It’s 2021 and whether you’re going to back to the office full-time or have a hybrid home/office arrangement, looking your best remains one of the key factors in feeling comfortable and confident with yourself when it comes to work. If you’re like me and you enjoy creating a wardrobe which functions perfectly for the office (and into the weekend), then this article is tailored for you. Today we’re going to take a look at the 12 key work wardrobe essentials for 2021, which I believe most women who work in an office environment will need to have.
By the end of this article you’ll hopefully have a clear idea of any potential gaps in your work wardrobe, and you’ll be able to mindfully budget for & plan out any workwear purchases you need to invest in, for the year ahead. All of these pieces have become my foundation to a work appropriate wardrobe over many years, which also seamlessly transitions into my weekend wear. Let’s take a look at some of the key workwear pieces which will enable you to build up a polished and professional work wardrobe for 2021!
1 – Pencil skirt
A structured separate which is sure to make you feel ready for work, a pencil skirt is a workwear appropriate piece you will reach for across all seasons for many years to come. They’re versatile because they can pair with a variety of tops, from shirts to blouses to knitwear. Invest in a plain, neutral shade for the ultimate ease in styling. Alternatively choose from a variety of statement styles – with lace overlay, prints or patterns.
2 – Collared shirt
A true workhorse in everyone’s wardrobe, a collared shirt is one work wardrobe essential you’ll end up reaching for on repeat. Designed to exude an air of professionalism, this is one of the go to style pieces for any corporate or office environment. Whilst a plain white shirt is routinely lauded as a must-have, switch things up by experimenting with a variety of colours, styles and prints. From gingham check to savvy stripes, ruffles and accents such as cufflinks, a collared shirt is practical and an evergreen style staple.
3 – Pair of trousers
For those days when you don’t feel like wearing a dress or a skirt, trousers are a fail-safe option for work. They certainly don’t have to be boring either and (just like collared shirts) they can inject your overall outfit with a dose of your own personal style. There’s a myriad of style options to select from depending upon your body type too such as wide leg, cropped, skinny, straight, paper-bag waist, high-waisted, flares…
One important piece of advice is to purchase the best quality you can afford with trousers. I’ve discovered over the years that the appearance, feel and longevity of trousers vary significantly. A cheap pair purchased from the high street may last a season or two but they will not wear as well as a higher price point purchase would, for obvious reasons. So, if you’re looking to invest in a pair for work, it really does pay off in the long term to find a pair which will feel & look as good as new years after their first wear.
4 – Plain top
Patterns and prints are fun however when it comes to work-wear I’ve found solid colours really are the most versatile when it comes to tops as they’re the ones I tend to reach for year after year. Having a few solid color plain tops in your work wardrobe pays dividends when it comes time to creating outfits. This is especially true for those “I have nothing to wear” moments, which we all tend to experience! Selecting a few tops in neutral toned colours such as white, black, navy, tan or grey will ensure you are able to pair this piece with almost any skirt or pair of trousers for work.
5 – Knitwear
This is one of my favourite categories in this article because I truly adore knitwear! They can be one of the most comforting items of clothing on both a physical and emotional level – as well as stylish. Knitwear is another category where you get what you pay for. This is why I’d encourage you to invest in knitted pieces with wool, alpaca or cashmere in the fabrication and the higher content of these fabrics, the better.
Fine knitwear such as cashmere feels like you are wearing a cloud and pairs delightfully with more statement pieces such as pleated skirts or trousers. Turtleneck sweaters are a classic option with a slight preppy vibe and look great when paired with trousers or jeans. Chunkier knitwear with wool or alpaca in the fabrication are must-haves during the winter season – and can offset a slim silhouette when wearing fitted or straight leg trousers.
6 – Jeans
This is likely not a category you might expect to be listed in a work wardrobe essentials for 2021! Yet, with office dress codes becoming more relaxed over the years and casual Fridays forming part of the permanent lexicon, a good quality pair of jeans is a must have. Whether your workplace allows you complete freedom to dress how you most feel comfortable on the daily, or you’re restricted a stricter dress code from Monday-Thursday with casual Fridays, jeans are certainly more acceptable now than ever.
I’d recommend investing in a good quality pair (or two, or three!) and certainly favour a dark blue / indigo wash for my own when it comes to work. Whilst I also own jeans in white, light blue and black rinses, it’s a pair in indigo which I find myself reaching for the most. Darker colours tend to appear more professional, they’re particularly suited towards autumn & winter, plus they’re slimming!
7 – A coat / trench
Out of all the items on this work wardrobe essentials list for 2021, this category is the one where I’d strongly encourage you to invest the most money in. Firstly, because it’s simply practical – a good quality coat will protect you from the elements, be functional and should last you for many years if you invest wisely. Secondly, your coat is often the first thing people will see and notice about your overall outfit during the cooler seasons.
The first coat I invested in during my early 20’s almost cost me my entire paycheck at the time – yet I wore this coat during autumn & winter for over a decade! It was a cream, wool/cashmere blend, mid-thigh length coat with a wide wrap around collar and functional pockets. I adored wearing it and it kept me warm whilst travelling to & from work and during overseas holidays as well. I had to finally bite the bullet and replace it in 2019 when I purchased a lovely wool coat from Reiss, which I now look forward to wearing when the temperatures plummet.
