are people judging me for looking scruffy at work?

A reader writes:

I have two bachelor degrees, am in my mid-50s, and work in the public sector. The money isn’t great but I enjoy what I do.

I recently heard someone mention that their boss dressed “poorly” and had grey hair, while they themselves “dressed like a professional woman who made X amount should.” I am wondering about professionalism in this respect.

While I consider myself professional, I am one of these people who is always a bit “scruffy.” I dress in clean clothing and have clean hair, but I am one of those people who can make designer clothes look rumpled. I’m sure you know the type — the people who just aren’t fashionistas, are a little odd and quirky, the misfit who sticks out somehow. The dress pants that should look elegant look just odd on them, the shirts off slightly. Maybe a bit of pet hair or lint, they get ink stains on their hands, never wear heels, etc.

My work is precise and concise, and I am dedicated and a great team player. Yet I have to wonder how many people judge me because I don’t wear designer clothes (I am working poor), I have grey hair, wear no makeup, and wear business casual as per my dress code. What do people like me do who simply aren’t clothing people, aren’t elegant, who simply can’t afford expensive clothing and don’t like fussing with their appearance as long as they are clean and decently attired? I have sticky tape rolls for the lint and stray hair, make sure my shoes are clean, etc. Why does my hair color or lack of fashion sense matter when it comes to professionalism? Shouldn’t it be behavior and work that matters instead of being coiffed?

As long as you’re dressed reasonably professionally and have done some basic grooming, in most fields you’ll be fine.

Let’s break that down. “Reasonably professionally” means in compliance with your office dress code (if yours is business casual, then business casual is fine), with clothes that don’t have obvious rips, holes, or stains (we can debate whether that should be an expectation but generally it is) and which fit reasonably well. “Basic grooming” is less about makeup and perfectly coiffed hair and more about things like not having hair hanging your face and generally looking neat and clean.

In most fields, there is no expectation that you will wear designer clothes or high heels.

It’s fine to have grey hair. Many, many professionals do!

In most fields and in most jobs, what you’re describing won’t be a problem. You’re a little rumpled! You sometimes have an ink stain on your hands. In most jobs, those things are not a big deal.

There are some fields and jobs where you’re expected to look more polished — think fashion, some types of sales, some parts of law, some parts of finance, some types of PR, some services catering to the wealthy. You would almost certainly know if you were in one of those industries. It’s not most of them.

That said, even in fields that don’t expect that kind of polish, sometimes you will go further if you have it, especially as your roles become higher-level. Then again, it’s also true that plenty of people succeed in those roles without it. There are far more “quirky” or “rumpled” people in high-level roles than discussions of professional polish often acknowledge.

There’s certainly a spectrum of “scruffy” and being on the very far end of it can be a problem, but based on what you described, you’re almost certainly fine.

{ 412 comments… read them below }

  1. Bend & Snap*

    My sector of PR requires a high degree of polish. I enjoy it but it’s not for everyone.

    1. Mama Bear*

      I remember a previous Marketing Manager coming to work in heels and pencil skirts while pregnant. I fully embraced more comfortable clothing, but also had a very different non-customer facing job.

      For OP, if you are worried, maybe ask a trusted friend to help you weed out clothing that isn’t your best look but someone who would otherwise be reassuring about your workwear. But other than that, consider the source. Someone who talks the way your coworker did *about their own boss* sounds awfully insecure.

    2. Alice's Rabbit*

      A good tailor can make even the most rumpled individual appear polished.
      It sounds to me like OP just has one of those body types that doesn’t quite fit clothes straight off the rack. I don’t either. Knowing how to tailor – or hiring someone to make adjustments for you – can make all the difference. And it’s really not that expensive, especially when you invest in a few quality pieces (a few pairs of slacks, and a couple of jackets) that you can mix and match with different blouses and accessories.

      1. Artemesia*

        Great advice — assemble a wardrobe of properly fitting ‘uniform clothes’ that look put together on you and then don’t worry about it. I grew up at a time when it was hard to find clothing that fit as I am somewhat tall (not so much today but by the standards of the 50s and 60s). I was also very thin in my youth but with wide hips and so every pair of slacks was not only baggy in the waist but also too short.
        I am sorry I didn’t discover the magic of tailoring decades before I did. I am also sorry I didn’t embrace the idea of a few very good clothes rather than lots of cheaper clothes. You don’t need tons of clothes if your basics fit you well and are chosen to mix and match and look good on you. Have a rack in the closet with your work wardrobe and you can dress in the dark and forget about it. Men also have the benefit of relatively inexpensive shirt laundry which means they can have a rack of clean crisp shirts with little effort and expense. And if casual is the norm, they can have a rack of clean crisp polo shirts with little effort.

      2. EC*

        Tailoring can make a world of difference, especially since a lot of clothing ostensibly for women is cut with no allowance for breasts and hips. I have to get all of my pants and fitted skirts tailored at the waist because companies that make clothing assume waist and hips will be the same size. Dress shirts are a huge pain for anyone with large-ish breasts. I have to buy them a few sizes too big so that they’ll fit in the bust, and have them taken in everywhere else. If I didn’t have my clothes altered I would end up looking extremely frumpy because everything would be oversized and ill fitting.

        1. TardyTardis*

          About 30 years ago, Frederick’s of Hollywood actually made business-y type clothing for the woman with a hourglass figure. Bonworth’s makes clothing for the woman whose hourglass has turned into a grandfather clock and has tons in petite sizes for those of us where the sands has run down hill.

      3. Bend & Snap*

        Tailoring is a GREAT suggestion. You can go through your wardrobe and find what needs to fit better, and those things will be like new when they’re tailored to your body.

      4. Ping*

        I found this to be true myself. My clothes looked much better after a tailor took in the waist.

        I also learned a lot from the Vivienne Files on creating a capsule wardrobe with a few accessories.

        As you said, a couple of nice jackets and pants can go a long way in a wardrobe.

        1. ANC*

          I work with younger professionals who are also “working poor.” I suggest buying an inexpensive black blazer from somewhere like the GAP (on sale) or Old Navy (a little less expensively). That’s still a lot for some people who are living paycheck to paycheck but I’ve heard from many people that it boosts their self esteem. It always looks crisp. Plus they sell ones that are made of jersey so are still comfortable. With a simple pair of dark jeans and a white tshirt or blouse, this is a great outfit!

          1. Alice's Rabbit*

            That does sound like a sharp outfit. I often shop thrift stores and then alter the clothing to fit better, because for the longest time I couldn’t afford new clothes. But I could make a $5 thrift store suit look custom made with a few minor tweaks.

      5. DarnTheMan*

        I live for my tailor; I’ve even gotten her to tailor some of my less expensive pieces (Old Navy Pixie Pants ftw) because I know for a few dollars more, they’ll sit that much better on my body and make me look more put together.

      6. Middle Aged Lady*

        Find a friend who lnows clothes and knows when the food stores have sales. I alsways look rumpled so I warned my friends I needed fabric that wouldn’t wrinkle or bunch. Find a beauty school for a great cheap haircut and some product to make the gray hair shine. I got a Tide pen, a sewing kit, and shoe shine stuff to keep at work. Find some basic accessories you like and wear them. I feel you OP. I can never look elegant. For years, I had a tiny clothing budget. With help, I now at least fit in! Maybe you also need a raise? But that is a different post.

      7. Glitsy Gus*

        Agree on this. Even if you really don’t care much, and don’t want to spend much on getting a lot of clothes tailored, consider just getting a couple pairs of pants or a pair of pants and a skirt, and a blazer or jacket tailored. Then you can pair those with some nice, solid color blouses (you can even find some nice knit shirts that are a step up from “T-shirt” that are easier to fit). That way you have a couple go-to items that you know fit great and look good for the more important work days.

        Overall, I really don’t care much about clothes, but when I know I have a big meeting, or have an interview (even an informal, internal one) it’s nice to know that I can look at least a little put together. It gives just that little top up of confidence.

  2. Heidi*

    Hi OP. The person you overheard who was trash-talking their boss for having grey hair doesn’t sound very professional. Clothing doesn’t equal class.

    1. Stormfeather*

      Yeah, this is what I was coming to say, at least the gray hair part. Since we don’t know how said boss dressed (and it could have been lacking in professionalism for all we know and that’s what they meant by “poorly,”) I would normally skate past that. Here though I’m still giving it side eye due to the “OMG she has GREY HAIR” bit, which makes me skeptical about their judgement entirely.

      So yeah, OP, don’t give this opinion any weight, please!

        1. Ping*

          Yes. The speaker moved the goalposts on professionalism so that they could “win” the competition. The competition in which they were the only participant.

    2. juliebulie*

      Totally agree. Someone who brags about her appearance and the amount of her salary is not someone you need to compare yourself to.

    3. pony tailed wonder*

      Sometimes when one person is insulting another person, it says more about the person who is speaking rather than the person who is being spoken about. The speaker is the one who ended up looking bad in this, jmo.

    4. AKchic*

      Absolutely, as everyone else is saying.

      Grey hair does not equal “unprofessional”, especially for femme-presenting people. We have hair. It naturally turns grey at a certain point in our lives. Not everyone wants to, or can afford to, color it and keep up with the coloring routine/maintenance. Some of us purposely choose to wear our wisdom glitter with pride because our society has chosen to look down on aging in general (and make it taboo for womxn to age).

          1. josie*

            So…this person is good at her job and everyone likes her and people are STILL telling her to ‘invest’ in this or that?! Why should she change?! I’m so confused and disappointed at many of your commenters. I’m not going to go to a frigging TAILOR so the Mean Girls don’t talk snark. If she were a man, this wouldn’t even be a conversation. God, it sucks so much to be a woman…you are never, ever good enough. Even if you’re great at your job, you still aren’t up to snuff. Ugh I’m so pissed…I’m going to shut up now. Except to say to OP – you do you, and f the haters – they are no doubt jealous bc you are popular.

      1. Clorinda*

        My last inch of dyed hair has been cut off and my hair looks amazing, much better than it had done over the previous decade of dyeing. I started letting it grow out because I saw so many woman with fabulous grey. It’s becoming a bit of a fashion statement, or so I tell myself.

        1. Tink*

          I started going gray when I was 27, I’m 65 now. I work in Pharma and there have been times, in an all company meeting of 500+ people, where I am one of only 2 people with gray hair. Then I do the math and smile when I realize how many THOUSANDS of dollars I have saved over the years.

          1. Tisiphone*

            My first gray hair came in when I was 24 and I was ecstatic. I’m a last-born and I used this gray hair as proof that I was an adult. Then it all came in at the same place and I had a stripe like Bellatrix.

          2. allathian*

            I found my first gray hairs when I was 27. My mom has beautiful gray hair now, and I’ve inherited my hair from her. In her 40s and 50s it was salt and pepper. She has a really cool bluish tinge to her hair to the point that a friend once asked her where she gets her hair dyed, but nope, it’s all natural.

            My hairdresser tells me my salt and pepper hair is beautiful. It would be to her advantage to try and get me to get it dyed (I’m far too lazy to start doing it myself), but I’m very glad she’s honest.

          3. AKchic*

            My maternal grandfather was a premature greyer. I inherited that gene and started seeing grey hair at 13. And not just on my head (ifyouknowwhatimsayin’).

            I’m about 20% grey right now, and it’s my 37th birthday today. I wish it would come in streaks, but it has been very much a hair here, hair there randomness. Some is finally starting to patch up and I love it. I want the streaks. I haven’t dyed my hair in a few years. Sometimes I’ll do highlights, or bright-colored bits, but I don’t dye my entire head and I don’t hide my grey. My stylist knows I love the grey and she loves the fact that I don’t hide it.

        2. Timothy (TRiG)*

          The “streak of grey” à la Claire Saffitz does seem to be fashionable these days, yes.

      2. Arvolin*

        On the other hand, getting my hair colored was the best career move I made in this century. It started getting me offers rather than just interviews.

      3. Tierrainney*

        Wisdom Glitter is great

        I call mine Unicorn Hair, because my then young child named them that.

    5. Noblepower*

      Trash talking someone for having grey hair is, in my opinion, blatant ageism. Having grey hair in no way indicates how skilled, knowledgeable or professional a person is at their job.

      1. Littorally*

        Agreed. And chances are it’s sexist as well — men with greying hair can be “distinguished” while women with grey hair are “unpolished.”

        1. whingedrinking*

          Exactly what I was thinking. There are plenty of men in the public eye who have gone grey without anyone batting an eye, but god forbid a woman have single thread of silver.

          1. Amy Sly*

            And there are men who embarrass themselves dyeing their hair in a futile attempt to deny their age. Chris Matthews, as an example, seemed to think for the longest time that dying his hair increasingly implausible shades of blond would prevent people from noticing that he was born in 1945.

            1. DarnTheMan*

              Or to cover up receding hairlines; Karamo Brown’s (of Queer Eye) story about the other cast members staging an intervention on him because he was trying to paint in a hairline to cover up his receding one is hilarious – especially because he looks so good bald!

        2. alienor*

          It is often sexist, but I also think men get off easier because the standard male-presenting haircut is short and easier to control. For women who have grey or greying hair and don’t want a pixie cut, it’s unfortunately easy to drift over the line from “older professional” into “local hippie/witch,” especially because grey hair tends to have a wiry texture and stick out at odd angles. (Men who have grey hair and wear it longer end up looking like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, which doesn’t do them any favors either.)

          1. Amy Sly*

            This, and older grey/white hair can yellow at the ends of long hair.

            It’s unfortunately one of the truths of aging that being well-groomed takes longer and longer, between unruly wiry greys and beards sprouting on our chins. And men are not immune: they get forests of hair sprouting from their ears and noses, plus attack eyebrows and the same unruliness of white hairs, when they get to keep their hair. Personally, I’ll take the tougher to control greys over baldness!

            1. allathian*

              Yes, as a woman so do I. My husband started going bald in his 20s. In his mid-30s he shaved it all off. It works for him and bald heads were even fashionable for a while. But I prefer a completely bald head over the desperation of men in the 1980s, 1990s, and earlier who tried to comb what little hair they had over their bald spot, with very little success.

              1. Amy Sly*

                Yeah. For every man who ages gracefully into a silver fox, there’s several other men with a comb-over, a forest growing out of his ears, a bad dye job, and/or the mad scientist look. For every Mitt Romney (love him or hate him), there’s a Bernie Sanders, Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump.

                1. Middle Aged Lady*

                  In defense of the combover: I think some guys are doing it to protect their skulls and not to fool anyone. Sunburn and bumping your bald head on stuff hurt! I don’t judge.

          2. Artemesia*

            I had sort of hoped that when I got old the standard would be kaftans and shaved heads, but alas. And yes, grey hair can be beautiful but also tends to have awful texture. I have fine hair and let it go grey when I retired. It actually looks quite beautiful if it is behaving but the kinky weird hairs are hard to control and it is hard to make presentable — a lot of pony tails or clips in my life these days.

          3. anonymoose*

            The older I get, the more “witch” starts to sound like a compliment and not an insult. But yeah, obviously there are jobs where that vibe doesn’t fly.

            1. Kuododi*

              I’m having a fuzzy memory moment. There’s a program called “Dress for Success” available in the USA. They will work with women for whom a style makeover is needed before starting, transitioning to new responsibilities. They take donations of gently used business clothes for their clients to wear. They also help with education on care/maintaining the new clothes, general fashion, how to pick the best outfit for the occasion. I’m certain that a brief Google search would help find a local chapter of the program close to where you reside. Best regards. Kuododi

    6. Observer*

      Clothing doesn’t equal class.

      Words to live by.

      This person is not someone who I would worry about too much.

    7. Van Wilder*

      This was a person who was trying to make herself feel better by tearing another woman down. We’re all victims of the patriarchy but I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in her judgment.

    8. Lora*

      Word. Am reminded of the difference between Old Money and New Money.

      In the region where I live, the Old Money types whose family came over on the Mayflower and grew up sailing and going to the country club, look scruffy. Grey hair, little to no makeup, polo shirts and khakis – usually subtly-classy shoes, like penny loafers but in a high-end brand. A lot of LL Bean. They get out the Brooks Brothers for special occasions, but haven’t changed their look since 1983 even if they were born in 1995. Their hobbies are sailing, traveling to developing countries, going to fundraiser dinners for museums and orchestras, something involving horses, and potentially raising pedigree dogs. They drive a very elderly Volvo or Mercedes sedan or station wagon, if they drive at all (as opposed to having a car service). They look definitely scruffy, “let themselves go,” in the eyes of say, Hollywood folks. They give absolutely no fks, as they can buy and sell those people ten times over.

      The New Money types have designer clothes and impeccable makeup, hair. They drive very fancy cars. Their hobbies are going to the club and getting table service, traveling to luxury party type locations, investing in startups and getting divorced to marry a much-younger secretary.

      Not that they do not both get to be CEO of the company – they sure do – but the petit bourgeoisie seem to feel more affronted by Old Money going around like a regular person on the subway. The petit bourgeoisie think of rich people doing New Money things, having a gold toilet and panda steaks for dinner every day, sort of thing – they have a sort of Louis XVI notion of how rich people should behave, as opposed to a King Willem-Alexander concept of being reserved and training for a regular job.

      1. Admiral Thrawn Is Still Blue*

        Love this description of Old vs New. I’m from the South, where that is a very important distinction. It’s my aspiration to someday win a nice lotto prize and thus have New Money (as I have none now) but act like Old Money. No huge houses or high end cars for me.

      2. ...*

        Is any of this at all relevant to the letter writer? Or just a description of what your hometown was like?

        1. Lilyp*

          The point is there are many very wealthy and influential people out there who look “scruffy” and the people criticizing them for being “unpolished” are actually just showing their own shallowness and misunderstanding of class norms

          1. JustaTech*

            Weirdly this is also true of research scientists: the really respected senior scientists with huge grants dress in old, worn-out very casual clothes, even at big conferences where the more junior people have dug out their suits.

            There is a level of money/status where one can simply say “to heck with it” about your appearance because you have enough standing that it doesn’t matter.

            1. TardyTardis*

              The CEO/Owner/Creator/Deity of old ExJob used to go around in blue jeans. cowboy boots and short sleeved shirts, with an entourage of suits trailing behind. He did this whenever there was too much fuss over dress codes in some of the offices…

        2. virago*

          I am quite familiar with the Old Money look and style, as a nearly lifelong resident of New England. Much about it, especially the “zero effs” factor and the dogs (my family had standard poodles when I was growing up), agrees with me. I made an Old Money friend in college (he was the only one who lived near me, and used to give me rides home); his mother had dogs, horses and a needlepoint hanging that read “Dull Women Have Immaculate Houses.”

          What has never worked: The clothes. I am partly of Mediterranean descent. My hips and chest are neither flat nor narrow. Khakis, polo shirts and loafers look best on women with Katharine Hepburn’s spare physique.

          I may look like more of a clothes horse than the typical Old Money woman, but that’s because Old Money clothes make me look like a refrigerator box.

      3. Zennish*

        Yep… once at a university I was invited to a reception for a multimillionaire who’d just made a “the building is being named after him” size donation. Everyone in the department worried for days about how formal it should be, and what dress code was appropriate. The guy showed up in jeans, converse, black t-shirt and a sport coat.

      4. Filosofickle*

        I live in the San Francisco area. We don’t have an old/new money dynamic so much, but we do have really relaxed dress codes and I think one reason for that is because no one can tell for sure who has money. Stores and restaurants are afraid of snubbing someone scruffy only to find out they are rich or powerful. That wild-haired lady in the beat up Volvo? The kid in a hoodie on a skateboard? Could be crazy rich. You just don’t know! There’s a lot of DGAF money in Marin and Silicon Valley.

      5. Timothy (TRiG)*

        No mention of breeding or rescuing swamp dragons? (Lady Sibyl was clearly drawn from life. Pratchett knew the aristocracy.)

    9. Aerin*

      It seems to be a common theme in advice columns where the LW hears an opinion from a single person and immediately starts questioning their entire worldview, rather than coming to the more likely conclusion that said person is a jerk.

