Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reader Question: Help me build a work wardrobe (Part One)

Lauren writes:

I'm 27 and in my first "real job" after being an artsy grad student and I find myself completely unable to be "put together," especially in an office setting (albeit quite a casual setting). I've read Tim Gunn, and frankly I don't think the "every woman should own jeans, black pants, a white oxford shirt, black high heels" thing is THE way to go - especially if your fashion sense is young and hip and ever-changing.
 That said, I have a request that you needn't fulfill of course, but here's my shpeel anyways: if you could think of your ideal semi-professional starter closet, what items would you select as the most important basics to build on? What colors, patterns, shapes, styles and shoes would you choose as the essential "I'm still young and cool but I also have this job I have to dress for/commute to" attire?
I feel like it's easy to see a single piece at the store and think it's adorable, like a crazy patterned Anthro top (hopefully on sale!); it's so much harder to actually envision it with the other pieces in your wardrobe. (And then, if you're like me, you end up buying sweatpants for some reason.) It's really challenging to maintain a level of funkiness while still being appropriately business-casual, and I feel like from what I've seen of your outfits, it's in the details. I just don't know what details to go for. So, it's just a thought if you have the time, but I'd love to see a post about those closet basics - and maybe even some of your favorites!

This is a challenge for sure, but hopefully we can help! I think Marianne will have some insight into wardrobe building for a more casual work place, so I'll just tackle the basics.

How to Build a Work Wardrobe

Pants - at least one or two pairs of good neutral dress pants (more if you wear pants a lot.)

Skirts - two or three structured skirts (pencil and a-line) solid color or neutral.

Dresses - several easy to wear dresses, solid or patterned .

Jeans - If you can wear jeans to work invest. Get one pair of great trouser jeans, one pair of basic boot cut or straight leg and, if you like, a pair of skinnies. I don't mind spending more on denim because, while good jeans can be found at every price point, my favorite most hard-working asstastic pairs have always been high-end. Keep the washes simple and dark. Don't go too trendy because shit ain't cheap.

Tops - if you work somewhere casual, a few "tailored" t-shirts with some kind of interesting detail, several interesting tops with detail or pattern. I personally don't do button-down shirts but if you like them, buy the best-fitting brand you can. Fit is everything with tailored pieces. And don't stick with white - the classic nature of a button-down means you can go for crazier colors.

Cardigans - I wear a lot of cardigans because I'm usually cold. (Staple colors for me include grey, black, brown or tan, red, purple and teal.)

Jackets - The key to looking pulled together. You can throw a little jacket over a t-shirt and tailored jeans and it sort of pulls everything together. Get one blazer style, one military style and maybe one little swing jacket. (Or whatever style suits you.)

Shoes - What styles you buy depends on your style, but I can give you this advice - if you strive to look fashion-forward, don't default to black. There's nothing wrong with a black shoe, but red, wine, teal, animal print and cognac is always going to be the more interesting choice.

Boots - Opposite advice from the shoes. If you can only buy one pair of dress boots, go for brown or black. What makes a dress boot look sleek is FIT. If your calves are rattling around or bulging over, they don't fit you. Keep trying until you find the perfect pair. Buy the most classic shape and style you can - minimal hardware, not too sexy, not scrunchy, not mid-calf. If you love boots, add a pair of riding boots and maybe a pair of booties or some other boot style you love. (You can't have enough boots.)

Finishing pieces - scarves, belts, statement jewelry. You can take a basic dress and make it look much more pulled-together with the right scarf or piece of jewelry. My friend Nina has this great way of wearing a really cool statement necklace over the most basic t-shirt and she always looks great. It's about the details! And this is where you can have fun - a crazy print scarf or a chunky statement necklace can be all you need to elevate a basic outfit.

Bags- again, bags are something I'm not afraid to spend a bit of money on, but you don't have to. The key is to go for simple, elegant shapes and interesting colors. You can get nice quality stylish leather bags at places like Marshalls for not a ton of money.

Also, make sure your bag size suits you. It always makes me twitchy to see a tall girl toting a tiny bag. If you're short, an over-sized bag is fine as long as it's slightly over-sized on you. If it's oversized on Andre the Giant its gonna be too big on you and will look like luggage. If you're a total bag newbie, you will be covered if you have:
  • sleek work tote 
  • casual weekend hobo
  • classic handheld satchel
Again, do not feel like you have to buy black or brown so they'll "go." You would be surprised how versatile colors like eggplant, red, cognac and teal can be.

Okay, that's part one! Lauren, I hope this helps! Really, it's all about having the right, well-fitting basics to build interesting outfits around, then fill in the gaps with fun stuff.

(Part two: How To Build an Outfit will be posted tomorrow, so stay tuned!)


  1. Great post! Out of curiosity, what kind of black t-strap shoes are you wearing in photo #6? Thanks!

  2. Those are Frye Ava t-straps, but unfortunately they don't make them anymore. The closest thing is probably the Frye Miranda.

  3. This is wonderful, thank you!! And it really does help enormously. This list will totally help me shop more efficiently, too, which... I kind of can't wait to do now. Uh oh.

    I'm especially glad to hear your advice on the accessories and shoes - I've had a pair in my Zappos cart for weeks now, unable to decide between a bright fuchsia-red and basic black. (Speaking of red shoes, those red ones in the last picture are super cute. What kind are those? WANT.)

    But you're so right, those key pieces like belts, necklaces, scarves, little jackets - they really do make the overall look much more pulled together and professional. And it's not overkill too, which is what I was always afraid of. Just the right amount can make a world of difference.

    Thank you guys so much for writing this, I'm excited to read the next, and super excited to go shopping!

  4. Hey! Glad you liked what I came up with - I'll have more specifics on outfit building tomorrow.

    The red shoes are Chie Mihara and I couldn't live without them. Get the bright red over black, absolutely!

    And the best part about accessories is that you can find really good, fun stuff cheap - Target, Forever 21, etc. My curren favorite scarf was $3.

  5. PS. to Tiny Cricket - they're actually dark purple, not black!

  6. Great advice - it's shocking how little you actually need to build a work wardrobe. I have way too much stuff (and very little 'outfits' - hrm). I'm trying to lean into the shoe advice and buy more interesting, more colorful shoes. Loooove your red shoes.

  7. Oh geez. I can't believe that no one's commented on the teal bag yet. Do you mind disclosing where you got it? I'm in the market for another crossbody. (I walk everywhere, and double-handle satchels are forever falling off my shoulder and goading me towards casual homicide.)

  8. It's a Rebecca Minkoff Morning After Mini, which I found on Not all come with the long strap though, be warned!

  9. Thanks! I haven't heard of Bonanza, so it's time to go a-wanderin'.

    That was the fastest comment response in the history of comment responses, by the by. Clearly you should've been a sharpshooter in the Old West.

  10. Ha, I get super-secret email notifications and happen to be on a lunch break. Bonanza is kind of like eBay but without the bidding part.