Modernizing Your Work Wardrobe

How do you modernize your work wardrobe?  Today’s guest poster, Becki Singer of Shopping’s My Cardio, ponders the question.  I’m thrilled to have Becki guest posting on Corporette — I’ve been reading her blog since way back when (before I even started Corporette).  Fun factoid: she used to be a lawyer also and has recently made a switch to focus on writing and fashion. Welcome to Corporette, Becki! – Kat

Technicolor tweed jacketGreetings, Corporette ladies! I’m so thrilled Kat has asked me to stop by and share a few of my favorite tips and tricks for showing off a bit more style at work. It’s a tricky business, to be sure. I spent years dressing for a law firm before I left for the wonderful world of blogging, so I know the world of grey suits all too well. But the one thing I realized as I spent more time on fashion and less time on law was that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. True, if you’re in the courtroom or the boardroom, conservative rules. But these days, clients and customers expect to see a bit of fashion-forward style from their professionals. After all, a great wardrobe is one of the great things that separates us from the boys. And so, I thought I’d rummage through my style advice, and pass along a few of my favorite tips for keeping your work wardrobe on-trend, without fully crossing into fashionista territory.

Technicolor tweed jacketFirst, celebrate your suits! Just about every piece of style advice I see for professionals starts by telling you to ditch the standard suit, and mix up the pieces to create new looks. For a variety of reasons, I’m not wild about that look. Generally, it’s pretty obvious you’ve mixed and matched, and the results are never as seamless as you’d hoped. Different fabrics, different tones, different finish details…a suit is a suit for a reason. Unless you’re mixing a dark blazer with a highly patterned trouser, I say stick with the original. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to play. Instead of your usual staples, try picking up a suit in a head-turning plaid or tweed. Keep the color palette neutral to ensure versatility, but in this case, the bolder the suit, the bolder the statement. And while I don’t advocate mixing suit pieces, a patterned suit does play remarkably well with others. Try ditching the blazer for a classic in leather, and adding a simple silk shell to instantly add some style currency. (Pictured: Technicolor tweed jacketicon, available at J.Crew for $595.)

Give leather a try. Classiques Entier® 'Lamb Moss' Leather JacketYou’d be amazed at how easily it translates to even the most conservative workplace. Especially this fall, you’ll see leather skirts and blazers everywhere – don’t be afraid to get in on the trend. True, the leather pant is best left to your weekend barhopping, but pair that plaid blazer with a suede skirt, and you’ll have a seriously professional look that’s infinitely more stylish. Or give the black blazer for your favorite power suit the day off, and sub a fitted leather blazer in a ladylike shape. The trick to making leather work-appropriate is to keep the silhouette and color demure – nothing too bulky or shiny. Look for matte leathers, leather trim, or even suede, in soft silhouettes that you’d expect to see in gabardine. I love a knee-length, A-line suede skirt for work – add a patterned silk blouse or crewneck cashmere sweater, a mid-length gold chain and your favorite neutral pump, and you’re set. (Pictured: Classiques Entier® ‘Lamb Moss’ Leather Jacketicon, available at Nordstrom for $398.)

Banish the black. Now that I have you thoroughly out of your comfort zone, my next piece of advice might not be quite as painful. Brace yourselves, because I want you to banish the black (and the navy and the grey)! Now, not forever – a black suit is a classic for a reason. But, just for the sake of sartorial experimentation, try pushing whatever dark, neutral hue you gravitate to every morning to the back of your closet for a week. Getting dressed in the morning without that staple in arm’s reach will do wonders for your closet creativity – trust me on this. At the end of this week-long experiment, you’ll be amazed by how willing you are to pair navy with emerald green, or cobalt with chocolate.

Joie 'Mirabella' Silk BlousePlay with pattern and color — another great way to up the ante on your office style. Colorblocking is huge this season – so reach for those bold color combos without fear. For fall, you’ll see two different variations on color trends, and they couldn’t be more different. First, pattern-mixing is still huge. It’s a trickier trend to try at work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just be sure colors are in the same family, and keep the silhouettes simple – let the patterns be the star. Too scared to try? How about a black-and-white tweed jacket over a patterned silk blouse? It’s a virtually foolproof starter for pattern-mixing. Spend 20 minutes playing around in your closet some evening, and try pairing that jacket with absolutely every patterned piece you own (dresses included!), and see what sings to you. (Pictured: Joie ‘Mirabella’ Silk Blouseicon, available at Nordstrom for $218.)

