Style Reinvention: Re-learning How To Dress For Myself

details: style blogger Susan B. of une femme d'un certain age wears brocade mules with rhinestone accents from Brown's Couture

Leaving Office Dress Codes Behind

One of the things about being self-employed I was most looking forward to was not having to think about dressing for the office. Not that our workplace was particularly corporate or stringent, but as a department head and V.P. who sometimes had to attend meetings with other V.P.’s (and SVP’s and occasionally EVP’s), I had to include enough “Business” in my Business Casual attire to pass muster.

In my experience, women in corporate environments are still caught in a bind when it comes to work dressing. In management positions especially, they need to be taken seriously, but are also expected to be approachable, warm and empathetic. Unless the dress code is formal (suits for everyone), kitting up for work requires mental calculations that I think men generally don’t have to wrestle with.

The last few years at the Day Job, I didn’t want to wear skirts or dresses, but straightforward blazer-and-pants outfits felt too masculine. So I added softer elements like scarves and cardigans. I was always hunting for jackets that weren’t literal copies of menswear. I usually wore some obvious jewelry, and relied on accessories to express individuality.

Free-Range Style Reinvention

When I knew I’d be leaving the corporate world, I pictured my future wardrobe as softer, more flowing, more funky, more Bohemian. All of those styles that didn’t feel “serious” enough for a workplace. I assumed I’d want to express all of the sartorial freedom I’d had to squelch in my Monday-to-Friday life.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Over the last year I’ve tried flowy and funky and Boho and different silhouettes with more drama, and little of it has actually stuck. I find that what I’m drawn to most of all (besides jeans) are…jackets. I like the cleanness and structure of them. They make me feel polished and pulled-together.

This has made me realize again what a strong psychological component there is to personal style. When I was working in an office full-time, so much of my life was structured and I longed for a looser, freer existence. And perhaps my attraction to softer clothing was a way of expressing that. Now that my time is (mostly) my own to schedule, I find that what appeals are clothes with definition, clear boundaries.

Current Style Forecast: Refined Casual

My style is still casual, but within that framework I now prefer a more refined version of it. I’m moving away from clunky, rough, distressed styles and finishes, and toward smoother, cleaner, slightly more polished iterations.

What appeals to me now is a look that’s feminine but not fussy, shaped but not stiff or snug, simple but not severe. Still softly structured pieces, but a bit more structure than before. (I keep circling back to my new navy jacket as a perfect illustration of this.) Small touches of embellishment and whimsy to lighten it up.

The most surprising turn has been the urge to incorporate more feminine elements into my style. Not frilly or frou-frou, but a chic, subtle femininity, with the occasional touch of glam. (I wonder how much of that shift is due to no longer being in a position of authority in a mostly male environment.) I still admire those women who do “tomboy” style so well, but it no longer feels like something I aspire to.

Still Reinventing…

Though I love that feeling of hitting a style groove, I’m not rushing myself through this style transition period. I’m trying new things, trying to keep an open mind, and trying to trust the process.

The good news is that there’s no expiration date on style. I can take my time, see what feels right, and change course as needed.

Has you style evolved as you’ve gone through major life transitions? Were there changes that surprised you?

Top photo: these brocade mules worn with jeans hit my Casual Glam sweet spot. They’re from Brown’s Shoes, purchased in Vancouver. They do not appear to ship outside of Canada, but I’ve included some similar styles in the showcase below.

Refined Casual (With A Pinch Of Glam)

Affiliate links in posts may generate commissions for unefemme.net. See my complete disclosure policy here.

30 Comments

  1. June 22, 2017 / 3:32 am

    Very well expressed. I like your phrase ‘literal copies of menswear’ which sums up perfectly a long-held-but-never-articulated feeling I’ve had about how women dress for work.

  2. Vildy
    June 22, 2017 / 4:36 am

    Your own explorations have provided me with a missing piece to thinking about my wardrobe. Since I don’t work outside the home I haven’t been able to figure out why I am irresistibly drawn to jackets/blazers. They do provide some authority: I’m shorter than you, been mostly strawberry blonde, look decades younger than my age and people seem to think I know nothing about the world. Most important, though, I am the well-rehearsed introvert and so I seem extrovert but I’m very private. Your words “clear boundaries” explain it all to me. Smoothly tailored jackets suggest a boundary. I didn’t see it until you said it.