      1. Elsajeni*

        I think this happens a lot when the One Jerk’s Opinion is a thing that you’re already anxious or insecure about — when you’re already afraid that everyone is secretly judging you for the way you look or the way your clothes fit or whatever, it’s really hard to hear that one stray jerk saying “actually, I am paying close attention to everyone’s minor flaws” and not take it as a confirmation that all your fears are true.

    10. Caroline Bowman*

      100% this. How is ”grey hair” unprofessional FFS?

      OP, if you are clean, neat-ish, not in dirty rags / broken shoes and – crucially – have a pleasant, professional demeanour and work extremely well (I’m guessing you do) and have done for many years in your industry, then carry on. The person you overheard is rude and probably annoyed that despite the desperate ”unprofessionalism” of their boss daring to have grey hair and dress normally, they are of a higher rank.

      Nothing wrong with dressing well of course, or wearing plenty of makeup / spending time on one’s hair. For some of us, that makes us feel good. For others, they genuinely don’t care and nor should they.

      1. JustaTech*

        The only, only way I could see grey hair as “unprofessional” is if you have really, really obvious roots (like, white roots and the rest is black/dark brown). But then it’s not the grey that’s “unprofessional” it’s the super-obvious roots situation. Just like chipped nail polish is usually worse looking than no nail polish.
        (All of which is completely out the window in the current situation.)

        Further caveat: this should only apply to jobs where your appearance is part of the job (as Alison mentioned).

    11. Kiki*

      Yeah, there are potentially some valid criticisms of the way a person is presenting themselves professionally, but it doesn’t sound like this person was doing that. This person was being rude and putting someone down to boost themselves up.
      LW, if you want to present as more “polished” and that’s something that would make you feel more secure or could open up more doors for you, there are some great tips in this comment section. But don’t make any changes because of the comment you overheard, it sounds mean-spirited and mean-spirited people will always find something to nitpick about people.

  3. old curmudgeon*

    Scruffy public-sector employee here, too – I am in my 60s, a few years away from retirement, and I present publicly as an aggressively unfashionable, comfortably clad professional. I’ve never caught any flack for it, although I also am never asked to present in the Secretary’s Office. In fairness, that is at least partially due to the fact that I work in an extremely niche, esoteric form of accounting and I can make a CPA’s eyes glaze over describing it, so my boss is unlikely to turn me loose in the SO even if I show up in designer duds.

    There is literally nobody else in my 2,000-person organization who does what I do. Maybe half a dozen of them understand it on a theoretical basis, but couldn’t actually do the work if you offered them a cool million bucks to do so. And none of them have ANY interest in learning it, because they think it’s too complicated. So I can pretty much stay there, scruffy as ever, for as long as they’ll let me totter to my desk (or to my home office) and work.

    My agency forbids ripped clothing, visibly dirty clothing, slogans on t-shirts and gimme caps, but beyond that, if you’re competent and you’ve got the naughty bits covered, nobody gives a flying flip what you wear, other than the very few unfortunate souls who are required to present to senior leadership.

    1. Outside Earthling*

      This is a great comment. I’d be inviting you to present in the SO just because you sound like a hoot and I’d be interested to hear what you had to say – not necessarily on the complex accounting; just on life. : )

      1. old curmudgeon*

        Be careful what you wish for….

        I design, build, implement and run custom automated allocation models that operate on about 37 different basis definitions. My agency has a really complicated set of funding sources, and it’s critical to not only get all the beans into the right buckets but also be able to demonstrate that we did so. I’ve designed a system that is efficient, elegant, accurate, and that impresses the heck out of our federal cognizant agency, but everyone in my agency runs screaming for the door when I try to explain how it works. I find it absorbing, fascinating, and a heckuva lot of fun, but I appear to be in a minority of one in that regard.

        At some point, someone is going to have to learn it, and I’ve written several hundred pages of documentation for whenever that happens, but as long as I’m around, I know nobody will ever look at it. But then, nobody will ever look askance at my comfortable flat shoes or my grey hair or my cat-hair-decorated tie-dye polo shirt, either, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

        1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

          Yeah, now I really, really want to hear you present. You’d be GOLD where I work.

          (I do hope someone at your agency realizes they need to do succession planning, though.)

          1. Not in US*

            @JobHunter Me too! I’m a CPA and this sounds like fun – but at the same time I know I don’t currently have the skills for this and am not likely to get them anytime soon based on my current job.

        2. Dancing Otter*

          Allocation models! Love! That was my last project before I retired. What platform do you use?
          Mine was a hybrid of SQL and Access — Access for less technically sophisticated accountants to be able to load data and run certain review reports; SQL because, well, everything.
          Getting anyone to do user acceptance testing was a challenge, since nobody understood the inner workings. (Yes, it was thoroughly documented, but the number of people who understood allocation methodology AND read SQL code was exactly one – me!) The auditors insisted on a total data dump so they could recalculate everything in a spreadsheet. Better them than me!

          1. old curmudgeon*

            They are SOOOO much fun! And nobody where I work gets that. It’s awesome to find someone else in the world who knows how much fun allocation models are!

            We’re on PeopleSoft (yes, I know, don’t get me started) and I design all my allocation models in the allocations module using data from other modules of the system. None of the other agencies use the system to the extent that we do; one of the biggest ones still does all their allocations in Access and then loads the result into PeopleSoft, and another agency tried to do an entire year’s worth of allocations in one fell swoop, bringing the entire enterprise to its knees trying to digest the resulting half-million-line entries.

            I could geek out at incredible length about it, but I’m guessing Alison wouldn’t appreciate me hijacking the comments like that – just tickled that there is actually someone in the world who gets my glee and excitement about a perfect allocation model!

            1. Jillith*

              “aggressively unfashionable, comfortably clad professional” – *high five* you just described my mission statement and core values!
              I’m a bit of a scruffy hippy and feel like I’m in fancy dress in formal business wear and thankfully my employers have (mostly – apart from a power suited lady boss a couple of year back who thought that fake nails/eyelashes and designer heels were part of “pride in your profession” – didn’t last long there!) embraced my quirks and accept me on the merits of my abilities (financial modelling/fellow data nerd) so I feel pretty lucky.

    2. Brooks Brothers Stan*

      When I was a public sector employee my manager would consistently brief political appointees while wearing aloha attire, jeans, and running shoes. He was also staggeringly competent at his job, and like your agency the only ‘dress code’ was to be presentable. Other than that, unless required for certain events or occasions, there were much more pressing concerns.

      1. pope suburban*

        Am currently a public sector employee, and my boss pretty much lives in Hawaiian shirts. Same for a couple high-up people in the parks sector. In general, the men wear polos or button-ups with jeans, and women do the same or opt for business casual (Entirely personal preference for them; jeans and agency tees are the norm for us). Our general manager went as The Dude last Halloween, which only required a slight change of clothes to look eerily believable. We all dress up as needed, but I find the rules here to be much more lax than when I worked in the private sector. We allow for fun hair colors and tattoos and whatnot, and frankly i feel much more evaluated on my performance than on my wardrobe, which is pleasant.

      2. DarnTheMan*

        Sounds like the president of my last workplace; his office uniform was Dockers and a button down shirt (plaid in the winter, pale blue or gingham in the summer), and if it was particularly chilly out a black or grey fleece vest. He was brilliant at what he did though so no one batted an eye.

        1. JustaTech*

          The head of my department has such a uniform that half the department dressed up as him last year for Halloween: loafers with white socks, dad jeans, a polo shirt and a company-logo’s fleece vest. And a ponytail.

          My only issue with anyone’s clothing at work is the company handbook says “no jeans when [Federal Agency] is on site”. And when the agency showed up, all the minion-level lab folk dug in the backs of our closets and wore our interviewing clothes, but the big bosses just kept on with the light-wash denim. Grr.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I worked with a public sector employee who was assigned as a reviewer to my company’s project application. She retired mid-review, so I assume she was in her 60s, as well. As a casual person myself, I want to support the OP and your approach, but I do think it can go too far. This woman went too far. They were a business casual office at the more casual end of the definition. Most people there were in jeans and button downs or polos, or plain t-shirts. She was wearing capri-length cargo pants. . .the utility style kind with a lot of ties on the bottom and pockets, a t-shirt with a flower print pattern fabric (the kind you get at a discount store for $4), flip flops, and had a gray long mullet haircut pulled into a pony tail. This is a professional role of authority, and this was her dress on meeting day with outside people. My mother wears a similar outfit for gardening. I mean, if scruffy equates to fully length dress pants with 4 pockets and a zipper, but they just don’t fit perfectly, I’m fine with that for someone like this person who was in a technical role at a casual office, but I don’t think dressing like you’re doing yard work really gives the position and your clients the respect deserved.

    4. allathian*

      You sound like my kind of person. And your dress code pretty well matches mine. Clothes are mandatory, but as long as they’re clean and not ripped, nobody cares. T-shirts are fine, although I haven’t seen anyone wear a fandom t-shirt or one with a slogan at the office. Knee-length shorts and skirts that reach at least mid-thigh are fine.

    5. Caroline Bowman*

      And I’d warrant that even those who are presenting to leadership or otherwise under public scrutiny are ”allowed” to have grey hair and dress in a normal manner.

  4. Daniel*

    I’d add banking to that list where you’d expect to need to be more polished, but otherwise, yeah–OP sounds like she’s totally fine.

    1. voyager1*

      As a banker I agree, unless you work back office or IT. But if you are in a branch then yeah, you can’t just roll out of bed and put on wrinkled clothes covered in cat fur.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I’m in banking and I agree. Most people who work in a branch or are customer-facing, like cash management, business development, and lenders, and also the C-suite, are definitely much more polished. In the back office, it depends on the bank. It used to be everyone was polished and dressed almost as nicely as the people facing customers, but that has changed and it seems to be mostly business casual in the back office (though we all know the idea of business casual varies a lot from person to person). IT, in my experience, is the exception where they can be more casual than everyone else. Although I’ve still never seen them in jeans.

      1. Unicorn Sweat*

        Digital group (design) in a bank here! Maybe it’s just being in the Great Lakes region, but I would describe our group as aggressively casual. Lots of jeans, lots of high-end snow boots, lots of trendy big sweaters etc. No hats if we’re in the office, but lots of sneakers. The head of the group, very senior, wears very expensive jeans and sneakers. But we also work at kind of an outpost campus, and at the more central HQ it’s all suits and sheath dresses. (Back in the before times, etc)

    3. VelociraptorAttack*

      Definitely agree with this. I work in PR for a very large bank and of the women on our team (5), there is only one who doesn’t wear heels nearly every day. And she still has a pair that she keeps at her desk.

      I was a heels maybe one to two times a week person at my last job (career development) but noticed when I started that the others wore heels every day so, I went along with it.

      1. Alice's Rabbit*

        Banking is just banking – accounts loans, safety deposit boxes, currency exchange, etc.
        Finance is a larger umbrella that includes banking, but also investment companies, financial advisors, stock brokers, and so much more.

    4. Anya Last Nerve*

      I work in a back office function in financial services, but the expectation is the you should dress nicely if you want to succeed. Being clean and wearing clothes that aren’t ripped is a pretty low bar, and way too low for advancement on Wall Street.

  5. OyHiOh*

    I have a variation on this question, about women’s hair specifically, that I plan to ask in the Friday Open because it involves work related good news, a parent who believes in GUMPTION!, and their unnecessary worries about my hair/distrust of my reporting of contemporary office norms.

    1. Spicy Tuna*

      Hm, interested. I am in possession of curly hair and always felt like it held me back professionally.

      1. stiveee*

        Same, but straightening it can backfire depending on the dew point so I don’t bother anymore.

        1. Happily Self Employed*

          I have naturally straight hair, which I have cut in various bobs for about 15 years after my hair stopped being thick enough to wear long due to thyroid issues. With the current hair growth cycle, I end up with a lot of baby hairs sticking straight up–not in spikes or anything, but I guess they’re noticeable to people who have fashion sense.

          I didn’t think anything of it until I was trying to get job-seeking help from the Department of Rehabilitation. My worker informed me that these stray hairs “make you look unstable” because I’m not using styling products to make it all follow the curve of my head. I have since tried to use styling products to do that, but I haven’t found anything that will get the short ones to behave without looking greasy or stiff. This is one of the reasons they fired me as a client.

          Is this really a thing, that having random hairs that won’t lie down means you’re unstable? (Luckily, selling stuff wholesale over the internet means clients don’t see anything but a profile picture where I can Photoshop out all the stray hairs.)

          1. jenkins*

            Whut? That happens to me all the time – I get a batch of annoying new hairs that don’t lie quite flat, eventually they grow out and I look slightly sleeker for a while before the next batch comes in. My hair is fairly fine and fluffy, and there is no product that’ll hold them down without making the rest of my head look like an unwashed oil slick. Not everyone has naturally docile hair – dirty or unbrushed would look unprofessional, but having a particular hair texture or growth pattern just is what it is – it doesn’t say anything about a person.

            Also, I’m completely horrified by ‘unstable’. WTF.

          2. Overeducated*

            Yikes! This is a really common issue for women who are in the first year out from giving birth, since you tend to lose a ton of hair after about four months and then, obviously, it grows back shorter. I have solved this problem by sticking with a pixie cut but that’s a little extreme for someone who doesn’t *want* a pixie cut. I’ve never thought it made anyone look “unstable” and I’m sorry you were treated that way.

          3. Spicy Tuna*

            What??? That’s crazy! I worked with a woman that was undergoing treatment for cancer. She lost all of her hair and it grew back in quite an interesting manner. No one said a word.

            1. Happily Self Employed*

              Thanks. Presumably y’all knew your coworker who lost her hair to chemo–they were talking about First Impressions. And apparently their first impression was that anyone who doesn’t look like they have a stylist following them around fussing with their hair between scenes fits some stereotype of mental illness.

      1. OyHiOh*

        A dad-shaped parent and his chronic going-back-to-our-childhoods uneasiness about his two daughters and our hopelessly unrepentant curly haired heads!

          1. Jean (just Jean)*

            Say it louder for the folks in the back!
            Sing it in harmony.
            (Thank you, Facebook, for adding these two phrases to my vocabulary. Yes, Facebook.)

  6. zebra*

    I think this is one of those things that people only mention if your work is sloppy, too. If you’re always a little rumpled but your work is impeccable, who cares? But if you and your work are both sloppy, I think people will tend to complain more about your appearance because it’s easier than complaining about your work. (Note that I don’t think people SHOULD do this, but it’s what happens.)

    1. hbc*

      Eh, some people are really focused on clothes/appearance. They consider make-up and hair coloring to be basic elements of grooming. They will respect a greying expert more than a greying slacker, but they’re still looking down on you for that aspect of your life. But you’re probably right that it’s more likely to be voiced if it fits an overall narrative (sloppy dress, sloppy work) or the person has other reason to dislike you.

    2. ...*

      Ive actually caught myself doing this recently. A ‘slacker’ employee who always tries to do the bare minimum or literally hide from customers also doesn’t dress the great and I found myself thinking why doesn’t she just buy some decent clothes! But really what I dont like about her is her slacker attitude and the fact that she sit there watching tik Tok instead of helping our customers.

  7. Artctic*

    I’ve worked in the public sector and it is often old fashioned when it comes to things like this (although there is variety, obviously.) It does typically expect a higher standard of dress than similar jobs in the private sector. For instance, at my old job a dress without pantyhose would definitely have not been looked upon kindly whereas that’s ridiculously old-fashioned almost everywhere else.

    But definitely not designer clothes (which can actually get judged the other way because Lord knows you can never win.)

    Everything in the letter seemed professional to me. I wouldn’t sweat it. Someone will always be judging you for something sometime.

    1. Artctic*

      I realize “higher standard” was a poor word choice. More rigorous standard maybe? I definitely don’t mean better or classier. Just stricter.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        And I think there’s a stereotype of “government bureaucrat in a badly-fitting suit”. You may have to wear a suit, but that doesn’t always equal highly polished.

        1. Amy Sly*

          Yeah … I wonder if OP should bring a trusted fashionable friend on the next shopping trip to help her find more flattering fits, particularly given her comments about nothing ever looking right on her.

          As an example, I never feel quite right without a collared button-up shirt. It doesn’t have to be super fancy or expensive, but I just don’t like the way other kinds of shirts look on me. Thus, they only get worn on weekends.

          There may be a style that OP hasn’t found yet that would help her feel not-so-scruffy.

          1. Guacamole Bob*

            I was kind of thinking about it the other way, that it’s okay to just live up to the stereotype.

    2. QED*

      It’s funny to me that you say that, as I am also in the public sector and when I was new, I asked a co-worker if I should wear pantyhose and heels to an important meeting. Her response: No, what is it, the 1950s? So I definitely think there’s variety even within the public sector. All of which is to say, OP sounds fine to me and I wouldn’t sweat it.

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        Oh gosh, yes, I’m in the public sector too, and my experience is that we’re usually a degree less formal! Except when I was at an agency that worked with businesses, and then we had to match private sector dress. (This became an issue for anyone who ended up meeting with construction companies or rural business owners, who all showed up in jeans.)

        My current organization is notably scruffy because so many people do field work. What OP described would be normal to nice here. And in fact, unless you’re a political appointee, wearing designer clothing would get you the side-eye. People would wonder if you actually know your stuff.

    3. aebhel*

      I work in the public sector, and that is definitely not my experience.

      That said, I’m a librarian, so it’s perfectly within professional norms to show up to work dressed more or less like Ms. Frizzle, and I often do.

      1. Diamond*

        I work in the public sector but in a rather informal town! My co-worker regularly comes in in flip-flops and changes to her *fancy* flip-flops* for meetings :)

      2. Chickflick*

        I was about to say the same thing! I also work in a library. I will say this, though – it took me a long time to figure out that above all, clothes that fit you are really all you need. They don’t have to be fancy, they just have to fit you. I spent a long time wearing slacks, for instance, before realizing that I just don’t look good in pants, they never fit right. Now I wear a variation on the same dress every day.

      3. Tiny*

        Public librarian here too. I love brightly coloured dresses, cardis, leggings, big earrings and a necklace and boots – I wear those. Sometimes my hair is purple, sometimes my natural brown with white hairs. No-one has ever said anything negative about my clothes – and I deal with the public advocacy and networking for our service. I did once get an assistant (male, early 20s) ask me about our dress code, specifically t shirt slogans and tattoos – I told him as long as he was clean, and not offensive (eg no swearing or racist tattoos or slogans), he was fine. I’ve had new staff who I interviewed say that they felt that they would fit in when they saw my pink boots when I invited them in for an interview. Too specific a focus on acceptable dress can too easily be racist, sexist, ageist, or discriminatory against those who are trans or gender neutral, or who have little money. Only place that I have worked that I altered my clothes for was when working in a prison for young men – I have big boobs and made sure that some of my slightly lower dresses were worn with a vest underneath, plus I always wore boots so I could use self defence moves effectively (never needed)

    4. MsClaw*

      It felt like the letter writer is conflating ‘designer’ with ‘dressy’. There are plenty of casual rumpled and/or work-inappropriate expensive designer clothes options. Or you can wear inexpensive dressier clothes. If no one has said anything to you in years of work, your level of dress-upped-ness is in line with the rest of the people you work with, and you’re not finding yourself passed over for opportunities, then you’re probably fine.

      There are plenty of offices where flip flops and shorts and brewery hoodies are fine. But if you work in an office that’s mostly khakis and polos, or slacks and collared shirts, that outfit probably won’t be considered ‘professional’.

      Whether or not presentation ‘should’ matter, it often does. But again, unless you’ve seen a direct impact to your career, I wouldn’t let an overheard comment bug you. OTOH, if that overheard comment made you wonder if you missed out on a recent opportunity because of your ‘scruffy’ presentation, it might be worth having a conversation with a friend about how to neaten up your look to be taken more seriously.

