You’re busy. You don’t have time to stand in front of your closet every morning, trying to put together an outfit that will be appropriate for the many events–meetings, client lunches, networking meet-ups, cocktail parties–that are packed into your workday. But if you’re anything like an average American, you spend eight hours a month trying to pick out your outfit. (That’s 100 hours a year.)
These figures come from a recent study conducted by Nordstrom that also found that 61% of Americans struggle to find something to wear. But the great irony is that our closets are literally overflowing with clothes. A full 28% of items in the average person’s closet have either never been worn or gone untouched over the last year.
The remedy to wardrobe panic–particularly when it comes to professional clothes–is to develop a work uniform. The idea is to create a set of go-to outfits that you can wear day after day. It allows you to skip the thought process about what to wear, because you’re basically wearing a variation of the same outfit every single day.
Many highly productive people believe in cutting out wardrobe decisions. Vera Wang, famous for designing elaborate wedding gowns, opts for a black shirt and black pants every day. German chancellor Angela Merkel is known for wearing the same blazer in every color of the rainbow.
But it’s not always so easy to know what to wear. Jeans and a T-shirt might be acceptable in your relaxed office, but it might make you appear sloppy when you’re meeting with an investor. Wearing a blazer might be great when you’re meeting with one client, but you might look prim or overdressed when you’re checking in with another.
For this story, I have scoured the marketplace for eight pieces of clothing that bridge the gap between formal and casual, professional and relaxed. I’ve tested them all for several weeks, mixing and matching them, to make sure they are versatile enough to carry you into different contexts without making you feel over- or underdressed.
Here are the new essentials of the modern work wardrobe.
Leather Jackets Are The New Blazer
For many women, the blazer is a tricky piece of clothing. Nothing makes you look instantly more professional than a nice, well-tailored blazer–but in many workplaces, it instantly signals that you’re the company lawyer or accountant. So what’s the solution? A beautiful, well-made, and minimalistic leather jacket.
I scoured the marketplace, and the one that seemed closest in silhouette to a blazer was the Clo jacket from The Arrivals. The jacket is designed to be well-fitted, like a blazer ought to be. It has a neat, pointed collar, which is also drawn from the design language of a blazer. One important feature of the jacket is that all of the hardware is black, giving it a minimalistic look that blends into whatever you are wearing. I found that this jacket elevated my outfit, whether it was jeans and a black T-shirt, or a dress. It’s a jacket you can wear to give a TED talk or attend a VC pitch, but because it is so understated, you can wear it on the weekend or out to drinks.
Forget Black Slacks, Dark Blue Jeans Are In
A pair of dark blue jeans is the perfect bridge between formal and casual workwear. A dark color calls to mind the slacks your mom wore to the office, but the silhouette of denim means you can slip into more informal contexts without looking too prim.
While there are lots of denim to choose from on the market, it’s not so easy to find a well-made pair of jeans that are flattering, durable, and exactly the right shade of blue. The best one I found was Jac’s Jeans from AYR, a brand whose name stands for All Year Round because it aspires to create versatile garments that can be worn any time.
These jeans come in a wide range of waist sizes and lengths, so there’s no need to have them tailored. They are painstakingly designed to fit perfectly and not ride up. While most jeans have a two-piece waistband, these are made with a single layer of fabric so that it fits more comfortably and creates a slimmer profile. They also have great recovery, so they don’t sag after a few wears. These small tweaks ensure that you’re never worried about how the jeans fit or whether they ride up and down, which you don’t have time for when you’re going about your day.
Ditch The Purse. Get A Convertible Backpack/Satchel/Clutch
Finding an appropriate work bag can be struggle because you need to carry a lot of stuff to get you through the day–a laptop, a water bottle, perhaps some sneakers for the gym–which can weigh you down. But most bags also don’t work with various outfits. A traditional overstuffed work tote looks clunky when you’re going out to lunch. Carrying a backpack is great when you’re wearing a more casual outfit, but it looks odd when you’re in a dress ready for a formal event.
