Reader Request: Dressing for Cold Offices

clothes for cold office

rb threw this one into the Suggestion Box:

Dressing for really cold offices but still looking professional? Colleagues have resorted to fingerless gloves and even snuggies. 

Why is it that office environments are always places of temperature extremes? A handful get uncomfortably hot in winter, but more are chilly during the cold months AND the warm ones. And in my experience, cold offices seem EVEN COLDER during the summer. It’s like any building with an imbalanced HVAC system just gives up and turns its dials to “arctic” once the sun comes out. I’m sure you office workers are all too familiar with air conditioners that get cranked up to levels capable of crystallizing saliva. Although the sun may graciously warm those lucky enough to sit near windows, many of the world’s cube farmers spend their days shivering as they type.*

Now rb’s coworkers have gone to some serious extremes, but there are other, potentially more stylish ways to combat the cold in an enclosed office. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:

Closed-toe shoes

You lose 86% of your body heat out of your toes. This may sound like an obvious one, but be sure to mix some pumps, boots, and Mary Janes in with the strappy sandals, especially if you’re wearing a top or bottom that shows some skin. It makes a huge difference when your tootsies are toasty. Light colored, short, or perforated boots are good bets for spring and summer, too, if your feet get truly frosty. And they allow for the added bonus of socks!


You lose 91% of your body heat out of your neck,** so consider keeping it covered while you work. Turtlenecks and cowl necks may work for winter, but you might want to do something a bit more seasonally appropriate as we move through summer. Scarves are the perfect stopgap. Silk traps body heat beautifully, as I mentioned a while back, but feel free to go for any material or weave that works with the day’s ensemble.

Wear your hair down

As I mentioned in #2, keeping your neck covered by any means possible will help fend off the chill. If you have shoulder-length or longer hair, let it fly free. You’ll be amazed how much warmer you’ll feel.

Keep a cardigan or blazer at your desk

A neutral or black cardigan won’t ruin the average outfit, nor will a classic blazer. And you can always take it off when you leave your desk for a meeting, should you feel that it’s messing with your overall look.

Swaddle yourself in a wrap

Back in my days as an office worker, I kept a gorgeous red Eileen Fisher wrap slung over my desk chair. It was made of that thin, nubbly, quintessentially Eileen material that I will admit to knowing zilch about, but it was WARM beyond all human comprehension. Any pashmina, shawl, or large scarf can help a cold office officer, of course. Throw it over your legs beneath your desk if your knees begin to freeze. And again, if yours is an odd color or ruins your outfit, just sling it over your chair whenever you leave your desk.

Keep a mug of boiling water

You lose 107% of your body heat out of your hands. And although this tip has nothing to do with style, I’ve found it to be incredibly effective. Get a big ol’ceramic mug, fill with boiling water from the tea tap on your office’s coffeemaker (or microwave some tap water for a minute or so), and cradle lovingly. Contact with the warm porcelain defrosts your fingers almost instantly. It helps even more if you can sip it, especially because hot water tastes weird so you’re unlikely to slam it like a mocha.

*Of course, we should all be deeply grateful for the AC. I consider outdoor gigs and electric-fan-only situations and count my blessings.

**Also 73% of people make up statistics.

Image courtesy Nordstrom

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

Originally posted 2012-07-18 06:22:52.

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45 Responses to “Reader Request: Dressing for Cold Offices”

  1. Eleanorjane

    Ditto all the the above. Useful tips for surving the UK ‘summer’ which is mostly cold and rainy this year.

    My tricks for looking reasonably seasonably appropriate but keeping warm are:

    * Thermal singlets!
    * Lighter colours i.e. beige pants not black pants, no black shoes
    * Ditto the scarves – light colours, silk, florals etc. I’m wearing a very light weave mauve wool scarf today.
    * Lighter coloured makeup/ fake tan/ bronzer
    * Florals
    * Pastels
    * White
    * Nude tights i.e. with a fine fishnet or some other pattern.

    I’m a big wool fan so I make sure my cardigans etc are 100% merino wool to keep me warm. Wool/cashmere or just cashmere would be even better but there are price issues!

    • Nuranar

      YES, NUDE TIGHTS. I am so much colder on days when I skip the tights than when I go ahead and wear them. They’re absolutely no fun outside for more than 5 minutes, but I’d rather be extra hot for 5 minutes than chilly for 9 hours. Besides, in Texas, you’re going to be hot when outside no matter what you’re wearing.

