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Office Dress Codes – Define your formality, not your style

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Don’t Let Your Office Dress Code Dictate Your Style

Let’s talk about appropriate ways to interpret office dress codes. It is so valuable in the style and dress code game to show your personality. It can sound quite boring to talk about dress code with all of its inherent rules and restrictions. But sometimes those limits can help to create very inspired outfits that allow your personality to shine.

Navigating through dress code territory can be like attending a holiday dinner with your spouse’s estranged, extended, blended family, while dragging your own relatives along. Dress code as a phrase can strike fear in the hearts of anyone. But it doesn’t have to be that way. While “dress code” has conformist overtones, it certainly doesn’t need to dictate your style. Dress code simply defines the level of formality required by your office environment.

We typically refer to the traditionally-defined work dress codes by men’s attire. If suits are the norm for the men in your office environment, does that mean you need to suit up, too? When the males in your office wear a shirt and tie, what does that mean for us women? What do you wear when your male counterparts wear khakis and button-ups?

You can still bring your own style to your work outfit, whether your dress code is suit, shirt-and-tie or khakis-and-button-up. If you are a rocker at heart, wear your corporate suit with the leather lapels and zippered pocket details. When your style runs more classic, ankle pants and pearls à la Audrey Hepburn are appropriate in a shirt-and-tie office. If you like a bohemian aesthetic, wear your flared dark denim jeans with a tucked-in peasant top at your khakis-and-button-up workplace.

Basics for Every Professional Dress Code

When dressing for any professional work environment, there are some professional standards that apply to almost everyone. You already know to keep things work-focused by limiting the amount of cleavage you show on a work day, and you know about hemlines as well. Most often, skirts should extend below your fingertips when your arms are by your side. Skirts get shorter when you sit, and showing your upper thigh is revealing too much. No tatters or intentional rips. Keep a tight lid on any jingly or bangly accessories. You express your professionalism best when your clothes are clean, un-crumpled, and not worn-out. Also, avoid anything that hints at lingerie. Too lacey or too satiny or too fishnet-y or too slip-like won’t cut it. It is likely relevant in this type of environment to keep shoulders covered, whether in a piece with sleeves or by adding a topper. Be careful with sheer tops. You never want your customers, clients or colleagues wondering if you are actually wearing anything under your top. For this reason, I avoid wearing a camisole that is a nude-for-me colour.

Notice how the dress code is interpreted within your office. It’s valuable not to be too dressed up in comparison with your coworkers. You can look oddly unprofessional in a khakis-and-button down environment if you are wearing your best suit.

It’s important to point out that none of these dress codes require you to wear heels. Flats are certainly appropriate with suits, pants and skirts. No HR department should ever insist you wear heels.


In an office environment where formal dress is required, it is important for you to “follow suit”. This is the most dressed up of the office dress codes. By no means do you need to wear the matching, sold-together garments that make up a suit, on a daily basis. Wear your suit some days, but other days wear suiting separates. Mix-and-match your suit pieces. Wearing a suit jacket or blazer with your pants or skirts is important, but you can certainly mix in an interesting completer piece that fits with your style direction. Your topper may be a shrunken, collarless tweedy jacket or an oversized, longline boyfriend blazer. Versatile separates will maintain the formality of the dress code, while injecting a good dose of personal style.

A woman in purple skirt and black jacket holding purse.

Shirt and Tie:

This may be the most common professional-environment dress code. This is the playing field I have existed in for the bulk of my working years. A simple ground rule to keep in mind…no jeans. Five-pocket basics don’t cut it, in any colour. Even if you wear a tie with your jeans, this does not elevate them to the level of a shirt and tie. I always keep in mind, if I can refer to this outfit as “my shirt and tieâ€, then it is appropriate in the shirt-and-tie environment.

At work (and outside of work), a completer piece makes a big difference to looking like you are dressed in a full outfit rather than looking like you are wearing just part of an outfit. You look intentionally dressed, rather than like you just threw on some clothes. Many of us often need the versatility of that third piece. Office air conditioning can be too cold in the summer and the heating indoors can be too warm in the winter.

Some pieces that work well for your shirt-and-tie workwear wardrobe:

  • work-appropriate dresses (i.e., not too short or cleavage-bareing)
  • any top that is considered a blouse (untucked is just fine)
  • dress pants or skirts (maxi skirts fall into casual, non-work territory)
  • cardigans
  • blazers
  • thin, quality sweaters
  • button up shirts

A woman in blue shirt and pants holding purse.

Khakis and button-up:

This is a work space in which you can likely get away with wearing very dressy denim (unless your HR department has a strict no-denim policy), for instance, trouser jeans, coloured or black denim. Basically, only your dressiest jeans should be considered here (no rips or whiskering). You might find that your skinny jeans or leggings work for work if paired with a tunic top or long sweater. Always ensure that your crotch-point is covered when wearing leggings. A dressier iteration of a Tshirt can work well if you’ve got that third or completer piece to wear with it.

A woman in black pants and striped shirt holding a purse.

The Joy of Style

Dee and I look forward to helping you revise and remix your work wardrobe to fit with your office dress code. Let us help you cultivate your style. Contact us to schedule a visit to your closet.

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  • Melissa Maltais
    December 6, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    This is great Mara! I’m always struggling to mix and match my office style, these are great tips!

    • Mara Arnold
      December 9, 2016 at 8:54 pm

      I am happy to hear that you enjoyed my office wear tips. I’ll bet you bring fabulous style to your office!
      Love, Mara

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