  3. Nethwen
    June 22, 2017 / 5:32 am

    Do you think it’s changing that women in leadership are expected to be warm and empathic? When I became library director, it never crossed my mind that that was an expectation. But then when I talk to women a decade or more older than I and with more experience, they keep saying things like “I mother my employees.” I want to scream, I’m not their mother!” I will be kind and care about them as people, but I am not their mother. It’s been hard to find women who I relate to in professional circles and I wonder if it is because my expectations for how I do my job are so different from what is (used to be?) the norm. Or maybe when I’m older , I’ll see things from their point of view?

    And since this is a style blog, I’ve seen similar changes in my preferences. I started with structured jackets all the time, have moved to more artsy cardigans, but yearn for soft jackets – structure without stiffness or limited movement.

    • Susan B
      June 22, 2017 / 6:16 am

      Nethwen, I really think it depends on where you work, the company culture, and the employees. I never felt I should “mother” my employees either but did feel there was an expectation that I needed to be “warm” and “approachable” and “take an interest in them personally.” (Some of this based on feedback.) It was a difficult needle to thread, as we’d also been trained for years by HR to NOT get into discussions about employees’ personal lives (fear of lawsuits if we had to terminate someone and avoiding perception that we were too chummy and playing favorites with certain staff). I managed a large group of people (30-40) and I think it’s also different in smaller departments.

      • Tammy
        June 22, 2017 / 8:18 am

        In my opinion, it’s not an expectation from the company,but rather the employees themselves, and maybe just humanity in general. When I worked in a hospital, people would just roll their eyes when a male doctor was rude or abrupt, but if a female doctor did it, people got their feelings hurt, and made a much bigger fuss.

        I think that sort of thing probably changing a little, but I noticed that all my friends and family of this younger generation still tell their children to ask a woman for help if they get lost, so I think it’s hard wired into our species to expect different behavior from men and women.

        • Susan B
          June 22, 2017 / 9:00 am

          Right, I didn’t mean to imply this was in any way a company directive, merely that often unconscious expectations color how employees and other managers perceive women in management. I’d like to think it’s not hardwired, but rather cultural conditioning that can be unlearned over time, but I’ll leave that determination to the experts to hash out. 🙂

          • Tammy
            June 22, 2017 / 9:44 am

            Oh and I didn’t mean to imply that you did! Just that I feel like it’s what people in general seem to expect, regardless of any particular policy.

  4. June 22, 2017 / 5:42 am

    Certainly when I stopped working as a coach and trainer in the corporate environment I ditched my classic trouser and skirt suits and started to evolve a much more casual, relaxed and fashion forward style. I experimented more and continue to do so.

  5. June 22, 2017 / 5:49 am

    I love Brown’s shoes. I used to shop there every time I was in Montreal, but now we have our own store here in Ottawa.
    P.S. Know what you mean about life and style transitions. So happy I didn’t get rid of my jackets when I left work for good.

  6. June 22, 2017 / 6:04 am

    First off, ever since I saw your new shoes on Instagram…i have been trying to find them online. They are not on the Brown’s website…sad! Great shoes. I find I lead different lives right now…some days as a magazine editor I am able to be artsy and casual while I am working mostly in office; some days I still need a more corporate look for meeting with clients and for presentations. I feel I am slowly going to the artsy side. I still concentrate on the messages I am sending with my clothing choices. It is important to me that whatever I wear communicates strength, intelligence, creativity, approachable, and current…that will keep me feeling confident no matter what is going on. I really think you and I have similar style likes…I know we like the same brands! So I always learn something from you!

  7. Brit
    June 22, 2017 / 6:15 am

    I agree with you that for professional women, figuring out appropriate dress is much trickier than for men. Every year I attend a couple of conferences with a “business casual” dress code, and each time I fret over just what business casual is for a woman. In my job I am required to wear business attire: suits, jackets, dresses. How to dial that down for a biz casual environment takes thought. And I am always jealous of the men who can just leave off their tie or throw on a polo, wear a pair of khakis and call it a day!

