Work It Out

Help! I'm back in the office but can't figure out what I'm supposed to wear

Getty Images | Gene Kim

Dear Work It Out,

I'm back in the office 3 days a week and have somehow forgotten how to dress myself in anything other than soft pants. Is now the moment to take the leap and become a "uniform person"? And if so, what should I add to my small "capsule" wardrobe? Or are uniforms dumb and limiting?

Should I do one of those clothing rental services? Everything is overwhelming.

Please help me figure out how to put as little thought into this as possible, yet look fashionable and like a boss.

Lazily Stylish Manager Lady


Dear LSML,

I'm right there with you. Despite the fact that I love clothes and putting together outfits, every time I stand in front of my closet to put together something to wear to work, I'm hit with a sense of dread.

Factor in nearly two years working from home, and the fact that I started my current job remote, and I can barely remember what I wore to the office in the before times. 

Not only are many of us returning to a physical workplace for the first time in legging-clad years, a lot of us are also stepping back into the office with different titles, different jobs or at different companies altogether. Maybe you're coming back promoted to manager, for example, or you haven't quite gotten a sense of whether your co-workers veer more toward the business or casual ends of business casual.

For anyone who's ever worried whether they're wearing the right thing, it's a lot to be concerned about.

To get some expert insight on your question, I posed your question to one of my former co-workers: Alyssa Hardy, fashion journalist and author of "Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion's Sins." 

First off, she clarifies that becoming a "uniform person" does not automatically mean Steve Jobs is your new style icon (unless you want him to be!). "Since uniform dressing has gotten the tech founder treatment over the years, it may seem more limiting than it needs to be. It doesn't have to be that you only wear black turtlenecks," Hardy says. 

In fact, plenty of people who aren't Big Tech CEOs embrace uniform dressing. Even fashion designers do it! Comedian and digital creator Elyse Myers shared in a recent Instagram reel that she relies on a uniform to eliminate "decision fatigue" and put her brain power to better use elsewhere. 

"The overarching idea, that can make you both more comfortable and dress inherently more sustainable, is just understanding what works for you and removing the clutter," Hardy says. "Rental is a good option for some people, but when you're already struggling with choice and not knowing what to wear, it's only going to present more options to go through."

Work style is increasingly choose-your-own-adventure
NBC | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

Before heading out, or online, to build your new uniform or capsule wardrobe, Hardy recommends taking stock of what you feel the most yourself in — perhaps, what you're wearing when you feel most like a boss.

Take notice of what others in the office are wearing, especially your reports and your own boss. Pay special attention to the differences in how each group dresses and how you can interpret those differences into your own wardrobe to feel more confident.

If your reports dress very casually (say in jeans and sneakers), and your boss is more formal (in a blazer and dressy shoes), you can use your personal preferences to figure out what balance you want to strike. Maybe you can't tolerate dress shoes or heels all day, but a nice pair of sneakers with a more tailored outfit — and maybe your own blazer — can help convey a sense of authority.

"Think of the pieces, colors and cuts that you tend to gravitate toward when you feel your best. It doesn't just have to be simple pieces," Hardy says. "For some people, that's bright patterns and square necklines, but for others it's white button downs. Capsules should be personal."

Once you've gotten an idea of how you want to feel and look, you can take stock of what you have and what you might need to fill in the gaps to build a wardrobe that's easy to build outfits from even when you're running late or approaching a long, daunting day of important meetings.

There may even be some space for soft pants.

"It's OK to take some style cues from this newfound love of comfort," Hardy says. "Maybe your uniform includes loose pieces or softer fabrics — those don't have to be reserved for your couch. A flow-y pair of pants can be elevated when there is a pleat." 

Finally, Hardy reminds us all to be a little easier on ourselves when we're facing down a closet full of options in the morning but seemingly nothing to wear. "Give yourself a little time and understand that a lot has changed in the last three years, and so has your style. Everyone is feeling the same way."

Work it Out is Make It's revived advice column for employment-related conundrums. Have a pressing career concern or question? Email me anonymously at Submissions may be edited for length and clarity.

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