Unwritten Workplace Dress Codes

You’ve probably seen the articles going around about the reporter turned away from the Speaker’s Lobby because of her sleeveless dress.

I’m pleasantly surprised that they’re working on modernizing the dress code in question, because it’s outrageous and unfair!  Hearing about the dress code didn’t surprise me the way it seems to have surprised a lot of people, though.  Workwear blogs have told me for years that sleeveless dresses are considered inappropriate in a really conservative workplace, and there’s no workplace in the United States more conservatively dressed than Capitol Hill.

Workplace dress rules are a mess.  They all require you to know things you’re never formally taught.  Conservative dress codes are classist and discriminatory by gender, body type, and frequently race.  Casual offices are a little better, but if you went through the effort of learning the conservative office dress code rules and dressing accordingly, a lot of casual offices will treat you as if you are less competent.

If you’re like me, you just want to get all that stuff out of the way so you can be seen for your merits!  Here is what I’ve learned about unwritten dress codes for various workplaces.  Eventually, once I teach myself how to make interactive infographics, I hope to make this an interactive infographic instead.


Each subsection starts with a list of garments.  They’re ordered on a scale from least to most formal/conservative.

Generally speaking, the garment on the far left is a thing you shouldn’t wear to a workplace because people will make judgey faces at you. Other than the suit, which isn’t necessary for most lines of work, the second from the left garment is only appropriate for a very casual workplace (non-office jobs, most tech startups, some call centers).  If you are a lawyer, businessperson, politician, financial worker, executive, or person who deals with those people on a regular basis, you should generally wear something as far to the right as possible.  Most people’s offices will fall somewhere in the middle.  


Spaghetti-strap tank -> Graphic tee -> Solid tee -> Sleeveless, thick-strapped blouse ->  Sleeved blouse/button-up/structured top

The blouse or button-up should be tucked in if you’re dressing conservatively.  You can also wear a sleeveless blouse to the office if you work at a fancy office, but it needs something on top of it.  Sleeveless tops are more formal if they’ve got ruffly details that make them look more blouse-y.  

As long as it’s crisp (not full of wrinkles), a button up can be worn at basically all levels of formality.  

In most workplaces, not just the formal ones, an unspoken rule is no one should be able to see your cleavage when you bend over, and no one should be able to see your stomach if you lift your arms. This means entirely different things on entirely different bodies, which is massively unfair and annoying.

Jackets or Knitwear

Hoodies -> Capes/ponchos -> Open cardigans -> Button-up cardigans -> Tie-front / belted cardigans -> Blazers

Somehow, open cardigans are too casual for many formal offices, but you can usually get away with open blazers if you’re going for a modern take on a classic look?


Short suits -> No suits -> Pant suits -> Skirt suits

I have mostly heard of skirt suits as a suggestion for lawyers appearing in court, and occasionally, as a suggestion for dressing extra-conservatively for an interview.  In most situations in which you’d want to wear suits, pantsuits are just fine.  Please do not wear a short suit to work unless you are a model being paid to model a short suit.


Shorts -> Cargo pants -> Jeans -> Flowy skirts -> Slacks -> Pencil or A-Line skirt

According to Kat from Corporette, pant legs should show about half an inch of heel and touch the top of the vamp of your shoe.  I basically can’t get that to work, but she provides a handy visual guideline if you want to give it a try. (Yes, this does mean you’re supposed to have different length pants for different heel heights.)

Tim Gunn says pants should fall straight down from the hip. I do not know what that means, and am not sure I agree.  I agree with him more on skirt hems: he says skirt hems should hit immediately above or immediately below the kneecap.  That’s the length that no one will call dowdy or inappropriate, it generally divides you into thirds-ish in ways that are flattering, and it doesn’t hit you at weird wide parts of the body.  Also, it’s basically always classic and never trendy, which is useful for getting more wear out of your clothes.


Sneakers -> Sandals -> Open toed heels -> Ballet flats -> Almond/pointed toe flats -> Almond/pointed toe heels

Almond toes are more classic; pointed toes are more modern; both symbolize power and formality.  Heels are generally more formal than flats… with caveats.  If heeled, a shoe should be no more than 4 inches tall, stiletto heels are generally more formal than block heels, and if the shoes have a platform under the toe, it should be fully covered and hard to see.

I’m writing a longer, history-steeped post on this later, because who came up with this???  Women’s shoes are more formal the less they conform to the basic rules of human anatomy.  Platforms distribute weight more evenly.  Block heels give you more lateral stability.


Strapless dress -> Spaghetti-strap dress -> Thick-strapped sleeveless dress -> Sleeved dress

The more fitted your sleeves are, the more formal they are.  The more structured your dress is, the more formal it is; soft cozy jersey dresses are less formal than stiff sheaths.  Also, all the rules re: necklines and skirt lengths apply to dresses too.

In Conclusion:

Your mileage may vary depending on your industry, the message you’re trying to convey about yourself, and your particular office.  At a meeting a month ago, I saw two separate women, one a senior executive, give a presentation in a black blazer, a black t-shirt, and black skinny jeans.  The senior executive also wore platform spike heels.  I’m pretty sure that was intended to communicate “I am young and hip and powerful and don’t need to dress formally to prove it.”  So you do you, reader.  I am here to help, not to proscribe.


One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *