Do or don’t: wearing distinctive designers at a conservative office

A few months ago, I received this message from a reader:

“I would greatly appreciate your advice on whether you think it is appropriate to wear designer pieces to a conservative corporate office. I, too, love and own a few Chanels and Loubs, but I am a little hesitant to wear them to my office because they are so readily identifiable. My office consists of mostly women, and I would hate to be the target of any catty remarks.” – MCL

This is a question that I’ve thought about many times myself. As much as I enjoy wearing certain designer pieces, the last thing I want to do is appear inappropriate or showy at work. Although I have photographed Chanel bags with work outfits on here, the truth is I do not tote them to the office (and admitted so here). At my current job, I keep mainly Ann Taylor pumps at my desk, but do sport the occasional Louboutins with other nondescript pieces.
designer_at_the_office copy

Images from these posts: left / right

The answer to MCL’s question is subjective and dependent on your own office environment, as well as where you are in your career. But here are some factors that I’ve considered over the years:

1. How “showy” are the designer items and how do they fit with your overall look?
In my opinion, recognizable all-over logo print, large logos, and Louboutin heels with their bright red soles are showier because onlookers can’t miss that it’s an expensive item. The higher the associated price range (as with Chanel), the more ostentatious the item can be in the wrong setting. In a truly conservative business environment, I would avoid the aforementioned things unless you’re at the top of the corporate ladder.

How you integrate designer items with your daily look also matters. I feel that if you consistently look put-together and tastefully-dressed, then designer items that complement that image will draw less attention than if the items themselves are the “centerpieces” of your outfits.

2. Is your office hierarchy flat or structured? What are your superiors’ attitudes toward designer items?
In a structured office hierarchy, I would suggest being very careful to avoid looking like you’re trying to upstage any superiors. This is especially important to consider with women, who may be more sensitive to such things. If your organizational structure is flatter and the atmosphere is more casual, I would feel out the environment by gauging clues on what is appropriate. For example:

– Do your superiors enjoy wearing designer items, or do they balk at the price tags as being wasteful?
– Do you and your superiors chat congenially about latest purchases or where to shop?

Working in client service, I view the client like a superior and exercise an even higher level of care/caution. I avoid showing up at a client donning any readily-identifiable high-end items, without first understanding their business environment or their personality. Needless to say, this is even more important at client meetings where sales or fee negotiations are taking place.

3. How much do other people’s perceptions matter to you?
I often smile remembering an intern who showed up on his first day with an $8k watch and received a healthy dose of teasing. This reader’s question mentioned catty remarks…if you care about such things, then it is safer to dress within your level. Most people in peer roles (and of course, superiors) will know the going salary rates and could be quick to form judgments if someone dresses conspicuously above others at the same level. They could speculate that someone is drowning in credit card debt or has a sugar daddy/parent, which could be far from the truth. The perceived boundaries of your level, however, could vary greatly based on office culture – in a fashion-conscious, urban workplace, wearing Louboutins could be common for junior-level employees…whereas it could easily garner gossip and raised eyebrows elsewhere.

In the end, there will always be people who wear whatever they want with confidence because they don’t care about what others think. And those who’ve made it to the top have the luxury of doing so. For those who are not there yet, even small wardrobe choices can play a real role in workplace perceptions and possibly distract from one’s professional performance.

Readers – What are your thoughts on and experiences with this topic? Do you wear “readily-identifiable” designers to work?
 

111 thoughts on “Do or don’t: wearing distinctive designers at a conservative office

  • Kisti Belle August 31, 2012 at 1:41 am

    Thanks for this! I'm starting at an entry level job and I often question how to dress and what is appropriate. You're definitely right about the environment with women! i think we all feel envy quite readily.

  • Jessica H August 31, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Love this post! I would have never thought of wearing designer items to work as a problem.

  • Lloyd Lim @StyleHills August 31, 2012 at 1:59 am

    Really enjoyed this post. One more request: Style guide for men in the corporate environment. Mon – Thurs vs. Fridays.

