Women’s Style of Dresses For Office

My favorite place to people watch is inside a corporate environment. I watch men and women walk down what I call the “office runway.” They walk to the communal kitchen or office supply closet, chat with friends at cubicles or in the hallways, head into conference rooms for meetings, or visit the boss in the corner office. I’ve walked through many companies and observed a gap in our collective education concerning what is appropriate to wear to work. We know there are rules and expectations, and we know some of them. But we’re not sure how they apply to us. Our closets hold the armor we don to face the world, whether for a big meeting or lunch with the clique. Sometimes, both events evoke our insecurities.

Women in their twenties have time to shop but typically have less disposable income. Women in their thirties are in the throes of creating balance in their lives, and shopping can often tip the scale. Many women don’t come up for air or seek style advice until they reach their forties. Women in their fifties and sixties often have an established uniform, and it is only when a major shift in body type occurs or a fashion trend sweeps the country that they come running for answers. There are no formal fashion classes for those twenty-two to sixty-nine, the age range of most, but not all, working women. It is important to discuss mastering the fundamentals of dress. After all, the last time some of us learned even a single rule of fashion was at our first bra fitting.

Most fashion advisors deal in guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules, but women should understand the basics to become successful. When dressing, especially to impress, a woman needs to be able to judge when to stand out and when to minimize risk. She needs to know the right fit for her body type, as well as the role trends play in the workplace. Many women find themselves following the same rules at forty-five that they learned at twenty-three. They need a refresher course. It is critical to strike a balance between classic pieces you have in your wardrobe and the latest, hot-off-the-runway trends.

Let’s review some style basics about the clothing that’s hanging in your closet as well as those pieces you can easily purchase to update your wardrobe and help you dress to impress:

  • The third piece
  • Suiting
  • Pants
  • Skirts
  • Tops
  • Dresses
  • Coats

The Third Piece

I never leave home without a “third piece.” It could be a sleek, cobalt blue, silk blazer worn with dark trouser jeans on a casual Friday, a crème cable-knit sweater coat paired with ivory cashmere slacks for a cozy Tuesday, or a black ruffle shawl over a belted little black dress (LBD) to move from day to night. The third piece is my “it” piece. My signature.

The magic of a third piece is that, instead of defaulting to a suit-like blazer, your jacket can be unstructured or tailored; swingy; cropped, or long; peplum-style; collarless; double-breasted or single-breasted; or textured. Obviously, this is one of my favorite components of any outfit, and I’ve hardly ever let a woman leave my fitting room without wearing a signature third piece. For me, a look is simply not complete without it. A jacket, blazer, sweater, cardigan, or sometimes even a great belt or statement piece of jewelry can serve as a third piece. The third piece is one that “makes” your outfit. In a professional environment, this is most often your jacket.

The Jacket

The jacket communicates power. It says listen and look at me. Nonverbal cues are vitally important. If you can send a power message across the conference room by simply wearing a jacket, do it. The jacket says, “I took an extra step this morning.” If your dress code isn’t strictly business-formal attire, wearing a jacket can indicate you are dressing to impress and dressing for the job you want. Don’t dress “old”—dress “up.”

The jacket can be a traditional blazer style (perhaps with a fun lining, which you can reveal by rolling up the cuff for a more casual look) or one with a modern shawl collar and tie belt. The possibilities range in color from light to dark, and from tried-and-true fabrics like wool and cotton to more interesting ones such as leather, tweed, or linen. Your options include interesting collars, shoulders, and sleeves, as well as buttons, zippers, and other embellishments. Try wearing a fabulous outfit that gets you mistaken for senior management at your next meeting.

Dina was a forty-three-year-old attorney who was lucky enough to look twenty-eight but, unfortunately, more often than not was mistaken for an administrative assistant or paralegal instead of partner. She was a busy working mom who barely had time for (let alone interest in) makeup and cute clothes. She had four kids at home, was happy she had stayed close to her pre-baby weight, and was confident in her skills at work. The fact that she was a partner had instilled in her a sense that she’d “made it.” Dina wore schlumpy cardigans to work, paired with stretched-out yoga pants and Merrill hiking shoes. Yup, I said lawyer. Private firm.

Ladies, please don’t stop trying! It hurts your credibility with a professional audience. Set an example for the next generation of women climbing the corporate ladder and impress the senior leaders who are hoping to promote you. Dina didn’t really notice her behavior until she was asked to serve coffee at a meeting also attended by summer associates. They were dressed more appropriately than Dina was.

