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Style Help: Post-college professional in her 20s requiring maximum coverage

Reader Ida wrote in to request the following:

I’m a Midwestern journalism (not TV) and critical language student. Like most of my fellow women in these categories, I often dress in yoga/black stretch pants and oversized shirts, with a bit more class for work/internships, meetings and reporting interviews.

I’m not really sure what counts as professional, and can’t tell based on my surroundings.

clothing-store-shopping-wardrobe-closet_2After graduation next year, I hope to find a government or aid work job in either Washington, D.C., or the Middle East/North Africa. I therefore need to plan a wardrobe that can provide maximum neck-to-wrist/ankle coverage, is practical for outdoor conditions and can easily be moved in a suitcase or less.

Also, I don’t wear makeup or heels. Is there any sort of professional requirement in these areas, do you think?

Great question! Here’s my take on it seeing as you probably want to be comfortable as well.


There’s no need to dress like a nun who has just escaped the convent just because it is conservative. I’ve seen too many women wear all black, or cover up completely with no style or attitude whatsoever, and it is a travesty because they are wonderful, beautiful women!!!!

I really like bold colours and bright prints, but only if you are able to wear them confidently and happily. Otherwise, stick to your comfort zone and wear neutrals such as navy blue, midnight blue, black, ivory, white, or burgundy.

(The other neutrals look strange on people depending on their skintone, such as blush, nude-for-you can make you look naked, and browns are hard to get right).

For patterns, I’d stick to either going wild with bold brushstroke or messy graphic style patterns, or keep it simple with thin little pinstripes. No florals unless they’re really messy; think less Laura Ashley on the Prairie florals, and more Picasso or Van Gogh-style florals.

The patterns you want to keep with are sleek and streamlined, rather than being loud and wild. I’d also avoid ruffles or anything that screams Little Girl.



Looking like a Little Girl drives me crazy at the office. Cutesy ruffles, too short skirts, Pepto-Bismol pinks, sparkles, glitter.. Please save that for your weekends, and stick to looking like a Grown Woman or dressing your daughter/niece instead. I’d also avoid Laura Ashley ruffles and florals, and Dolly looks.



I also really dislike Uber Casual looks like sloppy beer t-shirts and yoga pants with flip flops, which you will not have an issue with, but it is something I see constantly where I work (business casual).


The last look to avoid is the Secret Sexy Dancer. From what I have read, even escorts tend to dress down to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and look more business casual than some office workers!

It is a VERY chic look to be in a pencil skirt, heels and a blouse, but some women take it to mean that they can wear super tight pencil skirts (pick the size that skims your body, not hugs it, then tailor it in if need be at the waist), with sky-high 4″ platform heels (again, a terrible look at the office, maximum heel height should be 3.5″), and a sheer blouse that is so low cut you could think she was ready to breastfeed or pump in a second.

Let me repeat:

You can look sexy at the office. You can look beautiful. You can look and feel confident as a woman … there is no need to beat anyone over the head with your curves, legs and bust.

You will look incredibly feminine in anything you wear as long as it is skimming your body and silhouette. Sometimes the most conservative outfits are the most sexy ones too.



I cannot speak more highly than in this situation for stocking up on 1 – 3 really great sheath dresses.

You don’t need to spend a lot in this area, but you need to watch for classic details like a little ruching on the side, perfectly draped jersey (for maximum comfort) and flattering on your body.

I’d also make sure they are at least sleeveless but without spaghetti straps, that way you can wear a topper over it in a shawl lapel blazer for instance instead of a sweater (skews a little casual).

I really like cropped blazers or other kinds of toppers that cover the shoulders, but you can even do a moto jacket in a nice jersey or something a little more casual if your dress is sleek.




If you like the idea of separates rather than a one-stop shop outfit, I suggest getting a few really nice blouses (silk if possible, as it looks the most polished & luxe, but some polyester looks good too, it will just make you sweat like a pig in summer).

I also prefer fluid, silk or flowy blouses that can easily be tucked into skirts or pants, because it looks less sloppy when it is left out and not tucked in, and it is more comfortable (feels less rigid on your shoulders).

The downside is it looks less crisp than a button-down collared shirt, but at least it adds a little femininity to your look.

Nice blouses can then be paired with pencil skirts or ankle pants.

For skirts, I wouldn’t suggest any other shape other than a pencil skirt shape for the most conservative of all industries, as A-line can sometimes skew a little too girly, and midi might be too dowdy and maxi too long.

I’d also avoid high slits in front unless the skirt itself is longer (like a midi), and go for something like a small slit in the back so you can walk.