    – Lloyd

  • Karen August 31, 2012 at 2:01 am

    I really like this post. It's something I've always had in mind subconsciously, but never actively thought about it. I definitely never wear designer brands (at least not easily identifiable ones, e.g. monogrammed) to work. If I do wear a designer brand to work, it's usually very inconspicuous, such that only people very familiar with the brand would notice.

  • Michelle August 31, 2012 at 2:10 am

    I try to steer away from any noticeable or bold designer wear just for that same purpose. Working in an environment where all my colleagues where mainly suits, it makes it that much easier to shy away from "showing off" or trying to come off as too flashy. My everyday attire mainly consists of plain blazers and skirts. I switch it up every now and then, however, with different colors and textured undershirts. The only thing that might catch someone's eye are my out of season (from TJ Maxx)shoes or costume jewelry pieces that are clearly just for fun. πŸ˜›

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 2:50 am

    Thanks for such an interesting post! It's nice to read your perspective as a fashion blogger. It's fun to see the outfits you pull together, but what I enjoy most is your practicality. I sure love designer pieces but can definitely see how it could cause sensitivities amongst fellow coworkers and peers.

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 3:36 am

    Well-formulated ideas on this intriguing topic. What labels I choose to wear is something I feel I consider on all occasions, even non-work related. There are certain people around whom I feel completely comfortable sporting the latest and greatest, and then there are other people around whom I am much more careful. It also depends on the focus and goals of each occasion.

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 3:37 am

    I personally find obvious logos like the Louis Vuitton prints and Chanel to be tacky in almost all situations, although I respect that many women love them. I honestly think it's because they are so prevalent/often copied that I'm just visually sick of the styles. I obviously have nothing against high end brands because I love YSL and have a Muse! But I do think that over-the-top and recognizable logos are wrong for the office. They're not against the dress code and of course, everyone is different. But my female AND male coworkers and I do tend to have negative first impressions of women (or men!) who are ostentatious about money in any way, because we work in a high-value but very decorous and conservative field. Just like I wouldn't wear flashy, sparkly evening jewelry to work, I wouldn't carry a Stephen Sprouse LV bag. Being appropriate for the situation is always important, no matter if you're dressed up or down. I do think low, neutral Loubies are ok, but no strappy ones and no platforms!

    I do have one exception to my no-flashy-items rule. My grandmother had a beautiful, delicate Rolex with diamonds that was given to her by the manager of a department store for whose ad campaigns she was a model. The manager later became her husband of 40 years. πŸ™‚ She and I were very close and she left me the watch when she died. I adore it and have come to think of it as my good-luck charm, but it does sometimes draw comments, especially when I was younger. However, whenever someone remarked on it, I would always explain how I got it and the sentimental value it held, and then the person would drop the subject.

    My supervisor has a gorgeous black and white Goyard bag, which several of the more fashion-conscious ladies in our office are in love with. I carry my black Muse with no problems, but I would not carry the Cabas Chyc to the office. I also carry a plain leather Fendi tote but wouldn't carry a logo'ed one. One can still be classic, stylish, occasionally expensively dressed, and well put-together without making it blatantly obvious that one is wearing high-end items.

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 4:38 am

    I enjoyed reading this, I personally don't like wearing clothing and bags where big brand logos are everywhere or like you said readily-identifiable but I also have nothing against people I see with them, it's just me who's not comfortable. And I can relate with what you said about even if logos and names are not showing on what you're wearing some people would still notice just because they are familiar with the item. I had an experience at work one time where someone was talking to me about sales going on at Kmart and my other co-worker immediately said, "does she look like she shops at Kmart, to you?". I didn't know at that time how and what to feel but I had to explained that, "yes I love and I do wear designer stuff but I get them on sale". Thanks for this post!

