Ask AB: Wardrobe Wisdom in the Home & Office’s "Wardrobe Wizard," image consultant Annie Brumbaugh, tackles your toughest questions about keeping up with trends and what’s appropriate for professional and home life.

By Annie Brumbaugh

A. Many readers have asked about how to dress professionally in an increasingly casual office environment. You say you are from the "old school" and prefer to wear a suit most days. I see nothing wrong with that, since you are a legal assistant in an urban area. A suit has many advantages. It is by nature pulled together, and assuming it fits, it should be flattering. It says, "I take my job seriously."

You report that other members of staff who dress casually to downright inappropriately are putting pressure on you to "chill out" with your wardrobe. It’s too bad they are not emulating you a little! In so many offices, there is no coherent dress code. Do you know how your boss and the other partners feel about this?

Regardless, as we get older, it is important to be current. As the world is a constantly changing place, perhaps your style can evolve along with it. Here are some ideas for keeping up with the times while remaining professional looking:

  • The pivotal piece of professional dress is the jacket. However, it does not necessarily need to be a tailored jacket. I’m guessing that your suit jackets are structured, which means that there is some padding and interfacing and tailoring involved. If you are wearing suits from 10 or 15 years ago, they are dated. Styles now are trimmer and more relaxed. You might try a less structured style, which will appear friendlier. A stiffer fabric, such as cotton or silk shantung, will hold a shape. A softer fabric, such as a knit, will drape. These options are relaxed and comfortable while still exhibiting a professional demeanor.
  • Another way to be less formal is to wear coordinated separates rather than a matching suit. Every line is merchandised with multiple choices that work together. Why not experiment with some new things?

You can maintain the integrity of your own look and show these younger women a thing or two! They don’t know about professional dress because nobody taught them.

Attire for Stay-at-Home Moms

Q. Please give advice to over-40 stay-at-home moms. I want to look stylish while still looking my age. I am familiar with designers such as Tahari and Theory. However, no one is going to wear a $300 jacket to the park! Please direct me to other retailers or designers that are a little more affordable for the preschool moms who get hugs from messy kids! — Anonymous

A. Obviously the wardrobe for your on-duty mom hours needs to be wash-and-wear. An often overlooked resource is real sports apparel from vendors like Patagonia and REI. They have terrific, sleek, indestructible pieces that are built to perform. If it says waterproof, abrasion resistant, or moisture wicking, it is! A great windbreaker or parka is the ticket. Polar fleece is perfect. Patagonia’s capilene layering pieces are terrific. These clothes are generically cool, like jeans or a black turtleneck. You’ll look modern and be comfortable.

For a step up in dressiness, a few simple, classic pieces are all you need. Coldwater Creek has a basic pant in poly. Banana Republic has good pants in a wool blend with a little Lycra. The most important thing is to make sure you have some pants that really fit. Add a few fresh sweaters or tops in flattering colors. A scarf or other accessory will pull it all together and make you feel special. How about a hat or some glasses to add a little attitude?

At this time, it is nice to have a few "grown up" or "date" things that remind you of life before motherhood. Treat yourself to something current that you love from designers like Tahari or Theory. A cashmere sweater or sexy silk top may be all you need to upgrade your basic pants for that rare evening out on the town.

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