      1. JustaTech*

        Seconding on “designer” not necessarily being “dressy”. I had a boss who wore a lot of fancy-brand clothes, primarily ripped jeans and lightweight printed button-down shirts. Did his ripped jeans cost significantly more than my best “dress” trousers? Heck yeah. Did he wear them to formal meetings? Not a chance. He *knew* that his fancy jeans wouldn’t be considered “meeting appropriate” no matter how much (or little) they cost.

    5. allathian*

      Depends on which part of the public sector and private sector you’re talking about, it varies a lot by area. I’m in the public sector (although not in the US) and our dress code is pretty much business casual, with the emphasis on casual. I work for an agency, but the dress code is much stricter in the Ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office and Parliament.

      1. Overeducated*

        Yup. Even within my agency, if you work in one of the field or regional areas it can be very casual, but if you work in DC you’d better look sharp. I don’t think there’s a clear public/private divide here.

  8. Guacamole Bob*

    I feel like the public sector is on the less polished end of the spectrum, overall. My public sector agency is full of people who meet the dress code and are perfectly appropriate but who definitely do not spend tons of time on polish and appearance.

    I am not a highly polished person and I prefer this kind of environment, honestly.

    1. Public Sector Manager*

      I’m a managing attorney for a public agency and I’d say about half of our lawyers could be described as scruffy. But by and large, they are also amazing attorneys and I could care less!

      Scruffians of the World unite!!

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I worked in nonprofit, and then at a university, and I started calling those outfits “dress code checkbox outfits.” They’d go down the dress code and select a kind of shoe that was allowed off the list, then a kind of pants/skirt that was allowed off the list, and then select a top that was allowed off the list. The net result often did not match, but it was considered professional because it met the professional dress code as established in the handbook.

      Once I noticed this, I noticed the vast majority of people in professional environments dress this way. This is the norm, and it’s fine.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        That’s a great way of describing it!

        In the last few years I’ve settled on a kind of uniform of dress pants, a short sleeve or sleeveless colorful top, and a blazer. Lots of black and gray, and I don’t have to think too hard. But I’m not winning any fashion awards any time soon, because I wear the same pair of black boots 90% of the time.

        (I’m female, despite the username.)

        1. Jonquil*

          Bob, this is me too. I’m also female and in the public sector. The boots are a pair of RM Williams that set me back some coin, but they can cope with a bus commute or the proverbial Secretary’s Office, and I will get a good decade out of them with proper care and re-soleing. I stopped dyeing my hair when I was about 36, and I do worry a little about the “witchy” look of a long-haired person with a few greys, but I also know that there are heaps of women around my age with a few or a lot of greys, some of them quite senior and respected.

          The bonus of this kind of wardrobe is that I continued to wear it through pregnancy and the back from maternity leave pumping/nursing stage and it worked great for those too.

      2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        In my younger days, I practiced malicious compliance with a 30 page dress code (not only was I not customer facing, I was five full miles from the nearest building that WAS customer facing) by doing pretty much exactly that.

      3. starsaphire*

        This checkbox mentality was super useful a couple of decades back when women I knew in tech were rebelling against sexist dress codes.

        If the *men* can wear khakis, polos, and leather lace-ups, after all…

      4. clogerati*

        On the flip side of that, I love fashion and adore clothing. In my previous career I was a stylist and I have always had a bit of a stubborn streak when it comes to dress codes. I frequently get away with “violating” dress codes and professional norms at work by looking stylish and put together. I should add, these aren’t horrible violations (I might wear docs instead of a dressier shoe, let my inner punk out with a Debbie Harry bob, or pair a band tee with a perfectly tailored pencil skirt and heels). The way that I dress has never held me back professionally (in fact my clients love it), but I know that’s due in part because I look put together and have the work to back it up.

    3. Atlantic Toast Conference*

      Yep. This is one reason why I like living and working in DC, home of many bureaucrats — people are generally more low-key about dress and grooming. In my experience people care about looking clean and context-appropriate, but that’s about it. (When I visit California, for instance, I often notice that other women’s hair looks better on a random Tuesday than mine ever has in my life. They look great, but that kind of personal upkeep isn’t for me.)

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        DC-area local government, here, and “clean and context-appropriate” is about right for most of the people I work with, across agencies.

        I’m female and never wear makeup, generally just wash my hair and brush it and let it air dry, wear the same couple of pairs of all-purpose black shoes to work (and sometimes wear my commute sneakers around the office for half the morning), etc. It hasn’t held me back so far, but I’m not particularly high level.

      2. Girl Alex PR*

        Also DC federal here. I’m in PR type work so I keep heels at my desk and wear make-up for media type things, but otherwise low-key is definitely the style of choice for myself and the vast majority of our agency. One of our SESs wears cowboy boots everyday. I’ve dressed this way my entire career and it definitely hasn’t held me back.

      3. Overeducated*

        This thread is making me realize that what I thought of as “not scruffy” is definitely still a level down from “polished.” Like, I think neat hair, clothes that fit you properly and are clean, unwrinkled, and appropriately formal, and shoes that aren’t sneakers or sandals = not scruffy. But that’s certainly a step down from styled hair, detailed makeup, and daily heels. I guess I’m in the right place since I don’t really have to worry about that?

  9. Reed*

    I work in an academic library and to be honest if someone in a smart suit with full make-up and coiffure and high heels and looking as polished as can be turned up we’d all stare with our mouths open before one of us took pity and explained that all that was EXTREMELY unprofessional for a workplace where you had to deal with shelving and books trolleys and kick stools and where you had to make the students feel welcome and relaxed, not intimidated and awestruck.

    1. Mama Bear*

      I usually do not wear heels anymore because I never know when I’ll be on my feet. In a prior job I called heels my “stupid shoes” because invariably my heels days were the ones I ended up walking to a meeting in the rain or something. I do not want to receive a sudden supply delivery and have to haul a cart in heels.

    2. RabbitRabbit*

      A former colleague wore stacked heels and enough jewelry that you could hear her coming across the office. This was a business casual to business formal, office environment in a hospital, which did often involve a ton of walking but for the majority of us, little to no patient contact. It was wildly different from anyone else in the office, but considering she’s a nurse who – before getting out of patient care – used to dress the part and would have full-contact duties (up to and including jumping onto a patient bed to start CPR), I think she just preferred to dress how she wanted to now that she could. I could see her shelving books in those heels, but yeah, most would not flourish that way.

    3. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      I’ve never seen anyone look “polished” in an academic setting. Our Dean can’t wear a tie even if his position depended on it, and most professors wear either business casual or urban hippie. One of my teachers even came straight from the airport wearing a tracksuit and no one cared.

  10. Ana Gram*

    I’m not super fashionable but, for me, a lot of this is about clothes that fit. It’s still just outlet mall stuff but getting pants hemmed and making sure I try on a few sizes before buying has been really key. I still wear the same pair of shoes everyday and a couple pairs of black or gray pants but I have some tops and cardigans (ok, multiple colors of the same cardigan!) that I rotate in. Pants that are too short, a shirt that gapes, or a giant sweater all look like you don’t really care to many people. In my workplace, it wouldn’t fly.

    1. yasmara*

      I was thinking this too. Is it possible you need clothes that fit you better? Tailoring? I’m not talking about handmade custom clothing, but proper hemming of trousers and skirts, shirts that fit, sweaters than aren’t oversized, etc. can go a long way towards looking more polished.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        This is true, but the suggestion also makes me exhausted. Getting stuff tailored takes time and energy and money. Finding things that fit and are flattering is a ton of effort, depending on your body size and shape, the style of clothing, budget, etc.

        I’ve gone looking for basic sweaters or tops to wear under blazers and had to go to lots of stores to find something that fits well and is within budget, and I’m an average-sized woman who cares about looking presentable and professional but doesn’t care about looking particularly polished. And these days it means order hundreds of dollars of merchandise online and then packing up and returning what doesn’t fit, possibly racking up a bunch of shipping costs in the process.

        1. aebhel*

          ^ yep that.

          Also ‘proper hemming’ is only fixable if your problem is that your pants are too long. It doesn’t really help for us tall people.

          1. Captain Kirk*

            I’d add that for guys that if you wear dress shirts, getting them taken in helps a lot. I’m tall and really thin and it’s nigh impossible finding a dress shirt that looks right—even the “fitted” shirts are generally too baggy.

            1. Alice's Rabbit*

              Sleeves on jackets are another thing. Not just the length, but taking in the width of the sleeve so you don’t have lots of extra bulk on your arms.

          2. willow for now*

            I can send you all the 6 inch trimmings from my too-long pants, if you’d like!

            Designers are soooo out of touch with what women look like! If I wear an XL top, I probably have big arms, so stop making the armholes so tight! If you need size 18 pants for your height and I need them for my width, one of us is going to be very disappointed in the fit. and on and on…

            1. Guacamole Bob*

              I think sometimes people underestimate how much work it can be to create and maintain a wardrobe that fits well, is flattering, can work with whatever body shape and size you are, doesn’t stop fitting instantly if your weight fluctuates, with everything tailored, you properly care for all the fabrics the way you’re supposed to, where the pieces coordinate properly with each other, the pants work with the height and style of shoe you plan to wear, everything is comfortable to wear for the entire day, doesn’t bunch or gap weirdly if you reach above your head or bend over, doesn’t show sweat or bra lines despite half of what’s on the market being made of weird gauzy fabric, is either timeless or on trend, is affordable given the salary in question, etc.

              And god forbid you want your pants to have pockets big enough to put something larger than a tic tac in.

              And that doesn’t get into the time and money sink that hair, nails, and makeup can be.

              Deciding to go for professionally appropriate and clean and not aiming for polished and fashionably is a perfectly reasonably choice.

              1. Garlicky*

                I understand why OP may feel defeated and exhausted by this dressing up thing, but it does not have to be this way. For what it’s worth, I’ve learned that you should find 2 to 3 shops with whom you develop a lasting relationship. There is effort required at the beginning, but once you’re sorted, you just keep buying from those same 2-3 shops whose clothes fit you and make you feel comfortable. It may be the Gap, or Uniqlo, or something more formal or upmarket. But every clothes shop has a style, and it helps to find the one or two that suits/fits you and stick with it. After that, you just buy your job lot worth of work clothes there during the annual or bi-annual sale and Bob’s your uncle.

                1. sb51*

                  Not if you’re fat, to be completely frank, and Gap/Uniqlo is outside the budget of what I have any desire to spend on my day-to-day wardrobe even if I am well-paid. And fat women in something that doesn’t go above-and-beyond in an effort to “disguise” that we’re fat get seen as sloppy even if the stuff we’re wearing is in-style and reasonably well-fitting.

                  I have made the personal decision that I would rather be comfortable, clean, and appropriate, and let my career take the hit of not spending a lot of my life getting stuff tailored for my body type, wearing my now salt-and-pepper hair long (generally up in a simple bun, but occasionally down), not wearing makeup. It doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally get annoyed that I had to make this choice, while thin men don’t.

                2. Happily Self Employed*

                  One brand that my mother and I had good luck with is Land’s End. They tend to have classic styles, especially for blazers etc., that won’t be out of style in a month and good quality that will last. I don’t know if they go far enough into larger sizes for all readers, but they certainly don’t consider 12 “too big to represent our brand” and their inclusion of tall/regular/petite and hemming services make it easier to get things to fit. They also use a lot of really good quality natural fibers–their Supima knits feel like silk and don’t pill because they use such long fiber cotton. They also have an incredible range of colors in many basic items.

                  They have a lot of sales, although they tend not to put things on clearance until they are out of most sizes. But there’s a lot of “50% off your whole order and free shipping over X$” sales.

                  However, I’ve been disappointed by the large waists on the pants. My waist is noticeably smaller than my hips, and I hate having to belt in a lot of fabric to keep the waistband where it belongs. Chadwick’s of Boston has a different fit. They also tend to have more on-trend dresses and skirts, very femme and I presume suitable for office wear. However, those are usually polyester.

            2. I wouldn't but...*

              Seconding, thirding and fourthing your comment about arm holes! Sleeves in general. I have wide shoulders, fat arms but small chest. If it fits my arms typically it looks like I’m wearing a tent or the neckline hits my belly button (slight exaggeration but not much). I have to find things that are sleeveless, cap sleeves or really stretchy fabric. None of which are typically professional, thank goodness I work in a casual place.
              Now if you want to see me freak out, put me in a blazer. Full on, claustrophobic type freak out. I feel like Tommy Boy “Fat man in a little coat” only with screaming and tears. Once, when I was a size 1X I tried a 4XL blazer and it was still too tight in the arms and shoulders!

        2. Tidewater 4-1009*

          Getting things altered isn’t so bad IME. Most dry cleaners have a resident tailor, or the proprietor is the tailor.
          Ask around to find a good tailor and you take the item there. They have you put it on in a fitting booth and then pin it to the size/length you want.
          It only takes about 15 minutes, and then you pick it up in a few days. The key is to find a tailor in a location near home or work so you don’t have to go out of your way and can do it after work.

      2. emmelemm*

        Well, there is probably always room to make your clothes even better fitting, but I relate *hard* to the letter writer. I can take a perfectly nice and reasonably well-fitted dressy outfit and make it look wrong, ill-fitted, and silly somehow. Some people radiate scruffiness from the inside.

        1. OP Scruffy*

          Thank you. I do have nice clothes, nothing really fancy. But I swear, I just always look a bit rumpled. I am a large busted woman, average size elsewhere. Finding reasonably priced clothes is hard and I don’t get all the fashion rules, never did. (When someone mentioned Jimmy Choos, I had no clue. I thought it was someone named that and would never had connected it with shoes).

          1. Reality Biting*

            I hope this isn’t too over-the-top, but I once had a great therapist who told me that if you explain something away with any version of “that’s just the way I am” or “I’ve always been that way” it’s something you ought to at least take a second look at to decide if you might want to explore changing it. You don’t have to of course, but there’s a lot about ourselves that we imagine is permanent that is really no such thing.

            This letter struck for me because I was always very middle of the road in terms of clothing. I wouldn’t say that I was “rumpled”, but I would say that I always looked comfortable (not in the good way) and undistinguished. In my early 40s I decided I would change that. Yes, it absolutely did take a bunch of work. No, it did NOT come naturally. Yes, I had to consciously take it on as a project. It wasn’t going to just happen. I had to study it like I was learning a new language, because in a way I was. But it was doable–and at reasonable prices, because as others have pointed out, clothes that fit and look good on you are often no more expensive than poorly fitting clothes. It’s a matter of finding the sizes, cuts, and brands that compliment your body.

            Having said all this, you sound fine to me. I think you could–without excuses–choose to keep dressing exactly as you do. You don’t owe any apologies to anyone about that. But I guess I would say that you do have a choice in the matter. And if you wanted to choose differently, you could.

            1. Anony-Mouse*

              And if anyone does want to change their clothes style, I think hiring a stylist or a personal shopper could be helpful in that regard. Someone who can help pick out good cuts, can critique the fit, maybe has an in-store tailoring service, etc, etc. Department stores often have this, and some malls even offer this service now!

              1. allathian*

                Yes, I came here to suggest this. At my first professional job, where the dress code was much more formal, I spent half of my first salary on new clothes. I took a friend with great taste shopping with me. I usually hate shopping, especially for clothes, but she really helped me to find the right things for that job. If I had to dress more formally at work again, I’d really consider consulting a stylist or personal shopper.

                At that same job (the back office of a bank) one of the guys always wore tailored clothes, especially shirts. He used to ride a bike in road racing competitions and had a physique to match, very slim and muscular but not bulgy. He was also a fair bit shorter than average, so he always wore tailor-made and monogrammed shirts.

              2. DarnTheMan*

                Or even a friend. I don’t consider myself truly fashionable but I’ve had business-wear rules drilled into my head from a young age (my mom worked for a series of very conservative business offices and was always the trendy yuppy professional) so one of my good friends has already tapped me to help her shop for a new work wardrobe; she’s at that stage where she wants to move up in positions so wants to start dressing more for senior level roles and asked for my help.

          2. I wouldn't but...*

            I’ve never gotten fashion rules either. They always seem to be broken by whatever the current trend is. So about 5 years ago my new motto became “As long as it’s intentional”; seems to work. Mixing patterned items, wearing white after labor day, wearing different color socks, wearing navy and black together, etc… it all seems to work, as long as your attitude is “I did it on purpose”. Seems silly but it works.

          3. Bend & Snap*

            A big bust makes it hard to clothes to fit well. I’m big busted too and there are lots of styles I just can’t wear and look remotely good, like button-down shirts.

            I’ve found that a form-fitting layer like a tank under a looser layer like a blazer or cardigan helps minimize the frumpy look that can come with a large chest.

            1. Amethystmoon*

              Agreed, and I’m also plus-sized and petite, which doesn’t help. So yeah, I go for comfort. But I can do that in my job.

            2. InfoSec SemiPro*

              Seconded. I have a large bust and hips with narrow shoulders and waist proportionally.

              To look put together, my clothes need to fit shoulders and waist and not gape at the bust. Otherwise it’s frump city. For me that means either a lot of tailoring or custom work. Eshakti cotton knit dresses in custom measurementswere my uniform in the before times.

            3. Aerin*

              You can get a hidden button added right at the bust point (the widest part of the chest) to deal with the gap. There are DIY tutorials out there, or the cost should be pretty negligible for a tailor to do it. My apparel instructor taught us to put the first button at the bust point and then space them out from there, but that only works if you’re having it made or making it yourself.

              1. Tidewater 4-1009*

                I once had a resale dress I wanted to add a button to, and I had a hell of a time finding anyone to do it. It was explained that they needed a special machine to make the buttonhole and only a dress maker would have that.
                I think I did eventually find a dress maker and get it done, but it was more expensive and time consuming than a routine alteration.

                1. Happily Self Employed*

                  I’m surprised that a buttonhole foot is “a special machine.” My grandma’s sewing machine, built in the 50s from a design that went back to the 1920s, can make buttonholes with a special foot that screws on and off quicker than it takes to find the accessory box.

            4. The New Wanderer*

              Same. The large bust really ruins the lines of many styles of clothes because they aren’t cut for that much shape. I’m currently wearing a tank top that somehow looks frumpy on me, but a similar one that I have looks nice. Material drape and cut make such a big difference even in nearly identical items of clothing. It’s frustrating and I’m still figuring it out in my 40s.

              As for gray hair, I currently have about two inches of gray roots that I’m masking with temporary color washes – I’m WFH, no video, so it’s fine with me. But all-gray or all-dyed would definitely look more professional than noticeable roots showing my markedly dyed (but true to my original brown) color.

      3. Sylvan*

        While that’s true, it also sounds like it might be out of OP’s budget. If so, IME, it can help to take an inventory of your closet and see where the clothes that fit you best come from. Stick to the one or two stores that have consistently good fits.

    2. RestroomTimeExtraordinaire*

      There’s something classist in judging people for not knowing these things – not that you cannot appreciate and value these things for your own wardrobe, but many, many, many people weren’t raised with the access to understand fashion / fit and know that things can be tailored or could afford to do so. again, workplaces have their own standards, I get it, but I wish people were judged by their character and work.

      1. Ana Gram*

        Yeah, I agree with this. I grew up a mechanic’s daughter in a rural town of about 1200 people and my mom homeschooled us. I learned about gemming pants from her. She made many of our clothes and was pretty good at it. I’m 38 now and have had a job where I don’t wear a uniform for 5 years. I eyeballed the women at work who didn’t wear uniforms and I watched YouTube videos on how to select clothes and I made a note of anything I got compliments on. It took some time but I have a professional wardrobe now and I fit in nicely at work. If the OP wants to change her wardrobe or her look, she can. If she doesn’t, that’s cool too.

    3. AndersonDarling*

      I was coming to say this. Unless you work in fashion, no one cares what brand you wear, but they care that your clothes fit, they are clean, wrinkle free, and pet hair free.
      It’s when someone wears clothes that are getting threadbare, stained, or very faded that it gets sloppy. Or if they don’t run it over with a roller to remove pet hair. The most professionally dressed woman I met had a wardrobe of regular knits, cardigans, and slacks but they all looked like they were brand new. She dry-cleaned everything and took the time to find clothes that fit perfectly. She looked like a million bucks.
      I don’t have the budget or the patience to dry-clean anything, so I only buy clothes that will hold up in the wash and I have racks to lay my knits flat to dry.
      The investment is more in time rather than in $$. If you spend the extra time to find well fitting clothes, it makes a profound difference. And then there is the time investment in keeping those clothes looking fab.

