Spend a lunch hour walking around almost any major city in America, and it seems like everyone is in uniform — black pants, black blazers, black dresses, even black umbrellas. On public transportation in New York City I often feel adrift in a sea of black, left wondering I missed some secret memo that color on train cars was forbidden… Then once the work day is done and I make my way to dinner or a cocktail party, what do I find there? You guessed it — more black!
Yes, it might all feel a little safe and boring at times, but there’s a reason why we’ve all unofficially adopted this work uniform. Black is timeless. Black is flattering. Black is elegant and effortless, easy to coordinate, and the right pieces can help us look polished for any occasion. But with so much black to choose from on every rack, where do you even start to find the perfect pieces for your career wardrobe? There’s a big difference between the black outfit that we’d wear to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and the black outfit we’d wear later that night to a casual dinner with friends. Let’s face it — sometimes we need to look like we were born to take the C-suite by storm, and just any old back outfit simply won’t do.
But unless you’re already set up in the corner office with a stack of letterpress business cards (and an assistant to help you hand them out), your budget probably doesn’t allow you to stroll Fifth Avenue for every piece of your wardrobe. Thankfully, we can pair a few high-end pieces with affordable ready-to-wear items and command as much respect in any room as we could if our middle names were Couture… or Wintour, take your pick 😉 Here’s a look at where you should splurge and where you can save to build the perfect career closet.
4 Splurge Essentials In Basic Black
The Perfect Black Dress
Costume designer Mitchell Travers has spent decades designing costumes for film and television, and has worked with Jennifer Lopez, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Emma Thompson, to name a few. He says that even if you don’t have the “perfect figure” there is a perfect black sheath dress for everyone. Once you find a dress with a silhouette that works for you, it’s an item that can float through several decades, he explains. Your perfect little black dress can be worn with different blazers or wraps to work or cocktail parties, and dressed up or down as needed. As long as you take care of it by giving it the proper dry cleaning and care it needs, it will give you years of versatility. Just note that the tailoring of this item is essential, he stresses. Spend the extra dollars for that perfect fit, and this dress will be your number one go-to item in your closet.
The “It” Handbag
The perfect handbag has nothing to do with a particular brand, and everything to do with your personal style.”It’s a power move when you put it on the table, so buy intelligently,” Travers says. No, not all of us can afford a Birkin, but quality, construction, durability and timelessness should all be factors when you make your decision. No matter what you can afford, make sure to keep your bag clean and organized, and take care of it. Nothing says “hot mess” more than having to dig for a pen during a meeting and having tissues and old receipts falling all over the table — even the finest Chanel or Hermes can’t save you from embarrassment if you don’t have the rest of your shit together.
“Just get the Manolos and shut up,” Travers says. Need we say more? Okay, so maybe he did elaborate a little — specifically, go for the black patent pumps. They’ll last forever and go with everything. Don’t get me wrong — please don’t pull a Carrie Bradshaw and prioritize your shoes over your housing payment, but if you need to set aside a little extra money each month until you get there, do it. A good pair of shoes is always worth the investment.
No, this suggestion might not be what you were expecting, but today’s work environments tend to be much more casual, and it’s often perfectly acceptable to wear high-quality jeans on Fridays, or to after-work events. But even though jeans are a “familiar” item in most of our closets, they still need to look sharp and professional, explains Rebecca Fenner, a fashion merchandising executive. “I invest in expensive jeans because I wear them in the office often and treat them more like pants. Any great pair of jeans can be dressed up or down, so it’s an item that is useful long-term. Also, they last years if you take care of them,” she says.
3 Fast-Fashion Items Where You Can Save & Still Look Polished
These days, there’s no need to deck out every outfit with fine jewelry, Fenner advises. “Costume jewelry is an amazing way to update any look. A fun new necklace or pair of earrings will easily update your wardrobe,” she explains. Costume jewelry is so affordable, and readily available at the check-out counter at any of your favorite clothing retailers, including Zara, H&M, Old Navy, Gap, and countless others. A fun pop of color from a new costume piece can liven up even the most basic black dress. Experiment with different styles and have some fun!
Your Favorite Blazer
Before you tell me all about that $5,000 Chanel blazer you’ve been coveting (trust me, I get it) know that retailers have made great strides in offering affordable, well-made blazers over the last decade. Blazers were absolutely an investment piece back in the day, but no longer. Retailers including Ann Taylor, M.M. LaFleur and Karl Lagerfeld (to name a few) now make polished blazers that you can’t really distinguish from their couture counterparts. Also, unless you work in a very corporate setting, you’re most likely not wearing a full suit to work these days (at least not every day) and you can change your look in so many ways with a few different styles — they pair well with dresses, jeans, pants, anything you can dream up. Throw on a scarf and some colorful jewelry, and you’ll look like a million bucks.
While a basic black or charcoal topcoat never goes out of style, your coat can be a chance to stand out and branch out from basic black. After all, we can only exist in the sea of black for so long before we want to incorporate some bright colors and fun prints. “Your coat is an opportunity to make a statement and be seen,” Travers says. Just make sure the quality is good enough that you stay warm and dry, and that the tailoring is flattering — but if those factors are in place, then go for it. You can interchange a few fun coats throughout the season, and it may just be the pop of color you need to set off that perfect little black dress, and accentuate those Manolos. (Editor’s note — for both colorful and basic black coats, I’m obsessed with Boden!)
More On HerMoney:
- Less Clothing, More Outfits: Save Money And Time With A Capsule Wardrobe
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- The Only Types Of Purses And Handbags You Need To Own
- 10 Women’s Wardrobe Essentials You Should Own
- The Case For Splurging: 5 Staple Wardrobe Pieces You Should Spend More On
- The Messages Your Fashion Choices Are Really Sending And How To Make Sure You’re Always Commanding Respect
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