Privilege Blog

What Do Your Work Clothes Say When You Take Them To Dinner?

What should one wear to dinner in Manhattan? Especially when coming straight from the office? Ah. This is a moment with potential for communication or miscommunication, riddled by cultural and emotional signs. As it turns out, you can wear the same basic work uniform over and over, each time intimating something completely different.

Take dinner with clients. What’s the goal here? What is your sub-text? Let me put some words in your mouth, if you don’t mind.

“Hello dear clients. You are so valuable to us. Please give us more business. In order to facilitate the transfer of your money to my firm, I’d like to add social scaffolding to our business relationship. However, I have no intention of stepping even one centimeter over the professional line. “

So you wear a suit, comfortable but elegant shoes, corporate issue gold knot earrings, and an orange blouse with a bow. Orange says, “Look, I’m happy! I’m acting in a slightly non-uniform way! We are verging on personal expression!”  all the while whispering to the other diners, “I may be here on business but I can drop my gloves on the fashion ice if I choose.” The bow says, “I’m female! That stuff you like about your mother and your sister and your wife, I’ve got! Trust me!” Everything else mutters only, “Business.”

No vivid fingernail polish. I’m sorry. High WASPs just don’t. As we evolve we will learn not to judge others if they do.

Wearing this outfit, you can greet your clients, standing, in full business regalia. Sit, and the orange speaks up. Remove the suit jacket and you’re almost to Carnival. Business dinners require you to titrate the impact of what you wear. Carefully.

Whereas, for dinner with friends, what might you want to say, in a non-saying kind of way, of course?

I confess, I like my friends and family to know how hard I work. High WASPs worship at the temple of a Doing A Very Good Job. Wear the same navy suit. But here a pale blue button-front shirt says,

“I’m faded from overwork. I have sold my soul to the corporate gods. I’m involved in Something Serious.”

But let’s say you feel the need for an underlying, different message. Even a seductive one. That’s what shoes are for. Chocolate suede Louboutins! Swipe some red lipstick on as you leave the office and then let it fade. Your mouth is careworn, limned with past desire. Wear your usual pearl studs, but hang a necklace inside your shirt. Even a skull charm. What? Pearls go great with skulls. Ask Shakespeare.

As the night goes by, take the necklace out, if the occasion warrants. Or unbutton. That’s what buttons are for.

And still no colored fingernails. I was serious.

Dinner with Friends

Dinner with Friends by High WASP featuring a cropped jacket

The standard advice for dinner out with friends after work is to wear a camisole under your suit. This is not something a High WASP is ever going to do. We aren’t fans of underwear that pretends to be clothing. And we prefer, in general, that some messages be read only by those with a sensibility tuned to the subtle.


BTW, this Kitsune suit is on sale at Barney’s right now. If you’re in the market for navy. Which you should be.

49 Responses

  1. Thank you for your advice about nail polish. Not sure who started the purple/navy/black for your nails trend, but it needs to stop.

  2. I wouldn’t wear vivid nail polish to the office either. Only some calcium/nude color would do for those purposes. But I do have a question: do you think a moderate heel (4/5 cms) would be appropriate for dinner with clients? Or flats instead of loafers?

    I LOVE the second outfit, especially the Louboutins hehe

  3. Thank goodness I’m not alone in refusing to wear camisoles under suit coats! I’ve even seen very young bankers and accountants do it (not High WASPS) and seriously, I do not need to see cleavage at a lunch dedicated to discussing audit services or the estate tax. Just, no.

  4. So far from my own lifestyle in so many ways, yet I get a vicarious thrill imagining dinner after a busy day as a corporate whiz of some sort in Manhattan, no less. Much better than my current reality which is marking a big stack of 1st-year papers while waiting for the pump guy to arrive and restore my septic system — but hey, I’m partway there, since I’m wearing neither camisole nor nail polish.

  5. But what about dresses? Not that I want nor would wear Lilly sundresses, but how can we do dresses?! So approve of WASPs liking to do a job very well!


  6. I’m totally onboard with the nail polish.

    Yeah, what’s with the underwear thinking it’s clothing? It’s called ‘under’wear for a reason.

  7. I’m with QueenBeeSwain. My standard office-to-evening outfit is a little black dress. With either black or nude pumps. (No nylons — but then again, my fashion rules are influenced by the fact that I live on a tropical island).

    When I’m in the office, I throw a jacket or cashmere cardi over the top. I take it off in the evening.

    If I’m ambitious, I’ll take a change of jewelry in my purse — plain silver chain for day, pearls for night. Maybe a shawl or throw if I decide to ditch the jacket in the office.

    I always wear bright red lipstick. But, since I’m Asian, that coloring is not as garish as it sounds.

