Rocket's Gorgeous in the City

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Rocket by Request: Warm weather office wear

As requested by Bruce, I've put some thought into what clothes you can wear to the office as the weather warms up.

There are many obstacles to consider: I've had the misfortune of being in the freezing part of the office under the air conditioning and had to keep my jacket on all Summer (inside anyway). You need to be comfortable to work well, but for many of us, the worth of our work will be judged on our presentation and grooming; these goals may be in conflict. Women seem to have the advantage in that our workwear is less well defined and most things can be changed to fit it, but as I have said before, many women are in danger of appearing unprofessional when dressed in casual/street clothes that seem appropriate.

Business dress is essentially timeless. Colours and cut change slightly each year, but a classic suit can remain impressive for ten years until the mode has dramatically altered. I tell all my male professional friends to buy new ties every season, but essentially the basic black business suit from the '80s is unchanged 20 years later. (You need to banish your 70s brown suit with flares and your safari suit. That was fun, but it's time to be serious now - we're all working very hard on Business here!)

By the way, my male professional friends usually ignore me. I buy my boyfriend a tie every now and then and shuffle the ties in his tie drawer so that the passable ones are in the front, but many people I know are getting around in their awful old ties and nobody could say why they look a little clueless, but they do and it's because their tie looks so stupid!

Business dress is not a fashion, rather a loosely defined uniform. Your goal is to appear as though you are in uniform. The key to it is in the details: collar and buttons, black and white, good tailored fit, pinstripes (if appropriate), sparing use of colour.

Let's look at some specific garments:

You want to wear shorts, so wear lightweight slacks. I used to love going to cheap shops like Westco and getting super-lightweight polyester pants to wear to work. They're in the cheap shops because they're a simple design, and the polyester works. People expect it to be hot like nylon, but if it's woven, it can be surprisingly cool and light. You can also get some very good linen/cotton/polyester blends that won't crumple by the end of the day.
The details: Look for a close fit (but not a tight one) and a straight leg design. Try to get machine washable, unless your washing machine is a front-loader with a hand-wash cycle. If you are clever you can hang them so they dry flat. It's not so important during Summer, but in the in-between seasons, you can give them a crisp look by ironing a fold into the front and back as a heavy suit would be pressed.

You want to wear a skirt, so wear one, if you are a woman. Unfortunately, men don't have the luxury - business wear is about fitting in, and most people realize you won't if you "cross-dress". Just a few notes: a business suit for a woman is a skirt and matching jacket in a dark or neutral colour with a white shirt, stockings and matching shoes. That is, research has shown this is the safest outfit to wear if you want to be seen as a professional and not as a woman. Admittedly, this research is a bit old: it's quoted in The Beauty Myth. If you choose to wear a skirt, make sure it's part of a suit. You don't need to wear your jacket all the time, but you should have it around. Wear knee-length (just above or below depending on what suits you) and choose a tailored fit.

Very overweight women can get loose, long skirts to wear to work. I usually find that they are awful patterns and cheap-looking styles, but with more fashion shops for larger women, it's getting better. If you're not certain about how you'll look in a skirt, or if the specific skirt you're looking at is professional or street wear, then my suggestion is the lightweight pants suggested above. With a nice business shirt, you can even get a tie-around or elastic waist - just wear a reasonably conservative shade (dusty or muted colours or something up-to-the-moment, tan and grey) and if you press a seam into the front and back, it will look like an ordinary pair of business pants in a comfortable fabric.

You want to wear a singlet, so wear a white shirt with short sleeves, a collar and buttons. The collar and buttons will always save you! If you're wearing black pants you can wear almost any crisp shirt - something with stripes and sleeves, something white and sleeveless... Women can get vests to wear alone, which can be worn with the matching pants or skirt, or with black or maybe navy pants. If you're wearing navy pants, you can wear any shirt with blue in it. You can be a little creative, but don't overdo it. You should wear exactly one colour (other than black or white) somewhere in your outfit (grey counts as a colour); patterns should be limited to simple stripes.

Women who want to keep their look a little more professional can probably find lightweight tops with three-quarter sleeves. I've got one with a pinstripe weave, i.e. white pinstripes woven into a white top - it always looks great with everything!

You want to wear a dress, so wear one only if it's very professional. Business dresses exist, but they're very specific. You need it to look fashionable and businesslike at the same time. I've seen it done with clever use of colour and cut, usually on a Meditteranian with gorgeous olive skin (or at least a very dark tan) and a very slim figure. Good luck!

You want to wear thongs, so wear something else. No, really - pretty shoes aren't professional, professional shoes are professional! The usual deal is pumps (or Court shoes) for the ladies and tie-up shoes for the men. In Summer, ladies should wear something similar to their winter pumps, but you can open it up to get some air circulation. Try some elegant mary-janes or use your judgement with some mostly-closed sandals. Men, you can wear those nice loafers I've seen around this season. They're very sleek. As the weather warms up, you'll be able to find nice ventilated shoes.

