There’s nothing that sparks less joy for me than buying work clothes.
I’m a jeans and a T-shirt type, and seeing the word ‘tailored darts’ on a shirt’s product description makes me want to run in the opposite direction. I never felt like myself in the looks I was told was “professional,” and the idea of maintaining two separate wardrobes—one for work, and one for my “real” life—felt like overkill, in terms of money and clutter.
But over the years, I realized I never needed to buy a separate set of outfits to feel good in business casual environments. Instead, I could buy a few key pieces and mix them with my regular clothes. And mixing the two meant that I could not only infuse my personal style at work, but also still feel comfortable and confident.
So if you just landed your first desk job, congrats! But don’t blow all your money just yet.
A Peek into My Real Business Casual Work Outfits
It’s no surprise that as fashions change, and with athleisure on the rise, women have no idea how to dress for work these days. What the heck does ‘business casual’ even mean?
That’s why I find it enormously helpful to see what people actually wear to work in the real world. As I just got back from a work trip where I had to dress “business casual,” I documented what I actually packed and wore each day (with the hotel carpet in the background as proof).
Since business casual varies depending on the industry and region, some context if you’re new to the blog: I live in New York City, and I work in advertising. On regular days I show up to work in ripped jeans and no makeup, circumstances I’m forever grateful for.
To get by for those rare but important client meetings, here’s how I mixed my normal clothes with “work” pieces I already had in my closet. Note that for conservative industries, like law and finance, these looks might be too casual.
Outfits to See Outside Colleagues
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The first day was an all-day strategy session with a vendor we hired to help us with the project. The goal was to game-plan the rest of the week with the clients. I had never met the vendor in person before, so I wanted to look a little more polished than how I normally dress for work.
What I wore:
All of these items are from my regular casual wardrobe– I just put them together differently. I added the camo shirt underneath the sweater for a subtle splash of color and interest. I mean, I work in a creative industry and there’s room for some fun.
For jeans, I have several pairs of A.P.Cs, but I brought the cleanest pair with no distressing. When in doubt if jeans are appropriate for business casual, start with your most structured, darker pair, assess what other people are doing, then adjust accordingly.
Outfits When Meeting Clients for the First Time
Meeting the client for the first time face to face, I wanted to look polished, but also feel super comfortable. When I’m comfortable in my clothes, that’s when I feel confident. For comfort, I really love sweaters for work instead of tailored button-downs, and for the “professional” element, I rely on the shoes to do the heavy lifting.
What I wore:
The only true work item here is the pants. Everything else is stuff I liked and bought for my regular wardrobe.
The lighting in my hotel room was terrible, but you can sort of see the subtle plaid detail on the pants.
I also brought a blazer, because I wasn’t sure how formal my coworkers were going to dress, but then my boss showed up in Adidas Boosts, so…
I didn’t end up wearing the blazer. But here’s an outfit idea that mixes formal and casual elements:
I don’t wear fitted tops much, so struggled with what to wear under the blazer that wasn’t a button-down, but turned out that a layering T-shirt worked just fine.
On another day with the client, I decided to wear the same sweater I wore on the first day. Since the clients hadn’t arrived yet, they only saw me wear this once.
What I wore:
- Proenza Schouler sweater
- Nili Lotan button-down shirt (similar)
- Custom-made cropped pants (similar)
- Chanel slingbacks
Again, the only “bought specifically for work” item is the pants. And normally I wear the gingham button-down by itself, but I find layering it into my work outfits makes me feel a little less boring.
Casual Outfits for Meetings
After a few days, I started to feel like I could dress more casually. My everyday casual look is sweatshirts or tees with jeans or sneakers, but since this was still a client-facing meeting, I swapped the top with a button-down shirt.
As I mentioned, the jeans I brought don’t have rips or fades.
And sneakers should be simple and clean. For white sneakers, I recommend a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to remove scuffs.
What I wore:
Another option: same specs as above, but swapped the top with the previous Nili Lotan gingham shirt. Yes, I don’t see anything wrong with wearing the same clothes in the same week!
I did bring a few more options in my carry-on, but the above pieces were really all I needed for four days of meetings. Not only did I feel completely appropriate in every setting, but I’m proud that I didn’t buy anything new.
