Etiquette: Professional Dress

“I’m a non-conformist. I don’t have to play by their rules. I’m going to wear what makes me happy.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard those words, I wouldn’t  be looking for a job because I could probably just retire to a beach somewhere and call it quits. 

The fact of the matter is, what you wear matters, especially as a woman. There are so many options that screwing it up becomes easy. This makes you easy to reject as a future employee, or as someone up for a job promotion. It’s so much easier for someone to say, “She doesn’t understand how to dress professionally,” than to evaluate you for your skills and knowledge. I know that it’s not fair, that it’s another form of social policing. I GET IT. IT IS THE WORST. But I still put on a skirt for interviews and so should you.

The fact of the matter is, before you can be a non-conformist and change the world, you’re probably going to have to conform enough to get into the system. Most of us don’t get to be “artistic” and play with shapes and colors in our clothing because we’re not on Project Runway. Most of us are on “Project Unemployed” or “Desperately Seeking Paycheck.” And even if you are employed at a fantastic job, you have to match office culture and social codes when you’re meeting clients or customers. I mean, if you worked at McDonald’s you’d have to wear the uniform, right? If you work in business culture, you have to wear the uniform, too. It’s just that the uniform doesn’t include a stupid hat. (Or maybe it does. I don’t know where you work.)

Dressing properly shows not only that you have respect for your place of business and the larger profession, but also that you understand basic social codes underlying human interaction. If that seems like a terribly broad pronouncement, that’s because it is. But its breadth does not make it less true. Knowing how to dress shows you understand how to behave, just as much as knowing how to shake hands properly or how to greet your coworkers in the morning shows you know how to interact with others. Dressing the part shows that you can play well with others.

As a basic rule, professional dress often means darker colors, very subtle prints, clothing tailored to your body that’s not body-hugging, feminine without being sexy, some jewelry as long as it’s not attention-getting or distracting, heels that are not too low or too high and that are never open-toed. If you’re getting the idea that the rules for women’s professional dress are an expression of the Madonna/Whore complex our society seems to cling to, you are not wrong. It is so easy to cross the forbidden line without even knowing you’ve done so.

So I understand the urge to break the rules. It’s all so unfair. But let me give you some advice. Conform now. Get in the door. Wear the “perfect woman” uniform. And then once nobody is watching anymore, wear those giant hoop earrings or that ruffled, overly feminine shirt. In the case of professional dress, breaking the rules in small, subversive ways will go much farther than trying to change everything at once. But at least it’s easier to fight the system from the inside, and there’s a paycheck involved.


By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

14 replies on “Etiquette: Professional Dress”

I have worked in a high level state position and as a teacher. My wardrobe is different. As a teacher, I can still wear many of my office pieces but I don’t wear them all together. I tend to go business casual…I teach young children and can’t wear jeans on painting day! But I have managed.

Personally, I am just way too uncomfortable in a dress/skirt. If I wore a dress/skirt to an interview, I would bomb it, because I’d be too cold, and too uncomfortable to sell myself. This has never prevented me from getting a job, even though I’m an administrative assistant and so in a stereotypical feminine career.

I still dress up – a nice business suit with a blazer and a nice pant has never cost me a job. I do wear a bit of a chunky heel as well, but I never go ultra-femme with it.

I will say, though, that I give a fantastic interview.

Very true. I personally hate pantyhose, but I believe it’s generally considered unprofessional to have bare legs? I love this post, it reminds me of What Not to Wear.

I intern at a nonprofit and when my supervisor talked about appropriate dress at my orientation, he said I could wear jeans sometimes because he wanted me to fit in. I don’t know if he was implying I was overdressed at the time, I was wearing a cardigan, collared blouse and dress pants.

Woops, I wore several of those no-nos. But as you say, after I got in and was solid on the spot. And I could tell colleagues to stop staring at my skirt/high heels combo because else the pretty might come off.

But journalists and writers are pretty much known for being bad dressers, so I am cut slack. Except for interviews of course, which I understand. How can you trust someone to be competent if they look like they couldn’t even dress themselves properly?

I run a teeny, tiny nonprofit, and the hardest thing for me is trying to figure out what to wear. On (rare, rare, rare) days when I am just in the office doing my thing without any meetings, I can wear whatever I want. But out in the world with meetings, it’s a tough balance.

My policy is to (try to) dress for who’s going to be on the other side of the table. In a union hall, I’m probably in jeans. With potential funders, I need a suit. I look like an idiot in fancy bosslady pantyhose at a rally, but my organization logo tee shirt is out of place at a lobby visit with an elected official. And hope that I don’t need to dress for opposite ends of the spectrum on the same day!

As someone who is about to graduate in to a decidedly casual, male dominated STEM career field I’m struggling with trying to figure out what level of formality is appropriate. Appearing overly fussy will get me overlooked just as fast as dressing too casually. The career center at school has been pretty unhelpful. They don’t exactly cater to my department, much less the very small minority of women in it. Advice from my (male) professors seems pretty contradictory too. It is all so confusing! Throwing an unusual body type in to the mix has made trying to navigate this a real adventure.

My advice is always to go more formal than less, especially as a woman. It’s advantageous to look more professional than your counterparts and shows that you take yourself seriously. As far as the body type, try everything. In your profession, you’d probably be best in well-tailored pants and a blazer or simple, but pretty blouse. And separates are a non-standard body shape’s best friend.

