Summer Sartorial Rules for Corporate America

These days it can be confusing when trying to dress for the office. With retailers showing “secretary” dresses that hardly cover one's behind, painted-on pants paired with blazers, and cleavage-baring blouses with suits, you wonder what actually is acceptable these days. Add to this a sweltering hot summer, and one could easily stray in the wrong sartorial direction. From one corporate employee to another, here’s some rules on summer office fashion that apply to you whether you’re a cubicle dweller or reside in the corner office.
summer office fashion mistakes

Even if they’re metallic or beaded, they’re still flip flops. And if they’re flip flops, they don’t belong in the office. Period.

A cardigan doesn’t make a strapless dress work-appropriate. Seriously ladies, we can still tell it is strapless. This also goes for low-cut dresses, spaghetti straps, and every other dress more appropriate for happy hour on the terrace than the boardroom.

If I couldn’t wear spaghetti straps when working at the mall, you can’t wear them to the office. When I worked in apparel, even at trendy companies like Express, we had a dress code. That dress code restricted many things like sneakers, but it also restricted revealing attire such as spaghetti straps. If I couldn’t be a 21-year old in Express with spaghetti straps, you sure as heck shouldn’t be an adult with them at work. It’s just not professional.

Even if your bra strap is the same color as your tank, it doesn’t make it invisible. A peach racerback tank with peach bra straps is still a shirt exposing bra straps. A navy x-back sundress with a navy traditional bra is still a dress exposing your lingerie. I commend your attempt, but it’s still not appropriate for the office.

Hemlines shouldn’t rise with the temperature. Your skirt should be near your knee, not near your rear. If you can’t bend down to pick up your pen or sit on a standard chair without fear of flashing, your skirt is too short.

A hoodie is not an appropriate layer for offices that blast the A/C. Even if it’s cashmere, if it zips up the front, has two pockets and a hood, it’s not professional looking. Switch to a cardigan, pashmina, or soft jacket.

White is almost always transparent. I personally think thin white cotton and twill and light-colored linen should not be worn to the office, but if you do, wear with skin-colored seamless undergarments. No lace, no bows, no stripes, and not even sheer (the better to see the cotton crotch and waistband, my dear). If it’s a dress, wear a slip, if in doubt, don’t wear it to work.

Cleavage isn’t appropriate, no matter the season. Somehow, those who understand office attire let everything literally hang out come summer. Low-cut tanks, deep Vs on wrap dresses, strapless tops under cardigans… and none of it is appropriate for the office. If you wouldn’t show your décolleté in December, you also shouldn’t in July.

Dress code still applies. If it’s business casual, that means nice pants and skirts with refined tops or a simple dress. It does not mean chino Bermudas, seersucker sundresses with flip flops, logoed tee shirts with capris, tropical printed maxis with beaded sandals, or super-short cotton skirts with ribbed tanks. This is your office, not a tiki bar. You can beat the heat without dressing for Margaritaville.

Dress for respect. Again, this is your place of work. This is how you pay your rent, buy groceries and gas, and where you should be striving to move up the corporate ladder. Dress the part, no matter how hot it is outside.

For some suggestions on appropriate office attire, please visit:

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44 Comments

  1. July 31, 2012 / 1:51 am

    I work in the lab.  Technically open toed shoes are not allowed in labs but this has never been seriously enforced in any of the labs I’ve ever worked in (undergrad, grad, now postdoc).  

  2. July 27, 2012 / 1:26 am

    Thank you thank you thank you. I agree with basically all of these, and am often appalled at “experienced” professionals who don’t adhere to these rules.

  3. Xhristinap
    July 26, 2012 / 5:29 pm

    Yes!  The slip thing is huge!  I think we’ve gotten out of the habit of wearing one, but so many retailers are getting cheap on fabric.  I found this the case with even Stylemint.  You really have to be careful and test out everything in front of a window to make sure it’s not sheer (and if it is, make sure you wear a slip).

  4. Xhristinap
    July 26, 2012 / 5:23 pm

    I think the rule should be – no cleavage.   I have very little to begin with, so I guess that’s why it’s rarely an issue for me.  But never have I seen someone’s spaghetti or bra straps flash under a cardigan…unless they’re running really fast (in which case, they’re probably shouldn’t be wearing a dress to begin with).   If I have a business meeting, I dress more conservatively, but for a day spent in front of the computer, I see no issue with a dress and a cardi (even if it has spaghetti straps).

  5. Cynthia Washburn
    July 26, 2012 / 3:48 am

    As soon as I saw that article, I thought about you and Belle from Capitol Hill Style and could picture you both shaking your heads. 

    Obviously, nobody at Lucky has ever worked anywhere but at a fashion magazine if they think any of those clothes are “work appropriate”. 

