. It’s hard to be taken seriously in a ballerina skirt or a sweater with hedgehogs on it.

    1. Leena Wants Cake*

      While I agree with the comment, I will forever be sad that hedgehog sweaters are not on the list of “professional” office-wear.

    2. Professional Sweater Folder*

      Well, it really depends on the industry. For example, I am a professional sweater folder, so I would for sure wear any of those items at work (in fact I’m wearing something similar right now.) But that’s part of my job: to model our products to entice customers to buy them (though it’s not mandatory for me to do so.)

      However, I would never wear something like that to an office.

  8. Applesauced*

    Take a look at Corporette – she’s DC based (I think?) and a lawyer, so depending on your field it could be a bit too corporate, but it’s a good starting place.
    Reach out too professional organizations (what do people wear at meeting when they come right from work?), ask on informational interviews, look at what your higher ups wear, I’m trying to think of TV shows that could be relevant examples… Amy on Veep dresses appropriately with a little personal style.

    1. YoungOnceToo*

      I also like the boss-ladies on Scandal, The Good Wife, House of Cards, and Parks and Rec (for attire only, of course, not necessarily life choices.) I find that to be a helpful starting point for professional and classy, but still showing some personality. Good for you for being wise enough to ask the question!

      1. Laurel Gray*

        Via Google search you can find where to find affordable dupes for Claire Underwood’s (House of Cards) wardrobe on the show. Her outfits are impeccable and obviously being the first lady, they would work in a business environment.

      2. CMT*

        You know who always looks amazing? Selena Meyer! I would buy the entire Veep wardrobe if I won the lottery.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes! She’s a great example of someone who wears fairly feminine clothes (always dresses, never suits) and looks perfectly polished and professional. I want all her dresses.

        2. Applesauced*

          I like her clothes, but they always look constricting – I once heard that (on Seinfeld) all of Kramer’s clothes were a size too big, and George’s were one too small – so I thought that was a character thing, even though no one would know, Selena is too vain to go up a size.

        3. Cassie*

          I was going to suggest Veep too! Not just Selena but also Amy and Sue. Parks and Rec (Leslie and Ann) is another good one.

      3. MsCHX*

        I want Tea Leoni’s entire Madam Secretary wardrobe. I liked Alicia’s too. I feel I am not bold enough to pull of Liv’s wardrobe!! :)

    2. Parfait*

      +1 on Corporette. Sometimes the rules are way too business formal, so know your office, but that site will point you in the right direction. Anyway yeah, professional dress does not equal party dress. I once worked with a woman who seemed to think getting dressed for work meant “getting dressed up” so she showed up in black sequins and 4 inch heels.

    3. junipergreen*

      Seconding a recommendation for Corporette! Yes, her recommendations are fairly conservative as she’s coming from the legal field, but there’s a wealth of information on there about the sort of pieces to buy to build the foundation of a professional wardrobe. She gives great sale roundups too.

      When I first started out after school I invested in good trousers, a pencil skirt (circle skirt would work for you if it hits at the knee or lower) and a blazer and then rounded it out with sale finds from Macy’s and TJ Maxx. I’ve never had to wear a suit, but again Corporette has great ideas on how to use those suiting separates as components of a generally polished/professional look.

      Also in the vein of TV show exemplars… Jane on Drop Dead Diva got to wear some fun feminine stuff in the later seasons. Again it’s pretty conservative (being the “legal field”) but her personal style really comes through.

    4. Turanga Leela*

      I love Corporette, and she has helped me figure out how to look professional but not boring. Also Bridgette Raes (whom I think I’ve recommended here before).

      This doesn’t affect the OP, but if any of you are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant, Corporette does a Corporette Moms newsletter that is amazing. Dressing professionally while you are pregnant or nursing is a challenge, and they have some really good advice.

      1. bkanon*

        Gah, yes. I have so much coveting when I watch that show. Especially that one long military-style coat with the flared skirt. Watson is a fabulous dresser.

    5. Kate M*

      I would also suggest Capitol Hill Style – I think her style might be more appropriate for starting out than Corporette. She has stopped posting regularly lately, but her archives are full of great stuff. Search for “building a wardrobe” on her site and that should be a great starting point.

    6. Turanga Leela*

      Just thought of a character: Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder. She shouldn’t be your model for professional ethics, but she is absolutely my model for sheath dresses and trench coats.

    7. Luz*

      My rule is that everything from your shoulders to just above your knees should be covered. The reason for this is that skirts ride up when you sit or you walk, and tank tops and low-cut blouses gap. I’ve seen way too many mid-thigh skirts become really inappropriate when the wearer sits down or doesn’t realize how high the slit in the back goes up. With a longer skirt (which are not too hard to find), you will still show some thigh when you sit or cross your legs anyway. Oh, and for any professional office, avoid closed-toed shoes unless it’s casual day!

      I’m also tall, and fairly young and female. I do find that I am treated differently when I conduct myself in a more mature fashion, and work-appropriate dress is part of that. It’s not ideal, but I understand the reasoning.

    8. Rachel*

      Yes on Corporette! I’ve worked in ultra-casual tech environments, and her blog has helped me up my style game. I would also recommend Capital Hill Style, which is written by a law student. That blog has helped me discover affordable but professional brands, like Halogen at Nordstroms.

    9. Rebecca in Dallas*

      There is a blog called Outfit Posts that I follow to get work outfit inspiration. The blogger works in IT project management (I think? Something like that) and is business casual, sometimes more business for presentations. She wears a lot of dresses and skirts and I think always looks professional and feminine.

      I personally need help in the casual/weekend outfit department. I basically have casual dresses, then either shorts or jeans with a plain t-shirt. It seems like capris are “out” now, I never see people wear them.

      1. Cassie*

        Ooh, nice find! I’ve been looking for work clothes inspirations, and everything I’ve seen (CapHill Style and Corporette) tend to be really expensive and/or more dressy than I like. Outfit Posts looks perfect.

    10. Emmie*

      I also like Ivanka Trump’s Facebook page posts where she takes ten clothing items and styles them into a month of different outfits. It gives you a great way to be office savvy and stylish. If supporting a Trump business is outside of your comfort, her pieces could be found in many other brands. But Corporette is excellent too.

  9. jhhj*

    Assuming that all of them reach about knee length (within an inch or so), that you cover the spaghetti straps on the second and that you have a normal shirt on the third, I would call any of them acceptable in the, uh, non-stuffy professions. So not in law, finance, accounting — but I see a lot of similar outfits in offices in my city. But there are places I know they’d all be too casual.

    So again: depends so much on where you live.

    1. Bookworm*

      Yup, I worked in an office that was a jean-friendly environment, and all those dresses would have been fine if they were at least knee-length.

      That said, there is a bit of a gap between how more entry level employees dress and how some higher-ups dress, in terms of overall formalness.

      And none of these would be acceptable interview attire.

      1. jhhj*

        I agree that none of them are appropriate for interviews.

        It just really depends a lot on your city.

        1. Laurel Gray*

          I would say it depends on your company and office. I live and work in a major city and see women in versions of all three examples the OP posted. At 8am in the morning I don’t really know if they are going to work or class. I see *most* women in some form of business professional attire and do admit they tend to be older (30+).

      2. SJ*

        I think the level of the employee is a good point. I’m entry-level and we have designated summer hours with more casual clothing (and I work at a fashion school), so there are lots of summery dresses on people at my level, and I easily get away with stuff on the shorter side. (I’m 5’10, so a lot of stuff is shorter on me anyway!)

        Even during the regular school year, I dress more casually, unless I know I’ll be in a meeting or event with people from off-campus or people I don’t work with frequently. But the higher-ups always dress more “formally.” I’m job-searching and I’m already strategizing how to amp up my professional wardrobe for when I finally get a new job and need to dress more professionally.

    2. Rusty Shackelford*

      Did you see that the third is a tulle skirt? I don’t know of any profession where I’d feel comfortable wearing a tulle skirt. Well, okay. Ballerina.

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        I’m in risk management/insurance, and I’d wear that skirt to work with no problem provided I wore a longer basic black shirt and black pointy toe heels.

      2. Emilia Bedelia*

        Personally I think I could get away with it. With a black blazer or cardigan and black shoes (I can’t decide if ballet flats would look too much like a costume or not…), I’d probably a lot of compliments :) I work in a young ish office that does skew more “pretty” though so this is probably not indicative of actually being appropriate.

      3. Maeve*

        I’m currently wearing very short shorts, a tank top and sandals (it’s hot out!) at my nonprofit job. A tulle skirt would be just fine

    3. BananaPants*

      I’m in engineering, working for a Fortune 100 company – spaghetti straps and sleeveless tops are forbidden by our dress policy, as are “too short” hemlines on skirts or dresses, capris or cropped pants, etc. Basically, if you have to ask the question of whether a piece of clothing is appropriate, it probably isn’t.

      1. BananaPants*

        No, but if a guy tried to wear brightly colored pants he’d get serious side-eye – an exception might be a pair of Nantucket Reds on a Friday in the summer.

  10. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    Oh, this is such a hard transition to make. When we’re children and teenagers there are only two categories of clothes: regular and fancy. Once you add (office, white collar) work to the mix, you have a learn a whole new category. That’s why you see so many interns wearing inappropriately dressy clothes (dresses that you’d wear to a cocktail party) — we know that we need to dress “up” for work, and the only framework we have is what we’d wear to parties/weddings/etc.

    In almost all fields, I’d say that the dresses the OP linked are too casual (for an interview, and for most workplaces as well). For an interview, I’d plan on wearing something more conservative (by which I mean longer skirt; a fabric and/or cut which holds its shape instead of something as floaty as the dresses you linked to; and a darker color or more plain print). Depending on your field, you may want to just wear a suit.

    I’ll link some examples from my own pinterest boards. My style isn’t as feminine as yours, and I’m older than you, but these are the kinds of fun/pretty items that I think you could get a lot of wear out of. (They are also old pins, so they are sold out. These are just examples.)

    It also looks like you’re plus sized (I am too). In that case, I’d recommend checking out Eloquii and Lands End for items that skirt the line between pretty and professional.

      1. OP*

        Thank you for the links, and the kind words. Those dresses are super pretty, and I’d love to have some like that. Thanks for the tips!

      1. Emmie*

        I bought the most beautiful dress from Eloquii during their 40% off sale. Have either of you tried clothing rental through companies like Geinnie Bee?

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Torrid also has a ton of very dressy professional stuff. I buy my blazers pretty exclusively from them!

      1. Meg Murry*

        Yes, my plus sized work wardrobe comes pretty much from Torrid, Lands End, Macys and Target. My unicorn work pants were Jones New York, which is dead, so I know I’m going to be spending some quality time in the Macy’s fitting rooms this fall trying on every single pair of pants that’s even sort of my size.

        1. irritable vowel*

          Suggestion on the unicorn work pants that are no longer available – set up an alert on eBay to be notified when someone is selling them! I have a million pairs of mine in all different colors and 2 different sizes from doing this. (Mine are J. Jill stretch corduroys.)

        2. Stan*

          The demise of Jones New York was a sad, sad day for me. I’ve found the Worthington line at JC Penney is a nice replacement. They don’t carry a ton in stores, but their return policy is good and they regularly offer free shipping, so I ordered a bunch of styles and sizes and returned what didn’t work.

        3. Kelly L.*

          I found my unicorn jeans. The store: FASHION BUG. I feel your pain. I scour thrift stores for them now.

      2. Rusty Shackelford*

        I love Torrid. 75% of their clothing is obviously for teenage club-goers, but there’s some nice stuff hidden in there.

        1. Hlyssande*

          I miss their actual goth stuff but I do also love the work appropriate jewels in the rough you find it you dig. :)

          1. Kelly L.*

            And thankfully, you can usually at least score some goth things around Halloween. They had some beautiful stuff last fall–I stocked up a few.

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          And that 75% figure is dropping! I think they’re aging up as their clientele does. I’ve gotten some very nice dressy work clothes from them — slacks, dresses, skirts, blazers, everything.

    2. KR*

      You described the transition very well. I have had a hard time adjusting to office wear and I think I am just getting it down -and I’ve worked in an office since I was 16.

    3. Meg Murry*

      Yes, women’s clothing is so confusing as to what is appropriate to wear in what circumstance. For instance, my husband has 1 dark gray suit that he can wear to weddings, funerals and job interviews, and be perfectly dressed for all of those occasions, or he can step down to button up shirt + khakis or slacks, with or without tie and be appropriate for more casual weddings, most churches or most business casual offices. Step that down one more step to a polo shirt or sweater and now he’s at the casual end of business casual.

      Whereas for women, completely different dresses/outfits would be appropriate for those same situations: job interview, guest at a wedding, church, business casual, etc. That’s part of the confusion for young women starting out, because “dressy” doesn’t necessarily mean “officewear”, whereas there is a lot more overlap for men.

      And even clothing stores and magazines are full of baloney as to what they label “officewear” or “wear to work” -while some of it is ok, a lot of it (dress shorts, I’m looking at you) it really not appropriate for a lot of offices.

      1. bridget*

        Yes! One thing that Banana and Ann Taylor keep recycling is the “shorts suit” – that is not a thing, OP!

      2. Emmy*

        And don’t even get started on “What time of day is the wedding? Indoors or out? Time of year? Special season? What kind of church? Which kind of service? What’s the weather like?”

    4. Murphy*

      I’m plus-sized too and find it so, so hard to find good work clothes that don’t make me look like a frump (blazers are my nemesis, so when I find a good one I buy multiples).

      Eshakti is another great place to look for clothes (especially if you like dresses). They come in sizes 0-36 and can be custom fit for a modest cost ($7.50 or $15 I think). They have great retro flair and are nicely made. I have a number of dresses from them.

      1. SJ*

        I’ve been searching for a good black blazer for months — I had no idea how difficult it would be to find one. I just want a one-button blazer that isn’t too “boyfriend” and isn’t too short (I’m 5’10 with a long torso, so a lot of tops end up too short on me). I feel like I’ve gone everywhere with no luck!

        1. Anon4ThisYo*

          SAME! I have broad shoulders and a large bust so finding a blazer that doesn’t channel 1980s linebacker is really tough. I know I should own a suit but plus sized anything is a gauntlet, especially business wear.

            1. SJ*

              I should have clarified – I’m looking for something in suit material. I actually do have a thick jersey-ish blazer, but I want something more “professional” :)

          1. FiveWheels*

            And I have large shoulders and zero bust… One part of me or the other is always drowning!

            1. SJ*

              I have broad shoulders AND a large bust, but I’m really slender for my height, so if I find something that fits in the waist it’s too tight in the shoulders/bust, but when I find something that fits up top it’s way too big everywhere else… sigh.

              1. Stan*

                As someone who is busty AF and but normally proportioned elsewhere, I buy what comfortably fits the biggest part and have the rest tailored. It’s pricey, yes, but I only need a couple of blazers, so it’s been totally worth it to pony up the money and skip the frustration of trying to find the perfect fit off the rack. The last blazer I bought was darling plum number that was on mega clearance. I spent 4x the initial purchase on the tailoring, but it looks amazing and fits like a dream.

      2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        I LOVE eshakti. But there is a lot of way too casual stuff there, so I didn’t want to point this particular LW there. :)

        1. Murphy*

          Ah, that’s fair. I suppose it’s a great resource when you know the line, but when you’re unclear you can end up wearing literal poodles on your dress and that may not be cool everywhere.

  11. BethRA*

    A colleague used to tell our interns that a good way to get an idea of what area/industry dress standards were was to look at photos from relevant professional networking events. Not sure if that holds 100% but it might not be a bad way to start.

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      That’s what I do to determine how dressy an event is. Do I need floor length or cocktail length. Or just a cocktail suit.

      1. Bend & Snap*

        I have to do this on the other end…I work in a dressy environment but am going to developer conferences so need to determine how casual to dress. It’s hard both ways!

        1. T3k*

          I just had a similar situation last month when I attended a UX convention. I ended up emailing one of the hosts and they said wear whatever. I ended up compromising by wearing a nice top and necklace with jeans and ankle boots. When I got there, people ranged from wearing full suits to tshirts and sneakers.

        2. Another Lawyer*

          This is always so hard for me. I work in a very conservative office in a conservative field but end up going to tech events after work in a full suit and everyone just stares at me.

  12. Employment Lawyer*

    1) The penalties for dressing too far down vastly exceed the penalties for dressing too far up.
    2) Hiring and managing are usually done by older folks.
    3) Older folks tend to be more conservative.

    Therefore: if you’re young (and especially if you’re applying for work) you should err strongly on the side of formality.

    That holds DOUBLE for the interview: I often assume that people will dress up for interviews more (as you should) and if someone showed up in a borderline-appropriate garment I would worry that they would wear something inappropriate later on.

    Also: Since you’re suggesting those dresses, it seems quite possible you’ve yet to make the “work adjustment”, which is the wake-up call for most folks: It’s when you realize that “what you want/like” and “what is required/expected” are fairly unrelated.

    In most of the work world, your personal feelings about dress are pretty much irrelevant; nobody really cares about how you feel when you look in the mirror. Employers care about whether you’re professional. Get used to saving your personal wishes for your private time. Or, if you’re one of those people who likes to prioritize your appearance, you’ll be limited in job-finding.

    I know that sounds blunt, but I’ve seen a lot of applicants who are still in the “what I want” mode, and it doesn’t help them much.

    1. Employment Lawyer*

      Forgot to say:

      Clothe styles are strongly linked to age. Rather than “fancier,” the better way to think of it is to dress like you’re 10-20 years older.

      When it comes to court (which is surprisingly similar) I tell my younger clients to visit banks, town halls, churches, and such, and to look at how people dress who are a generation older. You wouldn’t see any of those three dresses there–but more to the point, you probably wouldn’t see them on a “married 35 year old” either.

      This has added benefits for applications: the interviewers are often older, and people tend to appreciate similarities. Wearing clothes which your interviewer would choose can help.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Yep. I call my work clothes my “grownup costume.” And I’m 38. ;) They’re not really what I’d pick for regular wear, but they’re “adulty” and pretty conservative.

        One of my previous jobs was with art folks, and I went a lot wilder there–I could wear some wild fashion experiment and still be the frumpiest person in the place.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Same here. I dress appropriately at work, but in my casual life, I’m extremely casual. I live in a fairly upper class area, so a typical mom at a youth baseball game might have on gold sandals, khaki shorts, some sort of flowy silky tank top, earrings, bracelets, etc. I usually have on jean shorts and a $5 t-shirt from Target or running shorts and a free race T-shirt. Work me and not-work me look like two different people.

      2. Turanga Leela*

        Oh, you know what helps with this? Jewelry. OP, if you have pearl or diamond stud earrings (faux is fine), wear them; they make everybody look older and more serious. I love all my colorful dangly earrings, but I can’t wear them to work.

        I’ve heard people say the same things about pearl necklaces, but for some reason they never look good on me.

      3. FiveWheels*

        I know a lot of female lawyers who panic at “court dress”. They buy special outfits just for days in court and look ill at ease. In reality it’s fine to wear any dark suit, any reasonably sensible shirt or blouse, and conservative shoes.

        When you wear that to the office every day there’s no panic if you have to go to court, but those that wear “froufy” dresses, dressy jump suits, or heels they can’t walk in have problems!

        For any office job my rule is wear a plain dark suit and plain black shoes on the first day, then follow the herd.

      4. PoorDecisions101*

        As a 30 something middle manager who wears unprofessionally short outfits, hoodies and activewear to work, know that you don’t have to conform later in your career if you don’t want to if you have a good enough reputation. I’m even considering skateboarding as my form of commute. That being said, I know I’m being unprofessional and if I thought there was any sort of career progression where I am, I probably wouldn’t make the same choices.

    2. Bookworm*

      > 1) The penalties for dressing too far down vastly exceed the penalties for dressing too far up.

      I think this is key. Plus, even at a lot of casual workplaces where they wouldn’t send you home for your dress, people will make a note of it and it’s going to feed into the overall impression you’re giving. Generally speaking, if people are giving you slack in one area (eg: fashion) then they will be slow to give it elsewhere (like if you want a special schedule, or extra training or whatever) even if your clothes are completely irrelevant to that, it will feed into an overall impression. So it’s good to pick your battles.

      *I very much don’t mean to imply that if you dress professionally you can get away with other things in the office, more that people are generally pretty understanding here and there, and you want to be thoughtful of where you’re being given a little extra rope.

    3. BananaPants*

      “1) The penalties for dressing too far down vastly exceed the penalties for dressing too far up.”

      It took me a long time to realize that dress pants, appropriate heels, and a solid 3/4 sleeve Oxford shirt goes over much better with senior management than chinos, a polo shirt, and Sperry top-siders. The women around here typically dress a bit more formally than the men do. Don’t get me wrong, I still rock the chinos and polo a couple of days a week during the warm months, but not if I’m in a meeting with a half dozen directors and VPs.

      The clothing linked would be wildly inappropriate in my office – engineering, so generally pretty conservative to begin with – and read as young/casual rather than presenting a professional appearance. The fact that the dresses and skirts are so short would likely result in complaints to HR.

    4. Rebecca in Dallas*

      #1 YES!

      Someone told me once that if you’re not sure how formal an event is, err on the side of being overdressed. Then they’ll think you’re off to some fabulous party afterwards. I think this applies to a lot of situations, even in your career.

      When I was a hiring manager for a department store, I used to tell my new hires, “If you have to ask yourself if it’s ok to wear to work, it’s probably not ok to wear to work.”

  13. Act*

    If you can’t bend over and pick up the pen you just dropped without flashing everyone, your skirts are too short. And those are really short. I wouldn’t even wear them socially without leggings.

    I’m always glad our high school had a dress code; it taught us what was work-appropriate very young, so I wasn’t at a loss when I got into the business world. Also I never had to stress about picking out an outfit, but that’s neither here nor there.

    1. FiveWheels*

      Yes, here in the UK school uniforms are the norm. In my school male and female were identical except for trousers for boys and skirts for girls. My school was notoriously strict, eg four hour detentions for having your shirt untucked or your tie badly tied. A conservative law firm is super casual by comparison. You mean I’m allowed to wear coloured socks?!?

