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How to build the perfect capsule wardrobe for work

5 essential tips to finding a work uniform that works for you

How to build the perfect capsule wardrobe for work
[Photo: Deagreez/iStock]

I pride myself on my punctuality. But recently, I had to push an appointment back by 20 minutes. This wasn’t because of subway delays or an accident or a call that ran late. It was because I simply couldn’t figure out what to wear. I’m ashamed to admit that I allowed my indecision over how to pair an oversize blazer with culottes to derail both my schedule and (in my mind, at least) my professional reputation. But I know I’m not alone. Who among us hasn’t wondered, while rooting through a pile of clothes disgorged from an unruly closet: “Isn’t there a better way to do this?”

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The answer is: Embrace a work uniform, and put your mind (and your time) toward more productive things than getting dressed.

There are plenty of successful folks who have adopted work uniforms. Steve Jobs famously wore a black turtleneck, New Balance sneakers, and blue jeans nearly every day. Barack Obama, during his presidency, mostly limited himself to dark formal wear. “I’m trying to pare down decisions, he told Vanity Fair in 2012. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.” Director Christopher Nolan has said that he began regularly wearing a blue shirt and a blazer after realizing it was a waste of energy to choose a different outfit each day.

Having a consistent wardrobe, though, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice style. For advice on how to choose, buy, and rock a work uniform, we turned to Sarah Tam, Rent the Runway‘s chief merchant, for advice. Here’s her guide.

Step 1: Be honest with yourself

“You have to find your own personal style by first understanding what suits you—that’s the start to maintaining individuality with a uniform,” Tam says. “Your signature style could be a color palette, certain silhouettes, or adding an accessory, such as a scarf or even a red lip. The key is finding items that make you feel comfortable and confident.” Our favorite classic (universally flattering!) red lip is courtesy of Fenty Beauty’s Poutsicle lipstick in the shade Hot Blooded ($14).

Step 2: Purge your closet of anything that isn’t essential

“Evaluating your personal preferences that encapsulate your personality and lifestyle is the start to finding your uniform,” Tam says. Take an audit of your current wardrobe, and ask yourself the following questions: What are your go-to pieces that make you feel most self-assured? What color palette suits you best? What silhouettes feel most flattering? What aesthetic and visual elements are you attracted to? What words describe your personal style?

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Use your answers to guide your personal style and uniform. And if you need inspiration as you’re weeding out your closet, read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown or Marie Kondo’s classic, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

[Photo: courtesy of Veronica Beard]

Step 3: Honor thy blazer

“A tailored blazer is the perfect piece that everyone should own in their wardrobe,” says Tam. “It can be paired over a dress for an interview or a pair of jeans for a Friday afternoon. Having a blazer that fits well will make any outfit look more polished.” She suggests trying on different cuts of blazers—fitted, boyfriend, and cropped. “You can also experiment with different color palettes and see what evokes your own personal preferences.” Don’t know which brands to start with? Check out Veronica Beard (the Dickey jacket is a FC favorite), Iro (for incredible, sharply tailored cuts), and Phillip Lim (the go-to modern look).

[Photo: courtesy of Everlane]

Step 4: Commit to finding pants that fit

According to Tam, the perfect-fitting pant is a wardrobe staple that everyone should own. “I prefer silhouettes that drape loosely on the body and are more architectural, such as a wide-leg pant,” she says. Investing in pants that are neutrals such as black, charcoal, camel, navy, and shades of grey helps to ensure that they never look out of place and can be worn with whatever else you have in your closet. Our editors swear by the Side-Zip Work Pant ($50) and Fixed-Waist Work Pant ($58), both from Everlane.

Step 5: Invest in quality

It’s a lesson we all must learn: There’s value in buying a high-quality piece that will last for years. “I always encourage people to shop for pieces that look timeless and to focus on craftsmanship, artisanal details, and fit,” Tam says. If you want to identify—and test out—these more expensive pieces before you purchase them, Rent the Runway can be a great resource. “Rental is a wonderful way to experience different styles,” Tam says. Sign up now for an unlimited 60-day membership with Rent the Runway for $80 (down from regular price of $159) with the code SOSMART.

Fast Company may receive revenue for some links to products on our site.

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