Dress for Success: Sonya Lennon’s top tips to update your work wardrobe

Sonya Lennon on her way to the office.

As Sonya Lennon’s Dress for Success charity rolls out 10 pop-ups around the country, the stylist has some tips on how to update your drab office wear, writes Barbara Scully

SONYA Lennon is a busy woman. She is a stylist, broadcaster, author and designer with over 30 years’ experience in the fashion business.

One half of the Lennon Courtney label for Dunnes Stores, she founded the Dublin branch of Dress for Success, an international charity that promotes economic independence for women by providing career development advice along with professional clothing and styling prior to a job interview.

Dress for Success is on the verge of going nationwide in Ireland with the rollout of 10 pop-ups in the coming months, something she is very excited about. There is also a Dress for Success office in Cork, although this is a separate organisation.

A mum to 12-year-old twins and a self-described feminist, she says equality is at her very core. But is worrying about how we look at work anti-feminist?

“No, absolutely not, and the reason is because it’s the way we are hardwired to think. Just look at nature and how things are designed to be attractive so that they are effective. It’s about being fit for purpose but it’s also about ticking a box so that it ceases to be an issue.”

She points to Angela Merkel as an example of someone who has made the decision to don a uniform every day. Same suit, just different colours, giving a clear message that ‘this is how I look and you may expect me to look exactly like this for the rest of my days’, thereby taking how she looks off the agenda.

Green Grace bell dress, €119. Lennon Courtney exclusively for Dunnes Stores.
Green Grace bell dress, €119. Lennon Courtney exclusively for Dunnes Stores.

“That is one approach,” says Lennon. “The other tack is to perhaps be a bit more strategic about how you engage with the workplace and I don’t think there is any harm in that because when someone looks good, there is a subconscious assumption that they are confident and with that comes a sense of ability and competence.”

She calls this “joining a load of assumption dots” because “if you wear something that makes you feel good, you will be more confident”.

A kind of sartorial ‘faking it ’til you make it’.

Is it more about being comfortable as opposed to conforming to a particular uniform?

“It’s really finding the sweet spot in between those two things. You might look like Lady Gaga and feel fabulous but if you are going to work in the bank it may not be the right way to go.”

For years we’ve heard about the must-have staples in our work wardrobe, but according to Lennon, it’s not so much about a ‘capsule wardrobe’ as about understanding your body shape. And there is a simple formula that works regardless of your size. It’s all about proportion — creating equilibrium between your top and bottom half with an indent in the middle. “What you are doing is trying to create two triangles tip to tip, whether you are a size six or 26,” she says. In other words, if you are bottom heavy you will need to extend your shoulders and vice versa, thereby creating all-important balance.

Once you understand your body shape, the next thing is to work out is your colour palette.

Green printed dress, €99 (available late November); wide leg trousers, €79. Lennon Courtney exclusively for Dunnes Stores.
Green printed dress, €99 (available late November); wide leg trousers, €79. Lennon Courtney exclusively for Dunnes Stores.

“You wouldn’t decorate your living room without having a colour palette in mind. You wouldn’t go out and buy lots of coloured stuff and fling it all together and think it will be grand. You would have a scheme. And the same is true of your wardrobe.

“Many of us take the easy option and buy lots of black, especially for work, but it’s not very friendly or exhilarating. Colour has a huge effect on our mood and we need all the help we can get, especially in our climate,” says Lennon.

She advises that instead of black, look for something more delicate, like dark grey, brown, or navy, which will add elegance. Lighter colours for tops and shirts underpin the darker key pieces such as jackets, trousers, and skirts.

But again, she suggests that instead of white, why not consider cream, ivory, or a soft grey. Accessories complete the palette and are an opportunity to use splashes of colour which you can change according to your mood.

The final piece of the dressing jigsaw is to assess our needs. Many of us invest the most time and money into occasion wear but we have a blind spot when it comes to dressing for work.

“We spend most of our day in work, so why not feel as good as we can and invest in our work wardrobe,” says Lennon. But most women have a limited budget to spend, so can a great look be achieved without it costing a fortune?

A leather change purse by Lennon Courtney
A leather change purse by Lennon Courtney

If you don’t have much money to invest then invest time in the planning.

“Figure out your body shape, and what you like. Use Pinterest. Check out people whose style you admire, build a little selection of inspirational people. Do your research, build up a clear idea of what you want and what you think will work.”

She advises hitting the charity shops and is confident that it’s possible to find everything needed for a good work wardrobe.

Developing your own style involves letting your personality shine through — when it works it should be fun. Lennon often works with new recruits in large corporate organisations, who have just come out of college. “They are called ‘the penguins’ because they all come in in their black suits and white shirts and they don’t really know what’s what,” she says.

Working in a conservative profession doesn’t mean you can’t inject a bit of personality into your wardrobe. “If you are in a sea of black and navy maybe just move the dial a little bit. By all means, choose classic and elegant clothes but maybe in a slightly unexpected colour.

“Or perhaps accessorise with a brightly coloured handbag or scarf or even a colourful coat that looks amazing when you walk into the office. It’s about being a bit clever.”

Every November, Dress for Success holds a month-long equal pay campaign to raise awareness of the gender pay gap and raise money to support more women back to work. For further details of this year’s campaign and events, check out dressforsuccessdublin.org

Shoes by Lennon Courtney
Shoes by Lennon Courtney

Dress for success

  • Before you buy, don’t just look in the mirror, take a photo of yourself in the outfit. Lennon says we all bring a lot of baggage to the mirror and we see a truer reflection in a photo.

  • If you are going for a job interview, stake out the office building beforehand to see what the work look seems to be. Any prospective employer will want a new employee who will fit in.

  • Store your accessories where they are visible, so you will be prompted to use them.

  • Check the care labels before you buy. You don’t need the added hassle and expense of dry cleaning if you can buy machine washable.

  • Use department stores personal shoppers. This is usually a free service. Don’t be intimidated and state at the outset that you are not sure you will buy but you are interested in seeing how the service works.

Sonya’s style icons:

Christine Lagarde

Natalie Massenet –founder of Net a Porter

Victoria Beckham

Anne O’Leary, Vodafone CEO

Mary-Kate Olsen

Ali Hewson

Ali Hewson
Ali Hewson


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