  14. ThursdaysGeek*

    And this reminds me of an interesting story told to us by a co-worker who just celebrated her 45th anniversary at our company. When she started, she was required to wear mini-skirts, and they could be no longer than the bottom of her fingers, minus three fingers widths. I’m trying to imagine that, and with my short arms, it would barely cover anything.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        I think the better question is what era was this. 45 years ago was 1971. She was 18, and I think she was partly hired as eye candy. Oh, and this is for a utility, and people working here for 30-40+ years seems to be fairly common. She said she was allowed pant suits after a few years. Just imagining it hurts my head.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Aw, now the utilities execs only get to see that on the booth babes at industry conferences.

          1. ThursdaysGeek*

            Many of our utility execs are now female. Probably due to people like my co-worker above, who showed their value in real and appropriate ways.

        2. Elle*

          My hair stylist tells a similar story of her mother, who was executive assistant at a utility in the 60s.

        3. Yas Queen*

          As a utility employee, this doesn’t surprise me. I haven’t been here that long, but between the stories I’ve heard from “back in the day” and the sexist treatment I occasionally experience, mostly from the old timers…yeah.

    1. Marcela*

      That is exactly what my aunt wore to work in the 70s. She was something like an stock administrator in a hospital. I have a tunic that length and I can’t imagine going outside without leggings!

    2. twenty points for the copier*

      Seriously! I have a long torso and short arms and a skirt that short could get me arrested for indecent exposure!

    3. Charlotte*

      That reminds me of one of my favorite stories from my mother’s early working days when she was a teacher and required to wear skirts only, no pants (in a relatively rainy/cool climate). She started wearing mini skirts, and then they let her wear pants.

    4. Chickaletta*

      Sounds like Mad Men! All the secretaries in minis, go-go boots, and heavy eyeliner.

    5. Pennalynn Lott*

      When I was hired as an office manager / exec asst back in the early 90’s (as a young 20-something), the [male] owners of the company “joked” about oh-my-how-times-have-changed, because back when they were working at IBM, they never would have had hired me. All of their assistants had to pass the “elbow test.” As in, you put your hands up over your ears; if your boobs didn’t reach out as far as your elbows, then you weren’t hired. Har-har-har.

  15. Spooky*

    Okay, I’m going to be in the minority here, but I have actually worked in an office where almost everyone wore clothes like the ones OP linked every day. Without going into detail, I think it was largely because 1) the vast majority of the staff was under age 25, and 2) the salaries were so low that no one could afford anything nicer than Forever 21. Think working for BuzzFeed, or in media/PR.

    If I were you, I’d build a base wardrobe of nicer, more professional pieces now. Then, once you’ve gotten a job, watch what everyone else wears, and buy a few trendier pieces to match. The good thing about fast fashion stores is that you can get some good standout pieces (like, say, a mint green blazer with that sharp, angular cut in the front that’s in now) very cheaply.

    Also worth pointing out – don’t assume that offices that are casual in the summer will stay that way for the rest of the year. We (along with a lot of other NY companies) have a summer dress code that’s much more casual.

  16. Lily in NYC*

    Those are not appropriate interview outfits! They might be ok for normal workdays in some offices (still kind of a stretch), but interview outfits should be more professional unless you are specifically told to dress casually. But hey, I’ve been there. I remember showing up for my very first interview with bare legs and I definitely received major side-eye. (this was back when pantyhose were way more common, and I was in conservative DC at the time).

    1. Your Weird Aunt*

      It’s interesting; my opinion about the formality of wearing dresses without pantyhose has changed greatly in the past few years. My previous company involved some work with Buckingham Palace, and some colleagues were invited to meet the Queen when the project finished. They were instructed to follow a strict dress code with regard to skirt length, shoes, etc., but to my surprise there was no stipulation on bare legs! After that, I felt justified when I attended my last job interview not wearing pantyhose.

        1. Janna*

          So did Princess Diana … a lot of British women go bare-legged all year round, which was a big surprise to this American when she moved to London in the 80s.

      1. Former Banker*

        I am so, so happy to hear this! If I don’t have to wear pantyhose to meet the queen, I’m not going to wear them ever. Down with pantyhose!

      2. Lily in NYC*

        Wow, so interesting! I’m glad that the tides have changed (I think I went on the interview I mentioned in 1993).

  17. Total Rando*

    Can i distract this thread for a moment to ask for recommendations for stores to shop for maternity professional clothing?

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      I think it fits. Honestly, it’s tough and you’ll probably have better luck online. Motherhood maternity has some dressy work appropriate things. I struggled during my pregnancy because I need to be at or close to “suit level” most days. I found a few things in the macy’s maternity section. I didn’t get why they wanted to put gigantic bows at chest level on everything though. I LOVED Milk Nursingwear after I had my son and had to pump at work. Much of it would work as maternity wear. I got some great dresses and top that would work under jackets.

    2. Lucky*

      My coworker is killing it with Target maternity dresses, but we’re a bit more to the casual side of business casual. My friends who fell pregnant while working in more formal settings (law) had luck with local consignment shops.

      1. TheSockMonkey*

        Ann Taylor has stuff online. Unfortunately, most maternity professional wear needs to be ordered online and isn’t available in stores. Google professional maternity clothing.

        Nordstrom has some things or Macy’s sometimes. I was lucky enough to work at home during my pregnancy, but it might be worth talking to your boss about your options, depending on your field. (I mean if you can’t meet an established dress code.) If you can get away with cardigans/jackets and stretchy shirts and skirts, they might be a good option.

    3. Bookworm*

      A friend of mine was wearing some great clothes from a place called HATCH. But she did say they were kind of pricey.

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        The mark up on maternity clothing which, at the max, might have the same amount of fabric as plus sized clothing is ridiculous.

        1. Total Rando*

          Not to mention that you only need to wear it for a short period of time and (depending on the size of your family) only for a few time periods in your life. It’s brutal!

    4. Sarahnova*

      Oooh, do you have Isabella Oliver in the US? They were my pick for good-quality, professional maternity wear. Otherwise, I like Seraphine.

    5. Laurel Gray*

      LOFT has maternity clothing that can work in a professional environment (think not conservative) at reasonable prices. Also H&M has a maternity line (as a curvy bottomed person I found their pants to be narrower than other brands). Both stores have cute clothing at prices that won’t make you shudder at the fact that you won’t wear them long after baby arrives. Seconding Target Maternity section. I had a black ponte pencil skirt I wore for work and play when I was pregnant that I wore twice a week and it held up. I passed it on to a friend who is now wearing it in her second pregnancy. Good luck!

      1. Kelly L.*

        I have a few Target maternity things I wear pretty regularly, and I’ve never had a child. :D It’s cute stuff, and kind of doubles as “long torso shirts” for me.

    6. BeautifulVoid*

      I loved the slacks I got from Gap’s maternity section, along with a couple sweaters (that I now wear with leggings when we’re just hanging out at home on the weekends). Destination Maternity was nice, but pricey; I only got a few blouses and sweaters there. Oh, and one basic black blazer that I loved.

    7. Kyrielle*

      I used Motherhood Maternity, Target, and…second-hand stores. Lots and lots of things end up at Goodwill or Value Village or the like because they’re only useful for a limited amount of time. They’ll be older styles, so if you want bleeding-edge style that can be a pain, but if you want classics they’ll do fine. (I had a very particular type of pants I wanted, because they were comfy, so I mostly used the thrift stores for shirts.)

    8. Turanga Leela*

      Isabella Oliver (through their website or through Nordstrom). Loft. The Gap.
      A few specific suggestions/points:
      1) I did not bother buying a maternity blazer. I had lost a lot of weight before I got pregnant, so I still had some blazers that were a size up; I wore them unbuttoned and it looked totally fine. Go to Macy’s and buy a fun blazer or two, and it will still be cheaper than buying a maternity blazer.
      2) I had a pair of dark wash Hudson maternity jeans that I lived in. I worked in a casual office, and I could get away with wearing a blazer or nice cardigan over jeans.
      3) I bought/inherited several maternity t-shirts (from Isabella Oliver and the Gap), one really gorgeous cardigan from Isabella Oliver, several dresses, one pair of jeans, and one pair of black pants. This turned out to be more than enough. I felt really pretty and professional for my second and third trimesters.
      4) I waited too long to buy a bigger bra. Once I did, everything looked better and felt more comfortable.
      5) Big necklaces are a professional pregnant woman’s best friend. They draw the eyes up and deemphasize the belly region.
      6) If you’re planning to nurse/pump at all, start looking for nursing clothes while you’re pregnant. For me, pumping at work meant that I wore wrap dresses or stretchy shirts every single day; I had had plenty of maternity clothes, but nursing clothes caught me by surprise. Boden wrap dresses were excellent, and they go on sale a lot.

      Corporette Moms has pretty good ideas and outfit suggestions.

      1. Chameleon*

        Re #6, yes! Don’t get caught without a good supply of nursing shirts. My kid is 18 months and I just started wearing high necklines again.

        I highly recommend cowl necks. The drapy fabric conceals a low neckline, but still allows you to whip out a boob without raising your shirt up. I can nurse in a cowl neck without revealing anything.

    9. Margaret*

      Macy’s maternity section (online – in store has a decent selection overall but less in the more dressy/formal area) has been decent for me and a lot cheaper than I expected (much cheaper than I usually think of Macy’s overall). I found a knit pencil skirt there, and some sweaters.

      I’ve yet to find a good pair of maternity slacks, though. I’m extremely glad that my workplace moved to allow jeans last year, as maternity jeans are pretty easy! I’m 22 weeks, and mostly been wearing tank tops (been able to find some nicer blousey type tanks, which I’ll be able to wear on their own casually for the summer, and some knits) and just putting non-maternity cardigans over them (or a knit blazer – I think Target still carries this and at least the black ones looks nice and not like the sweatshirt material that it kind of is). For an environment that’s sort of in between business casual and business professional (I definitely do the pencil skirt or blazer if I’ll be seeing clients), it’s worked well enough.

    10. Lontra Canadensis*

      I had three jumper-type dresses (solid color, denim or twill IIRC) that I wore to work with various tops. Since they were jumpers, I could get away with shirts that wouldn’t have been quite long enough with pants or a skirt. Nobody gave me grief about having such a small maternity wardrobe, but I was sick of those three dresses by the end!

    11. Mrs. Psmith*

      If you don’t need to wear pants/blazers every day and can get away with dresses and skirts I highly recommend going that route instead. It’s much easier to find drapey, non-maternity dresses (think spandex/poly/cotton blends) that will fit your bump/hips/boobs if you size up appropriately. I’m currently 8.5 months pregnant and have about 5 of my regular dresses that still fit me while pregnant (they just fit different now!) because they are not structured waists/skirts so they fit over this big old baby.
      Otherwise the rest of my work clothes are solid colored Target or Old Navy maternity skirts paired with Target and Motherhood Maternity tops. I’ve also been able to do regular fit XL or XXL Walmart/Target tank tops covered with a nice cardigan.
      On a side note, I also discovered yesterday that in a pinch, the stretchy belly bands can double as pregnancy spanx to cover panty lines (and you don’t feel like you’re wearing a girdle or anything). Wore it over my hips and butt under a maternity dress that I didn’t realize was so clingy in the back and it worked great.

    12. NK*

      Ugh, maternity clothes. 34 weeks here. I was very fortunate to get a stockpile of maternity clothes from my sister-in-law; I highly recommend asking around because that has been a lifesaver. The stuff I got from her and bought on my own has been largely from Gap, Old Navy, and Loft. Old Navy is the only one of the three where you can still buy maternity in store, which is really frustrating. I also have cute dresses from Macy’s and Motherhood. Oh, and subscribe to Corporette Moms – they have a daily email with some great finds. Beyond that, I have a few general tips:

      1) Belly bands are a lifesaver. Wear them over your unzipped non-maternity pants. I was able to get all the way through my second trimester before I had to stop wearing my regular pants because the undone zipper started digging into me. And I feel like I carry on the bigger side relative to other pregnant women I’ve seen. For reference I’m tracking to gain ~40-45 pounds.

      2) Buy basic maternity blouses/tops that can be worn under non-maternity cardigans and blazers. Between that and the non-maternity pants, you can extend your existing wardrobe a lot!

      3) Find local mom groups where you can buy used maternity clothes!

      4) Toward the end, accept the fact that you will be repeating outfits a lot and possibly wearing slightly more casual clothes than you normally would to work. Unless you’re in a very formal workplace or start getting really sloppy about your wardrobe, no one will care.

      1. Mrs. Psmith*

        34 weeks too! And that last statement is so true. I’m becoming more and more casual as the weeks drag on. And I have found that while I’ve been able to maintain the mostly business casual clothes (repeated a lot), the shoes are quickly becoming more casual every day. I’m down to about three pairs of sandals that look nice enough for work. This is one advantage of being pregnant in the summer, you can get away with sandals and flip flops instead of having to buy a bunch of new closed-toe shoes or boots when your feet get bigger.

      2. Anne*

        Definitely +1 to that last statement. A couple of summers ago I remember one of the pregnant ladies wearing flip flops when she was 9 months pregnant (I’m in Texas, so it’s pretty toasty in July) and no one batted an eye. I’m 25 weeks pregnant now and this summer I’ll probably be dressing more casually considering a) this is probably my last child and I don’t want to spend money on maternity clothes, and b) I’m due in September so I have to get through 100+ degree days without melting.

    13. BananaPants*

      Motherhood Maternity – you may need to order online; I found the selection of professional clothing in-store to be pretty poor. I found some good dressy maternity tops and a few skirts at JC Penney, of all places.

      My third trimesters were pretty much the only times I’ve worn skirts and dresses to work, I found it gave me a more polished look than chinos with a maternity top. Also, my babies were both summer birthdays and I was desperately hot (especially with the August due date), and we’re not allowed to wear capris – so skirts kept me cooler than pants. The bigger problem was appropriate shoes – my feet are already a size 11 and pregnancy didn’t help matters.

    14. Kate*

      I worked in a business (leaning business casual) office. My formula: Drapey non-maternity top + maternity pants + regular unbuttoned cardigan. Or a dress.

      Old Navy tends to have dark colored, modestly cut maternity dresses. Some of my maternity dresses that were work appropriate second trimester suddenly weren’t third trimester because of cleavage. I bought Target tank tops a size up to put underneath, but it’s not as polished looking. The Old Navy ones had higher necklines.

      I had two pairs of pants from A Pea in the Pod that were lifesavers. They were more expensive than I wanted to spend for short term wear, but I wore both at least weekly for four months. Good quality, so they held up.

      I bought some inexpensive, drapey tops a size up from TJ Maxx.

    15. Rebecca in Dallas*

      Two of my pregnant friends have recommended Le Tote. It’s like a cross between Stitch Fix and Rent the Runway, you order a “tote” which has several clothing items and after you wear them you send them back and get another one. They said it’s been great for maternity clothes only because their sizes have changed so much so quickly. Not sure on the pricing, though. One is a lawyer and the other is in finance, so they both have to look professional and conservative.

      1. Someone Else*

        I love Le Tote!!!! They have been wonderful, safely the maternity stuff came out right after I delivered last year. It’s $50 a month for non-maternity and $60, I think, for Maternity.

    16. sugarplum*

      If you don’t mind secondhand: ThredUp. Maternity clothes, especially professional wear, gets worn for such a short time, the nicer pieces are rarely worn out, and you can get a tremendous bargain on items that someone wore for only a few weeks or months. I shop there all the time, but I wish it had been around when I was in the market for maternity wear.

    17. JR*

      Last time, I had two dresses from Japanese Weekend that were fantastic – a more casual one that worked with a cardigan and a dressier one that was fine as is. Both were also nursing dresses. The company has since (sadly!) gone out of business, but if you go to their website, it will tell you where they sent their remaining inventory – when I checked out that store, they had a lot of great stuff on their website, in addition to the Japanese Weekend stuff. This time, I work part-time from home, so I’m wearing a lot of more casual stuff, but I got a few great items from Nordstrom. Specifically, I used Trunk Club, which uses a Stitch Fox model but is owned by Nordstrom and draws from Nordstrom’s complete inventory (and sends you way more items per shipment than Trunk Club). If you’re specific with the stylist about what you want, it can be really terrific.

    18. E*

      Check consignment shops and thrift stores. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to find a couple of pairs of maternity pants that were dressy enough for work. I was also able to figure out what brand/style I liked. Motherhood pants were my favorite. Also check your local craigslist, some moms post their gently used maternity clothes and I’ve seen some very good deals.

    19. EG2*

      Check out a blog called Corporette Moms. She has some great suggestions with links for items to shop for.

  18. Allison*

    As a lover of vintage clothing, I struggled with this in my early years as well, and while what you wear does heavily depend on your industry, here’s what I recommend:

    – skirts should be knee length or hit a few inches above the knee; mid-thigh is too short even if you’re wearing tights or leggings.

    – also avoid sleeveless anything, unless you plan on wearing a blazer or cardigan over it basically the whole time

    – you can’t throw a blazer over a party dress and call it professional – tried this, in hindsight it was a terrible idea.

    – flared skirts are okay, especially A-line skirts, but nothing too “foofy” as you call it; if there’s tulle or crinoline involved, it’s too foofy. Pencil skirts are your friends.

    – if you’ve seen Mad Men, think Joan and Peggy, not Betty.

    – some feminine elements, like florals and pink, can work if the rest of your outfit is relatively professional; other elements like lace and bows should be avoided. I also stopped wearing pearls to work years ago.

    – I like to keep my workwear separate from my “play” wear. There’s a tiny amount of overlap, but generally I feel like if an item of clothing (like a skirt or dress, not something basic like a cardigan) is something I’d wear to a swing dance, or out to dinner or brunch, it may not be work appropriate.

    Once you’ve established yourself as a competent professional, you can start to push the boundaries a little, but for now, play it safe and focus on presenting yourself as intelligent and competent.

    1. Gwen*

      I was basically going to come leave exactly this comment, so thanks for typing it out for me first ;)

      I’m lucky enough to work in a creative role in an office that’s pretty open regarding fashion choices once you hit a level of formality, so I do have the freedom to go full Betty Draper a lot of the time lol (plus, y’know, purple hair), but when I was starting out and establishing myself, I definitely toned it down until I knew that my coworkers would compliment me on wearing a tiki print floofy skirt ;) I highly recommend cardigans or blazers over simple blouses (depending on the formality level of your office, you might be able to get away with nice scoop neck/V-necks from Target) paired with pencil or A-line skirts. Pair florals or other super-femme stuff with neutrals (IE a floral blouse with a plain black skirt). I definitely usually felt a little more comfortable with going bold with jewelery (necklaces or earrings) with a more simple/traditional dress.

      Also, this might be a little bit TMI, but times when I feel like I need to present more “standard,” wearing some fun underthings helps me feel like I’m still me. No one can see it, but I know :)

    2. Marcela*

      I find incredibly sad this idea that pencil skirts are our friends. The are definitely not friends for me, because of my tummy

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        And they’re not my friends because of my stick figure legs that are smaller than my top half (big chest and ribcage). Nope – I wear fit and flare dresses or full skirts because they even things out and don’t draw attention to my bottom half the way pencil skirts do.

    3. JR*

      Personally, I’d caveat to say that I think sleeveless without a cardigan is fine, as long as it’s actually sleeveless (like, the width of something with sleeves, just with the sleeves gone) rather than a tank top (narrows at the shoulders) – like a shell top, or many shift dresses. That said, you’ll probably want to make sure it still works with a cardigan, given high office A/C! Also, this comes from my experience in business casual workplaces – on the dressier end of business casual, but not business formal (though I do think a sleeveless shift dress is almost never inappropriate – excluding perhaps court or similar).

  19. Laurel Gray*

    No to all three examples being professional.

    I wouldn’t recommend those as interview/first impression outfits no matter how you accessorized them. Also, to wear them with flats totally reads “casual weekend brunch with friends”. The dresses may fly in some more casual workplaces and maybe casual Friday in business offices but that skirt should be for “play” and nothing else.

    OP, I take it dresses and skirts are your thing. You should invest in minimum 2 of each (in solid interview friendly colors like navy, black or charcoal gray) that hit the knee or maybe an inch or two above the knee. A short skirt or dress with hosiery is still short and most likely inappropriate.

    You posted links to plus sized clothing, are you plus sized? If so there are people here who previously have offered pretty good info to past OPs about stores and websites to try for work clothes (chime in guys!). I personally would recommend Ann Taylor (40% off suiting sale going on now!) and they have some extended sizing and curvy fits. Also Nordstrom has some in-house brands with extended sizing with suit separates and they do tailoring.

    1. Bookworm*

      That’s funny, I would have gone for the skirt but not the dresses due to overall length.

      But either way, I agree that these are not what I would call professional for most offices.

    2. Petronella*

      Flat shoes are unprofessional now? I agree about party dresses, miniskirts, bare shoulders, and the colour pink, but I will push back against any “rule” that says women must wear heels to be taken seriously at work.

      1. Allison*

        I agree! I do think a pair of basic, black heels is a good thing to have, but I haven’t worn heels to work in years! Even if I’m sitting down all day, it’s unnecessarily uncomfortable to have my feet in that position.

      2. esra*

        Yea, disagree here as well. There are definitely party or casual flats you want to avoid (complicated lacing, super casual materials like canvas), but a nice pair of neutral (p)leather flats? Totally professional.

      3. TotesMaGoats*

        I think the issue is more wearing the flats with the super short skirt/dress as a way to de-emphasize the short-ness. It doesn’t work. Higher heels make it worse but flats don’t make a short skirt better.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          That was exactly how I read it, too. I don’t think shoe choice would make the shortness of the skirt okay in a lot of interviewing circumstances.

      4. Oryx*

        I don’t think Laurel is saying flats in general, just flats with those dresses read more casual than if the OP were to wear them with heels.

        But I could be wrong, in which case, I’d agree that there’s nothing wrong with flats.

      5. Laurel Gray*

        Petronella, I never said that. I wear professional flats to work 75% of the time. But a short casual dress either solid or with a print and flats is a nice look – for the weekend, not the office. I made my point using flats because I’ve seen women attempt to make an outfit more professional by choosing flats over pumps but the dress or skirt was still inappropriate for the setting.