  • Mary-Irene August 31, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Great post, Jean. But, here's the deal. Wear what you love and enjoy doing so. Life is too darn short not to. We buy the items because we love them, and because you respect the craftsmanship and care that goes into making them. It would be a lie if I haven't once thought after reading your blog, and the other fashion blogs, how you younger ladies manage to own so many high end pieces. My conclusion is that most of you have a budget, and you make careful choices. And that's because I take the time to read the posts and watch your videos. I will say that I completely understand and have experienced the incorrect conclusions people draw based on the items you purchase.
    I work in a corporate office on a marketing team. I will first point out that we are an "older" crowd than maybe your readership is. We are married, and mothers with young kids. We typically are all dressed with LOFT, AT, BR, JCrew and follow many different fashion blogs based on our different tastes. None of us are wearing true designer clothing. However, many of us have a decent selection of designer bags from Kate Spade, Coach, LV. I do not see much Chanel at all here in Rochester, NY. If I were to break out my classic flap (which was gifted to me by my very successful artist brother when I graduated from college), I think maybe a handful of ladies would know it's a Chanel, and that it's worth a lot. But, the point of this, the ladies KNOW me. They know I am not a catty person, or a snobby person who only wants to be in the company of those with high-end goods. They know I have a love for designers and they think it's great that I have some classic pieces. So, therefore, I feel completely comfortable wearing and enjoying the items I own. Also, we are a bit more established and frankly, relaxed about such things.
    If you are not yet in that place with yourself, or your career, I can understand the need to be careful. I remember a similar experience of a male intern driving a BMW and being teased. He took it pretty well, gave it right back, and people enjoyed it. He also was a smart person, and strong contributor. This goes with the deal of looking the part.
    But, be yourself, enjoy what you have. If you really want to take the Speedy to work because it's the most efficient way to carry all you need, then DO IT and smile!! Always remember that for every person who may feel awkward around you, there are probably 10 other people who you've inspired to be stylish and own some nicer pieces. It's worth it!

  • Angie August 31, 2012 at 7:07 am

    i really enjoyed reading this post. i never thought of it as a problem but i suppose in an office environment the hierarchy can be quite intense! i think the way you styled the two shoes in the pictures are fine. i would stray from wearing CL's like you until i get a feel of the propriety – i remember in college one girl was wearing her CL's on stage in a dance … it felt weird. that's a good tip to keep in mind since i have to dress more professionally when seeing patients.

  • walkinginprettyshoes.com August 31, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Well said Mary-Irene! I totally agree with your response.

    Tammy of Walking in Pretty Shoes

  • Tina August 31, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Great post! I recently started an office job and find myself over thinking the smallest of things! Most of the women I work with are very well-dressed and I feel like I need to be more fashionable. All your posts have been super helpful as I am also a very petite girl! It's a great resource because finding fitting and flattering clothes can be so frustrating sometimes! Plenty of people still ask me what grade in high school I'm going into, which is so embarrassing considering I'm turning 23 and working in a professional environment now. Did you ever have this problem?

  • Mary-Irene August 31, 2012 at 8:09 am

    Thanks, Tammy! Why buy these items if you cannot fully enjoy them? I think it's unfair to keep my things wrapped in their original packaging tucked away in the closet. They want to be worn, loved and respected πŸ™‚ For me, wearing my goods means going to the office. As a busy mom with a family, I'm not out and about with the girls on the town.If I don't take my things to the office, the only time I can break them out is weekends. Part of making an investment is enjoying that investment. Otherwise, your ROI is nothing!

  • PetiteAsianGirl August 31, 2012 at 8:41 am

    I love your perspective on this, Mary-Irene. The dynamic you described with your team made me smile, and reminds me of my current job – a flatter office structure where the leaders make an effort to "know" those on their team outside of just work. They know me as a person, know of my blog, know that I like to dress up and buy some things pre-owned…and have made me feel progressively more comfortable being myself at work, style-wise.

    On the other hand, I've worked at places before where such is not the case. In the anecdote you shared of your intern, the fact that lighthearted teasing even occurs is a sign of open relationships that are not present at many offices. My views for the workplace are more conservative than most and err on the side of caution, but I agree with your bottom line.

    Your second comment speaks to another topic I feel strongly about… buying and "investing" in items that are practical for one's own lifestyle. I try to consider this with every splurge, but there are definitely pieces in my closet -like Chanel bags- that were purchased for evening/weekend enjoyment with no intention of ever taking them to work.

