Wardrobe hell: what to wear to work

By Zoe Walker

Workwear need not mean a shirt and pencil skirt. We look at how to make a personal style statement while staying professional.

It comes up each year: dress standards are slipping.

No longer do we make an effort to look smart for work, and power dressing is a dirty word. Ties are disappearing, hemlines are rising, cleavage is growing, shirts are untucking, and it's all very inappropriate for the office.

With the average New Zealand woman spending almost seven hours a day doing paid work, that's much of her day spent dressed for the office.

The business of dressing for work can be a style battlefield, with some companies offering vague dress codes and others leaving them unspoken, leaving employees to fend for themselves as they stand in front of their wardrobe each morning.

This year our female politicians were left wondering what exactly "normal business attire" means when Labour's Claire Curran was ejected from Parliament for breaching the dress code by wearing a rugby jersey (I think even the most fashionably naive could tell you that that certainly isn't work-appropriate, unless perhaps you work at Radio Sport).

A black pencil skirt worn with a badly tailored white shirt is the work uniform for many inner city office workers - a safe choice that says "generic office girl". But what if generic isn't good enough? How can you have individual style while still looking "appropriate"?

Not looking to Mad Men for inspiration is a good start, unless you are a secretary working in an advertising agency in 1950 - the aim should surely be to look polished, strong and modern, but it all depends on where you work of course.

Susan Hing is a director at ANZ Institutional, and says that, traditionally, banks have a very conservative and tailored dress code - with an expectation to wear darker colours, but not necessarily just dark suits. Looking polished and groomed is essential, as is balancing appropriateness with individual style.

Hing, who shops mainly at World, explains that she likes to have one statement piece within an outfit to keep it interesting - like beading, rivets, an exaggerated silhouette in the shoulder - and balancing that with a tailored jacket or coat.

"I do like wearing black, but like mixing different textures and fabrics - wool with silk, chiffon or satin. I and others do reference current trends within a tailored professional look," Hing explains.

"It's the way we put an outfit together that lets us maintain our own style. Many of us wear lace, animal print, snakeskin and all of the latest silhouettes. The key is good tailoring and quality fabrics."

For Jacqui Secker Roberts, her working wardrobe needs to reflect her professionalism to her job. As the showroom director of new fashion public relations company Eden & Stokes, her work attire tends to be less corporate, with a focus on dresses and heels.

"I'm surrounded by stylish colleagues, clients and media, so there isn't an expectation for me to dress in a traditionally corporate manner. Because my role is fashion-focused, dressing well is important but I don't believe that means I have to be a slave to all the latest trends.

"My philosophy is it's better to be overdressed than underdressed - I don't approach my job in a casual manner and I want my attire to reflect a level of professionalism."

According to Asos' online workwear boutique, a women's working wardrobe should be defined by structured shapes, clean lines and soft detailing offering a "directional, feminine edge".

Most of Asos' offering is a good guide to appropriate workwear that subtly references trends - cropped trousers in bright colours, knee-length full skirts, and blazers for casual Fridays (just ignore the teal green jumpsuit).

The Duchess of Cambridge's recent outfits worn in Canada are another lesson in "appropriate" business attire - demure, smart, elegant, but not too boring.

She may not exactly be famous for her work ethic, but her post-marriage love affair with tailoring is perfect professional sartorial inspiration - when Catherine made her way on to the plane in that beautifully cut Roland Mouret sheath dress, matching navy Smythe blazer and Mulberry bag, she looked like she could have been a powerful woman making her way to an important business meeting.

For those whose work is more casual and doesn't necessarily require strict tailoring and a matching colour palette, look to Phoebe Philo. The Celine designer is a master of classic dressing that isn't boring, releasing an entire autumn collection made up of staple pieces, something that harks back to Donna Karan's idea of "seven easy pieces". Philo gives the idea a modern makeover with her Celine Classics, "a timeless wardrobe of men's tailoring in a bold mix of colours". These pieces include a Crombie coat, boys' shirt, men's trousers and tuxedo jacket, "all building blocks of the Celine silhouette" she said - an approach that could be applied to the perfect working wardrobe too.

The outfit she wore to take her bow at the end of her first Celine show is another example of sartorial inspiration for those with a more casual workplace - well-tailored trousers worn with a silk shirt. That is a humble piece that has had a resurgence in popularity, with Britain's Guardian reporting this year that sales of silk shirts by British brand Whistles were up 200 per cent, and retailers were urgently restocking to keep up with demand.

It's easy to see why they are so appealing to busy women - comfortable and airy, they offer a fresh, modern take on the smart shirt that works for all ages, whether worn buttoned up to the neck or with a few buttons open.

Fabric boutique in Auckland stocks Equipment, considered by some to be the holy grail of the trend - expect to pay about $345 for one of those.

Short suits are always championed in stories on stylish workwear, and it's true, they can look great on the pages of a fashion spread, a quirky twist on the traditional suit. But in real life? Most shorts are just as little as the most inappropriate of skirts, although worn with a high-denier pair of black stockings they can look wonderful.

Trouser suits are a much better and professional-looking bet, and work for corporate and creative environments - whether it be black cropped trousers and a mannish style blazer or the same in bold colours a la Stella McCartney's resort collection.

Other staples to invest in? Structured dresses, sweaters for layering over shirts, and sleeveless jackets, a winter trend that's perfectly appropriate for the office.

To do list

Buy a nice shirt: Madame Hawke "Garden" shirt, $299, arriving next week at Ruby Boutique.

Invest in a black jacket: Drape tux jacket, $190, from Topshop.

Wear heels of a sensible height: Stella McCartney faux patent-leather pumps, about $950, from Net-a-Porter.

Stockists: Net-a-Porter, Ruby Boutique (09) 303 2128, Topshop (09) 489 4229.

- NZ Herald

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