Capsule Wardrobe: Low-Maintenance Office Style

Capsule Wardrobes Corporate Fashion Fashion Advice

When you work a full-time job that doesn't pay you crazy bucks, your life is different from many of the fashion advice pieces in magazines and on the internet. Dry cleaning can be mad expensive. The idea of hand washing garments will cause such intense laughter tears will come to your eyes and you'll clutch your stomach. Ain't nobody got time for that. It sounds well and good to spend a lot and buy the highest quality pieces you can find, but if you don't have the lifestyle to pay for, care for, and maintain those clothes it's not realistic or sustainable OR smart spending.

Sure, it's great to want quality over quantity. To baby your clothes so they last forever. But let's face it, not all lives can maintain a high-maintenance wardrobe. Below is a capsule wardrobe showing your clothing can be lower maintenance but still chock-full of style and professionalism. This is a capsule wardrobe for an office environment that allows a bit of denim when balanced with professional pieces or on Casual Friday, but it's easy to remove the denim (or if your office allows, add a bit more). Below the capsule wardrobe, I share tips on how to have a wardrobe that can survive a fast-paced lower-maintenance life with plenty of style and polish.

Capsule Wardrobe: Low-Maintenance Office Style

Shop similar items:
Black Ponte suit jacket (plus option) | Black Ponte suit pants (plus option) | Ivory ponte blazer (plus option) | Denim jacket (plus option) | Colored ankle pants (plus option) | Grey ankle pants (plus option) | Dark straight leg jeans (plus option) | Matte jersey wrap dress (plus option) | Ponte knit tweed dress (plus option) | Black ponte dress (comes in a nice range of sizes) | Black machine washable blouse (plus option) | Silky tee (plus option) | Feminine silky blouse (plus option) | Breton knit top (plus option) | Merino v-neck sweater (plus option) | Merino long cardigan (plus option) | Merino turtleneck (plus option) | Square silky scarf | Pendant necklace | Ankle boots | Kitten heel pumps | Loafers | Leather tote

This capsule is a guide, not gospel and I cannot guarantee the exact items are available for purchase. The links above are for similar concept items either in regard to color or silhouette. Below are sample outfits created by this capsule wardrobe.

Outfits Created from the Capsule Wardrobe:

Click on any thumbnail graphic in the gallery to see the full-size images and descriptions. Hover over the images to find arrows to advance and go back within the gallery. If there's an ad in the way, x it out to read captions. Click the X at the top right of an enlarged image to close the gallery and return to this blog post.

Tips to Maintain a Low-Maintenance Office Wardrobe

Merino Wool is Your Friend

I know some of you are allergic to wool, but if you're not I recommend you check out 100% merino wool sweaters. They're tightly woven, have a bit of stretch, a nice professional finish, not too thick to wear under items but thick enough to look nice layered over items. Merino wool takes dyes nicely so color is rich and saturated. Merino wool will resist stains (often that spill will bead up before it sets into the fibers), wicks away moisture (great for those like me who easily get warm), resists odors, and is far easier care than most other sweaters. I will wash my merino sweaters on the gentle cycle in lingerie bags. I fill the machine halfway with clothing but have enough water for a full load so the clothes have plenty of space to float and rinse and not get twisted. Then I hang dry my merino sweaters.

Shop Merino Wool Sweaters:

Tip: If you hang your sweater to dry on a traditional hanger, it will usually cause bumps in the shoulders and sometimes an uneven hem. Hang the sweater over two pant hangers, with one under the armpits and one a couple inches from the hem. This way it's practically drying flat yet it up on a shower curtain rod or other place out of the way.

Ponte Knit is Your Friend

Oh Ponte, I love you so much. I'm wearing you as I type this. When I started this blog, Ponte (also known as Ponte de Roma knit) was not as well known. The world has caught on to its majesty and now you can find ponte everywhere from Target to Saks. What's cool is the quality of ponte isn't drastically different at these locations, it's more down to manufacturing, cut, and style. I've worn cabi ponte with Vince Camuto ponte with LOFT ponte with J.Jill ponte and the fabrics work together nicely (though don't expect the blacks to match, consider mixing with different colors or throwing in a pattern). But ponte is a dense knit that has a smooth refined finish but when worn feels like yoga pants. Like Merino wool, ponte can survive the gentle cycle and a line drying without being destroyed. Ponte dresses are amazing; they can look really professional, are thick enough that they don't show every bump, are easy to care for, and launder nicely. A couple ponte sheath dresses with a variety of necklines (Calvin Klein makes some great ones at great prices) and one or two ponte jackets and you're ready for that next board meeting even if you slept through your alarm.

