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4 business casual staples to build your work wardrobe on any budget

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When Casey Schow started his new job at Neighbor, a self-storage company based in Lehi, Utah, he figured he had to dress to impress.

It was hard to ditch the sweatpants he had grown accustomed to wearing the previous couple of months as he worked from home during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but he wanted to make a good first impression on his colleagues. 

Schow chose a crisp button down and a pair of slacks for his first day in the office as Neighbor's PR and communications lead in June 2021. 

Imagine his surprise, then, when Schow walked into the office and half of his co-workers were wearing T-shirts and flip-flops. 

"It quickly became apparent to me that nobody actually cares what you wear in the office, as long as you're there doing the best work you can," Schow, 31, tells CNBC Make It. "I definitely felt overdressed, even though that outfit is something I would have worn to work every day before the pandemic."

Schow is one of countless Americans returning to the office and finding that dress codes have changed — a confusing transition that has spurred some companies to offer more relaxed guidelines on what employees can wear to the office and a lot of fashion questions that have left people scratching their heads. 

Revamping your professional wardrobe can add up — but you can prepare for returning to the office without overspending by investing in a couple of key pieces that will help you nail the "business comfort" look. 

1. Neutral T-shirts

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An opaque, fitted T-shirt is the perfect basic for the office: It can be dressed up with a tailored pair of pants or dressed down with jeans, depending on the occasion. Shayla Thurlow, vice president of people and talent acquisition at The Muse, recommends T-shirts with wrinkle-resistant fabrics like wool, nylon and spandex. The right T-shirt has the power to make life "so much easier," she adds, so long as it's "budget-friendly, versatile and doesn't need to be ironed each week." 

2. Low-top sneakers 

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Commuters are ditching their heels and dress shoes in favor of more comfortable workwear staples, including low-top sneakers. The best office sneakers have no holes, minimal scuffs, and avoid crazy colors or designs, Thurlow says, and will match almost anything in your closet. Schow's go-to office attire includes a crew neck shirt, tapered joggers and cream-colored tennis shoes — a comfortable outfit that he says helps him focus on his work and seamlessly transition from the office to post-work activities. 

Casey Schow in his go-to work outfit.
Photo: Casey Schow

3. An oversized blazer 

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An oversized blazer is the unsung hero of any work wardrobe: It maintains its structured, polished look even after numerous wears and can elevate your outfit in any season. Letisha Bereola, a career coach based in Jacksonville, Florida, is a fan of pairing a loose-fitted blazer with a short-sleeved blouse, jeans or a long skirt. "It's a great way to mix the casual with the professional," she says. Thurlow recommends men pair their blazer with a crewneck T-shirt and khakis or straight-leg jeans for the office.

4. A durable backpack

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Thurlow recently switched the briefcase she carried to the office every day pre-pandemic for a sleek, black backpack with lots of pockets and shoulder padding — a decision, she jokes, that has been "life-changing." "It's a more functional office bag … my shoulders don't hurt anymore and it makes commuting so much easier," she says. She encourages other people to make the switch, noting that there are a range of sleek work backpacks on the market under $25 that are machine-washable and can fit more than a traditional tote bag or briefcase. 

If you're looking for inspiration, Bereola suggests checking out what traditional workwear brands, like J. Crew and Banana Republic, are advertising on their websites, or searching hashtags like "#businesscasual" and "#workoutfits" on TikTok, Pinterest and Instagram to see what other people are wearing to the office. 

Ultimately, when building a return-to-office wardrobe, the goal should be to have comfortable clothes that make you look put-together and feel confident. "There's already a lot of stress and anxiety associated with returning to the office," Thurlow says. "But if you feel good about how you're presenting yourself, you're unstoppable." 

Correction: An earlier version of this article had misattributed a quote about wrinkle-resistant fabrics from Shayla Thurlow. This information has been updated.

Check out:

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