    Lisa — You’ll be proud to note that my nails are very subtle these days!

    I have a LBD from a cheap-o local brand called Giordano. (Despite the name, it’s not Italian. It’s Hong Kongese). It is, by far, the single piece of clothing I use the most for work. It’s not too tight, but tailored, never wrinkles and hits right at the knee. It works at a meeting and it works at cocktails.

    Lisa — By the way, your blog fell off my blogroll, I don’t know when or how — maybe during my blog restructuring. I hope I did not inadvertently offend. I just noticed it recently and restored it. I’m happy to be back!

  8. I am standing clapping and bowing!

    Where shall I start? The nailpolish? The..”We aren’t fans of underwear that pretends to be clothing” comment?

    I am no longer corporate, (thankfully) and prefer going home to my children versus out with girlfriends but you vividly described many a long ago night. And if God has mercy on me, I will never have to take clients out again…that was draining for this introvert! Wonderful post, as always

  9. I can’t envision going out to dinner with clients in the loaferish black shoes. I can hardly envision wearing them around the office, except perhaps on casual Fridays, or in an office in the suburbs where no one dresses; they’re too running-errands-in-the-country, too Bass Weejuns. I’d have to have a kitten heel or a two- to three-inch pump for a nice dinner. Yes, even though my middle-aged feet deeply appreciate the loafers. Alas, wearing shoes that are too comfortable is aging–comfortable shoes are identified with older women.

  10. How do you manage the transition from flats to heels? It is tough to hem trousers so they will work equally well with both. I usually find myself sending the “I’m doing something serious” message when out with friends. There is a part of me that wants to send a “but I’m not at work now” message. I suspect a change of shoes and bag would work.

  11. Sounds very strict. I like the Bottega Veneta bag, also the pendants on the lower picture.
    What about hair, how to wear it?

  12. While the industry I work in is no longer suit-friendly, I appreciate the attention to detail when one is dining out in a business situation.

    While I agree with you on the “underwear as clothing” concept, I’ve warmed up in recent years to nail polish (though you’re right that in a Serious Business Environment™ it’s a questionable move). But not the long dragon-lady nails with rhinestones or fake white or black (!!) tips. Just….no.

  13. Oh, to borrow from an old song, please let me gush: we love you even more today than yesterday. (Yes, sadly, I have over-emoted once again.)

    Exhibit A) “We aren’t fans of underwear that pretends to be clothing.” Thank you a thousand times. I made the mistake of allowing a friend to talk me into one that remains in the tissue in the drawer after 7 or 8 years. It really needs to go to Goodwill.

    Exhibit B) “No vivid fingernail polish.”
    It looks very pretty on some girls, but yours truly is very much stuck in the sixties or seventies or eighties on this one.

    Exhibit C) “…add social scaffolding to our business relationship” is simply a brilliant way of describing the whole process.

    Another brilliant post Miss LPC,

  14. I’m with you on just about everything, but I love the very 1940s look of short red fingernails. I usually only do them in winter, when I have after-work cocktail parties to attend.

    Also, my personal style is more San Francisco – that is, black, black and more black. :)

  15. Thoroughly enjoyable as always. And you’re right about the nails. There was once a secretary in our office who left red or purple streaks on every document she touched. She was offended when I said I wouldn’t sign the papers and submit them to court that way. It took several conversations before she understood.

  16. ah, finally, my complete and utter hatred of nail polish is explained. (Except on toes. for some reason, I love that.)(What, you want me to be consistent? Pfft.)

  17. What about Miss Manner’s opinion that business and social life should not mix? Yes, she concedes that it does, but feels it shouldn’t because it’s not a “real” social life. It’s a fake one.

  18. Very informative. Any insight into the High WASP world is interesting to me. I have to say though, the shoes in the first picture don’t quite hit the mark in my opinion. A sleeker flat maybe, or a loafer with a bit more heel?

  19. I love suits and – after reading this – am thinking of introducing a ‘Formal Friday’ into my freelance life for just that reason. Time to smarten up methinks.

  20. Nonsense. Artsy cousins wear the most vivid nail polish we can find. Red of course (we’re not crazy), and the shortest nails possible of course (we’re still WASPs). But it will be the most vivid red we can find. Especially when we’re seeing our grandmothers.

  21. Well you know me, I’m just a faded flower of a florist. Dirt under my nails, pine sap on my hands and glitter on my nose and eyelashes.

    This doesn’t negate the delight I take in reading your suggestions.

    Some day I’ll clean up. Then I’ll dress up.

    xo Jane

  22. I’m with the dress brigade. I like to wear a beautifully cut sixties-style dress in a fairly heavy fabric, perhaps grey, topped with a matching coat (for business, removed for socialising). Such an ensemble has never let me down. I guess Manhattan would raise its eyebrow?

