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Business Professional Dress Code:
What Women Should Wear in the Office

Your work wardrobe depends largely on what you do for a living, and if you aren't a natural-born fashion hound, it can be difficult to put together work ensembles that are practical, comfortable and affordable. Besides the obligatory chinos and polo shirt-uniforms of many retail establishments, there are three types of working wardrobes: professional, business casual and casual. In this column, we're going to cover the basics of dressing for the professional office.

What is a Business Professional Dress Code?

Probably the easiest wardrobe to assemble is the professional one that most large corporate firms expect from women. Most corporations and firms whose employees affect professional dress have strict if unwritten dress codes: observing what other people wear is the best way to decide on your own wardrobe basics.

Even now, many firms expect women to dress in skirts rather than pants to work, which raises complications in terms of choosing comfortable shoes that look good. If you are applying for a position with a company where professional dress is the norm, do as much reconnaissance work as you can to determine what designers are favored, whether suit blouses are strictly white and tailored or more feminine and colorful, and what makeup styles are in fashion. Wear the best shoes you can afford to your interview, spend more money on hose that won't snag and run before you even get to the interview, and wear a skirt, even if women also wear pants in that culture..

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Classic three piece suit is a basic.
Mix and match outfit with a 3-piece basic suit.

Save money with cheaper blouses.
Save your money on blouses since it will be hidden under a suit jacket.

Shoes should be heeled and classic.
Choose quality, classically styled heeled shoes.

Keep jewelry simple.
Keep accessories simple and elegant for the workplace.

How to Dress for a Job Interview

When you're interviewing, it's always better to dress a little more on the formal and conservative side. This is relative, of course. If you're going for a job at a funky piercing studio, you shouldn't show up in Donna Karan, but leave the ripped jeans at home until you've gotten the job. For professional work environments, it means opting for tailored over trendy and severe over sexy. Forget the Allie McBeal micro-minis and tights tops: TV fashion does not apply in the real-world professional workplace, and people won't take you seriously if the first thing they recall about you is your astonishing cleavage. If you want to base your wardrobe on a relevant TV show, think West Wing or The Practice.

The Classic Women's Business Suit We Should All Have

Most suit skirts have the same basic shape: either pencil-straight or a slight flare as they fall from the waistband. A kick-pleat can be a nice addition, or a small slit in front or on the side may add interest. Good suits have skirts that are lined, and are usually made in wool gabardine. Skirts should fall a couple of inches below the knee or an inch above the knee (depending on your personal comfort zone). If you have cute knees (and most people do), don't cover them up--the expanse of leg between your shoes and your skirt will be an attractive wardrobe feature.

Hose should be tasteful and unnoticeable. Stay with nude colors, or maybe sheer black hose in winter. You can wear tights to keep your legs warm if you're going to wear boots in the winter, but keep the colors muted.

What to Look for When Choosing a Career Pant or Skirt Suit

When you're putting together a professional Career wardrobe, plan for the long-term. Good suits with a jacket, pants and a skirt are expensive, but they may last you for ten years, and if you choose a classic look, outdated clothes won't be an issue. Choose conservative, neutral colors, black, gray, navy, white or beige for suits and shoes, and make sure each piece you add can be mixed and matched with pieces you already have. One simple way to achieve a pulled-together look based on separates is to find a designer you like and stick with him or her when purchasing your suits. (Ann Taylor has marvelous working wardrobes.) Three skirts, two jackets, five blouses and two pairs of pumps (one black, one brown) should see you through the first six months or so, at least until your new paycheck has caught up with your standard of living. At that point, you can start adding separates piece by piece, with the eventual goal of being able to take last week's clothes to the dry cleaners and still have plenty to wear until the weekend.

Classic Office Appropriate Shoe Styles

Shoes are crucial to the excellent wardrobe. First of all, they should fit as perfectly as possible, because they contribute directly to your health and well-being. Bad shoes contribute to bad posture, back, neck and leg pain, and create foot issues like bunions and corns. Especially if you walk from trains, spend a lot of time traveling, or work on your feet, your shoes must provide you with support.