  2. Val C-MN

    I either wear a blazer or cardigan everyday to ward off being cold or else I try to keep a sweater at the office hanging in my cubicle or draped on the back of the office chair. That sweater is usually in a color that will go with most color pallettes – black, white, red, or brown/navy/dark purple. This way, I won’t color clash and the sweater is handy in case it was too warm weather-wise to wear a blazer/cardigan.

    In the winter, I try to wear a scarf which is handy to wrap around the neck in case the heat isn’t as warm in the office as I would like. I also have worn fingerless gloves since my hands get cold sometimes in the office. With fingerless gloves, I still have my hand mobility to type and perform work but can keep warm at the same time.

  3. Becky

    These are great suggestions. I would also add that if you’re going from a steamy hot outdoors to an arctic cold indoors, wearing breathable natural fibers as your innermost clothing layer can help counteract clamminess.

    I have even, on occasion, gone into the ladies’ room and toweled off, to prevent A/C hypothermia on a hot day. That’s also a good time to arrange hair and makeup if the outdoors makes you melt and the indoors is chilly.

  4. Anonymous

    Scarves and ski underwear. Layering is key. I used to work in a grocery shop with open doors in all temperatures.

  5. Jen

    Thank you! I work in a school and split my week between our only AD’d building and one that is decidedly not. The AC’d one is more like a meat locker. The students do wear snuggies to class (heaven forbid they wear pants instead of shorts!) and the staff are always shivering. Yet the commons (where students have study hall and lunch) is always hot. But in our non-AC’d building we sweat until the first frost of the season, then breathe sighs of relief. I’m not a huge fan of air conditioning, but in a school I am-IF it works:). These tips are fantastic and I’m forwarding them to my chilly colleagues!

  6. LK

    My old office basically didn’t have heat and was usually 50 degrees or colder in the winter. A pashmina will do wonders. Also those little heat packs that you can reheat in hot water. And hot tea. Long underwear is also a great option if its super cold.

  7. LinB

    Have only suffered from cold offices in the wintertime, when I lived in Wisconsin. I wish it were acceptable to work naked in the office, it is so dad-blastedly hot here. But I will spare my co-workers that mortification.

  8. Mollie @ Jennings Brae Bank Farm

    I travel to different classrooms at my school, each with it’s own unique climate. I keep a cardigan and fleece jacket at my desk. However, the scarf/shawl idea would go better with my usual school outfits. Thanks for the suggestions!

  9. Quinalla

    My office is overcooled in the summer and occasionally a bit overheated in the winter. Layers are key and I keep a long sleeved cardigan (it even has the company logo) in my office and I wear it while indoors pretty much all day in the summer. I think I need to bring a scarf in too, I never really thought about that, but it is fashionable and would be a good use for the couple cute scarfs I have that I rarely wear. I love sandals and often still wear them, but yes, close toed shoes (and socks if they work with your outfit) help a ton to keep you warm. I can wear hats in my office, so I will if I am still chilled, but that isn’t an option for everyone.

    For the winter, I wear coat/hat/gloves/scarf while outside often with a short sleeved shirt or other generous skin bearing or thin material shirt to stay cooler inside. And long pants, but nothing too thick.

  10. Becca

    #3 is one of the reasons why I’m not a big fan of summer – I can almost never wear my hair down because it makes me too hot outside of cold offices!

  11. adventures of a mad scientist

    Love these tips. I utilize a few already. Not gonna lie, though; when I’m sitting at my desk I drape a snuggie over my legs to keep me warm 😛 AND I have arm warmers in a desk drawer. It also doesn’t help when someone in my lab jacks up the A/C because their room is warmer than the outer main lab, where everyone else sits and works.

    I love winter because I just keep my scarf on all day. Scarves are my favorite winter accessory ever! I wish I could do shawls, but my work can be a little messy, so I can’t really wear anything that dangles. 🙁

  12. jenny

    Thanks for these tips! My office is freezing. The other day I had on two heavy sweaters over a t-shirt and wished I had a scarf as well.

  13. Laurel

    Not a fashion tip, but taking a 10 minute walk to get the blood flowing can help a lot!

  14. Sheila

    I wear slips under most of my skirts and dresses, even in the summer – a half-slip under a skirt can be easily removed if you plan to go outside, without a lot of fuss.

