I received a blog comment from a lawyer looking for tips on conservative workplace style.

Could you do a post on dressing in boring conservative environments (where the “boring” outfits are deemed most appropriate) but still having some style? Unfortunately many of the outfits on he ‘interesting” side I could not wear in my conservative work environment, although I want to.

I wanted to touch on this topic today because I think that dressing stylishly highly conservative workplaces does come with their share of challenges because of all the limitations put on female employees.  Unfortunately, I did not hear back from this particularly blog commenter for more information on her office’s specific dress code, so I decided to air on the side of caution and assumed that all the common conservative rules applied, like no bare legs, open toed shoes and that more conservative colors are preferred.  What I also assumed, based on the particular blog post she commented on that wild color isn’t looked upon fondly either.

With all these limitations, it would be easy for female employees to feel like they would have to abandon all fun and fashion from their wardrobe but, while faster, trendier items are probably off limits, this does not have to be the case.  The majority of my clients work in law and finance, another conservative workplace, and not one of these clients have ever felt like the rules have forced them to abandon dressing stylishly.  With that said, here are some tips to consider.

Fit isn’t just important, it’s crucial

In a conservative workplace, well fitting clothing isn’t just important, it’s crucial.  Unlike environments where lots of accessories, bright colors or easy pieces that can distract, conservative tailored pieces can’t be hidden.  Therefore, they need to fit well.  Every single one of my clients who work in a corporate environment put a call in to their tailors immediately after shopping.  Not only do they get their suits and tailored pieces to fit perfectly but they will even go so far as to fix minor imperfections in pieces like tanks, blouses, and more.  In order to look pulled together in a conservative workplace please pay mind to how your clothes fit you.

What should also be said regarding fit is the lengths of things you choose.  Mini skirts, plunging necklines and even sleeveless pieces are often looked down on.  Keep your skirt lengths no shorter than just above the knee, try bending over a few times in a blouse to make sure it sits high enough and nobody can see down it, and sleeveless tops and dresses are often only acceptable when they are covered with a layering pieces.  Certainly each workplace varies but, generally speaking, these are some things to consider.

Conservative style is in the small details

Conservative workplace styleWhile some conservative work environments are not the place for loud bib necklaces, chandelier earrings or loud prints, there are still some small details that can be embraced.  In fact, you don’t have to do a lot with conservative outfits to elevate them because the bases of these looks are so simple.  Take, for example, this woman I happened to see waiting for the subway to work this past week.  in this photo she is wearing a plain black suit.  There is nothing earth shattering about it, it’s just a simple suit.  However, what made this outfit look stylish was the use of the tan shoes.  What could have been a suited look that got lost in the shuffle had she worn black pumps, the tan shoes make the outfit look way more sophisticated, polished and elegant.  The shoes are also completely conservative workplace appropriate.  They’re not too high, they’re classy and professional.  Appropriateness does not have to mean dull or lifeless.


Conservative workplace shoes do not have to be boring.  In fact, with the simplicity of corporate outfits, shoes can be the place where some pop and excitement is added.  However, some parameters on what is and isn’t acceptable should still be established.  I do have many clients in high levels at their conservative workplaces who do go a little crazy with their shoes, and many who do wear peep toes.  I am not against a platform heel for a corporate look but these types of platforms should still be understated and elegant, not “weekend whooping it up” in look.  There is a big difference.   What is important is to follow the guidelines of your workplace.  If open-toed shoes are not allowed, don’t wear them.  You also want to avoid shoes that have any bling, frilly bows are too girly.  You want your shoes to enhance, not distract from you or your outfit.  Choose styles that are elegant and feminine.

Conservative workplace style is timeless

Conservative style is usually timeless and most of the pieces, like good suits, tailored dresses, skirts and pants rarely go out of style.  Often female executives hang on to suits for years and typically they are an investment.  This is not to say, if your budget doesn’t allow for it, all will be lost if you don’t have designer suits in your closet, however, forgo the fleeting trends for pieces that will stand the test of time in look and then use your accessories to add some subtle interest.