Try dressing monochromatically. On the opposite end of the spectrum is monochrome dressing, a great way to get more mileage out of those suits and up your style quotient at the same time. Add a black button-down, black pumps and a patent black belt to your favorite black suit, and watch it jump from reliable to cutting-edge. But don’t stop at black. Any color can go monochrome – in fact, the colors don’t even have to match perfectly, as long as they’re in the same family. When in doubt, hold them up together and take a hard look– your eye will tell you if it’s a fit. I’ve even resorted to taking a camera phone picture if I’m really unsure. Have a pair of red trousers? A red cashmere sweater? Add your favorite red ballet flats and go for it! If you must, tack on a camel blazer for safety’s sake, but I have a hunch you’ll be relegating that blazer to the back of your office door in no time.

Smythe Double Knit VestAnd last, but certainly not least, I can’t leave without giving you my favorite office dressing tip of all: layers. Layers, my friends, will save you from a lifetime of wardrobe boredom. Make your weekend shirt dress or sleeveless silk tunic do double-duty by having your drycleaner press it, and wearing it belted over a pencil skirt. Sick of that boring cashmere shell? Try it over a crisp button-down shirt, and under a trouser suit (leave the shirt untucked, please). Or better yet, try the same trick with that patterned silk blouse we talked about earlier. And, pardon the rhyme, but invest in a vest. Find a modern style, and try pairing it with absolutely everything you own until you find a look you love. (Pictured: Smythe Double Knit Vesticon, available at Nordstrom for $450.)

If nothing else, I hope I’ve inspired you to go spend some quality time in your closet. Lock the kids and the spouse out of your room, and spend an hour just playing. You’ll be amazed at the combinations you come up with. Particularly when it comes to professional wardrobes, I find there’s rarely a wrong answer when combining pieces – they’re all built to be friends. So, branch out, be bold, and have fun!

Readers, what tips and tricks have you learned as you got more comfortable dressing professionally?


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  1. I just can’t imagine wearing read sweater trousers and shoes. Id look like a giant traffic light

    • I was thinking Muppet/Fraggle. Or clown (my curly hair wouldn’t help matters).

    • Becki’s advice has consistently seemed more than a little, uh, off to me.

    • I liked her monochrome suggestion, until it came to the all-red ensemble. For navy, black, yes! another variation would be ‘monochrome’ color-blocking: where different shades of the same color. Think cobalt skirt, light cornflower blouse, and say a textured belt and/or shoe in navy. Maybe it’d be easier in a business casual setting, but I think that’d look great!

    • anon in Texas :

      I’ve done this with greens/olives and it’s worked out really well. I think that maybe red was more of a hot-button color

  2. I love that tweed blazer but when did J.Crew start charging $600 for a jacket?

    • MaggieLizer :

      I think I like this one (and its price tag) better:

      • I love that one in Navy!

      • Very pretty.

      • Ooh, I have similar jackets. Nice to know they’re still in style. What do you ladies think of the 3/4 over longer sleeve looks that J Crew seems to have for a few of the textured jackets in the fall collection?

        • I love it! bracelet sleeve jackets are the best when I want to keep warm, but still wear my favorite bangles :)
          And as long as the colors of your outfit overall play well together, why not?

    • It’s part of their JCrew “collection” line.

  3. Interesting advice, with the exception of blocking the black. Sometimes black is the only wearable color offered. I never get tired of black.

  4. I can applaud people that are bold enough to do some of the match-ups mentioned in this post, but for a conservative workplace, I think some of the outfits (the red monochromatic look and the pattern mixing) could stand out in the wrong way and would not necessarily “modernize” my look. To those who can pull it off and still look pulled together, go for it!

  5. Diana Barry :

    I would love to incorporate vests, but am afraid of looking like Nancy Grace with her vesty pantsuits (tm Joel McHale). :)

    I am wearing a black suit today and feel very frumpy – I think grey has become my new default.

    • I was just wondering if vests are still in style. I bought a three-piece herringbone suit a couple of years ago. I love it, but it’s a little too warm to wear all three pieces together for very much of the year, so I was hoping I could split up the pieces. This is good news!

    • AnonInfinity :

      Bahahahaha! I had exactly the same thought (including the Soup reference)!

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I got a cute black suiting-style vest, but haven’t been able to wear it yet. I just can’t seem to figure out what kind of top to put underneath it. I think the problem is that I can’t really tuck tops in. The bottom part of shirts don’t typically look odd until I try to put a vest over it and then it just doesn’t seem to work. Any ideas? Luckily it was only $9 at a consignment shop, so I wouldn’t be out a lot of money if I can’t ever make it work.

