Cracking the Work Dress Code: 8 Pieces to Wear to the Office
Take a virtual stroll through your favorite store and you’ll probably see a “wear-to-work section,” filled with dresses, pants, shirts, and other items. But which pieces do you really need when starting to build a closet of professional options? There are many answers to that question. When starting out or starting over with your work wardrobe, you’ll want to consider how much wear you can get out of a particular item of clothing. From basics that can be worn over and over again — great if you’re on a budget! — to the items that add a dash of whimsy and personality, here are eight items that will work for you while you’re working from 9 to 5.
1. Black pants
You hit snooze one too many times and are now scrambling to get out the door with absolutely no time to run through five or six outfits before settling on what to wear. In this instance and any other in which you need a go-to option, the answer is black pants. In the work world, black pants are a blank canvass. You can wear them several times a week with no one batting an eye because it is what you wear in addition to the pants that is the star of the show.
Find a cut that works best for you. Wide-leg trousers can be a good option if you want to cover up your thighs, but be sure to balance out the voluminous shape created by the pants with slimmer fits in the rest of your clothing. Skinny, cigarette-style trousers are trendy but not universally flattering. Many different body shapes can pull off the bootcut style, but no matter what pant you ultimately choose, make sure they fit!
A quick trip to the tailor will solve many of your woes when it comes to pants. Not everyone will be able to walk into a store and buy a pair of pants off the rack. The pants could be just a little too long, but instead of having your pants perpetually drag on the floor, take them to a tailor, pay the small fee, and finally have a properly fitting pair of pants. It is a small difference that goes a long way when it comes to looking professional.
2. Dark wash jeans
If black pants are the blank canvas of business wear, dark wash jeans are their casual workwear siblings. Almost any office you work in will have a casual day, and on this day, dark jeans are a must. Again, fit is vital. This is not the place for your painted-on, tight blue jeans with an ultra-low rise. Boot cut jeans, like bootcut trousers, are a fit many people can pull off, but you should wear what you feel comfortable with and look professional in. In just about every case, straight-leg, slim fit, or a slight flare in the jeans will work for work.
Dark jeans look dressier than light-wash denim. Although it is casual day, you don’t want to be too casual, since you are still on the clock. A feature to avoid is torn, shredded jeans: The well-worn look goes through phases of trendiness, but not at work. Black jeans are a great way to add variety — you can only wear straight-legged, moderate rise jeans so many times before it starts to feel a little stale. In the summer, be daring and don a pair of white jeans.
3. Pencil skirts
A narrowly tailored skirt that hits right around the knee sounds like a ho-hum piece of clothing until you start considering all the textures, patterns, and varieties that are possible with the pencil skirt. It can be worn with a matching jacket as part of a suit or as its own component. Styling a pencil skirt with a non-matching blazer creates a polished look like a matching suit but is slightly less formal. Pencil skirts can be worn just as easily with cardigans, blouses, button-ups, and sweaters. Actually, it is harder to think of what can’t be paired with a pencil skirt than all the possible outfits that can be created with a pencil skirt base.
A basic skirt in black or navy is a must because it can transition through all the seasons. Other than that, feel free to go on a pencil skirt frenzy, seeking out pastels for spring, seersucker in the summer, wools for winter, and plaids in the fall. Pencil skirts have the added benefit of being timeless.
You could buy one today and still be wearing it five years from now, provided you still like it. With that kind of longevity, it is important to handle the skirt with proper care. If it says dry clean only, by all means, take it to the dry cleaner! If you know you never make it to the cleaner, let this be a factor when you’re purchasing to always being sure to read the label before you check out.
4. Classic, neutral shoes
This does not have to be a heel — rather, it should be whatever you are comfortable walking in that matches the majority of your wardrobe and is suitable for the climate you live in. A flat or a heel that is mostly plain — not boring, plain — is what you need to have in mind. Fit needs to be the first priority. The pointy-toed, tan Italian leather flats with slight gold detailing may be beautiful and work appropriate, but if they pinch your toes or slip off your feet, what is the point in buying them?
