Reader Request: Transitioning to a More Formal Workplace

dressing conservative workplace

Reader K emailed me this question:

I have a new job at a law firm and a lot of my clothing is a bit too informal and brightly colored and I’m not sure if it will be appropriate. I’d love to see a post about holding on to your your fun and colorful/statement necklace style when you find yourself having to conform and fit into a much more conservative environment (no more sandals at work, no more casual Fridays, no more it’s OK to wear jeans if I just have to in order to make it through the day on a Thursday, more jackets/blazers, less tees, no more cotton sundresses, how to dress up some of your more informal clothing for a pseudo corporate world, etc.)

I pointed K to a few previous posts that you’ll find below, but feel this topic merits its own discussion. On all things law-related, I defer to Corporette so if you’re looking for dressing guidelines that apply to lawyers specifically, do peruse her archive.* But if, like K, you are transitioning from a casual or business casual environment to a more buttoned-up one, here are my suggestions for making your wardrobe work in your new role:

Jackets and blazers make everything seem more formal

OK, maybe not everything. Throwing a blazer over frayed denim shorts and a Mickey Mouse tee might look cute, but it’ll never be office-appropriate. However, any structured jacket or blazer will up the formality ante on most dresses, especially ones that are more substantial than thin, drapey knit or lightweight cotton voile. And adding a blazer to a solid sweater shell and subtly printed skirt will work in many offices, as will pairing a jacket with a colorful printed blouse and dress pants. Structure is key here, though that doesn’t necessarily mean actual suiting. Wool blends are best, but some heavy twills will work. Tweeds are another good option, especially for fall and winter. Steer clear of ponte and knits for conservative workplaces.

One colorful or sparkly piece per outfit

K is hoping to continue expressing her personality through clothing and accessory choices even in this new environment, and that’s definitely possible. A good guideline – especially to start out when you’re not sure how far you can push the dressing envelope – is to limit yourself to one “fun” piece per outfit. This can mean a bright or printed top, a funky necklace, eye-catching shoes, or a patterned skirt. (Probably best to keep your jackets and pants on the tame side, and tread cautiously with dresses.) You can build your outfit around your “fun” piece: Start with a multicolored floral silk shell and add a sleek pant suit, simple pumps, small earrings, subtle necklace (if any), and a watch. The shell is the wild card, everything else is classic and balancing. Don’t ditch all your interesting clothes just because your job has changed. Instead, introduce them a tiny bit at a time.

Bright colors can work in conservative shapes

In most cases, structure trumps shade. While a blazing red jersey wrap dress will look out of place in a formal workplace, a blazing red ponte sheath dress – especially worn with balancing pieces like a blazer and simple pumps – can work. Again, be careful with jackets and pants: Muted colors like burgundy, olive, navy, and aubergine may be acceptable in some offices, but not in others. A citron jacket or pair of emerald green trousers done in fine wool might squeak by, but you’re better off sticking to tops and dresses if you splash out on colorful clothes. Any bright colors you’ve already got in your closet may still be viable if they’re done up in classic, conservative shapes.

Mind your fibers

You may have noticed some fiber name-dropping in this post, and that’s quite intentional. We’ve talked about fiber formality before, and while I don’t have a problem with anyone wearing cashmere with twill I do think that certain fabrics won’t be conservative enough for many offices. Drapey jersey is on virtually every mall store rack, but it’s not substantial or formal enough for the average law firm. And that goes for tops, dresses, and waterfall cardigans alike. Ponte is fabulous for dresses and some skirts, but doesn’t lend enough gravitas to blazers and jackets. In terms of fiber winners, wool tops the list (and remember, tropical weight wool can be worn year-round in many places) and can be worn in any format from pants to skirts to blazers to dresses. Silk and polyester and rayon are all fine for blouses, but avoid drapey jersey and tee shirt/ribbed cotton. For sweaters, just about anything will work since by their very nature sweaters are more formal than tees: Cotton, cashmere, wool, and manmade fibers will all work so long as you’re not going for an intarsia owl or neon floral print. Cotton twill for blazers, skirts, and pants will be questionable in truly conservative offices, but completely fine in others. Look through your closet to see which fabrics and fibers will work in the new, more formal workplace.

