“Work Wardrobe Building, Part Four: Accessible Accessories” is a post by Adina J, TimelessFinance columnist and author of Blue collar / Red lipstick.
So far we’ve covered the basic work wardrobe in full, and even talked about how to add some excitement to your closet. In this final installment of my style series, I am going to tackle that most fun of wardrobe categories: accessories.
Accessories are a crucial component of any well-edited closet, and not just for the shoe-lovers among us. The right accessories can pull together an outfit, dress it up or down, and give wardrobe staples a whole lot of extra mileage. If you can’t afford to expand your wardrobe beyond neutral basics, you can always inject colour and style through the judicious use of accessories. Here are some ideas.
No post on accessories can start with anything other than shoes. Shoes can often make or break an outfit – not to mention your feet – so it makes sense to pay extra attention to them. Despite what Joe might advocate, buying your shoes at the Dollar Store will not cut it in an office environment unless you’re on the cleaning staff. My advice is always to go with quality over quantity: buy fewer shoes, but the best you can afford. You actually don’t need as many work shoes as you might think, especially if you do the un-trendy thing and wear runners (or other non-work footwear) on your commute. Below, I am going to talk about the basics of a “work shoe wardrobe”, but here’s a more extensive look at must-haves for your general shoe collection.
If we are talking strictly about office wear (taking the outdoors and climate out of consideration), you only really need three pairs of shoes. Yep, just three: one black pair, one nude pair, and one red pair. Black shoes go with everything, including other neutrals like navy and brown.
Nine West Caress pumps (black)
Nude shoes are the footwear equivalent of Spanx, making you look taller (and, by extension, slimmer), and also pair well with pretty much any colour.
Nine West Rocha pumps (nude)
Red shoes provide a fantastic pop of colour to otherwise neutral outfits.
Nine West Flax pumps (red)
Colour-aside, there are a few other things to consider when buying shoes.
- Heel height – Generally, 3 inches is the happy compromise between height and comfort. If you’ve got a “shorty” complex (like I do), then you can try a higher heel – just look for a shoe with a built in platform to keep the differential manageable. If you’re not a heels kind of gal, then flats are a perfectly respectable option. Just make sure that your pants are properly hemmed, and that your skirts are a bit on the shorter side (at least 2 inches above the knee) so as to avoid looking unnecessarily stumpy.
- Style – Pointy toed shoes have, hands down, a sexier vibe than round-toed ones (Editor Joe’s Note: I couldn’t disagree more. Even the slightest point makes a woman like she’s wearing elf shoes.), while the latter tend to be more classic and comfortable. Unless you live in a climate that is warm all-year round, I’d be wary of peep-toe shoes; they demand that you keep your pedicure up to date at all times, and are less practical in fall and winter – because, no matter what celebrities or fashion bloggers tell you, peep toes and tights (especially of the opaque variety) are not a happy mix.
- Material – Unless you are a vegan or member of PETA, I highly recommend leather shoes over any man-made materials. The shoes will breathe better and last longer. Patent leather can look particularly luxe, and in dark colours, it doesn’t show wear very much. (An easy trick for erasing scuffs on light-coloured patent leather is to use a Q-tip dipped in nail polish remover). Other materials, like suede or nubuck, can be a bit trickier to care for, and likely will require additional outlay of money on protective sprays and the like.
Speaking of caring for your shoes, always – always – take your shoes to a cobbler whenever the heel tip wears down. Don’t destroy a good shoe for want of a $6 replacement tip.
- Brand – My favourite shoe brand is Stuart Weitzman; sadly, his shoes are muy expensivo. I learned my Spanish from watching The Mexican, in case you’re wondering. (Editor Joe’s Note: I learned my Spanish from “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” and Taco Bell commercials.) Luckily, my second favourite brand is Nine West, who might well be the epitome of good quality, stylish affordable office footwear – just look at the photos above. With that said, retail prices at Nine West are on par with, say, Aldo’s – which is to say, too high. Wait for sales, or look for their shoes at Winners, where a pair won’t run you more than $60 at regular price (and cheaper on clearance). Other similar brands you can find at Winners include Calvin Klein, Tahari, and Ellen Tracy.
As much as I love shoes, I am a bag-person above all. I could easily write an entire 2,000 word post about them, bringing Joe to his wits’ end in the process. I won’t do that; instead, just a few words on picking the right bag(s) for your lifestyle.