    Also, although it’s not a fashion tip, move around! If you send something to the printer, get up and fetch it right away. I work at an office that’s split between two floors; instead of waiting for interoffice mail or having people come to me, I personally deliver all my correspondence. Keep that circulation going!

  15. D

    Cardigans and hot tea are pretty much my whole game when it comes to frigid office environments. Good tips! I really need to get some lightweight scarves.

  16. Mary

    I definitely keep a cardigan at my machine (i.e. desk) at all times. I especially love a long, wrappy style one that can also double as a lap blanket when needed. Natural fibers are so so key! I don’t buy any wallet-friendly 100% acrylic sweaters anymore, because they make me sweat but at the same time don’t keep me warm! Awful!

    And I second Laurel’s 10-minute walk enthusiasm. Just getting up out of my chair raises my body temperature just enough that I might unwrap a little bit. Sitting in one spot for long periods isn’t good for your body anyway!

    I must add that the boyfriend is one of those poor souls who works outside during summers — he manages a country club pool when he’s not teaching the other 9 months of the year. And (TMI TMI TMI) he had to make a doc’s appt this week to get something checked out that turned out to be heat rash on the brink of infection!! Thirty-two of the last 60 days here in Chicago (and almost the whole country) were 90 degrees or hotter, and it’s showing.

    So, I join in many others who lament chilly, finger-numbing offices, but rejoice that most of us don’t have to deal with heat rash on a daily basis.

  17. Amelia

    Not that anyone has mentioned it yet, but I wanted to say that space/personal heaters are not the answer! Not only do they use tons of energy, but as an ex building manager I can tell you they exaserbate the problem. Building managers work hard to keep AC flowing equally to all areas of the building. When people are running their own personal heaters (or fans!) it makes warm (or cool) spots, causing the AC (or heat!) to blast harder to make everything even again. Policing private heating and cooling equipment, and explaining why it was so important was one of the most annoying parts of my old job.

    • Susan

      Amelia, I get that a fan uses energy, but how does it create a warm or cool spot? It seems to me that it just moves the air around without changing its temperature. I’m afraid that a fan is critically important for those of us in the hot flash demographic, regardless of the season.

      • LinB

        The fan’s motor heats up when it is running. That adds to the ambient temperature of the room, which could create a “hot spot.” Fans cool by evaporating sweat off of the people within range of the air that is moves. No people, no cooling. A fan creates a “cool spot” when a person in its airstream loses too much heat to evaporation. Sensations of heat and cold are so personal that it is indeed a business manager’s nightmare to set the “correct” temperature for an entire building.

    • valleycat1

      I’d say that depends on the situation. My desk is directly inside the main entrance to our building. With preschool classes all day, we have at least 60 people entering & exiting 4 times a day, dropping off & picking up kids for the 2 sessions, not to mention employees in 3 other programs who work here. A small desk fan keeps me reasonably cool in the summer & a very small under-desk heater keeps me warm in the winter without having to adjust the central air/heat to the discomfort of everyone else on my circuit.

  18. Anna

    It’s absolutely like that in Texas! Hot summer all around you but the instant you walk into a building it’s like you’ve entered the far and frozen north in the dead of winter. Everybody knows it, and yet I still get strange looks when I’m going around with a sweater in my bag on days when it’s over 100 degrees!

    I definitely love scarves as a solution. I have a lot of really big ones (which I suppose may be crossing into shawl territory) that I can drape over myself when I suddenly find myself in a frigid environment. They seem more compact than sweaters too, so it’s not such a hassle if you’re trucking it around with you.

    I also second the hot tea idea, and the exercise idea. If you’re in a position to take short breaks outdoors, that’s always good. I sometimes find a shady spot to eat lunch outside and that usually thaws me out enough that I don’t get painfully cold for a few hours afterwards.

  19. Kenzie

    I have the opposite problem, the building I work in has NO ac. Wasn’t a problem during cold, rainy June but now it’s in the 80s and 90s (yes, laugh at the pacific nw wimpiness to weather extremes) and the lab I work in gets soooo hot. I do computational work so at least I don’t have to worry about wearing long pants, closed toed shoes, and a lab coat but at the same time, sitting in front of a computer all day in stuffy stale heat makes me super sleepy!

    At least my sundresses and sandals are finally getting some time out of the closet!

  20. StPeteMom

    Better a cold office than a hot one, wouldn’t you agree?