  6. July 25, 2012 / 4:36 pm

     I got married 10 years ago and people were in shock I found a dress with sleeves. It was unheard of. It was hot damn too. No poofy in sight.

  7. July 25, 2012 / 4:34 pm

    I got married almost three years ago and I absolutely did not want a strapless dress.  I hate the way my arms and the fat around my shoulders looks in a strapless dress. I didn’t even know I had pudge there!  I found a gorgeous tank style dress and I loved it and so did my husband.  I love that no one can tell WHEN I got married, too!

  8. April S.
    July 25, 2012 / 4:30 pm

    I work in an academic science environment as well, and sandals are always a no-no – we have to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes at all times due to health/safety codes.  I’m curious – do you work in a lab environment, or are you in an office?  

  9. July 25, 2012 / 4:21 pm

     Yep, I got married 8 years ago and it was either strapless, halter, or had a lace jacket over strapless.  Oooh Sonia, I bet your dress was gorgeous!

  10. Sonia
    July 25, 2012 / 4:20 pm

    I got married 10 years ago and strapless gowns were EVERYWHERE!  But, I was able to find a “spring” wedding dress that had was fitted, long and had two straps.  My husband couldn’t stop smiling when he saw it! 

  11. July 25, 2012 / 4:08 pm

    I think some strapless wedding dresses are lovely; I really don’t want to offend anyone.  BUT, I do find the fact that it is the default 1. not right for most body shape and 2. repetitive as hell. 

  12. anya
    July 25, 2012 / 4:00 pm

    I bought a straples wedding dress and added straps manually. And then changed my mind and added a single halter strap. Still, very frustrating.

  13. MissRae33813
    July 25, 2012 / 3:52 pm

    I totally appreciate your point of view but I do I think a cardigan can cover a lot of things and look appropriate. Look in the mirror and you will know. I am a lawyer in a government office and for office days ( as opposed to court), I routinely substitute a cardigan for a jacket over any number of tops. I have a million of them. Of course, I wear appropriate undergarments. Oh- And I do slip off my heels at my desk and go barefoot slipping them back on when needed. Saves the feet.

  14. July 25, 2012 / 3:50 pm

    One more for the list.

    YOU MUST WEAR UNDERWEAR AND A BRA. MUST.

    I can’t believe it needs to be said but there is this one person I see…. 

    I disagree about the hoodie but I wear mine “fancy” so eh. As a general it probably isn’t a good idea if you are too causal otherwise.

  15. July 25, 2012 / 3:39 pm

    It really depends. I wear some sandals like that to work, but others I have I feel are too casual. I have some leather flip flops, same style as rubber ones but with braided leather for the thong part and I wore them to work once and then felt they were too casual. However, I have flat leather sandals of the same brand and color that are a thong but with an ankle strap and they seem to be a bit more polished and work-appropriate.

  16. alice
    July 25, 2012 / 3:33 pm

    I was wondering if thong sandals or strappy flat sandals would be considered appropriate (not flip flops, something rather sturdier/dressier that does not make that awful sound when you walk).  I work in an academic science environment so the dress code is definitely nonexistent, but I am just curious!  Interestingly, while everyone is fairly dressed down (except me), sexy is something I NEVER see.  

  17. Deanna
    July 25, 2012 / 2:33 pm

    I Love this and couldn’t agree more. I work in management at a large manufacturing company and will split my day between my office, 72 degrees, and the production floor, 104 degrees. If I can make it through the summer sans miniskirts, shorts, and spaghetti straps anyone can.

  18. kathy
    July 25, 2012 / 2:28 pm

    Such a great comment! I got married 22 years ago and wore a long-sleeved dress (it was November) but you can’t even find a wedding dress right now with even spaghetti straps. WHO decided that the strapless dress was the ONLY way to go when getting married?!?

  19. J Alba
    July 25, 2012 / 2:27 pm

    Thanks for this post. I do appreciate them and find it extremely helpful for me when trying to decide what should and shouldn’t be in my office attire wardrobe.

  20. Anamarierk
    July 25, 2012 / 2:24 pm

    I’m an attorney in a law firm in Minneapolis , which has a very casual culture, dress code included.  My biggest pet peeves – being asked why I’m “so dressed up” on a daily basis – I have my own version of business casual; the flip flops on Fridays (and sometimes other days); and BARE FEET IN A LAW OFFICE most days of the week.  I’ve mentioned this to our HR/office manager (male) and he has asked people to stop, but figures there are more important issues.  Like keeping the refrigerator stocked with sodas and emptying the office dishwasher.  Seriously.

