Ask Allie: Dressing Professionally in the Heat

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It’s already hot where I live and will only get hotter and humid. How can I look professional and stay cool? My lined suit pants are already feeling oppressive.


I’m all about dresses when the temps rise. You get the air flow, but you still look polished. Thing is, it’s all about cut and fabric. Wrong choice and you’re just as miserable as if you’re wearing acetate-lined tropical wool trousers or else you look like you’re dressed in a paper bag or ready for a Mai Tai. Luckily this spring, there’s a ton of dress styles that are perfect for the workplace as well as rising temperatures. Some I’ve seen online that would be perfect for the workplace.



The shirt dress is back and it’s brilliant for work. The tailored shape and buttoned front looks professional and the crisp cotton and fuller skirt lets you catch a breeze. Keep it knee to midi length to be office-appropriate and style it with a more professional shoe (pump, peeptoe wedge, pointed toe flat) so it looks more boardroom than garden party. If your office is more professional, choose cotton, silk, or another crisp fabric in solid colors or more sophisticated prints (pinstripes, dots, soft florals, graphic prints in neutrals or subtle shades). It’s best to shy from denim, chambray, linen, or seersucker and actual shirttail/rounded hems unless you have a creative or business casual office environment.

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Shift and Flounce Dresses

Shift dresses (and this season’s popular flounce which is a shift with a flippy hem) are cut to not cling which is perfect for steamy summer days. Fabric is important in determining whether a shift is office appropriate or ends up looking like a sack. In general, jersey, linen, denim, chambray, and any crinkle fabric will look too sloppy for the workplace. Stick to cotton, silk, and synthetics that don’t have a lot of stretch and give clean lines.

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Wrap and Faux-wrap Dresses

These aren’t your winter ponte and jersey wrap dresses. From a synthetic like matte jersey to crisp cotton, you want a fabric that won’t stick to you when the temperatures rise. You also don’t want a fabric that will cook you alive. Like a shirtdress, a wrap dress can have a fuller skirt to improve air flow. And like a shirtdress, keep it knee to midi length to look polished and professional.

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Fit and Flare Dresses

Ah the most flattering dress shape! A fit and flare is perfect for most any situation; for the office it’s important to consider fabric, print, and length. Keep it between just above the knee to upper calf so it’s neither frumpy nor twee. Keep the dressy fabrics (shantung, chiffon overlay) and the very casual fabrics (eyelet, denim) for your weekend activities and focus on prints that are more appropriate for the office (softer florals, stripes, watercolor prints, dots) instead of those for a garden wedding (cabbage roses, very bright prints).

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Dress Buying Tips for Summer Office Wear

  1. Say No to the Maxi. For me, maxi dresses are a summertime staple… but not for the office. It doesn’t matter if whether you top it with a cardigan or pair it with pumps, a maxi is too casual and reminds people of vacations. This also goes for high-low (AKA mullet) skirts and anything where there is a sheer layer longer than the lining.
  2. A Cardigan Doesn’t Cut It. Rarely can a cardigan make your spaghetti strap or strapless sundress look office appropriate. Usually the neckline is too low, and cardigans move. Quality not quantity; it’s better to wear the dress code-friendly pieces more often than try to add variety by “making do” with one of your barely-there weekend frocks.
  3. A Romper is Not a Dress. Unless you work for an extremely creative workspace (if then, you’re likely not trying to get work fashion advice from me), rompers are not acceptable workplace attire. Even when paired with a blazer, like maxis rompers make one think of music festivals, not middle management.
  4. Shoes Make All the Difference. I recommend shopping with the shoes you plan on wearing with a dress. A frock can look perfect in the fitting room and once home with your work pump can seem too flashy, too short, or too frumpy.  Along with this, shoe choice can make a dress look office appropriate, or more fitting for an evening wedding or a Sunday brunch.  Even if it's hot, consider more structured materials and a bit more coverage for a professional effect.
  5. Play with Accessories. Consider switching out a self-belt for one in a contrast color. Change up a neckline with a necklace in a different length. Switch out your regular pumps for a peeptoe wedge, or your ballet flats for a pointed-toe option. We often pull out our current season clothing and find it boring and desire to buy new. Often, being creative with accessories can give your current wardrobe a new life. A belt is far cheaper than a new dress and can get far more use in the long run!


A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. Also, although I would never encourage spaghetti straps, I find a wide strapped tank top with a cardigan & thin scarf draped artfully over the top can work really well in a business casual setting. If you’re worried about things moving & exposing your skin, try using a pretty brooch to hold things in place. I fastened both sides of a long cardigan shut with a brooch the other day (so that it looked like a buttoned blazer) & got compliments. No one was any the wiser, haha!