  21. Heidi/The Closet Coach

    I have an Office Wrap that I keep in my top filing cabinet drawer for just this reason.

    I actually had a previous job that was so ridiculously frigid that we resorted to keeping space heaters under our desks!

  22. Amy

    I have a business meeting coming up where I’ll be driving an hour to the meeting in an un-airconditioned car (most likely in 100+ weather), then meeting all day long in a hotel conference room. I’m guessing the conference room will be a good 30 degrees cooler than outside, so these tips are very timely for me! Thank you!

  23. Anonymous

    I wear merino wool singlets under shirts or tees in cold offices. Usually I don’t bother with scarves so much. Hot tea is a must also.

  24. Kristin

    I have a fleece lap blanket under my desk, which is a life saver. Out of desperation I bought an extra-large heating pad and fastened it to the back of my chair! As for building engineers: don’t keep it so damn cold and I won’t use my space heater. I had to get them to block off one of the vents in my office because it was blowing my hair around!

  25. LG

    Hilarious with the statistics.

    I do ALL of these things! It helps to keep the frostbite at bay, at least. :0)

  26. Erika

    I’m another who keeps a cardigan at work – very lightweight but warm black one with long front (down to my knees) so I can wrap it up. It also has the advantage of giving me bits of fabric to twirl! I also have a microfibre blanket and fingerless mittens. On occassion I have been known to find the spouse and get some of his body heat OR walk into the server room and find a rack that’s churning out the hot air out the back. If overheated, walk into the server room and stand over one of the air vents – that brings your temperature very quickly!

  27. Molly

    I keep a full change of clothes at my desk. After being caught in a rainstorm with no chance to go home and change, I will never again be the one wringing out her pants in a bathroom stall and suffering for the rest of the soggy day. If it’s sweaty on the way to work, I dress in layers and bring as much extra clothing as I need to keep myself warm. Tank top while walking in, cardigan once the AC gets to me. And of course, bring extra deodorant and whichever toiletries you need to make yourself look professional again once you’re inside.

  28. Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    Oh how ironic that today I’m shivering in my overly air-conditioned office, having neglected to bring a cardigan *and* I wore a dress with sandals!

  29. Keilexandra

    My office thankfully isn’t numbingly cold, just normal AC-cold, but unfortunately my commute is 30 minutes each way on foot. In sunny 90 degree humidity. I’ve messed up two pairs of closed-toe shoes already by sweating so much that the lining got unstuck and wrinkled… maybe I can just get a blanket for my feet. Actually, I prefer to work without shoes on (and it’s an extremely casual office so I can wear pretty much anything) so my feet freeze no matter what.

  30. Maggie da Geek

    I try to wear a cardigan or sweater that goes with my outfit every day plus I keep a white sweater in my office. just in case I forget. I have a fan also.

  31. Shaye

    Heating pad!! It’ll give you that extra boost to keep you toasty when the office is just too darn cold, doesn’t put off enough heat to affect the HVAC system overall, and is usually allowed where space heaters are not. My office never knows what it’s gonna do – too hot or too cold in both winter and summer – so I rely on a heating pad and a mini fan to create my own microclimate.

  32. Anne

    I keep a heating pad at my desk. Since heaters tend to blow fuses in my offices, this seemed like the next best choice! I don’t have to worry about lugging a winter wardrobe into my workplace and the pad rolls up nicely and fits in a desk drawer when it isn’t in use.

  33. Rachel

    Yes, cold office both in summer and winter! And I’m the person who’s always too hot everywhere, so if I find it too cold… Winter is fine – I have a drawer full of backup cardigan, scarves, and fingerless gloves in a variety of colours. But it’s definitely harder in the summer when it’s heat-warning hot outside, and I walk to work, so I can’t bulk up too much with clothing. For me I just make sure that every outfit has a cardigan or blazer that goes with it. Plus I have the drawer of shawls that I can throw on while I’m sitting.

  34. Michelle

    Today I was told I can no longer use my personal heater so I ordered something called lavabuns and an electric blanket. After 5 glorious years of being warm this is a sad day for me.

  35. Lola

    Good suggestions but your percentages are completely off. You can’t lose 107% of your body heat from your hands, 86% from your feet and 91% from your neck. All of those percentages should add up to 100 at the most.

  36. Bobby

    A hot cup of tea definitely seems to help do the trick when you’re looking to stay warm!