7 Ways to Cope With A Conservative Dress Code

I work in an office with a business formal dress code, which means blazers are required for both men and women. Although there’s no uniform, most people end up wearing black suits because that is simply what's easiest. I see slideshows of hip, colorful work ensembles, and I cry a little on the inside because I know that would never really fly in my office. At first, I felt that wearing these strictly professional clothes was stripping me of my individuality — but over time, I’ve realized that it is possible to show my coworkers that I’m a human being with a personality, even if I can’t wear fabulous red patterned pants.

Getting dressed in the morning is a chore when you are bound to a conservative dress code and feel like you can’t express yourself with what you’re wearing. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Certain items of clothing should never be worn to work (flip flops, anyone?), but even within the limits set my by employer, I have more leeway than I initially thought. I long for the day when I can wear jeans to work, but in the meantime, I’ve figured out these seven ways to cope.

1. Invest In Some Basics

Theory Custom Gabe Jacket in Edition, $425, Theory

There’s no getting around the fact that the foundation of my day-to-day outfit is relatively boring: A black suit isn’t exactly avant garde. But I would recommend investing the money and time in finding basics that you feel comfortable wearing and that fit you well — because you'll be wearing them all the time. The high price tags of well-tailored clothes become less daunting when you realize you’ll be wearing the same skirt at least twice a week for the next couple of years. Start with these five items: A knee-length black dress, a knee-length pencil skirt, a well-tailored pair of black pants, a black blazer, and a crisp white Oxford shirt.

2. Learn To Love Black And White

Black and white pieces of clothing are staples of my wardrobe, and in a conservative workplace, that's just the way it is. But there are benefits to limiting yourself to two colors. It simplifies your wardrobe, and frees you up to play with different textures and fabrics, as well as more daring cuts. A little black dress with a unique neckline will blend in the office environment better than a red dress, while still showing off your personal style.

3. But Don't Be Afraid Of Color

J. Crew Pencil Skirt in Super 120S Wool, $110, Jcrew

Embracing black and white doesn’t mean ignoring the rest of the rainbow, but remember that a little bit of color goes a long way. A red dress might be too ambitious for a conservative workplace, but a white Oxford shirt with a red pencil skirt is appropriate. Beware of mixing and matching too many colors. Wearing red on yellow on turquoise could make you look like an out-of-place clown.

4. Make A Statement (With Jewelry)

Repeat after me: “Statement necklaces are my friend.” They’re the quickest and easiest way to add some interest to your outfits. You can also wear a pair of statement earrings, or a statement bracelet, but don’t try to wear all the jewelry all at once, or you’ll look like you just finished playing a round of Pretty Pretty Princess. Pick one piece to dress up your black work dress or a neutral blouse, and you’ll be good to go.

5. Play Around With Polish

I’m an advocate of painting your nails in non-traditional colors, especially when your wardrobe feels drab. As long as your nails are clean, you should feel free to go a little crazy. I’ll often wear yellow nail polish when it’s raining or snowing to brighten up my day. I also like white nails: It’s still neutral but more interesting than a flesh-toned polish. Avoid long, stiletto-style nails and a ton of adornment, and let the color speak for itself.

6. Don't Be Afraid Of Animal Print

When worn correctly, animal print is basically a neutral, just way more fun. Make sure the article of clothing itself is in a classic style, like a pencil skirt or a simple wool cardigan or a pair of ballet flats. It's also important to make sure the item is high quality, otherwise the print can look tacky rather than stylish.

7. Accept That You Will Repeat Outfits

Eventually you’ll find a formula that works for you. For me, that’s wearing all black with some bright accessories. For one of my co-workers, it’s wearing a black or grey pencil skirt paired with different colors of silk blouses, from white to royal purple. Once you figure out which of these strategies makes you feel most comfortable, stick with it and own it. It’ll make getting dressed for work much more enjoyable, and you’ll feel more like yourself.

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