  • Natasha Fatah August 31, 2012 at 8:46 am

    What a thoughtful and helpful post.
    I've often considered what is appropriate for the office but in terms of the length of skirt, how much skin one shows, how casually to dress. I've never thought about maybe being too showy at work. I'm someone that buys big brand name labels or expensive purses or shoes so this has just never occurred to me. Also I work in radio production/journalism, a field that is very creative, and people dress pretty much however they like, so again, something I've never had to consider. Thanks for the food for thought.

    ~Natasha Fatah~

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 9:11 am

    I think it is more in terms of appropriateness and good taste. i.e. is the skirt too short? Neckline too low. Are there labels showing from top to bottom? Is it necessary to wear an 6 inch CL? or an 6 inch nine west stilletos for that matter.

  • pinksole August 31, 2012 at 9:26 am

    It's good to be sensitive to other people, but I have to say I agree with Mary-Irene. Personally i cannot afford Louboutins and Chanels yet, but it wouldn't bother me to see my coworkers wearing them. To each their own. If I manage to invest in a pair of Louboutin I am planning on wearing it to work, because after all work is the place that I frequent the most. I think it would be great if women were more supportive and less catty. Then again I work in IT, I always find myself having lunch with 9 guys or more. And they can't tell a target handbag from a Chanel purse really lol. I guess I'm lucky in that sense.
    But you did make a great point and I can tell that you are very sweet natured person.
    xo
    Rachelle
    http://pinksole.wordpress.com

  • SweetAmbitions August 31, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Very interesting post; I very much appreciate hearing other women's view on this topic. I work in the finance industry where most people dress conservatively and I always felt that if I wore a designer piece to work, my associates wouldn't take me seriously… so for the first seven years of my career, I never wore anything that was too flashy or high-end to work. Now that I am at the higher end of the corporate ladder, I feel a lot more comfortable wearing designer pieces to work (i.e. my Loubies and Chanels)… but here's the FUNNY thing: for the most part, many people don't even know that my red sole heels and Chanel bags costs thousands of dollars (unless they are fashionistas themselves!). So here's MY advice: enjoy your designer pieces while you're young and able to flaunt them!! πŸ™‚

  • lisacng @ expandng.com August 31, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Great answers, Jean! I have only 1 designer bag (LV Speedy). I agree with what you said in #1, if you always looked pulled together than the designer bag doesn't stand out. So, I tend to wear it when I'm more pulled together. But then again, I also wear it to make a casual outfit seem more pulled together πŸ˜‰ on weekends. Lucky for me, I work mostly with men, so even if they recognized the brand, they wouldn't feel I'm competing with their knowledge of the stock market/sports or smartphones ;). But overall, great advice! I can see that you put much thought into the answer and have also practiced your advice! Another reason to love your blog!!!!!!!!!

  • MissM August 31, 2012 at 10:09 am

    This is an interesting post and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. I think you really have to use your own judgement depending on where you work and what you do. The other day I dropped by the hospital because I wasn't feeling well and the doctor they assigned me was very young and quite prettily dressed in a way which wouldn't have made me blink on the street, but seemed very unusual in the hospital environment compared to the other employees. I didn't mind, but I think the other doctors there spoke to her as if she was much younger and not inexperienced. Perhaps she was, but I couldn't help wondering if any of their manner had to do with the way she was dressed. I suppose to a degree it has an effect on how people perceive you as capable and able, but I'd hope that in the grand scheme of things, Mary-Irene's view would the one that mattered:)

  • theglitterlife August 31, 2012 at 10:21 am

    thank you for touching on this topic. very informative!

    Today on The Glitter Life: Friday Five: Vegas Edition: http://theglitterlife.wordpress.com/2012/08/31/friday-five-vegas-edition/

  • Cathy Casq August 31, 2012 at 10:27 am

    What an excellent and well written piece. Thanks, Jean, for sharing your thoughts. I think you are spot-on in your assessment and thank you for bringing this subject to light.

    All the best always,
    CG

  • Cathy Casq August 31, 2012 at 10:27 am

    What an excellent and well written piece. Thanks, Jean, for sharing your thoughts. I think you are spot-on in your assessment and thank you for bringing this subject to light.