Dressing well is not about having a big budget—the principles of style are the same from intern to CEO. People will treat you in the manner you encourage them to. Dress in a way that makes your success clear to others, and no one will ask you to serve coffee again (unless you’re hosting a party, and even then you might decide to hire someone else to do it).

One of Dina’s associates slipped her my card, and she soon decided to give me a call, I think because she had felt embarrassed and disrespected by the coffee-serving incident. Her mental transformation was instant—there is nothing like being mistaken for the help when you are part of leadership. Whereas some need to be coached and coaxed, Dina just asked for the costume she needed to play the part she had earned long ago.

Armed with a closet full of stylish, age- and office-appropriate clothes, Dina hit the ground running with a new confidence that I think surprised even her. Stylish shoes by foot surgeon Taryn Rose were as comfy as her Merrills. Slim black pants showed off her shape but were unremarkable enough to be worn twice or more per week, and a simple black shell kept her look chic and monochromatic. The pièce de rèsistance was a bold, belted jacket that added just the right amount of subtle power. We created a wardrobe and uniform that was easy for this busy working mom to follow and replicate day after day.

The Cardigan

Sometimes simply known as a sweater, the cardigan used to hang in Grandma’s closet. It has certainly come a long way. In the 1990s, sweater sets (or twin sets) rose in popularity and were paired with khakis and printed skirts on casual Fridays. In fact, people were so excited by the prospect of avoiding a suit that the sweater set became the Friday alternative. It helped that they can be worn year round and work so well in offices with temperature challenges.

The sweater set got a makeover and the open “cardi” was created—a more unstructured cardigan. This piece is sometimes longer than the typical hip length, doesn’t always have buttons, and can easily be belted. It represents a fabulous new addition to the professional wardrobe that works on every body type and any age. Adding to its versatility, it can be dressed up or down. A ruffled, open, cardi sweater will easily dress up slacks; an asymmetrical style in a thinner knit is great for a more casual office.

A classic cardigan will always be in style and is often the perfect addition to a dress. However, try not to be too “matchy” to avoid either a dated or a too-young look. The sweater set is a universal go-to piece for interns and young college grads as well as administrative staff and older workers in the office.

The Duster

The longer sister of the open cardi, this is a fashion-forward favorite for a relaxed casual look that falls anywhere from mid-thigh to the knee. You will see it in blends of cashmere and wool in the winter and in lighter knits throughout the summer. Pair it with a belted sheath dress or slim-cut pants and heels. Topper and sweater coat, other well-known terms for the duster, can also refer to a more structured and slightly shorter third piece. Style them in the same manner for a modern silhouette.

The Vest

Vests have come in and out of fashion over the years. A menswear-inspired black vest is classic. Look for a fitted version that is minimally embellished to wear open over a long-sleeve, black top or patterned blouse, with chic jeans or slacks in a casual or business-casual environment. Add a statement necklace for a dash of bohemian flair.

Sweaters

The crewneck or V-neck sweater is most often seen at the office over a collared blouse or long-sleeve top. This is technically more of a layering item than a “third piece,” but some women enjoy wearing this look. The biggest challenge here is showing off your shape. Some of you reading this are saying, “That’s exactly why I wear sweaters!” but just because you don’t intend to show off your figure doesn’t mean we don’t see it. A one-piece, closed sweater can add the illusion of more weight in the mid-section and arms, making you appear bigger. Think of the crewneck as the older sister of the sweatshirt. Do you really want people to see you in that at work?

Style Alert: The three-quarter-length sleeve works well for any third piece. It will make you appear slimmer by hitting close to the waist and drawing the eye up instead of down to your hips. Also, this is a great solution for both petites and talls, who have trouble finding correct sleeve lengths off the rack.

Suiting

Modern women’s suiting is most often purchased as separates. While for many years traditional suits were sold only as sets (and some still are), many designers have finally wised up to the fact that women are not always the same size on the top and bottom. If you work in or plan to interview in a business-formal or even business-casual environment, you should have at least one well-tailored suit in your closet. For women, unlike men, the most versatile suit color to invest in is black. You can wear it to an interview—conservatively dressing it up or adding flash to dress it down. Later, either continue to treat it as a suit in a formal environment or break apart the pieces to use as the workhorses of your wardrobe.

Style Alert: For the most expensive look (yet one that is often affordable), stick to a tropical-weight wool that works for all seasons. Stay away from polyesters and triacetates—they look cheap. Fabrics with stretch fibers help garments stay less wrinkled throughout the day.