     

  21. July 25, 2012 / 1:54 pm

    The tyranny of the strapless dress in general needs to end. How many people do they actually look good on and how many women have an appropriate bra that they aren’t always tugging at when wearing said dress?  VERY FEW.

  22. July 25, 2012 / 1:39 pm

     Unfortunately, Lucky is a magazine I adored a decade ago and now I find to be in the ranks of Glamour – pointless, bad advice, and just encouraging women to worry too much about things that aren’t very important.  Did an intern without any real office experience write that piece? With many of the garments they suggested, if my employee came to work in them I would possibly send them home or down the street to Gap or Ann Taylor for a new outfit!

  23. kathy
    July 25, 2012 / 1:38 pm

    This is so timely for me. I work in a tiny nonprofit, and our dress code is officially business casual, but some of the women I work with think it’s “whatever you would wear to the gym.” In the winter, I’d sometimes wear a nice pair of trouser jeans, a nice top, and a jacket, and a coworker of mine would always point out that I was wearing jeans. (We can wear jeans on Fridays, although I tend to dress them up too.)  Meanwhile, she’s in wrinkled, baggy khakisand an ill fitting top, and I just want to say, “Come stand next to me and tell me who looks better.” 

    I have been especially disgusted this summer with the dress of some of my coworkers. Flip flops are rampant here and it drives me nuts to hear “flip flip flip” when they walk by my office. Then they complain at lunch that no one respects them! Really? Why not, do you think? Perhaps if you weren’t wearing something out of Flashdance every day and showed up in something professional, people might be more likely to listen to you. 

    My job is a dead end job right now, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to just give up on my appearance. I take pride in the way I dress and regardless of what everyone else thinks is acceptable, I’ll keep dressing appropriately for an office environment.

    Thanks as always for such a great post!

  24. July 25, 2012 / 1:36 pm

     LOL when I worked in IT, the dress code seemed to be tee shirts depicting comic book characters, hoodies, wrinkled too-short khakis, white socks and Adidas flops so I totally know what you’re saying! 🙂  Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but even when I worked with the coders, I still dressed in the way I felt was appropriate and respectful to the firm and clients and I think it helped me get to where I am now :).  And hear hear, keep it G-rated at the office!

  25. July 25, 2012 / 11:13 am

    No apologies needed, I love discussion in the comments & liked reading your point of view. Thank you!

  26. racheliacovou
    July 25, 2012 / 10:36 am

    I agree with most of this, though I do think there can be some leeway depending on the time/place. 
    I work in a large, corporate environment, but like Xhristinap I may be happy to wear spaghetti straps in the office (though with a heavy duty strapless bra – I am a 32DD and well versed in supportive-but-not-showy undergarments!)  I wouldn’t, however, go to a client meeting wearing just a strappy dress.  I always keep a cardigan or blazer at my desk, just in case, and more often than not always have it on anyway (it does get very cold with the AC!) 
     
    Similarly, I am happy to go sans tights in the summer if I’m just having a day at my desk, but I always keep flesh coloured tights in case of an impromptu meeting.  I hate them, but I would never go to a client bare legged – maybe that’s just me, but I think it looks really unprofessional.  Recently some of my colleagues have started wearing leggings (actually banned on our dress code policy!) – AWFUL.  So revealing and inappropriate!

    I’m 26.  My usual summer wardrobe is narrow ankle length trousers, a sleeveless/short sleeved top (usually in a non-jersey fabric) that covers my cleavage, a cardigan/blazer for the chill of the
    AC, and heels.  I would always plan to wear a suit/very smart, conservative dress to see clients.

    Apologies for the long comment!

  27. July 25, 2012 / 8:27 am

     I think you have an amazing blog. :)I am actually in need for this  info. .. thanks a lot for the share..

  28. A.
    July 25, 2012 / 3:02 am

    oh. my. goodness. i work in a very casual workplace for half of my work week and i would never be caught dead in a miniskirt there, no matter how demure my top was. i work with one girl that regularly wears short shorts, belly-revealing tops, and strapless tops and dresses. she’s many years younger than i am and this is more of a summer job for her, as opposed to a career in my case, but i still think that she makes inappropriate work outfit decisions.

  29. Guest
    July 25, 2012 / 1:08 am

    This is fantastic!  I would add to this that no matter how hot it is, you should always wear the proper undergarments.  Unless you are a 12 year old, a supportive, well-concealed, bra is not an option, it’s mandatory.  And, while we’re at it, wear a slip (or half slip) with that thin fabric.  Call me old fashioned, but I don’t need to see everything as you walk down the hall.  Most offices are air conditioned, so there’s no reason to under-dress.

