Light-weight materials and layering are key to achieving summer office style. From left, separates from T.J. Maxx, a relaxed pantsuit from DKNY and a floral dress from Cynthia Rowley. Photos: T.J. Maxx, Fernanda Calfat, Getty Images for IMG, Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images


As temperatures rise in the summer, a woman's inhibitions seem to fall when it comes to dressing for the office.

Arms and legs go bare. Flip-flops shod feet. Every day is Casual Friday.

"Warm weather is no excuse to completely dispense with your professional image," says Judie Schwartz, of Style Matters, a Denver-based duo that presents professional image seminars and corporate dress workshops. "After all, most offices are climate controlled. Your wardrobe should be controlled, too."

Schwartz tells StyleList the keys to summer office dress are color and fabric.

"Pick light-weight fabrics that don't wrinkle too much -- microfibers instead of linen," she says. "Change up from black. Instead, have fun with the trendy colors of the season: yellow, turquoise, coral and blue. Remember to keep the colors muted, not bright and glaring. Muted colors are more sophisticated and professional. Layer your attire with jackets and blazers. These instantly make any outfit office ready."

Personal brand style consultant Darcey Howard, whose "The Essential Guide" DVD explains her Personal Branding Through Appearance program, says if you wouldn't go to the beach in a suit and heels, you shouldn't go to the office looking like you're heading to the beach.

"The most important thing to keep in mind is maintaining the integrity of your personal brand," she tells StyleList. "Don't devalue your brand by not being intentional with how it shows up. Looking like you just rolled out of bed, revealing enough skin to get a tan at lunch, and dressing like you are on vacation shows a lack of intention around your personal brand. It also doesn't send the message that you mean business."

Here are some answers to our questions on staying cool, but looking appropriate for the office in the summer heat.

Are flip-flops ever appropriate for the office? "Never, never, never!" Schwartz exclaims. "You might as well show up at work wearing a muumuu."
  • "The flip-flop has become part of mainstream clothing but it still evokes too much of a beach feel for the office," Howard says. "It is your god-given birthright as a woman to wear fun shoes. Fun can come in all shapes, sizes and color. You can still inject the flavor of summer in your wardrobe without wearing shoes that are inspired by their ability to be hosed off in the driveway."
What about shorts? "I love the longer fitted city shorts as an alternative to pants," Howard says. "Paired with a tank top, short sleeve suit jacket and sassy summer heels, this is a look that can go from day to night and from office to outdoor. But what about those barely butt covering sassy pants? ... I have a rule, if you are showing enough skin that it can uncomfortably stick to a plastic chair, then it's probably too much for the office."

What do you do when your office is overly-air conditioned?
"We don't recommend bare arms in the office place, so stock up on jackets and lightweight sweaters," Schwartz says.

  • "Ditch the mommy cardigan," Howard recommends. "It's always painfully obvious that someone just 'threw on' a little cotton cardigan over their nicely selected outfit. If you already know that you are always cold at the office, then make a point of making an outfit that has layers but still looks like you purposefully selected the pieces to go together and create a complete look. A light-weight, unlined, short sleeve summer blazer is the perfect combination of structure, non-traditional stuffiness and stylish sensibility. It will definitely set you apart from the summer interns."
How much flesh can a woman get away with baring at work? "Ideally, women should show no more arm than a few inches above the elbow, no more leg than from the bottom of the knee down and no toe cleavage," Schwartz says. "Shoes with short vamps are guilty of displaying toe cleavage, which, to men, look like itty bitty boobs and can distract them."

  • "Sleeveless is fine. Camis aren't so much, unless paired with a lightweight, unlined cotton blazer," Howard says. "Skirts are ideal, but remember, when you sit down you lose about 6 inches of length. So if it hits right above the knee standing, it will hit mid-thigh sitting. That's an office-appropriate length. Any shorter and you should avoid plastic chairs -- and probably the office."
What's the rule on wearing pantyhose in the summer? "Pantyhose have gone the way of buggy whips and newspapers," Schwartz says. "No one uses them anymore. So keep legs well groomed. That means shaved or waxed and loofahed and apply a bit of concealer to cover bruises, bites and cuts. Wear knee-grazing skirts and slacks. Pair them with close-toe shoes."

What fabrics should we look for when dressing for work in the heat? "Look for skirts and dresses that are lined with cotton and not acetate," Howard says. "It will create an absorbent barrier between you and what the rest of the world sees, reducing the chance of perspiration spots especially from the back, chest and back of the legs.

"Modal is a derivative of bamboo and has excellent breathing and wicking properties," Howard adds. "Tencel was designed for base layer sporting apparel and doesn't hold odor. Also, printed fabrics will hide sweat more than solid; so will light colors. Eyelet is naturally cool because it has holes over it, but it can be used in some very feminine ways -- a wrap dress with a full skirt, a short-sleeve fitted jacket for over tanks, a shift dress. It's a time-honored summer fabric for a reason."

What are your thoughts on linen? "Linen, as ideal as it functions, behaves badly," Howard says. "I see so many linen things hanging untouched in people's closets because they dislike how wrinkled it gets when you wear it. So why buy it? If you feel the same about linen, then don't buy the kind that has to be starched to look good. There is linen that isn't really meant to be ironed, but you have to be comfortable with that look."

What's an ideal summer office for a corporate environment?
"A light-weight summer pantsuit in a beigy shade, worn with a colorful button-down blouse with a matching handbag and peep-toe pumps," Schwartz says.

And for a creative or relaxed field? "A knee-length summer dress worn with a blazer and chunky jewelry," Schwartz says.

And, when you're off hours, here's some expert advice on how to look cool at the beach.