      1. MayLou*

        My clothes are never pet-hair free. Sometimes they aren’t pet-hair covered, but they always have dog hair on them. I have a clothes brush, I vacuum almost-daily, I get the dog groomed and brush him, but that stuff is like glitter. Once it is in the house, it is everywhere! Thankfully a) I work from home these days, and b) my office’s dress code is so laid back it’s almost horizontal. It is essentially “wear clothes, please”.

      2. Happily Self Employed*

        I know someone who was an accessible teapot lobbyist, and had a tendency to spill tea, jam, and clotted cream on themselves. They couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get a lobbyist job at the other teapot firms after their firm eliminated “lobbying” from their scope of work. I am about 90% sure it’s because the other teapot accessibility lobbyists all looked like they had just changed into something fresh from the dry cleaner and tailored to fit.

      1. allathian*

        Same here. Last time I found a pair of jeans that fit perfectly I bought two black pairs and a blue pair. I essentially got the last one for free, because it was a buy 2 get 3 offer.

    4. Free Meerkats*

      Fit is the key. If you’ve ever wondered why you can wear the same clothes as [insert favorite celebrity with a similar body to you here] but not look as good, the reason is that they have the time, money, and assistants to get their clothing tailored. Yes, even T-shirts.

      Personally, I don’t care. I wear uniforms for work, and the pants don’t fit all that well because I’m losing weight (deliberately down 25 pounds since March) and I’m not going to get new ones until I’m settled at new weight, whatever that is. In my personal life I wear a kilt and aloha shirt, untucked.

    5. Amethystmoon*

      Well, and not everyone can afford fashionable clothes, even if you can find them in your size. Luckily I work at a company where no one seems to care about fashion except during interviews. They let us wear jeans and sneakers, so long as we are clean and our clothes don’t have holes. I sit behind a computer all day, so don’t have to interact with any members of the public. Zoom meetings are the only time I have to care about what I am wearing.

  11. ThatGirl*

    Unacceptably scruffy is like, uncombed hair, frayed pants, a shirt that looks like it got pulled out of the hamper – at least to me. Like Alison said, if your clothes are clean and not ripped, your hair is styled in some fashion (even if that’s just “combed”) and you have showered recently, it’s all good. Do *you* feel like you look acceptable? (I’m sure you do.)

    1. mooglemoe*

      Man I am just not cut out for “professional” life. Can’t comb my hair, it will only turn into a bush, and there is no activity I hate more than clothes shopping so everything I own is fairly worn and varying degrees of tattered. No one’s ever said anything, but perhaps they’re just being polite.

      My parents are largely the same, I claim it’s genetic scruffiness.

      1. ThatGirl*

        I should say, not everyone’s hair is cut out for being combed — I mostly just meant “kempt” in some fashion.

        And depending on your job, worn clothes might be just fine, just be sure they’re clean with no visible holes. If it’s fraying, you might want to replace it.

      2. Bippity*

        Hating to shop is really no excuse for walking round in “tattered” clothing. (If it’s poverty-related that’s different of course.) It might be better to address why your parents didn’t teach you to take basic care of yourself, rather than brushing it off as genetic.

        1. allathian*

          It’s hard to teach your kids to do something you’ve never learned to do yourself, and more to the point, don’t see the need to learn or to teach. I don’t think wearing tattered clothes is on the same level as, say, not brushing your teeth or only showering once a month.

      3. Tidewater 4-1009*

        Online shopping is easier and the thing to do during a pandemic. It’s still a pain, but not as tiring as going to a bunch of stores.
        You could start with the style you like to buy – which retailers sell it? Most of them have online stores. Go to their sites and look around.
        They should list the material and have size charts or a similar indicator of what size will fit you. If they don’t, I wouldn’t shop there.
        The best stores like Gap and LL Bean have good return policies and you can return anything you don’t like. That’s a bit of a pain too, but not as bad as spending hours in stores. If you’re not sure, be sure to check their return policy before you buy.

  12. HoHumDrum*

    Women can never win this game-

    Wear makeup, heels, high-end clothing, dye your hair etc: she’s superficial and appearance obsessed, she gets by on beauty instead of brains, or she has a rich husband and doesn’t need a job (we’ve seen that come up on here enough for me to know that’s not a reach).

    Avoid all that stuff, go for a more “natural” (ugh) look: she’s sloppy, lazy, repellent, a social malcontent.

    And go ahead and triple down on all that hate, plus more specific bigotry, if the woman in question is a person of color, queer, etc.

    Anyways, unless you’re dressing far outside the norm for your workplace/industry I think it’s safe to assume you can’t win this game and you might as well feel comfortable in your clothes while they project their misogyny at you.

  13. MrsRamsey*

    I am definitely not a fashionista. I keep my hair short for easy care and if I can find a matching pair of socks with no holes I consider myself lucky. I wear minimal jewelry and since Covid no make up since now that I am back on site I have to wear a mask when dealing with the public. Before it was minimal makeup. I am the person who gets ink on my hands and accidentally drips salad dressing on me at lunch no matter how careful I am. As long as I maintain my hygiene and start off with clean clothes I’m doing good for me

    1. OP Scruffy*

      This is me. Except I never wore makeup–never did get the hang of it and I have little patience with it. Thank you for helping me realize I am not alone.

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        Honestly this is me these days, though when I was younger I was much more polished (and very self-conscious about it to keep it that way.) I haven’t noticed it being a problem.

        I’ve got a couple tricks: the “talking to senior leadership” blazer and shoes I keep in my cube. (As someone else commenting also mentioned.) And I usually wear scarves with my outfits which I take off to eat. They hide any lunchtime drips I can’t blot out.

      2. NicoleT*

        I remember seeing an interview with Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), who used to work as a make up artist. He said focusing on brows, lips, and mascara was enough to add enough contrast to make it LOOK like you did a lot. My brows have begun to get lighter as I’ve hit 40, and so I tint them instead of having to fill them in every day. My lashes are dark enough. I enjoy obnoxiously bright lipstick on occasion, but not regularly.

        As a fellow “working poor”/business casual office worker, I will say that the clothes I have bought at Goodwill are the ones seem to draw compliments. Same with the cheapest statement costume jewelry (I like big necklaces, vintage brooches, and quirky earrings). If I add one funky piece of jewelry, then that seemed to make the scruffy/rumpled look intentional and “stylish” vs “I’m lazy”. (The latter is the truth.) When doing project manager duties last year, I bought a dark blazer at Goodwill, and changed up the shirt underneath and the brooch on the lapel on each wearing. Jeans as bottoms. I figured in a meeting at a table, no one will see my bottom half. :-) The blazer made ME feel more professional, and I could shed it after meeting was done.

        All that said, now I’m working at home for the forseeable future. I still put on clean clothes, maybe earrings, and pull my hair away from my face (now waist length with some greys) as a signal to my brain that it’s a work day.

    2. starsaphire*

      Oh man. I so hear you! I can stand in the middle of an empty room and have spaghetti sauce just… materialize onto my shirtfront out of nowhere. Or toner, or ink, or…

      I live in jeans and sneakers, and thank Deity-of-choice that I work in tech and that’s OK, because I hated every ruddy moment of skirts-and-dresses office life. Hated it. I was always the one juuust skating by in the slightly faded black slacks and the slightly wrinkled cotton button-down and the cheap Payless flats, looking uncomfortable and sweaty.

      1. Pennyworth*

        I am another perpetually rumpled person, and I can also stand in an empty room and clutter will appear.

      2. sb51*

        Ditto. Although my first internship (also in tech) I was pretty put-together because my mom thought I’d need skirts+blouses+pantyhose (my colleagues were all in polos and jeans, men and women alike) and I didn’t actually have anything in between the week’s worth of “work clothes” and my tattered college student t-shirt collection. I did ditch the pantyhose after a week, though, even though this was back when that sort of outfit still did tend to require them.

  14. Mel_05*

    I work in marketing and at one job there were *often* discussions about people’s gray hair or dowdy clothes.

    I was also super aware that my clothing wasn’t up to par for these people, but it wasn’t like they were paying me enough to overhaul my wardrobe either.

    1. NicoleT*

      RIGHT? If you want me to be “polished” on the daily, then you need to be paying me commensurately so that I can get what I need for that (regular hair and nail appointments, the clothes, the shoes). Unless that’s going to happen, then you get showered and clean clothes.

  15. voyager1*

    “I’m sure you know the type — the people who just aren’t fashionistas, are a little odd and quirky, the misfit who sticks out somehow. The dress pants that should look elegant look just odd on them, the shirts off slightly. Maybe a bit of pet hair or lint, they get ink stains on their hands, never wear heels, etc.”

    The quirky and not wearing heels is fine. But you need to have clean hands. You shouldn’t have hands covered in ink. And no pet fur is not okay either. I have two cats and yes the struggle is real about keeping them off my clothes. I can’t imagine showing up to work like my cats used my shirts as a kennel rug.

    As for clothes not fitting, well some people struggle with that. I would suggest that they find friend who will be honest and help them with that. Even as a guy, some golf shirts and pants look good on me and some don’t.

    I get it is harder for women, but folks need to find clothes that fit.

    Lastly body order is just a flat out no. Please shower/bathe regularly so you don’t smell.

    1. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

      I keep my work pants in a closet near the door, so I put them on just when I’m leaving to minimize the amount of hair that gets on them. With three cats and two dogs, there’s still probably a few stray hairs, but nothing egregious.

    2. kt*

      What’s wrong with the ink? I wash my hands frequently but sometimes my fountain pen takes a dislike to me, or the roller ball leaks.

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        Agreed. Hands covered in ink that is leaving ink on the things you touch? Problem. A couple of ink marks because of your writing style or pen malfunction…who even notices?

    3. Sgalleywag*

      Goodness gracious, you make it sound like a smear of ink or a hint of cat fur would be a mortal insult to subject your colleagues to!

        1. ...*

          Well I dont hate pets, in fact I love love love them, but im severely allergic to cats, so it would be nice if people wiped pet hair off themselves before coming into work. it not that challenging. we even keep lint rollers in the supply closet for this purpose

          1. Hrodvitnir*

            It is absolutely that challenging, there is no planet on which I will be pet hair free. I have many cats, my clothes are clean and I lint roll if there’s a noticeable amount of animal hair, but there will always be a few wound through the fibres of my clothing. I will not be spending hours of my time lint rolling, and I just enjoy working somewhere where it’s not an issue.

            The leap from “I have more than zero pet hair on me” to “I can’t imagine showing up to work like my cats used my shirts as a kennel rug” by voyager1 is orders of magnitude more hair than I, and I assume the LW, am talking about.

            1. jenkins*

              Yeah, I used to put my trousers on just before walking out of the door in the morning, because otherwise my long-haired white cat would come and destroy them by winding around my legs – and still I’m sure some hairs made their way onto my clothes. They weave themselves in and survive a machine wash, they waft about in the air and land on me as I flee. Not to mention that no roller I’ve ever met will get them all if he does manage to rub up against me. I am careful and I don’t look like the cat has slept on my clothes but there will always be the odd one.

    4. Colette*

      I’d argue that, if it’s not standing in the OP’s way career-wise (not up for promotion when her work would justify it, for example), she doesn’t need to change anything.

      1. EventPlannerGal*

        The OP did write in to ask the question, though, and I don’t think that “try to keep clean and not be covered in cat hair” is an unreasonable response.

        1. Sgalleywag*

          Sure, but there’s a significant difference between commonsense advice like avoiding pet hair and ink stains, and the implication that the Letter Writer is simply covered in cat hair and needs to be advised against body odour!

    5. Sarah*

      I personally don’t think “maybe a bit of pet fur” or ink stains on hands are a big deal. I mean, I guess it depends on how much pet fur, but I think as long as you do your best to remove anything obvious you’re probably fine. As far as ink stains, maybe try some different pens because some stain more than others, but I don’t think anyone is going to really call that unprofessional. I do work in a field where I can wear sneakers to work, but in my field you could get away with quite a bit of pet fur, ink stains, hair dyed all kimds of colors, etc. Business casual makes me think you might want to keep a lint roller at your desk just to be on the safe side, but in most places I don’t think it would cause you any problems except for unconscious stuff that is only worth worrying so much about. I also think this is one of those things where effort counts for a lot. And if you sit at a desk all day, I would worry even less.

    6. JSPA*

      If you’re left handed, don’t “hook” your writing, and don’t always carry your own no-smear pens, you will sometimes have ink on your hands. It’s a question of fluid dynamics, friction and chemistry, not “professionalism.” So long as you are not smudging documents, the temporary presence of ink is about as neutral a situation as I can think of. Doesn’t smell, doesn’t carry disease, has an obvious source that’s not something vaguely icky.

    7. Wintergreen*

      Who said anything about odor but you? LW mentions she is clean and so are her clothes. That comment is not called for and says a lot more about you than you think.

      I take it from your “I get it is harder for women” that you are a man. Well, it is not just harder it can be damn near impossible without spending a TON of money and/or time. There are thousands of articles, blogs, discussions, etc. devoted to the discrepancies between the mens and womens clothing industries. And the inherent unfairness and double standards that women are subject to.

      As HoHumDrum alludes to in their post above thread, this whole argument is steeped in misogyny. As long as you are clean, your clothes are clean, you are comfortable, and you’ve given a minimum amount of thought to the atmosphere of your office (casual?, business casual?, business formal?) you SHOULD be fine. (You being a man or woman)

  16. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

    I’m not sure about OPs gender, or the gender of the speaker’s boss, but in “I recently heard someone mention that their boss dressed “poorly” and had grey hair, while they themselves “dressed like a professional woman who made X amount should.” I am wondering about professionalism in this respect” the comment about grey hair vs professional women really jumps out to me. If boss is a woman, I feel like this entirely boils down to the assumption on the part of the speaker that grey hair is inherently unprofessional for women.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      So the comment about dressing and making X amount stood out to me and I was confused by what the person meant by it.

      I admit I love a polished look (mostly on other people, I myself am too lazy to consistently do it) but I also have never though “Oh, she looks like she should make X and her job only pays Y, let’s give her a raise!”

      1. Pocket Mouse*

        I read it as “If she makes the salary I think she makes, she for sure has enough money to dye her hair, and it reflects on her poorly that she doesn’t”- as if that’s the first thing discretionary funds should go toward, or that hair dye is equivalent to other markers of professional standing. Mysogyny abounds with this.

    2. Esmeralda*

      Not very professional to be dissing one’s boss like that where other people can hear….

  17. Dust Bunny*

    It sounds like you’re fine. My only caution would be if you’re invested in an identity as the Rumpled One and are hanging onto this when you might look better with little effort it you were open to it. Sometimes a little time spent trying a different brand of clothing that has a different cut is worth the outcome.

    I’m a woman in her early 40s. My default mode of dress is . . . quirky (I thrift and also make a lot of my own clothes from vintage patterns) with no makeup and wash-and-wear hair, but I’m also aware that things I might wear on my own time or things I might wear to a routine day at work are not necessarily up to snuff for times when I might be seen by more of the public, or might be seen by members of the public with a higher degree of influence than most of out patrons have. I’m OK with trying harder on those days.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Also, there is a lot of ground to be covered between “working poor” and “designer clothes”. I started my office job in designer clothes . . . purchased secondhand from the thrift stores in the high-end part of town. They looked nice and lasted for years (I’m still wearing one of the skirts fifteen years later).

        1. Uranus Wars*

          YES! I have purchased so many tags-on Talbots, JCrew, Calvin Klein, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Tahari, etc. shoes and dresses for under $20 (mostly much under) at our Goodwill and one of our high-end local consignment stores! I commented a couple weeks ago about a Kate Spade $400-something bag in pristine condition with the dust bag I got for $45.

          1. DarnTheMan*

            My two local Value Villages have gotten better at spotting certain designer labels and pricing them higher but I’ve still gotten scores on lesser-known high-end labels; I recently got a pair of Giuseppe Zanotti sandals (normal retail anywhere from $400 to $1k) for $8.

        2. Sylvan*

          What you want to look for is a consignment shop in the same shopping center as a Whole Foods.

        3. Kimmy Schmidt*

          My relatives live in a fancy resort town and there’s a designated Thrift Store Trail. The out-of-towners wear really nice apparel for a season, at most, and then donate it, and the locals love to scout for deals.

        4. Aerin*

          This has been a big challenge for me in my current city, because the most expensive areas butt right up against the poorest areas. And the thrift stores we do have are all either in-your-face religious or super shady (or both!) so these days if I’m looking for a specific piece I’ll usually hit eBay or ThredUp.

          1. Clever username goes here*

            +1 for ThredUp, I’ve had really good experiences with ordering from there.

  18. Goldenrod*

    I think you sound just fine, OP!

    I happen to be one of those people who overdresses at the office – meaning, even though our dress code is business casual, I often dress more formally. Like, I’ll wear a suit jacket and skirt, while others wear jeans.

    The reason I adopted this style of dress is partly because of my status – I’m an executive assistant, which means, sometimes I feel like I’m at risk for being treated like “the low woman on the totem pole.” For me, overdressing is a way of asserting my professionalism – just kind of an easy trick! Because there (sadly) are a lot of people who will give you more respect in a business setting if you are dressed up more. I do it because for me it’s an easy way to earn extra points, and because it makes me feel more confident at work.

    However, I truly believe the higher up you go, the less this actually matters. If you have a job with built-in respect and status, it’s less necessary to “make your clothes do the talking.” In my opinion.

    You sound like you are doing just fine.

    1. Lifelong student*

      Absolutely! I started out as a clerical person back when the mantra was dress for the job you want to have. I moved on- with more education- to increasingly professional positions right about the time business casual became the thing. By that time I had assembled a significant wardrobe of professional clothes- I owned somewhere around suits, plus dresses and other such outfits. Then I was chastised by the younger staff for overdressing. It took me years to stop wearing hose in the heat of summer! Because I had been in the working wold for many years, I had accumulated rather a lot of nice jewelry- and the fact that I wore jewelry became a topic of conversation. By this point, I wasn’t dressing to impress, I was dressing to please myself- and I did!

    2. AnonAcademic*

      Yup! I was the undergrad who wore a blazer to their part time tutoring center job (with purple hair), but now that I am post-PhD and running my own lab I’m pretty much like, am I reasonably covered up? there is nothing on my face? good to go.

    3. mf*

      Yep, I did this too — I became an EA at a university where I looked as young as the undergrad students. I overdressed to ensure I’m not mistaken as a student. It’s a great tactic for anyone who tends to read as young, small, or lacking in command/power.

    4. AKchic*

      Sometimes, wearing jeans can be a fashionable and classy work look. Fitted, dark denim with a nice blouse and a fitted suit jacket/blazer and low heels or boots and you’ve got a very nice look. I do it a lot and I’m considered *very* overdressed in my warehouse/office job (granted, my own mother wears capris and sleeveless tops to the same office and frequently tells me that my clothes are inappropriate because *she* doesn’t approve of my style, but that is another issue).

  19. Hammer Time*

    My job in the commercial art world requires a very high level of polish for front- and mid-office roles, but there are other jobs within the company (IT, operations, etc.) where the wardrobe OP describes is completely normal and would definitely not be an issue at all. So it sounds like OP is totally fine!

  20. Work with Military*

    Working for the Military (on the civilian side), grooming is a big thing for men. A nice, well kept haircut is a must, and short hair off the collar and ears will for better or worse make your career go further. Facial hair is similar in that clean shaven is probably best, but if you have facial hair, it better be a beard (not patchy scruff or a 5 o clock shadow) and better be trimmed and neat.

    1. Liminally Maple*

      I previously had a workplace that dealt with military history and was part active military, part academics (many here for 20+ years) and part students/temps. You could generally identify how long the historians had been out of service (many were vets) by how far their daily appearance varied from the active military folks, from pressed and trimmed down to nearly daily tropical print shirts.