      6. Megs*

        I read the issue more that flats don’t make an outfit MORE professional and might exacerbate an unprofessional outfit. I think flats look totally fine with an otherwise professional outfit, but they’re not going to “class up” a borderline outfit.

        Ug, just saying “class up” makes me feel gross, but I can’t think of how else to put it.

        1. Megs*

          OMG so many opinions about flats! So can any of you flat-lovers recommend a pair that won’t kill my feet or fall apart after a month?

          1. AnotherAlison*

            I have a pair of Anne Klein ones that are black, leather with holes (for summer, y’know), and a buckle. They’re very comfortable.

            My trick to finding flats that are good are to only try on and buy the leather ones. That limits the selection severely, but they’re comfortable, can actually “break in”, and you don’t sweat as much as with cheap pleather ones.

              1. AnotherAlison*

                (I noticed the link is for fabric ones, but I just checked my foot, and mine are actually leather. I swear.)

          2. Former Banker*

            Kohl’s and Dr. Scholl’s. They have surprisingly cute and comfortable flats.

            1. Stan*

              Seconded. I’ve been buying the same pair of cute leather Dr. Scholl’s for years. They’re somewhere between a loafer and a ballet flat, but provide adequate arch support for being on my feet all day. They also last forever considering that I wear them almost every day in all kinds of weather.

          3. the cake is a pie*

            I have five pairs of Lucky’s Emmie flats. They are supremely comfortable, look cute, don’t rub at all, and have fairly good support (I mean, they’re still ballet flats so they’re not Birkenstock level).


            They have different colors/patterns fairly regularly and often go on sale. They also last a long time especially if you’re not commuting in them.

          4. Velociraptor Attack*

            I had a pair of Cole Hahn ballet flats (the Manhattan) that I pretty much lived in for 3 years before they started to fall apart. They’re a round toe so they’re more casual than a pointed toe but they were super comfortable. I spent a ton of them but they were worth it.

            For a pointed toe, I had a pair of Dolce Vita flats that held up for a good two years when I was in college, I was even able to wear them when I was serving, they were fantastic.

          5. JR*

            I tend to like Coach flats (which you can often find at DSW of the Coach outlet), and I used to have a few pairs I loved from SE Boutique. I often find that leather flats cut my feet at first, so I fortify the at-risk spot with bandaids the first several times I wear them, and then they’re usually fine and don’t hurt/cut. I recently got a pair of BOC flats as a gift – I probably wouldn’t have picked them off a shelf because they look a little utilitarian (like, designed specifically to be more comfortable/ergonomic), but they’re actually super cute on and really comfortable and easy to walk in, even for decent distances. All that said, I’d say you kind of have to expect flats to fall apart. I tend to put them through much more of a beating than heels, so if I’m wearing a given pair three or four long days a week, especially if I’m usually wearing them barefoot, I find they rarely last longer than a year or so.

          6. Elizabeth*


            The SAS line has been known for comfortable shoes for many years, but they’ve recently had an infusion of new talent in their women’s design department. The granddaughter of one of the original founders took over the line and essentially fired her father, saying “women want cute shoes that will feel good on their feet and last through daily wearing.” The Coco is the first of her efforts. (I’ve gotten acquainted with the guys at my local shoe store, and they are loving watching the changes at SAS>0

          7. Rivakonneva*

            I buy mine at Clark’s. They’re a bit pricey, but I really like their Unstructured line. Much more comfy than shoes with a solid wood heel/sole. I think the website is http://www.clarksusa.com.

      7. Clever Name*

        I think the commenter was saying that pairing a too-short dress with flats doesn’t make the dress professional. Not that flats in themselves are unprofessional.

        -Signed wearing faux snakeskin flat loafers

  20. voluptuousfire*

    OP, try plus size JC Penney. The prices are reasonable (since you linked to a lot of stuff on Forever 21’s site, I’m assuming you’re on a budget) and with coupons, you can save even more.

    The Worthington line of clothing for business is very cute (for the most part) and with coupons, very competitively priced. I’ve had quite a bit of luck with that line. The blazers are great and come in fantastic bright colors. I have a cobalt blue one I wear over a black shift dress and it looks really professional and put together. I think they even have a fuschia colored one, which is super cute and feminine.

    1. AdminNeedsAName*

      Yes! This is a great suggestion. When I was starting out a few years ago I got a lot of basic pieces at JCP and they were cheap enough that I could buy a few “fun” pieces to mix and match in. It really worked out well. They have a good mix of professional but also trendy, and their stuff doesn’t feel as “old” to me.

    2. Renee*

      I posted above too, but I wore lots of Worthington as a litigation attorney. Every season there will be a new rack of skirts and pants in a multitude of style and fits with jackets in coordinating fabrics. I mixed in better pieces with shells and dresses, but my super fashion conscious boss was regularly surprised by what I picked up at JCP. I did have much better luck with the fall/winter collections because I’m not a bright color person, but the pieces were all durable, lined and pretty classic (enough for Court even).

    3. ali*

      Yes, I’ve lived in Worthington basically my entire 20 year professional career so far.
      (or jeans and sweaters in some places just because I could.)

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      I got my first interview suit from JCP’s Worthington line nearly 20 years ago. It fit well, was fully-lined, and I could afford to buy it. It is probably one of the nicer quality suits I had. (Sadly, I have long outgrown it and just donated it to a local Dress for Success-type organization two weeks ago.) I liked having more conservatively-colored suits (navy, black, and gray — grays are my favorite) and then pairing them with more trendily-colored tops.

    5. Rebecca in Dallas*

      I have lots of Worthington basic pants and they have held up really well. All of the ones that I wear are at least 6 years old.

  21. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    This is honestly one of the crappiest work-related things to talk about if you’re female, because it is incredibly gendered, and ties in all sorts of cultural baggage about women’s appearance and the no-win scenarios that baggage carries with it.

    But, on a purely practical level — play it safe until you know what the culture at your office is. Knee-length skirts, straight if you can swing it and A-line or skater if not, sleeves down to the middle of your upper arm at least, cleavage minimal to nonexistent. Slacks are always the safest bet but they can be a real drag, especially in the summer. Pantyhose are extremely controversial (iirc one of the few discussions where Alison had to shut down the entire comment section) but also do see a lot of natural variety based on climate, season, industry, etc. Get the temperature (literal and figurative) of your office before you start picking some of the more borderline looks.

    And bear in mind that a lot of it relates to overall formality, not just how much skin acreage you’re showing. This looks a lot dressier and more appropriate than this, and paired with a blazer or cardigan would be totally appropriate for most offices.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      Agree with the play it safe advice. I would add that one of the best things you can do is build a wardrobe with pieces you can wear outside of work too. 75% of my work dresses can be worn to a fancy shindig like a wedding or banquet. Many of my work tops work well with jeans for weekends and professional flats tend to make a casual outfit flawlessly more dressy/cute while still being comfortable. I wouldn’t want the OP (or anyone else for that matter) to run out and buy a bunch of suits and tops that only get love M-F. There are plenty of pieces that go from work to weekend.

    2. Loose Seal*

      Oh my, The Great Pantyhose Debate of ‘Aught-Whatever. Trouser socks, OP, are a good way to avoid pantyhose with pants. And they last longer too.

      A lot of office fashion depends on where you live, too. Women dress a lot differently for work in D.C. than they do in Miami.

    3. Mazzy*

      Well, women have more choices. Men basically have pants and a dress shirt. That’s why it is a discussion.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Beyond that, there is a cultural expectation that women are supposed to be “decorative.” Otherwise the “play it safe” advice would be ‘wear slacks and polo shirts.’ But being “frumpy” or “dowdy” can be as bad as cleavage or miniskirts, depending on the audience.

  22. Gaia*

    OP, I wouldn’t wear any of those to my office and we really don’t have a dress code. The skirts in 1 and 2 are just too short and the skirt in 3 is just too “going out.”

    I really like Worthington for affordable basic skirts/slacks and jackets and I tend to make my top my pretty or feminine piece.

    And yes, I hate it that you can’t be “too” feminine at work. But those dresses aren’t wrong because they are feminine, they are wrong because they are too casual and young.

  23. Wonder Woman*

    In my office you can wear a too-short dress like a tunic with leggings and flats and be appropriate. A nice cardigan and a scarf will also help. However, things are on the casual end of business casual among most of the people I work with.

  24. Mona Lisa*

    In my class that I took last semester, I actually had to put a stop to the GA telling students that dresses like the ones that were linked were acceptable work and interview attire. We were discussing professional dress, and he pointed out a student near the front as being “interview ready.” She was wearing a teal spaghetti-strapped sundress that was maybe mid-thigh length with flat sandals. I must have made a face because he asked whether I disagreed, and I explained that, based on my experience, the dress, while pretty, would read way too young and casual for almost any business environment. There might be some offices where it could work, but you don’t to limit your options by dressing down too much at an interview!

  25. George*

    I know it’s a law firm, but I love the outfits on the show Suits. Not everyone can afford the designer labels Jessica, Donna, Rachel and Caterina wear, but you could find similar things elsewhere for cheap. I also like that each woman has a different work uniform – for Jessica it’s a fitted dress with an interesting neckline, for Donna something a little sexy (she’s probably toes the line the most out of the four), Rachel likes high-waisted pencil skirts with pretty blouses or shirts, and Caterina is also a power dress fan.

    As I said, I know it’s really corporate, but if you do a quick Google you’ll see how each one makes each outfit their own whilst keeping it pro.

    1. Petronella*

      Really? I love SUITS too but do not consider the female characters’ work costumes to be at all realistic or a model for anyone to follow in real life. Those dresses show a LOT of skin.

      1. Mike C.*

        I’ve never seen Suits, but that comment reminds me of the outfits Kalinda Sharma wears in “The Good Wife”.

  26. plain_jane*

    I believe a well-fitting blazer works wonders on top of a less formal outfit. However, that is more for once you have the job and can see what others are wearing.

    Unless you’re going for a job in a creative industry (again, region specific comment), I think you want your first interview outfit for an office job to be fairly genericly office – structured skirt or pants, top, jacket.

    I’ve come to the sad conclusion that I can’t wear fit & flare dresses to the office, no matter that they tend to fit better than any other kind – they read too “cute”. So I’d go against the foofy skirt despite it being an ok length – though this may just be my hangup.

    1. anonymouse*

      I disagree about fit and flare dresses. A lot of them are professional, the cut is just different from a traditional sheath dress. The key is to not buy ones that are super floofy, but just have a subtle cut difference. Fit and flare show off the hips and waist versus sheath dresses and pencil skirts which show off the rear.

      I think there’s an idea that all fit and flare dresses are big and floofy, but a lot of them resemble more of an a-line cut than anything else.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        It also depends on the body type it goes on. Fit & flare is fantastic for me, but I have some pretty extreme curves so the dresses don’t read as “floofy” but just “properly fitting.”

        1. Spotlight*

          Hear hear. I can’t wear sheath dresses because they emphasize every lump and bump. Put me in a fit and flare or an A-line skirt and it’s all good.

        2. ali*

          agreed. I actually wear a lot of the LulaRoe dresses to work, including the Nicole, which is definitely fit & flare. I always wear a sweater with them, but that’s more because I’m cold than anything else. If you like fun, unique patters in dresses/skirts that can still be professional, check them out. I’m sure you have a million Facebook friends that sell them, like I do.

          (I know a lot of people who wear the leggings to work. I’m not down with that and am firmly of the “leggings are not pants” belief, but the dresses, skirts, and cardigans can definitely work.)

        3. plain_jane*

          I’m saying that on me, they look cute. I wish they didn’t. I’ve tried different fabrics, patterns, and never have crinoline. It is a cut that doesn’t work on me for work. Straighter cuts don’t look good on everyone (usually they don’t look good on me), but they rarely are too cute for work.

          I suspect that it is because my hips are so far out of proportion, it is as if I had crinoline. But they fit well.

      2. Kelly L.*

        Yep, a lot of times when you see them looking extremely floofy, the person is wearing a crinoline. But you can totally wear them sans crinoline and it’s a much more subtle look.

      3. Manders*

        Nth-ing this, I wear fit and flares a lot because my body type just does not work with sheath dresses and pencil skirts (very, very apple-shaped, to the point that even “tummy slimming” products leave me looking lumpy up front). In a neutral color without too much floof in the skirt, they can look professional, especially when they’re paired with a blazer.

        I’d stick with an actual suit for the interview, though.

        1. anonymouse*

          But someone doesn’t have to stick with an actual pencil skirts for an interview. I’ve seen some nice a-line skirt suits and if you’re in less formal field, a conservative fit and flare or a-line dress with a suit jacket or blazer looks very professional.

          1. Manders*

            Those do look nice! I had a hard time finding anything but pencil skirts and wide-legged pants when I was last looking for an interview suit, but that was about 6 years ago, so styles have probably changed (and I was in an area that’s always a few years late on trends too). I probably will try to find something an an A-line skirt the next time I’m in the market for a skirt suit.

            1. anonymouse*

              Yes, thankfully styles have started to change. I still find a lot of pencil skirts and sheath dresses, and usually the a-line or flare suiting dresses and skirts are pricier, but it was so worth it when I found a nice dress from Theory and a a-line suit skirt from Ralph Lauren. I bought both of them super cheap off ebay and it was one less thing to worry about during interviews because I had clothes I felt confident and comfortable in!

  27. F.*

    Although it takes persistence, I have found great classic styles and labels (Ann Taylor, Lands End, ) at thrift stores for a fraction of their original price. Yes, you have to wade through all sorts of poorly-made, trendy, inappropriate things, but a great skirt, pair of slacks, sweater or jacket will last for years and can be dressed up, down or updated to the latest trends with accessories and tops. Now if I could just get my body to stay the same shape for years!

    1. Another Lawyer*

      My entire wardrobe is basically from Goodwill with a couple of Ann Taylor suits bought during a 60% off clearance sale. Gotta be vigilant, go often, and look through everything, but I have a beautiful wardrobe of J.Crew, Ann Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Tahari, BCBG, etc etc etc

      1. Megs*

        Same here, only my thrift store of choice is Savers (and I’m also an attorney). The key is to find somewhere that’s getting the kind of donations you want and be patient. It helps if you love thrifting, of course, and it may ruin you for “normal” clothing prices.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      If you don’t have access/time to thrift, there are also sites like ThredUp and eBay. I find they work better when you know the size/style that fits you, but I’ve gotten some nice things from them. I also really miss Twice and got a ton of fantastic clothing from them for practically nothing (including my beloved purple leather Coach handbag).

    3. J.B.*

      Vintage stores are worth checking out (higher end resale) because you can get good quality for the same price as mall stores. Stick with the basic principles Alison gives of one pop.

  28. MK*

    Corporette and Capitol Hill Style are two blogs that focus on women’s work clothing – I’m sure there are others, but these two helped me figure it all out when I was new to the office world. Of course, they often link to items that are way way out of the price range of a new grad – but you can use the images as inspiration and piece together stuff from thrift stores or the cheaper mall stores (in fact, most of my very respectable and extensive work wardrobe is STILL thrift store finds – and I’ve been out of school for 8 years).

    1. RG2*

      Seconded! I cannot recommend Capitol Hill Style enough. It was a godsend in my first post-college job in DC. If you dig into her archives, you’ll find guides from 2010-2012 written for interns on the Hill and advice for tighter budgets. While some of it’s likely more formal than you need (and her style sense has gotten more formal as her career progressed), the general guidelines should give you a sense of what to expect.

      Also, when I was trying to find inexpensive work-appropriate shirts, I found Express had some great (machine washable!) basics. Try their Portofino shirts in darker colors (the lighter ones tend to be too sheer).

      1. Kate M*

        Yes – I posted this above, but just search “building a wardrobe” on her site and you’ll come up with some great posts for people starting out.

    2. Velociraptor Attack*

      I love Capitol Hill Style and I tend to recommend it to my interns who have questions about this kind of thing. I also appreciate that she throws out examples of a similar look for most outfits in petite and plus size.

  29. AndersonDarling*

    Oh, and if the OP is pinching pennies, the worst thing you can do is buy clothes that are “in style” this season. Everything in style will be out of style next year and you will need to buy a whole new wardrobe. I think the Bohemian and Peasant thing is big now (I could be a year behind!), so if you spend all your $$ on those dresses and skirts, then you’ll have to do it again next year. Stick to the basic suiting pieces and if you really want the “in” look, just buy a few inexpensive tops to jazz up the outfit.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      So true. I spend my $$ on the suiting pieces (still, not paying full price) and I only buy tops, belts, scarves and jewelry when they are on sale or clearance. Over the years I have held onto the suiting pieces but tend to part ways with a trendy-ish top or costume jewelry.

    2. Jodi*

      But if you’re pinching pennies, you might be looking for pieces that can double task and work for both the office and real life. It’s expensive to build up a work wardrobe AND a separate personal wardrobe.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yes! When you are starting out look for classic pieces like dress pants, suits, blazers, and cardigans in neutral colors. You can always swap out tops in more “in” colors and with accessories that are in fashion at the time.

      I also have some pieces that work both for business and for casual wear — I can get a basic t-shirt that goes under a suit jacket with a nicer necklace that also works perfectly well with jeans and a more casual cardigan. I find, though that I spend more time at work than I do going casual these days, so I’d rather spend the money on work clothes. I only need a couple pairs of jeans/leggings and maybe 10 tops to get me through casual time.

  30. ARKD*

    I’d also suggest Express for work clothes – -they have a whole line of soft and comfortable tops with fun patterns and nice colors that you can wear with a nice pair of pants or a skirt (which they also have available). They also have nice blazers and suits. Definitely check them out during a sale, too.

  31. B*

    I would also say a big no to these for being an interview outfit and a most likely no for wearing to work in general. I personally think it’s better to stay on the conservative side until you see what the office is like. When you are trying to decide if a skirt or dress will work try bending down to pick up a pencil or piece of paper. If you can do it without anything showing, without any fear of anything showing, and without having to do a unique maneuver then you are probably good to go. Same goes with the cut of a shirt.

    Besides some of the other stores mentioned I would also suggest Old Navy if you are looking for some plain straight pants, definitely check Marshall’s, and TJ Maxx as well. Pencil skirts (around the knee) are always a good option to pair with tops, having a black and beige/white cardigan are always good for summer dresses.

  32. LAI*

    Similar to Alison’s rule about one girly element, I would say that you can wear a dress that is just above the knee, or has a scoop neckline or bare shoulders but not all three.

    I used to work with someone who would sometimes dress like she was going to the club. She once wore a strapless minidress to work! We are a casual office but that was extreme. She wasn’t super young either, like mid-thirties.

    1. K.*

      Me too. Tube tops, one-shoulder dresses, sequins, etc. I was in college (it was a summer job) and I was like, what is she wearing? Her clothes were far more cocktail than professional, and I just thought she looked silly. No one dressed like she did, but I don’t think anyone reprimanded her either.

  33. anonymouse*

    I definitely would not wear those to an interview. You can get away with them at a casual office, but I’d have reservations about you if you showed up wearing them at an interview.

    I wear a lot of dresses to work because that’s what makes me feel confident and professional. My trick is, when buying them, to do the bend over and sit down test. If the dress doesn’t cover my rear when I bend over or rides up significantly when I’m sitting down, I won’t wear it to work. Also, if you’re wearing something you feel the need to keep tugging on – whether to keep a shirt higher or a dress/skirt lower, then it’s too short or revealing and not making you comfortable.

    I wear dresses because it’s the most feminine type of clothing I like. I hate jewelry, so I paid my dresses with sharp/sleek lined blazers or flats for a more professional look and a less going out to the bar or on a date look. But the problem is, people still side-eye when some women dress feminine. I don’t particularly agree with the advice saying choose “one feminine item” because it feels oppressive. The key is finding feminine outfits and accessories that you feel comfortable in but are also professional.

    A little above the knee is fine, but that’s dependent on office culture. My office ranges from people wearing gym shorts and yoga pants to people wearing suits, so it all depends on what you can get away with. Flared and a-line skirts are fine, because pencil skirts don’t look good on everyone. I know some people think flared and a-line are too casual and less professional, but you can find some really great dresses and skirts with a-line cuts and flares that are professional. Don’t go with anything that has cut-outs showing skin on your back, middle, or thighs. Stay with darker or neutral colors until you determine whether it’s okay to wear bright colors or quirky prints. If you’re trying not to look young, stay away from prints that are too bright or quirky. The second dress you linked would make me think you’re young, but I wouldn’t think the same if it was in a solid color.

    If you live in a city, a great way to determine professional dress is to go to network events or look at what people wear during the lunch or rush hour traffic. I’ve gotten some of my best clothing ideas from stuff I see random strangers wearing. Other women can be a great source of fashion inspiration.

  34. Mmmmk*

    I would just add that aside from whatever you might be able to “get away with” in an office setting in terms of dressing up certain items (and I do this with plenty of very specific Forever21 pieces, by the way, including blouses and dresses that are NOT short and do exist).

    I think the most salient point that is missing here is that as a recent grad you should be really stepping it up in this area. It’s very cliche to say “dress for the job you want” but in my experience it’s also 100% true. My internship right out of college launched me very quickly up the ladder…yes because of my strong work ethic but also because of my professionalism (which distinguished me from other young professionals, in part because of how I dress).

    I went to Ross and Marshalls and bought a handful of knee-length Calvin Klein (or similar) dresses and pencil skirts on sale at LOFT to wear with blazers and invested in comfortable heels and wedges. I also bought a nice suit at Ross to wear in specific situations. Every single day I matched the formality level of what my boss was wearing so that when she took me to meetings I would be more likely to be taken seriously despite looking young. Now this was in DC but it definitely can’t hurt to look nice (even if you’re setting the bar higher than everyone else). Even in more casual Seattle office settings I’m finding this. It’s really, really important!

    1. KR*

      +1 to dressing for specific things. When I’m in meetings or going somewhere for a conference, I dress to impress because otherwise they think I’m the intern or that I don’t know what I’m doing. If I know I’m going to be crawling under someone’s desk or pulling wiring, then I break out the black skinny jeans and motorcycle boots with a nice-but-durable top.

    2. Velociraptor Attack*

      Dressing for specific occasions is so important in every field.

