How to Look Smart at Work When You’re Not a Suit Person



What to wear to the office when you don't like wearing suits but the dress code is more formal

How to Look Smart at Work When You’re Just Not a Suit Person

I was recently asked to write a post about how to look smart at work when suits are just not your thing (but others are wearing them).

 The key, is to look for clothes with some structure.  When we think about a suit what are its key elements?
  1. Collar
  2. Structured
  3. Sleeves
  4. Neutral colours
  5. More classic in styling

How to look smart at work


So when you don’t want to wear a suit, but work in an environment where these elements are required, then make sure your outfit has the feel of a suit in a way, so that you look conservative enough to blend in.

1. Collar – look for clothes that have a collar or higher neckline in appearance, or even the feel of a collar (such as the cardigan with the scarf).

2. Structure – your clothes need to be made of fabrics with some weight, not light and airy, as they convey more authority.  A set-in sleeve rather than a raglan sleeve will always appear more formal.

3. Sleeves – if men are wearing suits and ties, women need to cover the tops of their arms. Look for garments that have sleeves built in.

4. Neutral Colours – wear more neutrals rather than really bright colours (which can be perceived as more about ‘fun’ and less about ‘work’).  You can still wear colour, but opt for solids over patterns as they appear more businesslike and team back with neutrals.

5. Classic styling – you don’t have to wear a matching suit, think about a jacket and pants or skirt that work together, but aren’t a formal suit.  This can work well for many who have a more relaxed personal style and feel suits are too conservative.
What do you wear to work (if you work in a conservative environment) when you don’t want to wear a suit?


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  • As you’ve demonstrated, good belts and accessories are important – I like the outfits you have pictured here with belts (and that Donna Karan skirt is gorgeous).
    Boots, although they look lovely, immediately make an outfit less formal.
    But I think one of the keys to “getting away with” not wearing a suit in a corporate environment is to pay attention to immaculate grooming. And bear in mind that in most corporate environments (at least in the UK where I live), for women this doesn’t mean heavy make-up or anything, like red nails, remotely gaudy. Light, expertly applied make-up if you wear it, clean hair in a chic unfussy style and colour, natural clean buffed nails or neutral polish. Clean, polished shoes. Pay attention to posture.
    It all sounds a bit boring, but look at the women in senior jobs in the environment – most likely that’s their look. It’s a subtle, richly polished sheen, not a gaudy sparkle.

  • It really comes down to how formal and conservatively dressed you wish to look. Nothing replaces the classic dark suit, which creates and unbroken line and image of sobriety. A neutral-coloured dress, like the ones made by Britt Lintner, simple and elegant, not short, comes close. When a woman does not have to be so conservatively dressed, your choices are terrific.

    Also, even if men are in suits IMO a woman could wear a sleeveless sheath style dress like the classics by Balenciaga, but a cardigan over the dress looks far less “haute professional”.

  • Thank you for answering my question!! These illustrations and tips are very helpful (especially using collar-like things).

    The environment I will be in doesn’t warrant a nice, wool, tailor-altered suit from what I’ve seen so far. So instead of getting a cheap suit and looking so-so because it doesn’t fit my X waist, for now I went for one of your suggestions – slacks, cardigan, scarf – with pearl earrings and clean grooming, it should be fine.

  • I love this! My work environment is VERY casual so I don’t even own suits. But now and then there is an important event/meeting and I have to scale my look up quite a lot and I never really pull it off – always slightly under-dressed or un-polished. These are some great templates to follow in future.

  • I’ve been working in a suit environment for the last two years. The formula I’ve gotten comfortable with is pants or a long skirt with a shell or tanktop and a jacket or cardigan. The trick is using color to make it look unified and suit-like. So maroon skirt, maroon shell, black jacket. Or grey skirt and lavender sweater set. The color of two of the pieces can be the same without using the same fabric. Having a little texture in one of them makes things more interesting. I use the colors black, maroon, grey, brown, and russett as my building blocks, so I have a jacket, shell, and bottom for each color and mix them with each other and a few accent colors, like teal or lavender.

  • Since I’m the one who asked about this on the forums, I wanted to report what I ended up with for my outfits, with your help.

    – Black slacks, gray (lightly checked with a bit of burgundy) slacks
    – Light blue twin set (cotton, 3/4 sleeve)
    – Silk blue-green sleeveless shell, black cardigan with shiny buttons (nylon, 3/4 sleeve)
    – Short-sleeve eggplant-colour knit top (with some silk and cashmere), brown/burgundy/beige square scarf

    With pearls and black shoes, I think that will get me through 5 days just fine. Thanks again for your help, both with this topic and so many others.

  • Hello Imogen,

    I was wondering if you could have a post about what to wear with a lab/Dr coat.
    Wearing such a coat make most collars look weird, and all details are bulky under it.
    Worse of all that crisp white is not flattering..
    I have been searching the web but…nothing about that.
    It seems easier for men to just wear it with a tie and a shirt…
    Thanks much!

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