The ultimate goal for professional dress for women (of all levels - from casual -> business casual -> formal attire) is to look classy without looking trashy. Most modern clothing designers make this damn near impossible, as they seem to think all we women ever want to do is to pick up guys at bars.
What's worked for me is to buy a few nice, key articles of clothing that are robust and hold up to being washed frequently. If I find an article of clothing that fits exceptionally well and looks well-made, I sometimes will buy several. (Because you can bet anything if you go back in a few months it won't be there!). Sometimes you spend a little more to get something well made, but it (usually) lasts longer than something cheapy, so it's worth it.
I've interleaved a few tips about dressing down outfits, since a few of you asked.
There are a few clothing stores that I always manage to find something at, and if you manage to get sales you can often swing some wonderful deals. These stores include:
- Ann Taylor / Loft
- JC Penny
- *sometimes* : Banana Republic / Gap / NY&Company/H&M/Target. Sometimes clothing from these places falls apart after two washes, so it's not always worth it, but sometimes you get lucky and have a great find.
I like to buy lined pants, because they can make one look professional without looking trashy or dowdy. Typically my favorite place to find these have been Ann Taylor.
In general my rule of thumb for pants is if another person can tell when you're flexing your gluteus maximus, they're probably too tight for a professional context.
Sometimes you need to spend a bit of money to get pants altered. If the pants are well-made and will last you a few years, this is money well-spent. I have two pairs of pants I wear both as part of a suit and also solo for less dressy occasions. I paid more to have them altered than I did the pants, but they fit exceptionally well and look good, so it was worth it.
As I said, I'm all about low maintenance and comfortable, so most of the shirts I like to wear are made of fabrics that don't wrinkle, like lycra, and cotton knits. Chico sells some great, thick lycra shirts that are nice and can help conceal pudge if you have any. Their sizes run big, though, so if you have a more petite figure you may need to take the shirts in a bit.
I occasionally wear button-down shirts, but in my experience they are more trouble than they're worth, because you inevitably have to iron them. Some friends had good luck finding iron-free shirts at places like Brooks Brothers, but when I went there I found their shirts looked ridiculous on me. They felt like they were designed for men.
Sweaters are a great way to dress down fancier pants, if you don't want to look too formal but don't want to wear jeans. I like cotton turtleneck sweaters, or sometimes V-neck sweaters with a tank-top / cami on underneath them. Gap and H&M have served me well here - I've purchased a few thick cotton sweaters there that have lasted me for years.
Just like pants, it's important to get shirts that fit well, that are not too tight and not too low-cut. I have owned a few shirts over the years that were too tight for professional contexts, so I fixed them with a cardigan, jacket, or a pashmina.
Skirts and Dresses
I have no tips about skirts and dresses, as professional ones always seem to look ridiculous on me. And more importantly, panty hose and tights are far too high maintenance. One run and you're stressing out over nylons instead of, say, your conference talk. Not fun.
Blazers are a great way to dress up jeans, so you can find a happy medium. I really like darker colors, such as black and dark brown. Definitely solids, though a light pinstripe is ok I suppose. I think corduroy blazers are great for men and women, regardless of whether they are in style or not - they just look nice.
Cardigans / open sweaters are a nice way to dress down fancier pants if you're worried they look to dressy. If you get one that is fitted, it will look professional without looking frumpy. (Here are some examples). Though I'll tell you, at my last job I always wore big frumpy sweaters because some of those machine rooms were cold!
The most important thing about shoes is that you are comfortable. Again, shoe designers are seriously out to get us. I can't tell you how many shoe stores I visited over the holidays with my mother-in-law, and we both basically decided the shoe designers are Satan.
|Shoe designers are satanic.|
A few brands that maybe/sort of / sometimes feel comfortable are: The Walking Company, Aerosole, Naturalizer. Sometimes you can find comfortable casual-dressy shoes at L.L. Bean, REI, and EMS. People that design shoes for hikers often have enough clue to design comfortable shoes that can be worn by white-collar office-warriors.
The only other rule for professional shoes is don't wear: furry boots, hiking boots, open-toed boots, flip-flops, or sneakers. Otherwise wear whatever you like.
Try to avoid using a backpack if at all possible. I'm aware that it's better for your back, especially if you are lugging around many things from place to place (laptop, papers, books, etc). Instead, there are nice wheely professional bags for women you can get. Sometimes people look at you funny wheeling something across an office building or campus, but you can just smile and say, "Bad back", and they'll leave you alone.
But if the wheely bag isn't appropriate for your context and you want to save your back (can't blame you), try to get a classy looking backpack. For example, select a bag from here. Several of these are perfectly reasonable to use in professional contexts.
Otherwise, if your travel gear is lightweight, really any shoulder bag will do. Just keep it simple and low-key. No bling.
Really wear whatever you like, just be sure it is tasteful and nondescript. Also be aware than anything with any sort of symbol or emblem on it will likely spurn discussion, which may or may not be a good thing.
I think wool coats with straight lines and nothing hanging off them are the most professional looking. I knew someone who always wore a fur coat to work and it always looked very strange to me. Sportsy jackets tend to look odd if you have dress pants on. (Or at least they do to me).
And that's all she wrote. I will try to do a post for the men sometime within the next few weeks.