      When I did political campaigns, a lot of days I wore dark denim jeans, t-shirt/blouse/whatever shirt, blazer, flats, called it a day. I looked put together but was still able to get out on the doors if I needed to. However, when I had a house party, when I had a debate watch party, anytime I had an event with an elected official, I usually threw on a dress or much nicer slacks. A big part of this was my age, when you’re 20 years old taking a semester off from college, you can’t afford to look even younger and like you don’t understand professional norms.

      Now I’m in non-profit work and once again, my office doesn’t have a dress code. Some days I go out into the community and it’s very, very important to dress to my audience. My outfit is going to be different if I’m at a networking event, the prison pre-release, or a presentation to a freshman high school class. I check my calendar each morning and go from there.

  35. Molly Jean*

    Agree with the advice to default to more prim, understated styles in the interview stage and when you start a new job. In every job I’ve had (albeit all on the more casual/creative side of things) I’ve slowly drifted back to my own style — mixed prints, fun vintage pieces — as I got more comfortable and people got to know me and my work. But in all those cases it probably have been really weird to start off wearing my favorite outfits. I think I would have come across as naive or inappropriately showy.

  36. Not Karen*

    Note that what is professional on a day-to-day basis can be different than what is professional to wear to an interview. 99% of the time you should be wearing a suit to the interview, even if you wouldn’t wear a suit on the job. Those in fields where wearing a suit to the interview would be weird can share below. In general, it’s better to be safe than sorry. My current office has no dress code, and I still wore a suit to the interview (and so have all the candidates I’ve seen since I got hired).

    In a way this is less about what clothes are considered professional and more about following the rules and knowing business norms. If the business norm is to wear a suit to an interview and you don’t, you’re going to look either out of touch or too lazy and/or uncaring to follow the rules.

    1. Sarahnova*

      I never wear an actual matchy-matchy suit, ever. It’s just not me, and I feel it’s overly stuffy and conservative. Then again, I’m a consultant in a fairly flexible field, so I need to look generally smart but more importantly be able to match my clients’ culture and look.

      For an interview I’d wear smart tailored trousers, jacket, and a plain top with heels and a statement necklace, or a tailored, dark-coloured dress with a jacket and statement necklace. But I make a conscious decision to show a little of my style in interviews, because I wouldn’t fit in a super-conservative place. And if I were, say, delivering a workshop at a City law firm, you’d better believe I’d go conservative all the way. (Still not a matchy suit, but I’d ditch the necklace and go darker than usual.)

      1. Not Karen*

        Sure; by “suit” I’m including both matchy suits and “or something that looks like a suit.” On the last open thread someone was asking about a work dress with a blazer. I’d consider that suit-like enough.

      2. Lindsay J*

        Yeah, in my field it reads a little out of touch. So I either do khakis and a black blazer, or dress pants and a “fun” blazer (I have one with stripes on the collar and cuffs, a soft gray one, and an expensive one with a pattern that’s kind of houndstooth but kind of not.

      3. many bells down*

        For some reason, whenever I match my top and bottom, I feel like I look like I’m wearing a pajama set. I don’t know what it is, but every time I do that I cringe to look at myself.

    2. Spotlight*

      For the interview of the job I have now, I wore black flats, black pants, a printed blue shell top and a black cardigan.

  37. EJ*

    Always start with a nice pair of black pants! Then you have more basic shirts for the interview and play it up with jewelry… If you start with buying new dresses for interview, you’ll want a new one for a second/third interview. But the pants can be re-used for multiple interviews… even for the first day of work!

    Save the super trendy tops and dresses once you’ve figured out the office culture!

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Black pants aren’t always the be-all end-all, though. In my office, we have the lovely one-two combo of an area that gets super hot and humid during the (long) summer, and a lot of people who take public transit. Black full-length slacks are sweaty hell doom for that segment of the office between mid-May and mid-October. Even the guys go for the lightest colors and weights they can get away with.

      1. Laurel Gray*

        I get what you are saying Countess, I have a million different types of black slacks for all seasons and office conditions and styles. However, I think EJ’s advice is still pretty good as a starting point. If I didn’t have the money to start a work wardrobe, I would probably start with a black (machine washable!) pair of slacks and get double wears out of them in a week.

        1. Petronella*

          ….which brings up another grievance of mine, the fact that men can and do wear the same shirt or the same pair of pants twice in a week but women feel they have to think twice before doing so.

          1. Christopher Tracy*

            I don’t – I rotate between two pairs of black pants on the rare occasions I wear pants because they’re the only two pair of pants I could find that fit properly. And when I was really broke and couldn’t afford a full work wardrobe, I would wear the same shirts and pants over and over again. *shrugs* If anyone had a problem with it, I would tell them they could buy me new clothes. That usually shut down the conversation.

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Usually I suggest either grey or brown instead of black, depending on complexion and wardrobe contents! Same concept, but a little bit lighter and less funereal.

    2. ali*

      Can anyone recommend a brand or material for black pants that doesn’t immediately attract pet hair? It does not matter how often I remove it, pet hair is in/on everything.

      1. Megs*

        Anyone who says they can answer your question is lying or a magician! Put a clothes roller in your bedroom, another by the front door, and a third in your office/purse.

      2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        My go-to has been to leave getting dressed until my absolute last step before I exit the door, and take it off immediately once I get home.

        I also find that plain black pants are bad for hiding it — better to go with a very subtle classic pattern. The slight variation can be enough to hide a lot of sins.

        (Or if your cat is white, just get used to not wearing black — I can’t help you then!)

        1. ali*

          I have two blonde dogs and still have fur from a long-haired gray cat who has been gone over 2 years.
          Part of my problem is that the dogs ride in the car with me to daycare. It’s probably a lost cause.

        2. Megs*

          My one interview suit lives in the plastic dry-cleaning bag until needed, at which point dressing is the last thing I do before leaving, I try not to touch anything before leaving the house (and certainly not sit on anything) and the jacket doesn’t come out of the bag until we’re in the car.

          And I still bring a clothes roller and avoid black suits (the current one is grey, which I think it much more flattering anyhow). We have two grey dogs, one grey cat, and one orange cat. The battle never ends.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          My late cat was black AND white. This was poor planning on my part — white hair on black pants, black hair on light slacks. And he loved to sleep in laundry baskets and my closet.

      3. nofloyd*

        Lint roller downstairs to use before leaving, but my routine is that once I am dressed for work — I don’t sit down again in the house. Especially sofas. If I need to sit it’s a wooden chair.

    3. Megs*

      Just to be argumentative, do NOT start with a nice pair of black pants if you really dislike wearing pants. I spent way too much time and money trying to find that pair of professional black pants so many people were raving on about before realizing that I simply do not like how I look in pants and don’t feel comfortable in them (seriously, when I finally purged my closet I had over a dozen pairs of black dress pants). It should absolutely be possible to dress professionally and still be comfortable, even in plus sizes.

      1. anonymouse*

        This. So many people gave me advice saying I needed dress pants for my work wardrobe and it was the biggest waste of money since I wore them a few times and it was not worth feeling uncomfortable.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          I’ve basically given up entirely on slacks. The one cut that reliably fit me was discontinued six or seven years ago, and I’ve never found a replacement — so heck that. I’ve found dresses and skirts that look way more dressy than slacks and feel like I’m wearing loungewear, so I’m set!

      2. Overeducated*

        Yup. I’ve given up and decided to stick with a skirt instead. But then the new challenge becomes finding shoes that are a) professional, b) comfortable (with low or flat heels for every day, not interviews), and ALSO don’t require stockings. I was fine in the winter (boots, oxfords, flats with tights all worked), but have no idea what I’m even looking for for this summer and fall!

        1. Megs*

          I’ve had a similar issue in the past with shoes and have leaned into ankle boots in a big way this summer (open toes shoes don’t work for me). I bought two pairs of Aerosoles Speartint boots to replace a worn-out pair and they’re awesome.

  38. justsomeone*

    OP I am familiar with this pain. I’m 25, and have only been in a professional setting for ~4 years now. Nordstrom Rack usually has basic suit sets for not a lot. I got a skirt+jacket combo there a couple years ago for ~$60. I buy lots of work dresses from there too. I tend to buy a lot of Maggy London. I love dresses for work because they’re easy. Dress+cardigan+shoes and done. Maaaaybe a necklace if I’m feeling *fancy*. My office is on the Business side of Business casual. Never bare shoulders, never bare midriff. I also find things at Maurices (hit and miss) The Loft, Anne Taylor, White House Black Market, JC Penneys and occasionally Macy’s.

    It’s helped me, funny enough, to find TV shows with people who have a polished, office setting appropriate style to model after. My current Office Fashion icons are Cam from Bones and Felicity Smoak from Arrow. Their outfits are almost always polished and office appropriate. Even if I don’t get the same exact items they’re wearing, I can usually extrapolate how to style pieces.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      My current Office Fashion icons are Cam from Bones and Felicity Smoak from Arrow.

      Ironically, every time I flip through the channels and see Bones, I see Cam wearing evening wear to work. :-/

  39. Meg Murry*

    The hardest part about learning to dress professionally for me was to stop feeling like I was playing dress-up in my mother’s clothes and to transition into “these are my clothes, this is what I wear”.

    Honestly, OP, at first you will probably feel like your skirts are too long, and you might feel a little bit frumpy if you are used to wearing things that are short and/or very fitted. Are you still friendly with anyone from college that was a few years older than you and now in the working world that can help you put together a few outfits? There is a happy medium between “I’m wearing grandma’s clothes” and your current wardrobe, where you can feel like “you”, only work-ready.

    Unfortunately if you are temping, you will probably be told almost all offices are “business casual” – which pretty much means everything from 1 step above jeans and t-shirt to 1 step below full suit business formal. I’d suggest a happy medium outfit that would work at most offices would be:
    -blouse that is nicer than a t-shirt – could be button down, but doesn’t have to be. Needs to be thick enough not to see through, or if it’s borderline wear it with a tank or camisole underneath.
    -dress pants, pencil skirt or slightly a-line skirt. Ideal fit is skimming your body, or fitted at teh waist and then slightly flared out, not snug or skin tight.
    -cardigan or blazer for in case the office is freezing (as they often are)
    -shoes that you can walk in

    Another good place to look for inspiration is to google “work capsule wardrobe” and look at the pictures.

    1. KR*

      I have a pair of basic black pumps that I love to wear to work. They’re too short for me to wear out on the town (anything shorter than four inches makes my legs look squat) but they go with anything I want to wear to work and I can lift/bend/squat/do anything in them.

      1. Gandalf the Nude*

        One of the simplest but most impactful professional clothing purchases I’ve made is a pair of light beige pumps. They are seriously a game-changer. Black pumps are required, but also having a pair in the lighter color to pair with whites, lights, and creams apparently shows a whole different level of self-awareness (colleague’s words; it was a proud day). I got mine for maybe $20 at Payless.

        1. sam*

          This – As part of my “file drawer” shoe collection, I own three pairs of the exact same slingback open-toed pumps that I got from DSW. One black, one red and one “nude”. They are my “summer” shoe rotation. The black ones almost never get worn now unless I’m wearing something that clashes with the red or nude.

  40. Kristine*

    The dresses and skirts OP linked would be downright conservative in my office. The 90’s crop top resurgence has hit us hard and people regularly wear yoga pants and short shorts here. But I get the feeling that we’re outside the norm of most offices.

    1. KR*

      So jelly. I occasionally wear shorter dresses with socks that go up past my knees and boots, but that’s about as daring as I can get. Oh, and when I’m just in my office with the people in my department and not walking around the building I can take off my cardigan and just wear the tank top if I’m hot. I wish I could do trendy skirts and crop tops. :(

    2. Patrick*

      Same here, but I work in the clothing industry (I HATE using the term “fashion” but some would probably use that instead) where dress codes are generally very casual. Our recruiters tell candidates not to wear suits, and to dress casually. When I interviewed I definitely was a bit dressier than usual, but it was more dark jeans/collared shirt/cardigan which is barely business casual in some places. I do think I wore a (knit, so again pretty casual) tie though.

      We actually had an issue with an intern recently because he wouldn’t stop dressing up for the few weeks he was here. Every day he came in wearing a suit/sport coat and dress pants with a tie, even after he was told we don’t have a dress code. He wasn’t a good fit for other reasons, but I think sometimes people can take “dress for the job you want” or “better to be overdressed than underdressed” to extremes. I don’t think he realized that coming in in a suit actually hurt people’s impressions of him, especially once he was told we don’t wear suits.

  41. Katastrophe*

    For interviews, almost regardless of the industry, I would default to business professional – knee length skirts, pants, jackets, long sleeve tailored shirts. Interviewing in the warmer months can be a challenge because when it’s 90 degrees out the last thing you want to put on is a full suit, but a knee-length skirt and blouse combo almost always works. Agree that at least looking at places like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic will give you a good indication of the types of pieces you’re looking for. TJMaxx and Marshall’s usually have lots of these types of pieces as well. I also think it’s somewhat important to bear in mind height when it comes to dress length. I’m super short, so dresses that look shorter on models are much more modest looking on me.

    That being said, when I first started working after college I had a job in a pretty casual office where during the summer months shorter sundresses and flip flops were the norm. I think defer to being overly modest and professional during interviews and even your first few months of work, until you have a sense of how others in the office dress.

    1. AD*

      Bingo. Although Alison’s comment on industry/geographic area have merit in terms of gauging what’s appropriate to wear to work daily, that’s for after (if) you are hired. None of the clothes in OP’s links are interview appropriate.

  42. animaniactoo*

    I tend to think of it in terms of “how much can I potentially accidentally show off?”

    So if bending over to get something is going to be an issue, it’s out. If sitting down is going to mean tugging to make sure I’m not showing too much, it’s out. If leaning forward is going to end up showing a major amount of cleavage (like you can see my bra (or would be able to if you were wearing one), it’s out. If it would mean bra straps would be showing if wearing a bra – whether or not you are – it’s out.

    And generally, I don’t think that’s really discriminatory, because if you think about the business norms, it’s also not appropriate for guys to come in wearing shorts or tank tops, which show about the equivalent amount of skin that the rule-outs above would show. In fact, the amount of skin showing for a guy is even narrower than for women.

    Other than that – my rule of thumb is that clothing/outfits can be aesthetically nice, but your goal is for what you wear not to be distracting in any kind of attention-grabbing way. That goes from message shirts to how neon-colored is your dress.

    1. F.*

      Don’t forget about climbing stairs. The guys in our shop all knew that the previous HR manager (a 24-yo woman) wore thong underwear ;-)

      1. Ghost Town*

        Oh yes – climbing stairs and walking along bridges. There’s a frosted glass cat-walk across the atrium of our building, with wire mesh railings. If you stand close to the edge and are wearing something other than pants or a tight pencil skirt, people can see up your skirt.

            1. sam*

              I am not kidding when I say that they changed my life. I used to never wear skirts. Now I wear pants *maybe* once a week. They’re also basically a “shorts” alternative to a slip (hence the sub-name “slipshorts”) since I see a slip conversation going on as well.

          1. Ultraviolet*

            Jockey has a Target-specific brand called JKY and they sell a similar slipshort that I’ve just gotten recently and am loving. It’s about $10 cheaper than the original skimmies. I haven’t tried the originals so I can’t speak to other differences. I assume the quality’s a bit lower, and maybe that will become clear after a few more washes (I’m hoping not, since I stocked up!) but I’ve found them to work pretty well so far.

            1. Parfait*

              I am completely devoted to Jockey Slipshorts, in long. The shorter length rolls up on me. That’s the main problem I have with the JKY ones – they roll up. Also they seem to pill faster.

              The JKY ones are $12 regular price, and the Jockeys are $20. I buy them when they go on sale for $15 and combine with a 20% off coupon if I can.

              1. Ultraviolet*

                If I have problems with JKY I’ll definitely look for the Jockeys on sale! I’ve never seen them less than $22 near me, but maybe I’ll get lucky.

          2. linguaignota*

            I don’t believe Jockey Skimmies come in plus sizes, but Undersummers (link below) are a similar product that come in a bajillion sizes, colors, fabrics, and styles. Undersummers have changed my life, seriously.


          3. Marcela*

            Somebody recommended them many open threads ago, and I love them. Now I can’t live without them.

      2. Chickaletta*

        And wear a slip! I know it sounds old fashioned, but I’m amazed at how many young women don’t wear one. Ask me how I can tell.

        1. KR*

          I don’t get HOW you can wear a slip. They’re so uncomfortable and the one time I wore one I couldn’t get it to stop going down below my dress.

        2. Stan*

          Yes! Although to be fair, they’re getting harder to find. I had to hit several stores in search for a replacement and I found that many places only carry spanx rather than slips.

        3. Kelly L.*

          They were kind of unnecessary for a while because they started lining all the dresses, but I think they’re moving back towards unlined again, especially in casual wear.

          The trouble is finding a slip that isn’t a million dollars and full of turbo-mega-super-duper-slimming panels, which are uncomfortable and hike up the price. I finally figured out you could get the basic, no-technology slip at places like Walmart and Sears. The more boring the store, the more likely they are to have them, for some reason.

        4. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          It’s also reeeeeeally hard to find a good slip if you’re plus sized. I dearly want some, but lord knows I haven’t been able to find them at any price point I can afford!

          1. Sarianna*

            Plus-sized here too and I had good luck with split slips on Amazon, of all places!

          2. animaniactoo*

            You can try here: http://www.fullbeauty.com/Plus-Size-Slips-and-Camisoles.aspx?DeptId=11769

            There are pretty regular sales, so if you wait for a good one, you can really make out. Speaking of good ones, I got an e-mail promo for one tomorrow, if you order before noon, just about everything is 40% off with the promo code FBAM6. It’s one of the better sales I’ve seen, but if find stuff you’d like to order from them and doing it tomorrow doesn’t work, don’t worry about it, just sign up and another sale will be along shortly.

        5. Ghost Town*

          Most of the time, I’ll wear a slip, unless the skirt/dress is lined or a heavy fabric. Even if I feel like someone *might* be able to see a silhouette through it, I’ll go for a slip.

          As for how, KR – make sure you have a slip that is the right length and style for what you need. Although, to shorten a slip, I have been known to tuck the waist band into my bra. Also, I have a flared and pencil style knee length slip. The pencil one has been MIA for a few months, and it is difficult but doable to make the flared style work with a pencil skirt.

          As for where to find them, Stan – it is getting harder! But, I’ve found them in department stores, like Macy’s. Good luck!

          1. Chickaletta*

            I never thought about how hard it might be these days to find one! I’ve never worn spanx but god they sound awful. I’d rather get clothes to fit my body, not the other way around. I’ve had my beige, pencil skirt slip that falls about 2″ above the knee forever, probably 15 or 20 years. The good news is that slips aren’t something you need to replace often, get one or two and you’re good to go for the rest of your life.

            1. Ghost Town*

              Most of the slips I have are ones I’ve had since middle school… maybe high school. They may have even been my mom’s. I recently (within the last 3 years) bought a knee length one b/c I was on a trip and needed it. The sizing on them all are vastly different as a result.

            2. Nina*

              Spanx are awful, believe me. They are effective in hiding lumps and bumps, but they’re easily some of the most painful undergarments I’ve ever worn. I only wear them on certain occasions. I don’t know how women (and some men!) wear them daily.

            3. Rusty Shackelford*

              I think the awfulness of Spanx and their ilk depends on what you get and how it fits. Some of them look like torture devices, but I’ve got a Spanx tank-style cami that’s actually quite comfy. It probably helps that I didn’t buy it hoping it would make me smaller, just that it would fit closely (like a swimsuit, not a girdle), so it’s not a constricting size.

        6. Sarianna*

          I’ve always worn slips thanks to my mom’s 1970s teacher style influence (in recovery, i swear!) but since I started wearing skirts more often I’ve embraced pettipants…. basically the skort version of a slip. Minimizes chafing, plus no lines. I think I own three each of black and tan. My mom laughs because she tells me they’re basically like what her grandmother wore. It’s not quite as smoothing as a regular slip (because there’s no fabric held directly across the thigh ‘gap’ in front or back, but the fabric is normal slip fabric, so the top garment still glides.

        7. ancolie*

          No lie, the slips I have are from my grandma. But damned if they haven’t saved the day, clothing-wise, several times!

  43. Kaya*

    I’m in the UK in what is generally considered a very casual city when it comes to work. Everywhere I’ve worked so far (I’m only 24!), everyone is super casual – the kind of offices where someone wearing a suit will attract comments. People in my current office generally wear jeans, t-shirts and hoodies, and as one of the few females here I tend to wear smart-casual dresses. Mine tend to hit around the mid-thigh, but that’s very normal for workplaces around here. I wouldn’t go for something any shorter, or low cut or otherwise revealing, but this length seems fine around here. I also tend to stick to black, grey or blue, and always wear flats.

    In fact, people always tell me how smart I look relative to everyone else – I never feel it, but that shows just how laid back things are in this neck of the woods! It just goes to show how it really is a ‘know-your-workplace’ situation – until I knew for sure what it was like at my current job, I definitely dressed up more as a precaution, and would always do so in the future when I start a new job. I feel like I have to fight especially hard as a young female to be taken seriously in my industry (tech), so I wouldn’t want to jeopardise that with my clothing until I have a good idea of what is normal for that particular workplace.

  44. GreenTeaPot*

    I once had a boss, about my age, who wore miniskirts to work once she got a VP title. She aspired for more, but never got there, although her clothing choice played only a minor role. Unfortunately, I’ve hired people who dressed professionally for interviews, landed the job, and then dressed inappropriately. Err on the side of caution for interviews; watch what other employees are wearing.

  45. CR*

    Those dresses LW linked to are WAY too casual and inappropriate for an interview. No, no, no.

  46. Chia Seed*

    The other thing that’s worth being aware of if you’re a skirt/dress wearer is that “younger” looking professional outfits are really oriented towards pencil skirts and less voluminous A-lines in a lot of places. For the past couple of seasons it’s been somewhat difficult to find A-line skirts that are long enough for work but not too full, and A-line suiting skirts are hard to come by in general. That can be tricky to deal with if your body type doesn’t suit more narrow skirts (like, if you’ve got a bubble butt or wide hips), and makes it worth seeking out pear-friendly pencil skirts.

