How Are Women Supposed To Dress For Work?

A roundtable discussion on what women wear to the office.

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

What’s everyone wearing today?

Shani Hilton, deputy editor-in-chief, BuzzFeed: I’m wearing a tank top and a maxi skirt, but I’m lying on my couch because I have the worst cold.

Aminatou Sow, digital strategist in the Bay Area: I am wearing a denim muumuu, basically.

Julie Gerstein, style editor, BuzzFeed: I’m wearing what in most offices would probably consider a not work-appropriate dress because it is mostly backless, but it is 85 degrees out.

Katie Notopoulos, senior editor, BuzzFeed: I’m wearing a vintage floral dress.

Doree Shafrir, executive editor, BuzzFeed: I’m wearing skinny black jeans and an ivory silk shirt.

Sapna Maheshwari, business reporter, BuzzFeed: I’m wearing a sleeveless silk collared shirt and J. Crew black cropped pants. A little on the casual side of business casual but still work approp!

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

How has your work style changed since you first began your career?

JG: When I first started my career I was working in nonprofits, in a rather casual atmosphere of mostly all women. When I graduated from college, my mom took me to Bennetton to buy my one “interview suit,” and I think I wore it once. I didn’t have much guidance about how to dress. I am embarrassed to say this, but I was much thinner then, and I never wore a bra. I just never did. I should have. My co-workers must have been mortified, but they were very kind and didn’t say anything to me about it.

I have been lucky, because throughout my career, there’s been a lot of synergy between my in-office looks and my out-of-office looks. But I think that there have been times when that’s worked against me.

AS: I started my career in a Washington, D.C., think tank and I definitely stood out because A.) I didn’t own any Ann Taylor and B.) I wore as much vintage as possible. If I *had* to wear a suit for work, it was almost always vintage and a ridiculous pattern. If it had to be conservative it was almost always J. Crew.

I now work at a tech company and there is no real expected dress code. I basically promised myself that I would never work at a job where I needed “work clothes.”

SM: I dressed a lot more conservatively when I was just starting out. There were a lot of important visitors at Bloomberg News every day: major executives, financiers, world leaders, and it was important to look professional. There wasn’t any sort of strict dress code, but I wore a lot of outfits that didn’t cross over well as far as looking cute at happy hour later in the day — very standard pencil skirts, unflattering button-downs, basic flats and so on. I recently encountered a horrendous plaid wool skirt from those days in my closet and shuddered. Since then, I’d say my work style has gotten more creative and fun. More statement jewelry, brighter colors, tailored garments. Also, I didn’t even discover wedges until last year which is insane and has changed my life as far as wearing heels.

KN: I think the saddest thing about how my style has changed is that at one point I used to have a big difference between “office clothes” and “fun clothes.” Things were either for the office or they were for fun. Now everything I buy I think about if I can wear to work, so now I just have all office clothes. How boring. BuzzFeed is a more casual office than I’m used to, and my work style is still a little more conservative I think on the spectrum.

DS: My work style has changed partly because I’ve gotten more responsibility in my roles at work and also because workplaces have had subtle yet significant differences in what was expected. When I worked at Gawker I usually worked from home and there were days when I didn’t get out of my pajamas, and I realized I didn’t like that. When I worked at Rolling Stone I realized that I was subconsciously conforming to the style of the dudes (and it was mostly dudes) who worked there: plaid shirts, jeans, boots. Boring! But when I started at BuzzFeed I suddenly became very aware of being a manager/boss and for a while was sort of stumped with regards to how to dress. I’ve since settled on a usually pretty standard uniform of silk shirt, skinny jeans, and ankle boots or Nike wedge high-tops in the winter, nice sandals in the summer/warmer temps. Since I live in L.A. it’s more often sandals.

SH: I probably had the most “work-appropriate” wardrobe when I was in college. I went to a historically black college (the best one, Howard) where it was normal, if not expected for women to attend class fully dressed/made up. Attending 8 a.m. classes in sweatpants was not acceptable. Men also dressed really well — though that’s not to say some people weren’t casual, but I was influenced by my cohort, and we dressed up. I also worked at a Banana Republic, so I had a huge discount on new and sale clothes, so by the time I graduated, a typical outfit was dress pants or skirt and a button-down, heels, and maybe a sweater or trench coat on top. I think I took to it because I’m from the West Coast where the uniform was flip-flops and jeans and a hoodie — and it was fun to be fancy. And then I went to work at a university PR shop as a graphic designer (and then social media guru) where no one really dressed up AND I had real bills to pay on a small salary so there went my nice clothes.