In the next few sections, I’m sharing where to spend money if you’re on a budget, key concepts for creating your own minimalist wardrobe, and stylish swaps for modern work looks.
Where to Splurge
Hopefully the above looks give you a sense of silhouettes and ways to style what you already have.
But still, you do have to buy a few pieces. If you’re working with a limited budget, where should you spend your money? Luckily, most people won’t be able to discern a cheap suit, dress, pants or even a handbag. Not everything in your closet needs to be super expensive or quality.
But there are a few key areas I think are worth spending on:
Most of us can’t wear work clothes off the rack. Specifically for me, pants almost always need to be tailored. Which is why I spent several hundred dollars having pants custom-made for me. The hem length is an obvious issue, but also the waist areas sometimes need to be re-worked, as well.
If my clothes don’t fit, I find myself spending time adjusting them, which is distracting and doesn’t exactly exude confidence.
So even if you buy a pair of $30 Express pants, tailoring can go a long way.
Then shoes, because I had a hell of a time finding professional-looking shoes on a budget price that still looked good.
But also because I believe you should spend money on functional items. Imagine manning an industry conference booth all day. Your shoes need to hold up for you, so finding a pair you feel comfortable in is worth paying for.
Fundamentals of a Minimalist Work Wardrobe
Everybody has a different style, so my office-ready outfits might not work for you. But there are a few universal concepts that will help you build your own version of a minimalist wardrobe.
1. Think versatility.
Pieces that you can only mix with one or two things should be kept to a minimum. This applies to every category: shoes, pants, tops. When deciding what to buy, ask yourself: does this go with at least three other items in my closet?
2. Focus on separates.
If you’re sticking to the true minimalist philosophy, then simple separates will go further for you than standalone pieces like dresses. Most people won’t notice if you wear the same pants a few times a week. But they will notice if it’s a dress.
3. Stick to a color palette.
This relates to item #1. If you want to spend the least amount of time thinking about work clothes, then choosing a color palette will make your life so much easier. For me, my general colors are black, grey and blue. Remember, that this doesn’t automatically mean boring. Don’t feel limited to flat solids. Add interest by mixing in patterns and textures in the same colors. Or go monochrome from head to toe.
My Modern Essentials: Stylish Swaps to Upgrade Your Work Wardrobe
At my first post-grad office job, I remember a co-worker lamenting our office dress code: “Everyone looks like such a dork in business clothes.”
Maybe that was true back then. But times have changed. There are more options out there, and like the article I linked above said, the old rules kind of don’t apply anymore. Never again will I wear a skirt suit to a job interview.
Here are my modern essential swaps for looking stylish at work.
I like cropped pants, because they work with more shoe options than full-length pants. They go with flats, heels, booties, loafers—everything! Full-length pants are hemmed for the shoes you wear them with, and a pair you have for heels will probably be too long for flats. So if the weather allows, I’m always going with a pair of crop tapered pants.
Flats are insanely popular good reason: they’re comfortable and easy to find. But have you ever considered the type of flats you choose? Being mindful about the shoe shape can instantly elevate your outfit. Round skews casual and can throw off the outfit proportions, especially if you have small feet. A tapered shape is more structured, can lengthen the silhouette, and always adds more polish.
I’m in love with flat, almond-shaped mules these days, and I think they are the perfect modern option to your everyday flats.
Dresses for Interviews
I once panic-bought a skirt suit for a job interview, felt like a kid playing dress-up, and never wore the outfit again. A total waste of money.
Over the past few years, I’ve defaulted to wearing a cool-looking dress to interviews instead. The key is the dress has to have some sort of interesting element to it. So, no plain sheath dresses. Dresses feel more modern, are easier to wear, and can be repurposed more easily for other areas of your life.
Splurge: Victoria Victoria Beckham Wool Mini Dress, $180 (20% off)
Mid-Range: Proenza Schouler Sleeveless Knee-Length Dress, $100 (20% off) – my personal pick
Budget: Magaschoni Silk Knee-Length Dress, $56 (20% off)
How do you dress for work? What is business casual like in your industry? What are your key pieces?
Featured Image: Unsplash