Pantsuit

If you are only buying one pantsuit, err on the side of classic and choose a trouser leg. This style is flattering on almost every body type and will stand the test of time. A two- or three-button jacket with a peak or notch lapel will most likely accompany this suit. Choose from a neutral-color palette for your subsequent suits after you’ve bought black: charcoal, medium gray, brown, and navy are all safe and stylish choices.

If you have a closet full of suits and are looking to add more excitement, change up the pant (slim, ankle, wide) or jacket styles (shawl collar, collarless, belted), or indulge in interesting dark colors like burgundy, plum, eggplant, or hunter green.

Skirt Suit

The skirt suit is a timeless and elegant classic. Women have been wearing skirts to the office much longer than they’ve been wearing pants. You may have many skirt suits hanging in your closet or just the one you purchased as a spare for your pantsuit. To stay current, look for a knee-length pencil skirt and a jacket. Continue to select colors from a neutral palette in seasonally appropriate fabrics. If you care to add a little flair, look for a tweed or jacquard.

Dress Suit

The dress suit is a very elegant style that works well from day to night or for dressy work situations (cocktail, networking, or client event). The jacket can be hip length, or end at the knee and accompany a sheath dress. The dress and jacket are usually in the same color (and can be sold as a set). The dress suit, with accompanying longer jacket, is a hard-to-find style, but it’s a personal favorite for high-profile clients.

Pants

Pants are a staple of many women’s closets. They are comfortable, versatile, and they require little maintenance. They’re available in a variety of fits, fabrics, and colors. Hem them to various lengths to work with the right shoes, and select the pant leg that best enhances your figure.

Style Alert: Remove dated styles from your closet: pleats, overly high waists, and pegged, tapered legs. Although some of these features come in and out of style, if you are harboring pants more than ten years old, they probably qualify as dated and look old.

Here are the most popular styles for work:

Trouser Leg

The trouser leg is the most classic, flattering, and versatile of pant styles. It skims the thigh, comes in at the knee, and flares out slightly at the calf. It works on a majority of body types and will always make you look thinner. It may feature cuffs or a pressed crease down the middle for added structure and design. The ankle circumference will be a close match to the hip.

Wide Leg

A wide-leg pant is a statement maker. A dramatic style, it falls gracefully from the hip to the ankle. It can be glamorous for tall women and a staple for plus-size ones. It balances out pear and curvy body types, distracting from a larger hip area. Palazzo pants come in and out of style in this category and can add flair to a wardrobe of basics. Petites should avoid an overly wide leg or risk looking shorter.

Style Alert: The most universally flattering fit is one where the ankle diameter is equal or close to the hip one. Lay out a pair of pants on the bed to see if this measurement matches what’s hanging in your closet. Bend and bring the ankle up to the thigh area. If the widths are similar, you are creating a well-balanced look. If the thigh is larger, you will be attracting attention to that area. Shop carefully.

Skinny Leg

The skinny pant is slim and cut close to the leg. A cousin to the skinny jean, it is hard to pull off at the office when you have a set of hips. My favorite (and more body-type versatile) version of this style in work pants hits at the ankle or slightly above: cigarette pants. Often noted as Audrey Hepburn’s preferred pant style, these are fitted through the hip and thigh with a slim leg. Pair with ballet flats, knee-high boots, or heels for a super-chic retro-modern look.

Straight Leg

A straight-leg pant falls straight from hip to thigh, and knee to ankle. They are limited to straighter body types and do not flatter women who carry their weight in the hip area. A cropped, straight pant is a more versatile fit because a flash of leg helps to break up the look, and the bottom of the pant is not as narrow. This is a stylish option for a variety of body types in the warmer months.

Style Alert: To increase the glam factor, add a colored pant to your repertoire. Red is quickly becoming a popular work-wear indulgence.

Skirts

The basic skirt for work is knee-length. To identify the spot on your leg where a hem should end, examine your knee area in a full-length mirror. For some, this will be above the knee, while for others, it will be lower. See where the thigh starts to indent and lead into the knee? That’s your starting point. Now look at the bottom part of your knee. See where it starts to curve outwards toward your calf? You want your skirt to end anywhere in that two-inch vicinity, depending on your body type, height, and proportions.

Here are the most popular styles for work:

Pencil

All skirts have their fashion “in” moments, and if you want to include only one in your work wardrobe, invest in this timeless shape. The pencil skirt (straight on top, it curves in toward the knee like the tip of a pencil) shows off your curves, though you may want a vent or kick pleat in the back for ease of movement. Select a versatile structured fabric like tropical-weight wool or heavy cotton. Pair with third pieces for an elegant business-formal look.

