It’s hard to imagine a time when wearing a dress was considered mandatory. In France, an archaic law banning female trousers was lifted in 2013 (not that people followed the rule much). And just 20 years before, dress codes on the US Senate floor demanded a strict uniform of “business attire” (read: skirts or dresses). Even a handful of US colleges still enforce a no-trouser 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 leant towards loose shirts and casual tailoring, an upscaled response to the slacks and T-shirts favoured by city street-stylers. Wearing a dress can feel fussy in comparison – girlish, even. 

Louis Vuitton cotton, silk and metallised tweed Boxy jacket, £7,400, matching skirt, £1,480, cotton shirt, £920, and leather Capucines MM bag, £5,450. Santoni leather Chelsea boots, £620
Louis Vuitton cotton, silk and metallised tweed Boxy jacket, £7,400, matching skirt, £1,480, cotton shirt, £920, and leather Capucines MM bag, £5,450. Santoni leather Chelsea boots, £620 © Andrea Urbez

But a quick survey suggests that the opposite is true: there’s ex-investment manager Eshita Kabra-Davies, now the CEO of rental app By Rotation, who pairs tailored dresses by Chanel, Dior and Sandro with a tweed blazer and structured bag. There’s Rachel Ingram, editor-in-chief 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 “core wardrobe” of black styles by Simone Rocha, Molly Goddard and Comme des Garçons. 

The season’s collections reveal even more iterations, from Louis Vuitton’s shorter shift styles, with their cape-like power shoulders, to the crisp cotton shirt dresses at Loro Piana. Gucci, too, has a variety of work dresses, including a belted, pleated satin-faille number with “GG” buttons and a logo-embellished belt. Notice the side slit in place of one of the pleats.

Anest Collective silk-mix knit dress, £1,935. Jacquemus wool-mix trousers, £380, matchesfashion.com. New Balance suede, leather and mesh 574v2 sneakers, £80
Anest Collective silk-mix knit dress, £1,935. Jacquemus wool-mix trousers, £380, matchesfashion.com. New Balance suede, leather and mesh 574v2 sneakers, £80 © Andrea Urbez

Dresses present a simple solution to day-to-day style conundrums; the effect of putting one on is immediate, and there’s none of the fuss of balancing multiple parts. They are “easy and comfortable”, echoes FT fashion editor Lauren Indvik, referring to the narrow midis with long sleeves she favours by American designers such as Rachel Comey and Proenza Schouler. “Throw on a shoe and jacket and you’re good to go.” (Indvik alternates between equestrian boots, Gucci loafers and brown Loewe hiking boots.) 

Still, the landscape of office dresses is a tricky one – and there’s no such thing as “one dress fits all”. For formal offices, MatchesFashion head of womenswear Liane Wiggins recommends starting with The Row or Gabriela Hearst. Both offer smart takes on 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 until the end of the day,” advises Wiggins, pointing to monochrome shirtdresses by Raey. Pair with fine jewellery and flatform sandals to add a tougher edge, she says. 

Loro Piana linen Lucienne shirtdress, £1,955. Aeyde leather Kelly slip-on shoes, £195. Monet 1980s vintage gold-plated earrings, £125, susancaplan.co.uk. Knitted belt, stylist’s own 
Loro Piana linen Lucienne shirtdress, £1,955. Aeyde leather Kelly slip-on shoes, £195. Monet 1980s vintage gold-plated earrings, £125, susancaplan.co.uk. Knitted belt, stylist’s own  © Andrea Urbez

Shanghai and Milan-based label Anest Collective is also known for its office-appropriate collections, all of which are crafted in Italy. Founded on the “rigours of masculine tailoring”, the brand updates sleek silhouettes with twists such as contrasting textures and trompe l’oeil illusions. “The codes of tailoring are present but not always conventional,” explains contributing creative director Brendan Mullane. In one style, a multi-textured tonal knit gives the impression of two pieces fused together. In another, a lightweight cape is sewn in, nipping in just above the waist. Adds Mullane: “There’s nothing more feminine than a woman incorporating male tailoring codes into her wardrobe.”

But tailoring codes are just one side of the coin, and typically “girly” shapes are by no means the weaker dress. According to Browns head of womenswear Heather Gramston, floaty, full-length dresses – think Jil Sander’s collared crochet maxis and lightly nipped, twist-waist striped styles – are a key look for summer. “[They] can be as smart as a suit,” she says, adding that a simple change in footwear can take a dress from office to evening. Gramston suggests slipping into low-heeled Balenciaga mules for the latter.

Gucci silk shirtdress, £2,900, matchesfashion.com. Deveaux faux-leather Freyja blazer (held in hand), £685. Church’s leather Alexandra boots, £1,050
Gucci silk shirtdress, £2,900, matchesfashion.com. Deveaux faux-leather Freyja blazer (held in hand), £685. Church’s leather Alexandra boots, £1,050 © Andrea Urbez

Proenza Schouler co-founders Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez see workplace frocks 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 emphasise uniqueness. “The women we design for lead busy, active lives and need clothes that they can live in – our customer wants to highlight their individuality.” 

The result is an easy summer collection of asymmetric tuxedo dresses and block-printed floral styles with looped hems, each paired with sandals or black brogues. Another way McCollough and Hernandez’s dresses are appealing: crafted from gauze jersey and soft lambskin, they’re intended to move and stretch with the wearer, which is precisely how they should be.

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