work wardrobe

November 3, 2009

Here’s for those of you who requested for a work wardrobe entry…hope you like it!

Perfect fairytales can only happen in movies.

You know what else you can only find in movies?

Women who dress like this to go to work.


I just want to laugh watching these Devil Wears Prada kind of movies. Women are depicted as career executives who wear fur and studs to work and does filing and print documents in 5-inch platform boots.

In the office, there is a line between being stylish and sophisticated, and just downright cuckoo.

You can forget about wearing your fancy suits in Malaysia because in most offices, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. It’s too hot for all that!

I wear whatever I want during the weekends and if I want to be stylish like crazy or accessorise with bangles up to my elbow, no one will care. But at work, you represent the company. And it’s really best to keep things classy without being OTT.

Different workplaces have different fashion tolerance. Some of them have higher Style-o-meter and you can get away with wearing dresses and colourful things to work. But some of them have rules; only collared shirts, only suits, only closed-toed shoes, only certain colours. In this case, I really pity lawyers whose wardrobes are probably a big blur of black and whites. “Hmm…what should I wear to court today? This white shirt or this white shirt? Or THIS white shirt?” Hehe.

My cousin works with the government and all she can wear is baju kurung EVERYDAY. No pants, no skirts. Just baju kurung EVERYDAY. She’s in a fashion rut.

First things first. Look around your floor. Look at your colleagues. Like it or not, that is your yardstick. You can go a little below or above in the fashion department, but you can’t stray too far. Because, trust me, behind your back, they’re snickering away at your fancy clothes and probably imitating the way you walk. Without compromising class and style, you have to find a way to fit in. If not, get ready to have lunch alone everyday.

Of course, not everyone is fashion-conscious and it’s frustrating if you want to wear nice clothes but you’re shy. Just try to set the fashion standard higher in your office if you think the girls are starting to look like men. You can start wearing pencil skirts and higher heels and more feminine blouses, but you’ve got to be smart to adjust and not offend others.

I love my workplace because they’re quite lenient on what you wear. Floral blouses, silk shirts, cardigans, dresses, you can wear whatever as long as it looks decent and presentable. But you can keep your cleavage and belly button and knees at home, because they’re not interested in seeing those at work. So above-knee dresses, playsuits or skirts are not tolerated. That is why I keep insisting The Hills and The City are not reality shows, but no one agrees with me! Pftt.

But my office isn’t exactly the set of  Ugly Betty. So some of the clothes I want to wear to work, I haven’t had the chance yet because I would be overdressed. But slowly I am introducing these pieces to work. I wore an oversized shirt with leggings once to work and most of them looked at me up and down before saying anything. I made a mental note to myself that my office isn’t ready for leggings. So I find other ways to look stylish without giving my colleagues a heart attack.

Usually I wear pants and a nice shirt or blouse. Then I’ll wear a piece of accessory that stands out. Just one; either a necklace, bigger earrings, or a big ring. And on most Fridays, I wear baju kurung to remind myself that I’m a Malay working in Malaysia, not some matsaleh-wannabe in Hollywood!


Stylish or not, these are the must-haves in your work wardrobe:

