Reader Q | What An Engineer Wears To Work in the Summer


Mamas, I recieved this email from reader Tracy:

Here's my challenge.  I'm an aerospace systems engineer (yes, you MAY call me Madame Rocket Scientist) in Pasadena, CA and I have no idea what to wear to work when the weather gets hot.  Oh, did I mention California?  Yes, it will be 80-105 degrees here from now until November.  That's half a year by my Excel spreadsheet calculations.  My workplace is actually pretty casual, but the managers certainly dress nicer, and I've always heard you should dress like who you aspire to be at work.  So, what to wear when skin is in season at the beach/park, but no so for those of us sweltering in their desk chair? Cut-offs, short skirts, flip flops, maxi dresses (any that scream "I'd rather be on a tropical island than here in this meeting with all of you!), bare arms, etc. are really not options.  And, I am of course up to my elbows in mommy-mode (and other disgustingness) immediately before and after work so everything has to be kiddo friendly. 


Tracy, I have a soft spot in my heart for geeks.  Geeks who mention aerospace, spreadsheets and fashion?  We should be BFFs.

As you know, engineering is a funny field from a dress-code perspective.  It's not as conservative, as, say, some crusty old law firm, but neither is it consider creative, like marketing or a hip ad agency.  And while my company flirted with a denim dress code in the heady dot-com days, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to fairly conservative roots. 

Personally, I tend to favor a professional look, with touches of casual ease thrown in (especially in the summer).  Here's a weeks worth of outfits:

MONDAY:  Cheap, Modest, Summer Dresses


(wearing:  Target dress, J. Crew belt, Marc Jacobs heels)

A few of my favorite places to find cotton summer dresses include Target, Shabby Apple, Modcloth, and  Forever 21.  Look for classic cuts with a bit of a sleeve in dark, conservative colors.  I keep them professional with belts and closed-toe heels, and add cardigans (or blazers) to battle the air conditioning.  The second I leave work I strip off the outer layer, and just run around in what is really just a cheap little cotton summer dress.  Sometimes I'll even change into flip-flops.  

NOTE:  When buying cheap, you sometimes sacrifice fit.  The Target dress above cost me $24, plus another $40 in alterations.  Considering how many times I've worn what became a $64 dress, the CPW (cost-per-wear) is still in the pennies.


TUESDAY: Wear Work Separates With a Cotton Tee


 You guys have seen this outfit before.  But it's a good example of something I wear to work quite often.  If the neckline is a little low (and this one is), I throw on a blazer.  Else I just pair drapy tees (even concert tees) with trousers, pencil skirts or even a suit for a dose of professional-cool.

WEDNESDAY: Find Subdued (but cool) Accessories


 (wearing:  DKNY pencil skirt, tee from Anthropologie, J.Crew heels, Salt sunnies, Peter Pan necklace from a Common Thread)

Basic work separates and plain tees can get a tad boring day-in and day-out.  So besides belts and heels, I look to a few subdued but cool accessories to add interest.  Personally, I find dangley earrings un-professional, and too much arm candy gets in the way of typing at the computer, so a cool statement necklace is my top pick.  I like something non-flashy, like this collar necklace from A Common Thread.  (A giveaway is coming!!  hopefully tomorrow, Mamas….our nap schedules are all. messed. up.)


THURSDAY: Blazer + Summer Dress + Closed-Toe Shoes = Surprisingly Professional

P5175077(wearing: DVF wrap dress and jacket, J.Crew heels)

 I'm not comfortable with bare arms in the office, so I cover up a sleeveless summer dress with a blazer.  To find a sleeveless dress that works for work, look for one that combines a below-the-knee hemline with a drapy fabric.  And stick to closed-toe shoes to further the office-worthy vibe.  Save sheer, gauzy sundresses for the weekend.  I ditch the blazer the second I leave the office:  this was my go-to for catching a happy hour with hubs.


FRIDAY:  Make Denim Work With a Blazer (and bright pops of color)


 (wearing: DVF jacket, Stylemint tee, J Crew flats, bracelets from Macy's, Levis 535 Denim leggings)

Since I started my career in the 90's, wearing denim to work still feels right.  You know?  So I tended to take advantage of casual Fridays by throwing on a blazer with my fav denim.  Bright accessories keep this look fun – and the stretchy bracelets are easy to throw on / off if I need to spend long periods of time at the computer.  

