Add Oomph to Any Outfit
Dressing to impress isn’t always an easy formula. We’re often presented with the polarizing options of classic or trendy — which leads us to think that we must choose between conservative and boring or hip and fun. But there is something in-between, and finding that sartorial sweet-spot will help you visually distinguish yourself.
The trick? Find high-quality investment pieces that are slightly different than the traditional norm. Anchoring your ensemble with one of these pieces will elevate your entire outfit and make room to fill in with other less expensive pieces that provide variety (for those who haven’t yet embraced the power of a uniform).
Sometimes it’s difficult to justify a sticker price that initially registers as a “splurge” purchase — but being frugal isn’t always about paying the lowest possible price upfront. It’s about investing in quality and calculating your long-term price per wear. That’s not to say you always have to pay full-price: If you have the time and energy to dedicate to sale shopping and know other clever strategies for bargain hunting, it is possible to buy investment pieces for less. But adding pieces like these to your wishlist will keep you focused on quality and help you avoid buying other, less strategic pieces just because they’re on sale.
The blazer: It’s chic, modern, and authoritative. But all blazers are not created equal. It’s just as easy to look dowdy, frumpy and dated in one. What to look for? The first rule of blazers is fit. If it’s not a perfect fit, pay a little extra for tailoring (remember: these are investment pieces and therefore worth the extra expense, since you should plan to have it for the long-haul). A little stretch will add comfort and allow for an even closer fit. Black is a great staple, but can be dull, so a stand-out detail, like leather trim, adds a classic-yet-current edge with staying power. It’s reasonable to think you’d wear it at least once per week for over five years (possibly closer to 10), so focus on quality and durability for the best long-term price-per-wear.
Style inspiration: Helmut Lang Blazer on sale, $196
At first glance, booties may seem trendy, but I assure you they are going to stick around. They are one of the most flexible footwear pieces, pairing equally well with pants and dresses, and working both professionally and casually. Chances are, you already have too many pairs of black shoes so opt for a lighter color instead. The color of these booties will go with any hue and offer a much-needed twist to an all-black outfit.
Focus on high-quality leather with a wooden heel at a height that suits your comfort level and professional context. Opt for a pair without a lot of hardware (which can expire or look dated quickly). A slightly rounded toe is both sophisticated and less faddish (so it will last longer). Maximize their longevity by having rubber soles put on them before you ever wear them, which allows you to re-sole them for years and years and keep them looking fresh.
Style Inspiration: Joie Rigby Booties, $375
This is stylish minimalism at its finest. Forget about over-priced, trendy designer bags (seriously). A simple, high quality bag is one of the best investments you can make. Look for a piece with as few details as possible to really stand-out, and let the craftsmanship and quality of the leather speak for itself. It will get softer and build character as it wears — something it should continue to do for the better part of a decade (or more).
A tote offers versatility and practical use. A cognac color matches well with everything. Be sure the straps are long enough to fit comfortably on your shoulder. Patch up leather scratches and keep it looking like new with leather conditioner.
Style inspiration: Everlane Petra Market, $365
A sweater coat is an item you can wear nearly every day of the year: as a perfect transitional piece in spring and fall, as a cozy layer under your winter coat, and as your office shield against an over-active air conditioner in the summer. To maximize its seasonless versatility, opt for a lighter color — it won’t look like a winter sweater in the warmer months, and will stand out from the sea of black when it’s cold.
Fabric is important. Stick with natural fibers and avoid acrylic, which pills and looks cheap very quickly (and doesn’t offer optimal warmth and breathability). Avoid buttons and zips, and instead gravitate toward clean lines and an open drape. Sweater coats can veer into bathrobe territory, so be sure it’s still a trim fit and not one that leaves you swimming awkwardly in the garment — or give it extra shape with a wide waist belt.
Style inspiration: Pure Amici Oversized Cashmere Sweater Jacket, $238.90
Just because it’s raining doesn’t mean you want to show up to a meeting in oversized, industrial footwear — nor does it mean you’re interested in ruining your favorite heels. Investing in a pair of sleekly practical rain boots is the perfect compromise. Look for tall styles that ward off splashes and save your pants.
A slight wedge will give a hint of height and keep it safely out of army boot territory, and a slightly pointed toe will further distinguish these boots from more casual varieties. Buy them large enough to wear heavy wool socks in the winter to enjoy their stylish protection year-round.
If you’re like me, you have enough Little Black Dresses to last multiple lifetimes. But a no-fuss work dress is the number one item I always recommend to my clients. Keep it simple-yet-striking with a soft grey or another neutral shade. A slightly scooped neckline is universally flattering, and ¾ sleeves give it seasonless longevity.
As with blazers, fit is of primary importance with dresses, so tailor accordingly. Look for a dress with a little stretch for forgiving mobility. Wear it multiple times a week by layering with your blazer or sweater coat, wearing a wide belt, or adding a lightweight scarf or statement necklace.
Style inspiration: DvF Marilyn Sheath Dress, $375
Like the Little Black Dress, a collared oxford shirt is one piece most working women have too many of (and they rarely flatter the female form). Instead, shift your shopping attention to silk blouses. Feminine, easy to fit, and with just the right amount of flowy life to the fabric, silk blouses are the oxford’s more sophisticated cousin. They look professional, yet are infinitely more dramatic and stylish. They pair well with slim slacks or a pencil skirt, worn out or belted at the waist, or layered under a blazer. If sheerness is a concern, find a fitted camisole in a matching or neutral color to layer underneath and hide bra straps. Style with thin, metallic chains and bracelets for effortless accessorizing. Take care of the blouse, and it can last for several years.
Style inspiration: Vince Silk Blouse, $285
I advocate for my clients to adopt what I refer to as “second skin” jewelry: sleek, simple, high-quality metallic pieces they can wear every day, with just about everything, without even thinking about it. A thin gold cuff can be worn alone for insta-polish, or if you’re feeling more inventive, layer with other pieces, like thin bangles or even your watch (and don’t be afraid to mix metals!). The pyramid spikes on either end of this cuff adds distinctive edginess. Look for pure metals or at least gold-plated designs to avoid tarnishing.
Style inspiration: Elizabeth and James Vogel Cuff, $95
Even the most conservative, dull outfit comes to life when paired with patterned hosiery. Geometric shapes and patterns are simultaneously classic and contemporary. If you are prone to snags, look for a heavier knit or more opaque option.
Investing in multiple pairs and patterns is an affordable way to change up the same dress and skirts day after day. Hand wash or put in a delicates bag when washing and hang dry. Look for a little control top if you need a bit more tummy support — the other added bonus of hosiery is it creates a smooth, flattering look under your clothes.
Style inspiration: Spanx Sheer Diamond Tights, $28
Men’s Ferragamo loafers have long been aspirational, status symbol footwear at certain corporations, but that doesn’t mean women can’t play that game, too — by their own rules. Ferragamos may be too far out of your financial reach, but they can serve as style inspiration. Look for another pair of metallic loafers that’s similar in style and will serve your quest for distinctive, practical footwear. They’re traditionally menswear-inspired, but the metallic twist gives them a workplace edge. Wear with skinny legs and more voluminous pant styles alike.
Metallic may seem bold, but these loafers are never going out of style and can be worn several times per week in even the most conservative offices, so with proper care, their lifetime price-per-wear should be extremely low. It’s especially important to have rubber soles put on these, as the thin loafer sole will wear down quickly without it — and once it’s gone, there’s no going back (the added sole will also keep the leather from getting scuffed as easily). Add removable insoles for extra comfort.
Style inspiration: Salvatore Ferragamo Flat Loafers, $450
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.