Appropriate vs. Formal

When I looked up the word appropriate, the adjective definition is “Suitable or proper in the circumstances.”  The definitions for formal include “done in accordance with rules of convention or etiquette; suitable for or constituting an official or important situation or occasion” and “officially sanctioned or recognized” – there is definitely overlap between appropriate and formal, but they aren’t identical.  In this week’s blog post, I want to unpack those two ideas and talk through some practical applications.

First thing to notice is that neither of these terms are specifically about clothes.  Clothes are a highly visible aspect of appropriateness and formality, but the ideas go beyond clothes.  Appropriateness covers more than formality does.  In a Venn diagram, Appropriate would be a big circle and it would overlap with the smaller Formal circle.  Appropriate applies to every situation, while formal applies more to official, important occasions.  Now, it might seem like the formality circle should fit entirely inside the appropriateness circle in our Venn diagram, but it IS possible to be inappropriately formal for a given situation.  We’ll deal with that later.

This week, I tried to achieve a different level of formality each day, while still being appropriate for my situation (which in my case, is working in an office).  It’s not a very formal office setting, so a t-shirt and jeans can be standard office wear, especially during the summer.  So here’s the ranking, from least to most formal:


Tuesday was my least formal day this week.  Jeans, a t-shirt, glasses, and flat sandals.  For a normal summer Tuesday, there isn’t anything wrong with this outfit, it just doesn’t look sharp.  This is what I generally look like on Saturdays – no makeup, glasses, comfy clothes.  I love these clothes, but they don’t up my game.  Easy ways I could make this outfit look more formal:

  • Add a blazer.  Blazers make one look serious and smart.  Fitted cardigans also give that vibe, probably because of the schoolteacher/librarian connotations.
  • Tuck in the shirt.  I know that to some of you, that sounds like the world’s worst plan, but it does create a more streamlined shape and visually extends the leg line.  On Tuesday morning, tucking in my shirt sounded like the world’s worst plan to me.  So I didn’t. But looking at the photo objectively, I know it would have elevated the outfit.  A half tuck (where you only tuck in the front part of the shirt) is pretty doable and then the inevitable blousing/bunching is a feature, not a bug.
  • Wear different shoes.  My black ballet flats fell apart on me a few months ago, because I wore them to pieces.  My remaining flats look a little scruffy and scuffed, so I tend to wear heels at work, not because I disapprove of flats, but because my heels look nicer.


Friday’s outfit was informal, but it had personality.  Light-wash jeans, a jersey dress, a vintage kimono, glasses, and platform sandals.  As a general rule, the darker the jeans are, the more formal they look.  These light-wash jeans look very summery and not very formal at all.  The blue jersey dress is just short enough to make me feel self-conscious about the length, so I decided to style it as a long t-shirt and see how I liked it.  The kimono (which usually hangs decoratively on my wall) was a last minute addition when I realized it was chilly outside.

The base of this outfit is very similar to Monday’s – jeans, a t-shirt, glasses, sandals.  The difference is proportion and details.  The dress on its own is not oversized, but worn as a t-shirt, it is oversized.  The kimono is also oversized, but all together with the skinny jeans, the volume looks intentional.  The print detail and earrings gave this look a little more visual interest.  Any day I remember to wear earrings, I feel fancy.


Wednesday was middle of the week and also middle of the outfit formality scale.  It was a mix of formal and informal elements.  The most formal element is the structured fit, mainly supplied by the dress, but helped out by the cropped cardigan.  The more informal elements are the ever-so-comfy flat sandals and the bright painterly floral print.  This is a happy medium for me.  The structure makes me feel professional and ready to go, and the bright colors make me happy.


Monday’s look revolved around these shoes, because everything had to come up to their level.


These darling pumps belonged to my great grandmother and I am the only one in our family who has the same foot size, so I inherited her shoes.  These shoes demand a very specific outfit.  Also, because of a late flight home on Sunday night, on Monday morning I could barely open my eyes.  Monday’s outfit needed to be all business.  This outfit made me stand up straight and helped me push through the tiredness.  You know the saying about walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes?  Well, my great-grandmother never quit and she had a much harder life than mine has ever been.  It was a good reminder that tiredness is part of life, but pushing through the tiredness and doing what I’m supposed to do is important and good.


Thursday was my most formal business outfit this week.  White shirt, tailored black jeans, neutral heels.  This is classic work attire, but I felt overdressed for summertime in my office.  The outfit was still appropriate, but I think people assumed I was giving an interview or meeting with an important client.  I wasn’t.  I was only meeting with my Excel spreadsheet on Thursday.  But formality certainly helps the morale.  And the posture.  The crisp white shirt is not one of my wardrobe staples, though.  I’m always so concerned about spilling something on it.  That’s why I wore this apron during lunch:


All of these outfits were appropriate for the office, but they were all over the map in terms of formality.  When there is freedom in a dress code (or no dress code at all), it is my responsibility to figure out what is the most appropriate and helps me honor the people around me.

Even for weddings and funerals, which are the closest we come to having cultural dress codes any more, it can be difficult to figure out what to wear.  The main rule for wedding guests is DO NOT WEAR A WHITE DRESS.  Besides that rule, it’s up to the guest to take into account the time of day, the formality of the location, whether there will be dancing, how windy it will be….  It can be very daunting.  I think the best way to decide what to wear is to specifically think of who you are trying to honor.  At a wedding, it is the bride.  At a job interview, it would be the interviewer, etc.

My most recent appropriateness brainstorm was about what to wear to my grandma’s funeral.  I haven’t been to very many funerals and I wanted to wear the right thing.  I ended up wearing all black, because it is traditional, simple to accomplish, and I think my grandma would have liked my dress.  But I do not think that all black is necessary at a funeral.  My mom ended up wearing a white blouse, black trousers, and one of my grandma’s necklaces.  It was so fitting, because it is exactly the sort of outfit my grandma wore to any formal event.  Grandma would approve.

Whenever I have a problem figuring out what is appropriate or how formal I should be, my first move should be to stop thinking about myself.  If I think about who I should be honoring and what I need to accomplish, the answer is usually pretty clear.  And after I figure out that framework, I have the privilege of choosing what I like within those parameters.  There is a freedom in formality.  It is the freedom of knowing what I ought to do, then doing it.  When I struggle, it’s usually because I know what I ought to do, but I don’t want to do it.

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