Shop Ponte Knit Workwear:

Tip: Even if that structured ponte blazer says it's machine washable I don't recommend it. Anything with structure like a blazer will be altered by a tumble in the washer. Spot clean, but take it to the dry cleaners when it needs a proper cleaning. If it's part of a suit, do not wash the pants or skirt in the machine while you dry clean the jacket; the two will eventually be different colors. This is when you should take your ponte to a professional.

Matte Jersey is Your Friend

There's a lot of fabrics out there that claim to be matte jersey but they're more clingy, shiny, and not as professional. Matte jersey is a stretchy synthetic knit that has a subtly nubby crepe-like finish and like the name, is matte, not shiny. This fabric is very popular for wrap and fit-and-flare style dresses, but many retailers will also sell separates in this fabric. I once owned a tank, tee shirt style dress, pull-on pants, long cardigan, and ¾ sleeve boatneck top all out of the same color of matte jersey and it was the most versatile capsule. It's a great fabric because it doesn't cling, dresses up and down with ease, is washing machine-friendly, and resists wrinkles. Like ponte, matte jersey can be found at all price levels of retailers and often an Old Navy matte jersey shell will coordinate nicely with a Boden matte jersey skirt.

Shop Matte Jersey Workwear:

Ankle Pants Are Your Friend

Ankle pants are amazing because they can work with a variety of heel heights. Pumps, flats, and everything in between will work with a pant that hits around your ankle bone. Tailor any longer pants to the length that works best with your favorite heel height, but if you like a varied shoe wardrobe, consider ankle pants for a quick pairing with any of your footwear wardrobe.

Shop Office-Friendly Ankle Pants:

Synthetics Can Be Your Friend

While they're not as breathable and many can end up looking too cheap for the workplace, some synthetics can be your friend. I have a black blouse that at first glance looks like silk, second glance looks like crepe, but it's a 100% polyester shirt I got during an Ann Taylor sale (see me wear it in this blog post). It has great drape, looks great tucked in or left out, under a blazer or on its own. All that and unlike silk, can be thrown in the washing machine.

Shop Machine-Washable Blouses for Work:

Tip: Steer clear of shine. If the fabric is shiny, pretending to be satin, or has any sort of sheen leave it at the store. Shine will make synthetics look even more cheap, and shine isn't a smart option for the office.

Think in Threes

When you add something to your professional wardrobe, I don't care how much of a bargain it is, you need to envision it working three different ways with what is already in your closet. Oh this blouse would look great with my black suit, with my blue cardigan and ivory trousers, and with my denim jacket and blue ankle pants for Casual Friday. Even dresses you need to think in this way – it will go with my black pumps and my purple pendant necklace, with my teal cardigan and black suede ankle booties with black tights, and with my black leather moto jacket and grey suede ankle booties on the weekend. If it doesn't have enough versatility for three different outfits, it will only add chaos to your closet.

Have a Base Neutral

For me, black is my favorite base neutral. A pair of black pumps, some black ankle booties, maybe a black loafer or flat and they go with my whole work wardrobe. Black ankle pants, a black pantsuit, a black sheath dress, another black blazer, a black shell, a black blouse. From this I can add color, texture, pattern. And heck, when I want to I can throw on that black blouse with those black ankle pants, add an interesting shoe or necklace or belt (or maybe two of the three) and look pulled together and professional without a lot of thought. When you have one base neutral, you end up spending less. It's like the thinking in threes concept; when you shop you're always thinking if it works with your base neutral. You can have more than one base neutral, and black does NOT need to be one of them. Navy, brown, gray, olive, ivory, camel… depending on your personal style and coloring any of these could be great options or a combination of them.

Buy for a Season, not a Day

You're sick of your wardrobe, you had a bad day, everything is dirty, you're feeling bloated and you go to the mall or the online store and just buy anything to get you through the next week. Been there, done that, always regretted it. Often the item doesn't really fit your personal style or your figure, it spends money, and it creates chaos in your wardrobe. More clothes doesn't equal better. When you have, you often reach for an item even when you don't like it, it's not appropriate, or not flattering. You try to justify it, and in the words of Tim Gunn, make it work. All this effort, all these mistakes, all these days where you don't love what you wore because you bought something to just get through. Honestly, just wear those same pants again, I swear no one who matters will notice.

Keep Prints to a Minimum

Prints can quickly look dated, to an educated eye can be quickly seen as a copy of a designer pattern, are more memorable, and often can look cheaper. Nine times out of ten, a solid-colored budget dress will look more expensive than the same exact dress in a print. While a few prints will add interest and personality to a wardrobe, too many and it may give off the wrong effect.

