Working In An Office Cost Me My Personal Style

by Maxine Builder

When I graduated from college, I knew I’d have to take out my nose piercing, retire my collection of bodycon skirts from Forever 21, and revamp my wardrobe in favor of dressing like a grown up woman. I finished school a semester early, with big plans to move back into my parents’ house for six months, or until I found a full-time job, and one of my first projects that December — after finishing my last final exam — was digging through my college wardrobe and throwing out or donating anything frayed or ill-fitting or stained or immature. It was a new start, and I was excited for my personal style to grow as I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

This whole process of curating a more mature wardrobe was sped up when I landed a part-time volunteer internship at a foreign policy think-tank based in Manhattan, where the dress code was strictly business formal. This initially threw me for a loop. I had internships throughout college, but mainly at small non-profit organizations in Boston where the dress codes were loosely business casual, meaning neat jeans and a nice shirt. Since I couldn’t even explain what “business formal” meant, I was fairly certain I wouldn't have anything in my closet that would be appropriate, but I did know it was going to be a much more adult look than anything I had worn before.

Fortunately, my mother, who went to business school and worked in offices with business formal dress codes for years, knew what was up. She took me to Banana Republic and bought me my first pantsuit in a beautiful blue-grey light wool. I got a matching pencil skirt, as well as a couple of Oxford shirts and a wonderful black faux-wrap dress. On my first day, I wore that dress with a pair of brand new black heels, accessorized with a pearl necklace loaned to me by my mom. But for the entire day, I felt like a fraud, like I was playing dress-up in my mom’s too-big clothes, even though the dress and shoes fit perfectly. The outfit felt unnatural and was so much fancier than the jeans and t-shirts I had been wearing to classes and club meetings for the last three and a half years. It turns out I was even underdressed because I didn’t bring a blazer, which is a crucial component of the business formal look.

Eventually, after seeing what other women in the office were wearing, I began to feel comfortable in a pencil skirt and blazer, and it became kind of fun to go out and add more grown-up pieces to my burgeoning business formal wardrobe. But I also still hung out at home three days out of the work week, and wore much more casual clothes when I was tutoring or bumming around the local coffee shop, trolling the Internet for jobs. On weekends, I would visit my boyfriend who was living in Manhattan, and had the opportunity to try out more mature going out looks that still felt age-appropriate. Body-con skirts of frat parties past were replaced by nice black skinny jeans paired with a low-cut blouse. I played around with my outfits a lot, trying to figure out what looked good and what felt too young. Wearing a suit for two days a week was bearable because I had all that other time to try new things, and even wearing a blazer felt like an experiment because it wasn't something I was wearing all of the time. I had found a nice balance between this "working girl" persona and someone who was still figuring herself out, finding her stylistic voice.

After two months, that part-time internship turned into a full-time job, and almost instantly, I was back at the start with almost nothing to wear, definitely not five days-a-week worth of clothes. I went on a shopping spree, hitting up J. Crew and Banana Republic for all they're worth, to amass enough nice clothing to wear every day of the week. But even after spending all that money and all that time, I still felt like I didn’t have enough clothing and was always recycling outfits.

I’ve now been working in this business formal environment for two years, and that feeling of not having enough work-appropriate clothing hasn’t gone away, even as my wardrobe has grown exponentially. By my count, I own two black sheath dresses, one black shift dress, two black wrap dresses, two black pencil skirts, two black turtleneck sweaters, one black and one white sleeveless blouse, one black and one white Oxford shirt, two pairs of black dress pants, one black blazer, three black cardigans, and that blue-grey pant suit. Every day, when I wake up in the morning to get dressed for work, I choose some combination of these black and white pieces, swipe on some mascara, and head out the door. Although I love that my morning routine is made much simpler by these restricted guidelines, I’m in a rut. These clothes are all a just variations on the same, drab theme, and the ease means that I don't think about getting dressed anymore. I just do it.

The biggest casualty of these last two years has been my personal style, and it's been demoralizing to wear basically the same outfit every single day since I started. There's no nice way to say this: The business formal look is bland, even with the best accessorizing. I don’t have fun with fashion in the same way as I did in college, or even high school, but I also don’t ever feel like spending money on clothes that I can’t wear to the office because I don’t see the point. I spend so much time at work that buying a sheer shirt or a flouncy skirt that I can only wear two days out of the week seems like a waste. So I find myself wearing the same collared shirts and modest sweaters to the bar on weekends as I do to the office during the work week because I feel like there’s nothing else in my closet. "Dressing down" is not much more creative than a t-shirt and jeans these days.

I also feel like I’ve lost some confidence in myself. I’m scared to experiment with new looks because it somehow feels too informal or too immodest. To be dressed in business formal is to make sure everything is buttoned up, so I’ve become much more aware of skirts and dresses that are “too short,” and find myself shying away from clothes that might reveal “too much skin.” I don’t feel sexy when I get dressed anymore because I’ve trained myself to maintain this relatively arbitrary standard of modesty, the primary result being that I can't remember how to dress up for myself. I've lost my fashion mojo, and I need to get it back.

Putting in my two weeks’ notice because I hate getting dressed for it isn’t a good reason to quit my job, so I've had to find ways to cope and learn to express myself outside of my 9-to-5. The first step, silly as it seems when it's written out, is to remind myself that I am sexy and confident and can look good in clothes. My clothes do not have to be modesty sacks that don't accentuate my curves and don't express my individuality, and I need to remind myself of that sometimes.

The next step is to make an effort to try new things. Even if I can't push myself within the confines of the office, I can still wear whatever I want on weekends and after I leave for the day. I've been making a more concerted effort to get dressed up on weekends, even if it's just to run an errand, and not just lounge around in fleece pants, because the weekends are my time to experiment. The Internet has also been a lifeline, to keep me connected to the fashion world. I follow dozens of models and street photographers on Instagram, and read a handful of fashion blogs regularly. Writing about fashion helps me express my creativity and personal style, even if I'm not actually wearing the clothes over which I'm drooling.

It seems that everyone is a workaholic in New York City, and not in a good way, and I worry I’m succumbing to that lifestyle, as well. I barely have control over my schedule, and now I've lost control over my personal style. I need re-learn how to dress myself outside of the office to feel better about myself and regain some much-lost autonomy. Although I have a job, and it’s an important part of my life, it shouldn’t become my identity, and losing my sense of fashion shouldn't be the price to pay for employment.

I also don’t think I ever had time to play around with my personal style as an adult, before jumping into a formal workplace, which feeds into my malaise. Because my transition between college kid and fully-employed adult was so quick, I was forced to wear what was deemed appropriate by my employer rather than figure out what I wanted to wear. I know what I like to wear now is inevitably different from what I wore in college, but I still don't exactly know what that looks like, so I need to make time for myself to experiment and figure out who I am and what I wear outside of the office. My personal style shouldn't be tied to this specific job because I'm not going to be working in this office forever. I'm still growing and need to continue to carve out space and time to play with my clothes, because my fashion choices should be an expression of who I am as an grown woman, not as an employee.

Images: Author; Giphy; Instagram/maxine_builder