Effortless Anthro’s Building Your Workwear Series Part 1: Intro & The Basics

It’s time for the Summer 2013 Building Your Wardrobe series! This time around I’ll be tackling a tricky topic: workwear!

I get emails all the time asking me how to work Anthropologie into a work wardrobe, and I’ll be addressing that from a high level in this series. But the true purpose here is to help people who are either first building, rebuilding or looking to refine their work wardrobe. Thinking from the ground up. I’ll expand beyond just Anthro out there into the world. I’m keeping budgets in mind here and trying to mix in budget brands along with midrange retailers here. I may mention luxury brands every so often as well as I do love them, even though it takes me a little longer to save up for those items! Don’t worry about missing out on your regularly-scheduled Anthropologie, I’ll still have all the posts you expect throughout the week! This series will run 1-2x per week.

In your wardrobe not all items are created equally. The biggest mistake I see (and the most common mistake I myself make) is investing too much disposable income in the parts of our wardrobe that should be like dressing and not enough on the basics — the protein, the sustenance, the biggest building blocks onto which everything else we wear should be placed.

I like to think of my wardrobe like a pyramid. Perhaps the food pyramid — you’ll probably notice me referencing food a lot because I was taught how to style in that context. I know the food pyramid is now outdated as a health standard but it works for this purpose.

The work wardrobe pyramid looks something like this:

There are a few different ideas and concepts here but I hope what mainly comes across is that you should own the most of the blocks at the bottom of the pyramid and less of each step up. You should more of ‘the basics’ than anything else. You should have fewer bags than shoes and pattern should be the smallest part of your closet. You may be wondering how to make pattern the smallest part, and how you can balance an abstract idea like prints against something more concrete like jewelry. Don’t worry, we’ll cover it all over the course of the series.

We begin with the basic building blocks of your work wardrobe. Just like your diet begins with an abundant mix of vegetables and fruit, your work wardrobe should begin with a plentiful selection officewear basics. They may not be as fun as your accessories (dessert and spices), they may not be as flashy as your printwear but if you don’t have a good assortment of foundational wear you’ll find that your closet in constantly in churn.

Remember that this is the biggest block of our pyramid, the bottom support step. Therefore this is the longest list and the most substantial.

1 lightweight wool dress in black, navy or grey
1 thicker wool dress in black, navy or grey
1 midweight dress in black, navy or grey
1 pencil skirt in black, navy or grey
1 a-line skirt in black, navy, grey or dark uniform denim
1 pair of lightweight pants in black, navy or grey
1 pair of jeans (skinnies, trouser jeans, etc.) in black, uniform dark blue or indigo w/copper stitching
1 pair of thick pants in black, navy or grey
1 white silk blouse — NOT sheer!
1 cotton blouse in black, navy, grey or white
1 cardigan in black, navy or grey
1 cashmere sweater or cardigan in black, navy, grey, white or cream
2 pairs of pumps in black, navy or grey
1 pair of flats in black, navy or grey
1 pair of tall leather boots in black or dark brown
(Want a checklist version of this list? Email me!)

Is that enough to make a complete closet? Nope. But is a solid start and from this list alone you should be able to make 5-10 complete outfits. Boring outfits perhaps. They won’t be boring for long.

One thing to keep in mind is that your office’s dress code may dictate some adjustments to this list. For example, my first jobs out of college (yeah, I had two simultaneously, yay crappy economy!) had different dress codes. My full-time day job was business casual with jeans permitted. People only wore dresses for reviews with their bosses. Clients never came through the office — it was just us employees. So as long as we weren’t wearing flip-flops or tee shirts we were fine. Chinos and such were appreciated but not necessary. My night job was even more casual. I worked on the night production team of the sports desk at a Connecticut newspaper. My coworkers were all male except for one woman in the news department and one part-timer in the graphics department. The dress code went a little something like this: not naked. Seriously. If I had worn a dress I would have been teased for either coming from a hot date that ended early or from an interview for another job. I wore Yankees jerseys to annoy my Red Sox-loving boss (he loved it, and my other Yankee-loving boss loved it even more!), shorts, tees, jeans, sneakers, sandals, flip-flops, really anything I wanted so long as it was clothing. We were too busy running around getting late scores to press to worry about silk blouses and trousers, I can tell you that much. That job was entirely too fun, I miss it!

