Style Guide: How to dress for the office
Fiona Sinclair Scott is CNN Style's global editor.
If the thought of retiring your comfortable sweats and choosing a new outfit to leave the house in each morning is an intimidating prospect, you're in good company. For the better part of the pandemic, I've lived in a pair of stretchy, soft wool trousers in the cooler months, switching allegiance in summer to a white linen dress that my brother-in-law dubbed "the ghost dress" (likening its so flowy, so oversized shape to that of a large bedsheet with a hole cut out for my head).
Now, many of us are readjusting to being back in an office -- a prospect that may come with numerous challenges but perhaps none greater than one looming concern: What to wear?
This guide -- with input from four fashion insiders -- should help you get back in the right mindset for dressing up (or simply getting dressed) for work.
One caveat: If your dressing for work energy is akin to Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich ("As long as I've got one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I like if that's all right with you"), you don't need me or this guide, you need a high five. Keep it up.
Formalities out of the way, read on for everything you need to know about dressing for the office.
The green tip: Shop your wardrobe
When in a sartorial panic, there's a tendency to solve it with a shopping spree. But as we all wise up to the impact of our consumption habits on the planet, consider this sustainable alternative: Get your hand out of your pocket and dig deep inside your wardrobe instead.
"It's a first step," said Los Angeles-based stylist Cassandra Dittmer, who suggests you figure out what you have, what you love, what needs repair and what you might want to pass on. "Hopefully (you'll) uncover some hidden gems."
"At the end of the process, you should feel a deeper connection to your wardrobe, find the gaps that need filling and give yourself a great basis to work from each day when putting your outfits together with ease."
I did this last month and rediscovered an old pair of trousers that I'm wearing again after re-dying them black. (Faded black jeans, trousers and sweaters really benefit from running them through a wash cycle with an at-home clothes dye capsule, such as the kind made by Dylon).
"Buy clothes that fit you across your widest part and tailor the rest inward."
Bonus tip: If you live in a country with hot and cold seasons, pack your summer clothes away when fall arrives. You'll be surprised by the aura of newness they take on when you retrieve them from storage months later.
Dittmer, who has built her styling business around eco-conscious values, suggests you may want to go further and channel your inner Cher Horowitz (à la the movie "Clueless"): "Document your looks and take pictures of outfits you love and feel most confident in. A convenient folder on your phone will make a quick and handy reference point when you are scrambling to pack for a work trip or getting ready in the morning."
The basics: Polished comfort
There's a way to dress comfortably without looking bedraggled, and with many employers loosening up on the rules, it's a great time to try a polished but casual look.
Joanna Dai, who left her job in finance to start her own eponymous fashion brand, has noticed a trend away from overly formal office fashion conventions like formal suits and restrictive pencil skirts.
"In the new normal things have gotten more casual in office," said Dai, noting that, as companies recognize the importance of well-being at work, many have adopted more relaxed dress codes that allow for jeans and sneakers or done away with dress codes altogether.
"Never underestimate the power of a good fit."
Embracing more casual attire while also looking professional begins with understanding the importance of quality materials, fit and color.
"Never underestimate the power of a good fit," Dittmer said. "I'm not talking expensive, Savile Row tailoring -- but making sure your trousers are cut to the most flattering fit can be a huge improvement and make you feel really well put together. Most dry cleaners offer very accessible tailoring services."
Model and the founder of size-inclusive fashion brand Henning, Lauren Chan, agreed a good tailor is important, adding, "Here's a secret: Clothes aren't actually meant to fit you. They're built to fit an 'average build' which is -- spoiler alert -- no one. Buy clothes that fit you across your widest part (for me, it's my waist) and tailor the rest inward."
When it comes to materials, most linens, while beautiful, wrinkle easily and are not going to be your friend throughout an eight-hour day at a desk job. On the other hand, polyester is pretty wrinkle-resistant, but it's a synthetic fabric that's terrible for the planet and doesn't breathe -- putting you at risk of unsightly sweat patches and a guilty conscience. Check labels for organic and sustainably made cotton or new fabrics made with a high percentage of recycled materials.
Dai puts a lot of emphasis on what she calls "high-functioning" environmentally friendly materials, such as micromodal (made from the cellulose of natural beechwood trees in a closed-loop, carbon neutral process) or recycled polyamide (made from plastic waste like fishing nets and carpet). Many of the items in her lines are made from wrinkle-resistant, machine washable, stretch materials that are great for people with busy schedules who don't have time to iron or make regular trips to the dry cleaner.
Olie Arnold, style director at menswear e-commerce site Mr Porter, suggests opting for unlined suits. "Go for suits and jackets which are unlined and deconstructed with a breathable fabric," he said, "as they will give you a smart look with a comfortable fit."
And, he advises, if you want to relax your suit further, don't bother with a formal shirt. "If you can push the envelope a little at your workplace, a merino wool long-sleeve polo is a perfect companion, breaking up your outfit without losing that professional look." Merino wool is naturally temperature regulating, too.
Personally, I also love an oversize jacket and slouchy suits, and there are many options out there right now at a range of price points. Brands like Arket (another Scandinavian label within the H&M group) offer some solid midrange casual suits. Keep the jacket unbuttoned always and wear a good quality cotton T-shirt underneath. Pair it with boots or sneakers (French brand Veja has good green credentials, offering many styles appropriate for the office).
