Work It: 13 Office-Appropriate Ways to Update Your Professional Wardrobe, Pt. 1

When I was a Seattle Times intern in Olympia in college, I had two pairs of work pants: one pinstriped, one black. I also had two pairs of work shoes: a pair of horrid black loafers with white topstitching and knee-high black boots with weird square witch toes. I would team the two pairs of shoes and the two pairs of pants with my two work coats — a black leather jacket from the Capital Mall and a beige cotton coat from the Nordstrom juniors’ department. Essentially, I wore the same outfit every other day, with a smattering of different tops from mall stores catering to teenagers. Though I was admittedly facing three years of law-school-induced poverty, I also didn’t understand at that point in my life that the “dress to impress” theory applied outside of the Fremont bar scene.

Fast forward a “few” years, and — even with an income that allows for shopping at places other than the TJMaxx clearance rack — it is still quite easy to fall into a work wardrobe rut, especially since we work in a relatively conservative profession. The path of least resistance, which is paved in boot-cut “work pants,” button-down tops with collars that have to be ironed to stay flat, and serviceable pumps in neutral colors, is a tempting one.

But all is not lost! Hope is available in the form of a few tweaks that can modernize and distinguish a working woman’s wardrobe. These suggestions could, with the right tweaks, potentially work for ladies of all ages. (Caveat: What works for some of us may not work for, or appeal to, others. Like celebrity crushes, personal style, comfort level, and work environment vary for everyone.)

Metal stud braceletHeavy Metal. Studs, exposed zippers and chain details in restrained amounts can add an edge to an otherwise tame outfit. Gold accents are especially trendy right now. (Feeling timid? Try a matte or antiqued finish, rather than polished.) Practical tip: Take potentially noisy items for a test run before purchasing. Metal details like zipper pulls on boots and chain-link bracelets can jingle like a holiday song as you walk the office hallway.

Belt It Out. When you aren’t wearing a suit jacket, tucking in loose-fitting tops can look outdated and keeping them tucked in can be a challenge. But leaving shirttails hanging out can look sloppy or too casual. I have solved the age-old crisis of how to wear blousy tops by belting things at my natural waist. Adding a belt can also freshen up dresses and tops that have been lurking in your closet for a while. (Fit tip: many women’s belts now have an adjustable slider in the back, making it much easier to find the right fit.)

Infinite Possibilities. Infinity scarves in lightweight fabrics add some warmth and interest to a work outfit. They function as a sort of fluffy necklace, and you don’t have to fuss around with them like regular scarves and try to figure out what to do with the ends. They also help conceal a low-cut neckline for a more professional look. Because I am impervious to accessory overkill, I wear an infinity scarf with a long necklace peeking out underneath. (Stores are pushing fancy-looking faux-fur infinity scarves this winter. While I absolutely love the concept, I know that I personally would look like I was wandering around town with my cat wrapped around my neck.)

Quilted leather jacketFaking It. These days, if a piece is not trimmed in faux leather, it is probably not for sale. The real stuff is expensive, doesn’t sufficiently withstand Washington rain, and doesn’t stretch or move as well. I stick with leather shoes, though, since they breathe better and are more comfortable. Skip all-leather tops or bottoms for the office, unless you can pair them with a more traditional piece to balance the look. Quilted faux (and real) leather is great because it creates pattern and texture without adding a busy print to the mix.

Animal Magnetism. Spots, scales and stripes are all the rage right now, but be careful about going wild with animal prints and looking like something you would photograph on a safari. My rule of thumb is to steer clear of prints that look too much like the actual pelt of a real animal (e.g., I keep my black-and-white zebra stripes on party dresses). I try to stick with muted prints in toned-down colors, unless I am feeling particularly flamboyant or the amount of print is limited — say, on a shoe rather than a whole dress.

Statement necklace on modelMake A Statement. Colorful, chunky necklaces are everywhere right now at all price points. (I have seen great ones at wallet-friendly places like H&M and Ann Taylor Loft.) Statement necklaces are an easy way to add interest to an otherwise dull outfit without having to make a serious investment. And there are lots of daintier options for those who find a big necklace overpowering. (Style tip: Long necklaces are lengthening. I wear them on those “I’m feeling stumpy” days.)

In part 2, we’ll get into winterizing your wardrobe and confront the horror of the dreaded skinny pant.