So if the list above sounds way too fancy for your office, adjust it. A casual office environment shopping list might look more like this:

2 cotton button-down shirts in black, navy, white or cream
2 knit shirts in black, navy, white or cream
2 blouses in black, navy, white or cream
1 denim pencil skirt in a dark, uniform wash
1 a-line skirt in black, navy, grey or dark uniform denim
1 pair of lightweight pants in black, navy or grey
1 pair of jeans (skinnies, trouser jeans, etc.) in black, uniform dark blue or indigo w/copper stitching
1 pair of thick pants in black, navy or grey
1 pair of black leggings
2 pairs of shorts in chino, denim, or another non-wrinkly material
1 cardigan in black, navy or grey
1 oversized sweater in black, navy, white or cream
1 pair of pumps in black, navy or grey
2 pairs of flats in black, navy or grey
1 pair of tall leather boots in black or dark brown
(Want a checklist version of this list? Email me!)

When you’re shopping for your list, there are two ways to go about it. You can rush to one store that you know will carry all of this and buy everything regardless of fit just to get it over with. Don’t do that! If you were cooking a nice meal for someone you really love, wouldn’t you take care to pick out the nicest vegetables and fruits from the pile, or perhaps even go to a local farmer’s market or specialty store to ensure that you got the nicest, tastiest stuff? Treat your wardrobe the same way. Whether your budget is barely there or unlimited, take the time to make sure you’re getting the right fit. Don’t limit yourself to shopping at one or two stores. When I take cousins or friends or friends’ siblings or clients out shopping we do it in two phases. The first day is just going to several stores and trying stuff on — we don’t buy anything. I teach them how to look at the fit of an item, pointing out the good and the bad of each item they try on. Then after a few days’ rest we go out again and I ask my client to tell me whether the item they’re trying on is a good fit or a bad fit. And we buy from there.

Here’s an experiment I used to do with my personal shopping clients who weren’t convinced about the difference between budget brands and luxury brands. I’d take them to three stores: Banana Republic, Theory and the Celine boutique at one of the higher-end city department stores. At each store we’d try on the same three things: a pair of wool trousers, a white blouse and a blazer. We’d take photos in the dressing room for each stop.

Universally, the women would start by telling me that they felt good in the Banana Republic stuff, and loved that they could always get a deal on it. There is certainly a satisfaction to getting something for less than the sticker price. A little while later at Theory they’d notice that it was harder to figure out which pant was the right fit, but once we’d nailed it I noticed them admiring themselves in the mirror just a little longer. Another common refrain was “the buttons don’t gap!” on Theory blouses. Finally, at Celine most of my clients were intimidated to even walk in the door but once inside they could not get enough of how they looked in the complete outfit. “I feel 10 lbs lighter!” they’d say excitedly, in a pair of pants tailored to flatter a woman’s shape with a blouse significantly helped by darts and well-placed seams, and a blazer that nips in at the waist. For some women the first stop at Banana would end up being the best fit, isn’t that a nice twist of fate? But for most of us the mass market retailers serve as trial-and-error rather than truly flattering fit.

OK, I’d say at this point. Now you know what a good outfit should FEEL like. But I know that a luxury brand is not in the budget. So, how do we achieve this look from an assortment that’s within your budget? There are a few ways. The most likely way will be buying something from a mass market retailer and then tailoring it to fit. Or you can have the patience to go to several stores until you find the brand and fit that works best for you. A final way is to try on items at the nicer stores and then wait for them to hit the flash sale websites or hold sample sales if you live in a major city. I’m sure this is advice you’ve all read before — that’s because it works!

You have your list and now it’s time to shop! Right? No, not quite. When I shop it helps me to have a mental picture of what I’m looking for. I find it by surfing the web and looking for outfit photos to inspire me. For workwear I like to go to websites that have specific workwear look sections, cruise through, and try to make sense of what I see.

My favorite place to browse work looks is Nordstrom’s website. They have a complete looks section specifically devoted to work which is regularly updated. Nordstrom also does a fantastic job of mixing together budget, midrange and high-fashion brands. Even if I’m not specifically looking to buy from Nordstrom their team inspires me in terms of fit, shape and silhouette.

I picked out three recent looks to highlight. (Shop them here: Flattering Layers :: Perfect Proportion :: Sleek Shapes.) As you look through the entire complete looks page start talking to yourself. I’m serious! For each look, ask yourself, would I wear this? Does this look good? If it doesn’t look good, try to figure out why it doesn’t work. And when it does look good talk to yourself about why. Notice how the skirts are always at or right above the knee. Notice that if the look is more voluminous on top the bottom is balanced with sleek lines. Notice how sleeves are pushed, rolled or tabbed to emphasize the model’s narrowest parts.

