Ankara/African Print in the US Workplace: Yes, it's "Professional" (Women's edition)

I have an African-American coworker who likes to wear African print outfits to work. I was in attendance at a recent workshop this colleague facilitated. My colleague had worn an African outfit to facilitate in, which was normal for them to do. During the introduction and warm-up for the presentation, my colleague told the audience, "If I was presenting this workshop to, say, leadership, then I would dress more professionally than I am right now."

I had been in the back of the room at the time and was working on my laptop, getting ready to present a portion of the presentation, and my head swiveled up from my laptop as soon as I heard the comment. I didn't comment at the time the statement was made, but after the workshop finished and all the participants had left the room, I spoke privately to my colleague about the comment.

My issue with the comment was the assumption (and the perpetration of the assumption) that African clothing/outfits in the workplace--especially if worn as a presenter--was "not professional," or was "less" professional than American business clothes. I gently "educated" my coworker about this assumption they had, as well as my concern about them passing on this assumption on to the audience members. For some members, that might have been their first (or only) time seeing African clothing in person, and I did not like that they could potentially walk away thinking that any time they see someone wearing African clothes now, or presenting in African clothes, they would associate it with it not being "professional" or belonging in the workplace. Thankfully, my coworker understood where I was coming from and was very appreciative that I had brought this to their attention. They were gracious in taking, hearing, and accepting the feedback, and it is one of the MANY reasons I have so much respect for this colleague. 

This interaction with my colleague was what made me write this blog post. I wondered how many the Americans in the US think that African outfits are NOT, or can NOT possibly be professional enough to be taken seriously as business outfits in the workplace. THAT. IS. NOT. TRUE. As long as you keep the colors (and patterns) matched and your jewelry and other accessories to a minimum, there is no reason not to rock African print for your 8 to 5 grind. Additionally, you can rock it any day of the work week--it shouldn't just be relegated to "Casual Fridays," or "International Day," as though it's a "costume" to be worn at festive times rather than part of your regular wardrobe.

African prints always add color, that "trybal" element, and beauty to your clothing ensembles; it helps you stand out in th crowd (in a good ay!). It may be trial and error to determine which looks you like, which ones you feel comfortable and confident in, and which ones coordinate well together, but you have to start from somewhere! Ladies, here are 4 simple tips to keep in mind when you're ready to wear your ankara/African print outfits to the workplace. 

1. Accessorize with African Print Accessories

Maybe accessories are more your thing. If coming to work dressed from head to toe in African print sounds scary to you, then start with accessories. A little something here, a bling of that there, some funky bangles here. Not all African print accessories are full of color. Some are more subdued, especially those made from nasal elements such as leather and wood. Wear a bracelet, earrings, necklace, or switch our your boring tote bag/purse that day for an African print bag or African print shoes. Check out our Women's Accessories page for some ideas!

2. Pair it with a Blazer 

Or, make the blazer itself the African print piece. African print dresses, skirts, and pants come in many different styles that complement every body shape. They also come in many dazzling motifs and color combinations. It there's a dress/skirt/pants you like but feel it's too" bold" or too "bright" to wear to the office, then pair it with a simple blazer in a neutral color. Or, in a monochromatic color that complements one of the colors in your ankara/African pattern.

3. Pair it with a Dress Shirt

We all love dress shirts, especially the plain white or denim colored ones. They look great whether or not you are "well-endowed." They look great tucked in with or without a belt, left out, or loosely tied. They look great with skinny jeans, leggings, skirts, khakis, or most other types of pants. Well, pair a dress shirt with any African print skirt, and you have a hit. It doesn't matter if it's a maxi skirt or pencil skirt, or even pants--especially pants that are high-waisted.

4. Pair it with a Pencil Skirt

This is a great way to incorporate African prints into your office attire. There is something about pencil skirts that can make you look sleek and professional with almost any shirt. Having said that, my favorite African print style top to wear with a  pencil skirt is a peplum top. Who doesn't like peplum tops?? IT has that magic ability to help you define your waist, give the appearance of hips (for those who are challenged in this area), and hides all the tummy "stuff" we don't want showing. For offices where jeans are allowed, an African print peplum style top, dashiki, or other type of blouse would look great with a pair of skinny/slim-fit jeans.

In sum, if you get nothing else out of this post, please remember these 3 key points:

  1. African print outfits can and are perfectly suitable to be worn in the workplace
  2. Match your prints/colors in a tasteful and complementary manner
  3. A little African print/accessory goes a long way, so don't go overboard with dressing head-to-toe in African print; just one wardrobe item can be your "focal point" of your outfit. After all, you don't want others referring to it as a "costume"

And also, if you're wondering where or how you can get some pieces, shop for the fabric on my website, and make sure to check out both the "I've Just Bought My African Fabric, Yay! Now What? (Part 1)" and Part 2 blog postings where I included contact information for some tailors as well as some outfit designs to try out. Hope these tips help! Men--don't worry--my next blog posting, "Ankara/African Print in the US Workplace: Yes, it's "Professional" (Men's edition)" is for you. Please tell us what your favorite workplace combo is in the comments!


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