29 Jun 2023
A Gender Affirming Guide to Smart Casual Workwear
Guest Blog by Santi S.
You won’t find many results if you do a Google search for resources on gender affirming workwear for Trans and gender non-conforming people. A few articles on gender neutral clothing ideas give some very basic tips which point to slacks, brogues and neutral colours as the best options without details on how to tailor your clothes to fit yourself expression. There is also an emphasis on making sure you do your research on what others are wearing in the office as opposed to channeling your personal sense of style.
As a gender non-conforming person, I’ve historically felt uncomfortable in business/smart casual attire. Every time I had an interview and got hired for an office job, I’d spiral about what would be acceptable for me to wear. Mainly because I felt the anxiety about having to fit into my environment and to ensure I subscribed to gendered dress codes so I would pass my probation.
It wasn’t until a few years ago (after getting a job working in university administration) that I began to experiment with my workwear so it felt more like ‘me’. Through a lot of trial and error and experimentation, I compiled a list of five solid style tips to create outfits that fit right, boost a sense of gender euphoria and to break though the expectations of basic workwear.
1. Focus on Shape & Ignore Gendered Labels
Step one is to think about the silhouette you want to create on the top and bottom and then go shopping in ALL sections to find your desired fit. My biggest piece of advice is to mix clothes from the ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ sections. Although I like a typically masculine get up, I’ve found great button ups and blazers in the ‘women’s’ section that fit better and have the right cut that I’m after.
Go through the racks and study the shape of the clothes you are buying:
- Box-y wide cut shirts with slits on the sides will give you a square shape and a straight across hem along the bottom. Here are some examples.
- To create a curvy figure, find shirts/blouses with a cinched waist and a rounded cut on the bottom which will give you a curvy shape and emphasise your waist. Here are some examples.
- You can even do away with shape altogether if that feels more affirming. Go for asymmetrical cuts and exaggerated layers! I love Rose Eerie for inspiration.
- Trousers can be really hard to find. Anything with stretchy material and an elasticated waist band is a good place to start.
- If you want a masculine look opt for straight leg slacks with bigger back pockets to flatten the butt area. Slacks are always too long? Consider getting them hemmed or cuff them with some good old fashion safety pins.
- Flares, long skirts and tights or skirts over trousers can be a chic pairing for something more feminine leaning. You can often get away with black denim jeans: smaller pockets that sit higher up will emphasise that area.
Places to shop (after you have tried secondhand options):
2. Consider Texture and Colour
Now that you have your basic layers you want to spice them up with textures and colours that feel true to you. I've seen a lot of dark blues, grays, black and burgundy at the office. I made sure to add more colour into my wardrobe: hot pink slacks, patterned button ups, a colourful scarf or waistcoat.
Experimenting with different textures can add more euphoria to your workwear too. Instead of plain cotton slacks think of trying corduroy, pleather or satin. For skirts, try wearing something with ruffles or fringe to add movement.
You don’t necessarily have to be wearing a statement piece to the office but you can add an accent to your outfit. For example, a blazer with a sequined interior (you can add this yourself with fabric glue), a pair of plain slacks with a bright coloured cuff on the bottom, or a plain shirt with a floral pocket. Collect clothing items in some of your favourite patterns (checks, polka dots, animal prints to name a few) so you can layer with darker basics. If you still need to find out what textures and colours feel affirming for you, I recommend starting a Pinterest board to gather inspiration.
Some inspo to get you started:
Check out these brands and makers for colour and texture inspo:
3. Think Outside the Box with Accessories
Once you have figured out your base fit, shapes and colours and textures, I recommend diving into accessories. If you have nothing else figured out, accessories are a good place to start for inspiring the rest of your fit too.
For me, bolo ties, oversized chain necklaces, skinny ties and bold earrings were a great staple to pair with a button up shirt or blouse. I used belts with fancy buckles to add something extra to my outfits too. You can also use belts to add shape to oversized shirts or dresses. Add texture with accessories: crochet shawls or waistcoats, felt or fuzzy bow ties. Try adding hair accessories, wear fun socks or play around with colourful makeup. I also ordered blue light glasses off of Amazon with different coloured frames. Don’t forget to add enamel pins or badges to your clothes for extra visibility if it feels like the right time and place.
Check out this list of accessories and makeup:
5. Shoes, Shoes, Shoes!
We arrive at the staple queer accessory - shoes!
When I worked at the office, I bought so many different pairs of Dr. Martens to spice up my outfit. I had pink opalescent Oxfords, black and white brogues, pointy toe pvc dress shoes and snakeskin print loafers.
Experiment with heels, platforms, sleek looking sneakers (of course make sure to follow the safety policies of your work environment for footwear). But I find a good shoe will also make you feel more at home in your work fit.
For all clothing items mentioned try charity shops first! Online platforms such as Vinted, DePop or Facebook marketplace are amazing for finding bargains.
For workwear tips, I turned to the LGBTQ+ community for their own gender affirming workwear style tips:
- “Get one good fitted shirt, that way you know that whatever you pair it with (skirts, suits, jeans, etc.) it will always look great and make you feel good!” - Marley (they/them), Writer, Speaker and Consultant @thenonbinaryparent
- “Polo shirts for people with bigger chests gives a vibe of a button up without risking buttons opening!” - Oran (they/them), Co-Organiser of @camptrans
- “When I was pregnant I started wearing dungarees to work” - Anonymous
- “I couldn’t express myself in the workplace with fun hair colours anymore. I channeled my style through fun patterned shirts and skinny jeans”. - Anonymous
Navigating smart casual workwear as a trans and/or gender non-conforming person can be daunting. Many workplace policies don’t consider how important expression is to us. I hope my go-to list of style hacks will get you feeling like you can dress with pride for any work environment. You got this!
Santi is a DIY fashion-ista, public speaker, consultant and the Founder and Creative Director of G(end)er Swap - the first LGBTQ+ style outreach organsiation that supports Trans and GNC people to access clothes and community. Their mission is to create wider societal understanding (and celebration) of gender diversity - through the lens of fashion. They create and deliver style workshops and digital resources across social media platforms and deliver inclusivity training for allies running their own social enterprises. For their work, Santi has been featured in BRICKSmagazine, Novara Media, the Smiley Movement and Hunger Magazine. Santi is also a drag performer and the creator of a new upcycled clothing line called Pretty Boy Spice.