Among the outfits on Nordy’s page you can also see some looks that don’t work so well, like this one where the top is way too floofy or this one where the dropwaist ends up making the model look like a sack. Even if you can’t see the issues with that specificity, being able to recognize when something looks flattering vs. not so much is a good thing! With practice and time you’ll learn to recognize what looks good on the models and then the next step is figuring out what works on you.

Let’s take the Flattering Layers look in the photo above. The blazer has thin lapels which nip in at the waist, and it looks spectacular on Ms. Model. But I would never buy this blazer for myself because I have a larger chest and I know from experience trying on many blazers that thin lapels end up making me look wide no matter what shape the blazer itself has. I know that I need thicker lapels to balance my chest and hips. But I can still draw positives from the photo, like how the wrap top crosses at the waist to make Ms. Model look tiny, and how the blazer’s lapels also seem to point in at the waist to further emphasize tininess. As an hourglass this is fantastic fodder for me!

If you’re a little further along in your career or want to push the fashion envelope more Nordstrom has options there too. Like right now I’m totally in love with this Eileen Fisher outfit photo for its playful tone-on-tone use of color. Though the sweater is oversized look the way it still nips in at the waist. The blouse peeking out from underneath the sweater is exactly the same width as the shorter skirt, which emphasizes long lean legs. In the winter I might wear a skirt that short since I could do tights underneath.

Even a midrange to luxury retailer like Shopbop, which also has a workwear boutique, can yield awesome outfit inspiration. I love that Shopbop utilizes neutrals and is sparing with its accessories in most of its work looks. Nothing breaks my concentration more in podland than when I hear the rattle of chain upon chain necklace chiming in beat to a co-worker’s strides or my neighbor is wearing a bunch of loud arm bangles that clack together more loudly than the keyboard keys. (And it’s hard to type with so many bracelets on, isn’t it?) Even now in my office my door is closed more often than not to drown out the noise from outside. Don’t make your outfit part of the cacophony!

In the looks above from Shopbop’s Spring 2013 workwear lookbook notice how sleek each of the looks is, even when volume is in play like in look #2. For the most part each item fits close to the body, skimming and hinting at the feminine shape beneath.

Starting with look #1, which is a little tricky for the average human to pull off, a boxy top is paired with wide-leg trousers. I’d probably swap in a more fitted top for myself but there are things to love in this inspiration shot. The angled sleeves on the top end even with the waist, which draws the eye inward and makes your top half look smaller. The trousers are very wide leg but have a tuxedo stripe which from the side creates a line that draws the eye either up to statement earrings perhaps or down to those awesome shoes you’re wearing.  Shop it: toppants.

Look #2 features lots of volume on top but notice how it’s not oversized or slouchy on the model. The top is loose but not huge and by tucking it into the skirt Ms. Model’s shape is not lost. Note that the skirt comes to knee and the v-neck on the top is deeper but not so low that decolletage is exposed. You can translate this by wearing a knit dolman-sleeve top tucked into a pencil skirt. Shop it: topskirtsandals.

In look #3 Bermuda shorts ground this workwear look in office appropriateness and the sweater will help keep us warm in the blast of that chilly office air conditioner that seems perpetually set at Arctic Chill. I’m a fan of both collar and shirt tail peeking out from beneath a sweater as shown here — the trick is that only a bit of the bottom should show beneath the sweater, no more than an inch. And if you’re peeking your shirt out by rolling it over the sweater sleeves don’t let the bottom of the shirt show too. It should only show up to twice out of three options: collar, sleeves or tail peeking out. Shop it: sweatshirttopshortswatch.

Finally, look #4 pushes us farthest with a body-hugging dress. By making the dress in a neutral, feminine color the shape is tempered and a cute peplum accent at the waist acts to further disarm. There’s a high neckline and the dress hits just above the knee, plus cap sleeves to keep things otherwise demure. I love the necklace paired with this look which has multiple tiers echoing the dress but is still done in a lighter color tone so as not to speak too dramatically. Shop it: dressnecklaceshoes.

Note: you can take an extra 25% off Shopbop sale items today and tomorrow using the code SALE25 at checkout!