  23. Black suit with orange blouse, I would not. Orange and black is Halloweeny harsh. Maybe ecru? Pearl grey? Or punchy violet or interesting small-scale print if you want to make point you were reaching for with orange. Clients can handle more interesting earring than gold knots.

  24. Fun blog entry today. But, I also would wear a different shoe. The flat loafer just doesn’t seem right to me.

  25. Olivia – I believe it’s here to stay. Which is fine. Just not in the work I used to do:).

    Marcela – Yes, I think anything up to a 2.5 inch heel is just fine. Myself, I prefer flats.

    MJ – Taxes and cleavage are not friends in their natural habitats:).

    Mater – I think the main difference in your work is that between clients and students. At a guess. Manhattan is an added layer.

    QBS – I will have to think about dresses. The whole dress craze happened after I had settled happily into pants for work, so I have little experience.

    Patsy – I do enjoy your sense of humor.

  26. Be careful sending friends who love the earrings to Macy’s. I bought a similar pair of gold knot earrings with little diamonds at Macy’s from their website and the posts were so short I gave them to my daughter. Good price but they cut corners. I used to buy wonderful black loafers from Brooks Brothers; I don’t like their new stock. You have shown me a great alternative.

  27. Joyce – Very happy to see you here. I always enjoy your comments. No worries on the blogroll, I changed domains and I’m guessing that happened to several people. Which reminds me, if I lost anyone in the changeover, please let me know. Right now my blogroll on the home page is a fragment that rotates, but you can see the full one if you click on more. Yesterday 50 people looked at the page, so, I guess someone’s finding it:).

    Rhonda – Thank you. I always found it tiring too, although I am not introverted, just the effort involved in making sure I focused on what they were saying.

    Andrea- You are clearly not alone in taking issue with the loafer. I think perhaps the detail doesn’t show up in Polyvore. They are not not a Bass Wejun, but Italian, and quite finely structured. I have always liked the way a man’s shoe looks on a woman.

    DocP – Ah. That’s true. I usually have pants for flats and other pants for heels. So I have a suit for heels and a suit for flats too.

    Mette – I love that bag. And for hair, I always just had just one hair cut, once I got to VP level, and I wore it everywhere. Short. Easy.

  28. Deja – Ha! We should trademark the SBE:). I like that.

    TPP – Thank you. Don’t our friends often talk us into things? Or sisters. My sister once got me to buy a long blue felt coat with orange swirls. I looked like a wizard. Your little lonely camisole is quite reasonable:).

    rb – And in San Francisco, there is more room for things like short red nails. I agree.

    Stephanie – Thank you so much. So wait, her polish streaked your documents? !)!)!

    Jean – Toes are private. Mine are almost always painted:.

  29. Miss Janey – Back at you. Cheeky R Us.:).

    Cathy – I think Miss Manners never had to earn a living. You aren’t trying to make your social life more fake, but to add trust to the business relationship. Sure, it’s tough, because there is always the business agenda in the background. But how does she think anything ever gets done in the halls of power?

    Laura – Happy to reveal the secrets of my waning culture:). And the loafer is sleeker, I believe, than it appears.

    Sensible – Formal Friday sounds like a good exercise – if only to make sure you can do it if or when it’s called for.

    Meg – Pshaw. Any clients the Artsy Cousin has will EXPECT red nails. But the clients of the rest of us in traditional industry will not.

  30. Jane – I think nose glitter is the new black. With the pine sap, who needs perfume?

    mise – I think Manhattan would like it. I just don’t know dresses. I’d love to see your post about your outfit. Heck, I’d love to put it up here:).

    Terri – My pleasure. Of course, as I have, said, it’s a High WASP thing. But, there are still places and situations where these factors hold.

    DocP – Well, certainly the Artsy Cousin would:)! The Grande Dame, hmmm. I don’t think she ever has to work:). But let me think about it. Thank you for the great questions.

    Duchesse – It’s navy. ;) Clients can handle more interesting earrings but I have always felt best when none of my accessories are more interesting than I am.

  31. Ms. Givens – Blouses have fallen from favor but they are great for occasions when you want to take your jacket off and still have some presence.

    Susan – You are not alone in your opinion. I believe I will have to do a post on loafers and see if I can make my case with more authority.

    Marge – Thank you very much. We may be few but we believe:).

  32. Love the suit, checked the sale price. Alas, still out of my price range. I’ve just been offered an internship (unpaid, unfortunately) in DC for this summer, and am thus in the market for one. With your advice I know I should be on the lookout for one in navy.

    Hopefully I will be gifted some suits for Christmas to fill the void in my wardrobe, otherwise I may be stuck in my polyester suit from high school.