      • a passion for fashion :

        I have an AT suiting style black pin stripe vest that has to be 10 years old. I probably only wear it maybe 2 or 3 times a year, but it still works. I usually wear it with whatever black or grey trousers im feeling at a given time (these days, a wider leg would look more modern) and an untucked buttondown (usually white, but sometimes pink, or blue, or another stripe that works with it). Then, some statement neckless, or a triple-strand pearl neckless and some great shoes.

        Any version of this would work with other colors, or weater vests as well. I think the key to keeping it modern and not frumpy is to make sure the vest/top is fairly fitted, add a great neckless, and make sure your shoes are kinda funky and/or modern (ie not frumpy).

    • Boos and hotpants. That would modernize the outfit up.

  6. Anon for this :

    Ladies, do we think that on the context of government, business attire only includes suits, or can conservative business dresses make the cut? I am interviewing for a non-legal government job, and there is a sort of orientation one day, followed by one on one inter views the next. My suit wardrobe is limited always, and I’m in the midst of a move during which one of my suit skirts has vanished. Can I wear a business dress on day one?

    • MissJackson :

      I think on a day-to-day basis, a dress can substitute for a suit. For interviews, though, no. If you have only one suit, I would not worry assuming that it is a pretty standard no-frills suit. Pair it with different shirts and accessories each day. No one will ever notice.

    • I agree with MissJackson. Business dresses are fine for every day business attire, but not for interviews (or other big events like appearing in court). Wear a suit. I think it’s fine to wear the same suit twice so long as you mix up the shirts and accessories.

      • As a government lawyer who does not interact with the public for work, I agree with MissJackson. Our dress code is business casual, but this website is great for advice regarding how to manage one’s professional life, especially, the parts that are less about the work you do, and more about how you interact with others and how your present yourself.

    • In my state gov office, a business dress would probably be fine. Do you have a blazer/jacket that can work with it and make it more “suity”?

      • Recently Downgraded :

        I interviewed for my current position in a black shift dress with a charcoal blazer over it. As long as the dress is very plain and the colors are neutral and coordinated. I would also consider something like this for court. I have some suits that are dresses with jackets, so it may not be that noticeable if otherwise conservative.

    • Miss J hit the nail on the head on this one. Dresses are fine at the right length for day to day. Interview wear is the most uptight.

      Gov’t is a strange beast because to succeed on a high level, you have to offend the least amount of people and impress the most at the same time. Never wear something questionable on Day either. Because if it is awkward you are going to be spending time thinking about that instead of getting the hang of things. Plus old secretaries judge everything by the first impression. And in gov’t, there tends to be a lot of tenure for those assistant positions.

  7. I have a gray vest similar to the one pictured and I have NO CLUE how to style it. Any tips ladies?

    • dark grey? you could do a bright button down, black pants, nude/black, hair up, earrings. Neutral other color gray button down and a black skirt with accent shoes or accent necklace.

  8. I think those of us who don’t usually venture out of the black/grey/navy suit ensemble might benefit if the guest posters would provide links to the more adventuresome examples they are suggesting. I know a lot of posters had trouble with a concept that Kat often referenced (the turtleneck under a dress look). Some of us also had problems visualizing the dress under a skirt look that was suggested a few posts back.

    There are several fashion bloggers who have successful examples of such looks on their blogs that might help some of us get past the “oh that could never work” mindset. True, some of us can’t push the envelope with our professional wardrobes (or don’t want to), but some of us could if shown how.

  9. Anne Shirley :

    Kind of love this whole post. My wardrobe is full of cute things I love, but I’m somehow bored day to day. I would never do all red, but all purple with The Skirt will be making an appearance on Friday.

    Now if only I could figure out what to wear (other than skinny jeans) with my flat knee high leather brown boots on weekends. Sigh

    • What about pairing your boots with shorts or a skirt and tights? If you pick fabrics that read “autumn” (think denim, corduroy, wool) they’ll coordinate well with leather.

      Something like this:

  10. The advice to “spend 20 minutes playing around in your closet some evening” and try pairing one item with another until you see “what sings to you” is genius stuff! This holds true for building *any* kind of wardrobe, work or otherwise.

  11. i love all of this advice and it reflects a lot of my wardrobe and styling approach (except monochrome red–through i have a lot of success with monochrome blue and monochrome purple looks)

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