  1. Trousers – I live in these more often than I would like to, but they are undeniably the most practical when running around here and there. Black, grey, beige; collect these neutral colours so you won’t be Plain Jane. To jazz it up, get them in different styles. Wide leg gives the “cool whatever” look (especially teamed with a simple long necklace), skinny tapered gives the trendy look (pair with a loose shirt or blouse and heels), and of course the reliable bootcut and straight types. Please don’t wear harem pants to work, unless you work in a circus or you’re Princess Jasmine. harem
  2. Pencil skirts – keep it black, neat and simple. No matter how much they promote it, I still think ruffled and elaborate pencil skirts don’t flatter anyone. With pencil skirts, it’s best to tuck in your shirt. And keep the length to a respectable one. I don’t normally wear skirts to work but I think they’re really elegant, if paired with the right shoes.
  3. Shirts – long sleeves, short sleeves, sleveless. White, blue, pink; invest in them. Just don’t buy metallic shiny one-coloured shirts…like shiny grey. I’ve met people wear these kinds of metallic shirts and I just can’t take them seriously. And if it’s too tight around the chest area, either the buttons will pop out anytime or you are giving people a free peek of your grandmother-style bra. So go a size up.
  4. Blazers – I keep a couple in my office whenever the aircond gets to my bones (I don’t get why offices are so cold…maybe there’s a relationship between productivity and coldness levels!). With blazers, I think it looks classier if you get one that is longer than your shirt. I find that shirts sticking out from the blazer create a messy unpolished look. But that’s just me, of course. For a more modern look, get single-breasted or unbuttoned blazers and cuffed sleeves. Pull your hair into a ponytail or a bun for the carefree look.blazer
  5. Suits – unless you work in a bank, you can forget about wearing suits at work. I know some of us can get excited getting a job and buy like 5 pairs of suits to wear for everyday of the first week (silly me!). But trust me, those first 5 days are the only times your suits will see the light of day. Nevertheless, you should invest in a suit because you never know when you’re going to wear it. I think the best suits are tailored to your figure, so if you can, make your own suits. Keep it lean, neat and classy. Pinstripes from head to toe; umm not so nice.
  6. Shoes – I cannot stand those one-inch pumps because they’re so unflattering! Especially for short people like me, we need HEELS!! Because my office doesn’t mind open-toed shoes, I wear normal wedges or heels to work. I keep a pair of slippers under my desk and this is what I wear from 9 to 6 in the office. Then, when the boss comes, or I have to meet people, I quickly rummage for my heels under my desk. I assimilated this clever culture from practically every one of my colleagues.
  7. Vests – but only if you’re smaller in the chest area and you have nice toned arms. Be careful though, because it can make you look like a waitress. I steer clear of vests because I just don’t know how to pull it off. waistcoat
  8. Handbags – keep your small handbags at home. People know you’re not serious at work if you carry a clutch to work. Find a nice big bag to keep papers, notepads, calculator and whatever you can find in the office supplies drawer.

Work clothes don’t have to be boring if you accessorise. Wear a silk scarf, but not the airhostess kind that makes people look like Paris Hilton’s chihuahua.


Or wear nice headbands, earrings, rings and necklaces. Just not altogether. Choose one piece that stands out and keep the rest to a minimum. Bracelets and bangles are nice and all, but they get in the way when I type or write notes. For me, work accessories no-no’s are: big chunky belts, dangly earrings, bracelets and bangles that go clink clink clink everytime you move your hand, plastic accessories.

Casual Fridays are not an excuse to wear jeans and T-shirts to work. Otherwise, it would’ve been called Sloppy Fridays. You can wear brighter colours or bolder prints. Or keep casual with loose soft pants and a simple basic top. If you want to look this simple, then make sure you accessorise so it doesn’t look like you’ve been forced to go to work on Fridays. If my office had casual Fridays, I would love to wear dresses; easy, simple and classy.


Of course, it won’t be complete if you have nice clothes but you neglect everything else. If you can’t take care of yourself, no one will have confidence that you can take care of the office. I would recommend wearing at least light make-up to work and having groomed hair and nails at all times. And don’t wear any torn stuff to work; shoes, edges of handbags, clothes with holes under the armpits. You’d be surprised how many people don’t pay attention to these things.

Clothes are an extension of who you are, and the more sophisticated you dress, the more sophisticated people will treat you. But know your place. You can’t expect to be a new trainee and wear OTT suits; people will just laugh at you, knowing that you’re all looks and no action. I can’t expect to wear power suits when I’m still so new in the office. That’s like a 10-year old dressing up in her mother’s clothes.

Fashion is fashion, and you should be able to express yourself anywhere you may be. But you ultimately go to work to have a good career and unless you work in fashion, what you wear won’t be the deciding factor of what goes under your name on your name card. It’s admirable to look pretty and classy at all times at work, but it’ll be even more admirable if that comes effortlessly and what you put all your effort to are your work assignments.

Thinking about work wardrobe is fun, but don’t take it too seriously until you forget what you’re really there for.