When it comes to professional office attire, men typically have it easy: A few suits, some crisp shirts, a couple pairs of nice slacks and shoes, and a handful of ties pretty much covers it. But the sheer variety of clothing options available to women—combined with the unrelenting cultural fixation on women’s appearance and the double standards that entails—can make getting dressed each morning a stress-riddled affair.
Luckily, investing in a few wardrobe staples and knowing some strategic approaches to office attire can take most of the anxiety out of looking professional at work. Here’s how to get started.
While every workplace is different and has its own set of expectations regarding professional attire, the following items are so classic that they fit in almost anywhere, any time of the year. By investing in these wardrobe essentials, you can eliminate a lot of the guesswork involved when getting dressed for work.
- Polished jacket Whether paired with fancy jeans, a pencil skirt, or more formal trousers, a well-tailored jacket automatically elevates any look.
- Black trousers Sleek, tailored, and properly hemmed black pants always look professional and can be worn with almost anything, which makes them one of the biggest bangs for your buck when it comes to purchasing multifunctional pieces.
- Dress shirt or blouse Basic blouses or crisp button-down shirts make for classic business attire that can be dressed up or down depending on the clothing and accessories (for instance chunky necklaces, soft cardigans, or a structured blazer). Opt for solid colors or simple prints to make shirts as functional as possible. Front-tuck a shirt for an instant outfit upgrade.
- Pencil skirt A tailored skirt that hits at or below the knee is an office classic that can be coupled with a blouse, cardigan, or blazer, depending on the level of formality in the office. Wear skirts year round with flats, or swap out pumps in warm weather for tights and boots during the colder months.
- Tailored dress The structure of sheath or A-line dresses gives them a business-y edge, but any sophisticated dress is appropriate for client meetings, luncheons, or day-to-day office wear. They’re also a good choice in warmer weather. Look for dark shades or simple patterns if you’re concerned about blending in with other office workers, or choose bolder patterns if you want to make more of a statement.
- Suit Whether utilizing pants or a skirt, a well-tailored suit is a wardrobe must for anyone who is an executive, frequently meets with high-profile clients or executives, or works in an especially formal work environment. Suits are also great for interviews, depending on how formal the company is. The best part? In addition to wearing them as matching sets, suits can be broken up into separates for less formal occasions.
- Cardigans Comfortable and great for layering, cardigans add versatility to any wardrobe and can be paired with almost anything, from fancy tanks to formal blouses. Choose solid shades or simple prints for year-round functionality.
- Black pumps or flats Versatile and classic, a simple black shoe complements virtually all of the items outlined above while looking polished and put together.
- Scarves Wraps and scarves add bursts of color and interest to otherwise simple outfits. They’re also great for layering and staying comfortable in climate-controlled environments.
Can’t buy all of these items at once? No problem. Invest in them as you’re able, and eventually you will acquire all of the essentials. Don’t be afraid to shop used clothes stores for more budget-friendly options. Whenever you look for for new business attire, stay true to yourself by looking for more formal or business-appropriate versions of styles you already like to wear.
Office attire dos and don’ts
Now that you’ve loaded up on wardrobe essentials, most of the hard work is behind you. All that’s left is to brush up on some simple tips to always look professional in the workplace. Without further ado:
- Dress for your own workplace No set of rules about office attire conforms to all the specificities of any given office, so be sure to tweak the rules for your own work setting. Particularly in creative fields, you may want to wear even more colorful or fashion-forward attire to show you’re keeping up with the times. You know your situation better than anyone, so when in doubt, trust your gut.
- Do what you can to stay comfortable When it’s hot outside, it can feel nearly unbearable to pull on a long-sleeved blouse or blazer. Stay cooler by layering a tank top underneath a lightweight cardigan (choose a tank with thick straps if you think you’ll want to remove the cardigan) or opt for lightweight fabrics such us cotton or linen.Comfort can also mean feeling like yourself. Try to shop for pieces that help you feel good both physically and emotionally, and that don’t make you feel self-conscious. Confidence makes more of an impression than clothes any day of the week.
- Accessorize Jewelry, bags, belts, and makeup all offer relatively inexpensive ways to add some personal style to a look and have fun with a professional wardrobe. If you’re worried about going overboard, take Coco Chanel’s advice: “Before you leave the house, take one thing off.”
- Pay attention to the details Try to avoid wearing wrinkled, poor-fitting, or mismatched clothing; for good or for ill, many people judge ill-fitting or unkempt clothes as a sign of general disorganization. Take the extra few minutes to steam or iron your clothes when necessary and tackle any stains as soon as you notice them. A polished hairstyle can complete the professional look; get a haircut you like that is easy to style throughout the year.
- Don’t wear flip-flops, hoodies, and ripped or casual jeans While undeniably comfortable, these items are too informal for all but the most relaxed work environments, and many people consider them unprofessional. Play it safe by nixing these items from your work wardrobe. If your office does permit jeans, learn how to make jeans look professional (for instance, choose darker washed jeans, pair them with a blazer, and tuck in your blouse).
- Don’t wear heels unless you want to If you prefer to be more comfortable—or are worried about walking in heels—it’s entirely possible to look professional in flats. You can’t go wrong with closed-toe, loafer-style, or pointy-toed options.
- Don’t overdress relative to the boss While you may have heard the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have,” it’s not without its pitfalls. If you wear a full suit to work every day while your boss sticks to casual slacks and graphic tees, you’re more likely to look out of touch than like executive material. Instead of fixating on impressing other people, simply dress neatly and professionally and keep your focus on the job.
Don’t worry too much about your outfit. It may seem preposterous to end a list of workplace wardrobe tips by saying, “Don’t worry about fashion in the workplace,” but it’s important to remember that your appearance is not the only factor that shapes how you’re perceived at work. People will remember you more for your confidence, work ethic, work performance, attitude, and authenticity than they will for your clothes. And ultimately, judgments on your attire say more about the judger than they do about you. So long as you dress neatly and appropriately, you’re ready to go to work and seize the day.