    • ANNE
      June 22, 2017 / 9:14 am

      I was literally just watching this in action. I work at a comedy theater and a corporate group is in for a communications workshop. The men are all in khakis and short sleeved plaid shirts. All of the women are in outfits with some form of blazer. Ironically, as someone in a creative field, I feel the opposite pressure. I’m very comfortable with my everyday funky but refined tomboy look- it’s when I have to dress up for a presentation or a conference that I lose my mojo.

  8. June 22, 2017 / 6:26 am

    Great shoes!

  9. June 22, 2017 / 8:22 am

    Yes, trying to find one’s integrated self after retirement is the key task, I think, in style and in everything we do. How much “work” do we bring with us, and how much do we leave in the office? (And I still love those shoes;))

  10. Annette Ryan Kleinhenz
    June 22, 2017 / 9:23 am

    If I never put on pantyhose or a lined buttoned inflexible jacket again, it will be too soon! Haha. Finally free. As a fellow director whispered to me at my retirement party, “You found a hole in the fence!”. I liked the work, just not the corporate structure, but survived/thrived in it for most of my adult career. Then a few brave women in our building ventured forth and paved the way, and we went from all suits to allowing precise little twin sets with loose structured lined dress pant trousers. Do you have any idea how awful a middle aged lady with the apple shape and a big bust looks in a high hip length twin set? I do. However, it was easier to breathe and the precisely tailored jackets with silk shirts and proper little necklaces, looked just as bad.
    Now, on my own, my style has most definitely changed.
    Goodwill and the local women’s shelter got a half truck load of structured gorgeous suits and the above mentioned twin sets, all of good quality, but wow, was it great to get rid of them! I now like soft fabrics in good quality fibers, long and flowing sometimes, but most of all, something that fits well, is comfortable, and looks good on.
    One can find comfortable garments that hang well and fit.
    You asked how my style has changed.
    1) I’ve discovered I love scarves and long necklaces. I’ve always liked shawls, but now wear them often.
    2) Also, in the evenings around my home, I wear long flowing caftans and lounge type robes, nothing I would wear to bed. Some of these are a bit colorful or dramatic but I love them.
    3) No more heels.
    4) More color in tanks with neutral cardigans and bottoms, or cardigans with neutral tanks and bottoms.
    5) No more constructed structured garments, at all.
    6) A new conviction that even if it’s beautiful, if it doesn’t make me feel comfortable (and happy wearing it), I pass on it.

  11. Lynn
    June 22, 2017 / 9:36 am

    I just retired last fall and am adjusting to a completely new lifestyle. I love that I have 2 of my grandkids living with me but it has been a huge adjustment not to go out to work everyday! The office I worked in wasn’t corporate so my wardrobe hasn’t needed as big a shift as some of you are discussing. I noticed even before I retired that my personal style was shifting toward a more feminine take on my casual classics. Not frilly but softer. I like the look of the sleeves that are a focus this year but it would drive me crazy to have ruffles flopping at my wrist! lol I think as I have matured and grown more confident in my own style I have learned what works and what doesn’t but that doesn’t mean I’m not still willing to change. I think I will continue to soften my look to some degree but I still like structure and love details. I love your navy jacket! Especially the detail on the back.

    • Sheri
      June 22, 2017 / 9:52 am

      I agree with your comment about the ruffled sleeves! I’ve had a difficult time with that one and just can’t seem to want to try that style for myself. So often, the trends of the season do not seem to be anything that would be comfortable for daily wear!

    • Ann
      June 22, 2017 / 10:11 am

      Ditto re those goofy Elizabethan-sleeved blouses. You can’t do anything functional in them but take selfies. Sheesh!

  12. Ann
    June 22, 2017 / 10:20 am

    Sue, you really are so much help! I appreciate very much the options you feature and your thoughtfulness about exploring one’s
    own style.

    I’m 1.5 years retired now, and I still love structured jackets; probably always will. Like you I also love jeans and good and/or pretty shoes and luxe scarves. I’ve always been a good basics with good accessories afficionado. But now my basics are even more basic, so my accessories can be more outré. Or not. 🙂

    Thank you so much for your blog constancy. I never miss reading your posts.

  13. Daniella Karo
    June 22, 2017 / 11:12 am

    Too much into blue jeans. How about a sexy summer dress, a simple shift, etc.. the code has become static and boring, despite nice shoes, scarves, etc..
    Blue jeans are simply too hot in humid or dry hot summers. Variety is key to dressing well. How about a sexy hat also??

