Work attire for professional women can be a tricky subject. It is often an overlooked aspect of many professional women’s working life, yet it’s an essential part of who we are. Our work uniform defines our public image to the world and gives out a clear image about who we are. It’s how we represent ourselves to our colleagues, clients and customers and how they in turn judge us, whether we like it or not. What you wear in a professional setting can show what kind of work you do, your position in your company, how seriously you take your work, your career ambitions and what kind of woman you are.
Matthew Randall, Executive Director of the Centre of Professional Excellence, said, “How an individual dresses for work can be a powerful extension of his personal brand. Clothes, accessories and even the footwear an employee chooses to wear help to reinforce or diminish his skills and qualities in the eyes of his employer, co-workers and clients.”
I see many professional women, particularly those working in male dominated careers such as Politics, IT, finance, law, consulting, engineering and accounting struggle to dress for work as they try to toe the line between their self-expression and the conservatism of their workplace. For many, the compromise has been to strip all femininity from their work wardrobe and try to emulate male colleagues by dressing in boxy, often shapeless suits that screams, judge me by my achievements, not by my sexuality. Likewise, putting too much of your sexuality on display can have a detrimental effect.
Business attire has changed significantly over the last 20 years and although employers have become more relaxed about dress codes, this only really applies to more creative industries. In most conservative work environments, women are still expected to dress formally. However, many designers and fashion insiders agree that executive women continue to make an array of mistakes with their work attire. They simply don’t know how to dress appropriately for business meetings, work dinners, formal galas and day to day in the office.
When it comes to common workwear faux-pas, the list is long. Here are the most common mistakes women make when dressing for a conservative work environment and how to avoid them.
Not catering to your audience
It’s important to think about who your audience is and what they expect from you. If you work in a corporate environment, your workwear has to convey professionalism. Therefore, employees are still expected to wear suits. This can be a trouser suit, a skirt suit or a dress and blazer. You don’t have to be super strict with matching jackets and bottoms but it does need to look coordinated. Bear in mind that mix and match pieces create the illusion of a bigger wardrobe. Neutral colours are also the norm.
Sticking with One Designer/Store
We have all been there. We have a designer or store we love and stick with season after season. The disadvantage is that you end up buying the same styles which not only means a wardrobe full of similar pieces but you could end up looking dated. It’s important to keep your look up to date by shopping at different stores. Invest in great basics to form your capsule wardrobe and elevate your workwear with accessories. For example, one great neutral coloured suit can be mixed and matched with different blouses and accessories, such as shoes, bags and scarves to create different looks.
You can spend a lot of money on a piece of clothing but if the fit is not right, it can cheapen the outfit. It goes without saying that clothes that are too short or tight can give the wrong message in a corporate environment. Similarly, clothes that are too big or ill-fitted can look sloppy and unkempt. Pay attention to hemlines as it makes a huge difference. Skirts and dresses should never be more than 2 inches above the knees. It’s best to go for a contemporary cut and find a good tailor who can amend your clothes to get the perfect fit.
Dressing too trendy
Whilst individualism and creativity is expected in fields such as fashion and media, a conservative office may not be the best place to make bold fashion statements. That doesn’t mean you have to wear only neutral colours and opt for bland. You can express your personal style with prints, colours and fabrics and colour is a great way to update your wardrobe. Pops of colour and prints in blouses and scarves are a great way to incorporate seasonal trends into your work wardrobe even if when you are wearing a dark suit. Natural is best when it comes to grooming so be mindful when it comes to your choices of make-up, hair- styles and nail vanish. Avoid bright colours or unusual designs. Jewellery should be simple and modest.
Confusing casualwear for workwear
Employers have become more relaxed about work attire in recent years and ‘Business casual’ or ‘Casual Friday’ has become the norm in many workplaces. The problem is, however, a lot of women simply don’t know what business casual means. Firstly, it is not to be confused for weekend dressing or leisurewear. This means no t-shirts, yoga trousers, jeans or hoodies. You still have to look immaculate in the office even if you are not wearing a suit. Options include wrap dresses which flatters most body types, blouses with your suit trousers or skirts and shift dresses worn with a cardigan. If you have casual Friday and want to wear jeans, make sure they are flattering, tailored and in a dark colour. Wear with a blazer to smarten the look and heels to create length in the legs.
About the Author:
Esohe Ebohon is the Founder of Stylierge, a personal styling and shopping service based in London. With a background in luxury retail and editorial styling for fashion magazines, she has worked in the fashion industry for over 15 years. She used her fashion knowledge and expertise to create Stylierge which specialises in helping busy, time-poor professionals create a purposeful functioning wardrobe that caters for their lifestyle needs.