Some consider a straight skirt (which often accompanies suits) a pencil shape, but the key difference is that it doesn’t hug the lower thigh. A straight skirt creates more of a rectangular shape—a conservative, dated silhouette.

A-Line

The flare on an A-line skirt follows the lines of a capital letter A. This look is often worn to conceal figure flaws. But remember: sometimes, the more you conceal, the more you reveal. The A-line skirt flatters straighter body types and makes women who carry more weight on the bottom appear heavier. This tailored look is appealing to a younger generation and works best in business-casual environments.

Full

Full skirts are fun and feminine. They are voluminous and can be pleated, gathered, or even full-circle skirts. They are more casual than pencil skirts but can still be sophisticated. Keep them knee length, and pair with a camisole and cardigan or a fitted, short, elbow-length blouse.

Tops

If you’re dressing for the corner office, shop your closet for a third piece before selecting a top. If you wear a power third piece, don’t overwhelm it with a blousy printed top; if you wear suits daily, don’t just wear a shell the same color as your pinstripes “to bring out the color.” Instead, when wearing a statement third piece, coordinate your top to match your pants or skirt to minimize its presence and maximize the impact of your power jacket. When matching a suit, try pulling out the main color instead of highlighting the accents.

Style Alert: When you match your shell to your skirt or pants instead of to your jacket, you elongate your torso and give the illusion of looking slimmer. When you match it to your jacket, you look wider on top.

When I walked into Mary’s closet, I was struck by how many beautiful tops she owned. Displayed prominently and organized perfectly, they were very inviting. Mary loved color, and buying tops was her weakness. She worked in a business-formal environment and considered suits to be boring. Mary’s complaint was not an uncommon one, and colorful tops made her happy. Once I inventoried Mary’s collection, we saw that she had invested more than $3,000 in a relatively short time on tops. Unfortunately, many of her suits were cheap looking and ill-fitting. Mary worked in financial services, a business-formal environment, and wore suits daily. All of them covered up her beautiful investments. Essentially, her tops were like lingerie . . . no one got to appreciate them but Mary.

Shop for the dress code your office environment dictates. Business formal requires a third piece. Mary could have had tremendous fun and shown off her style, investing in high-quality, high-impact pieces. Include stylish, classic, wear-alone tops in your wardrobe: wrap styles, bow-tie blouses, a classic white blouse, cowl-necks, turtlenecks, or kimono-sleeve or other interesting-sleeved tops. Of course, every season brings new trends, like the peplum top, and every winter will obviously include an array of sweaters. Leave tops for last and don’t spend a lot unless they’re highly visible or you’re wearing them daily.

Shell versus Cami

You should stock shells and camisoles to coordinate with pants, skirts, and suits. A shell can be sleeveless (though it must be wide enough in the shoulders to cover your bra strap), cap-sleeve, short-sleeve, three-quarter-sleeve, or long-sleeve. Typically, shells are fitted, but not as tight as spaghetti-strapped camisoles. My favorite camis for work are made in a cotton-spandex blend that resists fading. “Tamis” are a new addition, combining the style of a tank with the fit of a cami. Whichever style works best for your shape, try to focus on fabrics that look fancy enough for the office instead of the gym. Buy seamless styles, and avoid showing a lacy cami at the office—this look had a trend moment but has since expired. Keep an eye on your internal thermometer—don’t wear a sleeveless shell or cami if you work in a business-formal environment and plan to take off your third piece.

Dresses

Dresses play runner-up to pants in popularity at the office. But many women consider them easy to shop for and easier to wear: one item and you’re done. Dresses are truly versatile: style them for cocktails or tailor them for the boardroom.

Here are the most popular styles for work:

The Sheath

The sheath dress is a classic office staple. A sleeveless version can be layered under suit jackets or third pieces of almost any style; one with sleeves can stand alone for a modern professional look. Belt the waist (where your sides curve in, or where you wish to give the illusion that they do), add a necklace and heels, and voilà—you’re done. Start with a black sheath and continue to build your collection.

A shift dress is similar to a sheath but not as fitted through the waist and hips; it’s not quite as dressy and works best on straighter body types. With either dress, be careful of empire waistlines; they can unflatteringly elongate the torso and make you appear heavier on the bottom.

The Wrap

Diane von Furstenberg made this style iconic. The trick to wearing wrap dresses is to tie them high and tight around your waist. This helps ensure they don’t unravel and expose the bust area. I have clients who write down detailed directions or take a short video of the process in the fitting room to ensure they can replicate it at home.

