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Fashion & Finance: Classically chic staple items for your work wardrobe

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May 4, 2012

How have your thoughts and feelings about your looks, your self-confidence and your personal style changed and evolved over the years? Is it very different as compared to when you first started your career?

I ask this question because I recently read an article featuring information and statistics from a U.K.-based study, establishing that women are in their “prime” at the age of 35, and that this time of life brings heightened self-awareness and an improved self-confidence in a woman’s style and image.

Although I can only speak for myself, as I look back at my early- to mid-twenties, I was certainly more adventurous and dramatic with my personal style and clothing choices, yet may have not had as much self-confidence about who I was and what I was doing career-wise.

This comes with the territory when you are that age, I think. I don’t know exactly how others viewed me, but I suspect I very well may have demonstrated a few Generation Y (or Millennial or the ME generation) traits including being tech-savvy, family-centric, achievement-oriented and attention-craving, but that may have very well been my first born traits as well!

Since my twenties, I have noticed a shift in my personal style and self-confidence. They have both evolved and matured. I may not look or act like I did when I was younger, but I can now say that I am generally happy with who I am and how I look, and have even grown to love my quirks. As far as clothing goes, although I still love to interpret the latest trends, I opt to do it in more appropriate ways for work, and have fine-tuned a more classic style of attire. In the article, this interesting point was made:

There is proof that fashion trends are dictated by women in their 20s. The study also concluded that 59 % of women admitted they were currently guilty of dressing ‘too young for their age’.”

I think a lot of women may not know how to interpret the latest trends to be age-appropriate, and sometimes it can be more fit than fashion that makes a difference in what is or is not appropriate. When I look polished and put together, wearing something that fits me well and suits the occasion or event, I feel confident and self-assured, and I believe that others see me this way as well, which is great for business interactions and networking with other professionals.

I also tend to spend more money on classic pieces that will last in my closet for years to come, so that I don’t end up with a bunch of trendy items that will only see the light of day (or evening) once, and then be too youthful or out of style to wear again.  It is these classic staple items that help build a great work wardrobe, and can be rearranged and reconfigured in countless ways to create polished, professional outfits.

Based on some internet research, here is my personal list of classic staple items for your work wardrobe. I believe these items make up the basic foundation of having great things to wear, and a good base to layer in new trends. If you have any items that are not on the list, please share them with me, either in the comments section below, or on Accounting Today’s Facebook post of this blog entry! I’m curious to hear what other women—and men—have that they can’t live without, and why.

Underpinnings/Foundation Garments

Comfortable bras, underwear and hosiery that fits and flatters: Many women do not know their true bra size, or choose undergarments that are made of synthetic materials that are not comfortable, breathable, or allow the wearer to flexibly move throughout the work day. So, make sure to get measured to find out your true size, and stick to the materials you are most comfortable with.

Ribbed cotton tank/shell tops: A great item to layer underneath a dress, shirt, sweater or blazer. Having multiple colors in sensible materials adds to the amount of outfits and looks you can create.

Tops

Crisp and tailored white blouse: A timeless item that can be worn in combination with just about anything. Offered by thousands of designers in tons of styles, silhouettes and price points, this item looks great with bold jewelry or simply chic without. I recommend dry cleaning your white dress shirts for the best care and chance of a lengthy stay in your closet!

Bold patterned tops, dress shirts and blouses: Show off your personal style with bold patterns and prints to be paired with classic trousers or a pencil skirt. You can also tone them down by wearing them under a solid blazer, fitted jacket or cardigan. Proenza Schouler, JCPenney and Lauren by Ralph Lauren are just a few designers that have great options available in a range of sizes.

Classic cashmere sweater: Comfort and luxury blended together, available in a variety of colors for every season.

Crewneck sweater: To layer over your favorite underpinnings for a comfy fit.

Button-up cardigan sweater- Throw a solid or pattern print cardi over a shift dress, dress shirt or shell for a preppy look.

Black turtleneck: Looks slimming and chic for winter wear, and can be worn under a simple spring or summer shift dress to give it new life when the weather turns cold.

Tweed jacket: My favorite styles can be seen on the runways of Chanel, but you don’t have to spend a ton to get the same classic look. Check out this darling option from JCrew.

Black, white, navy, red and khaki blazers: Crisp and tailored to fit perfectly, finding blazers in these four classic colors will help you create professional work appropriate looks. Remember, if it doesn’t fit perfectly, consider a tailor or seamstress to help make it look and feel just right for your body.

Dresses and Bottoms

A little black dress: The “LBD” is and will forever be a staple closet item, the go to option when you need to look poised, elegant and put together.  Pair it with a cardigan or blazer for work, or a cashmere wrap and pearls for an evening event. You can also look for modern details like exposed zippers, unique sleeves or jeweled collars, or accessorize your dress with a brightly colored belt or shoes to personalize the look.

Pencil skirt: This classic piece is suggested to be worn so that it just hits the tops of the knees. However, check your firm’s dress code to see what is appropriate at your office. I often find it hard to find skirts that fall exactly to my knees, so sometimes I have to go a size up if that’s what I am looking for. Again, custom tailoring can always help get the right fit. Also, a lengthy skirt can make some women appear very short, so consider a fabulous pair of heels to elevate you and your look.

