Blazer, DKNY (thrifted); dress, Judith & Charles (thrifted); bag, Ferragamo; shoes, Stuart Weitzman
Blazer, DKNY (thrifted); dress, Judith & Charles (thrifted); bag, Ferragamo; shoes, Stuart Weitzman

This Judith & Charles dress is one of my favourite pieces to wear when I need to look “business-y”. It looks polished without being too staid, and bright without being cartoonish. In my line of work, I have to walk a fine line — having sufficient gravitas to be taken seriously, without appearing unapproachable or intimidating to the kind of clients with whom I usually work. I think (or hope) this dress helps me to do that. Although I have paired it with bright accessories for the office in the past, on this occasion I stuck with more conservative options. [I wore the red bag to work, but brought my large black tote to the off-site client meeting.] The pinstripe in the jacket added some subtle visual interest, but overall the effect was low key.

simple outfit formula
simple outfit formula

Outfits like this one are not necessarily my favourite, but needs must and all that, and I think it’s worthwhile putting them on the blog from time to time for a dose of (unglamorous?) reality. I feel pretty fortunate to be able to wear things that are more “my style” most of the time; I would have way less fun with clothes if my work dress code did not align at all with my personal preferences.

On that note, I’m curious: does your work code allow you to wear things you like every day, or do you have to “sacrifice” your personal style to pratical considerations? If so, how does that impact your attitude to clothes generally? Also speaking of professional dress, I would love to hear your thoughts on this article.

black with a side of colour
black with a side of colour

30 Comments on Colourful Business

  1. Dear Adina
    Let me start by saying how much I enjoy your blog. You are extremely entertaining and I really like your style too. Please continue blogging!

    I read the article about “professional attire” that you mentioned and I’m afraid I don’t agree with one word. I live & work in a country where poverty is a daily reality and braids are more common than straight hair. We don’t have many thrift shops but informal thrifting stalls at the local taxi rank (a taxi being a mini-bus transporting 20+ people at a time) are booming. My patients have often commented that they start to feel better the moment they walk through my door BECAUSE OF HOW I DRESS. I don’t spend much on clothes: today’s outfit cost me roughly $25 retail. I put it to you: Professionalism is not about how you feel, but about how comfortable you make your client feel in your presence. Do they trust you, bearing in mind that first impressions are formed within the first seven seconds? Just saying…
    Please feel free to edit/shorten etc. And Merry Christmas!

    • Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, Marilet! I love to hear from readers from different backgrounds and countries — it helps me overcome my own “bubble”, you know? I think you hit on a great point — when you are working in a service industry (and most of us are, even if we are professionals), you have to balance your clients’ needs and expectations against other considerations. I think it’s important to constantly question societal norms — it’s how we get progress — but I think there is a valid question about the timing and opportunities for doing that.

  2. I work in a cubicle in Washington DC, and my coworkers and I were discussing this the other day – we had a VIP in the office, and it was interesting to see how people adjusted their dress accordingly. We had people who worked in IT out of their jeans and tee shirts, and some managers put on what was clearly their ‘company’ tie over a regular button down shirt. Some of the more junior staff went a little overboard, and looked like they came right out of the J Crew catalog (pocket squares and chambray suits and all!) It was pretty obvious that this was not the way people normally dressed, partly because of how the office as a whole looked.

    I completely agree with your approach – office attire should be versatile enough to get your through a variety of situations with a swap of accessories. You also look more comfortable and confident, because you’re still wearing your “regular” clothes. When I need to go to big meetings, “professional” to me means appropriately fitted and tailored, clean and pressed, and not a distraction from what I’m trying to accomplish. So, a bright coat or bag is fine (but not together) because they are memorable, but not a distraction while working.

    I also usually have to consider shoes – there’s usually a lot of walking involved, and I either have to pack a very small pair of flats and change right before I get there, or if I’m traveling with one of our executives, I need to plan an outfit around flats, because wobbling behind group on too-high heels is a sure way to be completely written off. I wore heels yesterday to give me some extra height, which was fine because everything I needed to do was contained in my office.

    • I love the wide range of backgrounds of BCRL readers! All of you have great stories — it kinda amazes me that you’d be interested in mine at all. Anyway, as much as I’m still working on refining my thoughts on what it means to be “professional” (they are ever evolving, and discussions like this are a big part of that), I think I agree with your approach: at work, my clothes should not be a distraction from what I’m trying to accomplish. If I’m at my desk all day, I dress to make myself happy. But if I am in a public setting, I have to consider that my goal is to look presentable (to whatever the expectations are) but that the lasting impression should be of my capabilities not of my outfit.

