When I first started working fresh out of college, I did not have a large clothing budget and was shocked at the price of suits. As a result, my early “suits” tended to be combinations of separate jackets, skirts and pants I found on sale. At the time this was a bit of a fashion risk but now you often see suits where the jacket and bottoms are in different colors or different materials. The trend has shifted in women’s professional wear to be less matchy-matchy and more separates that you can interchange with different items of clothing. This is great for women with limited closet space!
Dressing for work isn’t all that exciting. There are so many restrictions on what you can wear that often dressing for work feels more like putting on a uniform that someone else chose rather than expressing your own fashion.
While I don’t claim to be a style maven, below are the items I wore the most often as a lawyer (and/or things I would wear now). These are the pieces that don’t go out of style and can be accented with trendy jewelry and accessories.
*Note: My picks include a lot of black. Black is a color you see a lot of in Washington and in New York as well as in a lot of fashion magazines. I have met quite a few people who find black unflattering and it can be harder for fairer skinned people to wear black close to the face without looking sickly and pale. Navy, gray or beige may be a good substitute in that case.
|One dark gray or dark blue knee-length skirted suit for interviewing|
Other suits. If you work in a formal office where you must wear a suit every day, you will need at least 5 other suits. These can be either skirted suits or pantsuits. Suits in conservative colors where you can interchange tops and bottoms to create new looks will give you the most flexibility. Black, gray, navy and beige are general staples. Brown and olive green can work too. Classic prints like pinstripes or black and white houndstooth add interest. White or cream can work in summer.
|Black jacket – This is absolutely essential and you need at least one. An all-purpose black jacket that can be thrown over slacks, a dress or a skirt gives you endless possibilities. The most classic is a single breasted (i.e. one line of buttons) jacket with inconspicuous black buttons. You may be able to use one of your black suit jackets for this purpose.|
|Casual jacket. For those odd occasions where you need to look a little more formal than business casual but not as formal as a suit, a casual jacket can add polish. The casual jacket generally has the same cut as a formal jacket but is made out of a more casual material like cotton, linen or suede. You want the fabric to “read” as a casual and not a formal jacket. Again, if you keep the color neutral you will have more opportunities to mix and match in your wardrobe.|
|Black dress pants – Black dress pants in a formal fabric like rayon, with a straight/wide leg type of style and a modern waistline somewhere between the hips and bellybutton are universally flattering. They can also be worn with millions of different tops from your jackets to sweater sets or blouses.|
|Beige dress pants – This is the female equivalent of men’s khakis. Cotton khaki pants can be unflattering and add bulk. A beige dress pant in a style similar to that described for the black dress pant will be worn again and again. If you can find good dress pants that are machine-washable, so much the better!|
|Black short skirt – A knee-length rayon skirt in a standard suit-like cut with a mild slit offers a lot of possibilities. You might be able to borrow one of your skirt suits for this purpose. You can pair this with your black jacket for a suit-like look, with a collared shirt for a formal casual look or a sweater or blouse for a casual Friday look.|
|Khaki short skirt – A knee-length khaki skirt will give you a lot of business casual options paired with a collared shirt or sweater.|
|Black long skirt – A long skirt is especially nice in winter to keep your legs warm and as an alternative to pants.|
|Black dress – You can’t go wrong with a black dress, preferably in a slender but not tight cut, knee-length in a rayon-like material. A short to elbow-length sleeve will give you the most possibilities. You can throw a jacket on top for a formal look, top it with a sweater or wear it solo with nice jewelry for a casual or cocktail party look.|
|White collared blouse – Collared blouses provide a signal of authority and polish. Most women look odd with a menswear-styled blouse buttoned up to the collar. Look for a collared blouse with nice feminine styling around the neckline that could be set off by a simple necklace. A bodysuit style will keep that shirt from coming untucked.|
Other collared blouses. You can get creative here and try out the latest colors and patterns to add interest to your suits and pants. French blue (a medium-shade of blue) is classic and generally flattering on most skin tones. Cream, pale pink, peach, light blue, light green, light yellow, and burgundy are other classic tones. Subtle stripes or checks could also work. Bright colors like red can be very fun but may look dated more quickly.
|Sweater Set – A cardigan sweater with matching tank underneath in a neutral color like white, beige, cream, brown or navy is an easy, polished look.|
Tank Tops or Short-Sleeve Blouses – I always found that women and men wore their suits and jackets quite differently. Men must wear a long-sleeve collared shirt under theirs. Women sometimes do but it really depends on the cut of the suit. Many women’s suit jackets are cut so tightly through the arms that it is uncomfortable (and/or unflattering) to wear a long sleeve shirt underneath. Hence, many women prefer a tank top or short-sleeve shirt, or sometimes nothing but underwear. Women don’t tend to take their suit jackets off as a result.
Tanks or other layering pieces can also be worn underneath your collared blouses to add color and interest to your casual outfits. White is the most wearable color for layering pieces and you should have at least 3 white layering pieces. Black is the second most wearable color and you should have at least 2 black layering pieces. The rest can be any trendy color that coordinates with your other wardrobe pieces and looks flattering on you.
Simple but interesting jewelry is the rule at the office. For practicality, jewelry that won’t break your heart if it is lost or stolen is best. You also don’t want to cause offense to your coworkers or clients by showing off expensive jewelry.
|I stick to two colors of hosiery: nude and black. The nude color should match your natural skin tone as closely as possible. I also try to keep at least one unopened pair of hose in my dresser drawer so that when there is an important meeting or event, I don’t have to worry about runs.|
I always feel the most polished wearing high heels so all of my work shoes tend to be heeled. For comfort, I look for a square toe or a wider toe box and if I can find a thicker heel, I will take it. I generally stick to black leather heels, brown leather heels and for the winter months, brown leather heeled boots. If I take any fashion risks with my work outfits, it is generally in my shoe choice and I don’t go overboard.
So that is my basic professional wardrobe. Now it’s your turn! What would you add (or subtract) from my list? Please share in the comments.