For the last two years I've worked for casual dot-com, but I'm
next week I start working at a company with more professional dress code. What items would you recommend as must-haves for a business wardrobe. I'm hoping to be able to mix and match to create outfits instead of buying 3 weeks worth of new clothes.

The demise of many companies have forced the “I-can-make-millions-and-wear-sandals-and shorts” attitude underground. Numerous companies are tightening up their casual dress codes and some are even going back to traditional business attire.

For the new job and today’s business environment, these ten principles meet the must-have requirements for a basic business wardrobe that will start you on a winning path:

  1. For starters, buy two suits (dark-ish colors), preferably with a matching skirt, pants, and top for each. These will be the primary heart or core of your business wardrobe. The idea is to be able to wear each suit piece as a separate, not exclusively as a suit. Be sure you like the fit of each garment or alter them so that they look great alone (i.e. that the skirt or pants fit you well without wearing the jacket). You may or may not find these in the “suit” department. Many dressy sportswear designers offer matching jackets, pants, and skirts as separate coordinates that can also be worn together for a suit look.

    The trick is that the colors of the two suits should be compatible. For example, let’s say that the first suit is a solid-color black or navy suit; the second suit could be brown, red, olive, taupe, gray, purple, camel, or green because all of those colors work well with black or navy. It could be any solid color that looks good on you and pairs up well with black or navy. From those eight pieces, you have enormous mix-and-match ability. The tops and bottoms can be interchanged with the jackets or without in a variety of ways. If possible, make sure that both suit fabrics are of a similar weight (like year-round tropical weight wool). To maximize the possibilities, be sure to purchase a knit top or blouse in the same color (or color tone) as the suit. You can wear them in a monochromatic fashion, which is always classy or you can switch jackets, etc. Just generally mix the eight pieces together. Either with navy or black as your pivotal suit, the system still stretches your wardrobe dollars and wardrobe choices.

    Choose your best power-neutral color for the color of your pivotal suit. Power neutral colors are black, navy, gray, olive, and brown, with black or navy being the best choices for business wear and for mix-ability. This is the color you will build around. It will save you money and time. Just don’t mix black and navy together. Choose just one as the core of your working wardrobe.
  2. A silk blouse or two, long sleeve; this step is particularly important if you have chosen knit tops to coordinate with your suits or did not purchase blouses with the suits as discussed above. Select solid-colors or a geometric print that can be worn with both suits described above. With a long-sleeve blouse, you can wear your suit skirt or pants and look professional. Wear one of the jackets into the office; then it can hang on the back of your chair ready to wear if a meeting arises. Without it, you still look professional.
  3. A tailored jacket in a color-compatible pattern to your pivotal suit, such as a houndstooth check, herringbone, tweed, or plaid. All of these prints are exceptionally fashionable and popular this fall. You should have no problem finding them in the stores. You could consider such a pattern for your second suit, but you may want to start with more color options so you do not feel like you are wearing the same thing over and over. And it is okay to repeatedly wear your basic garments, even in one week. That’s the beauty of power neutrals. Be sure to hang them immediately for airing out.

    Vary this jacket style from the suit jacket cuts, if possible. Such a patterned fabric as described above would make an excellent third suit, as you could wear the patterned skirt with the solid-color pivotal suit jacket and possibly even the second suit jacket. Certainly the printed jacket goes well with the solid-color tops and skirts and/or pants. But at the minimum, this third jacket is essential to stretching your wardrobe dollars. Generally, this type of jacket looks great with jeans too.
  4. A long skirt in a solid-color knit or jersey, especially one that coordinates with the patterned tailored jacket discussed above would also add variety and flexibility. If you are under 5’4,” choose a straight long style, not a full skirt. You could also select a pattern, such as a plaid, to wear with your pivotal suit jacket, sweater set, turtleneck, etc.
  5. A sweater set (shell and cardigan) in your power neutral color or in a totally different color, but one that looks good with both of the suit skirts and pants. For example, off white or white would go with almost everything. If you prefer color, opt for some of the current fashion colors, such as salmon, turquoise, lime green, etc. Salmon and lime green both work beautifully with black, brown, navy, or purple. For business wear, lime green works only when you pair it with another dark color, such as black, eggplant, or brown.

    Don’t be afraid to separate the set to gain more outfits. You can wear the shell part of the set as a separate under your jackets. The cardigan if in the right color, can be paired with the other outfits, worn or tied over a blouse or top.
  6. A classic white blouse (long sleeve) is a must. A crisp white stylish blouse is always professional and it has great versatility. It can go under a suit jacket and look powerful; it can be worn alone with a skirt or pants and hold it’s own; it can be worn with a sweater tied around the shoulders for a smart casual look. Look for a white blouse that has an interesting collar and an overall stylish flair or cut.
  7. A turtleneck or mock turtleneck top (long sleeve). This should be in one of the power-neutral suit colors for maximum wear-ability. Add other colors as you can. The turtleneck can be worn alone or layered under the white blouse (yes, even in a dark color), worn with or without a jacket.
  8. Stylish shoes: two pair of pumps (closed toe and heel) with a 2 to 3” heel, in your best power-neutral colors, the pivotal suit color, in particular. Add ankle boots when your budget allows; knee boots if you like that look, (boots worn with short skirts). Check your company’s dress code to see if it has any boot limitations. Some companies do not allow knee boots.
  9. Jewelry is important. Accessories can make or break an outfit. Add earrings at the minimum. Jewelry doesn’t have to be expensive; it just needs to look expensive to make the right statement for you. Belts are back in as well.
  10. Hosiery is regaining popularity again, especially for business wear. Many companies require hosiery or socks all the time; be sure to check your dress code.

In my book, Casual Power, I describe in detail how to maximize your mix and match choices. Chapter 4 also discusses the magical garments that make up a Capsule Wardrobe. I encourage you to read it, especially since you are coming from a environment.

Most people could not go out and buy all the items I have listed above. Add them as your budget allows and they will make you money!


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