My main stumbling point is the interview. Some people seem to think that dress slacks+a nice blouse or button down is enough. Others immediately shriek “TOO CASUAL!” simply because it lacks a jacket. Ugh. So confusing! Mens clothing seems so much easier.

The big bag idea is good. Another option might be to go for the dressy cardigan. Something in a suit coat color that is lightweight and has some sort of interesting front (shawl collar maybe, or some sort of ruffly draped business). No pills! I’ve had a few professional women now tell me that they are an acceptable alternative to the suit coat, but someone who thinks suit coats are too formal would probably just see it as a sweater.

High-five! I am a lady already in a male-dominated STEM field (I’m a fisheries ecologist). I have no idea how helpful I can be since it’s pretty much a crap shoot when it comes to not only your specific field, but also the specific lab/office/whatever you end up working for. I will admit that I started off trying to dress on the “nicer” (relatively) side of things. I’d wear a button down with khakis and comfortable shoes when I was in the lab. But half the guys in the lab are in the field 90% of their time, so they dress in aaaanything. My PI bikes in to work and prefers sandals with socks, hiking shorts, and a t-shirt. So most of the time any kind of pants that aren’t ripped at the knees and t-shirts with no large visible stains are par for the course.

However, on days where there are visiting scientists at the lab, there are meetings going on, or when I do to workshops or conferences I am expected to step it up and dress like a professional. Luckily, this happens rarely enough that I have all of maybe 3 “professional” outfits that I can mix and match. I have a nice skirt, a professional-looking (but super comfy) black dress, and a pair of pinstripe grey slacks, plus a navy fitted button-down, a classic white tailored button-down, a kind of flowy printed shirt (for summer), and a couple of bland-but-suitable sweaters (for winter). Hell, I wore one of my super-comfy t-shirt material hippie skirts to work one day with a t-shirt and got a ton of compliments for looking nice for no reason. (I am also the *only* woman in the lab. skirts do not appear in the ranks all that often.)

I also know other STEM fields and other labs are very different. I’m incredibly lucky in that everyone there honestly judges me based on my work, not that I’ve worn the same hoodie for three days in a row (true story. I need to do laundry.). I have friends in university genetics labs that wear skirts, heels, and tidy hair 90% of the time and only get to wear jeans when the PI is out of town. I imagine the best bet is to go professional for any interviews, and subtly scope out what everyone else is wearing to get an idea of what you should be expected to wear. Yay social cues!

As another lady in a male dominated workplace, yet possibly not as dominated STEM field (chemistry = male dominated; analytical chemistry, not so much), I will echo twiddle here.

For interviews, a pantsuit with comfortable/professional shoes is a good idea. Some places like to take you on a tour of the facility, some places make you walk a considerable distance to get to the interview location, some places may require you to slip some sort of bootie over your shoes – stilettos may make things more difficult in these situations. Then, if you will be doing a presentation, as I had to do in my interview for my current job, you will be standing up for quite a while doing that. The more comfortable your body is, the more comfortable you will be.

My place of work is super informal (mfg facility) and we have uniforms available for lab folks. We require legs be completely covered in the lab, so if you wear a skirt to work, you’ll be changing into pants before anyone in the office sees you anyway. As a chemist, I was happy to know that I could wear jeans every day. As a supervisor, I limit my jeans to 1-2 times a week, and only the darker, dressier looking ones. Other days I wear khakis, or other twill pants. Rarely, I wear more dressy pants. For tops, it’s polos and button-downs. I have to always be mindful that no matter what I wear, I may need to go into the lab.

I definitely suggest scoping out what folks wear to your interview. And there’s no harm in erring on the formal side on your first day.

I remember trying to get some direction from my career center after I graduated, and they were completely clueless. They insisted I wear dresses to my interviews. As though pantsuits had not yet been invented in the 90s (I’m so old!). I cluelessly listened. Being in the South saved me from looks of incredulity and disdain. However, even in the South, I don’t see ladies in dresses for STEM interviews these days. Find a good suit, get the jacket tailored if you can, and let that be your interview uniform.

I work as a lab tech in an analytical chem lab. I went out and bought a decent blazer and skirt with a couple of blouses for my interviews. My first couple of interviews, I wore heels, but I didn’t walk very confidently in them so i switched to flats. I wore my hair in a neatish ponytail because that’s all I know how to do. I thought that I would feel overdressed, but it wasn’t that bad. Anyway, I looked SHARP. Oh, I also took in a briefcase/padfolio/binder thingie that my mom got me. I put in several copies of my resume and transcripts just to be prepared. I left my purse in my car and just stuck my phone in there. Lastly, I took my car keys off of my ridiculous lanyard and clipped them inside so all of my crap was in one easy package.

Now that I’m employed, I usually wear jeans and either a T-shirt or a tank type top with a cardigan or casual jacket. I have to wear long pants (booooo!) long sleeves, and closed-toe leather or fake leather shoes in the lab. I like to wear layers because some labs are super warm while others are so chilly I will wear a hoodie under my lab coat.

I did wear blouses with slacks for my first few days, but then I got a feel for what other people were wearing. I work in manufacturing and engineering analytical support, so I am in a few different labs. I’m not going to wear my favorite comfy cardigan in a dirty manufacturing lab when an old hoodie will do the job.

Leave a Reply