If the Shopbop looks are a little tougher to grasp don’t worry! There are plenty of websites with workwear boutiques to draw your starter inspiration from. Besides the aforementioned Nordstrom you can find workwear boutiques on the websites of: J.Crew, New York & Company, Banana Republic, LOFT, Bloomingdales, and of course Anthropologie, though their definition of workwear is much looser than mine! Am I missing any? Please let me know in the comments!

Beyond the stores you can also check out outfit sites like Polyvore, Chictopia and Lookbook.NU. When you look through these sites remember to ask yourself questions. Does this outfit look good? If so, why? Is it the color combinations? The shapes? In outfits that look good where does each piece hit on the body? Does this person have a body like me? If not, would this look good on me? (You may not know til you try stuff on.) If something doesn’t look good, why not? Is an outfit out of proportion? Is something too long, too short or too tight or too loose? Try to find patterns in what looks good and what does not.

I keep a folder on my laptop of outfit inspiration. I have subfolders for categories, i.e. workwear, weekend, etc. And within it’s a slideshow mix of catalogues, model shots, product photos and street style. If you’re willing to put the work in it can be brilliant fodder for your outfits! Sometimes it’s funny to go back to past years. When I look at my 2009 folder now for instance it’s a big ol’ what was I thinking? Your tastes and styles will change over time just like fashion does. It’s what makes this habit fun…and expensive.

Now you’re ready to shop.

As you go into the stores the temptation will be there to look not at the simplest, most basic dresses but at the dresses that have a little something special to them. We are Anthropologie lovers here after all! It’s OK to purchase basics with a twist but my recommendation is to keep things as simple as possible. Maybe some pleats here or there, or a layer of sheerness on top of opaque.

Best to avoid loud statements however. What you want is to be able to mix and match these basics together in ways so that even if you wear the same item three days in a row no one but other fashionistas will know. If you choose a navy cardigan with a huge red flower on it everyone will remember that flower and it immediately becomes less versatile.

So when you’re shopping for this list, keep these three words in mind: versatility, utility and subtlety. Any details on the garment should be quiet enough to not draw attention. Sometimes it helps to see examples. Let’s take dresses, which will be the first garment I focus on in-depth in the next post.

This is an Anthropologie blog so let’s use their dress assortment for our example. Any of these dresses would be good for work. That’s why the circles overlap. But some of them would be better than others, especially when you are first assembling your wardrobe. What makes a better foundational work dress? Let’s start from the left with the ‘good’ dresses. They all have something memorable about them that makes them a little harder to rewear close together. The top-most dress has ruffles on it, the maxi dress has a striped top, the spacedye dress is two colors and the lowest-most dress has a deep neckline (cami recommended). Those tiny details might not sound like much but it’s the kind of thing your coworkers may remember. You’ll always have the one coworker who will say something obnoxious like, “hey, didn’t you wear that ruffly dress last week?” which of course yes you did but now you’re wearing it with a cardigan over it so it’s a completely different outfit! When you are first starting out in the professional world and can’t afford an entire wardrobe at once, the devil truly is in the details. Look for as few special details as possible.

In the ‘better’ bunch we’ve got a navy shirtdress on top that covers shoulders, partial arms and legs almost to the knee, a black shoulder-covering dress with a tie-back detail but also a hi-low hem, and finally a sleeveless to-the-knee shirtdress. The top two dresses might be too short on the talls among us (hi!). But if the length works on you they offer good office coverage with a fashionable twist. They’re not so sheer as to draw unwanted attention. The bottom dress keeps its’ v-neck high and the buttons simple, making for a good warm-weather option (or throw a sweater over it in the winter/chilly office). All three dresses are one solid color with no obvious patterns or details. They are more subtle than the dresses in the ‘good’ category though all are beautiful in their own way.

The ‘best’ category offers up dresses that are knee-length, fit-and-flare in shape, are almost universally flattering, and can be worn in all seasons. The top dress is a modern, chic knit piece that won’t wrinkle and has sleeves in a fun bracelet length. Notice how the sleeves end right at the waistline, flattering and drawing the eye inwards. On the left the tank dress features sturdy construction, thick shoulder straps, and a pleated skirt that balances hips to shoulders well. The bottom dress has a high scoop neckline, longer sleeves and a lace detail that makes it work in any season even though it’s black. The lace pattern is tight enough so that it doesn’t reveal too much and best of all the dress is under $100.

You can shop these dresses by clicking on the assortment below.

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Alright, I think you’re ready! You’ve got your list, you have your inspiration, and you know what to look for! So get out there and start hunting. If you’re still feeling a little lost don’t worry. Over the next several posts I’ll be digging deeper into how to shop for the workwear foundations.