  30. July 25, 2012 / 12:22 am

    Good stuff this. And no flip-flops. It’s hard to believe some peeps still have to be told this 🙁

  31. crtfly
    July 25, 2012 / 12:17 am

    I had another comment. My biggest pet peeve along these lines is the insistence of some employees on going barefoot in the office. It might feel really good on the tootsies on a super hot day, but it is a health and safety issue. Even at our casual offices, if someone from HR had seen these barefoot employees, they would have been written up. Yes, they had ‘shoes’  (flip flops0 with them, but they left them under their desks.

    If they had a foot injury while barefoot, I’m not sure that Workers’ Comp would completely cover them. They’re fortunate that they didn’t find out. The relevant supervisors had to get a bit rough with them to get them to wear shoes.

    Chris

  32. crtfly
    July 25, 2012 / 12:10 am

    Thank you Allie!

    I don’t care how young and how fantastic a body a woman has. If she wants to be considered as a possible future Director, VP, or even CEO, better to be dressed professionally. Sexy clothes might get her plenty of date requests but not likely that corner office.

    I have a friend who is a beautiful natural blonde. She looks like a princess out of a Scandinavian fairy tale. Especially when she was very young, she had a difficult time getting the male employees and bosses to take her seriously. She is brilliant, creative, and talented. Only wearing rather conservative suits every day gave her a fighting chance.

    Chirs

  33. July 25, 2012 / 12:02 am

    Well, in Silicon Valley, the hoodie is considered everyday office wear year-round (see: Mark Zuckerberg ;-), & flip-flops are no big deal. That’s the dregs of hacker culture for you, & mostly on guys who have no sense of style anyway! But I do agree, summer is no excuse to show skin at work — keep it G-rated, please.

  34. Sonia
    July 24, 2012 / 11:24 pm

    High five to YOU, Allie!  Call me old-fashioned (okay, an old school old lady) but strapless dresses, flip flops, sheer blouses, super skin tight pants or jeans, that layered look with straps showing prominently beneath a stretched-out looking large top…UGH!   

  35. SarahHulbertStyle
    July 24, 2012 / 10:45 pm

    Amen, Allie! Amen! We need to show that that we are talented and capable women who use our brains and our talents (not our lady parts hangin’ outta our clothes) to climb the corporate ladder. I am busty, so the bra one is tough for me, but I go to great lengths to make sure that people are noticing my eyes, my smile, and my work ethic -not my inappropriate VPL. 

  36. Asnixon
    July 24, 2012 / 10:44 pm

    I should post this in our work bathroom. I can’t believe the girls with incredible educations and good jobs dress like tramps. Today I had turn my face to hide my expression at the short skirt, camisole type top and flat flip flops, on the same person…with a higher level position than me, and 15 years younger, maybe it’s an age thing

  37. April S.
    July 24, 2012 / 10:43 pm

    I agree with all the above.  Even in offices where the dress code is loose, I find that erring on the side of professional is the best way to go.  I always think of dressing for the job I want, not necessarily the job I have.  And even if you are not aiming for the corner office, it never hurts to project a professional appearance whatever your position.

  38. July 24, 2012 / 10:42 pm

    The problem is that for every woman who wears a spaghetti strap garment properly, there are six who think a shelf bra of a tank is enough support for her C-cups, has inches of cleavage on display, has the cardigan constantly flying open to show not only the straps but her bra, or wears something more appropriate for an evening wedding under that J. Crew Jackie cardigan. There are always those who show there are exceptions to the rule, but those women are few and far between and rarely does one realize when she is the one who isn’t carrying it off.

    I have worked in industries as varied as construction, government, retail, publically-traded corporations and tiny nonprofits and I don’t think any of the things I listed are appropriate in any of those industries. Like you, I have seen women who can wear such items in a proper manner, but they are quite rare.

  39. July 24, 2012 / 10:22 pm

    I think it’s even harder in offices like mine where our dress code specifically says that flip flops are okay – the line is so fine to begin with that’s it’s really easy to cross it.

    The skirt-length rule (closer to your knees than your rear – I love it!), no cleavage and no visible bra straps should be no-brainers even in a casual-casual office like mine. But I see it every single day – and not just from the interns or young assistants.

    I hate to have to add that backless tops also should not be worn in the office. Even if you’re wearing a demi-cami to hide your bra straps.

  40. Xhristinap
    July 24, 2012 / 9:45 pm

    Oh, I don’t know.  These “rules” are a bit hars in some respects.  I guess it depends on your industry, but in my opinion, spaghetti straps with a cardigan and some nice accessories (to dress it up) can be office appropriate.

    I would add something about appropriate heels too.  I can’t believe the extreme heels people sometimes wear to the office – not hidden platforms….platforms bordering on stripper shoes…the kind they can’t even walk gracefully in.  Now there’s a true “don’t”.

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