For pants, the crop should hit at your ankle or slightly lower. Anything higher and it looks like it shrunk in the dryer. If this doesn’t happen with the pants you have tried on, hem them, or try, and try again. Some stores like Banana Republic or Ann Taylor have pants for Tall women.

Go for slimmer pants, nothing wide-legged or tapered in (think slim and straight legged) because it is the most classic shape. If you feel bolder and more comfortable (depending on how other higher-ups dress around you) you can experiment a little more with the pant shape, but I’d keep it simple.





Before you get a post there, you can then look at these options, but for now, the above wardrobe set for D.C. should be enough for any industry or profession.

For more conservative regions of the world, I have seen and would recommend buying a few outfits that have the following items:

  • Maxi dresses with sleeves
  • Hoodie tunics (they cover your hair AND look cute
  • Long-Sleeved tops to wear over those dresses for more coverage
  • Toppers (used as cardigans to wear over dresses or pants)
  • Long maxi skirts to cover your ankles
  • Long, wider-legged pants that are not fitted to show your shape; but I’d err on the side of caution and only wear long skirts
  • Light pashminas to cover your hair

I found a fantastic set of Pinterest boards to give you an idea of what they wear, depending on how conservative the country is.

Here are some stylish pins of outfits I like:

Here are some other great style models for conservative fashion.

The key component to looking great seems to be a flowy trench that is both modern and stylish (I own 2 myself), pants or a skirt and then long sleeved tops or tunics.

Flowy trenches look great as toppers, can cover up a lot of skin, and yet still look chic without being too structured (e.g. like a Burberry double breasted classic trench); although I wouldn’t rule out a double breasted classic trench either.



Unless you’re in an industry like modelling, banking, or being an air stewardess, they don’t seem to force any specific rules on wearing heels (exceptions always exist such as this one) or even makeup, but I will say that without either, it does ding your image a bit.


Because everyone else is wearing a little makeup or in heels (myself included most times), so in contrast you look quote on quote “lazy” and unwilling to step up to the plate for your professional image.

Catch-22? Perhaps, but for now, here’s my take:


Closed-toe wedges are great for those not used to wearing heels and a great, comfortable alternative to stilettos of any kind.

I also like lower-heeled (2″) almond or round toe heels with a stiletto heel (otherwise it looks really strange and old fashioned if it isn’t a wedge).

You can also wear flats like ballet flats or pointed toe flats, but they look a little less professional than just a little wedge or heel.


It is up to your discretion though, whatever you feel the most comfortable in, though I will note that I never wore heels before I worked and once I started on lower heels, I always felt more professional and put together than if I wore flats.

I also felt and looked taller, and therefore it translated into my confidence for meetings.



If you aren’t used to wearing makeup, don’t if you don’t want to.

I would think that a clean face, groomed eyebrows and a smile is more than enough (or should be), but with that said, I do caution you to consider at least these 5 items:

  1. a little under eye concealer if you have dark bags like I do
  2. some eyeliner and/or mascara
  3. blush to brighten up your face
  4. a tinted lip balm
  5. a light dusting of face powder to keep the shine down (if you have an oily face like I do)



Women who wear a little makeup (not caking it on!), make more money and look more professional to others in the office. It is sad but true.



I do find that without makeup, people find I look tired (my hereditary dark under eye bags don’t help), and tell me so. *sigh*

I need a LITTLE makeup, and that is the minimum I wear most days to the office.

Keep it simple, I say. There’s no need to wear foundation, do shimmery bronzers, false eyelashes or any of that fancy stuff but it does make people see you in another light.


Your final wardrobe to start with (if I were you) would be:

      2 sheath/wrap dresses: Simple, sharp, chic tailoring
      2-3 blouses: Silky, fluid blouses in neutral prints or colours
      2 short toppers or blazers: To cover shoulders and arms
      1 cardigan: To be cosy or as a layer underneath a blazer, also acts as a topper
      2 ankle pants: Navy and charcoal grey
      2 pencil skirts: Black is classic and burgundy maybe
      1 flowy trench jacket (in a khaki, or a beige for maximum versatility)
      2 pairs of wedge heels (one nude or a print, and dark brown or black)
      1 pair of ballet flats (commuting wear)

With the above, you should be good for 2 even 3 weeks of outfits when you just mix and match all the pieces together.

I would also like to note that you will still need basic winter wear (a coat, scarf, etc) but I haven’t included that in here because this is just an office wardrobe after you remove your jacket.

I also like having at least 3 pairs of shoes because you can’t wear the same pair day in and day out without giving it a rest, letting it air out and to let the smell disappear from all the sweating your feet do during the day.


  • Ika

    Thanks for including Hijab style work wear, I live in Indonesia and wearing Hijab myself. I have poor style and really like your style. I keep looking forward for your Instagram post for inspiration LOL.

