The Case for Boring Office Clothes

Mark Lennihan/AP

Women frown on the Ann Taylor aesthetic, but there’s an upside to basic.

A recent Saturday Night Live sketch featured a parody store called Fashion Coward, “the only store for people who hate shopping and feel lost and scared.” Contrasting its neutral cardigans with the edgy jackets worn by the truly fashionable, the fake commercial proudly announced that “we keep it safe with things like ‘brown sweater’ and ‘pants for the legs.’” At one point, the actor Emma Stone, playing a customer, says that if fashion tells a story, Fashion Coward’s is, “I’m a stranger to myself.” The end of the skit reveals Fashion Coward’s inspiration: Ann Taylor.

Ann Taylor, the tried-and-true, white-collar women’s retailer, is in the strange position of being both ubiquitous and ubiquitously mocked. Most women whose titles end in something like coordinator or manager likely own a pair or two of Ann’s sexy-but-not-too-sexy slacks. In Washington, D.C., where I live, it’s as though women are issued a pencil skirt and ponte top, Gilead-style, upon signing their lease. I regularly see women wearing the exact same outfit on the metro.

And yet, to admit to shopping at Ann Taylor or its slightly cooler cousin, Loft, is to admit fashion defeat. Ann Taylor is “where aspiration meets motivation meets resignation, and that is why it is perfect for Washington,” the columnist Monica Hesse once wrote in The Washington Post. In the world of mall retailers, it’s in a slightly awkward clothing category between dirt-cheap Uniqlo and the kind of striking outfit you’d want to wear to a dream-job interview. As the retail reporter Mallory Schlossberg wrote in Business Insider, Ann Taylor is “not as cheap as a Forever 21 or H&M. It’s not sexy and sharp like Zara. It’s not for preppy fashionistas (with money to burn) like J. Crew.” Indeed, Ann Taylor’s parent company, at the end of 2017, admitted to having made “fashion missteps.”

To some women, Ann Taylor is like kale salad or sensible heels or practical underwear: We know we must have it, but we don’t necessarily want to have it. Or, as Cintra Wilson wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, “The Ann Taylor ethos rubs me the wrong way for the same reason I don’t like white women singing ‘Summertime’ or winos drinking cooking extract: Too much vanilla will make you go blind.” That such a popular brand would garner so many sneers has even prompted some confusion, such as on this D.C. moms thread: “Clearly [Ann Taylor’s] not Barney’s. Or even J. Crew. But why is it this cultural punch line?” (I’ve reached out to Ann Taylor’s parent company, Ann Inc., with a request for comment and will update this story if someone gets back to me.)

But there are so few blazers with just the right amount of give, and so many networking lunches to attend. As the weather turns nicer and women across the country commence “updating” their wardrobes, I have a confession to make. Yes, I’m coming out of the fitting room: Almost everything I own is from Ann Taylor or Loft.

I’m not exactly a stranger to myself, but I like to look professional, not special. And this is where Ann Taylor excels. It allows you to go to a meeting without looking like the wallpaper, but also without having your outfit upstage your PowerPoint. Some people have a style personality that says, “I’m a fashionista! Look out, world!” I have a style personality that says, “I had a difficult childhood and just want a button-down that doesn’t draw too much attention.”

The genius of Ann Taylor and Loft is that they provide a watered-down version of whatever is fashionable at the moment. If ruffles are in style, Loft will have a shirt with a single ruffle on it. During the horrible Autumn of the Bell Sleeves, a slightly open sleeve hung timidly from a few hangers at Ann Taylor. You don’t want to go overboard! That is why you’re at Ann Taylor. Also, some of the stuff is kind of cute, okay? After you churn out enough chambray, the law of large numbers takes hold: One of the tops is bound to be flattering. My colleague Taylor Lorenz told me that she recently attended a hip party in Bushwick—Bushwick—and got compliments on her Ann Taylor top.

Because both Ann Taylor and Loft are seemingly always having a sale, and are reasonably priced to begin with, they are good places to buy clothes that serve a specific, yet limited, purpose. I wore a collared button-down dress from Loft to countless interviews during a reporting trip to Brazil; while I was there, the temperature never dipped below 90 degrees. Do I often attend meetings in tropical locales? No. Does it matter? No, because the dress was $30.

People who dislike Ann Taylor sometimes argue that its unoriginality can reinforce the idea that professional women should resemble a shift-dress-clad, anonymous army. One way of changing the notion that women must look or act a certain way to get ahead is certainly to let us wear the craziest, most fun, most “us” outfits imaginable. But uniform corporate dressing has an upside, too. Male innovators are celebrated for wearing the same gray hoodie or charcoal suit every day in hopes of reducing their decision fatigue. Why not celebrate the women who choose to dress somewhat boringly so they can apply their energies elsewhere?

Perhaps some of the animosity toward Ann Taylor is displaced animosity toward capitalism in general. Many of those who bemoan Ann Taylor are actually bemoaning the place they would wear it: the office. Ann Taylor models always look polished, angular, and presentation-ready. Meanwhile, the girls in an Anthropologie catalog are running through a wildflower field in a sundress without a care in the world.

But the reality is, you probably do have cares. You have to go to work, and you have to look okay while you’re there. It’s nice to have a place that aims to achieve only that—so that you can achieve other things.