It’s hard to imagine a time when wearing a robe was considered mandatory. In France, an archaic law banning women’s pants was lifted in 2013 (not that people followed the rule much). And just 20 years ago, dress codes on the US Senate floor called for a strict uniform of “professional attire” (read: skirts or dresses). Even a handful of US colleges still enforce a no-pants rule for female students; dresses, apparently, are better protectors of modesty.
Perhaps such strict enforcement has left women feeling a little apathetic. Recent workwear has leaned towards loose shirts and relaxed fits, a high-end answer to the pants and tees favored by urban street-stylers. Wearing a dress can seem difficult in comparison – even feminine.
But a quick poll suggests the opposite is true: There’s ex-investment manager Eshita Kabra-Davies, now CEO of rental app By Rotation, who pairs tailored dresses from Chanel, Dior and Sandro to a tweed blazer and a structured bag. There’s Rachel Ingram, editor at Threads Styling, giving “anything goes” vibes with “über-minimalist” Totême and “strappy” Cecilie Bahnsen. And there’s Daisy Hoppen, founder of the eponymous PR agency, who has a comfortable “basic wardrobe” of black styles from Simone Rocha, Molly Goddard and Comme des Garçons.
The season’s collections reveal even more iterations, from Louis Vuitton’s cropped styles, with their cape-like shoulder pads, to Loro Piana’s crisp cotton shirt dresses. Gucci also offers a variety of work dresses, including a belted, pleated satin-faille number with “GG” buttons and a logo-embellished waistband. Notice the side slit instead of one of the pleats.
Dresses present a simple solution to day-to-day style conundrums; the effect of putting one on is immediate, and there are no worries about balancing multiple parts. They are “easy and comfortable”, echoes FT fashion editor Lauren Indvik, referencing the skinny long-sleeved midis she is fond of from American designers such as Rachel Comey and Proenza Schouler. “Put on a shoe and jacket and you’re ready to go.” (Indvik alternates between equestrian boots, Gucci loafers and brown Loewe hiking boots.)
Still, the office dress landscape is tricky — and there’s no “one size fits all” dress. For formal offices, Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear at MatchesFashion, recommends starting with The Row or Gabriela Hearst. Both offer sleek versions of maxi styles with the comfort of voluminous sleeves. There’s also the issue of fabric to consider: “Cotton performs well and ensures the outfit still looks put together well into the day,” advises Wiggins, pointing to monochrome shirt dresses by Raey. Pair it with fancy jewelry and platform sandals to add a tough edge, she says.
Shanghai and Milan-based brand Anest Collective are also known for their office-friendly collections, all made in Italy. Founded on the “rigors of menswear tailoring,” the brand updates streamlined silhouettes with twists such as contrasting textures and optical illusion illusions. “Couture codes are present but not always conventional,” says collaborating creative director Brendan Mullane. In one style, a multi-textured tonal knit gives the impression of two pieces fused together. In another, a light cape is sewn in, pinching just above the waist. Mullane adds, “There is nothing more feminine than a woman incorporating the codes of masculine tailoring into her wardrobe.”
But couture codes are only one side of the coin, and typically “girly” shapes are by no means the weakest dress. According to Heather Gramston, head of women’s fashion at Browns, floaty maxi dresses — think Jil Sander’s collared crochet maxis and striped styles with slightly nipped-in twist waists — are a key look for summer. “[They] can be as smart as a suit,” she says, adding that a simple change of shoes can take a dress from office to evening. Gramston suggests slipping into low-heeled Balenciaga mules for the latter.
Proenza Schouler co-founders Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez see work dresses as something more ambiguous: “We couldn’t even tell you what a ‘classic office dress’ is,” they say . The goal is to incorporate subtle design quirks that emphasize uniqueness. “The women we design for lead active, busy lives and need clothes they can live in – our client wants to showcase their individuality.”
The result is an easy summer collection of asymmetrical tuxedo dresses and block-print floral styles with curled hems, each paired with black sandals or brogues. McCollough and Hernandez’s dresses are eye-catching too: Crafted from gauze jersey and soft lambskin, they’re designed to move and stretch with the wearer, which is precisely what they should. be.