I am fairly certain that in every single photo of me from age 8 to age 22, I am wearing jeans and a t-shirt. (Except for maybe my prom pictures…maybe.) I always wore 100% denim flare jeans, since I had some strange vendetta against stretch denim—which I’ve since learned is, in fact, forgiving and magical when done right, but that’s another article. The t-shirts were fairly uniform, I was a fan of the “girl-cut”—despite the ridiculous name for this style—with cap sleeves and slim silhouettes. Maybe they were band t-shirts, or maybe they were surf company shirts, or maybe they were just solid colors. It mattered very little to me. I would don a hoodie if it was chilly (I grew up in a place without recognizable seasons). And lastly, I wore low top Chuck Taylors until the soles wore through, at which time I would replace them with an identical pair.
I didn’t follow fashion or really try at what I was wearing, beyond not wearing black with brown or navy blue with black. This was my formula, it worked for me. That was until I realized that I would have to step it up when I entered the professional world. I quickly found myself lost without the comfort-blanket of my old “uniform.”
I over corrected. At first, I tried to wear skirts, ruffle-blouses, little blazers, and heels every day. This was exhausting and frustrating. The only way I could make this work was to lay out outfits for the entire week on Sunday night, accessories and all. I quickly got bored and ended up wearing the exact same outfits week after week. But the bigger issue was that it was just uncomfortable. I felt like a fake, like I was raiding my mom’s closet. You know those photos of little girls flopping around in their mom’s heels? That’s how I felt. Instead of focusing on my work, I was preoccupied with my clothing. So, after careful observation of what folks in my office wore, I revamped. I am now much closer to my original M.O., but am still “office appropriate.”
Here is my uniform for my business casual office:
There are about as many different dress tops as there are stars in the sky, but there are a few things I am not flexible about: I need my tops to be a solid color, washable, with some subtle but elevating detail, and a flattering shape that can be worn under a cardigan. The top that fits these requirements for me is from Banana Republic. It is cotton, with a tiny little satin ribbon around the neckline, and it is a super flattering shape. I have it in like 8 colors, so I don’t always end up wearing the white on Monday, black on Tuesday, etc. It is extremely comfortable and I don’t have to buy a new thing every season. Plus, and this is really the biggest thing, they’re not dry-clean only, so I don’t accidentally destroy all of my shirts when I forget to check the care tags yet again on laundry day!
Cardigan / Jersey Blazer
Again, almost all the same requirements as above (especially the washable part), but if there is a pattern or a more striking detail, that’s fine by me. Cardigans are great because they are super comfy and versatile. Jersey Blazers, a blazer made from jersey or another stretch fabric but with the same tailoring details, is amazing because they look even more professional but they are extremely comfortable. And have pockets. My aim here is to be able to mix and match so that I have the maximum number of outfits with the minimum number of potential opportunities to walk out the door looking like I got dressed in the dark.
Chunky / Splashy Necklace
This is my not-so-secret weapon to make an otherwise casual outfit feel much more formal or interesting. The bigger or more interesting the necklace, pin or fascinator (why not?), the less likely someone else is to notice that this is my regular Tuesday shirt. My go-to spots for cheap but fun costume jewelry are Forever 21, the Anthropologie sale rack, Claire’s and Target.
This is the trickiest part for me, since jeans are my favorite thing to wear (though yoga pants might be edging them out). I wish I could wear jeans every day to work. But since I can’t, the only thing that works for me is to make friends with someone who works at Nordstrom, Macy’s, Ann Taylor Loft or Banana Republic. When I talk about what I want with the experts at these stores, my focus is always on comfort and versatility. Yes, they are more expensive than some of the other options, but I can get away with only a few pairs, instead of a million from H&M that wear out instantly. I have a pair of extremely plain slacks in black, dark grey, navy blue and brown. My bases are completely covered. And since they are so basic, I feel no remorse whatsoever about wearing them more than once in a week (after doing laundry, of course).
These are my favorite things in the entire world. I like knowing that if I need to run, I can, but I will still look good while doing it. Plus, I won’t end up with an aching back or side eye from a supervisor. Perfect black ballet flats (simple, plain, comfortable, not matronly, and not exceedingly expensive) are a little bit of a unicorn sometimes, but it’s worth looking for the perfect pair and wearing them until they’re totally done because they go with virtually everything.
My workplace is pretty consistently business casual, so while I still hate dressing up every day, at least I know it could be worse. Whenever I get a little bored with my wardrobe, I search for inspiration from people who actually enjoy getting put together and who do it well. Check out Broke-in-Boots’s Instagram, Jennylee always has a killer outfit. You can also always search the hashtags #fashiondiaries or #instafashion, #workflow, #ootd, #outfitoftheday, or #workchic on Instagram for inspiration.
But I’d also love to know your go-to formulas for werkin’ it at work—even when you’d rather not?
Photo by Andy Sutterfield