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Dressing Like a Lady in the Workplace

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Pantsuits. Tailored button-downs. Even ties. Plenty of women wear them beautifully, and in professions where men still dominate, it can be useful for women to adopt a traditionally masculine look.

For some women, however, androgyny just isn’t an option. On women with curves, masculine cuts can be more provocative than professional. Even those who can pull off a collared button-down shirt or traditional suit jacket might not feel comfortable dressing up like the opposite sex, just as many men would feel extremely awkward in a pencil skirt and heels.

Fortunately, there are ways to work a more feminine fashion sensibility into just about any office wardrobe—no matter your industry.

Balance feminine and masculine elements

Don’t give people an excuse not to take you seriously. If you want to wear a girly blouse with a bow on it, pair it with pants and loafers. If you’re wearing a dress or stilettos, throw on a chunky watch or swap your purse for a briefcase. Patterns like houndstooth and plaid can make even very womanly cuts seem less out of place, while traditionally masculine shapes can be softened up with feminine colors and fabrics.

The go-to uniform for Emily Gallop, who works in financial services in Manhattan, is a jacket over a silk button-down, high heels, and cropped trousers (so she can switch into flats after work). She says, “The silk and the heels make me feel feminine, but it’s still enough of a power outfit to mean business.”

Stand out—a little

Bright colors, busy patterns, and eye-catching accessories create visual interest, so be careful how you use them and wear you place them on your body.

Kris Schenck is a policy advisor at the Pentagon, where anything but a conservative suit stands out. “I like to incorporate unexpected and whimsical details to the uniform—like bright pink shoes, a horse patterned blouse, or a polkadot belt,” she says. “Just don’t overdo it, or your colleagues will be focusing on your appearance at meetings rather than what you have to say.”

Put on one piece each day that feels like you

Even if you have to compromise on most of your office wardrobe, wearing one little thing that’s authentic to your style will keep you from feeling like a fraud.

Elizabeth Nedeff, who has worked as a diplomat and international consultant in very conservative cities like Washington, D.C., likes to show off her vintage jewelry collection. “Sometimes it’s even more interesting to mix up something that’s really conservative with something that’s really not,” she says. “If you have to wear a suit, you can always add a stunning necklace or a vintage scarf you picked up at a flea market—just some little thing that lets the world know who you are.”

Whatever you wear, own it

It all comes down to confidence. When Katharine Hepburn opted for trousers, she created a lot of controversy. She also became a style icon. Maybe you’re not in a position to transform your office culture, but you can push it just a little further toward acceptance of self-expression.

This is true no matter where you work. Jen Vitela, an international policy strategist who frequently advises the U.S. military, explains how she overhauled her wardrobe for her first assignment to Iraq. She blended in, but she didn’t feel like herself. After just six weeks in the field, Jen replaced her combat boots and chinos with high heels and dresses that fit her style. “I am finally in the place where I know who I am,” she says, “and I don’t want to compromise on my wardrobe just to make other people more comfortable.” There is room for all of us, in our own ways, to do the same in our office wardrobe.

Ask Amy Cao how she adapts her personal style to her work environment!

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