JOJO MU HAS been toning down her work wardrobe of late. The 38-year-old content producer recently pivoted from freelancing in New York to a contract gig in the Silicon Valley offices of a major tech company. “I love being overdressed. I think it’s the best,” Ms. Mu wistfully confessed. She describes her instinctual style as “eclectic,” big on frothy tulle and printed dresses. When we spoke, however, Ms. Mu had just changed out of the relatively sober black-and-white ensemble she’d worn on the job that day. “I’ve only been working here a year,” she said, admitting that she’s still feeling out office norms. “I think when I start getting more comfortable, I’ll wear whatever I want.”
“ ‘There’s always an intelligent way to be yourself at work.’ ”
Like many women, Ms. Mu is gauging how much of her passion for fashion to bring to work. In the age of Instagram, panache can translate into ego-boosting likes from friends or, in the case of influencers, lucrative endorsement deals. But there’s a fine line between showing off your signature style and perilous peacocking—particularly in the office, where dress codes are becoming ever vaguer and more casual. This past March, Goldman Sachs issued a memo to employees implementing a “firmwide flexible dress code.” Rather overconfidently, it stated: “All of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace.” While we all know, indeed, to leave uber-casual flip-flops at home, the boundaries get murky when it comes to dressier looks—say, a flower-printed Dries Van Noten pantsuit.
Adding to the confusion are the fall 2019 runways, where designers seemingly chucked all wardrobe rules out the window. Brands including Marc Jacobs, Rick Owens, Loewe and Prada (to name a few) indulged an outsize love of the outré, encouraging women to embrace extreme proportions, mohawk trims, ostrich feathers and mutant florals. While determined women can find venues to flaunt the season’s capital-F fashion, could the office ever be one? Depending on your workplace and your openness to modulating styling strategies, we’d argue yes.
“Nobody wants to wear a corporate uniform anymore, and I don’t think companies want that either,” said Nicola Harrison, a New York-based stylist who primarily works with executives. “Employees and employers want people to infuse their own personality into what they’re wearing.” Just how much personality, however, is up for debate.
“I think there is a value in looking different…but it depends on how you’re looking different,” posited Sara Allawi, a 33-year-old hedge-fund attorney who splits her working week between New York City and Stamford, Conn. “For me, it means expressing myself while also considering the interests of my client…I don’t want to come in wearing something that’s so extremely eccentric that it’s the talk of the meeting.” To stand out discreetly, Ms. Allawi incorporates prints and unusual scarfs into her classic wardrobe of tailored suits, dresses and separates. The goal: a happy medium between traditional workwear and more fashion-y pieces. This season that could be achieved by wearing a crisp white shirt with Gucci’s wide-leg houndstooth jumpsuit (shrewdly stopping short of slipping on the mouthless red mask shown on the catwalk), or your favorite solid-colored suit over Paco Rabanne’s cheetah-print top.
Dawnn Karen, a branding consultant who teaches fashion psychology at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, insists that, like it or not, colleagues will judge you on what you’re wearing. Ms. Karen suggests you need to find a way to reconcile others’ perceptions and your own intentions. “Sometimes, people don’t realize how much their unicorn-like ways…can make other people feel uncomfortable.” Ms. Allawi concurred: “If you’re trying to get somewhere in your career, you do sometimes need to consider the norms in [your field]. There’s an intelligent way to be yourself.”
Not all career women are concerned with their peers’ reactions, however. “If people can’t see beyond what you’re wearing, to who you really are and your intellect, that says more about them than you,” said Deepa Pakianathan, Ph.D., a 54-year-old Hillsborough, Calif.-based partner at a venture-capital fund focused on biotech. Dr. Pakianathan has pushed her look throughout her career. During a stint as a scientist, she wore “funky tops” and embroidered jeans under her lab coat; on Wall Street, she rocked a pink suit. Her current work wardrobe boasts an Alexander McQueen laser-cut dress, statement belts and glitzy Dolce & Gabbana shoes. “A lot of younger women in venture capital don’t want to stand out because they’re building their careers,” she said—a form of self-suppression she deems unnecessary. “There are people who will make negative comments to you, and you just need to learn how to weather that storm.” (That safe Theory suit in the back of your closet was made for days when storm-weathering sounds too exhausting.)
Farshid Moussavi, 54, has a similar outlook. Granted, the Iranian-born, London-based architect works in a more creative industry than most. “I’m often the only woman in the room…I realized that I looked different from the start [of my career], so blending in is a lost cause.” Favoring voluminous silhouettes and niche brands like Simone Rocha (whose floral suit she wore to receive her Order of the British Empire honor at Buckingham Palace), Ms. Moussavi employs fashion not only to stand out but to lighten the mood. “I’ve heard that people can be scared of me,” she deadpanned. “So I hope my seriousness about my work is offset by my playfulness with my clothing.”
Roopal Patel, the fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, said that, based on her observations, women are bringing fashion into the workplace more than ever. She believes the shift doesn’t merely reflect fall’s over-the-top runway offerings, but also aligns with how women are taking charge of their careers. “They don’t have to follow…those corporate rules that existed at one time,” she said. Her friends in law and finance often ask her how to subtly up their fashion ante in the office. Her advice: “Start with breaking small rules, like adding color through a scarf, a bag or a pump.” It shouldn’t feel forced, she cautions.
Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, the creative duo behind Oscar de la Renta and their own label, Monse, also subscribe to that view. “You can’t just slap a brand on you and consider yourself fashion-forward,” said Mr. Garcia. “It has to [reflect] who you are as a person.” Monse launched in 2015 with avant-garde twists on menswear classics; its asymmetric wool trousers and off-kilter jackets are not your normal office fare. Yet, according to the designers, the label’s riffs on suiting resonate with working women across fields, from art to tech. “[Jackets] with special details do really well. We always have ribbon trim or a back detail with fringe,” said Ms. Kim. In a similar vein, a half-skirted wool blazer, paired with matching wool trousers, opened Alexander McQueen’s fall show, and Joseph Altuzarra proposed a checked suit with cable-knitted sleeves.
So how do you know when you’ve gone too far? The answer depends on company culture, your seniority and, of course, personal comfort. In her work with executives, the stylist Ms. Harrison said she spends less time tamping down their brasher fashion instincts and more time talking them through their fear of overdoing it. “Show personality through one or two elements you love. Just don’t wear it all at once because it will distract from your skills and what you bring to the table,” she instructed. Ms. Moussavi conceded that, despite her predilection for amped-up individuality, “there are times when you don’t want to push people away by being so extremely unique.” For her part, Ms. Allawi can’t wait until she’s in charge so she can set an ambitious standard: “It would be nice to be a boss and then just wear the coolest thing and set the trend,” she said. “If you’ve made it, you’ve made it, and what you wear doesn’t matter.”
Want to dip your toe into fall’s more fashion-y fashion? Start here
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Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the model photographed above is Jim Boxstart. The model’s correct name is spelled “Jip Boxstart.” (November 7, 2019)
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