  3. Ha well you know my answer to the first question! I wear what I like as long as it’s smart enough Monday – Thursday, then mufty Friday. I choose to go smart-smart most of the time though, certainly in winter with blazers, jackets etc. The guys wear shirts and trousers but no ties or jackets.

    I’ve read in the past that women should always wear tights and never peep toes or sandals but I guess you have to adapt to your office environment. Our office is warm, I just started wearing tights this week as temps dipped to minus 4. I’m rarely customer facing and when I am they aren’t the smartest, the electronics industry isn’t about clothing after all 😉

    • I’m relatively rarely customer-facing as well (although that’s changing slowly), which is why I get to wear more or less whatever I like. I’m very thankful for that!

      Also, what is “mufty”? My years of living in the UK have not taught me that work (and I’m kinda mad about that — I definitely want to use it if I can) :/

  4. I started a job a couple of months ago that requires that I wear a uniform – basically their navy top/cardigan/blazer in my remote office, and solid, top-to-bottom navy when I travel to corporate headquarters. It’s definitely been an adjustment for me – my personal style is certainly not limited to just one color! I’m attempting to wear as much of my previous professional wardrobe as possible, but I feel like I’m only able to wear about one-third of what’s in my closet.

  5. I found the article interesting! I actually agree with the author–I think many norms around what is professional attire do reflect a more narrow vision of the world. And I say this as someone who typically dresses conservatively and also works as a lawyer. And while I do see the value (including economically) for wanting to put clients at ease, I also think that some assumptions about what a doctor or lawyer ‘should’ look like, could stand to be challenged–including piercings, different hairstyles, or ethnic dress. The ideas behind professionalism usually involve credentialling or advanced education–reflecting something internal rather than external. I suspect that if a worker exhibited an untraditional appearance they would have to work extra hard to be taken seriously (and there are likely a handful of people they could never win over). I also agree with Marilet’s point about the importance of making the other people you work with (coworkers, patients, clients) feel comfortable in your presence.

    • I think “professionalism” is an ever-evolving concept, because the societal norms that inform it are also constantly changing. So I think it’s important to have discussions about what it means, and make sure that it doesn’t become a reflection of outdated norms. But at the same time, even as a professional, you can only push the envelope so far in any one given instance. Ultimately, my role is to give my client professional advice, not educate them on things like diversity and so on (much as I think that’s a worthy goal in general) — it can be a difficult balance to achieve.

      I think someone raised another interesting point in another comment section — although clothes can be seen as an expression of who we are, how much self-expression can we reasonably expect to get at work (particularly in a non-creative work environment)? Some things may be an intrinsic part of who we are (religious head-coverings, or braids, for example) but where do you then draw the line? More to think about.

  6. I work in a fairly formal professional environment (state legislature, but they’re only in session four months every other year) and feel like my boss is gently trying to push me in a more staid direction lately. I favor bright colors, florals, and fit and flare styles, and she goes out of her way to tell me I look nice when I’m wearing muted colors and sheath dresses. I’ve actually started toning down my new acquisitions (fewer florals and less colorful prints), but mostly, I just wear what I like as long as the necklines and hemlines are appropriate. Dress codes in my field have relaxed considerably even in the past 15-20 years…apparently someone used to yell at you if you didn’t wear nylons!

  7. I am also a lawyer, but I work in-house, where the dress code is very flexible. I tend to be one of the better dressed people (my boss used to wear jeans and sweatshirts), but I definitely dress business-casual, more towards the casual side. For instance, today I am wearing jeans with a Zara embroidered tunic blouse, and some fancy shoes. I LOVE my work wardrobe, and feel fortunate that I don’t have to wear suits every day (or ever). And I also love your blog – it’s the first one I look at every morning, so I’m very happy you’re back!

    • I also love working in a predominantly business casual environment (at least 70% of the time). I’ve worked in conservative environments before, at a time when I wasn’t even that interested in clothes, and found it very uninspiring — I can’t imagine liking it any better now. At the same time, I do prefer dressing “up” versus “down”, so I would probably also not enjoy working in a casual setting. This is my Goldilocks happy place, LOL!

  8. I work in post-secondary, which means the dress code is generally a little more relaxed and creative. That being said, I work in a professional unit that has a stricter dress code for professional staff than other units on campus. For in unit meetings and events I fit the dress code but for any meetings outside of my unit I can end up very over dressed (while silently cursing my colleagues’ freedom to wear jeans whenever they want). I tend to be a bit more creative with colour, shape, and pattern than my officemates. That way I can meet the code, but quickly change up an element of my outfit to match my colleagues outside of my offfice when needed.

