Telegraph: Why what we wear to work matters and how to get it right


Figuring out what to wear in the office needn't be a minefield, resulting in dull choices. Fashion journalist Alice Olins, and career coach, Phanella Mayall Fine have found the perfect style guide. 

Phanella and I may have just written our first book together, but if we stood next to each other in our usual work garb, you’d think we’d never met.

An ex-City fund manager and corporate lawyer, Phanella is now an executive career coach; she wears sleek dark tailoring and expensive Kate Middleton heels. I am a fashion journalist; I am as emotionally and sartorially removed from Canary Wharf as one woman can be.

Our book is a new take on the female career manual. Less smashing glass ceilings, it’s more of an holistic and emotional look at what we actually want out of our careers and how to get it. We’ve included interviews with our favourite, high-profile women – Kirsty Young, the Hemsley sisters, the late Zaha Hadid and The Telegraph’s Lisa Armstrong, among them – and 50 of our 10-minute work outs that allow readers to practise what we preach.

Ok, full disclosure here: despite everything I wrote at the top, Phanella and I are starting to sartorially morph. Two years ago, when we sat down over a bottle of wine, and decided that, yes, there was something in the ether, brewing around women’s careers and equality, we were at opposite ends of the work style continuum.  

Now though, I find myself reaching for a pair of heels at 8 o’clock in the morning and feel drawn to the classic fitted shirt. Phanella has started to leave the blazer at home and she’s even buying spriggy, soft-silhouette dresses at Zara.

Why is this interesting? Because a uniform is the basis of every winning work wardrobe. Whether you’re a doctor doing ward rounds or the next FinTech entrepreneur, if you’re stumbling around in the dark, strip back and dress by numbers.

Four or five solid, stylish items that you can wear in numerous variations (dress + knit + shirt, say, or jeans + soft blazer + blouse) will ease your early morning routine – and, more importantly, send positive messages to others: I’m confident, I can pick up social cues, let’s do this.

What we wear to work matters. It influences how others treat us and, crucially, how we feel about ourselves too. Sloppy clothes = sloppy work and all that. According to research, when we first meet someone in a work scenario – the dreaded interview outfit – we have 0.1 of a second to win.

Once you’ve bagged the job, don’t underestimate what your clothes say about you. Sometimes words are out of reach at work, especially around senior staff. A chipper pink trouser or some intriguing Prada-esque layering, can be enough to pique interest – who’s she?

Hillary Clinton is proof that even if it doesn’t come naturally, giant silver polka dots and tangerine suits can be conquered. Clinton is a fearless, experimental dresser who has arrived somewhere chic and vote-worthy – smart hair, sleek shirting and colours that don’t make your eyes wobble. The world’s press has been forced to find another victim to dissect – luckily she’s pitted against Donald Trump.

So how can you get it right when choice is limitless and the parameters increasingly fuzzy? Stop, observe and note – clues hover around every water cooler. Identify a style role model and take care to understand how she gets it right. If your office is a style tundra, search out Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Jenna Lyons and Sophia Coppola – all nail career-appropriate, authentic and can flex a killer accessory.

Take inspiration from others, but don’t do it at the expense of what makes you unique. If this means that you won’t feel right unless you weave a Gucci frill into your corporate void, then shoulders back and in you go.

Yes, morals tell us that what we wear to work shouldn’t matter; that success is the culmination of efficiency, aptitude and pluck. The truth is, we are a visual species and we make judgements on how everyone – ourselves included – look.

One lost Milan fashion week suitcase later (grazie Alitalia), and I will forever hold a sting of pain in my stomach about not looking work-ready. Without my carefully planned capsule wardrobe and Acne demi-wedges, I stood in the hotel room and doubted myself. Baggy, aeroplane-friendly harem pants and make-up in another country rendered me unusually insecure. Yet, a day later, once my suitcase arrived, and once the Acne’s were in place, I became a different woman.

It’s ok to care about how you look at work – success has many faces. When you play the game, and do it well, your clothes can stir fascination, respect, joy and amazement – they can make you feel powerful and confident. 

And you can’t say that about an Excel spreadsheet. Alice Olins

Step Up by Phanella Mayall Fine and Alice Olins (Vermilion, £12.99