Guest Post from LPC of Privilege: 5 Guidelines for Subversive, Already Pretty Style

LPC of the fiercely original and fantastically smart blog, Privilege, took quite an interest in my recent post on pant suits. I have never worked in a conservative environment myself, and thus could only offer theoretical suggestions for making these lawyerly staples more fun and interesting. LPC, on the other hand, is a career executive who has spent most of her life in suits and knows firsthand the challenges and joys of personalizing the businesswoman’s uniform. And she’s been generous enough to share her wisdom with us! Keep reading for her tips on sneaking unique, sassy, and decidedly fun accents into your conservative workwear.

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I love Already Pretty. You probably do too. It would be hard not to, right? Sal puts out such a wonderful, consistent message. I would paraphrase what she says as, “Style is a personal statement, and our personal statements ought to reflect our positive feelings about ourselves.” I find this site to be sort of like a gift, one to pick up every morning on our way out the door, and I have been thinking lately, about how to live Sal’s message even when the constraints of a conservative work environment get in the way. How to have personal style, when all around you wear the equivalent of a uniform?

One word. Secret, planned, measured rebellion. OK, several words. I was in marketing, what can I say? Old habits die hard, especially when you’re old.

Where Did That Uniform Come From?
But let’s set the context. Conservative industries, and their associated work environments, were originally populated exclusively by men. Women entered, in the Mad Men way, as helpers. The evolution to equal pay and equal work is still, well evolving. As a result, a cultural uniform developed based on menswear. The dark suit with matching jacket, button-front shirt, matching shoes and belt, and a tie.

Everything about the menswear uniform evolved to indicate power and gravitas. (Imogen at Inside Out Style is a great source for the rational background to all this.) Given that the currency of traditional workforces is power, you tinker with that formula at your own risk. The uniform also developed, in my opinion, to remove uncertainty. If the guy across the desk or conference table dressed like you, you could assume he would follow your rules.

Those of you who work in more creative fields, or small business, or the social professions, may be drawing back in horror right about now. Let me just say these jobs in traditional industry can bring many rewards, the joy of a battle well-fought, an intellectual challenge, the ongoing satisfaction of mentoring the people you manage. But style? Can be tough.

5 Guidelines for Subversive, Already Pretty Style

Use these at your discretion. Clearly there are times to play 100% by the rules, i.e. when arguing before a traditional judge, interviewing for your first law job, or presenting to a key conservative client. Start slowly, evolve your style paying close attention to your surroundings.

1. Fashion rebellion should start at your extremities
Jewelry is probably the most discrete of work style rebellions. It’s amazing what secrets you can hide in your earrings. There are dragons engraved on these little fingernail sized earrings from San Francisco’s Chinatown. Imagine skulls instead. No one would be the wiser.

Another option is a man’s watch. This is mine, but the style is available in all price ranges. Whenever I look down at my wrist I get a little burst of Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Break My Stride. Very helpful in some situations.

Hello shoes! There is nothing more fun than a pair of burnt orange, or red, or dark purple shoes with a navy pantsuit. Unless it’s dark green lizard pumps under black. While men obsess over the monk strap vs. blucher conundrum, we have far more choices.

2. Use menswear colors and shapes to ground your individual expression
If you stick to the classic menswear shapes and colors, including a dark, straight-lined jacket, you can launch a subversive shirt crusade. In the early 90’s I wore a purple satin blouse, covered in a pattern of navy and pistachio green abstract flowers. Along with, of course, a black cardigan, black skirt, and black slingbacks. These days I will pair my most conservative gray suit with this Issey Miyake blouse. The pattern evinces feral Nordic creatures moving between trees. For me. But no one has to know that. The ghost wolves are there to help me in battle.

3. Develop a signature quirk
Take a page from menswear. Build a collect of quirky items, but all in one category. Some men always wear those Wall Street shirts with blue bodies and white collars. Or goofy ties.

