Business casual clothes for an aging punk woman in academia?
July 5, 2021 9:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm returning to campus after a year plus of wearing my usual Prana Briann pants, black merino wool crew neck t-shirts, and black zip up sweater. This time, though, I am taking an appointment on a committee that may involve meetings with the president, and this is a little too casual. How can I up my business casual game and stay true to my low-key, not particularly feminine, black-clad 50 year old self?

Fantastic threads like this recent one on a comfy office uniform (I can't imagine wearing puffy sleeves or frills), and older ones about ordering a capsule wardrobe online and a comfortable work ensemble provided some inspiration, but I could use the wisdom of the hive mind. Here's my situation:

* I have pants that fit and will work well.
* I have shoes so I'm good there.
* I'm short, and not into the boxy look or puffy look because it makes me look wide.
* It's cold in my office and I take public transportation, so I need layers.

I am looking for:

* Suggestions for tops that are basically long sleeved t-shirts in muted colors, but that look good under a cardigan. I love merino, but feel strange in pima and thicker cotton knits.
* Suggestions for cardigans that aren't the long flowy type.

I don't like:
* Low to plunging necklines.
* Pretty much any print.
* Light colored heather grey. (Darker is better.)
* Having a ton of clothes.

I hope I haven't painted myself into a corner! Hoping some of you who are more sartorially inclined can help. Many thanks in advance!
posted by metarkest to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: For whatever it's worth, my dean sounds a bit like you (in appearance) and absolutely rocks tailored, wool blazers. I've never noticed or remembered anything else about her outfits except that it's mostly dark.
posted by eotvos at 9:29 AM on July 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I feel you - it's hard to work in alternative/punk elements into a biz cas wardrobe! Structured pieces, statement necklines (bateau, high-neck), and interesting details on jackets/tops can help. These are some pieces I have my eye on:
Helmut Lang blazer 1
Helmut Lang blazer 2
Helmut Lang top 1
Eileen Fisher funnelneck top
Theory top
Uniqlo cardigan
Unttld tee
Eileen Fisher elbow tee

You didn't mention jewelry, but I find that helps me express myself a bit more in combination with my all-black aesthetic. (Small but different pieces like spiked hoops, subtle but cool ear cuffs.) Hopefully some of these items hit the mark!
posted by rachaelfaith at 9:55 AM on July 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I am a cardigan lover and when I am trying to look extra office-type pulled-together I find MM Lafleur jardigans in a dark color really get the job done.
posted by redfoxtail at 10:15 AM on July 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Boden Breton tops - they are cotton mostly but lighter weight, looks good under a cardigan or blazer, mildly femme but not frilly, comes in a million colors.
posted by matildaben at 10:19 AM on July 5, 2021

Best answer: I work at a university with the same audiences you mention. Black-clad is fine and actually ideal in this case. I think if you pay attention to having clean and combed/styled hair, adding some small tasteful accessories if you feel comfortable with that, you can get away with a lot. If you have pets, make sure to de-hair before you leave for work. Or keep a lint remover in your bag/at your desk. Clean your glasses.

No stains, no rips or tears. Polish your shoes if they are leather, or make sure they are clean if they are not.

You will read as very put together.
posted by nathaole at 10:37 AM on July 5, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: You sound like me! I wear black turtlenecks A LOT. Cashmere black turtlenecks over long sleeved black t shirts. Black wool blazers over cotton or thinner merino black turtlenecks. You can play with a sort of English schoolboy punk theme with your blazers. Lean into patch pockets. I also wear a lot of black button up blouses, very menswear but I undo a few top buttons and pretend it’s the 70s. (I have on a tank top under usually as I am pretty modest. Just embrace it. Upgrading to cashmere or really nice wool blazers goes a long way. Plus a pair of earrings, maybe slightly subversive. Like a snake or an arrow or whatnot. I buy a lot of basics from Everlane.
posted by chocotaco at 10:40 AM on July 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don’t know how much this overlaps with your style, but Marcella NYC is mostly black clothing that skews edgy minimalist. This tunic might fit the bill.
Here’s a plain long sleeved T-shirt that comes in black or dark blue.
posted by Maeve at 10:42 AM on July 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think you can probably do fine with the exact same trousers and shirt with a slightly dresser unstructured jacket instead of the sweater, and maybe a necklace or pin.

