Thursday, May 6, 2010

Work Wardrobe 101

This week I got two very similar requests about building a business casual work wardrobe that conveys capability and sophistication.  The first was from Kelly, who needs a wardrobe that will take her through a year of pharmacy school rotations in all kinds of weather (she lives in Maryland).  She needs to look like she's in a position to offer medical advice, but still be herself and not try to look older than she is.  The second request is from Ashley, who already has staple pieces from her five years of working full time, but wants to work in some new items that will impress her new boss in a conservative office.

Rather than write two similar posts this week, or make one of them wait a while, I'm going to first go through ideas for basics for Kelly and then tomorrow I will add in some more items for people like Ashley who want more options.

The Basics
When you're just starting out, you need to identify what kind of items will get the most mileage and invest in good fit and quality.  Until you've got the money for items you'll wear occasionally, stick to neutral colors for your pants and skirts.  In a conservative setting, black and gray trousers will always be appropriate.  When you're first starting out, you can wear them on alternate days during the week and then wash both on the weekend.  Once you get a few paychecks under your belt, you can branch out and add a pair of camel colored trousers (it's dressier than light khaki) and a nice black pencil skirt (or A-line if it suits you better). 

You're going to see a lot of $80-90 options, but if you watch for markdowns you should be able to get  well-made pants and skirts for around $50-60.  Look for thick, sturdy  fabric and a hem that is more than barely attached.  In my experience, trousers from The Limited hold up very well.  The wider-leg styles are universally flattering and look nice with a low heel.  Right now, The Limited is offering a buy one, get one half off special on their pants so I would take advantage (don't forget they offer free hemming!). 

Cassidy Wrap Waistband Fit & Flare
Exact Stretch Classic Flare Pant

To break things up a bit, you should add a flattering skirt into the mix.  I think black and khaki would both get a lot of wear year round. I'm not a huge fan of the high waisted skirts unless you're tall, and prefer a wide waistband like the one below.  Again, go for thick fabric that isn't going to show every line and curve you have. 

 The Limited Sunbeam Pencil Skirt
Gap New Pencil Skirt

Once you've got your pants and skirts in hand, you'll need to find tops that work for more than one season (and preferably all of them).   I'm a big fan of the 3/4 sleeve button down shirt.  You can wear it year round and layer under knits to keep from looking like a banker.  And of course, long sleeve button downs will always work when you want to look business-like (and you can roll the sleeves when you don't).  I think you need white (of course), black, blue, and at least one more fun color.  If you can only buy a couple at first, go with black and a fun color.

Banana Republic Elbow Sleeve Stretch Skirt
Lands End Canvas Heritage Poplin Shirt
The Limited Multi Button Classic Shirt

At this point, you will have about two weeks of outfits just by combining your 2 pairs of trousers and 2 skirts with your 4 shirts (just avoid the black pants/shirt look).  Now, you get to work in some knitwear for even more options.  As I said in my clothes for mom post, the timeless v-neck sweaters from The Limited are the best affordable knit I've found in a while.  These can be worn alone or over one of your 3/4 sleeve button down shirts. And don't be afraid of a saturated color in the office - as long as the silhouette is conservative you'll be fine.

Of course, I wouldn't be me if I didn't recommend a cardigan or two.   A black cardigan can dress up even a plain white tank top, and a jewel tone option will get lots of wear with your neutral pants and skirts.  However, for a conservative office, make sure you can button your cardigan without any gaping and stay away from the long, slouchy styles.  These sweaters can be worn over tank tops (get black and white, non-ribbed) or your 3/4 sleeve button downs. 

Lands End Canvas Heritage Cardigan
Ann Taylor LOFT V-Neck Cardigan
The Limited Timeless Vee

At this point, you've got at least 3 weeks of outfits by combining your button downs and knits with the neutral bottoms.   You can slowly acquire more tops (short sleeve button downs and sknits) and additional colors of trousers or skirts, but you'll have enough options that people won't start to notice repeating outfits.  Everything above can be worn pretty much year round since most offices are a steady 72 degrees whether it's snowing or not.

For shoes, I think you need to buy once and wear them for a long time.  I've never had good luck with bargain pairs from Payless or Target, and am now a firm believer in well made shoes.  You have one set of feet, and blisters make you grouchy.  You'll need a great pair of black pumps in the 2.5 inch range if you'll be doing lots of walking.   Then, add a similar pair in brown to wear with your khaki and brown bottoms.  Don't go too sexy with patent leather and toe cleavage, but there's no need to look like an old woman.  Then, invest in a nice pair of knee-high boots when you can afford them.  Don't go PVC... there's too much of it on a boot and it won't look as good.

Nine West Nuncio Pump
Nine West Quilliam Pump
Rockport Pierce Place Boot

That covers work wear basics - you should be well on your way to taking over the hospital or board room without spending a fortune.   If you have any other suggestions, let everyone know in comments.  Tomorrow I'll cover how to jazz things up if you've already got basics but want more variety.


  1. i love all these suggestions! when i was NOT in a casual work environment- my staple was Express Producer pants- they're a little pricey- but if you wait for a coupon and a sale and load up- you can walk away for a couple pairs averaging about 20 to 30 dollars a pop.

  2. Thanks so much Haley! I'm excited to go shopping after finals!!

  3. You are my hero!

    - Ashley



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