What to Wear to Work to Look Stylish and Professional

Get Ready to Nail That Polished, Professional Outfit in a Snap

Olivia Palermo. Getty Images

As the old saying goes, "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have." Just don't forget that getting dressed for the office doesn't mean leaving your personal style at home. You can bring personality, character, and a sense of fashion to the office without compromising your professional polish. Ahead, read our best tips on what to wear to work if you want to look your best and feel like your stylish self at the same time.

The Polished Professional With Her Own Sense of Style

When getting dressed for work, your goal should be to project a professional and competent image through the way you put yourself together. Professional and polished doesn't have to mean boring and conservative, but depending on your office environment, you may want to stick to a few hard-and-fast rules.

The style, color, length, and fit of the pieces in your work wardrobe will speak volumes about your ability to do your job — without you having to say a word. It might not be fair, but remember that people form ideas about you based on what you wear, especially in the workplace. That's why it might seem silly, but taking your job and career seriously includes taking your clothes seriously, too.

In general, the more distracting a piece of clothing or jewelry is, the less appropriate it is for office wear.

Our Guidelines for Looking Your Best at Work

  • If a piece of clothing, a pair of shoes, or an accessory reads as distracting, you can wager that it's best left for weekend wear. Avoid jewelry that jangles and clinks on your desk or keyboard as you work.
  • Color plays a big part in professional image. Traditional career color indicators include red (aggressive), navy (trustworthy), gray (conservative), and black (chic, serious). Most of these colors work well in pantsuits, skirts and shoes, and mix well with softer feminine colors that are also traditionally appropriate for the office like ice blue, lilac, soft pink, and ivory.
  • Loud colors like hot pink or bright orange, as well as garish prints will also read as distracting (like loud jewelry) so be wary of your office's vibe. Some workplaces might welcome and encourage personal expression through color and print, while some (like law firms) may pride themselves on a more subdued energy.
  • Slouchy handbags look sloppy and are usually not the best option for the workweek. Look for structured styles like top-handle bags, satchels, and structured totes that project a more organized and sleek image. (Even if the inside is a little messy!)
  • Most of what constitutes a "polished"image is in the details! Think about your beauty routine as well as your outfit. This may include having consistently manicured nails (or consistently buffed, polish-free nails that are trimmed and neat), tights without runs, scuff-free shoes, and neat, brushed hair.
  • Fit is everything when you are talking about tailored, sophisticated work clothes. Pants should be fitted and free of visible panty lines. Skirts, especially straight styles like pencil skirts, should be loose enough to sit down in comfortably. Jackets should be able to be buttoned comfortably and blouses shouldn't gap between buttonholes.
  • Designer labels are great (if you can afford them), but logo-heavy clothing and accessories look cluttered and frivolous in the work place. Choose well-made items that are free from obvious designer labels for the most professional and timeless look.

Dress Like Your (Female) Bosses

Don't know where to start working on your career image? You're not alone! Most companies don't have specific guidelines about what to wear to work, and leave the guesswork up to you.

One of the best clues to company dress codes is what your boss wears. Take note of the styles that the highest-ranking women in your organization wear and see how you can incorporate them into your wardrobe. Does she wear mostly skirt suits or mixed separates? Does she love shift dresses and simple pumps, or does she rely on ultra-conservative pantsuits? Try and notice as many small details as possible — down to her hoes or tights, the shoes she wears (heels? flats? open-toe?).

If you don't have a reliable female executive to emulate, then trade on what the men are wearing (or ask a female friend at a similar company for help). If they don suits and ties every day, your best bet is to use pantsuits and skirt-suits as your foundation: the most formal of business looks.

Some organizations encourage employees to dress as well or better than their customers, especially for sales people and others that meet clients outside the office. For information technology professionals, this may mean corporate casual (more on this below), for pharmaceutical sales it may mean a pantsuit, for a lawyer it may mean a matched skirt suit. One way to always be prepared is to keep an extra "meet the client" outfit at the office for surprise meetings.

Career Killers

Unlike a fashion faux pas, a career killer outfit can do your professional image permanent damage. (Never forget that people talk, especially across companies within the same industry.)

In the workplace you should (almost) always avoid sheer and see-through looks like lace and too-thin silk, as well as ultra-short mini skirts, camisoles without a jacket or sweater, and denim with rips and holes. Depending on your office, jeans may be too casual altogether — same goes for t-shirts, hats, and sneakers.

Remember that the details matter, especially when you're dealing with clients or superiors in the office. Wrinkles, baggy fits and stains, as well as unkept nails, messy, dirty hair and over-the-top makeup will always be noticed.

Tips on Business Dress Codes

  • Formal business attire: For women this constitutes business suits (a matched skirt and jacket) and in most workplaces, pantsuits (matched pants and blazer) as well. Closed-toe shoes (no sandals) are a must. Simple, nice blouses and hose as well as conservative hair, jewelry and makeup choices are expected.
  • Corporate casual looks: Working women have interpreted this to mean everything from shorts to sundresses, but in its most literal sense it means "smart business." Dressy pants and a blouse, sleek jersey knits and skirts and tops are all examples of corporate casual. Denim, T-shirts and flip-flops are only acceptable in the most casual of work environments.
  • Casual Friday: Depending on the business, this can mean anything from corporate casual instead of formal looks, or "Wear your company logo polo and jeans." If in doubt, ask a superior.

How to Add Style to Your Professional Wardrobe

Nowadays, the old rules of office dress don't apply in many work environments. The start up craze has ushered in a whole new age of casual dress at the office, allowing creative types, designers, and entrepreneurs to express themselves through their wardrobes as well as their portfolio.

Be sure to take stock of your company's culture and office vibe before making your own bold fashion choices. What were people wearing during your interview? What does the CEO wear on a typical day?

The easiest way to infuse some of your personal taste into an office dress code is with texture and color. Don't be afraid to wear a printed blouse with a lace pencil skirt, or a pair of pinstripe wide-leg trousers with an embellished crewneck cashmere sweater. Wear a turtleneck underneath your favorite sheath dress. Pretty and interesting jewelry is also a great way to infuse your corporate wardrobe with a bit of personal flare — try a pair of dangling earrings with a classic white blouse, or a statement necklace worn over your favorite sweater.

The most important thing to remember is that your job is just that — a job! You are in your office each day to do work, which means being professional and focused. If your outfit takes up more energy and attention than your work — it's time to rethink your wardrobe.

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