How to Dress for the Office

I read with interest the criticism that Leo D’Angelo Fisher levied on the state of dress in the workplace these days in the ANZ online publication BlueNotes.

And the rebuttal from Marcia Levinstock the following week:

While working in investment banking in Minneapolis, New York, London, Hong Kong, Seoul and Sydney for nearly twenty years, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. On the odd occasion, I have seen stylish. I am old enough to remember the infusion of casual Friday into the work week. The genesis, of course, came from the tech firms, as Ms. Levinstock so rightfully pointed out.

How not to wear a tie. Elegant patterned jacket with spread collar, navy trousers, Swatch watch. Great for Casual Friday! All from TM Lewin.

While I was working for Credit Suisse in London, working in technology for a dotcom became sexy. It was a viable option to working in banking or consulting. Finally, there was competition in the marketplace. My manager, one of the heads of the division, went on a three month sabbatical without penalty because “fun” was suddenly a buzzword for senior management. Casual Friday was embraced by most in the office if they didn’t have client meetings.

An excellent example of how to dress for the office. Banker, lawyer, accountant, politician, salesman etc. My time in London shows. All from TM Lewin.

When I moved to London from New York, there was a flair for style and colour in the English and European bankers that I had never seen.  Corporate America is much more conservative and shapeless. Senior management, whose often blue-blooded-Oxbridge-veins-coursed-with-ice, was never casual. They were always at client meetings and their suits gave the impression of the body beneath. Me? I wore colourful suits. I had my black and grey but branched out into pastel pink, darker purple, hunter green, white. I also started wearing more dresses to the office but usually with a jacket. My suspicions were confirmed that that there is no such thing as a power cardigan. I was working my way up the ranks and wanted to be taken seriously. I was at a disadvantage already. I am American (How vulgar!). I am a woman. (Sniff). And I am of Asian descent.

Upping the style quotient for a party, wedding, even the office.  All from TM Lewin.

Surrounded by successful men who dressed conservatively yet beautifully in custom or tailored suits, I was inspired. I wanted to fit in and be recognised for my work, not for my ethnicity, gender, or citizenship. Hence, I favoured suits, jackets and dresses.

The jacket on top of dress is professional yet feminine. Zara jacket, J.Crew dress, Po Campo pannier bag, Yakkay helmet, Witchery sunglasses, Indian traditional gold earrings.

In New York as a first year analyst (read: entry-level slave with enormous opportunity to learn), a female senior banker at Morgan Stanley looked me up and down one afternoon because I was wearing a pantsuit, more specifically, long black palazzo pants. If anyone has noticed, palazzo pants have returned in 2015.

Departing from Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Carriageworks, Sydney. The lace and faux leather top bares more than I would be comfortable at the office (without a jacket anyway) and the wide-legged trouser (palazzo pants) attract attention with each wedge-platformed-step. Fashion at its most fun, non-corporate and definitely not business casual. Zara top, Witchery trousers, Geox platforms, Linus Sac, Yakkay Helmet. 

My black jacket had asymmetric gold buttons and underneath I wore a cream collared blouse. My heels were black and polished. It was a conservative yet stylish outfit and one that I could afford while starting out in my career.  A male second-year analyst kindly suggested wearing the trousers out of the office because She didn’t like them on women.  I was incensed but I saved them for the weekends. I got laid because of those trousers many times. Apparently, it had something to do with my arse.

Still working on the arse. In Leona Edmiston dress, J.Crew cuff, Yakkay helmet, Witchery sunglasses, Gazelle City Zen.

Later that year, I returned home for Christmas to my parents in Minneapolis. I bought a navy Christian Dior cashmere swing coat at TJ Maxx, a local discount retailer, for an amazing price. I went back to New York and She eyed my coat.  She had the same in hunter green. She said nothing but I remember her eyes widening in surprise.

When I moved to Sydney in 2003 and started working at Morgan Stanley in 2004, I was appalled at how people dress. There was a distinct lack of style, care and knowledge. For our wedding, I requested no one wear black because it was a morning wedding and an afternoon reception. I also noticed that many people believe that being stylish requires giant sums of money. Australian culture is not formal and the beach calls us all. I wore my suits from London for awhile but then I got bored. In desperation, I went shopping and discovered the clothiers Oxford, Herringbone, Morrisey and Leona Edmiston which are all affordable and stylish.

One of my favourite Leona Edmiston faux-wrap dresses for the office. Geox heels, Swarovski earrings, Cartier Santos, Witchery sunglasses, Yakkay helmet, eZee Sprint bicycle.

I was now the head of a division at Morgan Stanley. I had staff and was part of senior management. I attended Board meetings and spoke in them from time to time. Later, at UBS after the birth of my second child, I decided to wear dresses every day. Why? I didn’t feel that I had anything left to prove. I also was senior enough to set the tone. The lack of women in the organisation also gave me scope to dress professionally as I saw fit. My clothing was always much more conservative during the week than on the weekends. 

Another great example of conservative yet stylish for the office. All by TM Lewin.

I recall one young woman in the office who always showed skin – midriff, cleavage, back.  She was single. I suppose that was her way of attracting a man but no one took her seriously. I have seen her since dressed more conservatively at another bank and she has progressed.

A bit of extra colour on Fridays, casual or not, tie or not can make things more interesting for yourself and for others as long as you keep things simple and classic. All by TM Lewin. Matt’s own Omega watch.

In conclusion, I propose that you wear what the senior people in your organisation wear. Aspire. If you want to ascend the ranks, look at the successful people, the high performers and their manner of dress. If your immediate manager doesn’t dress well, look to his or her manager. If you are a manager or part of senior management, be aware that you set the tone for your staff and employees. Dress well to set an example.

Don’t forget to invest in a great pair of shoes to complete your outfit, casual or business. And a well-fitting suit will compliment any figure flaws no matter how severe.

When you shop, ask the best dressed salesperson for assistance. If the salespeople are lacking in style, ask someone stylish in the shop for advice. This happens to me all the time and I’m always happy to help. It isn’t necessary to spend a bomb on one item of clothing. The more clothing you have, the less wear they will experience and the longer they will last.

Happy Dressing and Cycling!

x Sarah

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