Women reflect on changing styles in the workplace and offer advice on what to wear.
Within the last 15 years, Janet Edmunson, former director of prevention and wellness at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Massachusetts, went from wearing the “wrong” styles and colors to work, to wearing clothes that suit her natural features.
She credits Julie Cunningham, owner of Julie Cunningham Color, for helping her update her professional appearance.
“I learned from Julie that coral and salmon were my best pinks and that turquoise and teal were my best blues – quite different from the light pink and blue I had been wearing,” said Edmunson, founder/president of Scarborough-based JME Insights.
“I feel prettier, and I know I look better,” she said.
Others seemed to like Edmunson’s transformation, too. When people compliment her about her new look, it boosts her confidence and self-esteem, which is “a huge uplift in the workplace,” said Edmunson, a trainer, motivational speaker, writer and health promotion professional who lives in South Portland.
But Edmunson, who typically wears pantsuits, skirt suits or dresses, especially when she gives presentations, has also noticed some changes in the workplace in recent years. She said fewer women are wearing pantyhose and suits.
“Certainly, more casual is in,” said Edmunson, who helps companies and individuals find ways to stay positive during difficult times.
In most workplaces where she consults, she said, women are not allowed to wear low-cut tops, short skirts or shorts, which is important if women want to be taken seriously.
“I have always been told by my mentors to dress to the next level up, where you want your career to be,” Edmunson said.
Cunningham, who heads her Portland-based personal image and color consulting company, and Mary LaFontaine, manager of the State of Maine Career Center in Lewiston, agree that women’s work attire is much less formal than it was a decade ago.
“For the last 10 years, the fashion police have been insisting we can’t wear pantyhose anymore,” said Cunningham, who has helped thousands of men and women improve their image since 1996. “The professional woman now has more choice regarding her use of pantyhose than before the pantyhose revolution in the 1990s.”
“Ten years ago, or more, women were always wearing pantyhose with dresses,” said LaFontaine. “We would have never gone without pantyhose.”
Women also no longer seem to be wearing slips under their dresses like they did in the late 1980s and early ’90s, said LaFontaine.
“I don’t remember the last time I put a slip on under a dress,” she said.
In general, women in the workplace wear more casual attire, such as khaki pants or jeans, she said, though women still wear high heels.
“A vast majority of women, if they are wearing a dress, regardless of the type of shoe, will not have pantyhose on,” said LaFontaine.
“I am not sure 10 years ago I would have been wearing pants for my job,” said LaFontaine, who now wears pants on a regular basis. “The standard for my position in state government 10 years ago would have been a dress or suit, or pants and a blazer.”
Cunningham said for more conservative professions, such as law, where women are known to wear skirt suits and pumps, “pantyhose looks more appropriate.” Despite the profession, she encourages women to wear them for several reasons.
“Pantyhose is like makeup for your legs and makes the legs look instantly prettier and slimmer,” Cunningham said. “It also prevents your thighs from rubbing together, and if you live in a cold climate (like Maine), it is warmer in the cool temperatures.”
Cunningham said that a pantyhose comeback this fall is “based on the legs being a fashion focal point” and “the fact that Kate Middleton wears pantyhose.”
“Until this fall, it has been considered hipper to go without, even when it is freezing outside,” she said.
“Cultural evolution is reflected in fashion changes, even in the professional workplace,” she said. “The miniskirt reflected a more liberal attitude in the 1960s. In the ’70s we had hippie clothing, and a few touches like a leather hobo bag and peasant blouse, appeared at work.”
In the 1980s, she said, author John T. Molloy wrote “Dress for Success,” which instructed women to essentially dress like men: a white shirt with a little bow under the chin, and a black straight-skirt suit.
Eventually this evolved into a more flattering work wardrobe: a dark neutral-colored suit and light-colored shirt with an “attractive cut,” said Cunningham.
According to Cunningham and LaFontaine, individual style is more prominent in the workplace today than it was years ago.
“There’s a lot of diversity in the clothing we wear right now, and there’s not those real strict trends that did exist 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago,” LaFontaine said.
Dressing appropriately for work today, said Cunningham, is more about how women wear their clothes, rather than what they wear.
“To pull this off requires a woman to know her correct color palette, body line, silhouette and clothing personality,” whether it’s dramatic, neutral, classic or romantic, she said.
“Dressing well, in your correct colors and with clothes that enhance your body type, first of all make you feel great,” she said. “That then raises your optimism, confidence, and I believe, performance.”
Cunningham said while women prefer different styles, there are some basic wardrobe rules women should follow. Female job seekers should also dress accordingly with the position they are pursuing, she said.
LaFontaine offers similar advice, though it depends on the workplace. For office settings, LaFontaine recommends women wear dresses, or pant suits with a blouse. She often tells women she mentors at the CareerCenter not wear too much jewelry in the workplace.
“Remain modest,” she said.
“I personally don’t allow my staff to wear jeans to work, ever,” said LaFontaine. “(The CareerCenter) would never recommend someone wear khakis or jeans to an interview for an office position.”
She said several of her female staff members have tattoos that are visible. Though it depends on the workplace, “body art,” such as piercing and tattoos, “has become much more acceptable,” than a decade ago, said LaFontaine.
In recent years, unique hair colors, like pink, purple and green, have also become more accepted in the workplace, she added.
“We are just more creative and open about how we express ourselves,” she said.
While “you can never err with being too conservative,” she said, women also shouldn’t hide who they are.
“It depends on the kind of job, or where you want to work, and how visible the tattoo is in your job search process,” said LaFontaine.
According to Cunningham, “the professional woman’s wardrobe should be flattering, appropriate and of the best quality” they can afford, and they should pay close attention to their upper-body presence.
“Have fewer pieces of good quality rather than a lot of poor quality items,” she said. “If you have limited funds, spend more money on the top because that is where people look at you the most.”
She suggests women wear dark, neutral-colored pants or a skirt, with a dress jacket and “pop of color” on top. In terms of quality, she suggests wool blends, gabardine, silks or polyester blends.
“What you wear depends on what message you wish to send,” she said. “If you have a conservative job, a classic-style personality, or a desire to be promoted, wear a suit or straight skirt and blazer, or a dress and jacket with pumps.”
She also encourages women to coordinate their shoes and accessories when dressing for work, and applying their makeup lightly to appear more natural.
“Add a pair of good leather shoes or boots and a coordinating purse and/or briefcase,” she said. “Finish with simple gold, silver or pearl earrings, and a nice watch.”