There were many parts of my former life as a plus-size model I found difficult: dealing with rejection on a daily basis and posing for 12 hours straight in too-small shoes, to name just two. But getting dressed was never an issue. With skinny jeans and a scoop-neck tee, I could consider myself dressed for work—a feeling that ended abruptly when I left the modeling world and became a fashion writer. I wanted to be taken seriously, and I knew my usual distressed denim wouldn’t do it.
When I landed an interview at Glamour, I was so stumped that I spent hours combing street-style galleries to see what fashion editors were wearing to work. (The answer, by the way, was unexpected shapes in neutral colors.) I got the job—thank you, black jumpsuit, menswear blazer, pointy- toe pumps, and bucket bag!—but then I faced an even bigger hurdle: How to build an entire closet of editor-level looks. I’m sure you can relate to the challenge—because dressing for work has always been tough: You have to find clothes that feel good, flatter, and fit into your office culture. But these days they have to push your personal brand too, since social media has instilled an ever-present focus on marketing ourselves. What’s more, in an age when CEOs wear hoodies and lawyers sport tattoos, it’s hard to know what “work-appropriate” means. “Because of diminishing boundaries and an individuality-embracing culture taking over, the idea of what success looks like is becoming less clear-cut,” says Caroline Ghosn, founder and CEO of Levo, a leading career website for millennials. “Getting dressed for work can be hard for everyone.” In other words: The struggle is real! So I set out to decode 9-to-5 fashion in the age of Zuckerberg.
1. Hone Your Work Style
First things first, say all the experts I spoke with: Get to know your workplace’s culture. Do jeans get the go-ahead, or are jackets required? Then identify your own style. Are you a pantsuit person? A sheath-dress devotee? You don’t need to wear the same thing every day, but you do want to be consistent. I stick to menswear-inspired silhouettes, like long-line blazers and wide-leg pants, and I always try to wear a heel. A good starting place: “Ask yourself what you love to wear on your downtime, and translate that into the pieces you buy for the office,” says Saks Fifth Avenue fashion director Roopal Patel. “If you like colorful patterns, they should be part of your work wardrobe too.” Your go-to silhouettes or favorite colors could also be good building blocks.
There are, however, limits to showing your individuality, so don’t be duped by the Instagram-approved message of “doing you” 24/7—especially if “you” is a micro- mini or mesh crop top. (As a general rule, anything that requires special undergarments is a no at the office.) “Show your personality without being distracting,” advises Sophia Amoruso, founder of the e-commerce juggernaut Nasty Gal and author of the memoir #GirlBoss. “You don’t want fake eyelashes, boobs pushed up to your chin, or too-high heels. A sense of subtlety is required at work.” Amoruso’s own style evolved as her company grew: “There was a time when, because I have tattoos and wore boots to meetings, people would try to appeal to my edgy side by being unprofessional,” she recalls. Today she favors leather moto jackets that still reflect her style, but pairs them with sharp, business- owner-worthy heels. After all, she says, “I need to live up to what I am.”
Still stuck? Ask yourself how a movie character in your role would dress. (Personally, I channel Anne Hathaway post-Stanley Tucci makeover and pre-quarter-life breakdown in The Devil Wears Prada.) Finding a blend between your identity and that cultural image is the sweet spot.
2. Build Your Wardrobe
“Your essentials will depend on your work- place,” says fashion stylist Sarah Slutsky, who counts Emma Watson as a client. “But in my opinion, everyone should have an oversize camel coat, a white silk blouse, and burgundy pumps, which are less basic than black but still match everything.” If your office is formal, add blazers and skirts to the list; if it’s relaxed, basic tees and denim.
Itching to try the season’s latest trends? “The best ones to bring to work for spring are fringe and suede,” Slutsky says. “You can take them to the office in timeless shapes like a pencil skirt. I also love the new takes on workwear classics like remastered shirting: this season, white button-downs can be worn wrapped or even backward.”
And use accessories to bring your look into the here and now. A strong shoe game can update even the most basic separates. Trending right now: pointy-toe kitten heels and beribboned pumps. “People notice if you have a great pair of shoes on,” says Patel. For her, “a black 50-mm pump is the quintessential work shoe.” And if you’re not a heel fan, you’re not alone: A study conducted by the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society revealed that the more education women have, the lower the heels they wear. Two of-the-moment options: loafers and square-toe boots.
3. Nail the Interview
Job-seeking truth: Yes, the outfit matters. “I read a study once that said people make judgments within 14 seconds of meeting you,” says Toni Thompson, an executive director of human resources at Conde Nast, Glamour’s parent company. Your look can “show how prepared you are,” she says. “It’s a general thing I’ve noticed: People who take the time to pull themselves together from head to toe do better on the job.”
And do your homework: “Be aware of the industry you’re in,” says Thompson. “If you’re at a casual start-up, wearing a suit will make you stick out.” In a corporate environment, she advises a black or blue suit. Have a more relaxed job, like teaching? Try pants and a sweater. At a creative place, show your artistic chops with interesting patterns.
If you’re still not sure what to wear, try the tips at right—and these Dos and Don’ts:
- Do google the company’s leaders and take note of what they wear; that’s your starting point.
- Do sit in front of a mirror before you go to check for a too-short skirt or gaping buttons. Oh, and on skirts: If the skin on the back of your legs touches the chair, it’s an interview Don’t.
- Do carry a single bag, like a leather tote. If you must have multiple bags, arrive in time to ask whoever greets you at the door to keep any extras at the front desk.
- Don’t change into heels inside the building: You’ll risk an awkward mid-swap run-in with your interviewer. (And no heels if you don’t usually wear them— tripping’s the worst!)
4. Dress for a Promotion
Now you’ve got the job. How to keep nailing it, fashion wise? “There’s a concept in cognitive behavioral therapy called Act As If, which means act as if you are what you want to become,” says Jennifer Baumgartner, Psy.D., author of You Are What You Wear. “If you want a promotion, dress as if you already have it. What would a person with one wear?” For one thing, perfect fit: no too-baggy pants or too-tight waists. Notes Baumgartner: “We know from studies that well-fitted clothing makes others perceive us as more successful.” And keep looking at those above you for clues. At Glamour I noticed that editors tend to splurge on a few statement skirts or pairs of pants each sea- son, and wear them with simple tops. Levo’s Ghosn swears by the idea of a uniform (hers is all white, all the time; and no, we don’t want to think about the dry-cleaning bills either). “Everybody has a power outfit that gives them an incredible amount of confidence,” she says. “When I put mine on in the morning, it tells me to get in the zone.”
While my wardrobe is nearly all black, I try to incorporate a touch of color (and yes, I count navy) every day. The only problem? The nothing-looks-good-together mornings that make me almost late for work. My time-saving trick comes from Patel, who told me: “Have at least five fully styled outfits in your closet ready to go. And make sure that the pieces have been cleaned and your shoes have been shined.” Office-worthy looks that are snooze-button-friendly? I’m never turning back!
— Lauren Chan