Invest in Lingerie Bags

Lingerie bags are mesh bags usually around 12″ square (some larger, some smaller) that zip closed. While used to keep underwear and other delicates from getting twisted around larger garments in the wash, they're great for other parts of your wardrobe. Anything that could get misshapen in the laundry can go in a bag. I now own a handful of these bags in a variety of sizes and use them to hold sweaters, blouses, knits, and more. I can easily have a wash with just five lingerie bags swimming around together.

My Must-Have Laundry Care Items:

Tip: If there's stains on the garments, spot clean those before putting in a lingerie bag. When in a bag, the item doesn't agitate as much and stains may instead get set in when washed in this manner.

Have a Bag in Your Closet

I keep a reusable tote at the bottom of my closet. When I take off something that is stained or damaged, I shove it in there. Then either once a month or when the bag is full, I grab it and throw it in my car to drop off at the cleaner's along with other errands. This sounds so obvious, but having the bag already there reduces steps and makes it easy to grab and go. Sure, dry cleaning costs money, but often the issue is time. If you can grab the bag without effort on the way to the office, it makes it easier to drop it off at lunch or on the way home.

If you have an additional tips, do share them in the comments below!

Shop the Capsule:

35 Comments

35 Comments

  • JAMIE June 20, 2018

    This is a truly wonderful website. I love how you provide links to the clothing shown. Big thank you for all your hard work!

  • Grette February 25, 2018

    Wonderfully practical post! Thank you!

    One tip for buying clothes from a skin tone color specialist: when you’re in the dressing room (or even after you’ve got an item home) always spend some time looking at your skin (in particular your face), as well as at the actual garment. If you can, try on the item without makeup. If it enhances blemishes on your face, brings out the circles under your eyes, and makes you look older, DON’T BUY IT! You will always feel like you don’t look your best, and you won’t wear it often enough to make the purchase worthwhile.

    This applies more to tops and scarves than pants and skirts. Still, the older you get, the more you’ll want to wear colors that make you look your best.

  • Lizzy February 21, 2018

    Thank you so much! This really is one of your best posts!
    The capsule wardrobe is completely my style (except I don’t wear denim, but like you said these pieces can easily be left out). It is so important to have a business wardrobe that is easy to care for. I don’t have the time or money to frequently take my clothes to the dry cleaner. And they will need regular cleaning since I live in a rainy climate and commute by public transport.

    When you quit your office job to become a full time blogger and along with it your style became more casual, I was a little worried you won’t write about office styles as much anymore. So glad to see I was wrong!
    Thank you!

  • Bridget February 20, 2018

    This is great! Thanks for sharing.

  • Alex February 8, 2018

    What an INCREDIBLY useful post — thank you!

    A question about sheath ponte dresses: I love them dearly, but in the winter, over tights, they cling and climb. And anti-static sprays don’t do the trick. Any useful tips to make them stay put?

    • Lizzy February 21, 2018

      Wear a slip under them!

  • BA February 8, 2018

    I love reading your capsule wardrobe posts but this is the first time I’ve actually wanted to try one. “Low maintenance” speaks to me, LOL!

  • Mrs.M in MI February 7, 2018

    I’m a big fan of Dryel. I can’t make it through Michigan winters without head-to-toe wool, I have two toddlers, and my office is on the business end of business casual. You have to spot clean first, but Dryer is great for a refresh without too much agitation.

    I also am in the habit of wearing my nice work clothes at home as little as possible, and when I do (mornings) I keep them covered by a bathrobe. It ain’t pretty, but it’s better than yogurt splatters on my nice work pants!

  • Chris February 6, 2018

    Allie,

    I’ve noticed that Ponte is not always a mixture of the same fibers or the same percentages of fibers. What is your preference for Ponte fibers and percentages of each?

    Same questions for matte jersey.

    Thanks!

    • Alison Gary February 6, 2018

      I’ve never measured, I just gauge what looks best for the purpose. I don’t mind a lighter weight Ponte dress, and then want it thicker for pants or a jacket. Matte jersey, it’s also dependent on the item, and how well it drapes.

  • Marian February 6, 2018

    Allie, I love your blog, especially this real world approach to dressing and caring for clothes. While I am a well paid professional (physician), I must have a hospital friendly wardrobe and you nailed it!!!! So refreshing to not see Gucci shoes, YSL bags, fragile fabrics such as all silk, cashmere and dry clean only. Thank you.

    • Alison Gary February 6, 2018

      Gosh I’d love to have a wardrobe of all that, but it costs way more than the price tag to maintain!

  • Missy G. February 6, 2018

    Love this post so damn much! Your intro paragraphs described my current office/wardrobe situation exactly, and I will be in the hunt for a few new items to add in the late spring. I bookmarked this as help! Thank you!!

