How to Dress Professionally as a Woman

Earlier we presented a guide on dressing professionally, for the gentlemen in our midst, with the article 'How to Select and Wear a Suit'. If you so happen to be a gentleman, head over to that article, or stay and read along of course. Ladies, now it's your turn! Dressing professionally on the work floor is an important component of your (future) careers. With these simple steps and staple wardrobe pieces, you will be ready to start your career looking perfectly professional!

Staple Items to Have In Your Professional Wardrobe

According to Mary Lou Andre, head of Organization by Design, “clothing is an overlooked component in many women’s professional life”. Many women do not realize how powerful clothing can be, especially when aiming to convey professionalism. By purchasing a few of the stable items presented below, you will be able to mix and match several professional outfits. 

1. Suit

Let’s start off with one of the basic wardrobe items a woman should own at least one of: a suit. Some women believe that suits are out of style or are purely worn by men, however this is definitely not the case. A neatly pressed white blouse paired with a black suit blazer and suit trousers is a safe choice. There is a difference between a skirt suit and a pantsuit. In the past women were ought to wear a skirt suit rather than a pantsuit, but times are changing and both styles are now fully accepted in the office. The advice is to have at least 3 full suits (either skirt- or pantsuits) to your disposal, one black or dark charcoal, one grey and one navy blue. The best part of purchasing a full suit is that you have multiple items that can also be worn interchangeably in combination with other items. So for you ladies who are building your careers, stay on the lookout for nice suits!

One last thing to keep in mind when opting for a full suit is the company culture. Investment Banks for example require women to wear (conservative) suits whereas other departments might find a full suit on women a bit too formal.  We will discuss this more in-depth in the section ‘A Few Things to Keep in Mind’.

2. Skirt

A skirt is an essential item in your professional wardrobe. And with -skirt-  we undoubtedly do not aim at a miniskirt, or any skirts you might consider wearing on a night out. We are talking primarily about pencil skirts that are knee-length or a little above the knee (no higher than around 5 cm).

Istock picture professional woman

The length should be appropriate, the material not too tight, and the color subtle or with a soft print. The reason why we emphasize this is because skirts can be a deal maker or breaker in the office. You want your co-workers to take you seriously, therefore your aim is to look professional. This means that your outfit should reflect just that, and nothing less. The picture to the right illustrates the perfect length pencil skirt paired with a neat white blouse. This is certainly a safe and professional choice to opt for. 

3. Blazer

Having some (suit) blazers in your professional wardrobe is essential. Blazers are very versatile, and can instantly add a professional touch to your look. A blazer can be worn with a skirt (see 2), dress (see 4) or over a blouse in combination with matching pants. We highly recommend you to purchase a few work appropriate blazers, preferably one black, one blue and one grey. There are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing a blazer. It is important that your blazer is fitting, especially across the shoulders. Additionally, take in mind the length and arm length of the blazer. Your blazer should stop where your hipbone starts and when talking about arm length, and the sleeves should reach the mid-thumb when holding your arms straight in front of you. Also, make sure you are able to button your blazer without pulling, as it should retain its silhouette when worn open.

4. Dress

When worn in the right way, a dress can be the ultimate office wear for women. Choose a dress that is knee-length or longer, subtle in print or in solid color, not too tightly fitting and not too revealing. If your dress suits all these requirements it will be perfect in a business formal setting. Pair your dress with a good blazer or suit jacket to make it more formal and versatile. All in all, the right dress is perfect for the office.

5. Blouse

Having the right blouses is a must in the office. Be sure to purchase some blouses or tops that are long-sleeved, solid or pinstriped, tailored for fit. It is important to keep blouses properly laundered and ironed. Also, beware of the cut and fit of office tops. In order to stay classy, make sure the bust line is fitted properly so that it is not too revealing or too tight.

6. Shoes

Moving on to one of the best parts of your outfits: the shoes. Shoes can add a nice subtle touch to your business wear. However, shoes for women are somewhat of a controversial item in the business world. Women often think that they should wear heels to the office. This is not necessarily the case and in the long-run not great for your feet. This is why we advise you to wear low to moderately high heels or to wear flats. You are not obliged to wear heels, wear whatever you feel most comfortable with and whatever you prefer! The most versatile and comfortable shoe to purchase is a good pair of Italian, simple, yet classic, nude handmade flats or heels.

7. Accessories

Adding a nice touch to a formal outfit is a subtle way to express your taste or personality in your outfit. Jewelry and other accessories are great to complete your outfit with. Jewelry - rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, watches - are all very nice and acceptable touches to an outfit. Beware to keep it subtle and tasteful and be careful of too many or too large pieces. Also think of finishing your outfit with a nice scarf, belt that matches your shoes, hair accessories or a nice bag.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

Formality
When trying to compile the best office wear, start by determining the level of formality. The level of formality depends on the situation, the company culture and on personal preference. When deciding your office attire, first think about the situation or event at hand. Are you going to apply for a job? What kind of company is it? What is the general image you have of the company, or what is the company culture like? These are all questions you should ask yourself before you pick out your outfit. For a job interview you are generally ought to wear something slightly more conservative. The main point of the interview is convincing the recruiter of your professional skills, not your dressing ones. Furthermore, start with some research about the company. What can you find for example about the company culture? Does the company provide a written dress code? What works in one office does not necessarily work in another. It is known that investment banks and government institutions, for example, prefer more conservative office wear, whereas some office cultures are more laid back or even have ‘casual Fridays’. When you want to stay safe, the rule of thumb is better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed.


Finishing touches
Ladies, it does not stop when you have carefully selected and picked out your appropriate office outfit. The second step is to make sure that all formal clothing is fitted properly. It is better to buy a certain clothing item or outfit that is slightly too big than too small and revealing. When your outfit is slightly too big you can easily get it tailored to fit your body perfectly. This adds to your outfit and will look and feel more professional. Besides, it is important to keep your clothing spotless and in a good condition. Ironing your blouses is a must, and dry-cleaning your business wear every once in a while is highly recommended. There are some excellent dry cleaners available in Rotterdam and there is even one located on our campus. Lastly, avoid repeating outfits too often. Mixing and matching your items will look better than copying an exact outfit. Additionally, it will leave a better, more professional impression of you.  

Have Fun Experimenting with Your Style

Learn to have fun with your outfit and always try to wear something you feel comfortable, confident and powerful in. For example, you could try on your outfits and practice walking with higheels at home to boost the confidence you will have in your look. Also, look around or online for inspiration. Amal Clooney for example is an influential person to be inspired by, when talking about formal dressing.

Where to Buy Your Business Attire

Last but not least, where can you buy these items? Some popular stores for professional women attire are for example Mango (€), Nordstrom (€€), Calvin Klein (€€€) or Hugo Boss (€€€). Professional attire can be quite expensive, so when on a budget we advise you to start browsing at Mango, for example the one in Alexandrium Shopping Center, Poolsterstraat 72, 3067 LX Rotterdam. Mango is relatively affordable, offers many different options to start building your wardrobe and often has sales that include items from their professional lines.

Remember, dress to impress but also keep it professional ladies. Choosing the right outfit will definitely complement your great career!