What would also be smart would be to invest in one good handbag, even if it is the only one you use.  It doesn’t have to be high-end designer but it shouldn’t be cheap looking either.  When it comes to conservative style at work less is more and the less should be of good quality.

And speaking of subtle

Accessorizing is important in all environments, even conservative workplaces.  Yet, for the most serious of corporate offices, being subtle with how looks are finished is something to be mindful of.  Yes, you can add color, and you can definitely add accessories but these pops should be minimal in size and not overly done.  What also needs to be subtle is the noise that accessories make and/or the fuss they create.  If you wear a scarf make sure it stays in place and all jewelry should make little to no noise.

Conservative workplace style

Below are three looks that fall into the conservative workplace to give you some more tips and outfit inspiration so you can pull a look together that is appropriate and stylish.

Outfit #1- A dress and suit

Dress suits have become a huge favorite for most of my corporate clients.  Not only is wearing one easier, but skirt suits create a feminine, yet tailored, look.  Additionally, the jackets can be removed and the dresses still look polished.

While pink would hardly be my first choice as a conservative workplace shade, feminine colors can be done if they are in more professional fabrics, like tweed, bouclé and other tailored solid fabrics.  This dress and jacket from Boden is perfect for work without femininity being sacrificed.  To also make this outfit look more corporate I added a pair of navy stud earrings which enhance the outfit more than a simple pair of diamond studs or pearl earrings would.  Earrings can be a fantastic way to add some excitement to a look, but some rules should be followed for very conservative work environments.  First, the earrings should not hang longer than the point at which your jawbone angles, and the size of your stud earrings should not be larger than your eye socket.  Anything longer or bigger will create a distraction.

Next, I added a pair of classic navy pumps.  I chose these because they are understated but not necessarily boring.  Lastly, I chose a blue investment handbag from Prada.  The beauty of an investment handbag in a versatile color is that it adds something extra to the outfit but won’t be carried all day.  Once the bag gets tucked away the outfit becomes less bold, however, while it is being carried, the handbag creates a nice finish that is unexpected.  Even though this handbag is expensive, I am going to help you get your money’s worth by using it in every outfit in this post.  This is the goal of a good investment bag is to use it with everything.

Outfit #2- A suit

I have already established the importance of tailoring your suits.  Beyond that, there are a few more things you can do to make your suited looks feel less like a uniform, even if you are wearing simple white layering pieces underneath them, like I am here with this Reiss suit consisting of a  skirt, jacket and pants.

First, I added a tan pair of low heeled pumps from Trotters to elevate these suiting pieces to something a bit more sophisticated in appearance.  Try it with one of your grey suits (and navy, brown or black) to see how different and more elegant your suit will look by changing your black shoes to tan or beige ones.  Next, instead of the expected string of pearls, I added a multi-strand necklace that is as subtle as pearls but a lot more stylish.  Lastly, I used the same Prada handbag.  The beauty of such a neutral outfit is it really doesn’t matter what color your investment bag is, it will work.

Outfit #3- Tailored work dress

Lastly, I want to talk about tailored work dresses, an excellent staple for the office.  Basic sheath dresses can get really boring if they aren’t accessorized or styled in a way that is interesting.  However, the dilemma for really conservative office environments is the potential limitation on what a woman can and can’t wear.  Too much color may be frowned upon, certain shoes are off limits, jewelry styles, etc.  An alternative if this is the case with you is to look for simple dresses that have interesting necklines, seams and details that offer interest while still being appropriate.

Take, for example, this dress from J. Crew.  It hits all the conservative workplace musts, like sleeves, a high enough neckline, long enough hem.  But the simple change of the neckline shape makes it a little more interesting.  With this dress I also added a very cool pair of earrings, from Stella & Dot, that are convertible from studs to chandeliers.  A great desk to dinner solution.  The outfit is finished simply with the same pair of beige heels used previously, Prada handbag and, for some richness, I added a timeless investment bracelet from David Yurman.

By combining a some or all of these tips, depending on your place of work, you should be able to pull together work looks that are both stylish and appropriate.

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