It might help to see a list of stores that will help you along in your workwear hunt. One recommendation: even if your budget doesn’t allow for purchases at the higher end of fashion, I still recommend trying those items on at department stores or seeking out personal stylists in those department stores. If you’re up-front with them that you’re trying to find your best fit and are on a budget they’ll be happy to help. And you never know — I scored my first Helmut Lang top on super-duper sale thanks to a Bloomingdales stylist who set it aside for me after I’d asked for her help finding a shirt that fit.

My lists below are all keeping foundation in mind, so even though I wear brands like Helmut Lang you won’t find them listed today because they’re not a good basics brand when you’re first starting out. That fun comes later on!

At these stores, keep in mind that sizing and quality will be hit-and-miss. Two mediums of the same top may not fit the same depending on how the quality was in that run. In terms of fit it will be harder to find items that work with curves because these brands cut straight to accommodate the highest number of people. But there are still plenty of great things to find! I started my professional wardrobe at New York & Company, H&M and Target. I still make purchases at all three from time to time.

The key is to be highly discerning. Discard items that are viscose (doesn’t wash/hold its shape well), nylon (stretches out), or spandex (ditto). You can find natural materials like 100% cotton, wool and even silk at these stores. Polyester is OK when it looks/feels like silk or on items that need to breathe. Bamboo is another excellent renewable resource making its way into clothing more. Cupro, rayon, pima and jersey can be fine so long as the material is washable and feels substantial.

With budget figuring so highly into the equation here, I will turn a blind eye to stores I usually avoid like Forever 21. One of my winter coats is from there. I bought it in 2007 and it’s still going strong to my amazement. There are gems in any store. But as soon as you can afford to I recommend moving on from brands like that which use questionable manufacturing processes that ill consider workers’ rights and also have a habit of knocking off designer items, trends that are sadly socially acceptable right now.

In addition to the stores listed below, I highly recommend watching the flash sale sites (i.e. Gilt, Rue La La, Hautelook, etc.). They often have fantastic deals on workwear basics. I get Theory, AG Jeans, Calvin Klein, etc. for under $100 regularly on these sites as needed. It’s very hard to guess the quality on a website but at this point nearly every flash site allows returns.

STORES I LIKE (alphabetically): ASOSForever 21Gap, H&M, LOFT, New York & Company, Piperlime, TargetUniqlo.

Keep in mind that I live in NYC and midrange here might be high-end in other parts of the country. I’m thinking of stores where you can get items for under $300 a pop. (And in many cases far below that.)

In general, these stores have higher quality than the mass market retailers and use more natural fibers. But as this community knows all too well higher prices don’t always equal better quality. There are plenty of blogs beyond Effortless Anthropologie where you can find reviews of most of these brands’ items to help determine which ones are worth the coin and which are not.

When fit is my main concern I turn to these stores as they tend to take more care in flattering curvy silhouettes. Of course they also make pieces that are more flattering to straight silhouettes, which then don’t fit me. There is more hit-and-miss at this level.

STORES I LIKE (alphabetically): Anthropologie, Bloomingdales, Boden, Club MonacoJ.Crew, Macy’s (their renovations at their Herald Square flagship have been wonderful!), Madewell (selectively), Michael Kors (selectively), Nordstrom, Shopbop, Theory, The OutnetZara.

If your budget has reached the point where you can shop at these stores regularly, your primary concern is probably less about pricetag and more about quality, fit and silhouette. I come to these stores looking for one of two things: either the most timeless of the timeless, or the trendiest of the trendy. I go because I want other fashionistas to recognize that I’m wearing a label even if that label isn’t plastered on the item. This is where the city comes into my wardrobe through the mix of blacks, greys and whites in interesting silhouettes.

It’s also the place where a $200 tee shirt seems reasonable…and whatever parallel universe that is can also easily tempt one into overspending. Choose your purchases wisely so your friends aren’t laughing at you because Zara knocked your $1,400 dress off for $99 three months later. It will happen. Don’t settle for anything less than perfection in fit from these stores either!

STORES I LIKE (alphabetically): Barney’s Co-Op, Bergdorf Goodman, Diane von Fursternberg, DKNYIntermix, Neiman Marcus, Net-A-Porter, Rag & Bone (selectively), Singer22 (selectively).

Are you building your work wardrobe now? What kind of help would you like? What items have worked well for you? What items have been tough to find? Where do you get your inspiration from?

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