    • That’s smart! I do that to on days when I have client meetings but am otherwise in the office. I usually wear a dress with a blazer, which can be easily ditched in the comfort of my own office.

  9. Hmm, interesting article. Certain professional norms are definitely racist and/or sexist, like expectations about what black women are supposed to do with their hair or the idea that women have to wear heels and makeup to be professional. I think we should be particularly suspicious of demands that create hardship by making one group expend extra money to alter their appearance, or cause physical pain (i.e. heels). And, sure, don’t make the queer lady wear a dress if she can look equally neat and put together in something more androgynous and don’t make the muslim woman take off her hijab, because both of those demands force people to actively disavow central parts of their identity.

    That being said, as an academic, I’m pretty suspicious of people who try to get out of the dress code. It’s always men and is almost always accompanied by some sanctimonious spiel about being above frivolous (implicitly feminine) worries about fashion – as if cis women adhere to these norms because we liked them or it never occurred to us that we might save more time by ignoring them. Dress codes might cissexist, but the arguments I usually encounter against them feel pretty misogynistic toward cis women.

    As a relevant anecdote, my fiancé is also an academic but works in comp sci. He has one guy he works with who is always terribly groomed, never shaves, never cuts his hair, has a giant unibrow, dresses in badly fitting jeans and t-shirts for work. I sort of rolled my eyes at the different standards in my field until my fiancé made one offhanded comment: this guy also wears a belt made out of a tire.

    That one detail made me *hate* this guy. Absolutely hate him. It felt like such a slap in the face that women have to wage war on their bodies to be acceptable. If we’re fat, people will think we’re stupid; if we don’t shave, we’re slovenly; if we don’t wear shoes that cripple us in later years, we’re unprofessional; if we don’t wear makeup, we’re not fully dressed. And meanwhile this guy gets to roll into work wearing a tire for a belt because he happens to be a white dude who got lucky to be interested in something lucrative enough that no one imposes a dress code? I could never get away with that.

    Anyway, sorry to rant. I really hate that guy’s stupid belt, though.

    • Hang on. Wait a minute. A belt … made out of tire?? What is that, even? I just can’t wrap my head around it. No pun intended.

      One positive note is that, for both men & women, the more senior and/or valuable you are to your organization, the more leeway you tend to get with things like clothing. (I think basic personal grooming is just a form of social courtesy though, so I have nothing to say about that.)

  10. I work in the surgery department of a hospital so all I get to wear is scrubs. I also prefer to dress up than be super casual but it’s pointless for me to invest in the wardrobe of my dreams because I will never get enough use out of my fancy clothes. Usually, I wear jeans/tshirts or jeans/sweater to work and no makeup! It rubs off on my surgical mask and no one thinks I look unprofessional without it. In fact I’ve heard people say how unprofessional women look when they come to work with heavy eye makeup.

    Being an Eastern European immigrant, that article seemed like bemoaning first world problems. Even the poorest, least educated people in my country know what professionalism is. They go as far as wearing a suit to the grocery store. My 60 year old uncle wears a collard shirt when he’s digging in his garden! I think the reason people are fighting the meaning of professionalism is that most people lost the idea of modesty as a virtue. Namely, dress in a way not to draw too much attention, good or bad, to your body and be respectful of those you interact with in your attire.

    So professionalism and modesty isn’t a set standard by rich white old men in my mind. It’s wearing the best of what you own, being clean and groomed no matter what your hair texture is, not drawing too much attention to your physical body, and dressing to a level that makes the people around you comfortable enough to approach you.

    • I think culture plays a big part of our perceptions of personal style as well as professionalism. I attribute my long-standing aversion to sweats-as-out-of-the-house-wear to my Eastern European background. (Although, the longer I live here, the more my standards relax. After all, I wear leggings as pants on weekends sometimes ;))

      I think your point about not drawing too much attention to your physical body is interesting. I would re-frame that a bit by saying that I do want to command attention when I walk into a client meeting — I don’t want to blend into the surroundings — which necessarily involves people noticing, well, my physical presence. But I certainly don’t want people to notice my body in any sort of sexualized way. So I agree with that.

  11. I haven’t commented before, but this question drew me in!

    I have recently switched from working in an office (where I could both dress up to my heart’s desire, and not cover my tattoos or take out piercings) to working in healthcare, and it has been a huge switch for me style-wise! I used to own a single pair of dress pants, and a single pair of jeans, and wear dresses and heels almost exclusively.

    Now, if I’m in the hospital, I wear scrubs. I can dress up more in the clinic, but my choices have to permit bending, squatting and getting down on the floor, without splitting or showing too much. And, I certainly cannot advise patients on sensible footwear while wearing heels myself! It has been a real challenge to re-define my personal style in this context, but definitely possible.

