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A Professional Woman’s Guide to Office Essentials

At long last, Democrats and Republicans agree on something: Nancy Pelosi is the best-dressed woman in Washington. Her stylish suits, paired perfectly with jewelry, are sophisticated and polished—and show the world she means business. Pelosi knows that what we wear speaks volumes about how seriously we take our jobs. The media may not be analyzing your every fashion choice, but you can bet your boss is. Read on to discover which office essentials you should keep in your closet.

Dress to Impress
The first step to dressing well is to acknowledge that your clothes send a message about your work ethic. “Whether it’s fair or not, people size you up by what you wear,” says Mary Lou Andre, fashion consultant and author of Ready to Wear (Penguin, 2004). Ironed slacks and a crisp blouse will earn the boss’s applause, while scuffed pumps and fraying sweaters will draw attention you don’t want.

Shallow as it seems, the state of your shoes affects your coworkers’ view of you. But look on the bright side—with the right clothes, anyone can make a great impression. “When you present yourself in a professional manner, you come across as more credible,” says Andre. “Dressing appropriately shows respect for your coworkers and puts everyone at ease.” You have to get dressed every morning anyway. Why not dress well?

Even seasoned professionals scratch their heads over the terms “business casual” and “corporate attire.” If you’re confused about the dress code in your office, sneak a peak at a female superior. Does she wear hose under skirts or keep her legs bare? Are her shoes open- or closed-toe? Does she wear sweaters and slacks or skirt suits? Taking a hint from her will keep your style on track and show her that you’re serious about your work. Don’t dress for the job you have. “Dress for the job you want,” says Andre.

Invest in the Classics
You don’t need Pelosi’s bank account to cop her impeccable style. Save money on items that you’ll wear infrequently, and invest in a few stellar pieces that will last for years.

You can’t go wrong with a tailored black pantsuit and a crisp white blouse, but it can become boring day in and day out. Splurge on other items, but only if they’re high quality. Try a sweater dress, one of Andre’s top ten fashion picks. It’s feminine but will keep you boardroom-appropriate. Work the look by adding a leather belt or tall boots. Layer it over patterned tights if your office is casual; slip on nude hose for a more conservative look.

Andre also recommends every woman own a pair of classic black pumps or loafers, which lend polish to any outfit. Keep a brown or taupe pair of heels on hand too.

When you shop, look for quality, versatility, and sophistication. If you invest in well-made pieces, they’ll last for years. “It’s not about having a lot of clothes,” says Andre, “but about having the right ones.”

Pull It Together
Once you have your staples, focus on the little extras. Forget PDAs and Blackberries—lint rollers and irons are this season’s best business tools. Make sure your clothes are clean, pressed, and in good condition. Taking care of your clothes will bring your look together and lend sophistication—no matter how much you paid for your wardrobe.

Don’t underestimate the power of a great tailor. Even a $10 blouse will look like a million bucks if it fits you just right. “Every woman should make best friends with a seamstress,” as Andre puts it.

Fun with Fashion
Your clothes should fit your professional image more closely than they fit your body. Even if you have great legs or amazing cleavage, you’re at the office to work. “More skin equals less power,” warns Andre.

But you don’t have to hide your femininity under a potato sack to climb the corporate ladder. Follow Andres’ 80/20 rule: Keep 80 percent of your outfit standard, and have fun with the other 20 percent. If you love to dress sexy, slip on a conservative pantsuit—and your hottest pair of stilettos. If you love animal prints, skip the head-to-toe jungle fever and rock a leopard cami under a classic blazer.

Experimenting is what makes fashion fun, and accessories are a great place to try out new trends. You can rev up any office outfit by adding a colorful scarf, leather belt, detailed handbag, strappy shoes, or sparkly earrings. Attention-grabbing red accents are another of Andre’s top ten picks for this season. Pair a red handbag with a neutral suit or don a red A-line skirt with a black silk blouse and black boots. You’ll add pizzazz and still look professional.

For more on Mary Lou Andre, check out

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