Figuring out what makes a wardrobe “professional” doesn’t come easily these days.
Different industries use different standards, and in this age of frequent telecommuting and “not-so-business casual” dress codes, older rules for proper workplace attire don’t necessarily apply anymore. But if you’re trying to build a versatile work wardrobe, appropriate for a wide range of positions and environments, certain garments and accessories will give you both flexibility and polish.
Fairygodboss asked a team of stylists to weigh in on the items that every professional woman should have in her closet, and we’re sharing their top recommendations.
1. Seamless underwear
Before you start thinking about tops, bottoms, and outerwear, you need to get your underwear situation sorted out. To eliminate constant and self-conscious clothing adjustments throughout the day, opt for seamless undergarments in neutral tones. “You need some seamless underwear for pencil skirts, and you need to make sure it stays in place,” advises Christina Arenas, the DC-based CEO of Duchess of Dupont.
The name of the game here is VPL (visible panty line) reduction. If you’re wearing a fitted dress, skirt or pair of trousers, seamless underwear will stay put and won’t bunch up underneath your outfit. Arenas recommends the seamless styles from Barcelona-based Janira, but if you need something more easily-accessed, “shapewear shorts like Spanx will reduce the seams”.
2. A black sheath dress
Dresses can be crucial to a minimalistic yet highly-professional starter wardrobe. If you stick to neutral tones and classic silhouettes, these one-piece wonders will become reliable workhorses in your closet. Dallas image consultant Christian Ohonba particularly recommends black sheath dresses for this task.
“One item that is a true and timeless staple for every professional woman is a black sheath dress. It’s important to invest in this item according to your budget and to ensure that it’s well-fitted; you may need to invest in tailoring to make that happen. The dress can be dressed up with a variety of items, like ornate blazers, colorful cardigans or nice jewelry. I recommend this item to anyone as it can take you from the boardroom to drinks with clients effortlessly,” Ohonba explained to Fairygodboss.
Stylist Christine Vartanian of Newport Beach, CA agrees that a black dress can work wonders for your job-related outfits, praising them for their ability to “flex in so many ways. [A black dress] can be dressed up and dressed down. It can be paired with a black blazer or a colorful blazer. It can be accessorized with just a statement necklace or a [simple hanging] necklace. Additionally, whether you are a classic dresser or an edgy dresser, you can style it to suit [your own personal style].”
3. A structured blazer
While many modern workplaces don’t require employees to wear suits, anyone working in a white-collar profession will still get plenty of mileage out of a well-fitted and structured blazer.
Philadelphia-based personal stylist Susan Padron considers the blazer a must-have for working women at all phases of their careers, because “adding a blazer to an outfit [offers] structure, defines your waist, and elevates an outfit immediately. A blazer is a staple piece in any wardrobe, as it can be added to complete a suit, worn over a dress, or casually with a graphic tee and jeans.”
4. A multiway shawl
If you’ve ever worked in an office, you probably know the constant summertime struggle of dressing for your building’s Arctic AC temperatures. An easy solution? A lightweight and multi-purpose shawl like the ones offered by Sseko Designs.
Sseko stylist Shanda Spink explains the shawl’s appeal like this: “[Our shawls are] amazing and versatile pieces. You can wear it as a casual shawl, tie it up as a scarf, slip it off the shoulder, tie the corners together to make a wrap top, you can fold up the sleeves for a vest effect … let your creativity take over! There are over 15 ways to style. It is the perfect piece to [take you] from work to a night on the town in two seconds flat.”
5. A timeless and understated piece of jewelry
As far as accessories go, jewelry offers an easy and adaptable way to express your personality and sense of style. But depending on your industry and office culture, a bold statement necklace or an on-trend facial piercing may feel out-of-step with office norms. On the flip side, a simple and classic piece of jewelry, like a chic watch, a monogram necklace, or a strand of pearls can really elevate your look.
Miami stylist Dionne Dean especially favors the latter, stating that “a young professional should always have a string of pearls handy. They will up-level a suit and a polyester blend suit look like it came straight off of the runway.”
6. A high-quality handbag
The ideal handbags for the workplace involve a combination of good looks and high functionality. For best results, you want to seek out a bag featuring premium materials and strong construction, so you don’t end up with snapped straps or worn corners after toting your files and laptop from place to place.
Stylist Gath d’Silva of The Jacket Maker encourages young professionals to consider the needs of their job before selecting the right bag: “It’s best to choose [a handbag] that is not only big on design, but also serves a functional purpose. The size of bag you choose should also match the type of job and work environment you’re in.”
Jennifer Rosson of Style Your Life agrees with this assessment and believes that a high-quality handbag is worth an investment. “A nice handbag is a must. It elevates any look and it makes you seem you like you have your stuff together (even if you don’t). You could have on the most amazing suit, but if you are carrying an old and worn-out handbag, it ruins the entire look. Because you use your handbag every day, you can spend more on it and still get great cost-per-wear value,” Rosson told Fairygodboss.
Whether you’re working with a Prada budget or seeking out a more economical option, it’s worth setting aside a few bucks for a well-made tote that can last you for years.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.