Fashion & Beauty

Easy Pieces: The Wall Street Journal Got Us Thinking About Work Clothes

TWO WEEKS AGO the cover of the Wall Street Journal’s Off Duty section focused on how female workplace dress is changing, particularly at the creative CEO level, including all those WeWork entrepreneurs. The story was interesting and showed a few pairs of $700 high-heeled sandals we could buy.

But it got LittleBird Janet and LittleBird Nancy thinking. Our theory, shared by many, is that all of us have a daily uniform, the piece or pieces we reach for with confidence when it’s time to get a move on and get to the office or the lunch meeting.

We sent out about 100 emails to find out what “real” women wear on a daily basis. Not that we couldn’t just walk around town taking notes, but you readers are OUR women! Which makes your choices important to MLB.

Deb Johns, who with her husband heads up Bungalow, maker of Scout bags, and who runs Get Dressed, personal shopping and wardrobe consulting, chose her uniform years ago. It’s a black T, black leggings (cargo shorts in summer), black sneakers, black  hairband. It works for her, day after day, year after year. (See Nancy’s interview with her.)

We prepared ourselves for an onslaught of “black pants” and weren’t disappointed. But there were thoughtful variations and reasons (and, of course, seasons).

Fashion retailer-turned-event-planner Shawny Burns, partner/owner of the Sorelle Group: “My go-to wardrobe look is actually one piece of clothing that I think in all my years in retail/fashion is the best item I ever bought.

“It is my black Prada pants (ankle length . . . channeling Audrey Hepburn). I have worn these pants to black-tie galas with a beaded top and high-heel evening shoes, to work with a blouse and cropped jacket or sweater set, out on weekends with a white or black T-shirt and ballerina flats or sandals. I have had them for over 13 years and I wish I had bought 3 pairs!”

LittleBird Kathy called herself boring—”White shirts/black pants. Or vice versa. That’s it. My go-to uniform for all seasons”—until we reminded her that she tops the outfits off with these great yellow reading glasses she has. “And orange shoes [Coach moccasins],” she responded. “Maybe there’s hope for me after all.”

Among her staples: “Chico’s no-iron white shirts, regular shirt length and tunic length.  Eileen Fisher black pants. Elastic waist bands for comfort. Variety of leg widths. They wear forever. . . .

“I want to look respectable, but even more I want to be comfortable. The black/white combo always seems to work and it’s one less thing I have to worry about. You can go all out with accessorizing, but most times I don’t even bother. . . . I just don’t get the whole scarf thing. All that material makes me feel like I’m being smothered.”

Yuliya Kuklina, born in Ukraine and now living in New York with her husband and three young children, says, “I’ve been on the ‘fewer, better things’  bandwagon for a while. A few basic T-shirts and silk tanks from Everlane and Cuyana, worn with skinny black pants or jeans, and my trusty leather jacket from AllSaints are the daily ‘uniform.’  And for spring/summer, my go-to casual shoes are leather moccasins from a Miami designer, Alessandra Gold. Insanely comfortable, soft, walk for miles, in great colors and fun prints. (My current fave is amethyst leather).

“For spring days, I love my Comptoir des Cotonniers crepe de chine dresses (also perfect for New York summers) with a leather jacket.”

Priscilla Rabb Ayres, who worked for the Commerce Department under Malcolm Baldrige and later at IBM, understands the value of a classic white shirt. While acknowledging that she works mainly from her home office, she says, “So, my go-to outfit is well-fitting ankle jeans and a white shirt. . . . I wear different jackets . . . belts, shoes and handbags. To dress this outfit up, I favor Hermès scarves. Shoes are primarily ballet flats (I love French Sole), but winter boots are also great.”

Jacqui Salmon, a former Washington Post reporter and now deputy director of media relations at a D.C. trade association, says, “I used to wear a black dress . . .  with a variety of colorful jackets, but that got to look too fussy and old-fashioned and I work with a bunch of millennials. I didn’t want to look like their mother.” So now her work uniform is long black pants with heels, ankle-length with flats. A black jacket and scarves complete the outfit.

