How to get ahead in work(wear)

Well WAIWers, we have a change of plan. Thanks to feedback from a Facebook friend (how modern!), I have unanticipated – but entirely appropriate and timely – material for my post.

So…a woman of a certain age – who has enjoyed considerable success in her chosen field and could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as a ‘flibbertigibbet’ – asks for advice. After a career working with serious people, she’s moved to a working environment where her co-workers are – to quote her – ‘fashion conscious’. The whole situation is further complicated by the fact that, in the past, fashion was not a priority. Often, it wasn’t even a practicality.

In short, the lady is out of practice at negotiating office style: which is not to say that the woman in question has no style. No siree – after doing some research, I can tell you that she has been rocking the 70s inspired, ‘Charlie’ look on screen for a while. And that is a huge trend for Autumn/Winter 2010.  

Now, our advisee has realistic self-image (and, don’t worry, none of us are as slim now as when we were 20) and knows her tastes – although has admitted that the ‘Joanie’ look may not be as practical as Christina Hendricks makes it look. This realistic approach to clothing may not be the one adopted by many of her colleagues but it is the one that any sensible woman should choose.

It’s very easy, when surrounded by conspicuous fashion appreciation, to feel a need to keep up. After all, following fashion can become quite mesmerising – addictive even. Fashion moves fast – it’s not just a biannual thing anymore: designers often update collections mid-season, in response to customer reaction and sales. There are now Cruise collections which serve as a ‘taster’ for new products and tempt the customer. Fashion appeals to the inner magpie – it’s a colourful, shiny, sparkly world with lots of lovely products to tempt, even the most informed, shopper. You can look at the September and March edition of the fashion magazines with the best of intentions and still be lead astray…

If you will indulge me, dear readers, I will attempt to illustrate this through personal anecdote: I used to buy all the glossies and treat them with a uniquely ridiculous perspective. They were everything – I was chomping at the bit for information on the new season trends; I treated the actual paper and print with reverence (I still have ten years worth of pristine Vogues) and planned my seasonal buys with military precision. I would calculate a budget, choose the looks that both flattered and appealed to me: pieces (do you hear that pretension, friends?) had to combine with existing ‘crossover’ items that would take me from season to season and – most important – with the ‘classics’ that endure whatever the fashion weather.

It sounds like perfect sense – when you take away the fact that I am talking about clothes. However, I never stuck to my principles. I’d have my head turned by any new update that I felt fitted my fashion ethos. I’d buy too many versions of exactly the same thing – black trousers are my Achilles heel. I’d get bored with my chosen colour schemes and go off piste – buying things that didn’t go with anything else. Then I’d buy extra stuff to match. I’d get bored with my classics, buy one season wonder accessories (usually handbags) to ‘update’ and then just have to purchase matching shoes, scarves, hats etc. God, it just went on and on and on…and the wardrobe got bigger and bigger and bigger.

The lesson I learnt – eventually – is that the plan is great but you have to be super strict. I suppose that is the very definition of growing up and has been mirrored in many other parts of my (or anyone’s) life. However, for the person who’s new to the fashion conscious workplace, the learning curve will need to be ascended very quickly. After all, in your 30s, collecting paperbased shopping bags (if you love fashion, you soon realise that they are a badge of honour); getting into fashion related debt; going magpie or over accessorising looks ridiculous.

So…to get to the advice part of this sermonising, I recommend taking a long look at your fellow employees and realising that some will qualify for the title ‘Clacker’. I can’t claim credit for this term – Andy Sachs, via Lauren Weisberger, is the fashion philosopher who came up with it originally. For the uninitiated among us, it describes those delightful young people whose heels precede their arrival. The ‘click clack’ of their shoes on parquet flooring is frightening. Luckily, on the cheap carpet most companies buy, the effect is somewhat muted. However, whilst the noise may be muffled, the vibrations still carry. They tend to congregate in the worlds of marketing, PR and event organisation.

These women cannot be seen as an example or competed with. There is no point in even trying and you must reconcile yourselves to this fact. Instead, observe them and bask in the knowledge that they are generally too high maintenance to maintain long term relationships and too self-obsessed to rise above middle management. You, on the other hand, have to think ahead – and think big time, not this season’s statement ladylike handbag size. To this end, I advise ease. It’s that simple.

Starting at the bottom layer – get comfortable, invisible, wearable underwear. VPL is not acceptable. Even if you are a teenager or WAG. It looks tacky at best – and slutty at worst. Underwear should be the foundation for everything you wear and support your body so it looks its best for your clothing. Whilst lingerie that performs this function is rarely seductive, it will improve your silhouette and make your clothes look smarter. I recommend looking at specialist stockists like Figleaves or Bravissimo. They cater for every size and sometimes offer surprisingly pretty options. Get items in black, nude (Figleaves do them in every colour of ‘nude’ – I need a kind of nearly blue, victim of Soviet era malnutrition colour, for example) and white. If you need lingerie for any purpose other than improving your fashion choices, go mad! But leave them in the top drawer when you go to work.