My "office uniform" consists primarily of Uniqlo merino V-neck sweaters, which are a lot like T-shirts but read a little more businessy.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 10:42 AM on July 5, 2021

Best answer: My go-to for officewear pieces that may fit your aesthetic is Saint and Sofia -- I've been impressed with the quality and have bought a lot of shirts from them.

AllSaints is another brand in my personal arsenal that may also fit your aesthetic, although their lookbooks have been hit-or-miss for me for a few years and they have been bringing in the lace-frills-puffs in a few pieces, which I also hate. But I always like their "Tailoring" section, and their Tops are usually pretty great.
posted by erst at 10:50 AM on July 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Dude, I am you in practically every way. Don't want a lot of clothes, definitely don't want frills and lace, hate prints, love merino, hate cotton, am short, wear black.

What I do is try to find a brand and specific style that works for me, where they keep making it every year, and I just buy it over and over again.

-- For long-sleeved t-shirts under cardigans, I normally wear Icebreaker, e.g., this, or this. Ibex is similar, e.g., here. Cos makes terrific merino long-sleeved t-shirts too, e.g., here. If you want an upgrade, Enza Costa can be good, although it is expensive for what you get, e.g., here, here.

-- J Crew has a nice neutral fitted cardigan. They don't have any on their site right now, but this is the kind I buy. Icebreaker also has nothing right now, but I own 2-3 of their very straightforward cardigans and they're totally fine and last well. Cos does great cardigans too, although you need to dig for non-boxy ones.

-- I'll give you one suggestion you didn't ask for :) I've had terrific luck upgrading a very casual work outfit by swapping out the long-sleeved merino tee for a plain non-feminine silk button-down in a solid colour, usually white. Cotton shirts are too stiff and overwhelming on me (I am small) but silk is GREAT. Everlane offers this terrific non-boxy silk shirt, here is a grey one from Cos, and I also buy Equipment (e.g., here) on sale, and sometimes J Crew (e.g., here), although the J Crew quality is significantly less good. The trick to wearing silk well (IMO) is to wear it super-casually and rumpled :)

You have not painted yourself into a corner! What you want totally exists! Good luck :)
posted by Susan PG at 1:28 PM on July 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes to a casual blazer or a structured cardigan. I alternate between a solid black jersey/dark grey knit blazer to perk up my on campus outfits. I machine wash the jersey blazer and shake it out, hang to air dry and there's no fuss with ironing or steaming.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:30 PM on July 5, 2021

Best answer: All black is just fine, so long as it's actually black and not fading.

Yes to Theory(really get one structured blazer that lives in your office for meetings), and Eileen Fisher (whispy layers you buy once and last forever, and if you figure out your size and colors, all over ebay) and pair those with clean, crisp black shirts and truely black pants.

The downside is that the pants and tops genuinely need to show no wear for in person meetings, daylight can be quite unforgiving on black cloth.
posted by larthegreat at 2:56 PM on July 5, 2021

Best answer: There's a great young designer named Lennard Taylor out of Winnipeg who produces some amazing stuff. A bit pricey, but unusual, daring, flattering and sophisticated while also holding its own with looking edgy (if you want to -- the way the pieces are put together on the website doesn't so much show it). I have a great vest that can only be described as "business pirate". Bear in mind the prices are in Canadian dollars -- and also his clothes fit large.
posted by sonofsnark at 7:45 PM on July 5, 2021

Best answer: Would a black boiled wool jacket with really asymmetrical lapels suit you? Slightly more cyberpunk than goth, but might be more comfortable than a tailored fitted jacket.
posted by clew at 8:42 PM on July 5, 2021

Response by poster: Wow! You all have given some brilliant suggestions, and I really appreciate it! These are all such great answers, I've marked them all as best. Really loving the links to Marcella and Saint + Sophia (which I wasn't familiar with), as well as my beloved Ibex. (My shirts are all Icebreaker and pre-closure Ibex.)

And I particularly enjoyed the recommendations about making sure my hair is combed and the pet hair is removed from clothing. I don't currently have pets, but that is such a battle with black clothing, and making sure my tousled hair looks presentable is always a good idea. Thanks so much!
posted by metarkest at 10:21 AM on July 6, 2021

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