Think Madeleine Albright’s pins. Constraining individualism to one category indicates intent, a predictable pushing of boundaries, rather than wholesale, and threatening, rule breakage. Hair ornaments, large rings, or ornamented belts, any of these would work. Your imaginations can probably come up with better ideas than mine.

4. Rebel one thing at a time
Again, you always want to maintain the impression of control. So indulge your individualism one thing at a time. If your suit is highly textured or an unusual shape, stick to uniform navy, gray, or black. If the color is unique, traditional fabrics.

5. Fewer pieces, higher quality
I would suggest also, that if you’re pitching your tent, at least for a while, in a traditional industry, you adhere to the shopping philosophy of buying fewer but better goods. There are some designers that understand the executive/managing partner look very well. Giorgio Armani. Calvin Klein. Sometimes Michael Kors. Brooks Brothers, while not setting any fashion trends, offers nicely made classics for the midrange. Better a few good suits or jackets, with inexpensive tops, than multiple lower end suits. However, this is not about spending the money per se, or brand status. Nobody needs to know, nor will they care in these businesses, what label sits inside your collar, or waistline. It’s about the line, the quality of the fabric, and the color palette.

Throw Caution To The Wind
You do have another option. Full frontal attack. Throw caution to the wind, crying, “It’s about my work, not my clothing,” and push the limits past what I describe here as the breaking point. If you have the stomach, and the personality for this, I say, “You go, girl.”

But I have one word of advice. Pick your battles. If style becomes one of your primary initiatives, you’ll have to secure all other fronts. It’s the Top Gun Maverick model. Do better work than everyone else. Not staff work. Staff work quality can be debated, and recognition depends on the elusive political network. Produce bottom line work that can’t be argued with. Sell more, manufacture more, retain more talent, and your style freedom is guaranteed. I’ll be cheering you on. Wondering where you got that fabulous, aubergine, wide-legged suit, and how you knew to pair it with a pale blue top, skull earrings, and blue nail polish? A little jealous, but cheering.

*Note that of course Corporette is the bible for how to build a conservative wardrobe.

Images: LPC

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37 Responses to “Guest Post from LPC of Privilege: 5 Guidelines for Subversive, Already Pretty Style”

  1. Charlie

    love this! pairing something fun with a suit looks fun but still "officy". maybe a nice suit with a light pink, ruffled shirt? ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Michael McGraw Photography

    These seem like very good tips. I'd encourage men to perform little rebellions too. Maybe yellow socks, maybe not wearing a tie.

    "Style is a personal statement, and our personal statements ought to reflect our positive feelings about ourselves." –I think Sally should borrow this from you for herself. Very concise.


  3. lyrebirdgully

    Great post LPC, very inspiring! I already feel more positive about my work clothes!

  4. Kristen

    Thanks! Great ideas for creative corporate wear. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. LPC

    My pleasure. Thanks so much to Sal for having me and to you all for reading and responding.

  6. Laura

    Could not agree more with these tips. On days when I'm slaving away in my office, I allow myself more freedom, having worked my way to a modicum of seniority. However, when in the hearing room (I work in politics) I wear stilettos with my Brooks Brothers suits.

  7. Belle de Ville

    Great post. Measured rebellion is one thing but performance as described in the last paragraph is the kicker.

  8. Faith J.

    Great post! I work in an office (not law) and am always looking for ways to be taken seriously but still be stylish in my clothing! I second, they are great.

  9. Lorena

    This was such a fun AND USEFUL read !
    Those small details are what brings that person out of the uniform and makes you stand out.
    I have seen it a lot in banks.
    All the women wear the same garment but, you can see those who add in discrete headbands, a green eyeliner, an eye catching pendant… you make a statement.

  10. RoseAG

    Nice post.

    I was reading a chat with the costume guy on the show "The Good Wife" awhile back and was surprised at the number of posters who mentioned how inappropriately many TV-women-lawyers are dressed. Low necklines, too short skirts…. not good.