Style Alert: If you are busty, try adding a bandeau (instead of a cami) in the color of a wrap dress to help camouflage cleavage. Miss Oops makes a comfortable “Boob Tube.”

The Shirt Dress

Imagine your favorite button-front shirt…becoming a dress! It can have a fitted or full skirt, be monochromatic or printed, or feature color blocking (one color on top and another on the bottom). A slim fit on the bottom works best for straighter body types; a fuller skirt works for everyone else. If it gapes in the chest, add a bandeau for coverage or avoid this style. This dress blends in well at a business-casual office.

Coats

Outerwear can be as important as what is worn underneath. Depending on the climate in your locale, this may be the first thing people see you wearing every day. Don’t leave the lasting impression of a baggy, dated overcoat or a casual, sporty raincoat. If you walk to work or use public transportation, invest in a weather-appropriate and stylish coat. If you move from car to garage and barely have use for outerwear, you may still need to invest in at least one versatile topper for professional travel.

Trench Coat

This is a must-have for executives. It travels through both time and weather effortlessly, is versatile enough to be worn two to three seasons, and is available in a variety of fabrics and colors. Opt for black with sophisticated detailing (like sheen or patent trim) if you plan to dress it up, or go with classic khaki to fulfill your inner prepster. I also like versions in metallic tones, prints, and midnight navy—double breasted and single, full-skirted and straight.

Style Alert: Tie your trench instead of buckling the belt for a modern twist that highlights your waist.

Winter Coat

Unless you live where it’s incredibly cold and you are outside all the time, a three-quarter-length coat (to the knees) is always your best bet, and it’s universally flattering. Look for a modern coat that offers style and/or helps show off your figure in wool, cashmere, or another warm material—even a thin down coat will work! A stand-up or shawl collar can be dramatic and a tie waist will help you look slimmer. When wearing a sweater or third piece, make sure it fits comfortably underneath. A wool or cashmere overcoat is traditional and, with the right fit, will always work. Coats give us a chance to showcase a bit of glamor. Choose a color and style that match your leadership aspirations. Black is assertive, grey is calming, camel is classic, and red shows flair—all are popular choices!

Wraps and Capes

Wraps and capes add drama. Both can be trimmed in fur and tossed over a third piece or top; both work well during transitional seasons. A wrap adds instant glamour. Choose a style versatile enough to be worn inside and out, or opt for a heavier one for outside use only. Capes are not just for superheroes anymore. They ease in and out of style through the years, so don’t toss yours. Pair either of these fashionable pieces of outerwear with elbow-length gloves to stay warm, then walk the streets in style.

Workplace Dressing Dos and Don’ts

Attire

Do inspect your clothes for evidence of wear and tear: underarm stains; torn clothes, tights, or pantyhose; and worn tips and soles on shoes are not professional.

Don’t look sloppy and careless in wrinkled or tight clothing. Invest in a steamer or frequent the local dry cleaner to avoid a rumpled, tired appearance. Ensure that undergarments are never visible and hemlines are the proper length.

Trends

Do keep your look sophisticated and stylish. Invest in wardrobe staples and don’t indulge in too many trends at once.

Don’t display wardrobe distractions like exposed bra straps, backless shirts, and miniskirts. When in doubt, keep your jacket or cardigan on in the office. The office runway should not be confused with a fashion show.

Accessories

Do accessorize confidently. Pearls, simple studs, and understated jewelry will let your work do the talking. Limit statement jewelry to one piece per outfit.

Don’t wear flashy, noisy, oversized jewelry—set those aside for happy hour, not the office.

Footwear

Do wear bare legs—they are perfectly acceptable (if in accordance with your dress code) when you’re sporting a knee-length hem and a well-moisturized leg.

Don’t wear flip-flops in the summer, clunky boots in the winter, or change shoes at your desk—people will notice.

Grooming

Do look fresh and crisp: wear a touch of makeup, add hair product if necessary, and finish with lipstick or gloss for a flawless look. Remember, though, at the office less is more.

Don’t make grooming mistakes: pay attention to chipped nail polish and chapped lips. Both are easily remedied.

Parting Thoughts

Don’t suppress your instinct to check out the way other women dress. Look at the style leaders in your community and see if their image is a tool that helps them climb the ladder of success. Are they dressing for their body type and age? Do they know how to accentuate (and camouflage) the appropriate places? Building a stylish professional wardrobe is less about how much you have and more about having the right stuff!

Leave a Comment