The Solution to Work Wear Is Simple — We Just Don't Want to Admit It
Get rid of it all. Problem solved!
I’m just a woman in my mid-thirties, standing in front of my closet, wishing I didn’t hate what I’m about to wear to work. Welcome to the eternal conundrum faced by countless working women across the nation: We’re concerned about how we will be perceived, we want to be respected, and we just wish the clothing part of it all came more easily.
As a writer and editor, my career affords a lot more fashion leeway than some other business dress codes, but some days I find the pressure to “dress the part” — which means creatively but still on trend — to be somewhat paralyzing. When I have to level up for an important meeting, I’m even more stuck. Nothing I own seems to fit right, and everything “professional” makes me feel like a little girl playing pretend in her mother’s business suits. I often find myself repeating the same outfit of black pants, a black turtleneck, and a black pair of boots, even though I kind of look like I’m doing Matrix cosplay.
Abby Allman, a 23-year-old social worker in training in Michigan, says her work outfits make her feel “like a clown,” adding that “finding plus-size workwear that is good quality and doesn’t age me 20-plus years is really a challenge.”
As it turns out, even Marie Kondo, author, organization expert, and hero to everyone with a drawer full of perfectly folded underwear can relate to the frustration of not knowing what to wear in the morning. “What I find helpful is to have preselected outfits that are appropriate for each type of work that I participate in and have them ready beforehand,” Kondo tells InStyle.
What Kondo is suggesting when it comes to workwear is to follow her iconic tip of sorting like with like, but the “like” in this case is what you’re doing with your day, rather than the items of clothing. For example, if you have one important meeting a week, put together preselected outfits that you only wear on that day, so you’re not mixing your more casual clothes with your more professional ones, even segregating your meeting-day outfits from everything else. At the very least, this prevents the extra fatigue that comes from having to rifle through your closet before your coffee has kicked in.
Kondo’s tip is solid, but it misses a major part of the problem. For many women (including myself) getting dressed in the morning can be a reminder of how different we are from the other people at our workplaces, and how we are always trying to strike a balance of fitting in and standing out at the same time. Consider how few choices a man has to make before he’s dressed (One: shirt alone, sweater, or blazer? Two: jeans or slacks?).
“I felt an unspoken rule to dress up every day, and I was incredibly frustrated in the mornings from the upkeep,” says Danielle Bayard, 31, a public relations professional who now has her own consultancy. “I wanted to be taken seriously, but I still wanted to incorporate my own style, and I spent every morning trying to figure out how to balance the two.”
There are women out there who seem to overcome this clothing-based imposter syndrome with aplomb. Take a look at political rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example.
It’s impossible not to notice how different she looks from all the other dorks in D.C., and how that difference drives her political opponents absolutely crazy. As the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, when she wears a caped blazer in suffragette white, or buttons her shirt to the top like Harry Styles, she’s sending a message that not only is she young and hip, but she can be young and hip while respecting the gravity of her role.
She also does this while handily discounting the staid old concept of “dressing for the job you want.” There has never been a 29-year-old Latina woman elected to Congress before, and thus there’s no rulebook for how one should dress. And instead of falling into the trap of dressing like the older women (or more likely white men) she serves alongside, Ocasio-Cortez bends the rules ever so slightly to create new normals for someone with her job title.
With women edging their way into more leadership roles and entering new areas of the workforce, the AOC model is inspirational. Dressing for the job you want in three to five years doesn’t really make sense. What does make sense is dressing like the person you want to be at your job tomorrow. After all, in 2019, even those of us with the most stable-seeming careers are still at risk of having the floor pulled out from under us, or, even more likely, changing our careers entirely. (To stick with the example, Ocasio-Cortez was a bartender just two years ago.)
A note on “power dressing”: Yes, if clothes are doing their job correctly, they should make you feel more confident. In a 2015 Columbia study of 60 undergraduates of mixed genders, participants wearing more formal, business-like clothes were found to have more formal, business-like thoughts. As study author Abraham Rutchick explains, “it's not that formal clothes had a ‘positive’ effect, exactly; it's that people wearing formal clothes adopted a more ‘big-picture’ thinking style.” Participants were more interested in the “why’s” than the “how’s” and thought of long-term objectives rather than short-term goals. In short, they acted more like leaders, and less like undergrads.