    For me in a competitive environment the flowing long skirt sends a too matronly message so I'd just as soon wear pants as spend the day tugging down a straight skirt while sitting in a meeting room full of guys.

  11. Anonymous

    I'm so glad for this post! Any suggestions for a young lawyer whose style seems totally incompatible with her career? Outside of work I am a big hippie. I love huge earrings, funky jewelry, and flowing clothing that shows a lot of skin. I am also pretty tattooed and have a nose ring. I dress conservatively at work, but I don't feel like myself, and I don't really like it.

  12. Chelsea

    What a fantastic post! I like these ideas not only for corporate wear, but for honing your personal style gradually. Take one challenge at a time!

  13. Elissa

    Fabulous post and VERY useful, especially for me who feels either lost and angry when there aren't defined rules, and then go the "whole hog" route cavalierly while fearing backlash in the back of my mind. I really like the idea of secret, tiny rebellions starting at the extremities.

  14. Louise

    Fabulous as always, Lisa. Now I'm jonesing for anything combining aubergine and sky blue.

  15. lisa

    Great tips! I especially like the one about picking one signature style statement and investing in it. I know a girl who's made statement and bib necklaces her thing; she always throws one on with a dress or a tee and instantly looks great.

  16. Sandra

    oh I love pairing a funky-fun shirt with a suit–I've been doing this for years!

  17. BigLittleWolf

    Love love love these slightly saucy subversive flourishes! (I'll take my red shoes with a higher heel, but those are beauties.)

    What a great discovery your blog is!

  18. Maureen@IslandRoar

    What a fun post! I've never been in the business world, tho the men in my life always have. I WANT a reason to wear a funky tailored suit~!

  19. The Preppy Princess

    Outstanding perspective and insight Miss LPC, especially on the 'less is more' front, how rare to see that in action these days.

    Sending you a smile,

  20. positdesign

    I have two rebellions.

    One is shoes: oxfords with stiletto heels in bright blue; platform mary jane saddle shoes; orange kitten-heeled wingtips; and so on. The pop of color and twisted menswear styling rocks the most buttoned-down of suits.

    The other is bracelets. A big two-inch-wide bangle decoupaged with panels from an ultraviolent Japanese comic book. A JKC bangle engraved with the words "I want to be the girl with the most cake." Hammered metal cuffs. Et alia.

    Beyond that, I learned how to transition from college to officewear by watching old movies: Gene Tierney in Laura, Myrna Loy in the Thin Men series, Kate Hepburn or Jean Arthur in anything. Something about that 30s/40s moment when women as a whole were learning how to navigate office fashion is truly inspiring & instructive. And now we have mad Men, too!

  21. Buckeroomama

    It doesn't matter where you write, LPC –your voice rings clear and true. I love this piece. Great tips. ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. Law Girl

    I really like this post. I work in a conservative environment and I love pairing my fun shoes with a conservative suit suit for a little rebellion!

  23. Sydney Shop Girl

    A great post, LPC and thank you for leading me to a lovely new blog to follow.

    SSG xxx

  24. Imogen Lamport, AICI CIP

    Thanks for the link LPC – great article – lots of ways to break out of the ultra conservative boundaries.

  25. Madeleine

    LPC- what an utterly bloody marvellous post! I now work in a less conservative (small c)office environment so can wear pretty much what I want when I have no meetings, but still need to dress more staid-ly when I am out and about, so need to plan how I can subvert the boring-suit-dress-code and remain professional. I applaud your suggestions and would particularly endorse the shoes- red patent stilettos with a dark trouser suit work really well for me. Women love 'em 'cos they're cool, and men love them because they're a bit Dolly (you know-'it takes a lot of money to look this cheap' etc). Jewellery too- I love necklcaes with skulls and big hoop earrings with spikes/studs. Also, love the jazzy shirt, but it doesn't have to be a pattern- a shot of really bright colour is equally effective and unexpected.. I LOVE in-yer-face orange, hurt-your-eyes pink and sulphur yellow. Oh, I could go on, but I won't.