Pantsuit: I am not a huge fan of pantsuits and will explore this in another blog post soon! It was actually one of the suggested comments on LinkedIn, from another female professional in the accounting field.  I have always had trouble finding a pantsuit that fits and looks great on me, and that doesn’t make me feel too “old.” However, a lot of women love them for the convenience factor, easy to throw on and create a look and also the ability to opt to wear one as separates as well. If you have suggestions of great pantsuit designers or brands, please feel free to comment or post on Facebook!

Black pants: From a slim cigarette style pant, to a boot cut or wide leg, a great pair of black pants can be worn a million ways, and look great when you get the fit right. Black is slimming and professional, and an all-season fabric is a great bet for wear throughout each season and temperature.

Khaki pants: For a casual work days or time on the golf course, khakis are a comfortable and easy option. While a flat front is more flattering, pleated designs are available as well, but not necessarily recommended.  GAP has been a staple of carrying khaki pants for decades, but department stores like Macy’s, Dillard’s and The Bon Ton also have a ton of work-friendly brands carrying khakis as well. With department store shopping, always make sure to ask if there is an additional discount at the register. Often sales, coupons and promotions will be available and if you don’t ask, you might not know!

Outerwear

Winter coat: If you live in a climate featuring a cold and snowy winter, it’s likely you already have a closet full of winter coats (I’m in Buffalo, NY, so I certainly do!) But, if you often travel for work, it may be in your best interest to have some items that can travel with you, to different climates than what you are used to. A classic black wool coat can match with just about anything, but also consider grey, camel and navy blue as great options as well. Make sure you choose a size that allows for layers to be worn underneath!

Peacoat: Great for both fall and winter, the peacoat was originally worn by sailors of European and later American navies. You can learn all about the history of the peacoat here.  These days, navy blue isn’t the only option and bright cheery colors such as hot pink, yellow, green and red are available as well. Navy blue is the classic option for your staple item, but consider a fun color as well, to dress things up a bit in drab weather.

Lightweight rain coat/khaki or beige trench coat: Practical and stylish, this is an easy item to throw in your bag or suitcase when traveling. The classic Burberry trench is the high end luxury staple item, while other more affordable brands offer this look in many styles and colors as well.

Black or cream pashmina (cashmere) wrap: Attending an event after work or charity gala? Consider a wrap in lieu of a jacket or coat. Sensible and stylish (and will keep you warm in a cold banquet room), a wrap is a chic and classic outerwear item.

Footwear

Black pumps: The white dress shirt of shoes, this is a classic item that will always be in style. Round toe, pointy toe, block heel and more, there are a ton of different styles to choose from depending on your personal preference.

Ballet flats: A black, red, neutral or slightly embellished ballet flat will be a go-to item for your feet. Stylish, comfortable and practical, ballet flats help finalize a well put together outfit, and won’t hurt your feet as some high heels you may have.

Black knee-length, high-heeled dress boots: When the fall fashion magazines begin to hit the shelves, you’ll see this item as the key fall-to-winter essential. Try pairing them with a ladylike dress or pencil skirt, and keep some shoe polish on hand for the wear and tear.

Leopard flats or pumps: Leopard goes with nothing and matches everything. Don’t be like Snookie or J-Woww, but instead, incorporate a little leopard for a fun twist to everyday looks. Leopard shoes look great with the color blocking trend for spring and summer, an unexpected surprise on your feet.

Gold or Silver Evening Shoes: Complimenting many colors, prints and styles of dress, metallic evening shoes, whether a classic pump or strappy pair look great for special events. Steer away from the glittery or sequin trend from a few seasons back, and consider a metallic snake print or solid style.

Rubber Rain Boots or “Wellies”: When coming and going from the office why not wear something comfortable and weather appropriate in the rain? Save your nice shoes from water damage and pull on a fun pair of rain boots while you are on the go. Some favorite designers include Hunter, Tretorn, Kamik and Chooka.

Accessories

Here’s just a quick rundown of a few key accessories that are great items to have in any women’s work wardrobe. Many of these items are important for travel, although some of them just for heading from home to office and then back:

•    Sunglasses
•    Leopard print skinny belt
•    Black and brown leather belts
•    Pearl earrings and necklace
•    Diamond or CZ studs
•    Gold or silver watch
•    Business card holder
•    Laptop/iPad case
•    Leather briefcase or oversize work purse
•    Travel Luggage

As I mentioned, if you have any ideas of other items that I may have missed, please feel free to let me know what they are and why they are beneficial to own! Just remember, of the items that you absolutely need to include in your closet and work wardrobe, they must be of great quality so they last, fit you well and feel comfortable, versatile to wear with many things and  incorporate into your own personal style, and a classic item that won’t ever go out of fashion.

“Fashion fades, only style remains the same.”
- Coco Chanel

Emily Alexandria Burns is a State University of New York Fashion Institute of Technology graduate and started her career in New York City working for companies including Giorgio Armani Le Collezioni, Christian Dior and Jones Apparel Group. She is now e-marketing communications specialist for Freed Maxick & Battaglia CPAs in Buffalo, N.Y., and recently named the Association for Accounting Marketing's 2011 "Rookie of the Year." Follow her on Twitter @FreedMaxickPR or email her at emily.burns@freedmaxick.com.

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