  • Corianne

    I love a couple of good dresses. As long as you have some neutral/matching toppers, you don’t have to think about outfit coordination that much. If you can, find dresses/clothing that don’t need ironing 😉

  • SP

    The layered looks nice, but that would be way too hot in some places. I’ve been struggling to find conservative outfits that I can wear outside. I’ve struggled to find stylish full coverage outfits for trips to the UAE, and mostly end up in relatively bland pants + long sleeve tops for work. There aren’t that many affordable long skirts, and most of the dresses in the example posted are too much leg for ultra conservative countries. For casual outings, I like the look of a maxi skirt, a tank top, and a long sleeve over top, not buttoned but tied at the waste. It isn’t a loose as locals wear so it gives me some shape, but I still feel that I”m covered enough. I just feel too BLAH wearing loose everything.

    When I’m at my home office, I mostly wear jeans now – because that is what my coworkers wear and I try to blend in. I still wear nice blouses/tops rather than t-shirts. I don’t wear heels (partly because I’m tall, partly because they are impractical, partly because no one wears them).

    I rarely wear make-up, and I’m in a niche where it really doesn’t affect my bottom line. I understand that it often does, but it really truly doesn’t in my specific workplace.

    Sill, I also don’t wear it out of protest – I’d take the hit to my own bottom line to help change expectations on this. I also know that it can’t affect me that much, even if it statistically has an impact. The more respected and otherwise very polished/professional women ignore the expectation, the more normalized it becomes. I’m actually now interested to see the studies/statistic about it affecting pay…. I believe they exist, but I wonder the methodology and the extent of this.


      Thank you for your insight! I have never been there to UAE but I suppose if you have to just wear a long potato sack, that’s what you’ll have to do.

      • SP

        Haha, it is not that bad. I generally can wear dress pants and an appropriate blouse, but I have a hard time picking an outfit that I find feminine or cute. And my dress pants aren’t as loose as something the locals would wear, but I think it is still fine.

  • Irene

    I really like this post! It is true about the make up, and putting in an effort does make a difference to your financial bottom line. This has me feeling conflicted…

    If you feel like doing another post like this, you could base it on my current wardrobe conundrum. I’m starting shift work at a mine in a couple of weeks. 7/7 fly-in/fly-out rotation and I have to wear safety boots, must be covered to the wrist, need to pop coverals on at a moments notice, it can be -30 degrees or +30, I can’t have loose flying hair, hoodies aren’t allowed, no jewelry is permitted, and I have to look professional enough to meet with GMs and VPs.

    I’m currently considering lumberjack-chic, or high-tech fashionable hiking gear. Lol.


      Makeup is really something I am conflicted about, but have resigned myself to doing it.

      Sure, I will certainly do a post for you 🙂 This is a tougher one!


      You know, I can’t even make a post out of it because I know exactly what I’d wear.

      Long sleeved top (one of those moisture wicking ones) in a dark charcoal grey or navy blue… or a striped sweater of some sort if it is cold and not warm / humid.

      Or do layers.. a moisture wicking long-sleeved shirt and layer another one on top or a striped sweater.

      Hair tied back in a tight French bun on top of your head or at the nape of your neck


      Pants that are either ponte jersey thick legging pants that look like pants, or high-waisted super comfortable jeans (they’re pricey though, my favourite AG Farrahs), or if you can’t wear jeans to meet with GM and VPs (why not!?) then I’d go with some slim ankle pants.

      Coveralls (obviously)

      Safety boots

      No jewellery! Just wear makeup instead.

      • Irene

        Thanks for the tips – I think I need to invest in some really nice jeans and just stick with plain long sleeved tops. I’m looking for some nice vests to wear overtop as well. But it isn’t really the season for that yet.

        I’m also looking for a wedding ring replacement.. Apparently, I need to wear a sign that says, “married, unavailable, not interested, and F-off”. I’m looking for a non-metal ring. I’m allowed to wear jewelry that isn’t conducting, I probably should have specified that.


          Really nice jeans but only if they won’t get ruined. I LOVE my AG Farrah high rise jeans for supreme comfort. The Gap has nice long-sleeved cotton tops… and vests, well we have to keep an eye out for it but it could be another layer that you may not need?

          Hmm.. so plastic? There are some nice options on Etsy if you search “plastic ring” but unless it’s metal, I find it is hard to have it look legit..

    • Michelle...

      I feel your pain Irene!
      I work in a climate-controlled lab so need closed toe/closed heel, no bare legs, hair tied back. I wear a lab coat most of the time and my job is pretty physical so need clothes that move with me.

      Nobody would bat an eyelid if I turned up in a ratty t-shirt, trackpants and running shoes but I’m not letting myself to descend to that!

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