My mother was a fashion consultant for executive women in the 1970s and 1980s and I learned many valuable wardrobe tips from her. Though she worked back in the day when the “power suit” was de rigueur for business women, the basics of building a foundation wardrobe have remained the same, whether you work in a professional environment or in a “business casual” one. The most conservative professions are law, banking and finance, and the upper echelons of large corporations. Unlike in my mother’s day, most businesses today are “business casual” in their dress codes. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can show up in tee shirts and flip flops if you expect to be taken seriously. By most definitions, “business casual” means that you are dressed for business, not the beach or local bar. This includes pants or skirts, blouses or shirts, and only subtle accessories.
1. Always buy the best quality you can afford. Your clothes and shoes will fit better and last longer, saving you money in the long run. It also means they will be more comfortable. Quality fabrics include wool, cotton, silk, and certain blends. Avoid man-made fabrics, especially rayon and spandex, as they will either shrink, pill, or stretch out of shape. In my experience, the best quality in an affordable price range includes such labels as Talbots, Ann Taylor, Brooks Brothers, Liz Claiborne, Emma James, Ralph Lauren (Polo and Chaps), Izod, and Anne Klein, among others. Yes, you can find these labels in discount stores like Marshalls, T J Maxx, and Burlington Coat Factory, plus local ones like Bealls and Filenes Basement. Find a local outlet or discount store that carries quality brands and get to know their inventory. Find what fits and suits you best, and patronize that label, as it will be consistent in size and offer coordinating pieces. Also, don’t fret if the care label says “Dry Clean Only.” In my experience, almost anything in this category can go into the dryer using Dryel or a similar dry cleaning product. It is an industry secret that dry cleaners have been using this system for years. When the season is over, you can take your dry-clean-only garments to have them professionally finished to be stored, but weekly trips to these establishments are completely unnecessary.
2. Stay with classic styles and avoid trends in your foundation wardrobe. I still wear a basic blazer that I bought in the 1980s, along with several skirts and shirts that are classically tailored and will never go out of style. If I succumb to a trend, I’ll buy the cheapest piece I can find, because I know it will be out of fashion by the time it is worn out. For example, remember tapered jeans that were blousy around the hips and tight in the ankles? This was one of the most unflattering styles ever created and I hope it never comes back. You wouldn’t want to have spent tons of money on a pair of these only to find them outdated before they wore out. Nothing is more classic and enduring than a well-fitting jacket, a handsome pair of quality jeans (no whiskers or rips) in a boot-leg cut, and a well-tailored shirt, especially one made of oxford cloth. You can add all the trendy (throw-away) neck scarves, pins, handbags, hats, and shoes to update them to the current trend. Remember, regardless of what is currently trendy, if you don’t look good in it, there is no point in wearing it.
3. Realize that you will need alterations from a good tailor or seamstress if you are not accomplished with a sewing machine or needle and thread. Few of us have the kinds of body shapes that can wear clothes off the rack and look good in them without a little tweaking here and there. A task such as hemming pants, skirts, and dresses is so simple that you should learn how to do it. Other alterations to items such as jackets, waistlines, and shoulders require the expertise of a professional tailor or seamstress. Assume that this will be built into the final price of the item, and don’t reject something you really love because it doesn’t fit perfectly when you first try it on. If it’s too tight or too loose in the waist or hips, shoulders or back, a tailor or seamstress can do magic to make it fit perfectly, and their talents are worth every penny you pay for them.
4. Avoid anything sexy in the office. You’re there to work, not to be goggled at. If your aim is to attract men, do it somewhere else, not in your place of business. This means cleavage, jangling jewelry, any and all of the current trend of visible body piercing and tattoos, too-snug clothing, sky-high heels, heavy perfume, and too much make-up. If you want your bosses and co-workers to take you seriously, dress for business, not happy hour or the nearest mosh pit. Otherwise you’ll look like a ditz and no one will have any respect for you. Absolutely ignore what you see celebrities wearing. Their job is far different from yours; that is, attracting attention, getting in the press, and starting trends (however short-lived they might be). You are not a celebrity in your workplace; you’re there to do a job. Save your glam and glitter for nights out, not in the office.
5. Invest in a wardrobe that speaks of quality and respect for yourself. When you try something on, your first question should be: “Does this look expensive?” regardless of its ticket price. Most parts of a foundation wardrobe can be interchanged, making them flexible and doubling their value. Skirts, pants, shirts and blouses, and jackets can all be interchanged. Stick with two or three neutral colors that suit your coloring – beige, taupe, navy, grey, and even black if you can wear it. Mix prints, plaids, bolder colors, and stripes with these foundation pieces and you will have numerous outfits to wear that never look the same. Try to buy something of top quality every year or semi-annually when they are on sale.
Remember that an office wardrobe is an investment. You are investing in yourself, your credibility, and the statement that you are serious about your job. Unless you work in the above-mentioned conservative fields, you needn’t look stuffy. When you think of what you spend on a massage, good haircut, or manicure, think of a foundation wardrobe in the same category, but not as an indulgence. It’s not an indulgence, it’s a necessity. Don’t cringe at price tags if the item suits you and looks “expensive.” The finest way to get a promotion or pay raise, aside from your abilities, is to look as if you are worth it.