  21. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I’ve always heard that they want public sector employees to avoid showing off any perceived wealth, nobody wants to look like they’re getting paid lavish amounts [I know you’re not!] to do our public work.

    I’m in manufacturing and construction sector, so I’ve never bothered trying. I still show up to interviews in suits and then I show up in blouses until I have settled in, then I always end up in tshirts and jeans, sneakers or mucks if necessary [which are essentially rubber boots for those unfamiliar].

    You dress for the job you have, follow the guidelines and that’s enough. If you like dressing up, that’s okay. Once in awhile I’ll show up “real purdy and classy” and everyone is like “Okay exactly what’s happening right now?”. It’s usually when I have a meeting with someone who will expect me to present above my day to day. Like account reps because I want them to not be distracted while I negotiate pricing, etc.

    The person you overheard was a S-N-O-B.

    1. Anon 75*

      Your last sentence is spot on.

      I dressed more conservatively in a professional style when I was a entry level employee at a scientic federal agency in DC. But that’s standard dress code in parts of DC anyway. One of the higher ups in my agency was a middle-aged female, and maybe some would call her clothes “frumpy”, it said nothing about her brilliant mind. Her clothes were bland and perhaps not the best fitting, but they were clean and the agency hired her for technical brilliance, not her fashion sense.

      Now that I’m in the private sector, I dress considerably more casually. I only have one current suit and I only wear it once a year.

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        I’d say that your brilliant colleague’s frumpy dress actually said a fair amount about how valued she was in the organization. In every public sector organization I’ve been in, once you hit a certain level of technical competence, you were more likely to dress scruffy. It was a sign that you were indispensable and didn’t have to follow quite the same rules.
        I don’t mean people were being performatively scruffy. You can’t pull this one off unless you really do have the chops. More that because they were so secure in their roles, they were able to relax their concerns about looking the part.

  22. Bippity*

    It feels like the OP is conflating quite a few different things and putting them under one general heading. I’m not sure how beneficial that way of looking at things is.

    Some people’s personal a style fits better with different industries and work cultures, while some people have to modulate their natural style to be appropriate for their professional environment. For example I wear a lot of bright colourful prints which is completely appropriate to the media/arts industry I work in. If I worked in law, I would need to show more restraint. That’s not being quirky, it’s observing your industry’s norms and adjusting appropriately. The ink and pet hair stuff comes down to basic grooming or lack of. And the clothes just not looking right honestly sounds more like lack of self confidence and feeling self conscious in business attire than anything else.

    It’s important to separate these three elements and address them separately, rather than conflating them into one label “quirky” especially when sometimes value judgements are associated with that. I’m not saying the OP is doing that, but “quirky misfit” is a very popular trope; in certain online spaces people are practically desperate to latch on to the idea that they’re a quirky oddball as a way of signalling that they’re better than those boring conventional squares – I mean every other person online considers themselves to be quirky and an oddball.

    The other factor is that some industries are more dominated by people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than others, and those industries can be rife with classicism and coded class codes used as a way of labelling people. My industry is like that and it’s really crappy, and I don’t know the answer. Maybe try to find a mentor or someone in your industry to discuss these issues with?

    1. Dust Bunny*

      You put it better than I did. I have two cats but I don’t come to work covered in their hair, and when clothing gets stained I retire it to at-home wear. I can use rubbing alcohol to get most ink off my hands.

      I don’t need to be “me” so much that I hide behind it as a way to avoid basic grooming or observation of industry expectations.

      1. lasslisa*

        Huh. Today I learned there are ways to get ink stains off skin other than soaping them as much as you can and then waiting for them to wear off the rest of the way.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This a is an A+ comment that sums so much up.

      All my work clothes are hanging up, so no cat hair gets on them and I learned ages ago that you need to know the fabrics you wear, how they need to be cared for. It’s all about basic-care instructions.

      You need to use some thought process and choose the right fabrics, then the fit comes next.

    3. Dagny*

      This is a great way of explaining it.

      I think the OP could benefit from an overhaul of her wardrobe, but that doesn’t mean gobs of money. A lot of not looking frumpy involves finding clothes that fit your body shape (even the most expensive clothes look bad on different shapes) that also go well together. Think, balancing wide-leg pants with a more fitted top, or pairing a dolman blouse with a pencil skirt. Then add a piece or two of jewelry.

      Find a YouTube tutorial on how to cut your own hair.

  23. Former Retail Manager*

    I transitioned from a retail career to the public sector almost 11 years ago. I work for a very large federal agency with locations throughout the United States. I agree with another commenter that the public sector is generally on the scruffier end of things and, at my own agency, I can say that very specific knowledge and high quality work product will carry you a long way. We have a few employees that would be considered scruffy, but they are very good at their jobs and have very specific knowledge that couldn’t be easily replaced so people are more accepting because their value is pretty high. Fair? No. But that’s what I’ve noticed.

    However, I’ve seen appearance come into play the most with regard to promotions, both within the position, and people looking to transition to management. It’s the biggest factor with management, even though the vast majority of our managers never see anyone other than their own employees and their own boss from time to time. I think that most people, myself included and I’m under 40, have some ideas of what a person in a position of power/responsibility is supposed to look like and part of that is a certain degree of professional polish. If you are happy where you are (I can’t tell from your letter. You say you are, but then describe yourself as working poor which leads me to believe you may want to make more money) then none of this matters. But if you want to move up, then consider changing your appearance a bit, if you’re comfortable with that. Also, is there any possibility that you look perfectly fine but perceive yourself as looking scruffy? I’ve known a couple of folks like this. They saw themselves very differently than others saw them.

    However, I will say that designer clothing and hair dye aren’t necessary for professional polish. If your clothes don’t fit you quite right, look into tailoring them. If your hair is frizzy/flyaway, look into some low cost argan oil and wear it pulled back or do whatever helps you feel that it’s under control and looks ncie. Slap on a tinted sunscreen/BB cream and some slightly tinted lip gloss if you feel that makeup might help. Get a manicure (not necessarily acrylic nails) if your nails are looking a little rough. Try to be less clumsy if you spill on yourself a lot or have napkins on hand to put in your lap to catch spills. I believe you are female. If you want to make some small adjustments, do you have a female friend that you consider to be polished? Could you ask her for some candid feedback and suggestions. None of this is required and appearance shouldn’t matter, but the reality is that it does, and if you believe it’s impacting your ability to earn more money, then I think it’s worth deciding if you are willing to make small changes that may change people’s perception of you.

    1. Work with Military*

      Having well kept, well trimmed nails is important for men too. Trim them and file them. Scrub the dirt and grease out from under them.

    2. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      You can get a manicure without polish! As someone who can make even clear polish look ragged, I was delighted to discover this when the bridesmaids at my brother’s wedding had a salon day. I asked the manicurist for clear polish because the inevitable chips would be less obvious, and she offered me the option of a trim-and-buff manicure instead. (I think some places may advertise this as a “gentleman’s manicure”?) It’s completely invisible in a way that ragged nails or chipped polish isn’t, and doesn’t require near so much maintenance as polish or gels or acrylics.

      1. DarnTheMan*

        I do my own nails at home but I love a ‘gentleman’s manicure’ every so often, just to get the nails evened out and my cuticles taken care of; I think of it as like getting a trim at the hairdressers, except for your nails!

  24. Artemesia*

    I have always worked in sectors that do not require the ‘polished look’ i.e. foundation and make up, very styled coifed hair and designer clothing and in fact, make up beyond a little lipstick is actually not viewed as attractive by men in these professions or expected to be ‘professionally appropriate.’ Lucky me as I have never had any interest in clothing and make up. BUT early on I found some basic garments that allowed me to look well turned out and a hair style that was easy to manage so I didn’t have to give it much thought. And for conferences and other presentation situations, I made sure I had a couple of suits or dresses a notch up.

    I think if you don’t care, then it isn’t a bad idea to develop a uniform of well fitted, easy to manage garments so you can show up looking well turned out without effort. Even in my grungy professional environments those who advance are often people considered presentable.

  25. Fake it with a blazer*

    I think this is a complicated topic because people make subconscious snap judgments based on appearance all the time, even if they’re not aware of it. I worked in an academic library where people dressed in a variety of ways, and I generally went for business casual comfort. I sometimes wore blazers for meetings. And I noticed over time that if I had to talk to my library director and I had a blazer on, he believed every little golden word that dropped from my mouth. If I didn’t he questioned EVERYTHING I said, in a topic where I had expertise and he had none. It was a blatant example, and I’m sure it was more subtle with others, but I made a point of making sure I had a couple of blazers in my office that I could throw on for an unexpected director encounters and I did the same whenever I had meetings with faculty.

    If, and only if, you notice you’re not always being treated with the credibility you deserve, it’s not unreasonable to invest in a couple of no-iron button up shirts and pants that look good out of the dryer and just once go to a tailor to make sure they fit you, since we are none of us the same shape as the mannequin they make the clothes for. And maybe have that emergency credibility blazer in your office to bring with you when you have to make an important point, just like you bring your facts and your charts with you.

    You don’t have to do this. You shouldn’t have to. But if it makes your work life easier, it’s something you can choose to do.

    Or not do.

    But if your only problem is this gossipy clothes-horse who thinks she knows how everybody should dress, then by all means carry on and wear something extra soft and comfortable tomorrow for sheer joy.

    1. Goldenrod*

      Agreed, Fake It With A Blazer!

      Once I realized that a lot of people at work equate “looking more polished” with “being a better worker,” I figured, why NOT give myself that built-in advantage? I think it’s silly, but I also think, if there is an easy trick you can do to make life easier at the office, why not do it?

      That way, you don’t have to battle against a first impression (i.e. “scruffy”). If people look at you and think “professional” (based on nothing more than how you are dressed), well, that’s all for the better.

      For the record, I think it SHOULDN’T be this way…..but a lot of Alison’s advice is about “things that could help even though we wish it were not so.” So why not make life easier for yourself?

      It doesn’t require expensive or designer clothes either. It’s pretty easy to stand out as polished in an office filled with casual dressers – just wearing a skirt/dress or jacket can do the trick.

      1. Dr. Anonymous*

        Blazers from the thrift store were the core of my academic wardrobe and I still wear one of them today.

  26. Veronica*

    I watch with great delight as more men appear at awards shoes with amazing outfits, heels, make-up and accessories. I look forward to the day when we can be categorized not by “men/women” but “fashion-forward/functional.” Then more men in high profile jobs can write into this blog worrying about if their suit is too boring.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Men used to dress up though, think of the ages of powdered wigs and they indeed wore heels and makeup too. Then they decided they didn’t need to. I look more forward to it being a true option instead of just inflicted upon everyone.

      1. Amy Sly*

        It’s worth noting that the suit came into popularity about the time the fasionista men with the powdered wigs and heels and gaudy silk outfits were getting guillotined.

    2. mf*

      Me too! I LOVE it when men dress up and wear interesting clothes. It’s so much fun for those of us who love fashion and I’m happy to see more men finding ways to express themselves through style.

    3. DarnTheMan*

      I’m a woman but Harry Styles features prominently on a number of my Pinterest boards for this reason; I love the way he’s unafraid to play with fashion and get dressed up.

  27. Brett*

    Public sector does have an issue that, as you move into management, the amount of polish required in your appearance ramps up quickly.
    My perspective is from that of local government, where the closer you get to department head or chief elected official, the more polished you must be. Also, the larger the entity, the more polished (e.g. a department head in a MSA center city or central MSA county is going to be a much higher level of polish than a department head in a smaller rural county).
    The department can matter too. For the large county I worked for, the communications department head is tv news anchor level of polish regardless of gender (and frequently that role was filled by former local news anchors). The head of public works would still wear custom made clothing or designer clothing, but not the professional makeup or professionally styled hair.

  28. CommanderBanana*

    LW you sounds lovely!

    I think as long as your clothes are clean, fit, don’t have holes and go together reasonably well you’ll be fine. The only time I ever overtly noticed someone being ‘scruffy’ in years of working for the Feds was an employee who showed up to training (where most people wore suits or dress shirts and pants) with greasy, uncombed hair, a massively huge polo shirt with holes, and stained khakis that were also so large on her she had to hold them up with one hand. If she’d worn the exact same outfit that fit and wasn’t dirty and ripped, I doubt I would have noticed.

    If you are not a clothes person, coming up with a uniform in a limited spectrum of color, like a capsule wardrobe, is the easiest way to look put together and not have to think about it. I really don’t think gray hair matters (FWIW Carmen del’Orefice has fully white hair and looks like a million dollars) as long as its clean and neat. I found when I had long hair it actually look less styling as I always wore it in a chignon or French twist.

  29. kt*

    First thing first: how does the OP *feel* in his/her clothes?

    If your clothing leads you to feel less confident, then… there is your answer!

    Second: how does your clothing fit with your goals? What do you want to communicate on a daily basis?

    Try these on for size (haha): “I’m happy with where I am.” “I’d like to keep moving up the ladder.” “I want everyone to know that I don’t care about externals.”

    If there is a mismatch in answer to either question above, then you should change your clothes.

    Last, it’s worth reading Richard Hamming’s delightful essay, “You and Your Research.” He touches on the clothing thing.

    1. Nerdy Library Clerk*

      It’s not clear from the letter what the dress code is where OP works, but it’s possible that they’d actually feel less scruffy if they shifted toward the less dressy end of what’s allowable, instead of the more dressy end. Contrary as it may sound, some of us feel scruffier and less professional the “dressier” the clothing. (Which is why I work in a place where jeans and a T-shirt is perfectly acceptable work wear.)

      1. allathian*

        Yes, you nailed it. I don’t really have the patience to invest a lot of time in getting my clothes tailored so they fit perfectly. It would be exceedingly awkward to wear jeans and a t-shirt when everyone else is wearing a suit, but in general I much prefer working in reasonably comfortable clothes. I know that some people like to wear more formal clothes to get into work mode and that’s great if it works for them. But I prefer clothes that are comfortable enough that I’m not really even aware of wearing them.

  30. Amy*

    I’m not sure I’d rush to assure this LW that it’s 100% fine. It may be! But I think I’d ask a trusted colleague who knows both me and the industry if I were the LW.

    I have a colleague who might have written a letter like this. And in isolation, any one thing would have been fine. Quite rumpled clothes, cat hair, scuffed shoes, clothing that didn’t quite fit, some stains. No one thing was outrageous. Any one or two things would have understandable. But taken together, it was not a great impression. We’re in a client facing role (though business casual most of the time) and finally my boss spoke to him about looking a bit more polished.

    He reacted very poorly and said he couldn’t afford a $2,000 suit with two kids in daycare in __ (high COLA). But that wasn’t what my boss meant at all. She just wanted him to look less like he’d rolled out of bed in the clothes he worn the day before.

    None of this might apply to LW. But it’s worth getting a tiny bit of feedback from someone who can see what the written word can’t easily convey.

    1. Dpmitten*

      OMG yes. It’s the totality that pushes it over the edge. You don’t feel like doing your hair and prefer ponytails? Fine. Not into makeup? Fine. A bit of dog hair? Ok. But when you have every aspect of this, it’s bad. Like messy hair, no makeup, wrinkled clothes, ill fitting clothes, scuffed shoes, peeling handbag = does not inspire me to think of you as capable and a leader.

    2. Elsajeni*

      I don’t think this is bad advice in general! But I would also note that the LW doesn’t say she’s had any feedback about her own appearance, or that she’s noticed any problems or snags in her work life that might be attributable to her level of polish not being up to standards — she just heard someone make a judgmental comment about someone else, and now is anxious that people might be judging her in the same way. It may still be worth checking in, if only to help relieve that anxiety, but it doesn’t sound to me like there’s a real issue with the LW’s polish or presentation holding her back at work.

  31. Spicy Tuna*

    I work in finance, which can be mixed regarding fashion norms, but every company I’ve worked at has been business casual.

    I loathe shopping for clothing, nothing fits me “off the rack”, I have little time to waste taking clothing to a tailor, I can’t walk in high heels and when I wear makeup, it looks like a toddler drew all over my face with crayon. Oh, and I have curly hair just to top off the unprofessional look! Guess what? It’s NEVER been an issue. As long the work is on point, no one has said a word about my appearance.

    On the few occasions where I need to meet with people outside of the company, I do take extra care with my appearance, but that’s it. And believe it or not, there is someone higher in the organization than me that actually looks worse. Like, she uses safety pins to hold her pants closed. Her shirts are always too short and her belly sticks out (she’s overweight). No one has ever said anything to her and it has not harmed her professionally.

    1. Eva Luna*

      Seriously, since when is curly hair unprofessional? Not that I care – my hair is what it is. I do use a teeny dab of (natural) product just to control frizz, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste my time frying my hair with heat-generating appliances to conform to someone else’s bizarre, ethnically biased idea of “professional” dress. My daily hair routine (other than washing and conditioning) takes about 30 seconds, and it’s going to stay that way.

      1. Spicy Tuna*

        I leave it curly but I never really figured out how to “wear” it in such a way that it doesn’t look unruly / frizzy / bed heady. I’ll be honest, it looks terrible 90% of the time. I don’t really care; I just make sure no one has any complaint about my actual work product and they tend to leave the aesthetics alone.

    2. Doc in a Box*

      Curls are 100% not unprofessional. I assume that was sarcasm to go along with the toddle crayon makeup, but just to be clear, natural hair, like natural face, is not (NOT) unprofessional.

      1. Spicy Tuna*

        Let me clarify. Curls are not unprofessional but they are 100% CONSIDERED unprofessional.

        I only straighten for job interviews (something I have thankfully not had to do in over 15 years), but I have had people at work tell me:
        1. They were surprised that I had an MBA because I looked like a party girl with my curly hair;
        2. They could understand why I didn’t have children since I would pass on the curly hair (spoiler alert, that is *not* why I don’t have kids!);
        3. It’s been touched and poked at – for reference, I am white, so this inappropriate behavior carries far less offensiveness than if were not white, but it’s still wrong
        4. Been given unsolicited styling “tips” from people

        1. Doc in a Box*

          Wow. Sounds like you work with some terrible people. My experience is the exact opposite: never straightened (or colored, for that matter), occasional compliments from women colleagues, mostly flies under the radar. Once a patient asked me if the gray strands were real; I just stared at him long enough to make us both a little uncomfortable and moved on.

        2. allathian*

          Yikes, I’m so sorry. Reminds me of a friend of mine who was keen to advance in her career. Trouble is, she was blonde. Extremely knowledgeable, very professional and very good at her job. But blonde. She tried an experiment and dyed her hair a stylish mid-brown. She said it amazed her how people took her so much more seriously than they had previously done. While she was brunette, she got the promotion she had wanted for a few years. After she had been in her new position for a while, she went back to blonde but apparently she was still treated as the professional she was.

      2. Spicy Tuna*

        Also, I would like to add that since I haven’t been into the office since late January (I was WFH since before COVID) and there is nothing to do socially, the last time I washed my hair was in February. It’s smooth and straight, if a bit greasy

      3. ggg*

        I hope curls are not unprofessional because I perm my hair! Otherwise it takes me a boatload of time to style it and it looks horrid by the end of the day.

  32. Sara M*

    I’m from a family of professors. I have such a soft spot for slightly-rumpled looking professionals.

    Don’t worry too much. Reasonable effort is plenty in most professions.

  33. CSI*

    I want to comment about the grey hair thing, apart from the “polish” thing.

    I’m 100% sure that I have never heard a man criticized for looking unprofessional for having grey hair.

    So if we’re criticizing women for having grey hair, what we really mean is that they look old, and not sexually available, and not interesting in looking as sexually available / young as possible because if they were they would colour their hair. You can certainly have grey hair and look polished; but you can’t have grey hair and look anxious about looking young.

    Which means that we think women in the workplace should feel anxious about looking old and unattractive, which is somehow tied to their professionalism. This is similar to high heels. Of course a woman could look professional in flats; men look professional in flats all the time. But a woman cannot look like she is willing to be uncomfortable in order to look as close as possible to a patriarchal sexual ideal. And this is threatening the point of being unprofessional!

