Smart or casual? The worker's dilemma


What to wear at work is a puzzler for those who want to show their personality and stay stylish, writes ROSEMARY Mac CABE

THEY SAY THAT practice makes perfect – the very act of doing something will improve one’s skill at said something. But when it comes to dressing for work – you know, the place many of us spend most of our time in – it would seem that we are still struggling to find a balance between chic and unique, respectable and boring.

What to wear to work is the single most pressing concern (sartorially speaking) on people’s minds, judging by the reader queries that flood in to this column weekly.

And if you examine the amount of time we spend in our offices – an eight-hour day, working from the age of 19 to 65, will leave us working a little under 11 years in a life – it makes sense. For almost 11 years, we will have to dress every morning according to a dress code that seldom leaves room for our personal style.

Not that there is a definitive working style guide; type “what to wear to work” into a search engine and you’re faced with more than 250,000,000 results, recommending skirt suits and fitted blazers and work-appropriate perfumes.

That’s because a set formula just doesn’t exist, says Lorraine Fretwell, head of recruitment at Dublin-based recruitment firm, Prosperity.

“People don’t do enough research on the company and their brands,” she says. “It’s about knowing where you’re going and dressing appropriately for that. We once sent someone away to get a new set of clothes before they went for an interview because we knew they wouldn’t be taken seriously – they were too corporate, they needed to go and get some trendier clothes. And it worked – she got the job.”

Fretwell says that dressing well for work needn’t mean spending the earth. “You can look good no matter where you bought your outfit,” she says. “You’re representing how you work – so you should be tidy, neat . . . and scruffy hair, absolutely, is a no-no.”

Ingrid Hoey is a personal stylist ( who deals a lot with people who, as she says, “work almost old-school jobs – banking, solicitors – where I think they feel that women have to dress hugely conservatively: think early 1990s”.

Pant suits and men’s shirts paired with stilettoes are the norm, and many of Hoey’s clients feel stuck and unable to experiment with their working wardrobe in a way they might like to. But Hoey says the high street is a great option for those wanting to make slight moves away from a conservative look.

“Zara and Reiss do great workwear,” she says. “You don’t have to go for old-fashioned suits all of the time – you could wear a cigarette pant and a nice little jacket from Zara. And dresses are great – although obviously to the knee.”

Skirt length seems to be a particular issue when it comes to workwear and, regardless of whether your working environment is corporate or creative, the general consensus is that hems should not rise too far above the knee.

And both Hoey and Fretwell agree that cleavage is a no-no in any office space. “But I think a lot of women have a blinkered idea when it comes to work, of what you can and can’t wear,” says Hoey. “And times have changed.”

Is there space to mix in a few trend-led pieces with a working wardrobe, or will a floral pant suit put you out of the professional running? Hoey says that a little experimentation is a good thing, but she wouldn’t advocate wearing a head-to-toe catwalk look.

“You can take a little bit – like Aztec prints. You could do that in a smart little jacket, or the buttoned-up shirts with the smart little collars that are everywhere. They’re acceptable workwear but a little more fashionable. Just bear in mind, you are in a work environment.”


I'm starting college and need a new look that's a bit 'out-there'

I’m heading into my first year in Trinity, studying English and history. Terrifying as that is, I’m more terrified about what to wear. I’m a size 14 and I wear mostly skirts and dresses. I like my clothes to be a little bit “out there” and fun, but at the same time not expensive. Any ideas?

Áine, by email

Áine, I understand your predicament all too well – when I started college I was determined that I would present the best version of myself from day one, which obviously meant streamlining everything, from personality to clothing. Inevitably, however, by week two I was back to wearing exactly what I had worn the August before, and making the same bad jokes nobody had laughed at in sixth year.

The important lesson there, I feel, is that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – and if you mostly wear skirts and dresses, you will probably end up wearing skirts and dresses for most of college (unless you mistakenly buy a college hoodie, in which case you will embarrassingly wear that, and have to burn all photographs from that period).

If you’re intent on using this as an excuse to buy yourself some new items, I commend your ingenuity and recommend you take a look at Fearne Cotton’s Littlewoods range. She has a great line in dresses that are cute and fun but not boring and, helpfully, affordable. This leopard-print dress (€52) is gorgeous, and the Peter Pan collar keeps it up to date. I’d pair it with opaque tights, flat boots and a leather jacket for day one.

If leopard print isn’t your style, there is a sweat dress by Asos (€63.98) in an eye-catching print they call Kilimanjaro (for reasons best known to them): another great piece. Wear over jeans (or jeggings – no one will know) with a pair of Converse, or belted, with tights and ankle boots.

Lastly, there is a JW Anderson at Topshop skirt (€90, above) that is of-the-minute cool. Go for grey opaque tights, a faded grey tee (HM do great ones for less than €20) and ankle boots, with some oversized costume jewellery for kicks.

I have a shoe-related dilemma. Every year, winter comes around and I seem to have no flat, waterproof, work-appropriate boots. I’d prefer ankle boots if possible. Can you recommend any?

Clare, by email

Clare, in a way you are creating problems for yourself by having too many stipulations. Waterproof boots can be hard to find unless you are prepared to wear wellies and these are not work-appropriate unless you live in America, where, it seems, all it takes is a sprinkling of rain and they all throw on their Hunters.

A decent pair of leather boots should be relatively waterproof, unless you go stomping about in puddles, but not if they are absolutely flat – you’ll need a slight heel, maybe an inch, to keep the water from soaking through the leather.

I’ve picked out a selection that may suit your needs but, as I said, unless you’re talking rubber Wellingtons, these won’t keep you dry in a flood.

These burgundy-brown boots by Pied a Terre (€220 at Arnotts) may suit your needs. The slight heel will keep you elevated and they are leather, which is water resistant, if not entirely waterproof.

Bertie’s brogue-effect lace-up ankle boots (€160) are another option, although, depending on your workplace, they may not work for you. They have a hint of the 1990s’ Doc Marten about them, which his on-trend for autumn-winter, and the slight platform in the sole will, again, keep you on relatively dry land.

Office takes its cue from Chloe’s famous Susan studded boots from 2009 with these black boots (€115).

Again we’re looking at a slight cowboy heel and leather upper (so no bog hopping), with slick studded detailing and fierce buckles.

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