AS: OMG Shani, the whole dressed/up made up thing was such a huge culture shock for me when I moved to D.C. My goal every day is to be ready in under 20 minutes and yes, that includes a shower. I didn’t even know what eyeliner was until someone pulled me aside and told me I would look “more professional” if I wore makeup ::side-eye:: It made me feel kinda insecure and I realized that women police other women’s looks so much harsher sometimes.

AS: I think there is a gentle [kind?] way to tell someone they can look better at work. Like, I had to tell an intern that was always wearing lingerie that she COULD NOT WEAR A CHEMISE AS A DRESS AND THROW A BLAZER ON IT! But not wearing makeup? Come on! Or maybe I’m just sensitive because it happened to me. It’s a very tough conversation to have.

SH: It’s funny, I feel like makeup makes me look more professional and “finished.” But I wouldn’t tell another woman she had to wear it.

DS: Shani, I feel the same way and ALSO I think the “no makeup” thing is tyrannical and shame-y.

SH: If only people knew the amount of makeup it takes to achieve the “no makeup” look.

JG: Policing other people’s workwear is a tough thing, yes. Because there’s inappropriate in life, which is like, OK, you do you. But then there’s inappropriate in the workplace, when it’s like distracting to the ability of others to do their jobs, or in some ways denigrates the workplace. But not wearing makeup? HELL NO. Keep your mouth shut.

SM: Aminatou, how did you tell the intern that? Curious because I feel like it would be difficult to communicate that someone was dressing inappropriately — I don’t know how I would do it!

AS: To this day I consider it in the top five most awkward conversations I’ve had to have, but I want to give this lady credit. She was so open to hearing it that it helped. I basically took her out to drinks, under the guise of mentorship/”I want you to do so well here” real talk. We worked at a fairly conservative place and the idea was that to move up you kind of had to fit in so my advice to her was, “Look to your boss and dress a step above her.” Sometimes the way you dress very much has to do with office politics and when you’re fresh out of college no one explains that stuff to you.

DS: This has come up a couple times where I’ve had to have conversations with people about their wardrobe and it is never not awkward, especially at a place like this where we don’t have an official dress code. It also made me feel old! I guess not in a terrible way, but still. But I also had to remember that we hire a lot of people who have never worked in an office before and actually don’t know what’s appropriate, and it’s in fact us doing them a favor to tell them, Hey, cool it on the crop tops and hot pants.

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

What would be the ideal interview outfit you’d recommend to a young woman for a job in media/journalism or a non-suity industry?

AS: I’m at the point now where I will just call the office and ASK! If they say casual or biz caj then I know what is!

DS: OMG, Aminatou, that is genius.

AS: People are always so happy to tell you that stuff! Especially bomb-ass receptionists who are glad you took initiative!

JG: I feel like a dude in jeans and a blazer can apply to a lot of situations in a way that women’s wear cannot. And that’s annoying.

DS: Agree. But that gets into the bigger issue of creative casual below… I do judge people on what they wear in interviews, but not on their style exactly — more like, did they make an effort to appear presentable and professional? That doesn’t mean dressing in a certain style either.

KN: Until BuzzFeed, I have always worn a proper suit for an interview, because that is just what you do in most industries. Journalism is weird because if you did wear a suit, it would be weirder! It’s like a catch-22, how are you supposed to know!?!?

AS: SHIRT CUT! No. 1 fat-girl fashion dilemma. Honestly button-down shirts and my big boobs are a problem so when I had to dress conservatively, I would wear a suit dress or shell dress.

KN: Ugh the dreaded peekaboo button-down!

Where do you shop for office-appropriate clothes?

AS: I don’t have a real distinction between office and life clothes. If it’s not from a thrift store it’s usually from COS, Asos, Club Monaco, J. Crew, Barneys, and Target capsule collections. I have to give Zara a serious plug for profesh clothes.

JG: The issue I have with finding clothes is finding silhouettes that I feel comfortable in, that don’t make me feel as if I am dressing “too young,” while also respecting the boundaries of my body. I personally don’t like the way a pencil skirt feels on my body, but wearing a flouncy skater skirt feels increasingly like I’m dressing for prom, so what am I supposed to wear?

SM: The standard places: Club Monaco (which has an outlet location now in CT!), Banana Republic and J. Crew. I’ll pick up dresses that I can dress up with a blazer or cardigan at boutiques around New York — Pinky Otto has some solid ones. I’ve also gotten some nice silk shirts at Everlane, which is online only.

