A couple of weeks ago, one of you asked for my thoughts on how to build a work wardrobe from scratch. Ah, work clothes. I remember them well. Above, the garb I wore to present to the New York Stock Exchange in 2008, just before the bottom dropped out of the market. I don’t think that was my fault.
Here’s an outfit from my 2011-2013 gig at a San Francisco Internet company. Context is all. Wasn’t showing a lot of bustline at the stock exchange, to be honest.
So, were I starting again, everything brand new, what to do? I’d want my clothes to be enjoyable and useful, simple to put together, flexible enough to inspire. I have to stress, what works for one woman won’t for another. No such thing as Five Items We All Must Own And Our Work Wardrobe Will Be Set Forever.
The simple but flexible work wardrobe requires you to make five primary choices
- Start with whatever gives you the most trouble. For me, that’s my feet. At base, a simple and wearable wardrobe depends on the shoes. Do you want to wear flats or heels, for the most part? If heels, how high?
- Next, simplicity requires that you decide whether you are going to wear mostly pants – with an occasional dress for special events – or dresses, with the occasional pair of pants for field trips and possible mud/rain/wind. There are physical factors here – your silhouette, how your body experiences comfort – and social ones – your relationship to gender traditions, the norms of your domain and your industry.
- It is at this point that you situate yourself somewhere on the Structured v. Flowy curve. Simple personal choice.
- You are ready to pick an interoperable color story. I think the easiest to carry off is skin-toned based neutrals (i.e. earth-toned-AKA-yellow-undertones vs. stone & sky-toned-AKA-blue-undertones) complemented and accentuated by 2-4 accent colors. I have chosen gray/navy/black/white as neutrals, with purple, marine blue, olive, and mustard as accents. Someone with yellow skin undertones might choose brown/cream/black as neutrals, with coral, orange-red, pale yellow or sky blue accents. To learn about your degree of contrast in hair/eyes/skin, I will send you over to Imogen.
- Finally, what kind of accessory do you want to specialize in? Make these pieces big enough to register visually. Scarves? Bracelets and watches? Lapel pins? Dangling earrings? Bags don’t work for this purpose, we rarely walk around our workplace carrying a purse. Sue loves her French Kande jewelry. I chose earrings and a man’s watch. Focus.
I know. Choices are not easy. They require discipline and a conceptual framework, along with a willingness to constrain your impulses and shop from a plan. But oh the freedom come Thursday morning, when patience and forbearance wane. And the deep satisfaction when the new aubergine jacket goes perfectly with that old pair of well-tailored brown trousers.
A few recommendations on the actual clothes.
Shoes That Support Us, Flats & Heels
You can simplify your life profoundly by picking one heel height, two maximum. I like 2 1/4 inches myself or flats. Never let industry style, or the cultural imperative that women be sexually alluring, give you painful feet. I have bought various shoes, from Beautifeel to Birkenstocks (for casual wear), from Footwear Etc. in Palo Alto, California. Specialists in shoes without pain – turns out they sell online too.
Ankle boots: brown & black, also comes in eggplant
Majority Pants vs. Dress Dominance (4 pairs of pants & 2 dresses v. 5 dresses & 1 pair of pants)
It’s not that you don’t know that there are dresses and there are pants. Only that by making a conscious decision to go one way or the other, primarily, you simplify life. Choose for your silhouette – stick with what works. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day.
Brands like Lafayette 148, Karen Millen and Marina Rinaldi for dresses, Theory, J. Crew, maybe even UNIQLO for pants are your friend. Add in a high-fashion item here and there if budget allows – a Dries van Noten dress, an Armani jacket – but let’s say you don’t need my help with that project now.
Pants: Cropped and petite from J. Crew, camel windowpane from UNQLO for $29.99 (haven’t tried them but if they are good this is brilliant), skinny stretch wool from Theory – always a gold-medal pants line
Some jangle-avoiding wrist options. I like that pink and green tourmaline necklace for someone in accounting, it reminds me of an abacus. And if you are ever going to buy a scarf, this is the year. Designers are exercising their art, the options are spectacular.
The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick
Right about now you might be howling, “What do you mean? I have a closet with 20 pairs of shoes, all different heights! I wear dresses AND trousers!”
I understand. Simplification is a harsh mistress. That said, optimizing might not be as difficult as you think. Many of the usual guidelines apply, including the one that says you can keep stuff that you love for no reason, and you can change your mind.
Decluttering And Investing Towards Love
- Clothes. Shove all the clothes you haven’t worn in the last 30 days to one side of your closet.
- Shoe Pairing. Line your shoes up and group them according to heel height. Now match the heel heights to the clothes you wear most often. If you want to simplify, this will become the kernel of your wardrobe.
- Love. Next, take a look at your favorite outfits, the colors, the pieces. You love them. Now move towards that love, towards their image, as quickly or as slowly as you like. This way you focus on growing rather than culling, at least at first. You’ll get there.
- Find the designers and sources that work for you. Become a “regular.”
- I prefer to eschew big logos. I also prefer to buy sparsely, focusing on better design & materials.
- Look into vintage and “pre-owned” sources. I’m skittish about pre-owned clothes, but jewelry and accessories seem like fair game to me.
As a final tip, I will send you to my post on the Use Case Methodology. This is perhaps most applicable when you are changing jobs, but useful, I hope, in developing all kinds of complex, ground-up systems.
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