Building a Work Wardrobe


If you work in an office, odds are the words ‘business casual’ are somewhere in your employee handbook. But what on earth does that mean, and how do I apply that to my shopping excursions? It’s a lot, I know. For perspective, it’s also a lot to manage on the HR side of things. One of the best lines from that article*, written a few years ago by an employment law attorney, is this, and I suggest you take it to heart as you go shopping for work clothes:

Employees really don’t have any legal right to self-expression in their appearance. Employers can impose dress and grooming standards and, so long as the rules are enforced consistently, require adherence as a condition of employment.

When they say ‘condition of employment,’ what they mean is ‘if you want to work here you have to do this thing.’ If you read the rest of the article, it’s largely about legal exceptions for religious, race, or gender-related reasons. If you have to dress or groom a certain way because of a medical condition or in order to adhere to your religious tenets, you can usually get a pass on parts of a company’s dress code if you run it by HR. Sadly, ‘Pants and shoes totally cramp my style, man’ is not a legal exception to following the dress code.

Now that I’ve bummed you all out, let me give you some hope: there are lots of ways to have fun with your clothes within a business casual dress code. You can absolutely put together an affordable, appropriate, comfortable, and beneficial work wardrobe for yourself, so that you enjoy getting ready for work each day.

And hey, you can always save your sequins and snake print and stilettos for non-work hours.

  1. Pants or skirts? You decide. Nowhere in a business casual dress code does it say that a female employee is required to wear a skirt – in fact, it would be illegal to put that in a company policy under most circumstances. You’re allowed to wear pants if you don’t like skirts. Just make sure they fit properly (no sagging butts or underwear showing), that they’re of nicer material (most business-casual companies don’t allow jeans), and that they’re well taken care of – get them hemmed if you’ve walked on the heels and frayed the fabric. It may take some looking, but you can even find dress slacks with pockets.
  2. If you choose skirts, choose a good length. There’s very little more embarrassing than accidentally flashing your cube-mate when you sit down, or trying to somehow scootch closer to the floor to pick something up without your underwear saying hi to the break room. Since I have long legs, I prefer my skirts to be knee-length or maxi skirts, and if they’re any shorter, I put tights or leggings under them. I work with college students, so I don’t want them coming into my office just to stare at my gams. I feel like that’s one of those ‘HR nastygram’ situations I mentioned last week. Just remember the FBAT (Fashion Bird Acceptability Test) and go for skirts that are appropriate for what you’re doing all day, and comfortable to wear for nine hours.
  3. Add color with your top. Nobody likes to feel frumpy at work, or like they have to hide who they are. If you’re a brighter personality, solid bottoms in neutral colors can be paired with bright, colorful tops to stay work-appropriate but not look boring. You can also add an infinity scarf or some statement jewelry to jazz up a muted color palette. Unless your work requires dark neutrals, don’t feel like you have to be boring to be work appropriate – just make sure your top is going to stay properly in place all day, much like you did with your skirts. Those infinity scarves can also help you out if your top has a really low neckline that may not fly at the office.
  4. Cardigans. No, seriously. Let’s face it, your office is probably cold. I know mine is. You can add warmth and professionalism at the same time by throwing a cardigan on over a work outfit. It can even dress up a plain old v-neck t-shirt, and you can wear tank tops or shells under them in the summer to stay cooler but still meet dress code. If you’re the shy or self-conscious type, wrapping up in a soft, oversized cardigan at work can help you feel a little more secure, and less like everyone’s staring at your figure, but without you bringing that dirty hoodie in to work (please don’t do that). There is very little more versatile than a good cardigan, and I recommend them for every lady’s business-casual closet. I own about ten of them, myself, but you can start with one or two in solid colors that you love and build up from there. Why solids? They’re more likely to match whatever outfit you’re wearing that day.
  5. Buy enough clothes to make it to laundry day. There’s likely something in your work dress code about grooming standards, and there’s likely something in the grooming standards about clothes not being wrinkled, stained, or torn. So if you spill your afternoon flat white on one of your three pairs of work pants on Monday, what are you gonna do? Do a load of laundry in the middle of the week? Come on, now. You need enough clothes to last your standard work week, so you’re not having to do chores after you get home from a hard day’s grind. Let’s assume you work five days a week. Assuming you do laundry once a week, that means you would need five bottoms, at least five tops, and two cardigans like I mentioned above. That’s enough for one work week, but if you pushed it to ten tops and kept everything else the same, you’d have a good, streamlined work wardrobe that you could mix up from week to week. If you make sure all the tops match all the bottoms (again, try solid-print and neutral-colored bottoms and bright/patterned tops), then you’ll save time and hassle when you pick an outfit: grab a top, grab a bottom, get dressed!

The main thing I want you to take away from this, aside from the links to really cheap clothing, is that your dress code doesn’t have to feel confining. Yes, you should make sure your clothes are clean and fit properly and aren’t going to cause you wardrobe-malfunction-related shame. But whatever your style is, find things in your preferred color scheme and design that fit those dress code rules, and make the choice to wear what you like within the dress code. Don’t settle for ill-fitting clothes that make you feel ugly or uncomfortable just because they pass work muster – that’s no way to spend 40 hours a week.

Tune in next week, where I delve into how to style leggings for a business casual office! Spoiler: you don’t wear them in place of pants.


*I’m aware that the article contains some language that comes off as ignorant toward transpeople, and I think that sucks. Please bear in mind, though, that the article is from 2011, and give the author the benefit of the doubt – she was likely using the best language she had available at the time. Thankfully, we’ve got better linguistic guidelines nowadays.

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