  47. Laura (Needs a New Name)*

    Fabric is another thing to consider. Both of the dresses you linked are cotton, and the first looks like a relatively thin cotton. This presents as more casual – I’m having trouble finding words for it, but there is a real difference in the way a more structured fabric/garment will hang on you compared to a cotton sundress. The first one looks a lot like the cover-up that I wear at the pool.

    I had a really hard time with this when I entered the workforce. I came from a very blue-collar family, work meant uniforms. I worked my way through college at fast food restaurants (where they gave me my polo shirt!) or work-study jobs (where I would wear whatever, super-casual campus). “Dressing up” meant a sweater and khakis, to me. I really felt uncomfortable dressed up that much. Looking back at outfits that I wore in professional contexts, I’m deeply embarrassed for my past self. But I didn’t know any better! You’re getting great advice here!

    1. Laura (Needs a New Name)*

      Embarrassingly, I posted this before actually looking at the info on the pages. Both dresses are 100% rayon. Maybe someone who understands textiles better than me can describe the fabric characteristic I’m getting at?

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        It’s a soft knit with a lot of drape, like a t-shirt fabric. And yes, that can read as more casual — not always, but depending on the cut and weight of the fabric, it’s something to stay aware of.

      2. Chia Seed*

        I think I know what you mean – those dresses are made of a thin rayon knit and look like they could be a bit clingy, whereas more professional pieces are made of fabrics that have a bit more weight to them and drape a bit better. Rayon used as part of a heavier knit, like ponte, is more office-appropriate.

      3. Kelly L.*

        Rayon is generally a soft, flowy fabric. Something with more weight or structure, or both, will look more worky.

    2. the_scientist*

      Yeah, lined garments only for the office please and thank you. I totally understand what you’re getting at here- unlined fabric (jersey, rayon, whatever) is going to cling and have less structure. You also get the weird, shiny bra show-through if you’re busty (and sometimes if you’re not), because of the way the fabric clings and stretches over curves. You can cover the cheapness up a little bit with a cardigan/blazer but you can just tell the fabric is cheap and that gives it a more casual vibe, aside from the casual cut and colour (and pattern). Lined garments are often better quality overall, and made with better quality fabric, which gives the article a little more weight and structure.

  48. Lexi255*

    OP – In addition to the great shops mentioned above, I’d also consider J Jill. A lot of their clothes have a causal vibe, but would work for most business casual offices (not for interviews). On the other hand, if you are trying to see what is 100% business appropriate, I recommend stopping in Talbots (they have Talbots Petite too). I’m sure you will be appalled at the non-prettiness, but I’m not sure they sell anything that would be business-inappropriate. So if you take that as a base and pretty it up a bit, you should be able to calibrate what would work for an office.

    Also, since you are young, I thought I’d mention that most of what you see in television as professional-women-clothes aren’t – even the women doing the weather tend to be a bit more bare (in Denver at least) than would be ok for many offices. And the women on tv shows exist in a different universe than normal people do. However, with the exception of a few too bare choices, Cat Grant on SuperGirl does seem to have appropriate style.


    1. Lindsay J*

      The guys here find the weather to be the most interesting part of the newscast, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of the tight clubwear style dresses she usually has on.

      1. Kelly L.*

        There was an interesting article a while back about that dress that suddenly all the weatherwomen were buying in different colors–basically, it can’t cost too much because they don’t really make much and are supposed to have a lot of variety in their outfits, it has to be tight enough to show that You Are Thin, but it can’t really show any actual skin, so a tight cheap dress with a modest neckline will sell like hotcakes.

    2. Jane*

      Seconding Talbots– my go-to for work abroad in conservative countries & for full tattoo coverage. Lots of great boat necks & and quarter-length sleeve shirts, and most of these shirts also come as dresses. It’s a ‘find your fit then get every color’ kind of place which is great if you hate shopping. They are a grandma style, but I appreciate that looking boring adds gravitas to my otherwise ‘too-young’ appearance. Every time I go in, Talbots is having a 60% off sale for some reason, so it’s been affordable.

      I also like the advice from Get Bullish to keep a blazer at your desk to add gravitas to whatever you’re wearing if you need to step it up for a meeting.

  49. Liz L*

    When I was starting out, I made sure to have at least one knee-length black skirt and one pair of black dress pants — both that fit well, were good quality, and multi-seasonal. No one cared or noticed if I wore them repeatedly by changing the tops and shoes, so they were good investment pieces for all types of offices I worked at. The small place I started out at was super casual, but I took the cue from the person I reported to and tried to maintain a professional appearance. (Somewhere in the middle between the most casual person in the office to the fanciest.) My outfits were pretty boring, but so was the work, and I was poor. But looking put together and maintaining a professional demeanour helped because soon they had me meeting clients more often, and that helped with gaining new skills and expanding the qualification section of the resume.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I continuously buy black dress pants that are pretty much identical. No one but me ever knows how many pairs exist at any given time. ;)

      1. Liz L*

        Haha, I’ve yet to find a pair so amazing that warranted multiple purchases. Hope springs eternal!

  50. MlleALX*

    Long time reader, first time commenter, because this speaks to me. As a 27 year old in my first “grown up” (read: non-retail job), this site and Corporette were hugely helpful. I mostly shop J. Crew and Banana sale or outlets and try and stock up when they’re doing an extra X% off sale. (Every couple of months they will run a 30% or 40% off sale promotion.) I highly recommend going to Express or The Limited and buying one black or gray suit to wear to interviews. They have several styles and are reasonably priced.

    H&M, TopShop, ASOS, Target, Old Navy… I’ve gotten a lot of clothes from there. I even have some tops from Forever21. My default outfit is black skinny or ponte pants and a flowy top. My wardrobe is pretty much greyscale and I might wear brightly colored or chunky accessories.

    Definitely err on the more conservative side when you first start your job, and then you can slowly loosen up once you’re in the flow. (I’ve gotten to the point where I can wear winged eyeliner and bright lipstick and my nose ring at the office. My clothes are still “polished” and “put together” but I am sassier with my accessories. Won’t work for everyone, but it’s worked for me.)

  51. elle j.*

    Alison is right — no on all three dresses, and be conservative in your wardrobe choices when you first start out. Once you get a feel for your industry and workplace, you can branch out a bit — but I don’t think anyone has ever regretted having a pair of black slacks and a nice professional top on hand.

    While other commenters bring up a lot of good advice, it’s also true that there are different professional dress standards for plus size women in the workplace (OP, I that like me, you are plus size given the dresses you linked above). You have to dress even more conservatively — cover up a bit more, and go to greater lengths to find things that aren’t too tight — and not only can looking or feeling frumpy effect your confidence, it can impact people’s perceptions of you in the workplace (which is dumb and terrible and so frustrating, but so, so true). It’s hard to dress appropriately, feel good about yourself, and be physically comfortable in workwear — especially if you have limited funds.

    People are mentioning Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Express, Limited, etc. — but these lines do not make plus size clothing, or if they do, it’s certainly not available in stores. Here are some of my go-to spots as a plus size recent grad with limited funds:

    – Nordstrom Rack — last season, but high quality and usually with a decent selection of moderately fashionable plus size clothing. Plus, in-house tailoring and amazing shoe section. They carry Eloquii (someone else mentioned it, thought I find them a bit boring) and a number of other plus size lines, along with tons of accessories.
    – J. Crew sale section — for sweaters. They have weird sizing, and oversize items that occasionally fit larger sizes.
    – Target — has some basic black pants (super comfortable and stretchy!) and the occasional work-appropriate dress in their Ava & Viv collection. Inexpensive, not great quality, but serviceable!
    – Modcloth — they have a workwear section with tons of cute, quirky plus size clothes – though sometimes they go a little too low on the neckline/high on the hemline for my taste.
    – Lane Bryant — they have a basic suiting line (which you absolutely need for interviews) and some dresses and blouses, though they all too frequently have cold shoulder tops (I hate those – but you may not!)
    – Old Navy — so many cardigans! Inexpensive slacks! Work-appropriate shirts! They’ll fall apart eventually but are good to get you through those first few paychecks.

    Since it’s so hard to find dresses that don’t look low-cut on me, I wear scarves every day. Plus, scarves are an opportunity to add a little pattern or color to my otherwise basic black/gray outfit. Thin belts at your waistline can help make otherwise shapeless dresses much more fitted and can add a pop of color or texture. Additionally, I wear cardigans constantly to cover up cap sleeves/thin straps that might otherwise show too much skin — and, if you have a job interview and can’t afford a blazer (or can’t afford one that fits well) you can throw on a cardigan that matches your slacks for a similar effect. It’s not the same as a suit, but it’s sometimes the best you can do, and has a similar visual effect. Please note that the appropriateness of this advice will depend on your geographic location and industry.

    Hope this is helpful — best of luck in your job search! And, once you can afford it, I highly recommend going to Nordstrom and buying a suit that is tailored to make you look and feel amazing. Tailored pants = no painful waistband digging in to your midsection!

    1. BananaPants*

      Dress Barn! The stores carry up to a US size 24. Right now I have a serious love of their Secret Agent dress pants. They’re machine wash, don’t wrinkle, and have a flattering look – the only downside is that it’s all synthetic fabric. They also have a suiting line.

  52. Knit Pixie*

    Funny I should read this today, when just last week I was seeing some fluff headline on yahoo about a girl who has decided to go brales for the forseeable future, and her school that has asked her to fetter – up.

    I feel sorry for whomever has to deal with this in her working future, because I don’t see a manager or HR not speaking up about it. I am further saddened it would be a headline at all.

    I am already encountering defensive attitudes with younger girls in the family who seem to have been conditioned to think Dress code = Codified slut – shaming and are ready to throw down and do battle with anyone that would tell them their hems are too high.

    (One in particular that claims she did not get her garter tattoo to cover it at work or anywhere else… and wonders why she is unemployed.) To them I used to be the cool cousin but lately I have been told I’m “worse than Mom”.


    I must say though this letter has brightened my day, and though I have no fabulous advice to give I am heartened that you would ask OP and certain you will find your way.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      There was a waitress at a restaurant I went to recently that had a garter-and-gun tattoo, not covered up. You can get a job that lets you wear what you want, perhaps not the job you want.

  53. Ghost Town*

    You’ve already gotten some solid advice about styles, cuts, and stores. (I second Old Navy, JC Penney, and Limited)
    I’m adding to the chorus that the examples you linked are not good options for interview/work. Of course, there are exceptions. If the first one hit my knees, I could see wearing it on a slow Friday in the summer (university) when I know the higher ups are out of town.

    Personally, for skirts, I like to be comfortable sitting down (not having my legs stick to the chair) and picking things up off the floor. That informs things like length and how tight it is. Another thing to keep in mind about sitting down in the skirt is if you’ll be at a desk with a modesty panel, without a modesty panel, no desk at all, what-have-you.

    Good luck!

  54. Faith*

    I guess this discussion is really industry specific. I have always worked in very conservative fields, maybe one step down from BigLaw type conservative. And it wouldn’t have occurred to me to wear anything other than a suit to an interview. The only exception I recall was a situation where I agreed to meet someone for lunch to chat about a position informally, and it was understood that I was coming from my office and would be dressed business casual (I wore dress pants, button down shirt, and a blazer).

  55. Kate the Little Teapot*

    For an interview I would recommend a structured dress or skirt + top which comes to the knee with a blazer, and nude or dark stockings with flats or heels (depending on your comfort zone). Simple jewelry and no more than 3 pieces of it (necklace, earrings, bracelet/or/watch). This is kind of my uniform for them. Blazers are more structured than cardigans and they make you look more adult/professional and they can turn an unstructured item into something totally professional.

    If you’re in a really conservative field you probably know it and you should be wearing a skirt suit in a boring color. If you’re in a conservative field, no print unless it’s a very generic one. If you’re in a creative field where you are expected to show your style, a print is fine but no novelty print – save that for when you get hired.

    After you get the job, unless you are in a very conservative or male dominated field you can wear cardigans over feminine dresses at the office all you want. If your dress is above the knee I’d recommend leggings or tights – they can make a shorter length look professional.

  56. ...*

    FYI- that Carmax ad makes it hard to stay on the site. When I exit it, it reloads the page and there’s the ad again….I hope this is fixed soon.

  57. Bunny*

    I saw you linked to a plus sized dress. If you’re plus, like me, and learning how to dress (I’m 42 and will never learn BTW) try gwynnie bee, which lets you rent all kinds of clothes for under 100 a month. They ship and clean. There are other subscription clothes rentals too.

    1. Lindsay J*

      Gwennie Bee is good for in-betweeners, too. I generally wear between a size 10 and 14 depending on the brand, and I’ve gotten a lot of stuff from Gwennie Bee that I like and that fits me.

  58. Canadian Dot*

    I also want to bring up eShakti for cute and work appropriate dresses and skirts. And because they can custom tailor, they’re also awesome for the plus-sizes peoples. I can’t find much in person that works for me, but everything I’ve ordered from eShakti has been awesome, and I get so many compliments!

    1. Murphy*

      Yes! I just posted about them too. I’m plus-sized and they’re wonderful for custom fitting. Well made, too (lined, etc.).

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      eShakti is great — but as a word of warning, size up. They’re made overseas, and my experience is that their sizing runs small.

      1. Kelly L.*

        I’ve had the same experience with Modcloth. I’m a 2x in just about every US store you can think of, but have to go for 3x at Modcloth to be safe, unless the reviews say otherwise. And with Modcloth, always read the reviews. They’ll tell you if it’s running big, running small, long or short, high or low quality.

      2. Murphy*

        I really need to get my measurements professionally taken and then have my stuff custom made from eShakti, because I’ve had the sizing issue too (plus I’m oddly shaped with some parts being out of proportion to the rest of me — thank you genetics and pregnancy).

      3. Sarah in Boston*

        Interesting. I guess I’ve only really purchased custom fitted pieces from them (which I LOVE!). Don’t size up there. Be as accurate as you can in your measurements.

  59. Preludes*

    I would say that there is a huge huge huge difference between what you wear to an interview ans what you wear when actually working. Go with frumpy crappy knee length dresses that make you look 50 (or the alternate long pencil skirt and blouse with suit jacket) to the interview. Once you’re hired and they decide that they want you you can gauge the reality of the dress code and experiment in keeping with the particular culture.
    Being over-formal looking in an interview does far less damage than being too casual – who cares how pretty you feel in a suit jacket ? It’s an interview! Pick a few things that give you a boost (nice jewlery, lucky lipstick or sown thing) and focus on conforming to start with.

    1. 2 Cents*

      YES! Don’t let your outfit be the thing interviewers remember, good or bad! I interviewed someone yesterday who came in leggings and a t-shirt with flats. That made her memorable — in a way that said “doesn’t know how to dress for the occasion and will be in a client-facing role = not good.”

      A statement necklace or fun nail polish = good.
      A statement OUTFIT = not so good.

      1. BananaPants*

        8 years later I distinctly remember the (male) job candidate who came for an interview wearing a pair of black jeans, a stained pumpkin-orange polo shirt, and a Western wear-type bolo tie. He expected to take a smoke break every 45 minutes during his 4-hour block of interviews and initially tried to light up in our conference room. Around 2.5 hours in, HR told him it was not going to be a good fit and ended the interviews early.

    2. Kate M*

      I don’t think dressy more conservatively or “interview appropriate” has to mean “frumpy crappy knee length dresses that make you look 50.” Plenty of suits (especially skirt suits) are feminine, and can look really great. You can pair it with a prettier blouse. But tailoring is the key – make sure everything fits you like a glove, and then you won’t look frumpy.

      And a word to those with more of a chest – it might seem counter-intuitive, but a high neck will make your boobs look bigger and can make you look frumpier. It’s hard to find the sweet spot of a v-neck or scoop-neck without showing too much cleavage, but it can be done.

      You don’t need to look frumpy for an interview, though, and honestly shouldn’t. That can be just as bad as being too casual.

  60. Minion*

    When I first started to work, I asked friends and family what I should wear to an interview and also what I should wear in a business casual office and almost all of them said to wear what I would wear to church.
    Now…I grew up going to church and I was entering the working world sometime in the mid-90’s, so my idea of what to wear to church was flowery dresses that came down way past my knees in various patterns. I wore a lot of jumpers and turtlenecks and jean skirts. Yes, it was awful. But, yes, I wore them to interviews. Fortunately for me I was interviewing for jobs that weren’t really office/admin type work at the time, so mostly food service and retail and they either didn’t mind or they felt sorry enough for me to give me a job so I could buy some better clothes!
    Good luck! It’s hard to navigate these things in the beginning, but you’ll get there!

    1. BananaPants*

      I was told the same thing by my parents, which meant that I interviewed for an engineering internship wearing a flowing ankle-length green floral skirt and a green shell/cardigan combo, carrying a SAFETY ORANGE handbag because it was the only purse I owned. I realized the error before the interview when I saw the other candidates in the lobby wearing suits, but it was too late. I didn’t get the job, and I went to Talbots and bought myself a suit with my next paycheck.

  61. AnotherAlison*

    Reading through this made me realize the last time “pretty” was my criteria for choosing for choosing clothes was probably 2nd grade. More a reflection on me than anyone else, and possibly a hazard of coming of age during the grunge era, but I always wanted to look “cool” in middle school/high school, then comfortable in college, then just “is this okay for work” after that. In my personal life now, I focus mostly on being not too off-base for whatever event I’m at.

    1. Lindsay J*

      Heh, same here. Cool, comfortable, and – on occasion – hot were always my criteria. Pretty wasn’t usually a thought.

  62. Employment Lawyer*

    The guy-employer angle on this is VERY different. So I will keep chiming in because we do half of the hiring, at least, and because I hear a lot of this from employers, and because there aren’t many guys on the thread.

    1) We do not care if you like what you wear. That is not related to the job. We are amazed why any of you would think it’s relevant.

    2) We do not care if you “feel comfortable” or “feel pretty” in what you wear. That is not related to the job, either. We are amazed any of you would think it’s relevant. We are amazed at how much time women spend trying to look pretty/nice/etc at work, instead of spending time figuring out how to get promoted and make more money. We think you should just have work clothes and day clothes, like everyone else.

    3) We expect you to be as formal as we are. We expect you to exhibit and tolerate the same formality we do. If we’re in pants and shoes and buttondowns, and you wear a skirt and sandals because it’s “cooler,” you won’t score points. If we have a blazer on, you should have one on as well. If we do not have earrings or nose rings or visible tattoos or dyed hair…. you get the idea.

    1. Megs*

      I generally agree with you, though I think you’re being overly grumpy about #8 down there and I’m not convinced this is a majority opinion (in my experience most men don’t really notice clothes within a reasonable range, though of course, we’re both playing in anecdotes here). However, you are 100% wrong on dyed hair and earrings, both of which are generally musts in more formal offices. I suspect you mean “unnatural colors” but it’s an important point to counter your “no double standards” bit. I notice you didn’t list makeup in point three either.

      1. NK*

        I think it depends on the degree to which women are pushing the envelope on the dress code. I worked in a business formal workplace where men were required to wear ties every day except Friday. Most of the women in the office wore what I would consider on the casual end of business casual – I’m talking khaki capris and a casual sweater. Believe me, the men noticed and commented on it amongst themselves frequently (I am a dress code stickler and so I wore business formal, so they would talk to me about it). I think when the men have a little more latitude in their dress code they don’t take notice as much, but I think when they’re forced to wear ties, they are much more likely to notice when women are lax in their adherence to a dress code.

        1. Megs*

          I would agree with that particular clarification. My point was more that, in my experience, most men aren’t sitting around being grumpy about or even noticing the fact that women’s professional clothing is more flexible than men’s in all but the absolute most conservative situations.

          1. Kathryn*

            They may not *consciously* notice, let alone complain, but I do think it has an impact. Unfair though it is, women being more casual–failing to wear the office “uniform” basically–can undermine their authority. I think Employment Lawyer was laying some truth on us.

    2. Jodi*

      Woah there. Yeah it may not matter much to you if someone “feels comfortable” or “feels pretty,” but the way someone feels about how they look has a huge impact on their personality, interactions, and sense of worth. No one wants to spend the entire day focusing on adjusting their uncomfortable clothing when they should be focusing on work.

      As far as the third point goes, it seems like you’re saying that there should essentially be uniforms in every workplace that disregard gender, body shape, style, etc. It isn’t unprofessional to care about how you look. And women shouldn’t wear earrings in the workplace because men can’t? This is a pretty slippery slope you’re dancing on.

    3. Liana*

      So, I’m going to word this as gently as possible, because I think you *are* genuinely trying to help the OP, but … this whole comment comes off fairly condescending. The whole line “We are amazed at how much time women spend trying to look pretty/nice/etc at work, instead of spending time figuring out how to get promoted and make more money. ” … just, no. First of all, many, many women, including myself, are able to figure out several things at once. I am more than capable of trying to look pretty and ALSO figuring out how to get promoted/advance my career. This is not a zero-sum game, and I would prefer if we not feed into the tired stereotype of “Women who focus on looks cannot also focus on more ~meaningful~ things like their career.”

      Second of all, how people dress (especially women, but it’s true for everyone) has a HUGE impact on how they are perceived at work. The OP wasn’t asking AAM for advice on what she thinks the cutest dress is, she was asking for advice on what qualifies as professional wear, because she IS trying to figure out how to get a job/get promoted/make more money. So your entire point doesn’t really work, because by virtue of writing this letter in, she’s already doing exactly what you think she should do.

      I understand (or at least I think I do) the main gist of your comment, which is – work is not necessarily the best avenue for taking fashion risks – and I completely agree with that. But you can stop acting “amazed” that the OP, who is new to the work force, hasn’t magically figured out the myriad rules surrounding women’s workplace attire, and you can stop listing out things that you, as a man, “expect” women to do, because it’s more than a bit patronizing and ultimately unhelpful.

      1. Jodi*


        Why are professional style and professional advancement mutually exclusive concepts? God forbid I have the mental capacity to worry about both my appearance and my career at the same time.

      2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        What I really got from this was that he doesn’t care how women want to dress, but women should care very much how he wants them to dress.

        1. Forrest*

          That and how its amazing how much time women spend on thinking about clothing, its not amazing how much time men think about women spending time on thinking about clothing.

