Are you looking to freshen up your professional wardrobe but wondering what’s really in style — and appropriate — these days? Over the years, professional style has evolved in complexity, making it difficult to keep up with what’s in vogue and what’s outdated.
“Professional attire for women is much more casual than it used to be. Much softer, more playful, more fun,” according to Priscilla Halvorson of Priscilla’s Chic Boutique in Yakima.
In the 1940s, World War II saw women replacing men in the workforce in droves, often filling jobs in the manufacture of munitions, planes and other war-time necessities. Practicality and safety were key, with female workers donning overalls, pants and work boots. Office workers, if not in uniform, wore the quintessential wool or felt suit with a to-the-knee skirt, belted waist, puffy shouldered jacket, hat and low heels (with panty hose, of course, although they were scarce during World War II). During the 1950s, fashion became more vibrant, skirts became fuller, waists became smaller, and print was in.
This tumultuous decade introduced significant social change, and with it, huge swings in fashion, too. Women professionals transitioned from the full skirt of the early ‘60s to a more “modern” (or “mod”) look, with simplified silhouettes, sweater dresses, shift dresses, flats and statement jewelry, often in powerful color blocks such as orange, black and cream.
In the 1970s when women started joining the workforce en masse, women’s fashion was driven to some extent by the types of occupations most women held. According to The Huffington Post, “The leading occupations for women in 1970 were secretaries, bookkeepers and elementary school teachers.”
This was the first decade it was seen as widely acceptable for women to wear trousers, and clothes were ultra colorful in response to the “hippie” era of the 1960s. Retrowaste.com says large floral patterns were popular, along with bell bottoms, tight pants, pant suits and cowl neck sweaters.
Professional apparel in the 1980s toned down a little (people saved the color for their workout clothes) and shoulder pads came wildly into fashion. It wasn’t uncommon to see women with linebacker-like shoulders under the jackets of their earth tone, gray or white pantsuits.
During this time, shopping malls also became more widespread, and the popularity of television made it easier for fashion designers to share and compare their designs with audiences across the country.
The 1990s and early 2000s
In the 1990s and early 2000s, women’s work fashion continued to include shoulder pads and “power dressing” was normal — look up any image of Hillary Clinton or Sandra Day O’Connor for a perfect example of this. By 2000, nylons were replaced by more bare legs in the workplace and skirts that come to just above the knee became normal and accepted.
Pencil skirts, scarves as accessories and the layered look gained popularity and continue to be fashionable today.
These days, professional women can choose from slacks, button-up shirts, skirts, jackets, shirt dresses, and yes, in some careers even “dress shorts.” With such a multitude of patterns and styles to choose from, following are some pointers to help you achieve a chic, yet professional look no matter what your age or profession.
“Women can be themselves and don’t have to wear ‘men’s clothing’ anymore.” Said Halvorson. “Plus, it’s much more individualized than it used to be. We’re seeing an artsy trend.”
Bare legs vs. hosiery
The Corporate Fashionista recently posted suggestions of outfits professional women could copy and wear this fall. As has become common in recent years, the models wearing skirts in the photos had bare legs, but the Fashionista wrote that dark hosiery or tights might be appropriate as weather permits.
Are nylons coming back in style? They are if you wear them correctly, according to Cosmopolitan style editor Charles Manning. In a Q&A article, he said if you wear pantyhose it should be “as close to your natural skin tone as possible and steer clear of anything too shiny.”
A better option, he said, is to stick with black or colored tights and try to avoid pairing them with open-toed shoes unless you’re really good at tucking that toe seam under your foot.
Thankfully for professional women, low heels are in vogue, so don’t feel pressured to go for sky-high stilettos when you dress to impress. A strappy pair of low heels or even flats are just fine and fit with the more casual style that characterizes professional fashion these days.
Don’t feel confined by neutral or earth tones, though. Shoes can be as much fashion statements as they are functional.
Not too short
It’s common sense that anything too revealing in the workplace is inappropriate. But at what point have you gone too far? Fashion blogger Lauren Conrad provided this rule of thumb: “Never show more than 1 inch of cleavage or wear a skirt that skims your bum,” and, “For most offices, skirts that hit more than 3 or 4 inches above the knee are considered inappropriate.”
Watch your boss
For the best test of what kind of professional style is expected of you in your workplace, watch how the highest-ranking female in your company dresses. That goes for "casual" Fridays, as well. Appropriate style can depend in large part upon the kind of business your company does, the weather your town experiences, and what part of the country you live in.
Halvorson said, "Right now there are a lot of sweatery-type knits — also two-piece dressing with matching tops and bottoms. Dresses in the corporate scene have soft tailoring."
Don't break the bank
Elle.com has provided a list of clothing examples for women based on career, but a single shirt it suggests might cost upward of $400. When culling your style from magazines and online sites, don't get discouraged by high prices. You can easily substitute pieces of your current wardrobe for the recommended clothing items or find similar pieces at an apparel store near you.