Serious Business for Ladies

Internet images, I like all except the one on far right – jacket and top appears frumpy to me.

If you are a lady of leisure or retired from the workforce your outfit choice each day is likely based purely on comfort and personal preferences. If you are a working woman, your choices are often dictated by a dress code from your industry, the specific company, and your individual role. Dress codes are not always so easy to interpret, yet what you wear can hugely affect your success at work.  Admittedly, this does not apply to all lines of work -however – if you are in a position to advise, to be an authority, and/or to represent a serious product/service, you darn well better look serious yourself.  This falls into a dress code zone that is not quite ‘business formal’, yet not really ‘business casual’.  Not easy to figure out, is it??

If you are receiving compliments such as “Cute shoes!” or “Love your earrings!”,  you are probably not dressed very seriously.  Your overall look should be conservative and professional, with the focus on YOU and what you have to SAY.  Here are some tips as you update your business wardrobe:

  • Stick with neutrals such as navy, black, brown, gray, camel, ivory.  Avoid loud prints and head to toe bright colors.  Some strong colors are acceptable as an accent piece, or if toned down with other neutral pieces.
  • Straight pencil skirts and sheath dresses are excellent choices, with the length no shorter than two inches above knee, ideally hitting the knee, or just below. No slits in skirts above knee.  Skirt should never be too tight, should not ride up when you sit.  Pleated, gathered, or A-line skirts are other good options if below the knee. Avoid above the knee flared skirts/dresses which are way too ‘girly’.
  • Pants are an acceptable option to skirts especially when styled with a blazer (pharmaceutical reps have worn this look for years).  Flared bottoms or boot cut must be hemmed so they do not drag on ground. Straight legs are acceptable as long as they are never ever ‘legging’ tight.  (Just found some great ‘serious’ trousers at Vince in Chestnut Hill; a waffle weave wool blend that doesn’t wrinkle, also perfect for travel.)
  • Invest in jackets/blazers and wear them often.  A well tailored jacket gives your outfit instant polish and conveys authority. If you don’t have a simple black or navy blazer, time to go shopping.
  • Avoid cardigan sweaters which are generally too casual or matronly.  The exceptions would be a fitted cardigan with decorative buttons that is ‘jacket-like’, ideally in a merino wool, a fine wool blend, or cashmere.
  • Shoes make a huge difference!  For a serious look, wear conservative closed toe shoes no higher than three inches: a classic pump, a slim boot, a kitten heel, or a cuban heel.  Save the platforms, ankle straps, and higher heels for after hours. While some flat shoes can be ‘serious’, a bit of a heel or wedge is preferable, especially if you are petite. Avoid round-toed ballet flats which do not convey authority.
  • Keep jewelry to a minimum. No statement necklaces, no dangling earrings, no noisy bangles, no obvious costume jewelry.  Choose simple pieces, ‘real’ or not.  Small hoops, stud earrings, a simple gold bangle – think understated, not flashy.
Colleague Kate dressed for serious business!
Colleague Kate dressed for serious business

Ok, you might be thinking, “This is boring. I have a closet full of cute clothes and shoes that don’t meet these guidelines!”  Yup. Absolutely right. Serious clothes are not fun, but they WILL be effective in creating the right impression and contributing to success. Trust me.

Or you might be thinking, “YOU don’t follow these rules, YOU don’t dress this conservatively.”   The answer is YES I DO – when the situation calls for it.   And remember, everyone should interpret their ‘serious style’ in their own personal way – as long as the overall message is authority, expert, trustworthy.

If you work in a ‘serious business’, was this helpful to you?  Would love to hear your thoughts.


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  • Great post! I am a lawyer in a conservative law firm (for more than 20 years) and the “rules” you mention are appropriate. Though our profession, like most, has become more casual and we don’t need to dress as formally as the top photos (except for court and big meetings), a professional look really helps convey authority. Jackets are key to this look and unmatched separates (or dresses, if conservative) are the way to have an interesting wardrobe. Jackets are available at all price points and don’t need to be expensive. I rarely wear matched suits unless I’m going to court. The look you styled in the photo is great and would work for most lawyers. You can add interest with unusual jewelry and scarves.

    • Thank you for your comments! I agree, jackets can make a huge difference…need not be pricey as long as it fits well, cuffs are not too long. I prefer unmatched separates too. As a matter of fact, I have two matched suits that I should probably get rid of!

  • I agree with MPLS…great post! I’m in a management position with a healthcare system and feel it’s important to dress professionally. Jackets and more jacket-like cardigans help me project competence and authority. Like you, I’ve got a few matched suits I should purge from my closet. I love the look of your colleague!

  • I am a teacher to elementary students learning English as a second language. I love all of the advice and pictures in this post. (I agree about the far right outfit in the first pic. I thought to myself, “Candy would NEVER wear that!) I dress in a suit for presentations to parents and faculty. However, most days, at any given time I’m sitting on the floor with 5, 6, or 7 year old students. So honestly, it wouldn’t be practical for me to dress this way all the time. But whenever the situation calls for it, I’m ready with an appropriate outfit (prefer pants over skirts when wearing a suit).


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