      3. KR*

        Very well put. I’m sure you meant well, Employment Lawyer, but it came across as very condescending. Men and women are different- they have different bodies and preferences and are expected to look different ways. Pretending that they aren’t different doesn’t fix the problem.

      4. Chia Seed*

        So on point here.

        Perhaps you don’t work with them personally, but there’s lots of men who like experimenting with sartorial flair while dressed professionally. You know, the ones with the cool socks and pocket squares and seersucker suits in the summer. Would you assume that their interest in fashion precludes them from figuring out how to advance their careers?

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Yep, I’d love to hear him tell all this to my bio father — the man is an absolute peacock!

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            I should add — an absolute peacock and a bit of a gym nut, but he’s also an ED of a pretty major nonprofit. Sooooooo yeah.

        2. K.*

          My accountant has a huge wardrobe. Mostly suits, but his suits aren’t boring – they’ll have herringbone or checked patterns, etc., and he’ll play with patterns and colors among his suit, tie, and shirt. I used to work with a guy whose wardrobe was fairly simple (we were a business casual office, jeans on Fridays) but he LOVED shoes. He had a dress shoe collection that he was very proud of.

    4. Aurion*

      For better or worse (probably worse), women have a lot more choices in the realm of professional clothing…but that also means they get judged a lot harder.

      Employment lawyer, I am a woman, and at work I dress with very little concern for “fashion”–that is, I wear dark charcoal or black slacks/dress pants, jeans (when appropriate), flat shoes (conservative slip ons, ankle boots, flats–nothing with a heel), button-down shirts (no pockets, and ones you can take an iron to, not the prettier, more fashionable drapey blouses), fitted blazers, the occasional black skirt. Even a polo shirt on very rare, casual occasions. Other than the skirt, most of these have direct equivalents in men’s work wardrobe. My mother says (fondly) I dress like a man. I will never be accused of being fashionable, nor inappropriate.

      But I will also never be dressed “smartly”. I’m confident in my clothes, they don’t impact how I do my job, but I don’t look as “put together” as other women with a better fashion sense (I don’t dress the way I do because I can put together smashing outfits, let’s just say). And that will, and does, play into unconscious biases. The breadth of men’s work wardrobe is much narrower than women’s; dress pants and button downs go a long way for men in many situations. But frankly, the cut and style of button downs, or the height of a heel alone make a world of difference in how sharply a woman’s dress is perceived, and there isn’t quite the same judgement for men because there isn’t as much variance. I’m not judged badly either way at my laid back workplace, but even though my wardrobe choices lean conservative, I probably can’t get away with leading a shareholders’ meeting with them because the articles themselves, while appropriate in style, aren’t “sharp” enough.

      Even putting aside the difficulty of finding things that fit (due to different body compositions), professional wear is harder for women. I strongly think work is not the place to experiment with clubbing wear, but you also never hear men being accused of dressing “frumpily”. Women can’t dress too conservatively, too casually, too skimpily, too-a-lot-of-things. We get judged both ways, and what’s appropriate vary wildly depending on the audience.

      1. Megs*

        Well put. The more I read those comments, the more uncomfortable they make me, but I’m going to pass on chiming in further, as I think you and other folks have pointed out the issues here quite nicely.

    5. leslie knope*

      this is an an astoundingly condescending comment. women don’t need you to mansplain proper work attire to them.

    6. Faith*

      We expect you to be as formal as we are. We expect you to exhibit and tolerate the same formality we do. If we’re in pants and shoes and buttondowns, and you wear a skirt and sandals because it’s “cooler,” you won’t score points. If we have a blazer on, you should have one on as well. If we do not have earrings or nose rings or visible tattoos or dyed hair…. you get the idea.

      Let’s continue going down this role. If I am required to wear high heels for 8-10 hours a day, you should wear high heels as well. If you don’t “feel comfortable”, that is not related to your job. We expect you to tolerate the same level of formality as we do. If we are told that our natural hair the way it grows out of our head is “unprofessional”, then you should also have to heat style/straighten/chemically treat your hair on a regular basis… you get the idea.

    7. Ultraviolet*

      I’m really struck by the distinction you draw between “women” and “everyone else.”

      Also, it’s one thing to acknowledge that current workplace dress norms are based on men’s clothing, but I kind of get the impression you are thinking more that workplace dress norms will always be decided by men’s preferences. While I myself lack the knowledge or authority to speak on behalf of everyone who shares my gender identity, I can say that some of us are amazed that you would think that’s the case.

    8. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

      We expect you to be as formal as we are. We expect you to exhibit and tolerate the same formality we do. If we’re in pants and shoes and buttondowns, and you wear a skirt and sandals because it’s “cooler,” you won’t score points. If we have a blazer on, you should have one on as well. If we do not have earrings or nose rings or visible tattoos or dyed hair…. you get the idea.

      Fantastic. In return, women shall expect men to “tolerate the same formality we do”. You are expected to wear heels on a daily basis. You are expected to have a full face of makeup — but God forbid you actually look overly made up. I am a team lead with bright pink hair and visible tattoos/piercings, therefore I expect you to also dye your hair an unnatural colour and have visible body modifications. That makes sense, right? You’re not going to score points by being comfortable, you know…

      1. Ultraviolet*

        Let’s also change the standards of how loosely men’s clothes can fit without being considered too unpolished to be professional.

    9. CrochetingCat*

      We are amazed at how much time women spend trying to look pretty/nice/etc at work, instead of spending time figuring out how to get promoted and make more money.

      Right. Because the only reason women don’t get promoted and make more money is because we’re spending all our time figuring out how to look pretty.

      1. sam*

        And, of course, no men ever spent time caring about how they look. The biggest clotheshorse in my legal department in the past 3 years was a guy, who wore the most amazing three piece suits every day. subtle patterns, checks, pocket squares, cufflinks…we referred to him as Dapper Dan (his name was *not* Dan). One time we had to go to an awards banquet that was black tie, and he outshone all of us, because his tuxedo navy blue herringbone. EVERYONE commented on how amazing it was. Trust me when I say that he was dressed better than all of the women here on a consistent basis.

        But because he’s a guy, it was “aspirational” and lent gravitas to his personal presentation.

  63. Employment Lawyer*

    4) We do not really feel much sympathy for the “poverty makes clothing impossible” angle, in most jobs, unless you’ve eliminated “khakis and blouse,” which is (a) fairly cheap; (b) widely available; (c) OK for many workplaces. It’s what we wear. Throw on a blazer if you need to. Don’t “like how you look” in khakis? See #1 and 2.

    5) We will never accept sleeveless tops as truly professional. We generally think that women who wear them should know better. Same goes for frilly, short, spaghetti strapped, and so on. But we won’t ever admit it, because:

    6) We are simultaneously very aware of what we consider professional dress, and also terrified of being accused of sexism or harassment. Therefore, although you are likely to experience</i< bad work consequences if you choose poorly on your dress, you are unlikely to know about them.

    This is TRIPLED for issues which relate in any way to sex appeal.
    The sex-appeal category includes: cleavage, push-up bras, tight pants or leggings, certain types of makeup, body-hugging clothes, high heels, certain patterned tights, or accoutrements whose job is to specifically draw attention to or highlight aspects of your anatomy. If you could go from work to a date without changing, you may have a problem. If you are worried about panty lines, maybe the solution should be “wear looser pants” instead of “wear a thong.” And so on.

    7) If you possess an unusually attractive exterior, then welcome to the other side of the good-looking coin: You probably need to deliberately disguise or tone down those aspects which don’t fit well in #6. Men do. Maybe it’s unfair that your flat-chested friend can get away with a lower-cut shirt, just as some men can wear tighter shirts or pants than others.

    8) We do not regard this as a double standard. If anything we think that many women stretch the rules in unacceptable ways, which makes us annoyed since we can’t talk about it openly. Read this thread and you’ll see a TON of women who, after they gain some experience, are stretching the boundaries. Most clothes are either work-appropriate or not, there is rarely a category of “appropriate after you’ve worked there a while.”

    Women do this all the time but this is a huge mistake. If you “wear winged eyeliner and bright lipstick and my nose ring at the office” you are probably going to pay for it one way or the other, in your job, whether or not you know. You can probably wear more casual clothes as you get older (only if the older men are doing it as well) but you can NEVER violate #6 or get less work-ish.

    For example, right now I’m wearing khakis, formal shoes, and a long sleeved button down shirt with one button undone. My secretary (who got the ‘dress code’ lecture on Day 1, believe me!) is wearing… well, let’s just say that if I were 22 and unmarried I would greatly appreciate it, but as a frumpy 20-year happily-married man I mostly find it a good blog-post subject. I am a rare breed in that I will talk to her directly if need be, but most men would be too embarrassed and will simply take action against her, and she’ll never know.

    9) These rules don’t always apply. If you see the men in your company showing chest hair, unbuttoning shirts to their breastbone; wearing bicep-hugging shirts and sleeveless tops; and adopting stretch pants or shorts with conspicuously tight crotches and rear ends… well, you can wear what you like. Good luck finding that job.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I agree with the premise of your rules. My personal implementation of your rules is that I don’t wear sandals or (god forbid) flip flops at work. If I don’t see Mr. Division President’s feet, he shouldn’t see mine. You’re never going to be wrong following these rules. You might not be as fashionable or as cute as you would like, but you also have a lot less stress if you’re called for a last-minute meeting with someone higher up.

    2. Jodi*

      So your secretary can’t dress a certain way…because you’re married and can’t benefit from ogling her?

      1. KR*

        We all know that men can’t control themselves and women need to dress to control their impure thoughts.

        Oh wait, this is 2016 and feminism is a thing.

      2. Employment Lawyer*

        Nope. The reason she can’t dress a certain way because I explicitly told discussed appropriate clothing at the interview, and again on Day 1, and I pay her to follow the rules which I set. So I will talk to her, and tell her that, again.

        1. KR*

          You’re missing the point. We’re saying that your idea of what’s appropriate is sexist.

          1. Petronella*

            You’re expecting non-sexist comments from “Employment Lawyer?” As I recall, on a previous letter he was right in there defending a boss’s right to watch porn at work. I pity Employment Lawyer’s clients.

    3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      I love how you think women have male-style clothing available to them but just aren’t wearing it. Really I do.

      (That was sarcasm, if you hadn’t noticed. Frankly, you sound like you have no idea what you’re talking about with 90% of this condescending mess. Khakis and blouses are cheap? And widely available? And appropriate? Women can just snap their fingers and find looser pants? HAHAHA you’re so wrong you don’t even know it.)

      1. GotBigButtCannotLie*

        I’d have to get everything heavily tailored if I tried khakis. I’ve got a very small waist and very curvy hips, plus some substantial junk in the trunk, so pants never fit me. Ever. If I go up enough sizes to fit my hips, the waist is 2-3 sizes too big. Also, since my legs are still fairly slim despite the child bearing hips, I’ve got so much excess fabric around my legs that it’s ridiculous. Getting all of that tailored is crazy expensive. Nothing that’s off the rack fits me. I live in skirts and dresses year-round, and yoga pants when I’m at home.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          I have similar issues (different proportions, same issues) and, when I didn’t have the money to afford tailoring, stuck with skirts and dresses that were more forgiving than pants because wearing ill-fitting clothing also draws negative attention to your professionalism. I am nearly 40 years old and very, very rarely find off-the-rack pants that fit. I find buying pants to be fairly torturous, actually, and recently spent an obscene amount of money having pants I liked taken up/in/out so that I have a professional-looking set of pants in versatile, neutral colors. And would not have to go pants shopping again for a decade.

          And don’t get me started on the challenges of finding shirts when one is large-chested but not large overall. I have one, professionally-tailored, button-d0wn shirt that does not gap or pull in the front, and I have to try on every single shirt to make sure that it’s not stretched across the front, too low cut, or fits in the chest but laughably large everywhere else. And when I find the magic unicorn shirt, I buy it in damn near every color. (Not to mention appropriate undergarments. Standard list price on bras my size — not push-up or whatever other inappropriate thing I’m supposed to avoid — is about $80. My size is not available at Target or even Victoria’s Secret. Or I can buy one pricy one and then try to find others like it on eBay.)

          I cannot be the only one who finds it totally ironic that Employment Lawyer has all these rules about what women should/should not wear and how it should fit but thinks that all of these things can be achieved magically with inexpensive khakis and a shirt.

      2. Kay J*

        I hadn’t truly noticed how hard it was to shop for feminine shirts that aren’t low cut until living in a country where cleavage is a big no-no. Wonder of wonders, even plus size clothes are cut high at the collar, so shopping for shirts is soooo much easier. Before, I had to go out of my way to get high cut shirts and even then usually had to wear one or two undershirts! (On the other hand, pants are a nightmare because I have a butt-to-hip ratio absolutely unconceived of by fashion designers here.)

        I wear a lot of mens’ clothing too because GENDER and that doesn’t even solve all of the problems because those shirts are not designed to stay over hips or not gap on busty chests! It’s a lose-lose situation on the modesty front. There’s no magical solution.

    4. Margaret*

      You don’t think women will be judged for wearing basic khakis and a button-up shirt? Maybe you think it’s fine, but plenty of other people (men and women) will consider her stodgy and old-fashioned. Women spend more time thinking about their clothes for work then men do because it’s such a fine line between not being judged too sexy on the one hand or too boring on the other hand. And that line is often in a different place depending on the company, supervisor, client, etc. It requires more thought to meet the arbitrary standards.

      Consider yourself lucky that men have so few options to consider, and thus fewer ways to fail according to society.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        And that’s if they’re lucky enough to even be able to carry off button-up shirts. If I’m gonna button buttons, the thing has to be basically a tent or I’ll have a nice little gape right over my shelf.

        1. Jodi*

          Oh but be careful with that, because your “unusually attractive exterior” is not a valid excuse for wearing anything besides khakis and a button up. *sarcasm overload*

          1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            I know, right! Never mind that I’ve got about three inches between the hollow of my throat and where my cleavage starts — gotta cover that up, girl! Turtlenecks in 100 degree heat and 98% humidity? If I don’t like it, maybe I should try having smaller boobs.

    5. Oryx*

      I’m not going to lie — reading this, all I could think was “I am so happy I don’t work for you.”

      Signed, 30 something “boundary stretching” woman currently wearing yoga pants, a sleeveless top, and a Harry Potter themed hoodie and I am totally in line with my workplace culture.

    6. KR*

      I hadn’t read your second post when I left the comment on your first post. I’m really uncomfortable with your opinions on women and how they dress and how you’re expressing them. So if women are attractive at all then they need to deliberately dress to hide that? You’re fairly sure that every woman will always be able to find well-fitting, affordable clothes to wear to the office that passes your standards?
      OP, please don’t read this and think this is normal practice everywhere.

      1. Jodi*

        He goes as far as to suggest the type of underwear women should be wearing. Every time I reread parts one and two of this comment, I get more and more enraged.

      2. Nerdling*

        OP, please don’t think this is normal practice AT ALL. Because it’s not. It’s sexist bullshittery and is not in any way normal.

    7. Liana*

      Wait I didn’t even read this comment when I replied to your earlier one. Oh man. OH MAN.

      I have to get this out of the way – your comment regarding your secretary is gross. (I actually don’t even like the word “secretary” but I’m well aware that’s not the point of this discussion). There is NO NEED for you to bring your 22-year old hormones into this. So she can dress more provocatively if you were younger and/or single, but now that you’re unavailable, she can’t? What.

      There are literally dozens of jobs out there (yes, office jobs, not work-from-home ones) that have a relaxed attitude toward clothing, and would be fine with yoga pants, leggings, casual t-shirts, etc. This is not a rare unicorn, so stop acting like it’s never going to happen. Although, I feel like I should stress again that is not even close to what the OP was asking, so you are extrapolating a decent amount from not that much information.

      While I understand your point about clothes designed to maximize sex appeal, what kind of underwear a woman is wearing is none of your damn business. I don’t even know where you got the idea that the OP was worried about panty lines at ALL, so I feel like at this point you’re just trying to push a totally separate agenda here. Again, I get the feeling you really are trying to help the OP, but … talking down to her and professing incredulity that she wouldn’t magically understand professional norms as a recent grad isn’t the way to go.

    8. Nerdling*

      Also, this is appallingly sexist and offensive for a so-called employment lawyer. Heaven help your female employees (right to a good lawyer for their EEOC claims)!

      1. Employment Lawyer*

        [shrug] I hear about this issue all the time from employers. And I mean All. The. Time. This is a summary perspective of all of the comments I got over the years. This is one of the most common off-record complaints I get. And that makes people who deal with it frustrated because seriously, how is it that there can possibly be so many young women (it’s almost always young women) who have no bloody idea how to dress in a professional setting?

        But most of them never tell their employees because they’re afraid of… well, this. Right here.

        Which is to say: Even though at least half of the managers in the world are male, there is almost no socially-acceptable way for them to make the same comments or judgments that women can, because they’re male. Preface my words with “female employment lawyer” and they’re OK; preface them with “guy” and the same comments are appallingly sexist.

        Therefore they are more likely to have problems which they can’t resolve. They don’t discuss them publicly (see above) but they sure as hell discuss them privately. For those of you who have an economics background, this is a “hidden cost.” I leave it to you to figure out the long-term outcome of imposing a cost on a particular class, and it’s long term effect on employment.

        Now personally I don’t care, because this is the internet and because I have a thick skin anyway. But as a practical matter I KNOW FOR A FACT that there are a ton of people who think those things and judge folks on them, and it is what it is what it is. It remains unsaid, largely because it is not considered socially acceptable to discuss reality.

        And therefore everyone suffers. because in the end, reality is what matters.

        And thus a lawyer will get the call where Sally is complaining that Joe commented on her underwear. And the manager investigates and finds out that Joe overheard Sally discussing her panty lines on her cell phone. And then, as we are all dutifully lecturing Joe on his appalling sexism because we’ll be damned if anyone wants to discuss underwear with Sally, those of us who are old and grumpy and want to get back to work just wish Sally would wear looser pants so nobody would hear about this one way or the other.

        And then when folks mention it in the abstract, on an anonymous bulletin board we are, as fully expected, also assumed to be sexist. In other words, not only can’t the employer tell Sally directly (which nobody will touch with a ten foot pole unless Sally is lucky enough to to have a super-direct woman as her immediate manager) but we can’t even generally discuss a hypothetical anonymous Sally.

        So everyone remains silent, because sexism. Voila! You win!

        But the next time, the client doesn’t mention it. At all. But of course that doesn’t prevent Joe from hearing about it, or the client from finding out about it, and as a result hypothetical Sally, poor her, never gets the benefit of knowing why she isn’t promoted quite as fast. All she gets is a complaint, later on, that she makes too many personal calls in her cubicle.

        Tell me: which one is better? Reality, or politeness?

        1. ToxicNudibranch*

          Well actually, no, if you commented under “female emloyment lawyer” everyone would have called out the statements as being sexist, too.

          Because they are sexist. Very sexist.

        2. ToxicNudibranch*

          “And thus a lawyer will get the call where Sally is complaining that Joe commented on her underwear. And the manager investigates and finds out that Joe overheard Sally discussing her panty lines on her cell phone. And then, as we are all dutifully lecturing Joe on his appalling sexism because we’ll be damned if anyone wants to discuss underwear with Sally, those of us who are old and grumpy and want to get back to work just wish Sally would wear looser pants so nobody would hear about this one way or the other.”

          What? So ignoring the implausibility of bit of your scenario*, the problem still isn’t Sally’s pants or what she’s wearing under them. It’s that Joe made a comment about them. Who cares if he heard her mention them to someone who was not him, in a conversation he was not part of?

          *J/K, this is *totally* a thing we do, amiright, ladies? just spend all day at the office yakking about our VPL. Classic female pasttime.

          1. Liana*

            I really wanted to comment on that as well, but didn’t want to add more to an already lengthy comment. But yeah, I rolled my eyes at that too. We’re all just sitting in our cubicles yapping about periods and panty lines, just WAITING for a chance to shout sexism.

        3. Liana*

          I don’t want to speak for Nerdling, since you replied to her comment, but I’d like to make some of my own points:

          1. First of all, your comments are sexist as hell regardless of who says them. A woman could have said the exact same thing you did and most commenters would have had the same reaction, so you can cool it with the martyr act. I feel very, very confident in this statement.

          2. In your hypothetical scenario, literally all that needs to be done is to pull Sally aside and say “Hey! You need to stop taking so many personal calls at work and please be mindful of what constitutes a work-appropriate topic.” THAT’S IT. Alison has written several posts about how to deal with an employee taking personal calls at work and her language is basically perfect. I’ve never managed an employee in my life and I came up with that solution in less than a minute.

          3. As for your comment about young women not knowing how to dress – several people have already talked about how hard it is for women new to the workforce to figure out/buy work-appropriate clothing, because the rules that govern women’s clothing in the workplace are so much more complex than men’s. Furthermore, we are subject to much, much more judgement about our clothing than men are, at least partially due to the complex rules, and partially due to the constant sexualization of what we wear (your comment about your secretary is an excellent example of that in action). The OP, as a new grad, is doing exactly what she should be doing, which is asking for advice from an expert. You extrapolated a ton of information from that, implied that she was too busy doing her makeup to care about her job, felt the need to lecture her about her UNDERWEAR, of all things, and just generally acted like my creepy, condescending uncle. Please, please think about the way you come across and the way you approach women and their bodies.

        4. Mookie*

          Preface my words with “female employment lawyer” and they’re OK; preface them with “guy” and the same comments are appallingly sexist.

          Is it possible for you to ever not rely on some cartoonish feminazi strawman whenever you speak AT women about their own experiences?

        5. Mookie*

          And thus a lawyer will get the call where Sally is complaining that Joe commented on her underwear. And the manager investigates and finds out that Joe overheard Sally discussing her panty lines on her cell phone.

          Don’t tell us “reality is what matters” and you are in possession of the FACTS! when you are presenting this utterly phony, entirely made-up, misogynistic garbage in which women are stupid, unprofessional, and (as always) utter liars.

