Monday, December 16, 2013

Women at work: what to wear?

Building a beautiful work wardrobe takes time to master. Following three basic style rules (color, texture, and balance) can help you to feel more comfortable at work and with yourself.

Sky-high heels, low-cut blouses, and miniskirts might be key components in many women's closets (though hopefully not worn all together), but these pieces would never see the light of day in an office setting. Unlike men, who have more clearly defined rules on what is or is not acceptable to wear for professional attire, women often have a balancing act to play when it comes to work wear.

What a woman might wear for a night out is often radically different than what she might wear to the office the next day. Femininity and fashion are sometimes sacrificed at the expense of professionalism. Furthermore, when you factor in issues like corporate culture and industry expectations, the style guidelines become even more blurred. A lawyer or teacher might not be able to get away with wearing the same styles that a graphic artist might wear, for instance.

I believe that professional wardrobes should be a compromise between personal style and   professional expectations. One should not be a substitute for the other. Many times, women (especially younger women) feel pressured to play it safe and wear clothes that are boring and do not truly express their own style or personality. This may happen for several reasons: in order to be taken seriously, to compensate for their youth or inexperience, to avoid harassment (worst of all), or simply because they haven't figured out that balance yet between their individuality and their professional look.

As a default, many women turn to work-wear staples that mirror the men's: suits, slacks, and button-up, collared shirts: essentially, the same clothes that a man would wear to work on a daily basis, minus the tie, and made in women's sizes. Although these clothes are certainly office appropriate, inwardly, they make my inner fashionista shudder. They just don't seem very feminine—especially the collared shirts. Furthermore, they are a pain to constantly iron, and they feel stiff and restricting.

Even when tailored for women, menswear (or menswear-inspired clothing) can simply make one feel very unfeminine. Androgynous, even. While it is necessary to have a collection of professional pieces to wear to work, it is important to never violate the all-important principal of being both practical and chic: if you don't love it, don't wear it! Don't even buy it! Save your money for clothes that you love and that make you look and feel gorgeous.

Fortunately, there are plenty of clothing items that are both beautiful and office-appropriate. And, even for office-attire staples, like a button up shirt in classic white, or a pair of go-to khaki pants, there are ways to incorporate these items into a work wardrobe in a way that can make you look and feel feminine and professional. (Yes, these can co-exist!)

After naively filling my closet with boring cotton, button-up collared shirts that I hated ironing and wearing, and which oddly resembled my dad’s and husband’s work wardrobes, I realized two important factors separate a woman’s closet from a man’s: color and texture. And, when wearing these items, a third rule comes into play: balance.
  1. Color. Even the modern man is beginning to appreciate color in workplace attire! Amidst the sea of black and gray suits, pink, green, and purple shirts with matching ties are showing up on our male colleagues. Yet, many younger women play it safe with whites, grays, blues (and possibly a pale pink), along with combinations of the aforementioned colors in various striped patterns. There is no need for this! Find colors that you love and that work with your complexion, and wear them proudly—even if it’s a bold choice.
  2. Texture. This has been my favorite thing to incorporate into my modern work wardrobe. I’ve banished 90% of my cotton button-ups, with a few exceptions for classic pieces (like a white collared blouse). Instead, I’ve begun incorporating silky, billowy, and soft blouses in silk and satin. These soft shirts make me feel so much prettier and more feminine, and they require no ironing! After machine washing them on the gentle cycle, I simply line-dry these shirts and hang them up, wrinkle-free.
  3. Balance. Always an important element in our day-to-day lives, balance is also true in fashion, both in the office and during a night out! This goes along with a great fashion tip that is often repeated in style magazines and television shows: play with perspective. For instance, a classic button-up looks tres chic with a pencil skirt and heels—it’s the right pairing of femininity with professionalism. In regard to perspective, the looser bulk of a button-up collared blouse (a traditionally more masculine piece), balances out the sleeker,  tighter silhouette of a pencil skirt. Together, this look is professional, feminine, and timeless. Yet pair that same shirt with khaki trousers and ballet flats, and it becomes very humdrum… (In fact, that was part of the accepted uniform for my college barista job at Starbucks!) The khakis and the white shirt have no color, and can look boring and/or androgynous. Altogether, the outfit may simply look bulky, even if tailored for a woman’s figure. Instead, masculine pieces like trousers would look much nicer when balanced out by a colorful blouse in a feminine cut or texture.
  4. Dresses. A final ace up the working woman’s sleeve, a great dress is a crucial element in every professional woman’s wardrobe. Dresses are certainly feminine, and can fit into an office environment quite nicely with the right accessories. Plus, they can save one the trouble of having to pick out both a blouse and pants. (Read more about the perks if a great dress here!)

Comfort is just as important on a physical, outward basis, as it is on a personal, inner level. If you feel awkward, ugly, or just generally self-conscious in what you’re wearing to work, then that is going to outwardly manifest in how you present yourself to your colleagues and to your boss. It is important to feel at ease with yourself (what the French call bien dans sa peau), both personally and professionally! Dressing so that you look both pretty and professional (remember: not mutually exclusive!) will make you feel more empowered and more like yourself, and that’s bound to manifest itself positively in your work.

Something that I've learned from personal experience:

When I graduated college and landed my first professional job working in a government office, I immediately stocked up on what I thought were the daily staples of a professional wardrobe: suits, slacks, and button-up, collared shirts. Essentially, men’s wear! Although these clothes were certainly office appropriate, I always kind of hated them. They just didn't feel like me—especially the collared shirts. I hated ironing them, and I hated how stiff they felt— like I couldn't move freely. Although I didn't realize it at the time (because I was too engrossed in learning all about the professional world and gaining experience), these clothes simply made me feel very ugly and unfeminine—the complete opposite of bien dans sa peau! But, I thought that was what was expected in workplace! Fortunately, I was mistaken. As I gained more experience and became more comfortable in my various work settings and with myself, I began to realize that I didn’t have to completely lose my personal style or identity in order to show up for work. To expect otherwise would just be cruel!

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