After two-plus years spent working remotely, mainly in our loungewear, it was difficult to know what to wear when we returned to the office. What happened during the pandemic has changed the way we think about how we dress for work - we are in a new era!
For such a long time, traditional business attire had remained stagnant. Come what may, it was suits, shirts and ties for men and fitted dresses or trouser suits with heels for women (this is still the case in some investment banks and law firms). In short, the clothes that we wore to work were clothes that most of us rarely wore in our leisure time; they were our uniform in the workplace.
Before the pandemic, industry "disruptors" were already pushing the boundaries of work dress. Start-ups and their leaders ditched suits and ties for t-shirts, jeans and trainers. In 2019, investment bank Goldman Sachs sent out an internal memo announcing the time was right "to move to firm-wide flexible dress code" while urging its 36,000 employees to "exercise good judgement in this regard." While the memo left a lot of room for interpretation, it still signalled a way out of the suits into ‘business casual’.
So even though office dress codes seem generally to be a little more relaxed than they were pre-pandemic, I still recommend to my clients that they need to separate work wear and casual wear. There is still some confusion about exactly what to wear so I think the key is to gauge the climate of your office and take note of what the standard protocol is amongst your co-workers regardless. I think you have to maintain a certain level of elegance and sophistication that is respectful of the environment you are in. You want to look polished and professional, but you also want to feel like yourself. It can be a tricky balance.
Work outfit ideas also have to tick several practical boxes: compliance with office dress codes, comfort for commutes of all lengths, and coverage for whatever the weather app throws at you when you wake up. Offices also have a reputation for being either too warm or mercilessly freezing so to combat a cold work environment you need to be prepared - have a smart jacket or blazer behind your chair. Preferably something neutral-coloured that would layer well over different looks.
Nowadays the onus is on ‘business casual’. This doesn’t necessarily mean casual—what it actually means is that you don’t have to wear a suit. It is a good way to dress if you’re unsure of what kind of environment you’re walking into since it falls somewhere between business professional and casual.
Business casual workwear can be interpreted in many ways. For women it could be a linen trouser suit worn with a t-shirt and flats, a smart pair of trousers perhaps worn with a plain t-shirt/shirt under a blazer, cardigan or jumper and some ankle boots. Or it could be a below-the-knee skirt worn with a blouse, shirt or jumper paired with loafers or ballet flats. It might even be a blazer worn with a smart pair of jeans and ankle boots. A smart fitted jumpsuit with a flat or a heel can also be a very easy solution. For men it usually means a collared shirt, or polo shirt, a pair of chinos and a jumper or a blazer. Footwear for men can range from smart trainers to the classic brogue or Oxford.
A casual office dress code is less restrictive than business casual, but that doesn’t mean you should dress as casually as you would outside of work. This type of work attire is common in creative industries and on casual Fridays at more formal workplaces. It can mean wearing trainers or more casual jumpsuits and jeans which can always be dressed up with some jewellery and some heeled boots.
This new mindset and way of dressing has undoubtedly influenced how retailers and brands approach workwear - brands like Jigsaw, Massimo Dutti, Joseph, Me+Em, Hush, Cos, Hobbs, Mango, Arket, Reiss and Cefinn now all create pieces that cater for the business casual, as well as the more casual looks.
My mantra when it comes to shopping has always been, ‘buy less, buy well and make it last’. I always suggest shopping for timeless classic pieces that will work for the business casual wardrobe whatever the weather. In theory every top should go with every bottom. It’s about quality not quantity and finding what suits you - a collection of clothes that work well together but can be worn in different ways to service multiple occasions. Once you have the basis for your wardrobe you can make regular updates with seasonal pieces that work for the different areas of your life. A classic capsule wardrobe should consist of:
- a grey and black blazer
- fitted trousers in navy, black and grey
- a white shirt
- a printed midi dress
- a black dress
- a midi-skirt in a plain colour
- a khaki or beige trench-coat
- some really good-fitting jeans
- court shoes in black and navy
- cashmere jumpers in neutral colours
- a mid-calf length overcoat in grey, black or navy
- loafers or ballet pumps in black or navy.
You can show more of your own personal style through patterns, colours and fabrics, and jewellery is also a good way to be experimental.
If you can only afford to get a few quality items for the office I would suggest investing in a beautiful bag and a pair of shoes. I think these are the pieces that others look at when viewing an outfit. A gorgeous big leather tote in black, navy or burgundy works well with everything and it can carry a laptop, notebook, wallet and a phone. It is always worth looking on vintage/pre-loved websites such as eBay, Depop, Vestiaire, Farfetch Pre-Ownedd & 1st Dibs if you’re looking for designer pieces at vastly reduced prices.
When the temperatures start rising in the spring and summer months figuring out a stylish work-appropriate outfit can be tricky. You want to be comfortable during a sweltering commute, while also not freezing at your desk when the AC is blaring. Finding looks and colours that are both easy to put together and wear can be a tall order. Here are some of my favourites, all of which will work in both corporate and creative industries and can be dressed up and down with different footwear, jewellery and attitude!
- a silky midi-skirt can be a good option worn with a white shirt and/or thin cotton sweater
- an ankle-length or midi straight or slightly flared skirt worn with a smart t-shirt and blazer and flats works well
- a strappy sandal (max 3 inches) can make any work outfit a little more dressy - generally a closed-toe sandal is smarter
- you can’t go wrong with a white shirt, wide leg trousers and a structured handbag
- a light-weight linen trouser suit can look great, worn with a white t-shirt underneath
- a fitted floral midi-dress with capped sleeves can solve most hot weather dressing dilemmas, albeit admittedly not particularly unusual
- neutral colours can look great worn together if you play with different tones and textures e.g cream dress worn with a camel trench coat/blazer or white tweed jacket worn over most of your summer staples
- a black dress should never be out of your wardrobe rotation not even in the thick of summer worn with some smart black or gold flat or heeled sandals
- a tailored waistcoat and matching pair of trousers is going to be a popular choice I think this summer
- a midi-skirt acts as a great blank canvas to build lots of outfits on - you can’t go wrong with styling it with a feminine blouse or white shirt
- in a more casual office set-up you can’t beat a pair of well-fitting cropped/flared jeans, a white shirt and an ankle boot or loafer a la Jane Birkin
If you’re looking for a day-to-evening look then popping a pair of heels, a nice lipstick and some fun jewellery in your bag are game-changers.
I have lots of clients who also rent outfits for big work meetings or events as they really want to feel the part and wear something special without buying something new. Sites such as By Rotation, My Wardrobe HQ, Hurr and Cocoon (bags only) are good starting points.