        6. NaoNao*

          How about Joe just doesn’t comment on panties or panty lines directly no matter what he overhears or sees? We are astonished that Hardworking, Head-Down Grumpy Joe even notices such things!
          How about when Joe complains about personal phone calls he leaves the exact subject of them out? We are astonished that Joe, a professional whose mind is not encumbered with looking attractive, can’t see the danger and foolishness of bringing up a personal, highly charged subject matter!
          How about it’s pretty easy to dictate a gender neutral dress code and take Sally aside and say “Hey, this is awkward but I need you to adhere to section 11 in the dress code from now on, okay?” And section 11 is “no visible undergarments”?
          Or, if the personal phone calls are really the issue, and not just that Sally dares to be a woman in an office instead of the kitchen (which increasingly is what this diatribe sounds like) you take her aside and say “Sally, your cube mate Joe mentioned that he overheard you on a personal phone call from 1-2 PM yesterday. Can you limit your personal phone calls to either your breaks and lunch or ensure that they take place in private? Thanks.”
          We are astonished that it’s so hard and complex for an experienced attorney or a man with so much brain power room to devote to business to come up with a gender neutral dress code or code of conduct and way to enforce it in a non-sexist way!

    9. HRChick*

      You seem to have a lot of anger and resentment when it comes to women and what they wear in the workplace. Women are allowed to feel pretty and be professional at the same time. In face, feeling confident in your looks can be reflected in your confidence in your professional life.

      I also do not buy for a SECOND that men do not consider HOW they look in their attire and their personal preferences in that regard. So, don’t for a second continue believe that only air headed woman care about their appearance.

      Lastly, you obviously don’t know at all how women can appropriately drape their anatomy that you don’t have. As to your assertion that men don’t wear clothes to emphasize parts of their anatomy that the know are attractive- you are dead wrong. Haven’t you seen guys with their shirts a bit snug or even their pants? Even the cut of their facial hair is self expression

      As to you sexualizing your secretary and blaming her for turning your eye, as others said, that’s just gross.

      1. Mookie*

        Right, have we forgotten about ostentatious male accessories, the cufflinks, the chunky watches, the limited edition sneakers and ties, fancy braces, gaudy belt buckles, cravats with such strong patterns that they seem to be moving, elaborated origami-ed pocket squares and hankies, fedoras (sorry, trilbys), an infinite variety of beards? Patrick Bateman’s vanity, narrow-mindedness, and vapid taste was amusing for a reason, because people like him do exist, down to the perfect business card.

    10. ToxicNudibranch*

      This is unbelievably gross. First, that you have taken such a deeply condescending and sexist bent, and second, that you presume to speak for all men.

    11. animaniactoo*

      fwiw, with the benefit of the doubt, I understand you to mean that your 22 year old single self should not be sitting around appreciating it, but you acknowledge that you would have.

      Now I don’t know what she’s wearing, but some of what you’ve described in your stated “rules” here skates the edge of “asking for it” mentality, so I’m gonna say that there’s just a strong a shot that your idea of whether what she’s wearing is generally appropriate is wrong as there is that she is genuinely inappropriate.

      For many of your “rules” here, I’m also going to say that as someone who is business casual on the end of casual but nowhere near stylish at work*, you have no freaking clue what you’re talking about.

      Yes, I’m going to believe that your clients come to you about such issues. But they do not have the problem of whether you believe it or not actually getting passed over for promotions because their clothing indicates that they are “a bit out of touch” because they’re not dressed stylishly enough to be considered more than bare bones professional. This is a real thing. It happens to women all the time. Because if your clothing is too loosely fitting, you just look sloppy. In a way that guys’ clothing has to be far more loosely fitting to achieve the same perception. If it’s not cut well for your body, you look unattractive, like you have a weirdly shaped body or one that just doesn’t have much going for it and geez have you seen the numbers of studies that show that people – primarily women – who are considered attractive often receive better help with basic requests? Which means purposely or accidentally making yourself *unattractive* is courting less help that would allow you to do your job better.

      And the problem in your Joe and Sally example is that Sally is talking about an inappropriate subject at work, in a semi-public way where she can be overheard. But if Joe commented on Sally’s comments to say anything but that, then Sally isn’t in the right, but neither is Joe, and yes, Joe does get to be lectured about whatever it was that came out of his mouth.

      *If I dressed more stylishly, while there isn’t much room for promotion where I am at this point and I’m pretty well respected for where I’m at based on work and rep alone, I’d probably be making 5-10k more a year.

      1. animaniactoo*

        btw, a question:

        Would you tell a guy “If you possess an unusually attractive exterior, then welcome to the other side of the good-looking coin: You probably need to deliberately disguise or tone down […]”

        Would you tell him that he had to make sure to wear pants that weren’t too tight in the butt, and didn’t emphasize his rear? That maybe he needed to change his hairstyle to make him look a little less attractive, and that he should consider wearing glasses that don’t call so much attention to his great eyes?

        1. Mookie*

          According to EL, this never happens because men are born both knowing better and knowing everything in general.

          1. animaniactoo*

            I think that’s a mischaracterization. I think he’s vastly mistaken and seeing this continually through only one set of eyes, reinforcing a perception he doesn’t realize is (as far as I can tell) indeed a sexist take on the whole thing. But I don’t think that he’s claiming at all that men know everything in general. Or that they were born knowing better. Perhaps have learned better or never learned to be otherwise. But not born that way.

    12. J.B.*

      Sigh. I know darn well it’s not an accident that the men at my level make 20 percent more than the women, despite having less professional production and regard in the industry. The fact that they dress like schlubs does not mean that I don’t want to look nice (modest, but not ugly khakis either.) I could be as sloppy as I wanted but it wouldn’t do a thing for my career prospects. Moreover, if I look put together they will not notice. If I do not look put together they will judge.

  64. 2 Cents*

    I work in a creative field in a practically-anything-goes environment, and I’d definitely do a double take if someone came in the tutu-like skirt in #3.

    OP, don’t be like my coworker, who’s in her late 40s and dresses like she stole her 22-year-old daughter’s clothes from Forever 21 — bare back, hemlines that *maybe* hit midthigh, slinky skirts, barely-there tank tops. And don’t be like the woman who interviewed yesterday in grey leggings and a t-shirt. She looked like she just came from the gym and stopped by for an impromptu interview.

    It’s hard to know exactly where the blurry line between “professional” and “cute/pretty” clothes is — especially when fashion mags make you think anything can be work appropriate by throwing a cardigan on top. You don’t have to be stodgy, either. But for interviews, err on the conservative side. Check out corporette dot come for some ideas. Once you get hired by a company, then you can scope out how other people dress (and then still be a bit more conservative, at least at first).

  65. TheCupcakeCounter*

    I think the key to feminine dressing in the workplace has been hit on here several time perfectly. Get some staple pieces that are universal business appropriate: a good (read quality, tailored) black or gray suit that has both pants and a pencil skirt that hovers around knee length for interviews. Get some fun but appropriate tops to go with it – for one interview I did the black pantsuit but had a deep red shell with a bit of a ruffled neckline matching red pumps but kept everything else simple and minimal (stud earrings, no necklace, buffed nails without polish, and subtle makeup). For the first few weeks of work while you evaluate the dress norms (which hopefully you notice in the interviews) keep up a similar format. One basic, business piece (light grey pencil skirt w/ hot pink top, colored or patterned pencil leg pants with conservative black/white button down and simple pumps or flats, etc…). Watch your accessories too. If you want to go with a statement necklace wear it with a solid maxi dress and blazer, if you like a bold red lip keep accessories and your top more neutral.
    This has been my experience in a corporate business environment and had worked well for over 10 years. I have a lot of people compliment my outfits and my (male) bosses have used me as an example of what is appropriate for younger females just starting out and asking about dress code examples.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Playing with the shirt is often a good move, as well, because many of us look unfortunate in standard white/off-white. There’s a lovely sandy color that looks decent on me, and a cream that is great, but if I’m just a couple shades off on them I look ill. (I don’t mind not looking “cute” or “pretty”, but I very much mind looking like I should be home in bed instead of interviewing. Especially when that’s not the case.) So I interviewed in a charcoal grey suit with a muted teal business shirt; teal suits me well, and with no jewelry or other distractions it worked well.

  66. radmouse*

    There is also the old adage “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have” . While I realize it’s varies by field, dressing more appropriately/formally can depict you as being more professional and understanding the tacit rules of your field. I don’t think I understood this until I was a 30-something watching that show, “What Not to Wear”.

  67. NK*

    I think there’s a lot of good advice here, and I’ll add one point that a few have touched on: just because your boss isn’t saying anything about your wardrobe doesn’t mean it’s OK. I’ve seen many people over the years wear clothing that wasn’t really appropriate for work, and occasionally heard people talk behind their back about it, but I’m pretty sure no one was saying anything to their face. Pay close attention to what well-respected women at your company wear, and if you are ever questioning whether your wardrobe is appropriate, ASK someone, whether it’s your boss or a colleague who you trust with this kind of thing.

  68. Anon4ThisYo*

    Two things: Many commenters are forgetting that the OP might need plus sizes based on the examples she provided. Lots of the suggestions here don’t take into account how much harder finding “appropriate” clothing can be based on availability, cost, and the even greater social expectation of fatphobia that says you need to look as thin and inoffensive as possible despite logic and reason. Secondly, it really stinks that in 2016 we’re still giving out dress code advice from Mad Men. We’ve been giving out this same, tired, pearl clutching advice since I graduated high school over 20 years ago!

    1. Jodi*

      SERIOUSLY! I’m actually surprised by some of the comments in this thread. Why does someone in their early 20s need to dress like someone decades older than her? Why is the concept of personal style being so demonized in this thread?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I don’t think someone in their 20s needs to dress decades older — but also shouldn’t be dressing super young either. There have been lots of suggestions for clothes that aren’t stodgy but are still professional (Banana, Modcloth, etc.).

        1. Kelly L.*

          And a lot of the suggestions have plus sizes: Modcloth, Eshakti, Worthington, Cato, probably others I’m not thinking of.

      2. Meg Murry*

        I think a lot of commenters are trying to help OP balance personal style with what is office appropriate – because the dresses she suggested aren’t appropriate at most offices (honestly, even at offices I’ve worked at where jeans and sneakers were ok I would probably think the dresses/skirts OP linked to were borderline due to the fact that they aren’t very long, have open backs, etc).

        And as far as personal style goes – there is nothing wrong with having personal style, but is that what you want to be known for at work? If I had to pick between being known for being fabulously dressed or being a hard or efficient worker but a boring dresser, I’d pick the work reputation.

  69. RVA Cat*

    Not to derail, but seriously are there any rules like this for men? The only one that occurs to me is with facial hair, particularly the long, bushy “lumberjack beards” popular among some young men.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I used to work with a guy who wore incredibly tight button-down shirts — like two to three sizes too small for him, like maybe at one time they had fit him but had since shrunk in the wash, or maybe they were just his dress shirts from early puberty. Don’t do that.

    2. Megs*

      I think that a lot of it boils down to the fact that business dress for men is much more of a uniform than it is for women. When you have a fairly narrowly defined set of acceptable options (and we can argue another time about whether that’s a plus or a minus), you’ve got fewer ways to go wrong.

      In more formal contexts, I think men would be well advised to:
      – Learn and heed when an undershirt is needed
      – Get shoes shined regularly
      – Don’t wear white socks with dress clothes
      – Keep head and facial hair trimmed
      – Keep longer hair properly cared for (long is fine, scraggly is not)
      – Think about having both brown and black shoes/belts

    3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      They’re not sexualized because OF COURSE they’re not, but the rules do exist. I’m still trying to figure out the fashion guidelines surrounding what makes a good tie a good tie (vs boring, weird, too loud, etc….) for a given outfit. And apparently (according to some male relatives), there’s a ton of importance placed on things like how many buttons on your jacket, how it’s cut, and so on…. so not really so much that the rules don’t exist as that, if anything, they’re far more nitpicky.

      Granted, men’s fashion is a lot simpler, so you have to dive down to the little details to see it.

      1. Kelly L.*

        I know there’s a whole set of rules about what to wear black shoes vs. brown shoes with, too.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Ohhh yeah, that’s fun too. At least they don’t have to worry about white shoes/belts/handbags?

          1. Kelly L.*

            Heh, I solve that one by owning none, but I guess that makes me a heretic between Memorial Day and Labor Day. ;)

            1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

              I have the opposite solution — I have white things because I love them, and I wear them whenever the heck I want! (And also because I love bucking all the fluttery “b-b-but if you’re plus size, light colors make you look fat!” advice out there.)

              1. Kay J*

                LOL this is me too. Oh, I’m too big for mint green pants? Guess Lane Bryant shouldn’t make them in my size then! Yellow and orange will make me look fat? I am fat! I will look fat in whatever I wear.

    4. Liana*

      I think the rules for men are considerably less sexualized, but the facial hair is a good one. I’d also recommend against wearing shorts in the workplace unless you know your environment very well – I’ve never seen it go over well.

      Also, if you’re wearing socks with sandals – STOP IT. STOP IT STOP IT (I’m looking at you Dad!)

    5. Turanga Leela*

      Beards and hair (e.g. man buns) are a potential issue. In terms of wearing clothes that look too young or too casual, I can think of kind of a lot:
      -wearing jeans/cargos rather than khakis or dress pants
      -knowing when to wear a sweater or vest under a blazer (short answer: usually don’t)
      -wearing patterned clothes or novelty ties
      -clothes that are noticeably dirty or wrinkled
      -tailoring that looks trendy rather than classic (like very skinny pants)

  70. Chelsea*

    Thanks for this info. As someone who finds herself owning many dresses that are mid-thigh length (I love Express but I can never seem to find anything longer) it is helpful to have it confirmed that these aren’t work-appropriate. Appreciate the tip on Banana Republic and Ann Taylor, will try those out for my work clothes.

    1. Muriel Heslop*

      Banana isn’t always work-appropriate anymore, alas. Same with J. Crew. I usually have luck at LOFT, Lands’ End, and Zara (lots of midi skirts/dresses.) I work with teenagers so I have to be extra cautious about high neckline and snug clothing.

  71. Nicole*

    Work clothing is the bane of my life, hah. Ultimately I settled into looking significantly less cute for the price of not having to think much about what I wear. This mostly comes into play in terms of not being self-conscious about it.

    I wear a polo shirt (I have them in 6 different solid colors, old navy’s are long enough to tuck in and went for $5/shirt during their back-to-school sale) or a collared and button-down that is long enough to tuck in, paired with a pair of pants/slacks, a belt (I have a fabric black one that’s half-way comfortable although I hate wearing a belt), black boots that look reasonably dressy when tucked into the pants. A sweater or blazer of some sort if I’m cold.

    I work as an engineer with 90% men, and I don’t like owning a ton of clothing that I only wear rarely. (Which means rotating through distinctive tops is a no-go.) I also can’t wear dresses or skirts on any day I’ll end up in the shop, and I never know when I’ll need to end up in the shop. Pretty much everyone is more fashionable/stylish than me, except most of the men, which is fine with me.

    1. AnotherHRPro*

      I’ve generally developed my own work “garanimals” style so that I don’t have to put much effort into dressing. 3 seasons of the year my wardrobe consists of sold pants/skirt (black, brown, blue, gray), a button down shirt and a cardigan. During the summer I basically ditch the cardigan and wear lighter weight blouses or shirts with a tank underneath. Boring, yes. But it is easy.

      1. Nicole*

        Yeah, I don’t even bother with the summer vs winter because we have the ac up too high in the summer, so the only difference is if I leave the sweater or cardigan at my desk or take it with me when I go outside.

        Like, I realized that I never wanted to have to think about what pair of shoes I would wear for the day — other than if it’s a Friday and I get to wear sneakers. That doesn’t suit everyone, which I totally understand, but it sure does make my life easier.

      2. Kelly L.*

        This is me too, with an abstract multicolor tunic substituted for the button-down. I have so many of these damn shirts.

      3. Kyrielle*

        Every so often I deviate, but otherwise: grey or brown pants, black shoes (yes, I know, brown and all that, but good shoes are expensive and I’m hard on them), button-up shirt or polo or blouse. Occasionally a t-shirt*.

        * I’m in an office where one guy wears cargo shorts and jeans are practically a uniform. The t-shirt is not a problem. I’m arguably overdressed most times – I hope no one thinks I’m aiming for management, because I really, really am not.

        1. Kyrielle*

          And an appropriate cardigan, whoops. Have one for each option for pants color. :)

  72. girlonfire*

    I work in a business casual environment, on a creative team, in a company that is fashion-industry related. Dress #1 would be okay for our office, probably not raising any eyebrows. Dress #2 would be inappropriate — too short and too bare. The skirt would be fine (and probably get compliments!), especially if paired with a more conservative top — a white button-down, or a black sweater, for example.

  73. Lauren*

    This is my first time commenting, so exciting! I graduated 4 years ago, and I’m in my first full-time professional job. Our office is business casual, with a handful of business professional days a few times a year. I find a large majority of my clothes at LOFT, but I’ve had great luck with Express, J Crew, GAP, and Target, especially SALE racks. I try to err on the side of caution since I am much younger than my coworkers, and I want to be taken seriously. Also, our organization works with teenagers. One time I dressed a little more trendy and casual since it was the Friday before a holiday, and I was mistaken for one of the kids. I was mortified, so I have tried to dress more professional since then, especially if I have an important meeting. One more little note. Sometimes I search business casual office attire on Pinterest and get ideas for outfits using clothing I already have. Hope this helps! It can be difficult as a recent grad with limited funds, but you’ve got this. Good luck!

    1. Abby*


      I think 90% of my work clothes come from Loft now (and a significant amount of casual outfits, too!)– I think it’s a good balance between quality, value, and style. I especially love how pieces I bought 3 years ago go very well with new arrivals.

  74. Liana*

    Hi OP – I’d say for interviews, to err on the side of caution and dress more conservatively than you think you need to. I love bright colors and tend to have a pretty casual wardrobe, but if I have to go to an interview I keep it to more muted colors and as conservative as possible. Once you’re in the office, definitely scope out the place and get a feel for what’s appropriate, because it really depends. A lot of other commenters have recommended great stores – Ann Taylor and J Crew are generally my go-tos, but also a bit pricey, especially when you’re just starting out. LOFT is also fantastic, and even H&M has great basics. Another one of my recommendations is secondhand clothing st0res – if you can find a secondhand store that sells work clothing, it can be a great way to find clothes for cheap. Also, check out ThredUp if you like online shopping! I use that site constantly.

  75. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Other thoughts… Alison’s advice about balancing things out works in other ways too. For example, I have a summer interview outfit that I love to pieces that is very bright, but compensates by being conservatively cut. Navy skirt in lightweight chiffon with a solid liner, shell in a floral pattern of navy, purple, and dashes of turquoise on a cream background, and a turquoise linen-blend blazer — it’s very cheerful and lightweight, but also gets pulled back to professionalism: the shell is pretty high-necked so there’s not even a shadow of cleavage, the blazer is long-line and comes down to my hips, and the skirt comes to mid-calf. If it were in neutral colors it would be frumpy, but as it is, it’s fun without being girlish. I adore it, and I’ve raked in compliments on my fashion sense when I wear it.

  76. AnotherHRPro*

    There is a lot of good advice here. The only thing I would add is:

    1) If you have to ask if something isn’t professional enough, the answer is no.
    2) You never want your colleagues, interviewers, bosses, etc. thinking about your clothes. You want them to focus on your thoughts, your contribution and your work. If your clothes are a distraction, they are not appropriate.

  77. I'm Not Phyllis*

    I think it depends on your work culture, but it’s best to err on the side of modesty at least until you get a better sense of the environment. Generally I’d agree with Alison that dresses shouldn’t be much shorter than JUST above the knee. But I’m of the mind that people also shouldn’t wear casual shorts to work and there are certainly people at my work place who do! It’s just something that I tend to notice (on both men and women) and whenever I do I have to scold myself for thinking about what they’re wearing rather than how awesome they are at their jobs … but still, that knee-jerk reaction is there.

  78. FiveWheels*

    UK H&M is great for affordable office wear. Suit jacket for £30, suit trousers for £15, office shirts for £13. And they’re neutral enough that a smart, conservative shirt will make them work in even the stuffiest office but a casual top will make the look much more relaxed. Link to follow.

  79. Mena*

    A rule of thumb to consider: I’d want to be remembered in the office as professional, not pretty.

    1. Ultraviolet*

      If “professional” here means “professional-looking”, I think it’s implicit in the question that OP agrees. Otherwise they’d just wear pretty clothes and not worry about whether they looked professional. But they know or suspect that they don’t have to eschew prettiness entirely, so they are asking for finer guidelines than this one. (I feel like some comments are addressing the question, “Is it okay to choose to wear things that are pretty but unprofessional?” but OP was actually asking “In a workplace where people don’t wear suits, what kinds of clothes are professional enough? Specifically, do any kinds of pretty clothes look professional enough?” And that can lead to a feedback loop where more comments appear that are addressing a point that isn’t quite the one the OP made.)

      If “professional” means “acting professional” or even “being competent,” I have mixed feelings about changing your behavior or dress to accommodate coworkers who would remember pretty clothes rather than professionalism and competence.

  80. Important Moi*

    I would just add this website – wardrobeoxygen.com. She has this feature called a capsule that shows you how to make many outfits from a few pieces. She has categories for things like “professional wardrobe,” “inexpensive professional wardrobe,” “going on a cruise,” etc.

    I don’t remember the exact wording, but “young people new to the workforce with not a lot of money to spend on a professional wardrobe” is a category that is addressed.


  81. Kiki*

    Super late to this party, but my advice is that it is just like high school: buy one outfit, get the job/start the school year, see what everyone else is wearing, THEN go out and build the outfit.

    And where I work (West Coast/IT) dresses in general are not appropriate. Nor is lipstick, thank god. We wear jeans (not tight, no holes, no droopsy in the back), or other slacks. Sandals year round. Tee, mostly. And a sweater. I haven’t worn a dress since 1995.

    1. Anon With the Hair*

      This is pretty much what I’ve done. But then I get stuck at the second interview or first day of work.
      Do I wear the same thing every time they see me? (Won’t they think it’s odd I don’t seem to own any other clothes?!) If it was a suit maybe I could and just switch one thing and it would look different enough.
      Or buy a whole new outfit for 2nd interview that is probably way too formal for work normally and just deal with spending the money? (I am usually a thrift store shopper only, so buying even “cheap” real clothes seems so overpriced to me)

      1. Kiki*

        It will probably be different folks…I would and have just switched up the jacket and added a scarf and changed my hair. That should be fine.