So Madame Rocket Scientist, since I'm guessing you'd now like some summary bullets…my bottom line for summertime work-wear is this:

  1. Mix in one very casual piece:  a tee shirt, summer dress or jeans.  
  2. Pair with professional staples: trousers, blazers, pencil skirts, and closed-toe heels to keep the look office-worthy.  
  3. Finish off the look with a few carefully chosen accessories.

Hmmmm….if I only had a bit more time, I could turn this into an automated Powerpoint presentation complete with flow charts.  Or use cases!  We could do use cases!

I'll stop now.





  1. I love this! I would just emphasize – CARDIGANS. I find round neck cardigans make almost anything instantly Upper East Side, and therefore work appropriate. Also, not as restrictive as blazers (can’t stand ’em). Add a cute brooch, and you’re done. Word.

  2. Another aerospace engineer mama here with my 2 cents.
    First, summer dress + cardigan = my summer wardrobe. Of course, this formula only works if I’m going to be at my desk and not on the manufacturing floor (summer dress + ugly steel toed boots = not good). I’ve had good luck with dresses and tops from H&M.
    Second, I keep a pair of sandals or ballet flats in the car. They’re easy to slip on at the end of the day before I have to wrangle the kiddo away from childcare.

  3. Am a doctor mom with similar workplace style issues – one wants to be subtly stylish but never sexy. I rely on Eileen Fisher close cut black pants (2 pairs, 1 hemmed for flats and 1 for heels) and my trusty Vera Wang Lavender ballet flats (olive) or round toe wedge heels (black.) These fairly expensive basics have low cpw (seriously I wear each more than weekly) paired with inexpensive tank + flowy tunic (I’m rocking a couple this summer that look sort of like Isabella Oliver’s Grecian maternity tunic), or with a short dress with a length that winds up between tunic and dress (today’s is from target.) The tunic can be taken off so that, should a toddler demand a wagon ride as soon as you pull in the driveway you’re pulling the wagon in comfortable pants, a tank, and ballet flats, and the pants can be taken off from under the dress for a cute eveing outfit should we go from daycare to meet Hubs for dinner due to a declared no-cooking evening. Cheap tops keep low cpw for the expensive basics, it keeps the look fresh and means not sweating a shoulder full of the special snot + playground sand goatee my son seems to wear at the end of a daycare day as he gives me a big cuddle-hug.

  4. Hi, thanks so much for this question and post. I think Reader Q may be my neighbor, I am also in Pasadena and am in a similar field- university research administration.
    I love ideas above, but am 8 weeks postpartum and headed back to work In a few weeks with my handy breast pump…. Any good ideas for modifying the above to be a bit more nursing and pumping friendly?
    Reader Q’s Neighbor

  5. My Dad is an aerospace engineer and I noticed that S didn’t mention the staple of his work wardrobe-the button-up shirt. There are tons of lightweight button-up blouses (bonus points if you can find one with a chest pocket for pens, calculators, & other engineer tools-yes, my Daddy owns several pocket protectors) that are girly and cute for hot work in summer. I’d pair them with cropped khaki or white pants or khaki skirts as a nod to my Dad’s Dadiform of button-up shirts and khakis 🙂

  6. Thank you for this! I’m a professor and I have the hardest time getting the right outfit — business-like would be not geeky enough, trendy would be not serious enough, and I’m too young to dress matronly. These strike a good balance!
    I’d love a cooler-weather version too, when the seasons change…

  7. Excellent post! You nailed my research office. For the first time on a blog, I can see myself wearing all of these outfits!
    Vmama: Take advantage of the drapey, elastic neck and banded/bubble hem tops that are out now. (Loft had a ton at my last look). I still lift for pumping, but it makes nursing a breeze and hides the pooch. Switch out a wrap dress or wrap top. Layer a half-buttoned or wrap cardigan or drapey top (a la Wed) over a nursing tank.

  8. Hi Shana, I am a big fan of your blog! Would you be able to do a similar post on what engineers could wear to work during Fall-Winter in Southern California. My workplace is also very casual and I wear jeans to work on most days. I would really appreciate some ideas on this. Thank you!

  9. Hi Shana, I have another request for a follow up for this post. We engineers are looking to you for our fashion advice! Especially for the nursing/ postpartum tips. Thanks, Another neighbor of Reader Q & company

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