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?
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