If you’re a one-bag-at-a-time kind of person, picking the right one will be even more important because … well, you only have one. Obvious things first: if you like changing your bag every few months, don’t spend too much money on it. Go ahead and buy some trendy pleather bag, because you don’t need to worry too much about it holding up or looking stylish in a few years’ time.
On the other hand, if you prefer to hold on to your bag for more than a couple of seasons, find the best quality you can afford. Needless to say, quality does not necessarily equate to designer brands. In fact, many so-called designer brands are all hype, and not much quality. I won’t name names, but if it’s a brand that you can regularly spot on the arms of 16 year-olds taking the bus, then it’s probably a safe bet that the company spends more on marketing than on actual quality. To suss out quality, look to the materials used, the workmanship, and the overall attention paid to details. Some of the brands I love include Arcadia (available at Winners), Kate Spade, and MARC by Marc Jacobs. Between sales and the second-hand market, you can easily find these and other similar brands in the $100-250 range. (EJN: I just spit out some of my energy drink. I carried my lunch to work in a Price Chopper bag, and then when I got a free bag from the Trent University Career Centre for doing a talk, I started using that.)
If, like most of us, you prefer to have more than one bag at your disposal, it’s still important to pick carefully. My general approach is to have only one bag of a particular style or a particular colour in my closet. The only exception I make is for black bags, of which I have two (in different styles). Depending on the contents of your closet, colours that will give you the most wear for the buck include black (obviously), brown, red, navy, cream, grey, and camel/tan. Bags should complement and accessorize your outfits, rather than clash; this is why trendier shades, like pastels or neons, which require you to accessorize your outfit to your bag (and not vice versa) are not as savvy an investment.
For the office, the three most useful bag styles, combining polished style and utility, are the tote, the structured bag, and the messenger bag.
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Jewelry can be one of the cheapest ways to add colour and visual interest to an outfit. Costume jewelry is abundant and inexpensive. Even silver jewelry can fall into that category, if you shop at places like Winners.
Pearls (fake or real), diamond studs (ditto), and vintage brooches are some of the key pieces to consider for your jewelry drawer (and here are a few more). If you go with the faux versions, they can easily be found for $20 or less.
Scarves & Belts
If you’re not much of a jewelry-wearer, you still have lots of options for adding colour and an extra dash of style to your outfits. Scarves are a great option for the former, and functional to boot – especially once the temperature drops. Although scarf-tying might be an art to the always-chic French, it doesn’t have to be intimidating to the rest of us. There is practically no wrong way to tie a scarf.
One of the big lessons I quickly learned through working both on my own wardrobe and helping others’ with theirs, was the importance of belts. Perhaps more so than any other type of accessory, belts are scary to a lot of people. There is a widespread misconception that belts only favour the ultra-thin, or only certain body types. Not true. The right belt can easily be the finishing touch that takes an outfit from “okay” to “OMG, I love what you’re wearing!” – no matter what size or shape you are. The key is knowing (a) what kind of belt to use; and (b) how to use it. Naturally, as this depends largely on what your proportions and what you’re wearing, an exhaustive guide is beyond the scope of my post here. However, one of my favourite and easiest ways to use belts is to pair them with a tucked-in top and either a skirt or pants.
Some women feel self-conscious about using a belt anywhere near their mid-section, thinking that it might only serve to draw attention to areas that don’t need it. One solution is to wear a jacket or cardigan that comes down over the belt, effectively covering 75% of it (sides and back, frequently the big “problem” areas). You might think, “what’s the point of wearing a belt if I’m going to cover it up?” and the answer is simple. The visible line created by the belt at the front creates the illusion of a defined waistline even if you can’t see the sides. To give you an example, look at the photo below:
Can you tell that I was over 6 months pregnant when that photo was taken? (I assure you, my side profile looked like I was smuggling a basketball under that skirt.) If you’re still not convinced about the magical power of belts, you can check out these style make-overs and draw your own conclusions.
Another underrated accessory category is hosiery. For a lot of women, the word conjures up unpleasant, or downright painful, memories of control-top hose or grandma-approved tights. Nowadays, though, hosiery offers so many more options – from funky patterned tights, to sexy lined nylons, and bright coloured tights. You might not think that many of these options would be appropriate for the office, but paired with a neutral wardrobe, they most definitely can be.
So, to sum up, don’t underestimate the big impact a few well-chosen accessories can have on an outfit, and how much extra life they will bring to work wardrobe basics. Don’t forget to follow my Remix Challenge over at BCRL, where every Sunday I recap a week’s worth of (mostly work) outfits to show just how much mileage a well-edited wardrobe can give you.