    It’s really mind blowing.

    I’m a lawyer, and I’m delighting in aging out of the time when I was somehow provocative in professional settings simply by being young and attractive. I’m older, a mother, and a lot heavier now and it’s very freeing. I can look extremely professional without wearing heels or dying my hair and nobody hits on me anymore. I have expensive suits that fit well, and wear smart but flat shoes. But luckily I get paid to be intimidating; it must be much more difficult to be in a different profession where making people uncomfortable is a liability and not an asset.

    1. BridgeNerdess*

      I love this and agree with you completely. I used to try to dress more masculine to fit in, like khakis and polos. That doesn’t work, either. Finding my own style and being comfortable had a much bigger impact on my “professionalism.”

      I’m an engineer and deal with clients and contractors, so I tend to look more polished than a lot of my peers (or maybe I get to deal with clients and contractors because I look more polished?). While I don’t have any gray yet, I won’t be dyeing it since gray hair = experience in my field. Luckily, I don’t get near as many sexist comments these days as I did in my 20s, but I think that has more to do with confidence and my natural resting b*tch face.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Preach. I don’t even come from a family that greys very quickly, so I don’t even worry about it much.

      When a man starts going grey, we say they’re “Distinguished” and a “Silver Fox”, we also glamorize “Dad Bod” though too, so this is a whole lot of double-standard sexism in just some strands of hair that’s ran out of frigging pigment. Argh.

      1. Analyst Editor*

        A small quibble, but I’ve never, ever heard “dad bod” used in a complimentary way.

    3. Foila*

      Yeesssss. I’ve thought a lot about how there’s so much valuation placed on women looking sexually available – not necessarily literally, but the whole concept of a woman’s entire worth being in her looks kind of boils down to that. And I’ve done a lot of thinking about rejecting wanting to be “cute” or “pretty” as the only ways to look good.

    4. Forrest*

      I don’t think it’s just that. Grey hair is a different texture from your younger hair, usually drier and curlier. It can absolutely look polished and professional, but if your hair is longer than typical cishet-white-man-short, it probably needs a different cut and different care from when you were in your 20-30s.

      People are often reacting to the impression your appearance makes, rather than the specifics. If your hair’s grey but short, or grey and mid length but you’ve found a style and care that works for it, a lot of people will just register that. “She’s just gone grey” often means “she hasn’t invested time/money in adapting to the fact that her hair has changed”.

      This isn’t a LESS unreasonable standard for women, but I don’t think it’s just as simple as whether you are/aren’t perceived as trying it be sexually attractive.

      1. Workerbee*

        Well, in thinking over this, I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of marketing money invested in telling women they are Less Than if they aren’t perceived as young.

        I don’t know about what pressures men get. I do know that my hairdresser, before I dumped her, would make comments about how she couldn’t wait to cover my grays, and also that I wouldn’t be able to have long hair soon either.

        Does gray hair have a different texture? Sure! Should we be expected to have a different cut or style, or have it be assumed that we haven’t invested in ourselves if it’s longer than a certain length? That’s where I think the mega mounds of social conditioning are coming in. And I do think the basis is in sexual attractiveness—lot of money also invested in telling people how to think of other people’s viability!—as much as if not more than one’s perceived worth as an employee.

        I have no data, just observations and inferences. It bugs me all the same.

        1. Forrest*

          I think the Venn diagram of “dressing to be sexually attractive” and “dressing professionally” has a big overlap for women, and the more “polished” the sector the more stereotypical high-femme the baseline expectation is– heels, full make-up, skirts, coloured hair etc., so I’m not suggesting it’s *nothing* to do with the expectation that we’re sexually attractive at all times. But I do think there’s another dimension to what people think of as “professional” too, which is mostly about having very simple and uniform shapes and colours. The people I think of as having “professional grey hair” in the latter category are pretty much all lesbians whose hair is cut to be neat, short and low maintenance, usually paired with no make-up, flat shoes and fairly simple, unaccessorised clothing style. They’re not making any nods to sexual attractiveness for men, but none of them look unprofessional.

          I mean, *all* professional dress standards are unreasonable, and sexist, racist bullshit. But if you have to live with them and you want to project professionalism with the minimum amount of effort and forced-femming, then figuring out things like a decent basic haircut that suits your hair type and requires little care is the way to do it.

        2. CommanderBanana*

          I always heard that about gray hair, but not always – I didn’t even realize mine had gone gray until I experimented growing it out (I’d been dying it since my teens) and it all came in gray instead of blonde!

  34. BridgeNerdess*

    To start, I think women are definitely held to different standards than men. Not fair, but it is what it is.

    One thing I haven’t seen discussed is clothing fit. A well-fit shirt from Target is going to look more polished than a too-tight or too-baggy high-end shirt. Same with pants. Frumpy to me is my one co-worker who wears worn out khakis that are 2 sizes too big with a belt trying to compensate, which then pulls up the pant legs leading to high-waters. He’s excellent at his job, but not someone who gets put into of clients too often. You can absolutely look professional and not need to be a fashionista. If you’ve gained or lost weight, you should try to make sure your clothes are still fitting properly or find some cheaper “gap” clothes you can wear until your weight settles. I really think fit is what sets a lot of people apart but most people don’t pay attention to. I rarely can wear pants straight off the rack, so when I find ones that fit well, I buy multiple pair.

    Another thing that can affect “frumpy” is how dated are your clothes? If you wear traditional, classic clothes, this isn’t a big deal. If you’re wearing something that was clearly trendy in a different decade, that can be seen as frumpy. Like 80s and 90s shoulder pads and blazer, pleated khakis, lace, ruffles, certain prints, etc. You don’t need to update your wardrobe often, but you might want to consider if if all of your clothes are 10+ years old. I’m an engineer and I only buy work clothes in classic styles, like button downs and blouses, straight leg or skinny cut dress pants, and dark wash, straight leg blue jeans. Trends are awful if you don’t want to keep up.

    You mentioned scuffed shoes and pet hair and these are great to be aware of. I also keep a lint roller in my desk. What about wrinkly clothes? Throwing something in the dryer for 10 min usually gets out most wrinkles without needing to iron.

    It sounds like you’re probably OK. Unfortunately, women will always get judged on appearance.

    1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      Another trick for wrinkles is to hang the garment in the bathroom while you’re taking your shower. The steam from the shower will often release wrinkles. There are also wrinkle remover sprays that claim to do the same thing, but I haven’t tried them personally.

      1. Yvette*

        I use a combo of the two. Throw the item in the dryer with a clean damp sock or washcloth. Works great.

    2. Amethystmoon*

      I have read that 80’s clothes are coming back into style now because of Stranger Things.

    3. Aerin*

      My weight tends to yo-yo a bit. So I have what I call the Once and Future Closet, where I move the stuff that doesn’t currently fit–because at some point it more than likely will again, and it keeps me from having to overhaul my wardrobe every time.

  35. WellRed*

    OP, are you sure you haven’t wondered onto the campus of a hospital system with a six-page section of the dress code on appropriate neckties?

  36. Jennifer Juniper*

    Isn’t a bigger part of professional polish never being ruffled, angry, or anything else but calm and collected or smiling, cheerful, and enthusiastic (depending on the profession)?

  37. BigTenProfessor*

    I am surprised to see this many comments and no mention of COVID yet.

    Everyone gets more slack right now. For roots, for messy haircuts, for clothing, for shoes — we just aren’t operating in the same manner for so many reasons.

    1. WellRed*

      I guess that depends where you are/where you work? My hair is pretty scruffy right now, but my wardrobe didn’t suddenly frump up overnight because there’s a pandemic. I’m working from home for who knows how long so it doesn’t really matter for me, but if I had to dress for a meeting, it’s not a problem.

      1. BigTenProfessor*

        I live in a small city with few dry cleaning options, so yes, COVID has affected my wardrobe. I think a lot of people are also dealing with weight gain/loss, which might limit what they can wear. Online shopping is a nightmare with the USPS sabotage.

        For some folks, transportation options are different (we have less bus service, so more people are biking/walking), which can affect shoe choices.

        All of which is to say, yeah, I think this can hit in more ways than might be immediately obvious.

      2. Metadata minion*

        It doesn’t necessarily make your wardrobe change overnight, but it does mean that trying on clothes in stores and getting them tailored is not necessarily possible.

    2. EventPlannerGal*

      Agreed, but conversely, once people start working from the office again I think it will be pretty important to avoid giving the impression that you don’t wash your hands.

  38. Laura*

    One of my friends and I have the same degree, but work in different areas. Because of my role, I’m more likely to get pulled into meetings with people higher up the chain than me. I try to look “pulled together” – neat, clean clothes, some time on make-up, pulled back hair. It’s not expensive at all but the fact that it looks like I spent some effort on it. My friend says she’s a mom (her youngest is 18) so she can’t launder her clothes frequently or spend time on her hair/makeup and that she can’t help but roll her eyes in meetings when people say dumb things. Then she complains she can’t get promoted.
    It’s not a deal breaker but presentation is part of your attitude.

  39. That Girl from Marketing*

    LW, I’m giving you a big hug. I hate that “societal norms” are messing with your head. Everything you mention seems just fine to me. Please keep being you!

    I work in a federal agency that most would say is very conservative/stuffy. I also have a position and salary indicates some level of success. My clothes are from Old Navy. My shoes – flats – are from Amazon. I’ve stopped dyeing my hair over a year ago. My makeup is just enough to make me feel good. In the winter I look like a homeless person who gets paid a dollar for every piece of clothing I can put on my body at once. My leggings have cats on them, and I don’t own a single piece of solid-color clothing. I say all that to get to this: No. One. Cares. The work my team puts out is solid, we’re always on time, and we win awards for what we do. I really feel I’m respected for what I do and not how I look. I’m sure your look you described is also no problem where you are.

  40. EventPlannerGal*

    If so far in your career you haven’t found this type of style to be a problem then I think that’s probably your answer – you’re fine.

    However, you do sound quite invested in a slightly romanticised view of yourself as the sort of quirky, rumpled professor type. It is fine to be quirky, but it is less okay at work to not be clean. You may view your ink-stained hands and pet hair as quirky, but to a lot of people those things just look like you have clothes covered in animal hair and don’t wash your hands. Like, if you are not a fashionista and have trouble finding clothes that fit then that is absolutely fine, but I would be wary of building that up into an identity that you’re invested in to the extent that you are not keeping yourself clean. Things that are charming in movie characters are often not that charming in real life.

    1. WellRed*

      “However, you do sound quite invested in a slightly romanticised view of yourself as the sort of quirky, rumpled professor type.”

      Agreed. It’s OK not to be invested in clothes! But don’t hold yourself back (if you are) by being invested in an “this is just me” image that might just need a tweak.

    2. voyager1*

      You wrote what I was debating writing further up. Like cat fur is funny in a sitcom, it can be funny every once in a while (like once a year), but as a ongoing look? No.

    3. Aerin*

      I really leaned into the quirky rumpled look because when I was younger I hated feeling like I needed to perform a certain level of femininity so I pushed back in the other direction. But now that I’m more comfortable in my own skin, I’ve realized that I actually enjoy dressing up sometimes! I still don’t do a ton, but sometimes putting on some eyeliner and a sharp outfit makes me feel badass. I still wear the geeky t-shirt/jeans/ponytail combo about 90% of the time because it’s comfortable and easy, but that no longer feels like part of my identity the way it did when I was younger.

      I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with feeling like a certain look is part of who you are, but I also think that one shouldn’t assume that this is a natural and permanent state of affairs.

  41. Velawciraptor*

    I’m a bit surprised Allison left out any comment on the apparently gendered nature of the criticism OP overheard. As women deviate from whatever the current culturally defined “norm” is (by being fat, aging, etc.), they are expected to perform a higher degree of femininity. Dollars to donuts the gossipy co-worker wouldn’t be criticizing the boss’ gray hair were the boss a man–that just doesn’t happen in our culture.

    Allison is absolutely right that OP is certainly fine. I’d just add that, if OP is in the position to do so, I might push back against those sorts of gendered attitudes and expectations when I overhear them. As a manager, I feel an obligation to do so, but I think it’s incumbent on all of us to call out this sort of insidious sexism when we see it.

  42. Emily*

    I don’t work in any of the fields listed and I’ve absolutely been judged for my appearance even though I was professionally dressed and groomed. It is not uncommon than in certain workplaces, you will find no women with gray hair and barely any women who aren’t fairly thin, and standing out will impact how people see you professionally. (Also: eyebrows waxed, heels as opposed to flats for meetings, etc.) It’s bound up with gender and age and class discrimination, and I’m not endorsing it, but it’s there.

  43. MechanicalPencil*

    It’s astonishing to me that men having “salt and pepper” hair is seen as attractive or a mark of distinction but the same sort of hair coloring in women is seen as unprofessional.

  44. LQ*

    I’m in government and I definately know I tend toward messy. I have foot issues so I can’t wear super fancy shoes and a few times a week I have to wear something closer to sneakers than I’d like. I’m clean but I’d say I’m boring more than rumpled. No makeup, same style of clothes every day, same no fuss hair every day. I basically have a work uniform (which I lean into and joke about). I’m also heavier, which I recognize matters.

    I know that I may have to work a little harder at my job because some people won’t take me seriously because I don’t have that high polish. To me it’s a trade off, work harder at my appearance or work harder at my job. I’m entirely willing to make that trade. But I’m also more likely to stay in the same place where they know my work and respect my work, I’m less likely to try to jump around places because it would mean re-proving my work more frequently. (Not to say I haven’t moved around within the agency I’m in and have gotten significant promotions.) I work with vendor who absolutely do come off as much more polished. Quite frankly I don’t care what they think, they are here to do a job for me and I’m going to be responsible and hold them responsible to the standard that I need to because I am doing the right thing for my agency and for my state. And if they respect me less for that they won’t be getting a renewal on their contract because at the end of the day all that matters is getting the right results for the people we serve.

    And that sounds like a rant, but it’s the rant I loop back to in my head when I’m not sure. I have some moments with Very Highly Polished Very Pretty Very Fancy Vendors where I start to think that maybe I’m not polished enough or they’ll think less of me. And then I lean on that rant to get my head back into the right space. That said I’ve only ever had one vendor who behaved that way for more than a meeting or two with me, if they are good they catch on quick.

    I think it would be unlikely for me to ever get higher than where I’m at because of how I look and present. So there may be a cap on where you can be scruffy in public service, but it’s once you start to become the face of something really big and public that you’d be held up I think. Otherwise I think you’re totally fine.

  45. chewingle*

    I have similar problems as this lady, but I *do* try. And I get so frustrated because I’ll spend money on decent clothes and makeup and I’ll spend time making myself look nice. And in the mirror, I think I look fine. But then I see a photo someone took at an event and I’m like, “Didn’t I put on makeup?” And my body proportions are such that I look like a slob in everything I wear. Most people don’t comment, but occasionally someone has said something like, “Gave up on your hair today?” And all I could think was, “I thought it looked OK. I washed it and styled it and it looked normal.”

    It’s very frustrating and I have no idea what to do outside of plastic surgery (a breast reductions would help some issues, frankly).

    1. emmelemm*

      I have the same problem. No matter how hard I try to be more polished, I never pull it off. I could put tons of effort in and just look like… a weird clown, basically. It’s freeing just to shoot for clean and comfortable. I put in a base level of effort and that’s it.

    2. Beth*

      This might be something you’ve already thought of, but have you considered getting clothes tailored?

      One of the major downsides of mass-produced clothes is that they’re fit to a ‘standard’ body shape. Almost no one has that body shape, though; for myself, I know what fits my waist definitely won’t fit my hips, what fits my narrow shoulders won’t fit my very not-narrow breasts, etc. Most women I know have at least one area where they have a similar issue (I know a lot less about men’s fashion, but assume it’s still an issue at least some of the time).

      As a result, if I wear clothes off the rack, I will always look sloppy because they won’t fit. I tailor everything. Complicated things (like a blazer) I bring to a professional, but most of it I can do myself with hobbyist level sewing skills, which is good because I definitely couldn’t afford to get every shirt I own tailored professionally. It makes a massive difference. If you haven’t tried it before, I would seriously recommend giving it a shot. It’s probably not you; it’s the reality of mass-produced clothes.

      1. Aerin*

        It sounds like your body type is very similar to mine! I was actually trying to find a customizable dress form and spent ages trying to find one with the right shoulders because none of them seemed to factor that in. (One rep even tried to tell me that the shoulders shouldn’t affect the fit. Yeah, if I never wear sleeves!) Trying to find jackets is always a pain because I’ve got the really narrow shoulders and really thick upper arms, so I either look like a kid trying on mom’s clothes or like I’m about to hulk out.

        I definitely recommend learning basic tailoring skills. Taking things in and hemming them is usually pretty straightforward.

        1. Beth*

          If you ended up finding a dress form you’re happy with, I’d love to hear about it! I’ve been keeping a casual eye out for the same and have never seen one that was satisfying to me.

    3. Grapey*

      If someone threw me “Gave up on your hair today?” they’d get a “Gave up on your manners today?” in reply.

  46. Jessica will remember in November*

    Public higher ed here. The dress code for our department, which I set, is minimal because, among other reasons, our staff are poorly paid and I don’t want to make them drop a chunk of their salary on wardrobe. Clean and neat, jeans are OK, no slogan T-shirts, and that’s about it. I personally wear jeans almost every day, and if I showed up to work in a suit it would probably cause MASS TERROR because I’m highly valued and people would think I was going to a job interview.

    As a middle-aged fat woman, I know I’m going to get the wrong end of ageism, sexism, and sizeism no matter how I try to dress. So I dress how I want, and I consider it a significant (though invisible and unofficial) part of my benefits package that I get to do so. I’ve had employees who dressed very polished and officey, and others who were delighted to be as casual as I’d let them get away with. I’m happy for both groups to dress how they want and focus on doing their actual jobs.

  47. KR*

    I love this letter because I totally stand with them. Minus the grays as I’m not there yet in age. I’m petite so clothes tend to look frumpy on me or young (juniors sizes fit me best so that doesn’t help since I’m usually wearing clothes meant for teens). And I have two dogs & a cat who love to shed so that’s hard to manage. And I have curly wild hair so it tends to look less polished & if I try to do something to make it look polished it almost always backfires on me and just looks more frizzy.

  48. MrsPeaches*

    LW, rock on with your gray hair. With regard to clothes and feeling frumpy, I can totally relate. I recently discovered that getting my (inexpensive) clothes tailored makes a huge difference in how confident I feel in my clothes.

  49. Noblepower*

    Trash talking someone for having grey hair is, in my opinion, blatant ageism. Having grey hair in no way indicates how skilled, knowledgeable or professional a person is at their job.

  50. hbc*

    Honestly, there are a good number of people out there who think heels, makeup, and colored grey hair are minimums for professional women. I hate the fact, but it’s likely that I’ve been subtly held back by that at some point. It’s also likely that I’ve gotten a boost at some point because I appear more practical and less focused on appearance than other colleagues.

    As far as polish, I have to admit that people whose clothing fits well make a better overall impression on me than those who are rumpled. As one who is usually on the rumpled side, what I’ve made peace with is that I would love to have that fit level of polish, but the amount of effort it would take me to get there isn’t worth it for me. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a lot or that I’m proud of my laziness in this area, but I’m just never going to have “get clothes tailored” on my to-do list until I’m at a wealth level of “have personal assistant schedule tailor to come fit me at my mansion.”

    1. hbc*

      Which is to say, OP, that if you’re doing well then you’re doing well as you are. If you have reason to suspect that you’re getting passed over for something you want because of your scruff or you find yourself admiring some less-scruffy people, go for it. But not because one random snob was kvetching about her boss and the best she could come up with was appearance.