    • Susan B
      June 22, 2017 / 11:49 am

      Dresses just aren’t my style in the summer, but I understand that many women prefer them. I’ll occasionally wear a skirt with tights in cooler months.

  14. June 22, 2017 / 12:33 pm

    I love those shoes. From different angles the silver metallic finish really shines, as do the “diamonds.” What a fun period to enter – refining style at your leisure. You have a fantastic look and I look forward to where you head with it.

  15. Angela
    June 22, 2017 / 2:00 pm

    I remember last year commenting about a store where I bought all my clothes. Well, it just shows how much can change in a year! After making that comment I went to one of their regular in-store style workshops and was aghast to see that the audience were very mature and dare I say it, appeared very frumpy. I went home, opened my wardrobe and took a long, hard look in the mirror. Needless to say 99% of their label has gone to thrift shops. I’m now shopping in a small number of stores where I see ‘Stylish’ mature ladies also shop. I have also lost 2 dress sizes over that time and perhaps my regained confidence has contributed to the changes. I still find it challenging to describe my personal style but am now coming to terms with the fact that something that looks great on a young model very rarely translates to a mature one. One can only dream of the day that fashion magazines accept that there is a whole, very frustrated, mature shopper audience out there.

  16. Joni james
    June 22, 2017 / 5:41 pm

    I agree with the “very well expressed” comment. I think you’re right when you say that your style has softened outside the professional arena where there was mostly men. I imagine if someone were to do a line drawing of us, and in your office career the outline would be more exact lines, straighter, within boundaries. Whereas now, with a lighter load, or many of us in retirement, our outline softens. I’m noticing that with my own body, without clothes! haha

  17. June 22, 2017 / 7:45 pm

    You are really knocking it out of the park lately with the shoes and bags! I am loving almost every single one of them. I think style evolutions through the corporate decades for women are fascinating. I used to work in a law office where we had to wear matching suits, pantyhose, and heels. I honestly do not think I could ever wear that attire again, except maybe as a “making fun of the ’80s” costume! I have a softer, more colorful and feminine style and vibe that serves me well as a psychologist, but I even find myself feeling restricted there, as my clothes shouldn’t be a focus of unnecessary attention.

  18. June 22, 2017 / 9:38 pm

    You asked us what style change surprised us… I resisted slacks for most of my adult life, preferring skirts or jeans depending on the occasion. When I started teaching full-time, I invested in a few pairs of neutral slacks (black, brown, and grey) and found that I loved them!

  19. Susan
    June 23, 2017 / 1:26 am

    I wore a uniform all of my adult working life until I retired 5 years ago and have struggled to find a casual look which I am truly comfortable with. I love summer because I can throw on a dress and not worry about ‘co-ordinating’ an outfit so it doesn’t look ‘co-ordinated’. Since finding this website, I have liked Susan’s bohemian/flowy outfits, yet I think the Missoni jacket was my absolute favourite.

  20. LW Strick
    June 23, 2017 / 5:02 am

    For me, a semi-fitted jacket in good fabric and neutral color is the holy grail of shopping! That one piece, combined with jeans or dressier pants, will take me just about anywhere I want to go these days. They have become devilishly hard to find, though. Eileen FIsher used to be a reliable go-to, but lately she has shifted to loose, unstructured silhouettes that do not work for me at all. Anybody got suggestions for where else to look? I am so desperate I am dusting off my sewing machine.

  21. June 24, 2017 / 8:37 am

    What a great subject. No, men don’t have to wrestle with their work-clothes. I sympathize with women’s struggle in the workplace. I find your re-discovery and experimentation with personal style after leaving the corporate world to be a fascinating subject and enjoy hearing your thoughts on it. In fact, I encourage you to post even more on it. We can always find new ways to make ourselves happy and I’m in the process now myself.

  22. June 26, 2017 / 8:38 am

    I adore those shoes! Not sure that I would wear anything like it myself, but I’ve learned never to say never. I was all over the map for a long time after retirement, but you see to have a much firmer handle on your own style than I did, and that helps. In my case it was probably also that I retired long before I was ready. The main trick seems to be finding the right way of integrating our various roles outside the externally defined structure of “work”. Your progress seems admirable.

Dites moi vos pensées...