    • That’s a very interesting perspective. I wonder how much of this has to do with how different people express their individuality. For some people, clothes might be a primary outlet; for others, not as much. Or perhaps, if that outlet is taken away, people find other ways to compensate. Would love to hear others’ thoughts on this (since I am clearly in clothes-are-an-important-outlet-for-self-expression camp).

  12. I read the article. And not being part of the “establishment” that set the standards/expectations for what constitutes professional attire, I understand where the writers are coming from. But you know the adage, if you want to win the race, you have to play by the rules. The reality is, people respond to you based on your appearance. A professional look inspires confidence in your abilities. You have a right to dress however you please. But your client has a right to take their business to wherever they please.

    • Yeah, this is what I always end up struggling with. I very much support being progressive when it comes to social norms around dressing (being the change you want to see in the world, etc.), but at the end of the day, I am not enough of a rebel/trailblazer to risk my livelihood over something that, in the scheme of things, is relatively minor. (although, one could argue that it is connected to, and a symptom of, much more important social issues.)

  13. Hi Adina,

    I recently discovered your blog and love it! Thank you for your content. 🙂

    Several years ago I worked in a long term care facility and I could wear whatever I wanted as long as it wasn’t jeans and a t-shirt. I had to be professional but was allowed to “be myself”. I favor bright colors, patterns, and costume jewelry. My clothes and style are a direct reflection of my personality and mood and a huge part of who I am. One day at my job it was announced that we would now have to adhere to a dress code. We were to wear khaki pants and a black polo shirt every day. I was devastated, to say the least. I remember going home that night, telling my husband, and then going into my closet to cry. I hated wearing this uniform everyday. It changed my mood, my ability to focus, and I had a hard time presenting myself to others. I felt masculine and out of sorts every day. Needless to say, I resigned from that position after about 4 months of this. It may seem silly to leave a job and company that I not only loved, but one I had been at for more than three years. I just couldn’t do it though. I worked very long days and most weekends so I didn’t have the opportunity to make up for it in my free time. I told my director and co-workers that I was leaving for a better opportunity, which was true, but the real reason was due to the dress code and I feel that my co-workers knew this deep down.

    I guess the point of my blabbing is that I decided back then that uniforms were a deal-breaker and that my clothes and style were important enough to influence whether or not I accept a position.

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective! As I mentioned in my comment to NFA, I think different people approach clothing in different ways. If I was forced to wear black and only black every single day of my life … I don’t know what I would do. I can’t imagine it NOT having some sort of effect on me eventually. But others might not be bothered by the same strictures. As far as dress codes go, most (?) office dwellers tend to have quite a bit of leeway which makes things a lot easier. Of course, that’s not true for people working in other types of settings.

  14. I work in an engineering department, and we all wear whatever we want. A coworker who recently retired used to tell me stories of when he first started here, in the 1950s. All of the engineers were male, and all wore white button up shirts with black ties. He rebelled and wore striped ties, and occasionally even a pale colored shirt on Fridays. He said he got a lot of crap for dressing so “unprofessionally.” Before he retired, he wore jeans and plaid shirts every day. No one here wears white button ups or ties. A lot of my coworkers here considered him a cranky old man and avoided him, but I am still so amazed and inspired by him. Thanks to him, and others like him, dressing casually is now expected in the STEM field.

    • What a great story! I guess the moral is that you *can* push the envelope, one small step (or colourful tie) at a time.

      One thing your comments reminds me of is the discussion around how attire (in all its forms, not just as work) has become increasingly more relaxed and informal over the last century, and what that says about our socio-cultural norms generally. I seem to vaguely recall reading an article about this once, but I can’t for the life of me remember when or where. It would be an interesting topic to revisit, for sure. Something else to discuss, haha!

  15. I work in the insurance industry, and we have an official business casual dress code. I tend to dress closer to business, as do the vast majority of those in leadership roles. We have an extremely diverse work force with braids and nose piercings being fairly common.

    I agree with previous comments that our work dress needs to allow others to focus on our performance rather than our appearance, while allowing ourselves to be comfortable at the same time, but I also think that whoever is signing our paychecks gets the final decision on what is appropriate and what isn’t. Because let’s face it, no one is forced to work as a lawyer. If that is your choice, be prepared for certain dress restrictions. If you want to dress to only your own tastes without consideration for anyone else’s rules or opinion, you may need to work in the privacy of your own home. I agree that we need to continue expanding our definition of professional, but that doesn’t mean the workplace should become a come-as-you-are venue.

    My personal style is very close to yours, and I would wear just about anything in your closet. Thanks for all the inspiration.