Professional dressing in your twenties is tricky. In school, my cohort was a homogeneous group of female 20 somethings with a shared passion for sock buns and Forever 21. On presentation days, we would throw on our blazers and knockoff J Crew Bubble Necklaces (you remember the one) and strut into class in a pair of sensible nude heels. I never second guessed what I was wearing because everyone else was wearing the same thing. A similar story applied to my internship experiences...I would just wear what all the other interns wore (mostly Gap).
But then I got a new job, with a much more formal culture and totally different set of expectations. It was then that I learned that architecture is a boy's club. Currently, I work in an office with 55 people, 12 of which are female, and 2 of which are under 30 (not including myself), each with a very different personal style. Not a lot of precedence to draw from. Also, half of the men in my office wear business attire, and the other half wear jeans and plaid shirts. Where do I fit?
There is no shortage of advice on the internet about what women should wear to work. One quick browse on Pinterest or Google will yield a lot of articles on "12 Pieces Every Women Should Own" or photos of tall, skinny women in form fitting suits and 6" heels. The patron saint of power dressing, Victoria Beckham, is a perfect example of this. She is stylish, sexy, and looks like a boss.
But what if "power dressing isn't for you? What if your goal isn't to look sexy in the office? What if you are an average sized girl in your twenties who wants to feel professional, but doesn't want to look like she's pretending to be a forty-something fashion business woman? Where is the in between?
I wanted to write this post because when I started my first job, I really struggled to find balance between what the internet told me I should wear, and what I felt comfortable in. There are a lot of great blogs about redefining your style, and this post will only grace the surface. In order to truly figure out what worked for me in the office, I had to strip away all of the "shoulds" and be realistic about what I feel best in and what works for my lifestyle. This post isn't definitive, but it's a start.
Step One: Set Parameters
Mute the chatter from your favorite blogs, and forget all the articles you have read. Take a hard look at your life, your look, and your clothes. Are there some clothes that just don't look right no matter how hard you try? Are there clothes that don't work with your lifestyle? Are there clothes that just aren't "You"? Write them all down and let these be your parameters. Here are mine:
1. I hate skirts. Skirts and I are just not friends, be it an a - line, pencil, midi, or maxi. Don't even get me started on mini's. They all look terrible and I find them to be wildly uncomfortable. The length never flatters my short legs, they make my knees look stubby, and they are uncomfortable to sit in. I recognize that skirts are a staple in most professional wardrobes, but I have learned through a lot of trial and error that for me, they just don't work.
2. I move around a lot. The life of an interior designer consists of moving tile samples, laying out carpet tile mock ups, and pinning up 70 page documents before a project team review. I never know when I'm going to have to climb on a ladder or shift a bunch of materials around. It only took one attempt to move a stack of 12 x 24 porcelain tiles from the materials library to a project room in a dress and heels before I learned that neither are really an option for me. My outfit needs to be able to withstand a bit of activity and not hinder my ability to climb a ladder, bend over, or move furniture around.
3. Crisp, starchy white button downs look really stuffy on me. I don't know what it is, but whenever I feel inspired to try one on, I look in the mirror and wince. This article of clothing is featured in every "5 Items Every Woman Should Have" list and I have tried it so many times, but it just doesn't.
4. I'm cold 100% of the time. I don't know how anyone could wear a short sleeve sheath (see above) in an office with air conditioning. Even in the peak of summer, I spend most of my day shivering at my desk wishing I had a blanket. I once read that men's temperature usually runs higher than women's and most offices set the thermostat accordingly...maybe that's why my office feels like a refrigerator?
5. I don't like drawing attention to myself. In general, clothes are not my primary mode of expression. I admire the people who wear bold prints or colorful florals, but that's not me. Again, I have spent years in denial trying to make that trend happen and it just doesn't. I feel most comfortable in understated, yet stylish clothing that doesn't draw too much attention. I would so much rather someone compliment me on a job well done instead of what I am wearing.
Step Two: Look for Inspiration (But Better This Time)
After you figure out what you don't like, figure out what you do like. Pinterest is an obvious help here, but don't look for inspiration the same way I used to. Instead of looking for outfits that fit me, I would think "This is what I have to look like" and try to fit the images. This type of thinking is what really mixed me up. If you aren't sure what is "you", try to think of the way you want the clothes to make you feel. To me, the perfect work outfit would make me feel confident, comfortable, and empowered. After a few attempts of refocused Pinteresting, I found some good references.
The three photos below are my favorite. To me, these women look young, professional, and comfortable. They could get down and dirty in the samples library one minute and walk into a client meeting the next, which is really the dream. These outfits are feminine without being too girly. Also, these women look professional, but age appropriate. The perfect mix.
Step Three: Figure Out Why It Works
After you figure out the big ideas and find inspiration, figure out what specific details make the inspiration "work". In the photos above, all the women are wearing pants and a blouse. The two on the right are wearing sweaters to keep warm, and I love the sneakers in the middle. Instead of a starchy button down, the woman on the left opted for an off white blouse, and the woman in the middle layered a third piece over top. All three kept to a black and white color palette and look incredibly sophisticated and chic. Make a list of all your findings and let it guide you in the next step.
Step Four: Find Actual Pieces
After sorting through your list of details, think about actual clothes that could help you achieve the look you are going for. Here is my example wardrobe:
- Sweater that can be worn over a collared shirt or worn alone. Something with a good fit, but is still comfy and will keep me warm and cozy.
- Some sort of a collared blouse that I can wear under layers or tuck into trousers. Something that is loose enough that I can move around in, but still flatters my figure. Not too boxy or stiff, and fully opaque so bra straps don't show in the back.
- Something to add color that feels as comfortable as a button down blouse.
- A few "third pieces" to layer over blouses. Something that fits in the shoulders and hits at the right point on my torso. Also another way to keep warm.
- Black ankle pants. I like the look of the flares in the photos above because they are worn with heels. I usually find that ankle pants look better with flats.
- Different types of flat shoes that look good, but feel incredibly comfortable. Bonus points if they keep my feel warm in the winter and I can wear them with socks.
Figuring out what to wear to work is a constant cycle of experimentation for me, but having a definitive list of parameters and clear vision helps. It also helps to give yourself permission to dismiss conventional wisdom that doesn't gel with your body type or personal preference. Maybe some day I will be really into power dressing, but right now I just want to look like me.