DS: My wardrobe has been really Madewell-heavy lately. They used to be a little too collegiate but they are now a great place to get cute, not super expensive, stylish, nice clothes that look grown-up but not dowdy. Right now I am wearing black Madewell skinny jeans, Madewell shoes, and a shirt I got at the Barneys outlet. I also shop at J. Crew for work stuff. Outlets can be overwhelming but I’ve gotten some great silk shirts at places like Last Call (the Neiman Marcus outlet) and Off Fifth (the Saks outlet), by designers like DVF, Equipment, Vince, and Joie. Oh and also Uniqlo occasionally has good basics.

SH: I actually find Old Navy really great for basics — they’re doing a lot of the stuff (granted at a lower quality) that J. Crew was doing five years ago: Great oxfords, drapey blouses; and their office stuff is much better than it used to be. Marshalls can also be good if you have the patience. And I waffle between straight and plus sizes so I also do ASOS, H&M, and ModCloth (though ModCloth can be a little costume-y). Forever 21 has pieces that can be incorporated into an outfit, but you can’t wear Forever 21 from head to toe.

KN: I disagree with people who say you can’t still shop at Forever 21. I don’t mind it. I have lots of great stuff I get at Strawberry, Rainbow (which is like shittier Strawberry), F21, and H&M. I think that stuff is fine, and anyone who says different can kiss my ass because I look fly as heck.

JG: I literally cannot shop at Forever 21 because the atmosphere is migraine-inducing.

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

I think fashion and personal style can be very feminist, but in the workplace there’s a whole different set of factors in play. Do you feel like there’s times when workplace clothes are so much harder for women?

JG: I think you could look at it both ways — I feel that men are sometimes totally confined by the constructs placed on typical male fashion. I was just talking today with a male colleague about how he wished there was an “Eileen Fisher for Men” (LOL) but on the flip side, I think we as women but a lot more emphasis on the way that we look, our external selves, and our personal style as an outlet, which means that our personal identities get a lot more wrapped up in how we dress and what we look like. Which can be a terrible, terrible thing.

SH: My boss wears jeans, a pink or purple button-down, and a blazer every single day. Sometimes I feel really jealous of that; but I like to play around with clothes and I don’t know if I could find that creatively satisfying.

DS: I feel like it’s easier for guys to get away with having “no” style. Like they can just be like, whatever. And sort of take pride in the fact that they don’t care about it. And it’s like, well, that’s annoying.

SM: Absolutely! I think it’s way easier for guys and I’m insanely jealous of that. I think workplace clothes can be harder for women in certain situations. Like if a guy has a huge meeting, he knows he can wear a suit. And fine, buying a suit looks a little stressful, but that’s a manageable task. It’s way harder as a woman to decide what to wear for that same situation. Do you look “nice enough” in slacks and a blouse and heels? Should you go for a dress? What kind of dress? What materials? Some of that uncertainty can be frustrating.

AS: We have more choice! But that’s why I make such a concerted effort to edit my wardrobe. Every new trend or fashion thing doesn’t have to be a thing I do. I think it really helps with getting an idea of what looks good on you and what you feel the most comfortable in.

KN: What’s frustrating to me about workplace clothes for women is that there’s a lot of judgement about it — some of the stuff we talked about earlier. If we all love fashion because it’s a way of self-expression and making your own identity, then office fashion kind of fucks with that. If you dress a certain way, people will make the wrong judgements about your work. I think this make it so much harder for women than for men.

DS: This gets at the heart of my struggle over talking to young women about their office attire. There’s an element of it that feels anti-feminist to be telling a young woman what she can and can’t wear, especially when the complaints originate with men. It’s like, I’m sorry you can’t stop staring at this woman but maybe you should check yourself. On the other other hand, it made me stop and think about what IS “professional” and why we have workplace dress standards in the first place.

Although BuzzFeed is more casual than most offices, there are a lot of workplaces that have this awkward middle ground, kind of “creative casual.” This is really tricky for women — what do you wear?

AS: I think ultimately it depends who you have to meet with on a daily basis. If you have to be client-facing or meet with executives, it’s probably a good idea to take a cue from your boss or the people you’re meeting with.

SH: This is how I’m starting to think about it in a more serious way. It was one thing to be a schlubby reporter who threw on some jeans and a T-shirt to go cover a taxicab commission hearing. Now I’m beginning to face outward as a representative of my organization — I’m doing more public speaking and panels, and while I don’t want to be boring (because I’m not boring and BuzzFeed isn’t boring) I also want to look put together. So right now, my uniform for doing something in public is skinny jeans, a blouse, and a blazer, and a pair of flats. Maybe with a necklace. But I’m still figuring it out.

JG: I think also when you don’t want to think about what you’re wearing, makeup can make you feel a bit less boring/more fun. That’s what I do. When I’m wearing boyfriend jeans for the tenth day in a row, I wear some crazy dark lipstick that feels really special and fun. I also DO feel like a LITTLE BIT of a mandate as the style editor to go for it more because I have to rep.