Utilize fun accessories but sparingly

I hate to say it, but the average pair of Irregular Choice shoes will get you the side-eye in many offices and enormous rhinestone bib necklaces probably don’t belong in conservative work environments. Less embellished shoes in bright colors, on the other hand? Definitely possible, especially if most of the other outfit elements are classic and quiet. Rhinestones can be totally fine, especially in smaller necklaces and bracelets. Consider tucking sparkly jewelry into a button-front shirt collar and/or inside a blazer to tone it down. Again, if you want to wear a particularly bold accessory go for it, but try to make it the only bold element in your outfit.

Observe and adapt

I’ve held seven office jobs over the course of my career, and I’ve always found that it works well to dress on the conservative/quiet side for the first few weeks on a new job while performing Dress Code Reconnaissance. An office that looks incredibly buttoned-up on the surface may reveal itself to be more accepting the longer you work there. K may feel more comfortable and secure doing lots of neutrals, suiting, and simple shoes for the first few weeks, and then begin incorporating more personality pieces, colors, prints, and patterns once she’s got the lay of the land.

Those are my tips! What else would you tell K? Have you had to transition your work wardrobe from casual or business casual to something more conservative and formal? What carried over? Anything? How can you make fun and funky pieces law-office friendly? Or do you feel like they just can’t make the leap?

*Also my understanding is that office days and court days can have drastically different dress codes. Every lawyer I’ve ever met wears suits to court, period. So in this post, I’m assuming we’re talking about office days.

Related posts

Images courtesy Nordstrom left | right

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

Originally posted 2014-10-07 06:14:36.

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7 Responses to “Reader Request: Transitioning to a More Formal Workplace”

  1. Lisa Wong

    A good start for K might be to build a capsule wardrobe of neutral, more formal pieces that can be workhorses in her workwear looks. Think one or two blazers, a pair of dark trousers, a slim pencil skirt, a couple of cardigans, and a handful of shells or silk blouses. Then start introducing some of her current pieces into the mix to see if they work or not.

  2. San

    Thanks. This is also very important for me. Do you have any advice for the transition from Uni to a formal office job? How can I begin dressing up on a low budget?

    • Sally McGraw

      Ooh, San, that might be a question for another post. Quickly, though, consider getting a few quality blazers from charity shops – just make sure they’re in great shape! Blazers are the most expensive pieces for formal dressing, in most cases. Beyond that, Lisa’s comment below offers GREAT advice: A neutral capsule is the best way to start. Blouses and shells can come from bargain sources, but try to get decent quality pants and skirts – again, consignment or secondhand are worth exploring. Let me know if you have more specific questions – feel free to email me!

      • San

        Thanks, Sally. There is still time for me, but I shall keep looking out for basic pieces. Still, if you write a post on this, I would appreciate it.

  3. Anamarie

    I can’t tell from K’s question whether she is an attorney or in a support staff role. Either way, I like Sally’s advice about observing and adapting until you have a better sense of office culture, especially those in similar positions.

    I have to say that I break every single one of Sally’s guidelines above on a regular basis. I am an attorney, but my office is super-casual. I have had a recent style shift (weight loss related) to a dressier style, but it’s definitely more casual than other law firms in a major metro.My usual non-court appearance/non-client meeting outfit consists of wrap dresses (with a cami for modesty), fit and flare dresses with a blazer, and various combinations of suit separates (because they fit now) combined with interesting jewelry AND shoes. On Fridays, I can wear jeans – although they are not my favorite. I would wear dark jeans, some sort of blouse/blazer and heels. A colleague recently wore distressed boyfriend jeans on a Friday – they looked great, but even in a casual firm they seemed a bit much. A number of support staff and female attorneys wear flip flops, which seriously bugs me.

  4. crtfly


    In a recent magazine article the author said that velvet pants are always acceptable office wear. I have not heard that before and I am doubtful. What do you say?


  5. Heidi/FranticButFab

    In addition to the great tips Sal has above, you might also read Corporette ( A large percentage of their audience is female attorneys so most of the clothing posts are appropriate for law firms and other formal offices.