  26. All Women Stalker

    Fewer pieces, higher quality. I should really really keep that in mind ๐Ÿ™‚

  27. Anonymous

    Question for those with higher-end corporate experience- I'm about to start as a Director at a huge company in Marketing, but in a non-marketing role (policy). I have the navy, grey, black suits. But- I found a few new gorgeous Tahari suits on sale that I love and bought them. Can I wear them? One is bright red, the other a cream/yellow/silver subtle pattern. They are both boucle-style material, amazingly fitted, skirt suits with quarter-length sleeves. Must it be navy? Truly? These would look so great for presentations at conferences, which I'll be giving. Please advise! Thanks!

  28. Barbara@BabyBloggingBoomer

    Absolutely true in law firms. I like the comparison of the renegade tie to a feminine item. I think that is a great way to feel in charge of your dress while conforming at the same time.

  29. LPC

    Anon, my guess is that likely you will be able to wear the suits, depending on what part of the country you are in. Marketing often is given far more style flexibility than the line jobs, or the male-dominated jobs like finance. Wear your conservative suits the first week and look around – you ought to be able to suss things out pretty quickly. (OP here)

    BTW, Husband Mike, thank you for the compliment on my sentence. I can never sum up my own stuff, so I am happy to be able to articulate Already Pretty. Hmm, perhaps that's because Sal's so clear on what she's saying:)>

  30. rb

    I work in a very professional dress environment. I mostly wear skirts because I think they look best on me (but never short skirts!) and avoid pants suits because I find them too masculine. I often describe my style as "classic with weird shoes." It works for me, but then again I am fairly well-established in my career.

  31. ClaireOKC

    Love the whole idea of subversively pretty style – love it! Great suggestions, and can't wait to send this to some of my clients (and friends!)

  32. Ellen

    Wonderful post! And true to my experience working as a public defender and being in the courtroom every day in a conservative town. As a young female taking on a role that already has the "public pretender"/"I want a real lawyer" stigma, earning the respect of both my clients, the other attorneys, and the judges sometimes necessitates dressing the part. Lawyering, particularly in the courtroom, is a lot like acting and the "traditional" suit is your costume. But, I love taking small, measured, sustained acts of subversive style as a way of being myself and exercising my stick-it-to-the-man mentality (I am a public defender, after all). My go-tos are earrings, shoes, and scarves. Some of the more experienced women in my office can pull of The Top Gun Maverick that LPC mentioned at the end of her post. They are my idols ๐Ÿ™‚

  33. Valerie-MN

    I am an accountant and I have worked in several different industries. I, inspired by my grandmother, have always loved/worn suits (pants and dress suits). So, in my profession, I often perk up my look with accessories (jewelry, purses). I also wear color (whether a colorful jacket or else a colorful shell/sweater under my dark-color or neutral-color jacket). My shoes tend to be dark/traditional but the rest of my look is lightened up by the accessories or color.

  34. Jill

    Love this post! Been wanting to go more conservative businessperson, and this advice makes it more attractive and easier.

  35. Shari

    Love this post. That was totally me when I worked in a big law firm and had to dress up. My rebellion was red. Red suit or red blouse or red shoes or red purse. And other jewel tones too, which were not easy to find in the 90s.

    Now I am in a business casual environment (in house at an insurance company), but it is really small town style wise. I can count the well dressed management level women on one hand. (It's funny, we all check each other out constantly.

    In my current position, being too dressed up would look stand offish when all of the guys at all levels are wearing a polo and khakis. I like to push the envelope here just by being stylish and adapting some trends in an age appropriate way 9now than I am older).

    It's funny, as a young lawyer I always had to make myself look older so that other lawyers and clients would take me seriously. Now I have to be careful of adopting trends without looking too young!