There is no such thing as morally neutral fashion, the writer Martin Amis once quipped, and anyone who works in an office knows what he means.
Success dressing in many ways is style under pressure, that delicate balance between personal flair and professional clout.
I honed my own professional dress code from many messy encounters with laddered stockings, low-cut blouses and one very strange canary-yellow linen suit bought in 1987.
My manifesto for office fashion now is simplification. Deep down, we all know which clothes make us feel strong and baby pink angora sweaters are not on that list.
Know the code
Every office has an unspoken uniform. At Vogue, it’s Monolo Blahnik. At Harper’s Bazaar, Jimmy Choo, and in a less fashionista environment, there are still subliminal sartorial laws.
Secretaries in mini skirts and company directors in suits happen for a reason. The mini skirt conveys the freedom of a job with low responsibility and even lower mobility. Unless you are Erin Brockovich, a push-up bra does not equal a pay raise or the ability to change the world.
To dress within the code of your office without feeling like a conformist drone means tweaking your personal style. At the office where I work,(an almost all-female publishing house) pencil skirts, pumps and little twin sets are the norm. Like wearing a school uniform, such deliberately egalitarian style levels out great wealth, great beauty or a great pair of legs.
Having none of the above, I wear basic little sweaters and kilts in winter and a little less skin in summer with great relief. Dressing modestly sends
out the message that you are at work to get the job done not to strut and preen. Puritan work ethic? Certainly, but a lot can be done in between a little white shirt and some navy blue shoes.
The more intellectual or powerful your work environment, the more fashion fripperies are frowned upon. Perfectly dreary but true. Chanel understood this principle and designed for women with work ethic accordingly. “Be a caterpillar by day and a butterfly by night,”‘ she chided, wearing her invisibly elegant little suits everyday.
Office chic shares that sense of focus. It is clothing that looks good but doesn’t get in the way of what you have to do and what you have to say. If you need an eccentric expression siphon it into intense little accessories: a bright red handbag with a little black dress; silver Mary Janes with a navy blue pin-striped suit; Italian stockings under a perfectly sober shift. In a somber environment, a little spice goes a long way.
I once had a boss who would double take at least once a week and ask me my name. Dressed in disco-glitter eye shadow one day and starchy suit the next, I had a tendency to disappear inside my clothes, inviting people to ask, “Who’s the new girl?” The eclectic work wardrobe might help you love Mondays, but it is downright disorienting to fuddy-duddy senior management. Unless you are a fashion stylist (who style-surf for a living), try to anchor yourself into a stable image: the most capable looking version of you.
Own one great suit
A suit you love is like armor. You slip it on and immediately feel ready for a bank manager, nasty memo or aggressive cold call session on a Monday
Buy a suit that is not too tight across the bosom or the hip. One with fabric that gives and doesn’t crease after a whole day of sitting and one that can travel across seasons. When you buy the suit also snap up two blouses and a sweater that match, stretching one outfit into three. If you are allergic to formality, buy a gorgeous floral pin and stick it to your lapel. Natty dressing can still have whims.
Dress three pay rises ahead
Dressing a few tiers above your station is not pretentious, it’s sensible. The only way bosses can imagine you in a more powerful position is to
visualize you there. Give them a helping hand by looking sleek. Interns do this all the time, looking as if they are on salary even if they are wearing a very well ironed shirt from the Gap sale rack. Smart girls.
If contemporary work style leaves you cold why not pilfer from other eras? Hollywood always went to work in style. Think of Faye Dunaway’s slick
little blouses in “Network” Try a silk tie and a waist coat ala “Annie Hall,”, or steal a great pair of pants taken straight from Katherine Hepburns closet in “Woman of the Year.”
The standard convention of a skirt stuck at mid-calf and a little silk shell under a navy blue jacket with gold buttons reminds me of TV anchor women and air hostesses. If you don’t actually perform those duties why dress that way?
Shop on weekends
Schlumping into the shops on a Thursday night to recreate a new work identity is a big mistake. Exhaustion is apt to make you buy a ghastly Laura Bush pant suit or a long beige knit dress. Try instead to shop for work clothes with the same pleasure you’d give to lingerie or shoe shopping on a sprightly Sunday afternoon. Carry magazine pages if you have to and take a friend you trust.
Get groomed for the top
Hair. Nails. Shoes. Check for these along with your keys as you dash out the door. It’s a little grooming mantra that I have yet to really master but works beautifully in businesses where people actually have to look at you. Grooming is more important than expensive clothes, it shows respect and makes you feel pulled together even if you are imploding. I always type faster after a manicure.
Encapsulate your style
I didn’t believe in capsule dressing until I went on a 15-city book tour. After that I started buying pantyhose by the dozen and sweaters in pairs.
My ultimate basic work wardrobe is built on this:
- Three black skirts (of course). One to the knee (which double as a suit skirt), one for fat days and one for evening (because last minute opera tickets cannot be refused).
- Three crush-proof white blouses.
- One great black jacket.
- Four cashmere sweaters, three cotton. (packs small, travels across seasons).
- One great sturdy handbag with a satellite for evening stashed inside.
- One print dress (vintage or otherwise).
- One pair of Capri pants.
- Ballet flats/boots/low heeled pumps.
Building your wardrobe from black doesn’t mean wearing all black. You can go hog wild accessorizing. Color is the ultimate mood lifter at work and a great way to make basically sensible dress feel sexy. I love hot pink on Mondays for energy and pale blue on Fridays for pretending to be calm. Your black skirts don’t have to feel predictable either. Try them long in a suede maxi, sensuous in a silk wrap or artsy in a an unusual fabric like chunk corduroy.