Any hosiery should come be dark or nude. Nude is back – thanks to that Bruni woman. I hate it but, sometimes, it’s a necessary evil. If you suffer from my skin tone, it evens it out and gives a toning effect. Opaque black always works best in matt but low denier is in again at the moment. I’ll leave that to your personal taste. Thanks to a frankly regrettable trend for brightly coloured tights – which were neither flattering nor ‘fun’ – we now have a toned down option. This means that tights are now available in colours like dark grey, brown and various blues. I love these options. But always go opaque. Always – they come in a woolly texture reminiscent of school tights. But without the nylon and with wool. Meaning no ‘scratchy scratchy’ and lots of ‘mmm…hug in a tight’

So to clothes…I am loathe to say this as we all think we’re younger than we are. However, I’m going to plunge straight in and say ‘First Ladies’. Don’t all do the sharp intake of breath and turn off your internet – hear me out: we presently live in an era when we have two good style examples. Note, I didn’t throw the ‘icon’ word around: I think we’ll have to see whether their influences last before we use that word. At the moment, on either side of the Atlantic, we have examples of women who mix high street with high end with equal success.

They wear different styles of clothes – but they shop in a very similar way. It may be the credit crunch – or it may just be that they’re smart. In terms of intelligence, of course. We can all learn from their examples and adopt this approach. And we can do it all on the high street – if, we too, are smart. I would say that, as we age, we do need to consider quality more. This may mean a slightly better class of high street, but it’s still regular retail – rather than snotty shop girl territory.

When it comes to Michelle Obama, basics are key. She tends to opt for one of two options: either a dress and cardigan or a skirt with cardigan and blouse. The key piece is either the shift or the skirt – it’s hard to get knitwear in a print, after all – and the cardy and/or blouse usually pick out a colour. Michelle (we are totally on first name terms, don’t you know!) rarely wears anything complicated or uncomfortable. There are a maximum of three articles of clothing at any one time. She then opts for ballet flats and some throw on jewellery. Both can be banged about without worry. The jewellery’s paste and the flats and standard and interchangeable with another pair in a different colour. No constricting jackets, no weighty handbags. Those two points aren’t realistic for most of us but, keeping with the simple philosophy, it should be pretty easy to keep the faith.

With Sam Cam (don’t go party political now – fashion’s too shallow for those considerations), we see a similar lack of fuss. However, we do also see trousers. Rare in a First Lady, indeed. Very rare. With a different figure to Michelle’s, she opts for a much more body conscious line around her bottom half – often with a fussier, more extravagant top. Texture is important – whereas the American equivalent goes for print. With Sam (I’m also on first name terms with her, of course), we also see heels – but they’re mostly wedges or have a sturdy feel. With no ‘click clack’ factor – demonstrating that she knows her fashion age.

Both women wear simple coats which occasionally feature very subtle detail – a three quarter length sleeve, for example, allows for a glimpse of coloured glove or statement bracelet. In a neutral colour, at the right length, a good coat will go with all your wardrobe. And, since they’re an expensive purchase, it’s important to try every example you can. Don’t discount any style until you’ve tried it, walked up and down and had a good swish around.       

Choose accessories that go with everything and with each other. Choose shoes you can walk in. Choose handbags big enough to hold your phone, diary, touch up make-up, hairbrush, pen, reading material, even lap top (if necessary), sunglasses and any scarves or gloves. Do not make the mistake of carrying more than one – it’s cat lady and untidy. Sunglasses can still be bug-ish but scarves mustn’t be overblown – a small pashmina will make a comeback.

Lastly, a quick run-down of this season’s key trends – and we’re finally in luck! On two counts: firstly, they’re nearly all easy to wear and secondly, they’re easy for the high street to copy well. Even Tesco is doing a passable version of a cape. It even comes with a belted waste – which is an essential, unless you fancy looking like a toadstool.

I predict the most relevant trends for every woman will be the following: trousers, camel, 70s office style (think Faye Dunaway in Network – not Jane Fonda in 9 to 5), ladylike handbags, loafer-style heels (which Tom, the God, Ford did back in A/W 95 – but I’ll get off that subject now), tailoring, 50s style dresses and separates, not pantomime-ish military, maxi length skirts and colour tones in the spectrum from purple to red – and everything in between. If colour’s your thing, you should be able to find an fashionable option to suit: from pale lilac to mauve to iris to indigo through blackberry, purest purple then jumping into aubergine, plum and claret. I haven’t even mentioned all the reds – Russian, pillarbox, shanghai silk etc, etc, etc. 

Now it’s time for your homework assignment: get online and take a look at things that fit the bill, your budget and – crucially – your life. Personally, due to my (totally understandable) fixation with Tom Ford, I have enough wide leg trousers and skinny flare jeans to last a lifetime. I’m looking at a cape and dusting off my collection of good quality handbags. This season it’s all about the old rules – quality big pieces, updating with inexpensive things. I’ve bought a great, dove grey, 70s style blouse inexpensively and I’m wearing it under a short, fitted, black, broderie anglaise jacket. It works over good jeans, wide legged pants and the black, bias cut, silk, long skirt I’m going to buy (cheaply again – as I’m not sure that it’ll be a lasting trend) to wear at Christmas parties.

Apart from that, I’m reserving judgement – but I’ll keep you updated. I promise! Now, I’m off to Italy – the land where gaydar is useless and sexy equals the type of clothing my father would have refused to let me wear in or out of the house. A detailed report of my observations will follow.

Sophie x



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