A pair of leather boots are ideal for colder weather or rainy days. For anyone who dislikes the idea of wearing rain boots, leather riding boots will keep your feet (and potentially the bottom of your pants, depending on the cut) from getting soaked. Riding boots aren’t as heavy as rain boots, and with the right outfit they can be worn all day, so you don’t have to schlep extra shoes to the office. You’ll get plenty of wear out of a classic pair of boots, so they definitely should be in your work wardrobe rotation.
Any fashion-savvy professional will tell you how fantastic blazers are. Whether it is because it is Monday and the office will be cold or because it is Friday and you need to stylishly top off your casual look, a blazer can solve any number of fashion riddles. It can also have an unexpected quality, like a pattern for when you cuff your sleeves.
Feeling crafty? Customize your blazers with buttons. This is an untapped source of fashion potential. Yes, the buttons on the blazer as-is are probably perfectly fine, but they could also be your generic, run-of-the-mill brass jobs. When you consider that you can have monogrammed buttons, naval-themed enclosures, or sporty snaps, you’ll never look at your buttons the same way again.
6. Blouses and shells
The accompaniment to your blank canvas black pants and skirts are blouses. This is not the time to try and blend in with the background. When wearing a suit, use a brightly colored blouse to wake up the outfit. Patterns are another style pick-me-up and are just as varied as their colorful counterparts. But there are people who just love their neutrals, and there is nothing wrong with that! When you just can’t get away from the white shirts, find small details that make it stand out. This can be a ruffle, scalloped collar, unique buttons — anything that introduces a new dimension to your clothing.
For layering purposes, shells can be easier to wear under jackets and cardigans. They are available in the same multifarious styles that blouses are, and are part of the playful backbone of your work wardrobe. There is no need to splurge on shockingly shaded shells and blouses or anything you think you will tire of after a season or two. Because these items are more malleable than the classic basics, they can be easily traded out. Buying relatively inexpensive but still well-made clothing can refresh your wardrobe, and seeking out sales is highly advised — either at the store, online, or at an outlet.
(Left: Ann Taylor Loft Contrast Collar Pleated Top and Modern Dimensional Shell)
7. Sheath dresses
The hemline on a sheath falls around the same region as the pencil skirt. These dresses are cut to fit close to the body and often have a slight slit in the back. Sheath dresses are available with or without sleeves and are made in every material imaginable. For a very basic, barebones sheath, look for one in a neutral tone with relatively few embellishments. A black sheath, for example, can be worn from week to week by changing out the accessories.
By styling the outfit differently, you’ll create unique looks. One week you might wear your gray sheath with a kelly green cardigan and polka dot shoes. The next week, hot pink shoes, a black cardigan, and dazzling drop earrings will be the stunners of your office style, and no one will notice you’re wearing the same dress as last week.
Sheath dresses transition to happy hour exceedingly well. Since it is a more figure-showing cut than a shift dress, less needs to be done to “dress it up” to carry it from the office to a post-work outing. A snazzier sheath than your basic choice is a fantastic option when you have an afterwork engagement.
(Above: Ellen Tracy Bamboo Detail Textured Sheath Dress, Classiques Entier “Sunmosa Ponte” Seam Detail Dress, Adrianna Papell Polka Dot Ruched Jersey Dress)
8. Statement pieces
There are plenty of different items you can add to your wardrobe to make a statement, as the name suggests. Eye-catching shoes fit this bill, and so do purses, pieces of jewelry, belts, etc. Mix and match these pieces as you wish, indulging in your favorite obsession.
All of the above-mentioned items share similar features. They come in shocking hues, bold patterns, with or without a hint of sparkle … the possibilities are endless. If you plan an outfit with multiple statement-making accessories, it is important that they are not in competition with each other. No one will notice your royal purple belt if they are too distracted by your oversized golden yellow handbag, dangling earrings, and Oxford-heeled shoes.
Like everything in life, the key is balance. You have five days in a workweek to show off all your fabulous accessories that truly personalize your clothing. When looking for such pieces, find the ones that speak to you. This may be a simple but beautiful silk scarf or a pair of wild leopard print loafers.