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.
After 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.
COLOURS, SHAPES, AND PATTERNS
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.
WHAT TO AVOID
LITTLE GIRL ON THE PRAIRIE
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.
UBER CASUAL WEEKENDER
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).
SECRET SEXY DANCER
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.
AS A WASHINGTON D.C. PROFESSIONAL
WRAP OR SHEATH DRESSES WITH TOPPERS
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.
SHOPPING FOR WRAP/SHEATH DRESSES:
SHOPPING FOR TOPPERS:
BLOUSES & PENCIL SKIRTS OR ANKLE PANTS
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.
SHOPPING FOR BLOUSES:
SHOPPING FOR PENCIL SKIRTS:
SHOPPING FOR ANKLE PANTS
MIDDLE EAST/NORTH AFRICA CONSIDERATIONS
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:
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.
SHOPPING FOR A FLOWY TRENCH
MAKEUP / HEELS
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:
TO HEEL OR NOT TO HEEL?
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.
SHOPPING FOR HEELS
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:
- a little under eye concealer if you have dark bags like I do
- some eyeliner and/or mascara
- blush to brighten up your face
- a tinted lip balm
- a light dusting of face powder to keep the shine down (if you have an oily face like I do)
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.