Professional wardrobes require pumps. A moderate heel (around one inch high, up to two inches if you need the extra height), is classy and sensible without being frumpy. Avoid stilettos, wedge heels, trendy colors, odd designs or patterns and open toes. Shoes should be elegant, tasteful, and not the first thing people notice about you. (Some people look at your shoes first; they consider good shoes an indicator of taste and breeding. If you're wearing the right shoes, they'll pass muster, and the rest of you will then be considered.) Shoes should be made of a good quality leather or something so like leather that you can't tell the difference. Ideally, your shoes will also point up the finer aspects of your legs without trying too hard. The toes of your shoes can be slightly rounded for comfort, or if you have narrow feet, slightly triangular toes are all right too. If your feet are wide, you may need to go for a slightly boxy toe, but before getting square-toed shoes, consider checking out shoe designers who provide deeper rather than wider toes-boxes.

Some companies don't consider boots professional dress, no matter how well-made they are, but in other firms, wearing boots in fall and winter is acceptable. The perfect boot for the workplace is sleek and sophisticated, with no trendy additions. It should be brown or black, have a medium heel, a leather or suede finish, and should hit you one to two inches below the knee. (Try boots on with your work skirt before committing to a purchase to make sure the combination works.) A hidden zipper is your best bet: lace-ups look a little too Victoria's Secret to be professional.

Buying Professional Attire on a Budget

The money that you spend on acquiring the perfect shoes can be made up for in your budget when you shop for blouses. If your blouse is usually going to be worn under a jacket, you can skimp on the quality and get away with it as long as the cut and fabric are good. Linen blouses are a nice idea, but all-linen wrinkles right away: go for a blend. Cotton-poly or the more recent stretchy blends of cotton and Lycra will keep their shape better than all-cotton or cotton-linen blends. Some people can wear silk: others find it doesn't breathe well enough to be comfortable. If you do go with silk, you may find some wonderful blouses in the new, washable silks. Avoid anything ruffly, frilly or lacy, and forget about colorful accents on your blouses in the way of buttons or bows. Think Katherine Hepburn: tailored, classy, very understated.

Keep Jewelry & Accessories Simple at Work

Your jewelry and makeup will fit in with the professional look by being understated as well. Keep makeup muted and elegant: use neutral tones and minimal eye makeup. Lipstick can be a bit brighter; after all, that's what it's for, but ignore any trendy statements in the way of metallics, glitters, glosses or hot colors.

Jewelry should be simple, without fuss or glitter. Jewelry should be cleaned on a regular basis to make sure it looks nice and not shabby. Follow the rule of three, wearing a bracelet and earrings, or necklace and bracelet, but not all three at the same time. (Wearing earrings and necklace becomes unbalanced because all your jewelry is clustered around your face. You may be able to get away with it if earrings and the necklace are utterly simple.) For earrings, wear hoops (not too big), or studs, but avoid dangling pieces that will destroy the clean line of a professional suit. If any one piece of jewelry has gems, keep other pieces solid.

If you wear a watch, don't wear a bracelet, not even on the other wrist. Your watch should be elegant, and if you want to make it into a piece of jewelry, splurge on something with diamonds and a sleek style that matches your suits.

Never, ever wear an anklet or armband to work.

The single strand of pearls favored by yesteryear's clothing designers and movie stars is timeless: if you're starting your professional jewelry wardrobe, a medium-length pearl necklace and a really great watch (maybe with an oyster or mother-of-pearl dial) are excellent starter pieces.

A Little on Handbags, Purses and Breif Cases

Your handbag says a lot about you, and it can be hard to find the right handbag for work. Even if you always carry a briefcase, there will be times when you will to go to a luncheon, and your briefcase will need to stay behind. Like shoes, great handbags can cost a fortune, and the really elegant ones will also be innocuous until closely inspected. If you don't fancy spending a couple of hundred bucks on a purse that you're going to use about once a month, visit consignment shops to look for a classic design with minimal wear. Get crocodile, lizard or leather, or an excellent imitation in an animal-free textile. Don't bring a fabric bag to a professional do: it never looks right. You probably already know whether you prefer a clutch to a strappy purse: clutches have a cleaner look, but some people are more comfortable with a strap. When it comes to purses, smaller is better, although it should be big enough to hold your necessities.

Now you have the basics of your professional wardrobe. Keep in mind that, like a career, your wardrobe can be built over time starting with a few basics and adding gradually over a period of years. Keep it simple and straightforward for a look of timeless, understated elegance.

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