The aside: A note for newbies
Whether you landed a new role or your first ever job during the pandemic, you might be looking at walking into your office without any prior reference for what people used to wear before Covid.
First off, just ask -- it's totally reasonable to ask your colleagues or manager what the vibe is. And if you're still unsure, remember this sound advice from Arnold: "Be yourself, dress for the occasion and make sure you feel comfortable. If you don't feel comfortable in what you wear, it can reflect on how you present yourself and your productivity."
The golden rule: Create your own uniform and then build on it
Set yourself up by establishing some staple pieces that can form the basis of your work wardrobe. A great pair of black trousers, a blazer and some quality shirts can go a long way.
Drawing on her own closet as an example, Dai said, "I have a uniform or a capsule collection in my wardrobe. I've got a skinny-ankle trouser which is great for cycling into work because they won't get caught on the chain. I also have a wide-leg just to add that difference in the week...And then one or two good blazers."
Every item in your collection of staples should be something you can imagine wearing multiple times in a week, and you should be able to style each item in at least three different outfits.
"Be yourself, dress for the occasion and make sure you feel comfortable. If you don't feel comfortable in what you wear, it can reflect on how you present yourself and your productivity."
In cooler months, a well-tailored pair of trousers paired with quality knitwear and a boot is fuss-free, especially if you stick to classic colors like black, navy, grays and tans, which are very easy to interchange. The knitwear can be swapped out for a blouse or shirt in warmer weather for a similar effect.
Skirts can play into this uniform, too. An A-line skirt cut an inch or two above the knee with a crisp white shirt with a French tuck (a more relaxed approach where the back of your shirt remains mostly untucked) could be added into your rotation in warmer months. Also, midlength skirts pair nicely with structured, thick cotton T-shirts or a thin wool sweater.
The twist: Accessorize
Mix up the uniform with jewelry and accessories. I'm a big fan of the workwear uniform, but I'll mix it up with some form of accessory.
Arnold points to footwear as another way to elevate a simple look. "A classic hard shoe, such as a pair of Penny Loafers from John Lobb or George Cleverley, are a personal staple. You can't go wrong with their practicality and long-lasting craftsmanship, whilst (they) can easily elevate an outfit if you go a little more casual."
A pair of tan flats are also great if you don't want to wear sneakers. Go for a sharp, pointed toe as opposed to anything rounded. Also, a beautiful silk scarf (worn folded into a triangle and draped over your shoulders), a watch or -- my personal favorite -- big earrings can be quite impactful.
If you're looking for an investment piece, I'd always (much to my bank account's horror) splash out on a bag. A beautifully crafted handbag or tote will last forever and immediately lift a look. If that sounds expensive, scroll down for tips on renting. Alternatively, the luxury resale market is booming. Use sites like Vestiaire or Resee to find deals on pre-vetted, secondhand luxury items.
The debate: To denim or not to denim
A no-denim policy might be the last bastion of formal workwear culture at some corporate workplaces, but for many companies, denim is absolutely acceptable.
"I really do believe you can wear denim, even in more formal offices (or) at least on a Friday," said Dai, who added that she preferred black denim when she still worked in a corporate setting. "If you're not seeing clients or you have clients who are more casual than you are then I think (if you're considering) a denim for a lunch meeting, go for it!"
Dittmer agrees. "To ease yourself in, start with dark, straight-leg denim which can look really polished. Denim can be a great base layer for crisp shirting, beautiful blouses, and is a great way to break out of your classic work uniform style and branch out into more playful looks."
Look for darker denim washes, and a classic straight or wide leg. Gen Z ruled out skinny jeans last year, much to the despair of many millennials, and -- while I don't live and die by trends -- I think they might have a point. Also, keep your ankles away at work (a tiny hint is fine but avoid a cropped jean). And while we're seeing a lot of low-slung options on the runway as the fashion world continues to be inspired by Y2K style, high-waisted options are the best bet for the office (they're also the most flattering).
The pep talk: Don't forget to make it fun
If you're dreading heading back to the office because you hate your commute, or it's messing up your childcare routine, or you've simply realized during the pandemic that you're a happy introvert, consider the benefits of dopamine dressing.
Lean into the chance to express yourself and play with fashion. Use clothes to set the mood for your day, depending on what's on the agenda.
Renting is an excellent way to experiment and add some fun pieces to your wardrobe. For Dittmer, "It's a great low-commitment, low-cost way to try out new styles and brands."
It's also a great way to inject a little bit of luxury into your life. I pay for a monthly subscription to a rental company called Cocoon that allows me to select one designer bag every four weeks to be delivered to my door. The one I'm sporting this month retails around $2,000, but it cost me $130. Renting is also a great option should you need to dress up for a work event. More and more online styling services are popping up with plenty of partywear.
Above all, remember that fashion is supposed to be fun. Don't take it too seriously; wear clothes that make you feel confident and happy. It's horribly cheesy, but a smile really is the best accessory.
Top image credits: Clockwise from left to right: Yellow skirt and shirt look courtesy Arket; Navy suit street style look via Getty Images; Brown suit courtesy Mr Porter; Maxi dress and blazer street style look via Getty Images; White shirt look courtesy Dai; Black trousers and oversize white shirt look courtesy Dai; trench coat look courtesy Arket.