Ask Allie: Building a Professional Wardrobe Apr 05, 2011

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Hi, I'm a Stay at Home Mom returning to work after 4+ years. I'd like to purchase a professional wardrobe however, I will be really honest with you I don't have a clue where to start.

What an exciting life change for you! It is quite a change to go from your home base to an office environment and having a proper career wardrobe will be a great suit of armor to be strong during this change. Luckily, most office environments don’t expect one to don suits every day, so many pieces in your current wardrobe will probably work, just paired with different separates. However here’s a list of simple professional wardrobe basics that should help you feel prepared for your new career:


Black Trousers. A simple pair of black trousers that fit well will be a great addition to your wardrobe and will make knits already in your closet work-appropriate. This season you can find pants in almost any silhouette, so it’s easy to find one that flatters your figure.

A straight cut is the most universally flattering; I like wide tab-waistbands because they smooth the tummy and don’t look bulky under knit tops. A wider leg is a great way to balance out hips, a more trim cut is on-trend now and looks great on straighter figures. Don’t scrimp on your trousers – try to purchase the best quality, fabric, and feel within your budget. I recommend checking out the sale racks of retailers famous for great career-wear for good prices as well as good quality (J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Talbots).


Another Pair of Trousers. Gray, camel, ivory, navy, brown, plum… the color depends on your personal tastes and your current wardrobe. I find cream or ivory trousers to be surprisingly versatile with my wardrobe of black and jewel tones, however another may find brown to be the perfect pairing with their wardrobe of muted pastels and neutrals. As with the black trousers, choose quality.


Black or Gray Skirt. This skirt will do the same thing as the trousers, but give a more polished or professional feel. Look for a fabric like gabardine that is seasonless, and choose a lined version to reduce the chance of VPL or clinging. The pencil/straight skirt is a classic, however you may find a slight a-line or gathered style to be more flattering to your figure.

Look for the skirt to be very simple, free of adornments, not too tight but a flattering curve. The skirt should end anywhere from the top of your knee to the bottom – hemming the skirt to the most flattering length for you is a cheap alteration that can be done by most dry cleaners.


Tailored Blazer. With this piece, it really depends on your work environment and personal style as to which color is best. If you work in a conservative environment, it’s a good idea to purchase a blazer that matches your skirt and/or trousers so you have a proper suit. If you are in a more creative environment, a blazer in a color that you love is a versatile choice and a way to stand out in a crowd.

Wear this blazer with the skirt or trousers for a suit, pair with crisp dark jeans for Casual Friday, slip over a simple shift or sheath to transform a dress. Under the blazer, you can probably get away with many pieces already in your wardrobe – depending on your office environment you can wear quality tanks and tees; a more professional environment you can pair the blazer with refined knits and tailored shirts.

A lined blazer will give the most professional look, however if you have a more relaxed office environment and curves you may wish to choose an unlined version in a substantial fabric with a hint of stretch. Be sure to also take the blazer to the tailor to give it a custom fit.


Black Leather Pumps. With a heel height that feels comfortable to you and a simple almond-shaped toe, these shoes will be your workwear workhorses. Pair with skirts, dresses, trousers.


Work Coat. If you don’t already have one, it’s good to have a coat that is more work-appropriate. At this time of year, a simple trench is a great choice. Come winter, a wool or quilted coat that hits from lower hip to knee is a good option. This coat should hit at a length that makes it flattering with skirts as well as trousers.

Hopefully these six pieces can make your current wardrobe into something office-appropriate. Depending on your need or budget, here’s some other pieces that are Nice to Haves:

– Office Dress. I love dresses for their ease – one piece dressing! A matte jersey wrap dress with ¾ sleeves will work year-round and is flattering to most figures. If you have a more conservative office environment, you may want to choose a tailored dress in a fabric that complements your blazer.
– Jewel Neck Cardigan. A classic cardigan will give you miles of style in the office. Choose a color that makes you happy – pair with a refined knit and your skirt or trousers, or wear over a dress for a different look. A cardigan is a great way to make sundresses in your wardrobe more work-friendly by covering your shoulders and back.
– Office Sandal. Warm weather is coming – check out this article I just wrote for some ideas on office-appropriate summer sandals.
– Refined Knits. A step up from your basic tee or sweater. Merino and cashmere turtlenecks and v-necks that glide across your curves, silk knit shells and tees to wear under blazers or paired with pencil skirts and a skinny belt, sweater twinsets to wear with most everything, high-quality jersey tops with interesting details like surplice necklines or ruched sleeves. Baby these – wash on gentle and line dry to keep them looking office-worthy.

Hope this helps, and best wishes on your new job! 

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