But Rutchick is quick to point out that clothing only offered a partial confidence spike. “I'm sure that hating your job and being forced to wear the clothing would trump any benefit of wearing it,” says Rutchick. “And if it's inappropriate to the setting, or you feel a lack of confidence and comfort in it, or others perceive the clothing as inappropriate or unflattering … those effects are almost certainly stronger than any direct effect that the clothing has on you.” Simply put: a new blazer won’t make you feel more powerful if you feel stupid wearing it, no matter what any salesperson tells you.
Perhaps most frustrating is the notion that getting dressed for work should be fun and empowering, when for many of us, it is often the opposite. As Laura Mael, 50, a Wisconsin-based banking professional, says of her morning routine, “If I’m in a down mood, nothing I choose looks or feels good. Everything appears to be frumpy, out of date, and ridiculous-looking on me.” Even when you’re thinking aspirationally about your wardrobe, you want to keep “you” at the center of the plan; that can help avoid this kind of clothes-malaise.
Which brings us to the “solution,” which very much already exists: the buzzy and slightly limiting concept of a capsule wardrobe. I know what you’re thinking. A capsule wardrobe is so 2017. Or maybe: Tried that “uniform” thing; it’s not for me. But there’s a huge industry of personal stylists and clothing subscription services, like Stitch Fix or M.M. LaFleur, built around this concept for a reason. Much like Kondo’s advice of having pre-selected outfits just for certain days of work, a capsule wardrobe should create boundaries to make getting dressed in the morning easier and ultimately, more pleasant.
Based on the guiding principle that you only need so many items in your wardrobe, and everything else is excess, capsule wardrobes offer strict parameters and resolve some of the anxiety that comes with having too many choices. But capsule wardrobes have their own set of issues. For one, you’re still trying on an aesthetic, instead of defining your own, and often at an inflated price point. The term “investment piece” comes to mind when purchasing a $375 Theory sheath dress or, say, an entire eight-piece work wardrobe for $3,000. If you’re not sure of your style just yet (or, if like many millennials, your work and therefore work style is always changing), that’s a lot to commit to up front. (A $150 blazer from Frank & Oak or a $165 pencil skirt from MM LaFleur can feel like a stretch, too.)
But there is a way to take what’s good about capsule wardrobes, like the everything-matches-each-other ease, and build your own wardrobe with your own look and budget in mind.
First you’ll want to clean out your closet (yes, Kondo-style), and get rid of anything you don’t absolutely love wearing to work. Then, when shopping (with plenty of time and hydration, so you can actually deal with trying on clothes), look for pieces with similar attributes to the ones you already own and love. This is what led me to the all-black-everything outfit I maintain as my go-to when I don’t know what to wear. It’s easy, and it works for me (Matrixy though it may be.)
Keep the phrase “like with like” in mind, and use it to plan whole outfits based on your actual work week and needs. Do you need an outfit that works for both an important business lunch, and a four-hour budget review? Are you currently sneaking out of the office to go on job interviews but don’t want to look too obvious? Do you spent most of your day sitting at your desk, talking to coworkers on Slack, and don’t know why any of this matters anyway? There’s a perfect outfit for each of these scenarios, just don’t try to find them all at once. Focus on one type of day at a time. Buy multiples for that day if it makes sense, but don’t get ahead of yourself. A trendy top is useless without a matching bottom. A maxi dress only works if you have the right shoes. Most of us can’t afford to buy a whole new wardrobe in one swoop, so be sure to incorporate what you already have (only what you love) in with the new, and try to avoid buying half an outfit if you don’t already have the other half at home.
One central tenet to the capsule wardrobe is owning less, and re-wearing more. Get comfortable with the concept of outfit-repeating, and even more comfortable with which fabrics require dry cleaning, and how often. Usually after one wear, a quick spritz with a wrinkle releasing spray or a fabric refresher will do the trick, and next week, your outfit will be ready to go. And that means you’ve already saved yourself one morning breakdown in front of the closet.