  51. LadyProg*

    I have certainly seen scruffy people in higher places but in my experience women get a lot more penalized for it than men do :(
    I’ve had bosses that weren’t even that clean, but I’m somehow supposed to hide my under eye circles very well because that’s sooo much of a problem (sigh)…

    1. Eva Luna*

      Many years ago I had a (white, middle-aged male, graduate-degreed) boss who wore suits to work every day, but he REEKED. As in all of his subordinates discussed, in his absence, how to do something about it. The reek was particularly horrible when he would stand at the entrance to someone’s cubicle and rest his hand on the top of the cubicle wall. We eventually reached the consensus plan of leaving some deodorant with a note in his inbox.

      At one point, he had knee surgery, and his sister came to help him around the house for a few weeks. He smelled notably less awful during that time, in spite of his mobility issues. I can’t remember how it came up, but we learned that she had taken all his suits to be dry-cleaned because he couldn’t remember when he had done it last.

  52. mph grad*

    I just want to address a common misconception that to look polished and professional for work, you need to spend lots of money. You don’t. A light color of polish on the nails, a pair of small earrings, and neutral-colored tops that can mix and match with black bottoms are key. Cheap clothes can look most expensive if you pay attention to the details and how it fits you. eBay and thrift stores for silk and cashmere blouses for under $50, or J.Crew’s more classic shapes and colors are also important.

    I think also underlying in the letter is the LW has some insecurity in the way they look in comparison to other people. Perhaps they feel looking put together is less accessible to them than it actually is. *I believe there are pants that fit you.* Try experimenting with different silhouettes. If the way you look causes any level of discomfort, you more than certainly are allowed to address it and make changes to your lifestyle. Looking nice for work is not giving into the gendered standards, and it doesn’t mean you are shallow or the quality of your work changes. It’s just about bringing your best.

  53. Erik*

    There are two separate questions here:

    Am I dressing adequately? Almost certainly. Nothing you’ve said gives me any pause on this.

    Are people judging me anyway? Sadly, also almost certainly. Some people are just that judgemental, especially if you happen to present as female. Men get away with far more on this front (myself included – “dressing like a programmer” is a great escape valve).

    The thing that caught my attention was that the complainer was complaining about “their boss”. If your underling is complaining about things like this, they may well be one of those judgemental types that evaluate everyone on their appearance rather than their performance. And in many cases, I’ve found that behavior is because they are not competent enough to recognize the difference between the minimal signs of performance (e.g, met a deadline, wasn’t an ass in a meeting) and actual quality of work. Dunning-Kruger syndrome is a real thing. If this person is actually your underling, treat this as a yellow flag – not a problem, but a symptom that may or may not actually indicate a deeper issue. And if they aren’t, then just note that they may well be someone who is excessively concerned with appearance over substance, and treat them accordingly going forward.

  54. Georgina Fredricka*

    I think it’s worth mentioning that very few people can clock what is a designer suit/dress/look or not, regardless of whether they themselves wear designer looks.

    That can be a relief but it should also be a warning if you feel like that’s what you’re getting judged on – because it’s probably not. Designer clothes generally LOOK better because they tend to last long (less fraying, less holes) and have a better shape (better fit for your body, more structure to the garment). So you may be opting for clothes that, quite simply, look bad.

    You don’t need to spend a lot of money to look good, but IMO if it’s something you’re insecure about or feel judged by, you should evaluate whether your brands/materials/etc are really the most flattering option. Secondhand retailers are so prolific now that you can get really great clothes for not a lot. Because honestly it’s just super unlikely anyone is actually discussing your clothing’s price bracket, and you might be more comfortable leveling up a little.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      It’s so true that brands hold up better. I would rather save up and buy one pair of $75 Ann Taylor pants then buy 3 pairs of $20 pants. Those Ann Taylor pants are well fitted and they will look great for years.
      When I was younger , I used to think that buying a brand name was just about buying the brand NAME and flaunting it. (And with some brands that is true.) But I now always choose quality over quantity.

      1. Georgina Fredricka*

        Yep – I shop almost completely opposite of how I did when I was younger. When I was 18, the cheaper the better. I would try to find the lowest-cost option to “save money” and then have a ton of tops, pants, etc. End result: bought a lot of clothes I realized didn’t fit great or flatter me. Eventually gave them away (because they also have no resale value)

        Now at 31, I think long and hard about what I actually NEED, and then find an item from a brand I trust at the *maximum* I feel comfortable spending, only in colors I find are flattering on me, and only in materials I know breathe well/last well/rumple well/etc. Way fewer options, way few clothes – more time for me because I don’t need to constantly replace nice pieces, and I look better.

        1. allathian*

          It’s also better for the environment. I despise fast fashion, but we all have to wear something. My gripe is mostly the fact that cheap clothes don’t last very long, so it’s horribly wasteful.

  55. Lucette Kensack*

    Those of us who differ from the current aesthetic ideal — by say, being over 25, a person of color, fat, or using a mobility aid — get judged more harshly for our clothing and style. So, yeah, because I’m heavy, I’m more careful than my slender colleagues need to be about stains, fit, the state of my hair, etc. It sucks. But because appearance affects how competent we are judged to be and the opportunities we get, it’s a real thing that we’re stuck with. So I have all the sympathy in the world for this scruffy LW.

    That being said – there are levels of “scruffiness.” In most workplaces, a little lint isn’t going to be a problem. But if you’re wearing ill-fitting clothes with a frayed hem and a bunch of pet hair, it adds up to an overall impression of carelessness.

  56. AndersonDarling*

    It almost sounded like the OP had two extremes. Either you wear heals and designer clothes, or you have inked hands, cat hair, and poorly fitted clothing. There is a whole world in between, but it just comes down to how much you care about your appearance and how much effort you want to put into it.
    Appearances matter. No matter how enlightened we want to be, someone with cat hair on their clothes will be perceived in a different way from the person without.
    In the end, it’s more about time than money. If you put time into finding well fitting clothes, time into keeping them fur free, time into caring for them as directed (lay flat to dry so they don’t fade), time into getting the hair cut when things get shaggy, time into finding colors that look good on you, then it all adds up into a more professional appearance.
    It’s absolutely fair for the OP to say that those things are not important and they would rather spend their time doing something else and spare themselves the frustration of clothes shopping.
    I’m always a bit irked with the argument that you need to spend lots of money on designer clothes and torture yourself with heels and uncomfortable garments just to be acceptable, and if you don’t do that then society labels you a slob that will never be promoted. And that leads to an excuse to not try at all. The working world does not function at those two extremes.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I should add that I had a job that I did not care about and I never bothered to get the cat/dog hair off my clothes. I didn’t buy any new clothes while I worked there, and I never did anything interesting with my hair.
      But when I got a new job, I was motivated to get a stylish haircut and I rolled my clothes every morning to get the fur off. I was excited enough about new job that putting in the extra time didn’t feel like work. I cared about my appearance again…like I was going on a date each day.

    2. mf*

      “I’m always a bit irked with the argument that you need to spend lots of money on designer clothes and torture yourself with heels and uncomfortable garments just to be acceptable, and if you don’t do that then society labels you a slob that will never be promoted. And that leads to an excuse to not try at all.”

      Yes, thank you for pointing this out. It irks me too because sometimes people use this reasoning to excuse sloppiness in their appearance. You don’t have to be a super high maintenance fashionista in order to not be a slob. If you want to step up the “polish” of your appearance, the answer isn’t to drop a dime at Armani and start getting your hair done weekly. Small choices can really have an impact, like keeping a lint brush in your desk at work, tweezing your brows once a month, or using a $20 handheld steamer on your wrinkled clothes.

    3. EventPlannerGal*

      This is a great comment and I completely agree. The OP sounds like she’s maybe self-conscious about her style even if she’s decided to lean into it, and if that’s the case there are a lot of options that are available that don’t require her to be a fashionista who looks great is dress pants. Buy a steamer and a lint roller and some pens that don’t leak. Get some neutral basics that you can wear together without having to a make a statement about it. If you don’t like heels, maybe try some brogues or nice leather Chelsea boots or something. Buy a blazer. She doesn’t have to, but if it’s something preying on her mind to the point of writing to AAM then maybe experimenting a little might be beneficial.

      And tbh, I think that people maybe have some unrealistic ideas about people wearing designer clothing. It is pretty unlikely that most people, even people you think look super polished, are turning up to their midlevel office job in Chanel and Gucci on the daily. Most stylish people you are likely to encounter in an office context probably don’t look good because they’re just so rich and are wearing head-to-toe designer, they look good because they have chosen to put time and effort into their appearance. And yes, probably money, but not crazy Gucci money – of course money is a huge help in terms of clothing, but not having/wanting to spend a lot of money on clothes does not necessarily condemn you to scruff and ill-fitting shirts.

  57. lilsheba*

    I have grey hair, never wear makeup, don’t do heels, and I dress for comfort every single day. I don’t care what people think. I want to be comfortable, period.

    1. soon to be former fed really*

      I’m always comfortable, but yet stylish and am known as a sharp dresser. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and I have never spent a fortune on clothes either. To this end, I wear no fabrics that do not stretch, which interestingly, helps with fit. There are so many cute flats and low heeled shoes now that high heels are a distant memory. Pantyhose? Forget it. Comfortable does not mean sloppy or careless, and well-dressed does not mean designer or expensive.

      In my government office, there were people who wore what I considered house attire, such as leggins with pills on them. No dress code so meh, as long as there was no BO. Some very high level women wore obviously inexpensive yet appropriate clothing, being go along get along was far more important than sartorial skills. Some folks were covered in pet fur. I just made a note not to eat anything they brought in. Plenty of men in short sleeved shirts with ties. Sometime I think a dress code would have been useful, lol.

      And I don’t know where the notion of gray hair as unprofessional came from. I color my hair at the salon (the struggle was real during the shutdown), but so many of my friends have gorgeous gray and white hair (we are in the 60+ age cohort). I’ve seen dress standards loosen up so much over the decades, women running for elective office wear pantsuits most of time when those were forbidden when I was a fresh college graduate. It’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t hurt to be mindful of other people when leaving your house. I am tired of people, non-baby people, people not on a college campus, in pajamas and and houseshoes, at stores and restaurants. And I think certan events like weddings, funerals, and graduations should skew a bit more dressy than not. Just my opinion.

      Pro tip: try different brands for fit. The sleeves of most blazers are too long for me, but the Harve Benard brand is just right, no tailoring needed. I would buy them off-seasona nd heavily discounted.

      1. DarnTheMan*

        Thank you! I find this notion that well-dressed and comfortable are diametrically opposing things to be a little odd; my mom is a kindergarten teacher so wants to be comfortable but she’s always very well-dressed, she’s just found things that combine the two (usually flowy or wide legged pants and then nice t-shirts for the summer and heavy-weight sweaters in the winter, and always, always a pair of statement earrings.)

  58. X. Trapnel*

    I went to work today in stained track pants and a tshirt with holes in it. I have long witchy grey hair and don’t wear make-up. This is my usual work attire. My colleagues never bat an eyelash over this.
    My colleagues all have 4 legs and a tail.
    I spent the first 15 years of my working life in corporate jobs and, like you OP, I could never nail the polished professional look. I could be dressed head to toe in posh stuff that looked amazing in the shop and I’d still look like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards.
    I’m so glad I’m a farm worker. I have reached a nadir of scruffiness that I wallow in like a pig in mud. No more hair dye, no more horrid shoes, no more faffing around with mascara, no more trussed up in business suits. :-) Mmm… Bliss…

  59. Ranon*

    A lot of folks are talking about knowing your sector, but I would also say you should know your geographic area’s norms. My current area is very casual and rapidly getting more so (let’s just say that I work with bankers and I haven’t seen a tie in years and suit jackets are pretty much only around for photo ops). When I’m meeting with folks from other cities I try to step it up a notch because I know our norms are pretty casual (although as part of a creative industry in a “creative” city I can also get away with a lot)

    Mainly, even the “I work in such and such industry and the norms are such” should be looked at with a geographic lens, too- there’s a range of norms even within industries

    1. Desk Stretch*

      Good point. In the NorthEast, we can only wear jeans on some Fridays – but Cali it was daily.

  60. Desk Stretch*

    I work in a public sector profession, in management but not a formal person.
    I understand both finances and vanity change how people dress and groom.
    However, at national and state conferences with my profession, I do cringe at the ratty ponytails where the hair has not been cut in years, no grooming that looks ‘frumpy’. I dress business casual for these – sometimes even jeans casual. Even if I pay on my own. A sloppy plaid shirt, or wrinkled, too tight clothes do make me cringe I admit. But so do high heels – like more than an inch- when people walk huge convention halls- flats are friends.

  61. Beth*

    In most workplaces, I feel like the fashion norm is to be sort of “meeting expectations” level? As in, meeting any dress code requirements, bathed, hair combed, face clean, clothes not ripped or majorly stained (and that last one can even have leeway for the occasional “got here and then promptly splashed coffee on myself” incident, as long as it’s not a routine thing).

    But I do think it’s true that people with a little extra polish tend to get positive attention for it, and that can be an advantage even in a workplace that doesn’t generally prioritize fashion. Things like dressing on the more formal end of your dress code (so, not wearing a full suit for a retail job, but maybe throwing on a casual blazer for a business casual environment) or styling hair instead of leaving it plain or having clothes tailored to fit properly can give a small boost in how you’re perceived at work. It won’t make up for poor work, but this stuff is often correlated with traits like ‘put-together’ and ‘polished’ and ‘on top of things,’ and having a reputation for traits like those can be an extra perk. (And I think this is true for men as well as women; the bar for ‘meeting expectations’ is higher for women overall, I think, but everyone gets rewarded for exceeding whatever bar is relevant to them.)

    It’s worth thinking about who can and can’t access that boost. It’s easier for men (the bar is lower to start with), for people with money (clothes and tailoring and styling can add up fast, even with good thrifting luck), for white people (our society is not taught to think of people of color as ‘polished’ and that’s a major problem), for thin people (plus size clothing is less available and fat bodies are inherently seen as less polished), young people (especially for women, normal signs of aging can be read as ‘letting yourself go’), etc. Especially when evaluating others, I think we should all be thinking critically about what makes us look at someone and go “wow, ___ is always so put together!” But when it comes to your own style and deciding what to prioritize, I think it’s useful to remember both that most people aren’t penalized for a little frumpiness, and that going a tad above-and-beyond can be useful where possible.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I think that getting the right haircut can take the years off and totally make someone appear more current.
      It’s a small priced thing that can make such a huge difference, but a lot of people just pull their hair back or up.

      1. Beth*

        This might depend on area! In my area, women’s haircuts with a reputable salon are pricey enough that I’d be able to buy and tailor a new shirt for cheaper than a decent haircut–and the shirt would last longer, hair that’s cut in a specific style needs routine maintenance to keep it up. I’ve got mine in a pretty acceptable long style that is minimum maintenance and that I’m pretty happy with, but local friends with short hair or more styled cuts find that it takes a solid chunk of their budget.

  62. angstrom*

    I’ve known a couple of guys who seemed to have some sort of rumple aura — they could put on a freshly pressed suit and in ten minutes it’d look like they’d slept in it. It is harder for some folks.

    As for the impression you make, my take(as someone approaching curmudgeon age) is that you should look like you dressed for work in a way that’s appropriate for your position, and are reasonably neat and clean. Designer labels are not important. Hair color doesn’t matter. Individual style is fine. Bad fit or poor grooming does stand out and it does look sloppy.

    For “lack of fashion sense”, don’t try to keep up with trends. Have simple basic pieces that will never be wrong.

    1. Amy Sly*

      My husband is like this. The rumpling effect doesn’t just happen though — it’s the result of how the clothing interacts with his body as he moves. The inseams of his pant legs bunch up because of how his thighs rub up against each other. The back of the shirt/jacket gets horizontal wrinkles because he doesn’t lower his bottom into a chair and then lean back; he slides down the back of the chair.

  63. Managing is fun*

    As a manager, I often dress at the “lower end” of my office dress code – think jeans on a Tuesday. Staff almost never see me dress up unless I’m meeting a client or giving a presentation. I do this in part because it’s how I prefer to dress, but also to model that our company/profession cares more about what you deliver vs. how you dress. I remember having a manager who dressed up every day, and felt the pressure to do so as well, and that’s not the atmosphere I want to convey.

    For OP – my point is that for every person who judges you for what you wear, there’s probably more than one who is grateful that you are part of the crowd focusing more on doing good work than appearances!

  64. Lizy*

    Maybe it’s just me, but that person (the one OP overheard) sounds like a word that rhymes with bass or witch.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I have to admit that I have had thoughts like that about one of my managers though.
      Because every time he came to our office headquarters (he lived in a different city, so he wasn’t in our office), he just looked so unkempt. As in baggy jeans or chinos, sneakers, a stained sweatshirt or lumpy grandpa sweaters, stubble and shaggy gray hair. At first I thought the airline must’ve lost his suitcase or something! But nope, he looked like that every time he visited. Smart guy, but not a great impression.

      I would never have said anything out loud though.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        I knew a manager that dressed like she was going to the club…and not a classy club. Tight clothes, short skirts, low cut tops, shiny fabrics and neon colors…and it really made me question her competence as a manager. If she couldn’t figure out how to dress like an adult, how can I trust her with adult decisions?
        I’m all for individual personality, but there is a way to mix it in while still being professional.

        1. Lizy*

          Ok I concede it. The way I read it I thought it sounded really hoity-toity and rude. There’s definitely clothes that shouldn’t be worn to the office, but it sounds like OP is within the norms for her office so…*shrugs*

          That all being said, I have definitely wondered how I come across because of how I dress. I wear long skirts and T-shirts the vast majority of the time, and I have deliberately purchased some more shirts recently so I don’t seem so… blasé. So I can see where OP is coming from, but I think as long as she makes an effort and feels comfortable in what she’s wearing, it’s fine.

          Also, maybe try some fabrics that are designed to be more flexible? Like instead of a button up blouse that easily shows wrinkles, try a more forgiving fabric. (I may or may not do this because I have a horrible habit of leaving clothes in laundry baskets to be folded for days on end…)

  65. Schlumpy Puppy*

    Hm. Well so much of this will depend on your field, as well as how much you may have to present yourself to either the public, clients, or to other executives. It shouldn’t matter… and yet it might. And yes, women are nearly always judged more harshly then men are on this point.

    I personally love fashion. But fashion does not love my 5 foot 1 inch size 16 frame or my poor aching feet anymore. It’s difficult not to look dumpy and schlumpy when short and fat, no matter if I am wearing a $300 suit or a $10 thrift store find. Plus, I have a tendency to spill, wrinkle and get cat haired! This is so relatable to a lot of people really. The only plus I can say is that I do keep my hair somewhat trendy and do wear a basic makeup palette for work to add a bit of even color, hide the flaws and play up the eyes.

    It does not sound at all as though you are not currently dressing in a manner that is appropriate to the office. You do not need fancy designer clothes for that–looking clean and presentable in business-ish attire is generally enough if your work does not demand being “seen.” The question is, should you do more than basic? IDK?

    It can be true that we’re creatures of habit and can get stuck in a rut. I mean, you may want to evaluate some of the simpler things like ensuring your work clothes are classic timeless pieces that fit you perfectly, or updating your hairstyle to a more current cut (even if you keep it gray), or even think about adopting at least a minimal makeup for work if you’re worried about looking older or feel your appearance might be stuck in a past era. Or not. It’s really up to you.

  66. I Need That Pen*

    I’ve worked with plenty of “scruffy” people – the type that the letter writer describes, and the type that come in with obvious mustard stains on their shirts. Oh, and the time that a guy walked in in his pajamas and bed hair with his work clothes on a hanger and got changed at work. After three warnings we never saw him again.

    If your clothes fit properly, they do not have to be high end, and making good clothes look “off or bad” on you is really your own interpretation. Don’t fill everyone’s head with your own opinion because take it from someone who knows, they’re probably not caring…

    My only advice is to carry a lint roller around for the occasional lint or pet hair. And I have plenty of it on me when I get to work, so I know. There’s nothing wrong with appropriate attire that’s office suitable, but nothing screams, “I didn’t care or try,” like a wad of Golden Retriever hair on your black turtleneck sweater. (Find a packing roll tape and get at it). That is a grooming issue and people will have an opinion on that. Or worse yet they’ll physically come up to you and start picking it off you. THAT they will see, and remember. Office clothes can be put together very inexpensively, and if need be ask a friend or colleague “if this goes with that.” You can make bargain basement look very high end with the right combinations. This, I know too.