Tara & Co’s convertible leather bag is the perfect solution. It can be worn as a backpack, but can easily be converted into a satchel by pulling the straps. One part of the bag can also be removed, instantly becoming an on-trend, elegant clutch, which is perfect for when you want to carry your wallet and a couple of business cards to an event. This means you just need a single bag to get you through the various activities of your day. The bag also has expandable side pockets, so you can easily carry your water bottle and umbrella. The bag is practical, but it also looks luxurious, since it is made of high-quality leather.
Ban The Office Sweater; Get A Bomber Jacket
The cardigan has been a staple of the office wardrobe since women first entered the workplace. And today, thanks to overactive air conditioning in many buildings, they are a necessity of working life. But while the traditional cardigan is perfect for the twin set or the shift dress, it doesn’t always fit into modern, urban looks.
The bomber jacket has all the functionality of an office cardigan, but is a much more versatile piece of clothing. And there are now many beautiful, well-made versions on the market that bridge the gap between streetwear and professional looks. Take Cuyana’s bomber, for instance. It is streamlined and collarless, made from Italian wool and cashmere, and it works with everything from denim to summer dresses to more formal attire.
Running Tights That Are Boardroom-Ready
There was a time when women began wearing their yoga pants to the office because they were so comfortable and looked good with a button down. ADAY decided to take that concept and create leggings that are just as comfortable as your workout pants, but also look formal enough to wear to the office. For active women who are trying to accomplish a lot during the day, the brand’s Throw and Roll leggings will allow you to hit the gym and immediately head to work afterward.
After trying them for several weeks, I’ve determined that the zips on the front are really the key to making these pants work. The metal zippers recall more formal slacks, giving the outfit a slightly more polished look. One woman actually wore the same pants to both a marathon and a meeting with the British prime minister. That’s versatility for you.
A Reversible Dress That’s Perfect For Travel
Of course, there are days when you just need to wear a shift dress. When that happens, you might want to consider Argent’s reversible work dress. It’s designed to be as versatile as possible. It’s made of a material that allows it to be worn inside out, so that it looks like you have two of the same dress in two different colors. But both sides come equipped with a pocket, so you can keep your phone handy.
The dress doesn’t wrinkle, so it’s easy to bring with you when you travel (and counts as two outfits). And it was also designed to be worn with a long-sleeved shirt or turtleneck inside during the colder months. It’s a dress that is designed to take out some of the clutter from your closet and become a go-to piece that you wear multiple times a week.
High Tops Over High Heels
For men, fancy sneakers have become a workwear staple, replacing Oxfords and other more traditional dress shoes. Many women have done away with wearing heels to work, replacing them with flats. But sneakers should definitely be an option, too. Take Koio, for instance, a brand that creates luxurious unisex sneakers that are handcrafted in Italy. Their black leather high tops can look polished and elegant with a pair of skinny jeans, while still feeling incredibly comfortable.
What I liked about these sneakers is that they are minimalistic. Unlike other sneakers that feel great on your feet but look a tad casual for work, these sneakers look elevated and can be dressed up. They look good with dresses as well as pants, and are fairly rugged, so you can wear them around town without worrying that they will get scuffed or your feet will start aching.
No More Silk Dresses. Get A High-Performing Technical Dress
A work uniform should include a snazzier dress for days when you need to take your look up a notch. If you need to go to a slightly more formal cocktail party after work or perhaps dress up a bit for a presentation, you need a dress that will make you look stylish and professional.
Carbon38 has a dress that fits the bill. Its Waterfall dress has an asymmetrical hem that is very much on trend. But unlike many dresses that are made from silk or cotton, this dress can stand up to pressure: It is made from material with four-way stretch and moisture-wicking properties.
At first, I was a little skeptical about why it would be important to have these features in a dress. But after wearing it for 20 minutes, it became clear. I had put it on for an important interview, but when I was getting my toddler ready for school that morning, she got some of her yogurt on the dress. I wiped it off with a paper towel, and it looked good as new. This doesn’t often happen with the dresses in my closet I save for special occasions. The functionality of the dress means that you can wear it regularly and never worry about it getting ruined when you’re running around town or sweating.