How to Express Your Style Despite a Conservative Dress Code

When your office enforces a strictly traditional or conservative dress code, it can seem pretty difficult to express a more colorful or quirky sense of style. In a truly formal business environment, the dress code is pretty limited to suits, or at least a blazer and coordinating pants. Depending on your industry, you may be able to have some fun with your suit color, but most guys in conservative offices are limited to navy, black, and gray. And loudly printed shirts are generally not an option.

But you don’t have to completely forget about your personal style for the sake of your 9 to 5. While you may need to keep things buttoned up with a suit and a simple dress shirt on a daily basis, there’s plenty of space to still have a little fun. Expressing your personal style at the office is all about the accessories. Read on for our tips on choosing and wearing neckwear, cufflinks, tie bars, watches, pocket squares, and socks to add some color and personality to what you wear to the office everyday.

Neckwear

Brooks Brothers repp ties

Ties | Brooks Brothers

Take neckwear, for instance — a perfect example of when color can be your best friend. Straight ties and bowties are an excellent way to add some personality to your ensembles. Bold colors, fun prints, and even subtly whimsical pairings of shirt and tie color are excellent choices to try out.

Looking for a basic primer on ties? We’ve got you covered. You can never have too many ties, but if you’re just starting your collection, it’s a good idea to focus on simpler, solid ties (look for fabrics like grenadine, ribbed silk faille, or basketweave). A great-looking solid but textured tie in any of these fabrics is going to be easy to wear and match with your shirt and suit, while adding color and texture to your outfit. If you’re ready to branch out into some patterns, look for club ties, which come in both block and ribbon stripes. Or, try pin dots and ties in other classic small patterns. (If you’re still looking for more guidance, check out Put This On’s “Necktie Series.”)

Bowties are no more or less formal than straight ties — though most truly formal occasions do call for specific, formal styles of bowties — but they can be more fun than straight ties. Even in tame colors and patterns, bowties are often considered a more eccentric choice, and in almost any business setting, you’ll stand out while wearing one. Here’s a pro tip: if you’re going for the bowtie, make sure to rock it with an outfit that doesn’t leave a huge amount of vertical space between your bowtie and your jacket’s first button; try a double-breasted jacket, a three-piece suit, or even a cardigan layered under your jacket to see what we mean.

Cufflinks and tie bars

Nordstrom LINK UP bi-plane cufflinks

Get creative with cufflinks | Nordstrom

Another great way to add some personality to your outfits is with some smaller accessories that most guys don’t give much thought to: cufflinks and tie bars. If you wear a tie, like most guys do, then a tie bar is a logical place to further express your style and personality. If you’re partial to French-cuff shirts, or want to begin wearing them, then look for some unique cufflinks. (You can even wear a tie bar and cufflinks in the same outfit to really up your game.)

A tie bar goes between the third and fourth button of your shirt, and fastens both ends of the tie to the placket of the shirt to keep everything in place. There are two different styles of tie bars to choose from: slide clasp and pinch clasp. Make sure to choose a tie bar that’s appropriate for the kind of tie you’re wearing; slide clasps, as a general rule, work well for thinner ties made of lighter fabrics, while pinch clasps are better suited to thicker ties made of heavier fabrics. In either case, make sure that the tie bar is about the same width as the tie. A sterling silver tie bar is a great place to start when you’re looking to add an accent to your outfit.

Here are the basics on cufflinks: They come in several styles, including double-panel cufflinks that have a short post or chain connecting two decorative faces, and other types that have one decorative face and a swivel bar on the back. You can find cufflinks in a wide variety of materials and designs, and because many more men used to wear suits (and double-cuff shirts), buying vintage or antique is a great way to find unique and well-made styles in base metals, precious metals, or with decorations like enamel or mother-of-pearl.

Watches

Brooks Brothers watch

The right watch can seriously upgrade your look | Brooks Brothers

A watch is an excellent way to express your taste and style — particularly if you look outside of the same one or two basic styles that most guys wear today. As with cufflinks, we’d highly recommend shopping vintage, which has a vast selection of choices at any budget. Search watch forums, a good jeweler in town, or even eBay to figure out the look you’re going for. Jesse at Put This One notes that you can find well-made, vintage mechanical watches from lesser-known brands at very low prices, or a watch from a brand like Hamilton or Longines for $100 or $200. If you want to spend $500, you can find a beautiful Omega, and an even higher budget puts more excellent options within reach.

The watch you should look for is highly dependent on your lifestyle and your taste. Watches range in formality, with the most formal watches tending to have simple faces (often white), metal bodies, and leather bands. The complications, or additional mechanisms or functions, on the face of a formal watch aren’t related to sport. On the other hand, less formal watches like this iconic chronograph come from a sportier heritage, which they show off with features like oversized cases, metal bands, and black faces.

Pocket squares

Brooks Brothers suit, tie, and pocket square

Try a pocket square | Brooks Brothers

The pocket square, like your tie, is an excellent place to introduce some color and pattern into your outfit without turning any heads for the wrong reason. There are no specific rules for what your pocket square should match; in fact, your pocket square should simply complement your shirt and tie, not match them. That means that you can avoid overthinking which fabrics are alright to wear together, and simply choose a pocket square that echoes the other colors in your outfit.

The simplest pocket square is made of plain white linen, which is suitable for any occasion. (If you want to really commit to the look, choose one with hand-rolled edges — Jesse at Put This On explains why.) Alternatively, you can find pocket squares in solid colors in fabrics like silk or more textured versions like linen, in a huge variety of patterns from summery gingham to polka dots. Some fabrics are pretty seasonal — think wool in winter and linen in summer — while others can be worn year-round — chambray is a versatile choice. There are a number of different ways to fold your pocket square, though you typically don’t want to do anything too complex or showy. Like your other accessories, the pocket square should be an accent, not the focal point of an ensemble.

Socks

Brooks Brothers argyle socks

Stylish socks | Brooks Brothers

Formal attire generally requires dress socks (no ankle-baring allowed at most conservative workplaces). While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a high-quality dress sock in navy or black, socks are an excellent place to add some color to an otherwise conservative outfit. It’s a common rule that your socks should match your pants, but once you’re confident in your style and in your sense of color, feel free to get creative and break that rule.

When shopping for socks, pay attention to fibers: higher-grade cotton, extra-fine merino wool, and cashmere-silk blends are all good choices. If you’re just beginning to pay attention to your socks, start simple with traditional patterns. Some great examples are these pairs in herringbone, pin dots, stripes, and argyle. If you’re loath to draw too much attention to your ankles and calves, you can start out with patterns in navy, charcoal, brown, and burgundy, all shades that will look good with most suits. If you’re a little bit more daring, go for socks in bolder solids that complement the color of your pants. And if you really want to experiment, go for styles like these in bolder patterns or brighter colors that echo the colors of your tie, shirt, or pocket square.