    All the best always,
    CG

  • pretty little things August 31, 2012 at 10:29 am

    this is such a great question and something I've always wondered myself. I tend to use my expensive item only when I go out and not at work just to not be too "showy"

    http://allthingsprettyandlittle.blogspot.com/

  • Erin August 31, 2012 at 10:56 am

    This is great advice! I love that you are mindful of not being too showy with designer pieces. Not everyone works that way, especially in fashion blogging. I work at an office where no one knows of any designers, and I am overdressed most days anyway! I've found ways to tone down the glam but maintain my sense of personal style. Office style is a challenge no matter what, and I'm glad you addressed this side of it!

    -Erin-
    http://onetwosummer.blogspot.com/

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Great post Jean, you write well!

  • Whitney Moore August 31, 2012 at 11:19 am

    Great post!! I'd love if you would write a dressing "handbook" with all of your tips! πŸ™‚
    ~L&W;
    http://www.thedoubletakegirls.com

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Loved this post Jean. I'm a recent grad just starting out in the finance/accounting field and have similar views regarding designer accessories in the workplace. I don't know about other corporate environments but being flashy in our field is definitely frowned upon.

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 11:23 am

    With that said, I have been wanting the Prada purse you recently purchased, but have held off for a while due to the reasons mentioned in your post. Do you think it would be acceptable for the workplace since it's not plastered with logos?

  • Katherine August 31, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Great topic Jean πŸ™‚

    For me my opinion is that I spent a lot of money for certain items and so I don't want to feel limited about where I wear them. I rarely wear logo items to work though and if I do carry an Hermes bag I usually use one of the more low key styles. If I am carrying a Birkin I turn it in facing me when walking into the office and then just stow it away under my desk for the day. I don't usually bring my bags out to lunch with coworkers, just grab my wallet and some sunglasses.

    I do however drive my husband's old fairly beat up car to work – for some reason I feel people judge on car more than anything (maybe because it's easier to universally price) and I don't like bringing attention to myself in that way. Plus I am a bad driver, LOL.

    Finally in my experience some people will just want to be catty or are overly curious to price your items/see how you are doing economically and they will find something no matter what. I walked into a VP's office the other day and caught them Trulia'ing another coworker's address to see how much the house was worth (you can see our addresses in our employee directory). Some people..

  • Diana August 31, 2012 at 11:26 am

    I totally agree with all of your points. πŸ™‚ I once worked in the same building as the CEO of a major bank. Therefore, the dress code there was quite fancy. I carried my Chanel and wore my Louboutins (not everyday necessarily), but I don't feel that I ever stood out. I actually felt a bit like I fit in because of what everyone else (executives and traders) wore in the building. But then again, we weren't allowed to wear denim or capri pants, if that tells you anything about their dress code. πŸ˜›

  • W. Mau August 31, 2012 at 11:40 am

    As always, your blog inspire me so much and I love reading every single word you write. I finally commented today because I want to share some stories from my work based on the theme of wearing designer pieces at work. First of all my work environment is very very different from what most people have around them. I am a Chinese, female electrical engineer working in silicon valley. Males are dominating in our work place and needless to say, these males/nerds don't care much about fashion and many of them probably never heard of h&m.; I don't want to surrender to looking like them because I am still a fairly girly girl, though my usual work attire is just simple jeans and knit tops. At my work environment, dressing anything nicer such as in pencil skirt or what not will draw great attention from the male coworkers and trust me you don't want those attention. πŸ˜€ Anyhow, we do have one particular lady who dresses with so much confident that she doesn't care the whole building is gossiping about her work attire choices. She's not an engineer and she dresses very professionally with great sense of style and wears designer shoes platform stilettos like Prada and Dior (although she admits she doesn't own loubs). One time our group has some morale money and she suggested taking everyone out shopping and be our stylist, that's when I know how much she loathe the way people dress at work. Not surprisingly, the men grunted and responded "Cut this crap let's just go drink beer". I found that whole exchange quite amusing but I have to give her the probs for trying and I really admire her confident. Although I cannot do the same (don't like the attention and can't walk in heels) but I am still inspire by fashion and will try to sport it on weekends. Hope you enjoy the story and keep the good stuff coming!