  33. Sometimes I fear I come across too critical in my comments, when actually I’m enjoying a post immensely. I especially enjoyed your writing in this post.

    I think you’ve described an ensemble for a Sturdy Girl. Can you see another sort of woman wearing something slightly different for the same occasion?

    I have many more pants than dresses in my closet, but I’m finding myself preferring the dresses when they can be suitable worn.

    And yes—do a post on loafers–and show us what we need to know. I look forward to that.

  34. Dear Ms Lisa
    The transition from work to dinner is an interesting one – with clients as you state, you want to convey professionalism but still the sense that you are comfortable in your skin and are female. Currently sporting OPI Big Apple Red (blame that wicked Ms FF) I have to say that while I understand your cultural context, for me it is about ensuring one is appropriate and well groomed and this can include red nail polish. There are certain looks which are not appropriate for work either in the day or the evening as one’s interlocutors would spend the entire time focused on these details rather than on the content one is trying to convey. Now that I am a handbag, I don’t have to worry about these details – I just pop on a cocktail dress and hope for the best. However, when I was in the Public Service, I eschewed one colour suits for smart trousers and softer tops (but no underwear pretending to be outerwear) with nice cardies or blazers instead. I was hoping for a less uniformed but still authoritative look. By the way, those chocolate suede Louboutins are extraordinary. You have such a beautiful wardrobe.

  35. Love this post… YEARS HAVE ELAPSED since I have been taken to dinner by clients but as I said, love your advice – sensible and high waspish as ever ….. but what about FF – she who wears the highly polished nails all the time as a lawyer in Brisbane, Australia? Do you think we as Aussies (and I, as an adopted one, are more laid back in the business world for example?) XX

  36. Lisa,my thoughts exactly on making the change from business dinner to dinner after work with friends, It is actually fun to make the transformation.

    As an artist I never wear bright polish, it would be runined immediately, and it’s not me at this point….

    Art by Karena

  37. “I think Miss Manners never had to earn a living.”

    Ah, but I think Miss Manners *does* work. In fact, she seems like a bit of a labor activist, calling as she does for a restructuring of the “unworkable workplace” (e.g., one that assumes that each worker has a support person at home to take care of the household-running and child-rearing duties).

    Her utopia (and I quote from her “Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium”) would cease “all that business partying so that everyone agrees to compete on the basis of regular workday activities alone (and) valuable time will be returned to workers for their private lives.”

    That said, though my job is a professional one, it is not a corporate one. Thus, I am insulated from the need to participate in “business partying,” and I greatly admire the mettle of those, like you, who stride forth and do so.

  38. Lindsay – Congratulations on the internship! I bet your parents will want to outfit you in recognition:). But prices for suits are tough. Do you read Corporette? They have some great options at an easier price point.

    Susan – Not at all. My sense is that in the job world I know, finance, engineering, etc., many women gravitate to Sturdy to deal with the all-male environment. Those who don’t take up this kind of style are generally women with very strong wills and large personalities. I will put together another post for Manhattan after work, assuming that sort of woman.

    Linda in Chile – Oh Miss FF leads us all on dangerous but thrilling paths:). In fact, those Louboutins cannot be found in my closet at the moment, only on Polyvore:(. And as I said to Susan, let me do a slightly different version for those who do not have the constraint of needing to blend in with the guys.

    Sarah – Thank you! And yes, I think the Aussies are more laid back. We in the US are more laid back except in industries still dominated by men and their sartorial habits.

    Karena – I love the idea of art making polish impossible. Somehow.

    Virago – Very interesting. In that case, I wish Miss Manners well. However, given the stress of the workplace, and the occasional resemblance to a battle field, I doubt that’s likely to happen.

  39. Very interesting comment about the need to “blend in with the men”. Is that really necessary? While I would not suggest provocative clothing for a woman for the business dinner, I question the idea of blending in. Why not make as asset of the difference?

    1. In my experience, in the industries where I’ve worked (chemical engineering and high tech) there was no advantage in the difference. Many difficulties, in fact. I hope for the current generation that’s no longer true.

  40. Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more entertained? I mean I just read through the entire article of yours and it was quite good but since Im more of a visual learner,I found that to be more helpful well let me know how it turns out. This is goodthanks for sharing

  41. I see college colors shining through magisterially in Outfit #1. :) (I wonder how many years it will be until orange (“Orange is the New Black”) comes around again? Judging by past cycles, c. 20!)

    Would love to tell you sometime about fashion cues and trends in Seattle. Definitely veering toward left of the center, but just as coded and rigid as the East! It’s been fascinating to observe, and interesting to try to fit (or deliberately *not* fit in — my roots are too Eastern to be entirely discarded!)


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