  • Alison French-Tubo February 6, 2018

    Just want to add, that if you are someone who HAS to wash everything after one wear, because you are clumsy/messy or have oily skin, that if you have ever have a choice to use or acquire a front loading washing machine, do it! They are SO much gentler on fabric and the spin gets so much water out (even on delicate cycle) that air- drying happens more quickly. signed, 17 years of front-loader use reinforced by now using a low-water top loader that rubs the fibers together so much that the amount of lint produced is insane…

    • Alison Gary February 6, 2018

      Thanks for this! I have an old top-loader and am far more cautious for the reason you mention!

  • Melissa February 6, 2018

    Love this post. I work in a business casual law firm, and have 3 big slobbery dogs — machine wash is a must! I also think this is a good capsule for my office because it reflects a pulled together but relaxed kind of business casual vibe that would work in my world where all my male counterparts wear khakis and polo shirts…

  • Sara February 6, 2018

    Thanks for a post that has so many actionable tips. In terms of laundry, I would suggest a few of my own tips, based on the fact that washers and dryers provide a LOT of the wear and tear that your clothes are suffering through.

    First, while I wash shirts, socks, dresses and panties after each wearing, I only wash bras, skirts, pants and tights after every 3-4 wearings (unless they seem to need it more often).

    Second, cold water delicate wash and hanging to dry will vastly extend the life of your workwear, keeping colors brighter and fabric more intact. Hanging to dry does add time to the regimen, though, so I understand if people decide it’s not worth it; do at least wash more things in cold water with eucalan or woolite or another delicates detergent.

    Third, in terms of saving money, lots of clothes labeled “dry clean only” are actually fine to wash on the delicate cycle and hang to dry, saving you a lot of money and getting clothes back in wardrobe circulation faster. experiment at your own risk, but my theory is that if it’s a choice of wearing it only twice a season because it’s sitting in a bag waiting to go to the dry cleaners or sitting at the dry cleaners waiting to get picked up, vs. wearing once or twice a month or more because it can be laundered with your other delicates, it might be worth trying to launder it to see (and those lingerie bags help too).

    Finally, if your office requires more dressier wear, a steamer may be a good investment to get wrinkles and smells out — it is almost a mini dry cleaners in your own home.

  • Sara February 6, 2018

    Love this capsule! I can’t quite picture how you are hanging your merino wool to dry; might you be willing to post a photo of this on social? Thanks! Sara

    • Alison Gary February 6, 2018

      I shared some images on InstaStories, hope they help!

      • Sara February 7, 2018

        Just viewed it…THANKS! Sara

  • Kiley February 6, 2018

    YES! This is exactly what I need right now!!! I am also a FT working mom of three boys. I am struggling with the baby weight after kiddo #3 and have been trying to put together a wardrobe that is flattering and makes me happy without breaking the bank. I have been toying with putting together a capsule wardrobe but didn’t know where to start. I will start here! this is my favorite post yet! Thanks so much!!!

  • Sonia February 6, 2018

    I love this wardrobe capsule not just for the versatility and ease, but because it looks like you’ve peeked into my closet! I love wearing black outfits for work or dressy occasions. Working in Midtown NYC, wearing black is a rule of thumb however, like your capsule shows, I love to add a pop of color by pairing my suits with pops of color or my favorite striped shirts. I’ve learned to love ponte dresses from your previous posts and wear them whenever I have an upscale business event or dinner engagement. I own two jean jackets that I pair with a top and black slacks or khakis in the summer. Skinny pants and leggings are also a necessary staple in my closet, while pointed flats and low heels complete my look. Your wardrobe capsules are the best.

  • Heather February 6, 2018

    Totally agree with Trista above, I’ve been reading since before Emerson was born, this is one of the best ever! Followed closely by the advice for women in politics. That piece translates to so many professional (or volunteer) positions that have to deal with the public on a regular basis.

  • trista February 6, 2018

    I’ve been a regular since before Emerson and this is one of the best posts ever.

  • Elin February 6, 2018

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I could happily buy every garment in the wardrobe, with a few tweaks, and a few omissions – only because I have those items! I really appreciate this post – I feel like it was written just for me! Love the solids, and accenting with scarves, etc, which will personalize this look. And maintenance on garments while momming three kids and working full time is a real consideration. Seriously adding lots of this to my shopping list.

  • Alice February 6, 2018

    “but if you don’t have the lifestyle to pay for, care for, and maintain those clothes it’s not realistic or sustainable OR smart spending”

    THANK. YOU.

    A podcast I listen to had this whole thing about how terrible fast fashion is – and while I agree on some points, not everyone can spend $250 on a cashmere cardigan and wear it around their infant every day! It made me so mad. Buy quality when you can, but make the wardrobe that works for you and don’t listen to anyone who says you “have to” buy anything in particular.

    • Alison Gary February 6, 2018

      Amen! In the words of another podcast (Pop Fashion), “Make the best decision for your circumstances.”

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