Polish-born businesswoman Joanna Sztandur is also in the scarves camp: “One thing that makes any outfit look smarter is a nice scarf and a pair of high heels.” Being European and working in law offices are probably behind Sztandur’s more formal work outfit: “always a shirt (with cufflinks)” with a skirt suit.

Another vote for black pants comes from reader Kamer Davis, retired from Ogilvy & Mather and now consulting for FEMA, who says that her two pairs of black cashmere pants and two pairs of tailored Peserico slacks (“awesome! no knee bag ever”) are all she wants to wear in cooler months, period. Summer calls for loose-cut dresses “that hide the knee” and her go-to for air conditioning, a lightweight silk bomber jacket (“a couple of years ago I realized I [had to] get past jean jackets”).

Kamer points out something: “One truth is that the start of a new season . . . leads me to a lot of ‘I have nothing to wear’ thinking, and often some questionable purchase decisions. As the season wears on, the false friends no longer attract me and I  know who my real friends are.” Hear, hear!

LittleBird Mary revealed that her favorite pants “for almost everything are, believe it or not, Not Your Daughter’s Jeans. I have several colors including gray and black that go pretty well to lunch and board meetings. . . . On the other hand, I love the feel of skirts and dresses, and wear those either when I can bear to wear tights or it’s warm enough to go without.”

Emily Heil, half of the Reliable Source column team at the Washington Post, says she absolutely has a daily uniform. “I’m dressing more casually than I ever have. . . . My go-to is a pair of skinny dark jeans (charcoal or black), ankle boots, a blouse and a necklace. . . . In the spring I switch to ballet flats. I always wear a bright lipstick—red, coral or hot pink—which I think dresses up the denim. Makes my mornings way easier!”

A Post colleague, Melissa McCullough, says that her “fallback is not a certain piece [of clothing] just the color black. . . . It’s so much easier accessorizing when I just pull together black slacks, tops and footwear!” She confesses to having more animal prints than she used to: “As I’ve become older, I feel very comfortable with my animal prints!”

Reader Nancy Gold, a Philadelphia lawyer, votes for black as well but adds, “Most of my black trousers have something interesting about them—cinched ankles, a big wide waistband, origami detailing, skinny legs, big wide legs. . . . My jackets are not, for the most part, suit jackets, but also interesting cuts—blouson, wrap, cropped, long blazers.  Everything gets worn with a T-shirt—either black or white.”

If she’s not seeing clients, Nancy adds, she’s in skinny jeans, jacket and boots.

As a dermatologist, Tina Alster, M.D., wears a white lab coat at work. But underneath? “I favor Alaia sleeveless knit dresses (fit & flare)”—stretchy and comfortable. Her high heels or ankle boots make her “feel confident and strong (and they look good, too!)”

Weekends and travel call for Alaia leggings plus a sweater or tunic “that covers my bum.” She also loves slip-on shoes (Dior/Celine/Givenchy sneakers) for travel—”they don’t set off the alarm [when going] through security and are super-comfy.”

Elizabeth Wydra, who recently became president of the Constitutional Accountability Center think tank, is also a dress enthusiast, with a work uniform of “solid-color dress (often a shade of blue), with a black Theory blazer, no stockings and very high heels.” She also has a stable of long-sleeved dresses (mostly Diane von Furstenberg) “that make dressing east and chic.”

In contrast to other readers, Elizabeth confides: “No trousers, pretty much ever (I work hard on these legs!),” although she always has at least one pants suit to wear when she has to sit on a stage without a table in front of her.

When thinking about her wardrobe, Fairmont hotels public relations woman Diana Bulger concentrates on belts. So whatever else she has on, she’ll have a fun belt (“Gump’s has a great selection. I have gold alligator, shell, rope . . . “), plus her double-stranded pearls or her Ann Hand eagle and pearl pin.

It would depress readers too much to detail the uniform of “boat babe” Fiona Woods as she and her husband follow the weather on their sailing yacht (think skorts and tank tops). But a lot of us can come close. As one reader, Judy Goozh, asked, “Does Lululemon count as a fashion statement?” Indeed it does. For lots of women.

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