  67. Sara without an H*

    Ummm…I work in higher education. “Rumpled” and “scruffy” are the professional standard here.

  68. GreenDoor*

    “…dressing like someone who makes $x should dress.”

    I am someone who makes $x. I also make about 60% of my clothes myself and buy the rest from mid-price department stores and from thrift stores. I get complimented on my clothing all the time and many people are surprised when I reveal that something I’m wearing was home made. As for my $x, it’s in the bank, invested for my retirement, socked away for emergencies. I have plenty of $x for hobbies and fun times, too. Why? Because I don’t *shop* like I make $x, but I make it appear that I do. I despise people who think that if you make $x you should spend it all on appearances.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      Thank you! You don’t have to spend big money on clothes if you are willing to put in some time. I know the one style and designer pants that fit me great, so I watch and wait for the big sale and buy a new pair when I can. Same with tops and knits. You can go on a shopping spree and spend $500 on random stuff that you tried on in one afternoon, or you can shop around over a week and be thoughtful and spend $100 on the basics.

  69. CaVanaMana*

    I secretly look down on people who spend a lot of time or money on their appearance. I see them as go-getter bots with not much to add outside of the company line. I’d much prefer someone with a few ink stains. At least they’re human!

    1. JamieLeeCurtisIsAnIcon*

      I don’t think that’s a fair judgment either, especially as women, especially women of color, plus-sized women, etc. feel they need to invest a lot of on their appearance to make it in the working world. Heck, even if they do not have those reasons, if it’s something they enjoy doing, that doesn’t make them less human.

    2. tazdevil*


      Lemme guess – white male, huh?

      I work in investment banking and always show up to meet clients dressed to the nines b/c that’s what is expected in our industry, and yet despite this, I have been mistaken as catering staff, the secretary, the paralegal ect. Must be nice for you and your ink stains to not have to worry about that tho!

      1. CaVanaMana*

        Oops, nah, I’m a woman. The secret judgment is to both men and women. I know better than to express it to anyone outloud or truly let it colour more than a first impression. Some of my favourite people are those who I did not like at first impressions.

    3. MissDisplaced*

      The thing about this statement is define what amounts to “a lot of time” or “a lot of money?”

      Because there’s a whole lot of area between ‘clean from the shower’ to ‘glammed up for the Oscars.’

    4. mf*

      Some of us spend significant time and money on our appearance because it helps us command respect in the workplace. I’m a petite woman who looks 10+ years younger than I actually am. Nobody would listen to a word I say if I showed up at work looking scruffy every day.

      Some of us also spend time and money on our appearance because it’s fun! I’m a creative person and I like fashion. Shopping and putting together a fabulous new outfit is actually kind of a hobby for me. I know not everyone feels this way, but hey, we all have different preferences. (I, for one, can’t STAND golf. If you enjoy, more power to you!)

      And some of us spend time and money on our appearance because it gives us confidence. When I was a kid, I was extremely shy. Because I was so quiet, I often felt invisible to other people. But when I became a teenager, I discovered that when I wear fun, interesting, or creative clothing, I instantly stand out. Without having to say a word, I am no longer invisible to others. And that makes me feel bold and empowered.

      Clothing and appearance can mean different things to different people. So how about you do you, and I do me, and we agree not to judge each other, okay?

    5. ...*

      That’s really cruel. If someone cares how they present themself they are ‘go-getter bot’. What does that even mean? Trying is always bad? Ooooook then.

    6. Kiwi with laser beams*

      As a woman who prefers not to dress up, DON’T SAY THINGS LIKE THIS. You’re not helping me and at worst you’re causing me to get caught in the crossfires of anger that you caused. Don’t play me and women who dress up off against each other.

    7. EventPlannerGal*

      You say that like it’s something to be proud of but honestly it just makes you a bit of an asshole.

    8. DarnTheMan*

      Glad to know that just because I like fashion and think playing with makeup is fun, I’m a corporate robot. Maybe consider that some people do it solely for themselves instead of judging them? In my case I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder and doing my makeup in the morning is my (therapist approved) way of taking some time for myself and relaxing before launching into a hectic workday.

  70. Treebeardette*

    Hey op, you got a lot of great advice on how to view yourself. I’m going to give advice on clothing and personal care since I thought I was the same way. Most of it depends on how much time you have and money. If you don’t like it or want to do it, just ignore. Also, I understand not all women like this, so please refrain from criticizing me.
    For a woman, clothing should fit the biggest part of the body. Shirts tend to look frumpy if it’s too small or too big. Often this means women get the shirt tailored, either for the stomach or bust area. Often it can fixed by two simple stitches on the sides of the garment.
    Avoid shirts with darts that come up over the bust area because it makes the garment lay weird. Darts should stop below the bust.
    Hemming the pants, if they are too long, helps a lot. The hem can come to the top of your foot. It shouldn’t drag on the ground.
    Hair can often look frumpy if it isn’t blow dried or taken care of properly. I use herbal essences volumizing mousse for a little body and hair control. I have very straight hair that is prone to looking greasy.
    I never wear makeup. But if your skin looks dull, find a good scrub or face mask. Once or twice a week can make the skin look better.
    I guarantee none of these things will get you promoted. Not doing these things will not hold you back in your career. It makes me feel good about me and generally like my appearance.

    1. OP Scruffy*

      Thank you! I never can seem to understand why clothes seem so weird on me. I will look into the shampoo suggestion as well. My hair is dry, I have three cowlicks, and could use more volume.

      1. DarnTheMan*

        I have very fluffy wavy hair and the thing I have found works best is a leave-in conditioner; it works exactly like a regular conditioner but you just leave it on for a little longer in the shower (usually 2-3 minutes). Currently I’m using OGX Mermaid Miracle but the Aussie 3 Minute Miracle is also a really good, inexpensive option.

  71. OP Scruffy*

    Thank all of you for the kind comments. I am in a tiny town and our thrift stores are not open due to COVID but I am looking on line. My spouse is far better with clothes/style. I love jeans and t-shirts but those can’t be worn at work. Pity because denim doesn’t have pet hair stick as much. If anyone knows pet hair repellent clothes, please let me know. I do keep my work clothes in the closet but hair does travel and is in our car, therefore I do sticky tape my car as well as me. I also do think I am subconciously seeing myself as ‘the quirky one’ in some ways, so I will work on that. Thank each and every one of you!

    1. ...*

      Get one of the permanent lint rollers like the old school ones, not just the sticky tape ones. They work WAY better.

    2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      OP, I have just the pet hair remover (not exactly a roller, but similar) that you’re looking for. My family swears by it. My son and his gf have two orange cats, who for the longest time lived with me. Every item of clothing in the house was covered with orange hair at all times. Nothing worked, until my son found this. If the link does not work for some reason, search for ChomChom Roller Dog Hair Remover, Cat Hair Remover, Pet Hair Remover on Amazon.

    3. Amy Sly*

      If you can do a cotton or mostly cotton chino fabric (think men’s khakis) for work, that’s what I’d recommend. I find it’s as comfortable, if not more, than denim (a bit more breathable and flexible) and it has the same “hard for cat hair to stick to” nature as denim. (I have three cats in black, orange, and brown tabby, so there’s nothing I can wear that the cat hair won’t show up on.) Cotton, wool, and linen are much better than synthetic fibers about not having the static cling that just pulls cat hair out of the air and practically glues it onto the clothing.

  72. Jaybeetee*

    I’ve worked in several government offices, and honestly, jeans were/are fine in most places, even for managers and directors. At one old office, it wasn’t uncommon to see yoga pants or hoodies. So this sort of thing really depends on your field and where you live.

    Funnily enough, even though I’ve been in office settings for awhile now, for the past year or so prior to this pandemic it was like I was in a new learning curve for work clothing, in that I’m finally at a point where I can afford slightly nicer/dressier options, but now I’m making all those mistakes about fit and such. My four biggest pitfalls:

    1) Shirts that don’t seem that cleavagey at home, but make me look like Cardi B by lunchtime (clothing moves, who knew?).
    2) Fabrics that attract every cat hair in my apartment, even if I literally just put the item on before leaving.
    3) Dress pants just almost always look awful on me for some reason.
    4) I apparently have a weirdly long torso for my height and shirts can ride up.

    I’m slowly settling into workers that’s nicer than jeans and t-shirts, without the wardrobe malfunctions. For my own body type, I’ve learned the following:

    1) Leggings with skirts/dresses (tights or hose if your workplace is more conservative). High-waisted leggings are a lifesaver for me.
    2) I now try to avoid anything that shows even a hint of cleavage, as I’ve learned that my breasts constantly fight for their freedom and a “hint” of cleavage in the morning turns into… a very different look by lunch.
    3) Cardigans, especially long ones.
    4) Cat hair roller is essential. One cardigan literally stays at work to spare me the ritual of constantly rolling it down.

    I’m oversharing about my work clothes and mistakes here because I, too, can look constantly disheveled, and it’s been a trial-and-error process to find quasi-professional workwear that doesn’t shift weirdly or look unflattering throughout the day. Maybe my tips here will help someone else.

    As for OP, it depends on the norms where you live and work, but I’d day if you’re at least reasonably clean and groomed, and no one’s ever spoken about this, you’re probably fine. If you’re concrr, perhaps check in with your own boss and make sure there’s no problem.

    1. Arabella Flynn*

      If you have trouble finding shirts long enough in the body, try online retailers aimed at “modest” Evangelical communities, or hijabi Muslims. Also a good place to find things with necklines less likely to ride down over boobage.

  73. Pamela Adams*

    Academic Advisor- I spend my life in polo shirts and pants, switching to campus t-shirts in Summer. No makeup, graying hair, fat, and with giant orthopedic shoes and a cane or wheelchair. Luckily, students don’t care.

  74. Gatomon*

    I am the king of pet hair. I have reached the point of giving up (mostly). We have removed all the overhead lighting from our workspace anyway. If you’ve managed to wander in and locate my desk, and are close enough to notice all the cat hair on me, then you are probably too close to the engineers for your own comfort anyway. :)

  75. TexasTeacher*

    OP, I’m one of those people, too. For myself, I don’t put a lot of thought into my appearance. I have shown up at church more than once in a nice but casual dress, wearing my scruffy Birkenstocks because I took the trash out before we left, and forgot to switch to flats. I wash and comb my hair but do not style it, and I rarely wear makeup.
    For work, having a “uniform” helps: Same cut of slacks in a couple of different colors, 5-6 interchangeable tops, and I’m hoping to find a lightweight jacket or blazer I can throw over it most days to at least wear into the building when we are back on campus. How I look is simply not something I think about often, and I like it that way! You sound fine. If you’re worried/self-conscious, work on the uniform just enough to get you back to comfortable with yourself. Some people are just more … aware, or sensitive to aesthetics of appearance and feel a need to make that more of a priority. That’s fine for them. It’s not where my brain goes.

      1. Cathie from Canada*

        I started reading Tom and Lorenzo just for fun, and I was amazed at how much I learned (absorbed) about fashion and what looks good on people with all kinds of bodies.
        Like, for example,
        – wearing a belt with your jacket or dress or tunic, to pull your shape together and make you look better organized.
        – “framing” your face with a collar or a scarf or a necklace to draw attention upward (away from larger hips!)
        – using a shot of colour to upgrade a plain look, like a red pin on a black blouse.
        Simple stuff, really, but I had never bothered to give “fashion” any real thought, so none of these things had ever occurred to me before.

      2. DarnTheMan*

        I’m commenting all over today but you might want to try a capsule wardrobe, just for work clothes; I really love the blog The Anna Edit for her guidance on doing capsule wardrobes – she does it for her entire wardrobe but even just knowing you have a set amount of work clothes that all go together might help you feel more put together as well.

  76. feministbookworm*

    Take comfort in the example of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who is almost never written about without the phrase “rumpled charm” appearing in close proximity to his name. Of course, he is a man, and his wife (Pulitzer prize winning journalist Connie Schultz) is forever fielding criticisms that she doesn’t do a good enough job ironing his clothes… But the point is that rumpled people can still be powerful and respected, and in some ways it can make them more approachable, which is an enormous asset in some lines of work.

  77. I coulda been a lawyer*

    First hour in an entry level job I was visited by a coworker who had been at that level for 25 years, who told me it was obvious I was divorced bc her husband would’ve left her too if she’d gained 20 pounds and let her hair go grey. One year later I was promoted a few steps to become her manager. Rather than trust me to be more professional than her, she retired earlier than planned. I’m sure my story is not unique. And I’m sure you’re fine.

  78. Orange Peel*

    I’m with you, OP! Permanently a little rumpled and occasionally with bicycle grease on my pants. I’m a researcher in a hospital and occasionally get mistaken for a patient, but I figure there are many worse attributes a person can have.

  79. Esmerelda*

    I think OP you need to honestly assess just how ill fitting your clothes are. Are you the person who wears pants where you can clearly see your underwear line? Do they cling to each buttocks because they are too tight? Does your waist band gape because you have to go up sizes to fit your hips? Are your shirts right across your shoulders? Clearly outlining your undershirts/bras? Not covering your mid sections adequately? Do you always feel not quite comfortable in what you are wearing?

    Well fitting clothing can make a huge difference in how polished you look. Unfortunately, many body shapes are not well catered to, but finding the right styles and size combinations can make a huge difference!

    My preferred clothing choice is far more on the scruffy side, and most of the time that is fine for my job. But part of my work also requires polish. I always go to a trusted store and have them choose my outfits, and buy new when I gain/loose weight so they are a reasonable fit. This is because I am incapable of choosing clothes that look polished myself. If I had to say to say look “professional” I would need to use one of those styling/shopper services.

    I am fashion blind and also just that bit awkward with clothes. Things just don’t fall on me nicely, and I struggle to tell what would look good. But I have (slowly) learnt that just because something is “in code” so to speak doesn’t mean it looks professional (by any standards) on me.

    If you’re worried get some feedback from an honest outside of work source. You don’t have to buy designer clothes to look more polished, sometimes it’s more about the cut that works best for your body shape.

  80. liquidus*

    My colleagues referred to me as ‘scruffy elegant’. I dressed sort of well, but I somehow still looked crumpled.

  81. Minta*

    Many great insights and tips here. I wonder what role posture plays in the phenomenon of always looking rumpled (or feeling like one does) no matter what? I’ve been monitoring and working to improve mine because I was noticing a bit of forward-head/tech-neck posture, which affects pretty much the whole body. Not only is it uncomfortable and harmful, I did not like the way it made me look. I’ve been doing a series of exercises from a couple physical therapists and trainers on YouTube, and just being more mindful throughout the day and at bedtime about it. It’s helping.

  82. Paris Geller*

    I can relate to this because I feel like I spent years being “the scruffy one”. I’m a plus size woman and for many years I was wearing clothes that technically “fit” but that I felt uncomfortable in. There were a lot of layers that I felt added bulk, I could never get my hair to sit right, and I felt I always looked out of place, even if I was “dressed up”. Now, I realized this in my mid-20s so I know I might not be in the same situation as OP, but I’ve gone from being the scruffy one to being someone that colleagues have actually complimented my clothing and style choices. Here’s what I’ve done, though some of it is makeup/jewelry related and while I don’t think any woman should feel the need to wear makeup or buy expensive clothing, this is just what has helped me feel more polished:

    -Clothing: I found work pants that fit well in neutral colors and I pair them with fun printed blouses (I also work in the public sector, so we’re pretty casual for business casual). I spent years trying to hide behind solid-color dark blouses because I was plus size and I thought they were slimming, but I didn’t like them. . . which made me MORE self conscious and make me feel worse! It’s a vicious cycle. Now I’ll wear a loud print because I love it.

    -Casual blazers always make me feel put-together. They can be work with slacks, jeans, or dresses & skirts. A few good casual-cut blazers in neutral outfits always make me feel put together.

    -Makeup: I actually love makeup now and consider it a hobby, and I will do a full face, but if you just want to look more put together and awake, a tinted moisturizer or light coverage bb cream does wonders. Again, I never think anyone has to wear makeup to look polished, but if it’s something you’re worried about and you’re open to makeup, I think this is an easy way to feel a bit more confident about it.

    -Jewelry: I have found that nothing else makes me look put together than a pair of earrings. . . and I don’t have pierced ears. In the past couple of years I have learned that non-pierced earrings have come a long way from my childhood. I have some hoops that are spring-loaded that fit around the ears and they’re honestly super comfortable and nothing like the tight, pinching clip-ons I wore growing up. I also have some magnetic studs that I love. Again, if you’re open to jewelry, this is an easy way to appear a bit more polished.

  83. boop the first*

    Fellow Rumpled, here!

    It’s okay for me, though, because I’m expected to look bad. I would be totally screwed otherwise! Frizzy hair, no idea how to buy clothes, to afraid to wear makeup or use hair dye. T-shirt and jeans my whole life. Once, I wore a long skirt and nice top in high school, and classmates were straight up offended that I would try to look nicer, and tried to humiliate me for impersonating a more fashionable class of people, I guess.
    Since then, I will not dare wear makeup or try to control my hair! Anytime I wander into a young person’s clothing store (even when I was one), I felt like I was crashing a private club and would have to leave. If it’s not at walmart or value village, I’ll never be around to wear it. Tailoring is right out.

  84. Kitkat*

    I work in tech (big tech, but still tech), so it’s not uncommon to see folks in dubiously clean, ill fitting, old cartoon T-shirts. Sometimes with clean white T-shirts poking out from all edges because they’ve outgrown the main shirt but can’t give it up.

    That said, there’s always a subtle difference in upper management. They range from fashionable to slouchy casual, so it’s not the outfits per say. Their clothes are decent quality, without holes, that fit reasonably well. But more importantly, they seem to stand taller and take up more space than others around them. I don’t know if you can learn that type of confident, persistently at ease body language, but if you’re going to make any adjustments, I’d start there instead of the clothes.

  85. Easter*

    LW, what you wear and how you style your hair should have absolutely no impact on how you are perceived as a professional (and frankly screw the system that makes folks feel otherwise). You didn’t ask for tips on how to appear more professional, but on the chance that you are interested, I have two concrete suggestions (forgive me if they have been mentioned above). One, wear clothes that fit and are comfortable. Sometimes scruffy is just a top that is one size too big or pants that aren’t a nice fabric so you’re constantly tugging. Two, tinted lip balm. I’m partial to Burt’s Bees ($4, at drugstores everywhere). Looks and feels and applies and works exactly like a traditional lip balm but has just the tiniest tinge which can bring life to your face.

  86. TWJ*

    Worked for a company where I was in and out of large shops two or three times a day. It was in my contract that I had to wear steel toe-capped boots, obviously because these places have warehouses and all the rest of it.
    If my boss met me on a ‘work day’ he would take issue with this.
    “What’s with the rigger boots? I expect you to look a bit more professional than that.”
    -It’s in our contracts, I have to do it probably in case something falls on my feet in one of the clients’ warehouses.
    “Oh don’t worry about that, nobody else pays attention to that apart from you.”
    -Right, then when something falls on my feet when I’m wearing nice brogues like yours I will have no recourse with the client or our company. G, if you want me to stop wearing them I’m going to need that clause taken out of my contract.
    “Oh OK.”

  87. Goatgirl*

    I had to double check if I was the LW. But nope. For a long time, I had a quick and comfy “uniform” of black pants and colorful shirts (honestly, lots of times it was the same style of shirt in different colors) which was great for me until one day I overheard a coworker mocking me (“at least I put in more effort than wearing black pants and the same shirt every day”). I tried to let that go, but my feelings were really hurt. In the long run, I started putting in a little more effort even though I sometimes went days without seeing another soul in my office. And I have a lint roller in every door of my car, plus one in my bag and one in my desk. Otherwise, between the black dog and the white cat, I’d be a furball.

Comments are closed.