  • Princess Martha August 31, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Honestly, it's your fashion and your items…you should feel like you can wear them anywhere.
    Don't worry about what people think…and catty women will be catty with our without a designer bag…so go ahead, flaunt what you've got and wear it with pride.
    XOXO

  • Anonymous August 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Jean, thanks so much for answering my question in such a thoughtful post! I'm really enjoying reading all of the reader comments as well. I have been in my industry for four to five years so I'm considered a junior/mid-level associate. However, I just started at my current firm a few months ago. Based upon your advice, I think I'm going to stow my identifiable designer pieces for at least six months until my co-workers get to know me better and then I'll gradually bust out the Loubs!
    Have a great long weekend,
    MCL

  • Shmon August 31, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    such a great post! I was always wondering about this…!!
    Thanks Jean!

    withloveshmon.com

  • Elissa August 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    fantastic post Jean and a great comment by Mary-Irene.

  • FJ August 31, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    This is such a great topic. I especially agree that if your designer things complement a look, it will draw less attention others. I also work in financial environments, and thought I'd add some of my opinions too.

    (1) Don't be draped head to toe in designer logos or distinctive designer pieces. I usually limit myself to two designer pieces in an outfit if they are low key, or just one piece if it is distinctive.

    (2) Dress according to who you are trying to impress. If I were meeting clients with a $250,000 portfolio, I would carry a Coach tote because I don't want the clients to think I am overbilling them. If I were meeting a corporate investment client with a $25 million portfolio, I would carry my Chanel bag because I want to convey I can afford expensive things due to the fact that I am successful and very good at what I do.

    (3) Be confident and proud, and don’t make excuses for your purchase. Since I always save for my designer things and buy them after many months (and in the case of my first Chanel bag, after years) of consideration, I view them as achievements in my life. So I am proud when I carry my designer purses or wear my designer shoes. There was this one girl who used to say things like "I could never afford a bag costs over $1000". I would say back, "Well, I budgeted for it, and made sacrifices in other areas so as to not go into debit while still maxing out my retirement accounts." Or, if the remark sounded especially catty, I would just smile, sometimes condescendingly, and say, "I'm sorry to hear that…" and in my mind add "…and too bad you don't know how to budget."

    (4) Age helps. I received more looks when I wore expensive designer pieces in my 20s. Now, in my 30s, I guess people assume I've paid my dues and earned them.

    Last of all, I think women were cattier in my last office setting because they were younger and it was a more male-dominated environment, so the women instinctively wanted to one-up each other and impress the other gender. My current office setting is more female-dominated and older in age, and we all give compliments to each other on our outfits.

  • Mary-Irene August 31, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Jean and others! I am sure that the friendly open banter that I have seen happen in my particular work place is not a cookie cutter experience in other markets. I think to err on the side of being conservative is a very smart approach, and then when you feel comfortable carrying your things, then go for it. Who you are surrounded by makes a huge difference, no doubt about it. I have to say, my younger corporate experiences were much like the comment from W. Mau. I began my career as a Chemical Engineer. Surrounded by men who had absolutely no sense for fashion, nor did most of the women. I seriously took my Chanel classic flap into the office, and they probably thought I got it a Kohls because they just didn't know any better. While I was fortunate that I was not looked upon badly, I also had no one to talk fashion with πŸ™ As I've grown in my career away from engineering and into product development and marketing, I've been with more and more women, and have seen what you are speaking to. But with career growth came confidence (and age unfortunately). Anyway, great topic for discussion!!! Huge fan of your blog and your style.

  • SweetAmbitions August 31, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Great points! I really do think age helps…I just turned the big 30 this year and I rewarded myself with a Chanel bag and a pair of Loubies and I absolutely have NO regrets because I worked really hard in my 20's and saved every dime I could for it. I think saving for such lovely designer pieces makes you appreciate them more.

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