  2. I can’t get Jockey shorts out here so, for anyone looking for alternatives, Uniqlo also do a great bodyshorts range in a variety of colours. I find the ones with the wide lace or striped bands stay up the best, & they come with a cotton gusset too!

  3. Glad I came across you. Just had a conversation on Facebook with a friend that is having trouble purchasing clothes for business.

    I like to wear shifts. The ones here are wonderful. Just get a shawl for air conditioning or cool nights and one is good to go.

    Oh yes…when buying a dress, we do have to be mindful of the shoes we are going to wear with it. It makes all the difference.

    Glad I met you via Instagram. I’ll send this post to my girlfriend. We are both bloggers. I’m sure she will be connecting with you soon.


  4. Love the Eliza J shirt dress (#12) but why oh why do designers insist on putting chest pockets on anything for women… Is anyone really going to put anything in a pocket that is perfectly square on one’s boob? Deal breaker for this ample chested gal! But thanks for great article and lots of options! (Thanks for letting me vent on your space!)

    1. Agree! At least they don’t have a placket, like large busted women need a second nipple! Ack! I ordered this dress in 14 and it was too small in the bust, just exchanged it for a 14W. Must say the pockets aren’t as visible in person!

  5. Yup–perfect! I tend to need more casual business casual things for community advocacy meetings, and the like, and I find that a straight, knee-length, unlined skirt (with some stretch) plus a linen tee or, for more casual, slubbed cotton tee, and a nice necklace and maybe a bracelet can be sufficiently polished and tolerable in SC humidity. It also works with a sleeveless sweater.
    Sandals, loafers or structured skimmer flats, depending, or even maybe pointy oxfords.

  6. This is amazing!! Thanks so much for doing an incredibly comprehensive post. Might be helpful to hear from you about shapewear that you use in the summer and techniques for not being a sweat hog and sweating through dresses. That’s always my problem. Once I’ve taken the metro and walked to the office, I don’t look put together anymore!

    1. As a curvy, sweaty person, may I suggest you skip the shapewear? Jockey Skimmies help not only keep your thighs from chafing, but also keep your skirt from sticking.
      I read that the US Army determined that wearing a cotton tee shirt under a uniform is cooler than not wearing one. I have considered wearing a thin Hanro tank to try it out under dress clothes, or a cotton slip, but haven’t ever done it. (Vermont Country Store and Amazon sell cotton slips.)

      1. I like Kathryn usually give up on shapewear in the summer. Shifts and dresses that go in at the waist both do a great job of letting one get away with it. I too love the Jockey Skimmies and I have a couple cotton shifts that I got from buying dresses at thrift stores and cutting out the cotton slip lining. If I need to wear some sort of shapewear, I wear this underbust bodysuit from TC which is a bit like a leotard but spongy and doesn’t feel as gross in the heat http://bit.ly/1ogqvBO

  7. The last office I worked at, it was OK to wear maxi skirts and dresses. And as much as love wearing them, I refrained because I kept rolling my chair over the skirt! It’s important to remember that bit of practical advice. I also learned to keep a really nice wrap in my office (I kept a very lightweight beautiful pashmina) to deal with the cold. So many people have an old stretched out ratty-looking cardigan but I always thought it was important to have a really stylish and pretty wrap. Why look frumpy?

  8. Thank you for showing some dresses with sleeves! I was always cold in the office and sleeves were a must (and I just not wish to inflict my flappy upper arms on any one). My beef with most summer dresses is they are often too low cut, sleeveless (and with armholes cut to show too much side boob), and for me, just a wee bit too short. I love dresses and skirts in the summer, and almost always wear them with Jockey skimmy shorts to alleviate chafing.

  9. Yes to all of this!!! I have been in and out of Singapore for 6 weeks so far this year with work (and right now its the hottest month of the year, around 37 degrees C and about 90% humidity!!) so I can definitely agree with all of this post. The only thing I would add – if it’s very sweaty, skirts plus tops can be more versatile from a laundry point of view than dresses (but think A-line, not pencil, so you still get some breeze), and patterned fabrics are great for hiding sweat patches. Also if your office allows, a smart pair of flat sandals (leather/metallic) can help keep your feet cooler than closed-toe shoes (especially if you’re someone like me whose feet swell up in the heat!) – but make sure you are up to date on your pedicure so it looks like an intentional choice, rather than sloppy. Great post, Allie!

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