The ST Guide To... putting together a work wardrobe

Dress to impress

Stick to primary colours and do not show too much skin for that smart-casual office wear

Dressing for work is not exactly rocket science but some people struggle with their fashion choices every morning.

I have lost track of the number of times I have stood in front of my wardrobe, racking my brain to try and put together an outfit that would be appropriate for the day's weather, one that I would be comfortable in from morning to night and, above all, one that also would look presentable and stylish.

Heaven forbid that I wear the same thing twice in a week.

I admit that there were days when I turned up for work late and defeated in a T-shirt and jeans, hoping that my pair of pointed flats would at least make my outfit look smart-casual (because sharp is smart).

While denim and jeans are becoming a common work staple among millennials as more companies adopt a relaxed policy when it comes to office attire, it still runs the risk of looking too casual.

How can one draw the line between looking professional and too casual, especially when terms such as "smart-casual" and "presentable" are subjective?

Ms Estelle Wong, head of human resources at human resource company Adecco, repeats the adage that first impressions count: "An impression is formed 30 seconds into a meeting - based on your clothes, hairstyle, smile, how you carry yourself and the rest of your non-verbal communication."

While there are many ways to look presentable and stylish for work, there is one thing that fashion and human resources experts agree on when it comes to making a good impression: showing too much skin is a big no-no. For women, anything with a hemline shorter than mid-thigh should not be worn to the office. Neither should women sport low necklines that show off too much cleavage or crop tops that flash the midriff.

As veteran fashion designer Thomas Wee puts it, it is about having the "simple common sense of (wearing) nothing too explicit or vulgar".

Wardrobe offences by men include wearing beach attire and sports jerseys to the office - which is much too casual. But men's main area of concern should be ensuring that their clothes fit their bodies well, so that they look polished and professional rather than sloppy and amateurish.

"For men, fit is always key as it can make or break a look," says Mr Sven Tan, creative director and co-founder of home-grown womenswear brand In Good Company. "It's about finding the right proportions to the style, such as the length of the shirt hem in relation to your body length and trousers."

With the issues of skin and fit settled, one can then start thinking about fashionable work separates for one's wardrobe.

Think origami when it comes to choosing clothes - the silhouette should be structural and clean, free of frilly details like ruffles and anything that sticks out at funny angles. Colours are acceptable at the office, and a good rule of thumb is to avoid neon hues and stick to primary colours such as yellow, red and blue.

As for patterns, go for classic ones such as stripes, checks and polka dots. Abstract prints can work too, provided that the colour palette is limited to three different colours - any more would be too colourful and distracting.

Besides these basics, I have put together some tips below which would be applicable to most individuals regardless of style preferences.

FOCUS ON ONE ELEMENT

The trick to incorporating colours and patterns for workwear is to stick to primary colours such as red and blue, and classic patterns such as stripes, and decide which one should take centre stage.

Once you have decided on wearing a brightly coloured blazer or textured lace shirt, for example, every other aspect of your outfit should be plain and neutral. For women, this includes pairing your outfit with a simple hairstyle and understated make-up.

THE 2:1 COLOUR RATIO

Break down the colours of your outfit into two neutral colours and one accented colour. A two-colour combination, such as black and white or blue and white, works well sometimes, but having a well-chosen third colour will make you look like a colour-play genius.

Some classic three-colour combinations include: red, white and blue; white, brown and dark green; and white, grey and maroon.

CREATE A WORK UNIFORM

If you find yourself gravitating towards a certain style of clothing or colour, consider making it your personal uniform. If you like wearing white shirts, for example, make it your style signature and experiment with different design details and textures.

If you need more help, here are some outfit suggestions, put together for three different budgets.


FOR A $350 BUDGET

Women: Bow poplin shirt, $55.90, Mango; blue Amaris pants with gold buttons, $81, Eight Slate; and white platform lace-up shoes, $69.90, Charles & Keith.


Men: Long-sleeve, slim-fit cotton shirt in ochre, $89, Mango; ink-blue suit trousers, $69.90, Zara; and plain-toe navy derby shoes in boxed leather finish, $129.90, Pedro.


FOR A $600 BUDGET

Women: Asymmetrical Baylee sari dress (right), $229.90, Sabrina Goh; boxy linen jacket, $75, Beyond The Vines; and metallic pink platform brogues, $250, Pedder Red.


Men: Patterned long-sleeve shirt, $115, and trousers, $135, Cos; camouflage bomber jacket, $89.90, Zara; blue crocodile-skin leather belt, $79, Q Menswear; and white shoes from Rad Russel, $158, Tangs.


FOR A $1,500 BUDGET

Women: Burgundy asymmetrical twill top (right), $65, Beyond The Vines; skirt with structural details, $225, Cos; long yellow vest, $184.80, iRoo; and black and white heels, $210, Pedder Red.


Men: White poly blend slim-fit shirt, $43.90, Burton Menswear London from Zalora.sg; panelled chinos, $340, Biro from Farfetch.com; Topography blazer, $760, Blackbarrett from Club 21; and brown Etiari sneakers, $139, Aldo.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2016, with the headline 'Dress to impress '. Print Edition | Subscribe