Is it appropriate to be sexy at work? The answer to that question depends mostly on what “sexy” means to you.
Halle Berry could be sexy wearing no makeup and a paper sack. She’s an incredibly beautiful woman and is attractive regardless of what she wears. Therefore, if “sexy” means physically attractive, it’s quite a challenge for Halle Berry not to be sexy. On the other hand, if your idea of “sexy” means an overt display of sexually attractive physical features, it’s probably best to keep “sexy” out of the office.
I differentiate “sexy” from “overt,” though. I think you can be sexy and classy and professional, all in one single outfit. Case in point, one of my favorite outfits is from my “Why I Left” article, below. I am wearing a white blouse with a high neckline, a pencil skirt that falls below my knee, and three inch heels. I feel confident, powerful, and sexy walking into work in that outfit and it is objectively professional. On the other hand, I think there is a fine line you should not cross that could turn your appropriately sexy look into something NSFW. I typically err on the side of caution, but if you like to toe the line, here’s the advice I have for you:
Your clothes should fit you, not squeeze you.
Fit is incredibly important for any work outfit. I prefer a looser fit for any professional clothing and that preference has a lot to do with the industry I worked in for years. I was a practicing attorney and the legal industry, like the financial industry, is notoriously conservative. On the other hand, if you work in tech for example—a notoriously liberal and progressive industry when it comes to wardrobe—you may find that your workplace allows for a much more casual dress code and a more form-fitting size may be acceptable.
At any rate, I generally recommend that your clothes should drape your frame, not bear-hug it. That typically means that when I’m finding slacks, I want them to fit loose enough that they fall into place when I stand up from a seated position (rather than having them cling to me and force me to tug them downwards into place when I stand). The same goes for the fit of skirts and dresses. This looser/draped fit is usually more comfortable and wearable for me, especially when I’m working long hours. It also ensures that the garment moves with me when I walk rather than constantly riding up (not fun when you’re wearing a skirt and walking across town).
Knees are acceptable, thighs are not. . . generally.
I like wearing really long dresses and skirts. Midi length is my friend. On the other hand, I have some shorter garments, but they usually stay no more than a few inches above my knee in length.
The skirt in this article has a slit and clearly shows quite a bit of my thigh. This outfit would be completely appropriate when I walk into the office for my current employer—the Miss Universe Organization. The dress code is casual, it’s a fun and relaxed office to work in, and I feel comfortable wearing ripped jeans, skirts of almost any length, any mix of color or patterns, makeup or not, and sneakers. Conversely, were I still practicing as an attorney and headed to a deposition, a hearing at the courthouse, or a meeting with a client, I would be grossly underdressed.
Know your office culture. The more casual your office is the more you can play with length.
Shy away from cleavage.
I typically stay away from cleavage in any setting, casual or business professional. It is distracting when men leave their shirts unbuttoned low enough to see chest hair and just as distracting in my opinion when women do it (minus the chest hair part).
Heel height varies. Shoe style does too.
My rule of thumb for heel height is if you can walk in it, go for it. I still agree with my Dos and Don’ts of Heels, here, with the exception of my note on platforms and bright colors. These are more acceptable if your dress code is casual (I’m talking casual as in you can wear jeans everyday).
I usually avoid really strappy shoes for professional settings. Slingbacks I like, these I don’t (although they are really cute). But again, you’re allowed a bit more flexibility the more casual the workplace.
Use daytime makeup.
I don’t wear a smokey eye to work. I think it quickly pushes your overall look almost over the edge of the “appropriate workplace wear” line by itself, let alone if you are wearing any very casual pieces. Also, who has time to do a good smokey eye in the morning?
I think you can play with different colors for eyeshadow and lip color, within reason. Avoid hot pink eyeshadow, but a peach color would be beautiful. I love a good red lip, but other colors like cobalt blue and bright purple should probably be saved for the weekend or after-hours events.
When dressed, reassess your overall look.
Coco Chanel always said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I support this strategy and believe you should certainly use it when assessing whether your outfit is appropriate for work. Identify a piece that may push you over the edge and consider removing it or swapping it with something else. I’ve worn a dress before that was a little tight, so I opted for a shorter pump rather than a sky-high strappy slingback.
Where do you believe the line between sexy and overt lies? Drop your thoughts in the comments!