Contrary to popular opinion, polka dots are perhaps the safest of the print family, especially when it comes to your professional wardrobe. Where stripes and florals might be unforgiving or too casual, polka dots manage to stay conservative and showcase personality. But while dots have the potential to be a cornerstone of your work wardrobe, they can look kiddish (or evoke retro bathing suits) if you don’t wear them strategically.
Here are five rules for making polka dots work at work.
Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to wearing polka dots in the workplace. To avoid looking like Minnie Mouse — or any other cartoon character, for that matter — opt for a smaller dot. As a general rule, bigger garments, like long dresses and maxi skirts, are best in tiny prints for a polished and sleek, not overly playful, look.
Fitted Boyfriend Polka-Dot Shirt, $49.95, available at Gap
On that note, brightly colored polka dots like red and yellow can look instantly cartoony, no matter the cut or pattern size. Stick with neutral colors like black, white, and navy blue. For the contrasting color, don’t stray from basics like white, black, and beige (and a hard no on choosing black dots with, say, a neon yellow background — unless that fits your office culture). You’re already working with a busy print, so less is always more.
Polka Dot Trousers, $69.90, available at Zara
How to Pair Your Dots
If you’re committing to a busy print like polka dots, you shouldn’t add another pattern. It’s safer to pair dots with basics: black pants, neutral skirts, or high-waisted shorts. Stick to simple lines: Say no to anything fussy, frilly, or unconventional in terms of cut.
If you’re adventurous and want to mix prints, always follow this important size rule: Your polka dots should be dramatically bigger or smaller than the accompanying print. This shows that you’re aware you’re mixing patterns, and that you’re doing it intentionally.
For example, if you’re wearing a striped blouse, make sure those stripes are dramatically bigger or smaller than the polka dots on your skirt. It establishes a pattern hierarchy so that not every design is operating at the same volume, making your ensemble easier on the eyes.
Polka Dot Printed Blouse, $49, available at Zara
Minimize Your Accessories
Think of your dots as an accessory — because they are. Their detailed, eye-grabbing placement works like a statement necklace or dangly earrings, so go easy on headbands, scarves, and other attention-grabbing additions. If you want to wear jewelry, pick simple studs or pearls — nothing that swings or makes a sound as you walk. Bright shoes might fly depending on your office culture, assuming you’re going very minimal with color everywhere else. Restraint is your friend.
Work Day Darling Skirt, $54.99, available at ModCloth
Wear That Iconic Polka Dot Dress Strategically
Polka dot dresses are considered classics in standard cuts like A-line, mini, and midi. And you’ll get a lot of wear out of a well-made, simple polka dot dress because it will always be in fashion (think: Lucille Ball through Cate Blanchett). But the whimsical pattern from head to toe isn’t appropriate for every professional setting. Only you know whether your office is one where you can hold a meeting in full polka dots and be taken seriously.
But don’t rule out this staple just because it might not work in the boardroom. Consider a polka dot dress as an option for work events outside the office: the company picnic, an off-site meeting, or any other casual work setting where you still need to look polished.
Black Audrey High Neck Polka Dot Dress, $307, available at Lyst