Basic business casual usually means a shirt, a skirt or slacks, and a pair of shoes for all the women in your office. But by keeping five, simple steps in mind, a woman can set herself apart in the workplace as a professional…and as a lady.
Step 1: Reconsider what your boss isn’t (or shouldn’t be) seeing.
“Foundation garments” sound like something your grandmother would have worn to her junior prom, but the right undergarments can make all the difference in how elegant and professional you look.
Many women’s fashions are too sheer for the workplace. Consider adding a camisole under your dress shirts, especially white ones, and a slip under skirts and dresses.
Camisoles and slips don’t just add to the modesty and professionalism of your wardrobe. They also prevent chafing from coarser fabrics and reduce your laundry bill by keeping clothes cleaner longer.
Step 2: Show some self-respect.
There is nothing wrong with highlighting your best features—a winning smile, graceful tresses, even shapely legs. But there are very few fields in which a woman will get ahead by putting her body on display.
Keep in mind that your body can be a big distraction to the men in your workplace. Some men would rather avoid an immodestly-dressed woman than risk an uncomfortable situation or a potential charge of sexual harassment. Being avoided is no way to stand out in the workplace! Dressing modestly shows your co-workers and boss that you know you’re not just trading on your looks—you have a real contribution to make to the team.
So what’s modest for a business setting? Keep your hemline no more than two inches above the knee. Keep your cleavage covered. Avoid spiky heels. When in doubt, ask a man who cares about you—husband, boyfriend, brother—“Is this outfit sexy?” If the answer is yes, ask him how what you can do to your outfit to go from sexy to elegant and professional.
Step 3: Get the right fit.
Clothes that fit are not only an important part of practicing modesty in the workplace, but they also look and feel great.
- Shirts: Take your body measurements before you buy a shirt. Bottom line—if a shirt doesn’t fit your bust, it doesn’t fit. (If you’ve got a camisole under your shirt, you don’t have to worry as much about gapping.) Unless it’s out of your price range, consider getting a few well-fitting shirts custom made by a local tailor.
- Pants: A woman’s pants should appear to hang from her waist, so avoid pants that look tight as well as low-waisted and hip-hugging pants. Consider buying pleated pants if you’d like to call attention away from your stomach. Be sure to hem your pants—unhemmed pants look tacky and quickly tear. The hem of a pair of dress pants ought to fall between the top and middle of the heel on a pair of dress shoes. Don’t forget to sit down in a pair of pants before you buy them so you can be sure they’re comfortable as well as attractive.
- Jackets: Try on a jacket in your blouse size. Make sure there isn’t a gap between any of the buttons and that you can still run your hand between your chest and the jacket—otherwise, try the next size up. (Petite women with large breasts might consider jackets that button below the chest to avoid this problem.) The shoulder seam should line up with the natural edge of your shoulders. If the shoulder seams fall on your arms, the shoulders are too wide. If you can’t raise your arms, they are too narrow. Ideally, the jacket hem should fall in an area you would like to highlight—never at your widest point.
Step 4: Dress to impress.
Being the best-dressed woman in the room is often as simple as being just slightly “overdressed.” That doesn’t mean you should wear a cocktail dress to work or a ballgown to the office Christmas party, but use your wardrobe to suggest that you are the most talented, professional, and hard-working person in the room.
If everyone else in the office is wearing pants, consider a skirt. If everyone else is wearing a blouse, add a jacket. If all the women in the office wear flats, buy a pair of modest heels. A little extra effort can make a big difference.
Step 5: Shop smart.
Look for great values—not great prices. Well-made, well-fitted clothes will not only last longer than their bargain-basement alternatives, but they’ll leave a longer-lasting impression on potential employers or clients, too.
You may be buying a cheap garment if…
- The garment is made from more than 40% man-made fabrics like polyester or rayon. Even 15% of these two fabrics can produce a cheap-looking shine after a few trips through the washer and dryer.
- Buttons and fasteners are plastic and/or stitched on so loosely you can wiggle them around.
- Seams seem loose, especially in areas under stress like the seat of a pair of pants.
If you’re really working on a budget, consider shopping out of season. For example, buy your heavy winter jackets or pants when stores start rolling out their spring collections. And don’t be afraid of thrift stores, particularly those in more affluent areas. When I lived in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC with many young, unmarried professionals, I could often by last season’s designer clothes at Goodwill.