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How to dress 'comfortably' and still look professional at work, according to a professional stylist

"When you want to dress more casually but still look polished, accessories are the best way."

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Liana Galardi-Murgola is a stylist and owner of Be Brilliant Styling.
Photo by Michael Vincent Parks

Dress codes are becoming more and more relaxed as workers are returning to the office, according to a recent Captivate "office pulse" survey of more than 500 professionals. Many say they've spotted their colleagues and even executives wearing jeans, T-shirts, and athleisure more frequently than they did before the Covid-19 pandemic. In many cases, casual Friday has become casual day-to-day

While you may be tempted to head to the office in joggers and a hoodie, though, that may not be the best idea. "We can use fashion as a tool to empower ourselves," says Liana Galardi-Murgola, stylist and owner of Be Brilliant Styling. "Feeling dressed up can help improve your performance and confidence." 

Galardi-Murgola has styled artists for the Grammys and models for New York Fashion Week, and her work has been featured in major ad campaigns for brands like Calvin Klein and Tom Ford. These days, she primarily works with professionals who are looking to step up their wardrobes.

"I still think people really want to keep some of the more casual comfortable looks, but this is where the stress comes in, because it's like, 'I know this is cool, and I know this is fashionable, but I don't really think it's appropriate for the office,'" she says. 

Here are her three best tips so "you can dress comfortably and professionally" at work.

1. Opt for 'soft structured' clothing

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During the pandemic, many opted for yoga pants, joggers, sweatpants, or zip-up sweatshirts. To maintain the level of comfort those pieces offered you, look for "soft structured" clothing, Galardi-Murgola suggests. 

For example, instead of a hoodie or a cardigan, try a sweater blazer, she says: "The thing that distinguishes a sweater blazer versus just a cardigan is that there will be more structure to it. So there'll be a seam at the shoulder. There's probably going to be a lapel to it."

When it comes to menswear, "comfortable sweaters with a standup collar, or a zipper, or some detailing at the neck will give it a more elevated look," she says. "A pop of color elevates this, too."

For pants, try a pair with a "structured waistband," she says. Instead of a traditional trouser, look for soft pants that have some sort of closure, like a zipper or button, she says. "You can even have pants that are appropriate for work that have an elastic or partially elastic waistband."

If the pair of paints has a drawstring, though, "that's probably something you don't want to wear to the office," she says. "Something with a drawstring just instantly makes our brains think sweatpants."

Many companies are leaning into clothing that transforms casualwear into an office-appropriate piece by adding in closures or seams. Some brands Galardi-Murgola recommends include Zara, Madewell, or J.Crew. "Those details and little elements that have structure to them are what is going to really make something feel like, 'OK, this works for the office or it doesn't," she says.

2. Elevate a casual look with accessories

"Accessorizing is one of the best tips I can give people on how to make an outfit look more elevated," she says. "When you want to dress more casually but still look polished, accessories are the best way to do that because they really pull the outfit together and make everything look intentional." 

For womenswear, "if you have a relaxed sweater and you want to make it look polished and professional for work, try doing maybe a statement necklace or earrings." This will "elevate your comfortable clothes, making them appear more professional," and "it also frames your face more importantly," she says. 

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If you're in the mood to wear a loose fitting flowy dress, "adding a belt is an easy way to give that comfortable garment more structure," she says.

Belts are a great way to make menswear appear more formal, too, and they can be eye-catching: "I really like belts as a pop of color." Belts can "really pull the outfit together and make everything look intentional," she says. Contrary to longstanding fashion rules, she adds, "your belt doesn't need to match your shoes. So you can wear a red belt with a brown or black shoe."

3. Find fabrics with stretch in them

"If your work environment does require you to wear a suit, then I would just say you can get that softer, more comfortable feeling in your clothes, but still look really polished by looking for fabrics with stretch in them," she says. 

Ponte, or "Ponte di Roma," is an example of a great fabric with stretch. It has the characteristics of other knit fabrics, with the added advantage of being more durable, she says. "It will give you the look of a more traditional suit material, but it's supersoft and stretchy, so that does two things: One, it makes a suit more comfortable, and two, it's going to be more flexible as your size, body shape, changes or is transitioning."

Many people gained weight during the pandemic, after all, Galardi-Murgola points out. "One of the biggest reasons people are stressed about dressing up is because body changes were very common, mostly weight gain over the last year and a half, because obviously gyms were closed for a long time. People were also inside and were dealing with stress and mental health issues."

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There are so many fabric options for men and women who are looking for more stretch and comfort while maintaining a professional appearance, says Galardi-Murgola. Look for jersey knit fabrics, which "are also superstretchy and supercomfortable for work." 

"There are also a lot of blended fabrics now that have a small percentage of elastane, which is essentially another word for Lycra or spandex, that will have stretch to it." Galardi-Murgola recommends sticking to an item that contains between 1%-3% of those types of fabrics: "More than that can become too flimsy or just look like spandex."

If your office allows it, you can still wear denim, but try a "darker wash for a more polished look," she says. 

'There's pride in how you show up for yourself'

Putting a little thought into your wardrobe "can go a long way and even make it so you actually end up spending less time getting dressed and you can look better in the process," Galardi-Murgola says. 

"It's not just about 'I want to dress well for other people,' it's the interaction we have with ourselves and our own reflection and how much confidence we can get just by seeing, 'Oh, I put a little bit of effort in.' That changes how we speak with ourselves," Galardi-Murgola says.

"That just gives us confidence. There's pride in how you show up for yourself and it impacts not only the people around you but also yourself," she adds. "All of that pride and assuredness just enhances focus and productivity."

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