First, as with all advice, you can take it or leave it. My street cred (desk cred?) in this area is that I’ve worked as an administrative assistant in “business casual” offices for the last five years or so. Business casual is a trap. It is neither business nor is it casual, especially if like I did you live in a town where a Northface pullover is appropriate opera attire. Business casual is a labyrinth of confusion that can lead to clogs–sorry, clog lovers, I am not among you!–or alternately, shoes that pain you whenever you shift weight to answer a phone call. There is a happy medium, in my opinion, and here is what it is:
- No one cares about your pants. No one will notice if you only have a couple pairs of pants on rotation, I swear. Find a pair of black, a pair of grey, and a pair of brown or khaki that fit you well and are comfortable. I also recommend finding at least one pair of fake-nice pants–knit pants that look like they could be real trousers unless you really inspect them–in whatever color you wear the most. These are for days when you just don’t give a shit. If they’re good fakes, these days can be every day and no one will know. NY&Co. is a good place to get those. I have them in black and grey. Don’t think too much about trend cuts when it comes to pants, just invest in the cut that looks good on you and you should be fine, even if you’re wearing straight wide pants and everyone else is in jeggings.
- If you’re into skirts, get a couple of “statement” skirts that you can wear with plain tights and tops. That sounds like such a ladymag thing to say, but they really are useful. I have a leopard print pencil skirt (+ black flats and a black sweater = instant outfit), and a vintage plaid circle skirt in jewel tones.
- Make tops the bulk of your closet. Like I said, no one actually notices what pants you’re wearing. You can wear the same black pants with a different top every day, and as long as the pants fit you well and the top is interesting you look like you tried. Plus, generally they’re cheaper. Get rid of everything you no longer wear at the end of each season so you can add new ones to the rotation.
- Cardigans and jackets are your friend. They can dress up a look, add color, and make it easier to layer in an office where the thermostat is constantly menopausal (aren’t they all?).
- Build your wardrobe around a set of colors that look good on you. If you see a top that’s awesome but doesn’t match anything you have, don’t buy it. Even if it’s awesome, it’s just going to turn into that thing in your closet you feel guilty for never wearing. (Hello, shiny silver paisley print drapey goddess shirt o’ mine. Give my regards to the gold silk sheath dress.) If everything you have matches most of the rest of what you have, getting dressed in the morning is easy even when half your clothes are dirty, or the piles in which you swear you know where everything is seem to have eaten your black v-neck sweater.
- Make checking clearance racks a habit. You never know when something cute is going to be $5. If you resell last season’s trendy tops, you can recirculate that money back toward the clearance rack. Places like T. J. Maxx are great for bargain hunting, but you have to prepare yourself to sort through a lot of crap to find the gems. If you are the kind of person who has to be dragged out shopping, bring a buddy to help you make fun of the truly heinous designer castoffs. It’ll make the time go faster, and you have an automatic second opinion.
- As far as shopping goes in general, try to break yourself out of caring about size. If it fits, it fits. Something that fits is going to look better than something that’s too small. Try on things you like in a range of sizes. Maybe it will work best a little oversize and belted, you know? Nobody says you have to wear it the same way the mannequin does.
- Personally, I tend to favor big earrings, but remember that sometimes less in more. If you’re wearing an intricate top, it’s probably best to keep your accessories fairly simple. Choose what part of your outfit you want to feature, and make sure nothing is competing for attention with it.
- In jewelry it’s of course completely fine to have a signature look, but you should have some pieces to mix it up as well. Like one long necklace that you can wear full length or double up, or one so-ugly-it’s-awesome cocktail ring.
- Invest in at least one pair of U CAN’T TOUCH THIS shoes. A pair of shoes that you could wear with a paper bag and people would still fawn over. This pair of shoes is your emergency brake. Meeting with your boss and you’re hungover? Emergency shoes. Fight with your parents over your lack of direction in life kept you up late and all you want to do is eat Chex Mix and watch Golden Girls, but you have to work? Emergency shoes. Mine are a pair of peep toe red and white houndstooth pumps with little red buttons up the side. This is an item that you shouldn’t feel guilty about spending some money to get what you want. After all, they’re your safety net.
- You also want a couple of pairs of seasonal transition shoes for when you are shit tired of the weather, but you still have to dress for it. For instance, a pair of closed-toe pumps in a spring color, or a some open weave flats in an autumn color.
- I feel like with shoes if you’re aiming for a mix and match wardrobe, the best way to go is simple with subtle details to give them a little kick.
Assorted Other Notes and Unsolicited Advice:
- Generally, if you hadn’t guessed, what I suggest you go for is a mix-and-match approach to your wardrobe. If one shirt you love comes in three colors that you love? Wait until it goes on sale and buy it in every color. Be ruthless about things in your closet that you don’t wear for any reason. If it was expensive and you hate to get rid of it? Sell it, trade it, gift it. If it has sentimental value, but you don’t feel comfortable in it, don’t let it be a temptation. Put it in a box on your top shelf. Out of sight, out of your way, out of mind. What’s the point of wearing clothes that don’t make you feel good?
- Develop one makeup look for every day, and try to get your routine down to a science. You shouldn’t have to agonize over your eye makeup in the morning. Create another couple of fun looks to use when you need to feel made up. That way you can expend just a tiny bit more effort and feel infinitely more put together.
- Don’t let your clothes wear you. If the trend is bright colors, and you’re not a bright color person, don’t do it! You don’t have to. Don’t feel compelled to do anything you don’t want to do. Try to let your closet simplify rather than complicate your life.
Of course, currently I’m back in school, unemployed, and trying to remember how to dress like a student at a hippie liberal arts school. So far what I’ve worked out is: skinny jeans, rotating oversized t-shirt, rotating cardigan, giant sunglasses.
Any advice for those operating under the tyranny of business casual, or for me, floundering in the sartorial abyss of barefoot casual?