Girls - wear toe socks! They feel great!

A few tricks

Wear a jacket (one that matches your trousers, of course) for arrival and departure. Keep it on for up to half an hour after you arrive and before you leave so that everyone sees you in it. Say hello and goodbye to everyone, unless nobody does that in your office. Wear the jacket at any presentations or meetings you might be going to. It will feel weird but it's a good compromise.

Do your hair well and make sure your makeup (if any) reflects "business conservative". Women who don't wear makeup might consider mixing a little foundation into some moisturiser, and wearing a basic brown eyeshadow, mascara and lipgloss. If you're well-groomed, you're halfway there.

Fit people with beautiful figures and olive skin can wear less. It's a type of grooming. If you're not one of them, don't take your fashion cue from them.

One colour! Canberra usually gets this wrong and wears three. And wear dark pants.

For the super-strict dresscode
If you're not lucky enough to work in the sort of office that relaxes its dress codes in Summer, you are not entirely out of luck.

Look for a suit made of light woven fabric. Get a loose cut. I'd suggest hemp, but it's hard to find.

Wear a Summer shirt. There are Summer shirts and Winter shirts - the Summer ones are cooler because they're woven from natural fibres and not at all fussy. They also come with a gentler neckline - an extra centimetre means that you can relax your tie without it looking relaxed. This is fashion's way of undoing the top button and tugging down the tie by just a centimetre.

Wear cool socks and shoes. It makes a big difference. You can use a little corn starch on your feet if you get sweaty shoes. Then go straight to a good shoe shop and ask for cooler shoes.

You don't need to wear your jacket at your desk if you wear it at arrival and departure time, and lunch time. (Assuming you're the sort of person that has lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant...) If you want extra wallop, then wear your jacket when you go to meetings and even just around the office.

Women in this sort of office should really do what the men do. If Bruce can't get away with short sleeves, then his female colleagues should be sesitive to this gender-gap. The first woman who goes to work in a skirt-suit and long-sleeved (3/4 at least) white shirt, with stockings and pumps is saying "The other women are slacking off while you all sit here and suffer, but I'm here to work, just like you men". The women will probably subtly pick up on this and treat her differently, too...

Between seasons
Keep it flexible with layers of lightweight fabrics, or wear a Summer suit with an overcoat. Wear your Summer shoes and make sure your sunglasses are smart.

Resist the urge to wear street clothes to work even if they are smart. Business clothes are more than just smart - they're business!

As always, this is a democratic blog - hence the comments page. Your input can be valuable to other readers.


  • At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Bruce said…

    No pisstake was intended Ms R.

    I was wondering if I was out of touch.

    Men have some respite under the current fashion of bold shirts. A strong check, pinstripe or even color can make up for the lack of a tie.

    My brother-in-law has just returned from a year in London where the tie has all but dissappeared, but french cuffs and links are de rigeur. I will be updating my wardrobe accordingly, although at my usual glacial pace.

    Thanks to your affirmation I shall feel free to look down my nose at underdressed women in the future. At least in the workplace. Outside they dress as little as they can get away with.

  • At 4:50 PM, Blogger Rocket said…

    Outside the office, I look forward to rollerblading in hot pants and a bikini.

    I work by myself, and I expect people would be completely happy to see me in jeans, but I always present well. It gives the impression that I have been doing this for a long time and am serious about it.

    Both true, so why settle for anyone assuming less?

    A strong check is OK if you're young. As long as it's in gentle colours. Street fashion is sometimes worn at work, but business fashion is something totally different.

    Essentially, what you wear to work is the same as a school uniform... minus the complaints school kids usually have about "this particular uniform doesn't fit well" or "I hate this particular colour".

    No tie but fancy cuffs.... I do not like it Sam-I-Am. Maybe in London, eh?

    In Australia, I would basically assume the opposite (but men who wear nice cufflinks and a good watch have yummy hands!) and make sure it's a good tie - Pierre Cardin now has a polyester range available at Myer (silk is cruel and pointless).

    Bruce, kudos to you for updating your wardrobe slowly. Anything that needs to be replaced after a year has no place being there. Even my trendy gear has a two to three year lifespan.

    By the way, I don't condone looking down your nose at anyone based on appearance. But of course you were joking.

  • At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It's too bad that men can't wear a skirt and tights or stockings to work and be accepted. I love the feel of silky tights, especially in colder weather where just pants don't keep me warm.

  • At 2:20 PM, Blogger shrover said…

    Simple silver/chrome cuff links and a plain, elegant watch are must-haves for my wardrobe. The simpler the better


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