Another option where you’ll undoubtedly be able to gain a brilliant cost-per-wear from is a trench coat. I’ve had mine for over a decade now because it’s ultra versatile and not only works wonders for heading to the office, it’s perfect for weekends as well. Invest in a neutral colourway if possible, as this will pair seamlessly with a myriad of outfits. I purchased mine from British label Jigsaw, in black, and it’s been wonderful, especially on those slightly cool or windy days during the transitional seasons.
8 – Dresses
A few work appropriate dresses are mandatory pieces in your wardrobe arsenal. Dresses are so easy to wear as they’re essentially one outfit. Unlike separates you won’t need to consider colour coordinating or wondering whether a top will suit a particular skirt of pair of trousers! This is why dresses are another fail-safe option and perfect for those days where you just don’t know what to wear.
With such an array of styles to choose from though, dresses can be tricky to get right for the office. A few key factors need to be considered to ensure you look and feel good. The first consideration is the dress needs to be appropriate for the work environment – so this is where hemlines, design, colour and bust-line come into play. Second is your body shape – you need to understand what kind of body shape you have and select a dress style which will suit your personal composition. Third is prints – ultra loud or age-inappropriate prints or patterns can distract and force the attention onto what you’re wearing.
I tend to steer towards shift, sheath or A-line dresses myself as I know these suit me personally, whilst also being “work” appropriate styles. Solid colours are another factor I tend to favour, especially white, black and navy. A knee-length hemline and rounded or bateau collar are my go-to’s in terms of style. At the end of the day, as long as you are dressed appropriately and feel comfortable, it’s also important to infuse your outfit with your own sense of style. Mine is quite conservative which is why my choices will reflect that component when it comes to work wear.
9 – Blouses
Sometimes a collared shirt may feel too professional yet a tee may be pushing the line towards too casual for meetings. This is where blouses come in as a work wardrobe essential! Certainly, a feminine choice when it comes to separates, a blouse is a lovely way to add a sense of your own style when paired with a skirt or pair of trousers. They come with a wide range of style accents too such as sleeve lengths, neck ties, pussy-bows and other details. Combining a blouse with a pencil skirt has been a consistent work wardrobe outfit for almost a century now!
10 – Pleated skirt
Another of my personal style favourites yet perhaps an item which may not instantly spring to mind when it comes to workwear… a few years ago, pleated skirts experienced a revival and I am here for it! Sunray pleated skirts are for me, the epitome of elegance & femininity – in fact this piece is so versatile it can be dressed up or down, with a slight change of your top and footwear ensuring the pleated skirt will transition seamlessly from work, to after work, to weekend. They’re also a perfect option if you prefer floatier skirts over fitted ones such as the pencil skirt. Whilst a pleated skirt may not be structured in its design, it still manages to exude an air of chic style.
11 – Cardigan
One of the confusing parts of office life for me has to be the air conditioning. Namely it can literally be freezing in one meeting room or colder in a particular part of the office. This is where cardigans come into play as a work wardrobe essential for women. Another piece which is practical as much as it can be stylish, cardigans do double duty by keeping us warm and adding a layering element to an outfit. They’re an essential transitional season go-to and an item which works seamlessly into your weekend wardrobe too.
12 – Blazer
Saving the very best until last, the blazer comes out as the sure-fire winner for me out of all the categories in this work wardrobe essentials for 2021! A blazer instantly adds a heavy dose of professionalism by virtue of its structure and overall aesthetic it imbues to an outfit. Whether you want to look your best for an important meeting or you simply need an extra piece for a touch of warmth during cooler days, this item is one to invest in.
I recently started investing in blazers and now I can’t imagine how I did without them for all these years. This is one style item that to me always appeared to be so “grown-up”- I guess I just had to grow into it! Again, I’d recommend to invest in a good quality blazer and by that I don’t mean you need to fork out thousands on the likes of one from Balmain (although I certainly have one of those on my wish-list)! I find brands such as Reiss and Anna Thomas produce enviable quality in terms of their designs & fabrications, so those are my first choices when it comes to this style.
Blazers aren’t simply restricted to be paired with a matching skirt or trousers set… Whilst they add their particular touch of polish to any workwear look, they can transition perfectly into your off-duty style repertoire as well. Adding a blazer to a pair of jeans and a simple tee can uplift a casual outfit into a more pulled together smart casual look.
Planning your 2021 work wardrobe purchases
We’ve reviewed 12 categories here and it’s important to emphasize that not everyone needs to have everything that is listed here, in order to create a functional and stylish work wardrobe. Variables such as how often you work from the office, the climate you live in and your budget will certainly have an effect on which particular pieces would work best for you and your lifestyle. Another key factor that has to be taken into account is how the pandemic is affecting our work lives. Are you going to be working from the office five a days a week or will you perhaps be working there once or twice a week?
For a lot of us right now, a hybrid-working model is likely to become the norm, which means you may not need to have as many “work” clothes as what you might have needed in the past. On a personal level, I am finding that as work dress-codes relax that I am shifting more towards pieces which can transition from workwear to weekend. The result is that I find I need less clothes, which means I’m able to save money and ultimately select higher quality pieces. As higher quality pieces tend to wear & look better and last a lot longer, this also saves more money over the long-term.
I hope this article has been useful and if you have discovered any gaps in your “work wear” wardrobe then perhaps this list may be of use when it comes to planning out your next purchases. I’d love to hear what you think of the suggestions, so do leave a comment in the comments section below!