        1. Anon With the Hair*

          That’s a good idea. I should keep an eye out for a jacket that might work with dress pants/skirt.
          Is it okay to be less formal for a second interview, especially if I would be meeting with higher ups?

          For example, my SO just got a new job and his first interview was with the hiring manager+others, and his second interview was the hiring manager+CEO+others.
          At the first interview, he felt overdressed compared to the people he met, but then he didn’t want to dress less formal for the second interview when he knew he’d be meeting the CEO. But he literally only had one formal long-sleeved dress shirt that fit (not a need at his old job or new job day to day) so we went shopping. It’s just annoying to buy a shirt to wear for 1 hour that he doesn’t need any other time, but I understand that’s just how it is sometimes.
          Now I’m interviewing, and so we start the cycle again.

          1. Kiki*

            I would keep it as formal as the first interview, or maybe more so if it’s with the top dudes. But again, just dress up the first outfit. You will do great!

    2. Cristina in England*

      I don’t know what I would wear in an office where dresses are considered inappropriate. I gave away all my jeans after I had my first child because I no longer had time to find jeans that fit nor the patience to wear unflattering clothes. Casual jersey dresses + leggings IS my t-shirt and jeans! Maybe I would do yoga pants, if it really was that casual a place.

      1. Cristina in England*

        Ugh. Casual jersey dresses + leggings ARE my t-shirt and jeans. Obviously.

      2. Kiki*

        Well I am on the West Coast and it is 105 F/40C today. I wouldn’t wear leggings if you paid me! Lol. I too have a problem with jeans fitting since I got into bodybuilding. Too loose in the waist, too tight in the rear and thigh. I gained 18 lbs and lost two sizes. There is a line of jeans for lifters I am going to try out someday.

  82. purpleparrots*

    I wish we had an “Ask a Manager” workplace fashion app where people could give you a yes/no on if something is work-appropriate before you buy it.

  83. Lee*

    You know, you can also interview employers — if you want to work somewhere that allows more casual/fun/fashion-forward dress, seek it out. You don’t have to go full automaton to work in the world.

  84. Macedon*

    Afraid anything that comes shorter than a sliver above your knee ends up mentally classed as ‘too short’ for a lot of work environments*. If you’re in a pinch, you could try matching a shorter skirt with a 100% opaque pair of tights in the same colour to minimize the appearance of “immodesty”, but I wouldn’t recommend making a habit out of it.

    *I’m so glad I can turn up in jeans and hoodies on most days in my field. So, so glad.

  85. writelhd*

    This would not work for everyone’s office, mine is more on the casual side of business casual…and it’s not cheap…but I’ve actually started getting more of my work wardrobe at REI and other outdoor type stores (after my first few years of default “polo shirt and slacks” because of being new to the work world and atand at an office that did not have many other women whom I could watch.) I know the outdoor store brands are not cheap, but whenever REI has sales, I jump on them because they have a fair selection of past-knee-length skirts and button up shirts that are also, and this is key, breathable and comfortable and very durable, which, to me, was one of my personal hangups for transitioning out of the “street clothes” I got away with in college. I absolutely hate wearing clothes that are not as comfortable as possible.

  86. Cassie*

    I was just thinking about this today – today must have been bad fashion day at my work place. One assistant was wearing a strappy tank top with her bra straps clearly visible (or maybe it was a 2nd strappy tank), and the 2 straps were twisted around each other to keep the straps in place. A female student was wearing a skirt that was short enough that when she stood up and bowed slightly, I looked away because I didn’t want to get a peek of her underwear (I was standing in the back of the room). And a male student was wearing those Adidas slippers (soccer slippers?) with no-show socks that I thought only women wore with flats.

    My “rules” for myself would be:
    – Skirts/dresses have to cover at least 60% of my thigh while sitting (I’d probably be more comfortable if the skirt covers my whole quadricep). I’m usually in pants anyway.
    – No bare midriff, no bare back or butt, no bare shoulders (personal preference), no cleavage.
    – Tees and jeans are okay (we are a university and our dept has no dress code) but I try to mix and match so I don’t end up looking like a student. E.g. simple v-neck tee with more dressy/structured pants, or a more dressy shirt with dark jeans. A tee with jeans is okay too, once in a while.
    – No flip-flops, Birkenstocks or bedroom slippers (I have seen this from staff). I’m on the fence about dressy slippers/sandals – maybe for work parties but not every day? I wear anything from flats to sneakers to dress shoes with slight heels.
    – Clothes should be fitted but not tight like a sausage casing. No leggings unless they are under a skirt/dress.

    I categorize my clothes in terms of different meeting types. You have the agency meeting, where you wear a dress shirt with dress pants. You have the department meeting, where you wear a nice top or a cardigan w/ shell with dress pants. You have the meeting with the boss, where you wear a nice top with dark jeans. And the end of the school year, day before winter break (no) meeting, where you wear tees and jeans.

  87. L*

    Well, I just sat through a client meeting where the other professional decided to wear a washed out grey tank top with icky black bra straps hanging out and off her shoulders, so this was well timed.

  88. NicoleK*

    Many years ago, I had a coworker who wore cutesy girlish mini skirts to work. Coworker was extremely slender and petite. Though in her early 20s, she looked 16. No one ever told her that it was inappropriate because she continued with the mini skirts (think Heidi Klum length).

  89. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Hope you’re still reading, OP! There’s a lot of good advice on stores, strategies and looks on this thread. I just want to throw in that wherever you live, find someone to do alterations. Yes, they cost money, but (1) something that might just need a small or relatively cheap adjustment might be deeply discounted and (2) things that fit right are more comfortable to wear both actually and psychically. Check with dry cleaners, men’s wear shops, and bridal stores and ask around for someone who alters stuff. Talk to them about how to recognize if something would be an economical fix and what kind of fabric won’t show the alteration as much. This will serve you well.

    1. Kathryn*

      Excellent advice! I would amend slightly though, to suggest that drycleaners can handle simple alterations such as pant hemlines, but if you need something more complicated like taking in the seat, or altering a jacket, or if the article of clothing was expensive, it’s best to find an experienced tailor. Yelp and Angie’s list can also give good reco’s.

  90. Anon With the Hair*

    I have a related question about professional hairstyles. My current office doesn’t care at all as we are not customer facing, but now that I’m looking at interviewing, I’m feeling unsure of what to do with my hair.
    I am a woman with very long (almost elbow length) dark thick wavy hair. What would be the best way to wear it for an interview?
    I don’t like leaving it down as it can be very hot, unruly, and distracting. Maybe if I straightened it, I could leave it down or half down. If I did that, would a plain solid hard headband look professional to keep it out of my face?
    Would a full french braid look professional for an interview? How about a high sleek ponytail? Too casual?
    I would do a french twist or something but my hair is really too long for that. Anything twisted or clipped up tends to fall and pull and then we’re back at unruly and distracting.
    Other ideas?

    1. Kiki*

      Honestly, I will be talking to you and probably won’t notice your hair. Just don’t flip it around or play with it as that can be distracting. If you think you might be tempted then by all means control it somehow. And please make sure it smells clean. I get the no-poi thing but I can always tell the folks that do it. Their hair smells, well, hairy. Again not a big deal, but it does distract me from learning about you and helping you learn about us. Good luck in your search!

    2. sam*

      If you can actually do the high sleek pony, that might work. or maybe a bun? Headbands tend to look a little juvenile. my hair is super thick, and it used to be really long – I couldn’t do anything with it other than put it up because it would just weigh itself down. I finally cut it all off. Obviously not recommending that as a solution to your issue! (I went super short/pixie for a while and then let it grow to where it is now, which is basically chin length – I force myself to keep it at a length that’s too short to wear up, otherwise I would just put it in a ponytail everyday, and my hair has too many flyaways to ever look professional when I do that).

      What about – do you have any places near you like Drybar or Blo? I’ve never used them myself, but they basically only do hair blowouts (no cutting). I’ve thought about using them when I have to go to an event or something where my hair might have to look a bit more spot on than it normally does.

      1. Anon With the Hair*

        I definitely have the flyaway problem too, often with ponytails or buns. Unless my hair has a lot of product (or grease) it doesn’t smooth down super well. Sometimes I can get away with a low pony or low bun with a part, that can just feel very matronly sometimes.
        Any votes for or against a french braid? Sometimes I do that as it can look fancier than just a pony, but will holds everything off my face and keeps me from playing with it.
        I’m not sure if we have a blowout place like you mentioned, but I could check into it. I am just not someone who usually does much of anything with my hair, so it stresses me out when it’s supposed to look nice!

        1. NaoNao*

          I feel like a French Braid is going to look a bit childish, like you’re about to do your gymnastic routine :) or festival-bound. I would do a smooth, middle of head bun, chignon, or a thick non-cloth headband with a low pony. You could also ask the salon for a simple, classic updo. I think hair pulled back or done in some way looks slightly more formal, especially if you’re worried about playing with it.
          You can also do a trick where you pull it back in a pony, and then curl the whole thing in one giant curl.

          One other thing I think looks really cool is this: you pull it back in a high pony slicked with product. Then braid the pony and elastic the bottom–try to get as much hair as far down as you can into that braid. Then twist it into a bun and secure with an elastic. Tuck any wisps of hair that didn’t make the braid into the bun. The longer your hair looks, the more subtle texture the bun will have. Just use clear or hair colored elastics and you’ll have an interesting, but sophisticated, look.

          1. Anon With the Hair*

            Thanks! I like the braid in a bun idea, if I can keep it from having pieces sticking out everywhere. I don’t tend to use a lot of product in my hair, but I should probably try some for this.
            I’m not sure what you mean by the “pull it back in a pony, and then curl the whole thing in one giant curl.” Do you mean like a big spiral, or tucked under somehow?

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      My hair is about the same length, and I usually do a headband, half-up/half-down, or a low bun. A french braid would also be fine. Personally, I wouldn’t do a high ponytail or a bun on the top of your head, but both of those could still be made to look professional , if neatly done. (And, like Kiki says, you’re not playing with your hair or flipping it around while talking.)

    4. Stan*

      Oh! Oh! Oh! I have similar hair, plus coarse to boot. My go-to style is a braid into a bun. I do a moderate part on the right side and braid the left side back, only adding hair from the hairline so that the braid is more subtle. I use wax as I braid to help tame the flyaways. One I’ve braided to about my ear, I pull all my hair back and secure it in a low, sleek bun. (Day-to-day is often a messy bun, but interviews, meetings, etc. I go for a sleeker look.) Finding a good hair wax has been a game changer for me. I use Color Proof Rule Breaker. It lasts forever, but really cuts down on the brillo look.

    5. Ghost Town*

      I have long (the tips are past my elbows and it is in a braid today), fine, thin, used-to-be-blond brown hair. A bun at the nape of my neck is my go-to for interview and more formal meetings. For me, that keeps the hair out of the way and doesn’t pull too much. I wouldn’t leave it down for many reasons, but mainly to keep myself from playing with it. Buns work for me, and I can usually do it with just one small clip. I can also use various pins to distribute the weight more.

      You said that a low bun with a part makes you feel matronly. Have you tried a side part (or no part)? If you have time, play with that!

      I’m not crazy about the idea of a french braid, but that could be because on my thin, fine hair it wouldn’t look great by itself. Could you do a french braid then bun the tail?

    6. Anonsydance*

      You and I could be hair twins. I rarely leave my hair down, especially for important things. I’ve always had some sort of bang/side bang thing that has frames my face because I think it looks nicer/interesting and then I pull it into a bun. I like to try to different positions of a bun, but I’m kind of a fan of the side low bun. It gives some interest and doesn’t feel “matronly.”

      1. Anon With the Hair*

        Sounds like it! I do the low side bun with small side part often for work, but it’s usually just quick and not clean enough for an interview. Partly because I have the thick hair+hair tie problem where I can’t get it around 3 times but 2 times isn’t tight enough and it all starts slipping within an hour. (I bought a new type that was perfect! And then they all immediately stretched out. Sad day.)
        I could try just doing a better job of it though! :-)

        1. Anonsydance*

          I also have giant bobby pins (2.75in) that help with the staying power of buns. I’ve also found some bigger elastics that are large enough to go around your wist without cutting off circulation. I think I got them at CVS. If you criss cross the bobby pins, it gives them more staying power. It’s definitely doable, just not fun taking out the pins afterwards. I frequently pin my bangs back with a little poof (I can have a little bit of fun, only woman in the office and the only one who tends to dress close to business casual) and forget my pins are in until I wake with some weird morning hair.

    7. Anon With the Hair*

      Thanks everyone!
      My hair is wavy and frizzy but not textured so it’s hard to find a product to tame the flyaways without making it look completely greasy.
      I like the idea of some kind of braid/bun combo and I will play around with that.
      So helpful to have input so I don’t feel completely off base. My SO’s opinion is useless when it comes to hair!

      1. SoCalKate*

        No idea if this will help, but I thought I’d mention it. My hair is moderately curly (fairly loose curls) but wavy on the half near the scalp. I use mousse, but I also use the curly girl method and leave in a lot of conditioner. I wonder if that would help you with the wavy / frizzy. It helps smooth out my hair without making it all greasy. I use a truly ridiculous amount of conditioner and then leave most of it in (instead of rinsing it all out, I kind of splash water on it and rinse a bit out, if that makes sense).

    8. Editor in Academia*

      Try to find 4-inch steel or brass U pins. (A three-prong “fork” is good too. But you need a good 4 inches to get across the whole back of your head… and not flimsy metal.) Despite my thick, unruly hair, I now look more professional, every day, with a nice bun. And it’s not a hard little ballerina bun with my hair dragged tightly away from my hairline; when I use these pins I can make it soft, romantic.

  91. Kathryn*

    I want to congratulate the OP by even thinking to ask this question. Many women, especially those just starting out in their careers, seem to think that dressing for *business* is the same as dressing *up*. Sadly, retailers and fashion designers don’t do much to clear up this confusion (of course fashion designers in particular seem to be downright antagonistic to women for a variety of reasons, imho, but I digress…). Even a solid standby like Ann Taylor, for example, where I buy most of my work clothes, markets strappy, 4-inch stiletto heels (I’ll be so glad when that trend passes) as though they would fly in most offices, when they are actually inappropriate in any reasonably conservative office. Attire like that does nothing but undermine a woman’s authority. When in doubt, in almost any industry (maybe not creative ones) you can’t go wrong by aiming for simple, streamlined, basic, neutral pieces. And a streamlined silhouette is quite elegant, so it’s not like you’re necessary losing out on your prettiness.

    One random piece of advice: I think that in general, it’s important to know the difference between knits and wovens, and to realize that knits are generally more casual. A knit is something with stretch, like a t-shirt or sweater, and a woven is like a man’s dress shirt, or a bedsheet–it doesn’t stretch. (Wovens with some spandex or lycra do stretch obviously, but hopefully the basic distinction is clear.)

    My personal opinion is that knits really only work on tops, and almost never on bottoms, unless your office is super casual. I’m talking about, for example, a pencil skirt in a t-shirt kind of knit, like they sell at forever 21. It clings to your butt and shows “under butt.” You know how you can see the entire outline of butt in one of those skirts? It’s weekend wear.

    The exception to the no-knits-on-bottom rule would be a full, gathered, a-line skirt, or *maybe) loose pants, if your office is casual. But even then, I would exercise caution.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Slips!! Knits can still be sleek with slips. Yes, they are still sold. Often hard to find, but worth looking for. Don’t go for ‘pretty’ ones, get something with no lace so less friction. Don’t worry about them looking ‘frumpy’, they are worn under things with a purpose and no one (if they are the right size) will see them. Take the articles of clothing you need the slip for to try on with the slips and make sure hems don’t peek out, and slits align, etc.

      1. Kathryn*

        Yeah, of course there are exceptions and ways to make a knit work. I could see a slip helping. Or, if something was simply a really high-quality piece that draped nicely, like a nice jersey wrap dress. I guess I am thinking more along the lines of cheap knits that are intended to be tight, or flimsy fabrics. (Like one of the dresses the OP links to looks thin to me.)

        1. OlympiasEpiriot*

          Yup, avoid schmata. Knits need to have some body and proper line to them. Also, store them folded with tissue paper because hanging them causes them to stretch in ways that’ll age them and make them fit badly.

  92. Ash in Canada*

    I feel your pain OP! I went through a similar situation and it can be a difficult lesson to learn. At the interview stage play it safe: don’t expose your shoulders and no one should ever see your cleavage. Once you’re on the job for a while it gets easier to gauge what is the norm for your industry/office/etc.

    In the end, I invested in a pair of moderately-priced black dress pants and a moderately-priced black pencil skirt for interviews. You can dress them up with a blazer and blouse or down with a cute top and cardigan, depending on where you’re interviewing (or working). At first it might feel like you’re playing dress up but these pieces can do a lot to help you present yourself as a professional. They’ll probably last you a lot longer than a pretty dress from Forever 21 would too. Good luck!

  93. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Came back to this thread because I think I *do* have something useful to add:

    All of your budgetary concerns notwithstanding, please DO look at websites with more tailored and (generally) expensive clothing to give yourself ideas. This will help you develop a mental shopping list of clothing niches to fill. It is possible to put together elegant outfits from items found at discount stores. One site that has some useful clothing ideas (imo, I’m in a big sophisticated city and while I’m not in a “creative” company, I interact with practical creatives as clients) is that for the Carlisle Collection. Don’t get terrified by the prices. Just look at their photos. Here is an outfit I would feel just fine wearing to a client meeting except I’d change the jacket to something without the peekaboo effect and probably silvery grey or a solid jewel-tone made out of a boucle (type of yarn): http://www.carlislecollection.com/lookbook/detail/CNFA16015/ I would also be wearing different shoes. Maybe these: https://www.fluevog.com/shop/4497-davis-black-weave?item=18&of=98&anchor=true

    I also buy things from Muji. Japanese style can be very sleek and minimalist. Muji’s clothes are not dramatic or frilly and work great in a work environment. For the quality, I find their prices reasonable and — happy day! — they have recently opened some stores in the US. http://www.muji.us/store/apparel/women-s/women-clothes.html

    Also, educate yourself about how clothes are made. This will help you decide if a purchase is worth it or not. The easiest way to do that is to start with descriptions of well-made menswear. Women’s clothing is made like crap by comparison, as a whole. A good book about it (if you ignore the tone, unless you find Jeeves-type stuff amusing) is Elegance: A Guide to Quality in Menswear by G. Bruce Boyer. It is old and out-of-print, but can probably be found in a library. Interlibrary loan if you like. (Do they still do that??) I think he (Boyer) still blogs at some expensive menswear quarterly aimed at people with 6 homes, so you might be able to find his stuff on the web.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      (This is a PS to a comment waiting for blessing of links.) I just checked Muji’s sizes on-line, though, and they are limited! I had the opposite impression in the store. That is annoying.

  94. newlyhr*

    I worked with new graduates on career planning. It’s a mindset shift to enter the workforce when it comes to dressing. All workplaces have a “uniform” whether it is explicit or implicit. The quicker you accept that, the easier it will be to dress for work. You are dressing for the role, so pay attention to what your colleagues are wearing and don’t deviate too much from that, at least in the beginning.

  95. specialist*

    I am late to the party.
    Employment Lawyer, thank you for your commentary. Positive comments make us feel good, but criticism is how you learn to do better. This is a rare view from the male perspective AND from the male boss perspective. You don’t have to like it, but you’d be wise to listen. Dump the sexy clothes. We are trying to sell our professional skills. Dress is a way to sell yourself and if your dress says “sexy” or “cute” you may be doing yourself a disservice.

    Something not mentioned. When you are young and don’t have much money for a wardrobe, stick with things that mix and match well. Your dark base colors matter here. Black and Navy don’t go together and you need different shoes for these outfits. When starting out, pick one or the other.

    Now here are some basic rules I came up with for my office staff. We are legally prohibited from wearing open toed shoes and bare legs.
    No hair color that doesn’t exist in nature. Hair is to be neat, clean, and appropriately trimmed.
    Jewelry is to be clean, neat, no obscenities, earrings recommended to be smaller than a quarter.
    I recommend a selection of studs. These are easy to get and go well from outfit to outfit. Pearls are a great choice. Ebay has decent looking pearls for not much money. Statement jewelry pieces can be found on the sale sites at the various art museums. Also a great source for mother in law gifts.
    No bare tummies ever, no sleeveless tops, no backless items.
    No cleavage, recommend shirts rarely lower than the second rib
    skirts should touch the patella (kneecap)
    No sports logos or clothing that advertises anything (small visible designer’s label OK)
    Clothing should fit appropriately and not be worn or have noticeable stains
    no hoodies ever
    cardigans (purchased by me) can be worn, these are knit and all of a uniform color
    no fleece
    athletic shoes are out.
    undergarments should never be seen. Bras should be appropriately fitted. 70% of American women are in the wrong bra. White bras really have no purpose in society. Purchase skin-toned undergarments and save the “fun” stuff for when it won’t show through at the wrong time.

    1. Anon3*

      Great post.. I haven’t read all the comments but I’d highly recommend getting your colors done, we waste so much money on clothes that wash us out, and also buying good expensive pieces and get them tailored. Fit is so crucial. Buy fewer but better clothes that you will love!

  96. Anon3*

    Such an interesting topic. My company was very causal and I ‘d wear things like a plain tee shirt with a flowy knee length skirt and wedges or cute dresses. But we recently merged with another company and the women are uber professional, suits, pencil skirts and pumps, all plain, no prints. Now I feel a bit silly in my clothes and fear that I won’t be taken seriously. But their clothes are so boring!!!! It’s a struggle to conform and maintain my individuality. I try to always wear heels now and more structured clothes, but I think getting dressed should be fun!

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Think of dressing for work as putting on a uniform that is telegraphing your skills. It isn’t against individuality.

      If I were in your shoes, I’d be checking out how the merger played out and who is ‘on top’. Dress for the position you want to end up in.

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