DS: This is tricky. I want to look fashionable, put together, professional, and a little bit cool. It’s not always easy to figure out what that means. And what I’ve come to think of as my “uniform” can sometimes feel boring. I’ve mixed it up a bit lately with a couple of JUMPSUITS.

SM: I dress similarly to how I did at Bloomberg — which is business casual (maybe a little bit looser from there). I’ll wear jeans and dress down if I don’t have any meetings, but honestly, I don’t have enough casual clothes to wear them every day. It makes a really big difference when you’re meeting with sources and executives as far as getting them to take you seriously, especially since business coverage is still young at BuzzFeed. They’re kind of used to seeing reporters in jeans and button-downs, so when you make an effort, it gets a positive reception.

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

How do you accessorize? Bags and shoes can be hard to figure out!

KN: I wear pumps a lot, because they’re fairly comfortable, but it sucks when you have to wear heels all day, from when you leave the house to later at night. A few weeks ago I went out for drinks after work with some co-workers, and all the men wanted to walk there (it was a mile away) and I was miserable because my shoes weren’t good for walking.

AS: True story, I have been shopping for a work bag for almost three years now because I can’t find anything I like. I basically rotate totes until they’re ruined, and it’s my biggest fashion shame. I did come across a very functional and cute leather tote from Madewell so I think I’ll just buy it. For shoes, I almost always wear flats.

DS: This has changed a bit recently because I got a standing desk at work, so heels are harder to wear. I invest more in wintery shoes than summer ones, so I’ll buy like a really nice pair of black ankle boots every two years probably and just wear them to death. I like Isabel Marant and Acne for boots. For a while I was into Rachel Comey shoes until I realized they didn’t fit me that well and I was always getting blisters. I have a pair of Loeffler Randall heels that aren’t that high (I think like 2.5 inches?) that I can wear to events and not feel like my feet are going to fall off.

JG: Because I am only 5 feet tall, I wear heels ALL OF THE TIME. That’s important to make me feel like a professional lady person.

SH: I only recently started experimenting with heels again — haven’t worn them in years, but since moving to NYC a year and a half ago, I’ve found that a low stacked heel offers way more support for walking around than ballet flats do. I recently bought a Herschel backpack that has completely changed my life. I used to carry a tote bag, which was heavy and uncomfortable on one shoulder and always required me to use a hand to tug it back up. Now my hands are completely free and the weight is distributed and I feel much more relaxed walking around NYC and taking the train. Also, my mother has osteoporosis which is worse in the shoulder where she carried a heavy bag during her commute for years and years. And my backpack fits a bottle of wine and groceries for my inevitable stops on the way home. But I need a smallish, professional purse or tote that I can take to speaking engagements — I still feel like a geek with a backpack if I’m somewhere nice.

Who do you look to for style inspiration? What do you do when you don’t have a woman above you to give advice or even just look at?

DS: I feel like I get inspiration from women I see on the street and sometimes my friends. Oh, and Instagram. I’ve definitely tracked down items of clothing or accessories that I’ve seen women wearing.

AS: Do people still read fashion blogs or did we lose that with the demise of Google Reader? Like Doree, I have some fashionable friends and get inspired by them. Right now though I’m taking serious fashion cues from A++ dudes in my life, Eric Uhlir and Ryan Simons. They always look fresh to death and effortlessly put together.

SH: The rule is that you dress for the job you want, but when a woman isn’t in that job, it can be harder. Or maybe there’s only a few older women, who are still bound by more traditional work clothing. I get inspiration from Tumblr, actually, and many of my women friends have really strong personal style, so I might go with what they’re wearing. But at heart, I just want to wear really classic, East Coast preppy stuff or return to my roots and jeans and flip-flops.

JG: My style inspiration changes a lot. Lately, it’s been Jenna Lyons-ish kind of, even though she’s probably like a foot and a half taller than me. I waver between super cool downtown girl style and preppy girl style, and my wardrobe is half goth at the mall, half country club, and completely schizophrenic and weird.

What advice do you have for other women who are struggling with what to wear in the office?

KN: I think, at the end of the day, you can’t go wrong if you’re overdressed/more professionally dressed.

SM: Strong agree. Also, have a solid black dress you love for warm weather and another for cold weather. When you feel good in what you’re wearing, it comes across at work, I think.

SH: If you feel uncomfortable and distracted in something you’re wearing, you’re not going to perform well.

Yes, Shani. Yes to that!!

JG: Ultimately remember that you’re there to do work, and your work clothes should facilitate that.

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