Start With Your Foundation
Flexible staples are the foundation of an effective professional wardrobe. Without them, you’re left staring at your closet wondering what to wear — a frustrating and time-consuming scenario. Buying a few pieces that can transform into multiple looks is an efficient, cost-effective way to stock your wardrobe and simplify your life. And one of the best places to start is with a classic white T-shirt.
Our pick: Mod Bod Cap Sleeve Tee, $26
I think this tee is a winner for several reasons. Here’s why (and what to look for when finding your own):
- Fabrication: Luxury fabrics make a difference. One-hundred-percent cotton is not as refined as cotton mixed with super-soft modal. And an added bit of stretch transforms a T-shirt from casual to professional.
- Color: When cared for properly, whites can look fresh and new, wear after wear, with the help of a laundry booster like Oxiclean.
- Neckline: This scooped ballet neckline is not as high and conservative as a crew, but not as cleavage-revealing as a V-neck, making it a nice option for the office.
- Sleeves: The cap sleeve makes layering easy, as does the fitted silhouette, both of which also register this top as a more sophisticated, less “sloppy” knit than your average tee.
- Length: A slightly longer length allows you to wear it tucked in (smoothly, without the bulk) or stretched low over a skirt or pants and belted.
Once you’ve found your tee, it’s time to get creative and change it up based on your daily demands and personal context. Here are some looks to inspire you as you piece together your own white-tee-centered work wardrobe.
Master the Creative Professional Look
In many offices, an entire wardrobe could be built around the blazer, statement necklace and tee combo. It strikes the perfect balance between professional and creative, buttoned up yet comfortable. Remember to minimize other jewelry when wearing a statement piece. Pair with a casual chino and loafers or stick with a more formal bottom, like a pencil skirt or tailored slacks and heels, depending upon your office culture.
Add a Feminine Flair
T-shirts aren’t known for their dressy femininity, but combining one with a slim skirt and an accent belt pulls it all together and adds a layer of polish. Add a belt over the tee, or tuck it in and belt at the waist. Accentuating the waist is flattering for nearly every body type, so this look works well on both curvy and straight figures. Presentations or meetings with clients are good opportunities to add a touch of sartorial femininity.
Strike a Measured Balance
For in-between weather and offices with temps that fluctuate by the minute (or the room), adding a scarf can fill the temperature gap — not only to maximize comfort, but also to increase productivity. Consider a no-fuss infinity scarf accented by a minimalist bracelet. Pairing a fitted tee with voluminous trousers maintains visual balance and creates a striking silhouette (particularly if you’re on the taller side).
This look is perfect for creative environments, like advertising or publishing, which skew more bohemian chic than Brooks Brothers. Layering your tee with an unstructured or loosely fitting blouse and long skirt creates an outfit you’ll want to wear beyond the office walls. Be careful not to veer into sloppy territory: A belt is a great way to add shape to otherwise free-flowing pieces, while also lending the ensemble a bit of polish. Finish it off with ankle boots.
Refine Your Go-To Combo
Everyone needs a mindless wardrobe option for days when you need to minimize decision-making and put your focus elsewhere, like when you’re under the wire to meet a deadline. Cardigans and slim pants are a winning go-to wardrobe combo for most offices. Plug in your white tee as the constant variable in this formula for a no-fuss finish that completes the look.
Create a Cozy Career Chic Look
For casual days where you want to feel cozy, but still need to look professional, combine your tee with a soft bottom like a cord. Pull the look together with a coordinating vest and structured riding boot for an effortlessly chic ensemble that feels good on the body. Adding an accessory like a long chain helps to give the outfit a little upgrade.
We often don’t have time to run home before an evening event. This look will take you from the office into after hours without the need for a costume change. For some occasions, like a more formal cocktail party, think about layering with the tee during the day, then transition by taking it off at night for a dressier look. In colder weather, add a scarf by day and swap with a bold statement necklace at night — and the scarf can double as a shawl in the evening.
Redefine “Office Wear”
Think outside the work-wardrobe box as much as your office permits. Extend the life of your sheer casual blouses and make them office-appropriate by wearing your tee underneath. Balance the blouse with a legging that looks more “work” than “workout” and wear year-round in creative offices. Not sure what’s acceptable? When in doubt, take your lead from the highest ranking woman in your office.
Punk? Goth? You don’t have to go to subculture extremes to communicate edginess at the office. A white T-shirt may not scream “edgy,” but when paired with the right bottom and accessory, it becomes elegantly polished — but the opposite of preppy.
Go From Risque to Reserved
Modesty trumps overt sex appeal in most offices, but many pieces can operate at multiple points along the sexiness spectrum. A dress that might otherwise be too revealing for work can become office-appropriate by covering a little flesh with a tee. Something as subtle as a cap sleeve can make a world of difference and effectively bridge the gap between party and professional.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is the "thinking person's stylist" and the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image-related issues and offers holistic wardrobe and image consulting services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.