What to Wear When You Go Back to Work: Six Tips for an Office-Ready Look

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For many women, the hardest part of a new job is getting dressed. After a whole lot of freelancing and telecommuting and part-timing and generally squeaking by in the professional world with the bare wardrobe necessities, I've recently found myself with a wonderful opportunity that puts me back in an office, full time, every day. And not just any old office, but an office full of Prada-loving, expensive-haircut-having, disposable-income-spending, fashionable peers.

Suddenly my small stable of so-called "dressy" clothes have become my work clothes, and they're working almost as hard as I am.

I realize I'm probably not alone here. With the economy the way it is, more part-timers are going full-time, more moms are returning to work sooner (maybe not 7 hours after giving birth, but still -- sooner than they used to), and more women in general are looking outside the home for a little more financial stability.

So short of finding a spare $20k in your old purse and hitting Bendel's with abandon, here are a few tips to help you look and feel your professional best.

Identify the office uniform. This may sound obvious, but look around and see what your coworkers are wearing, and then go do that. I mean reeeeeally look. If they're in jeans, are they designer or Gap? Are the shoes 9 West or Marc Jacobs? What kinds of bags are they carrying? Figuring out the corporate "uniform" is less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about sending the signal that you belong. You don't need a different designer handbag for each day, but you do want to upgrade from that Target tote you've been hauling the diaper stuff around in.

This isn't to say you shouldn't have personal style, by the way. But not everyone can be an Elle Woods succeeding in a Harvard Law world. Use accessories to express your personality rather than relying on a wardrobe of hot-pink micro-minis (unless that's the uniform at your office, of course).

Skip the jeans. Despite what I just said about jeans at the office, I don't entirely understand the American addiction to blue jeans for every occasion and every moment of every day. Even if you can wear jeans to work, sometimes it's better not to; dressing for battle often makes you feel more battle ready. See also: Fake it til you make it.

Gap white fitted shirtOwn one fabulous white shirt. You always have an outfit if you have one perfect, fitted, crisp, to-die-for white shirt. BeautyHacks editor and Work it Mom fashion columnist Susan Wagner agrees with me on this one. Personally I'm in love with everything at Anne Fontaine which specializes in white blouses of every style, but they're not cheap. For a preppier take try J Crew or the Gap. You might also have luck at stores like Marshall's, Daffy's, and Filene's Basement, where you just might find something fab for less. The shirt pictured here is from the Gap and retails for $44 -- totally affordable, and entirely worth buying.

Wear makeup. I swear I'm not some chauvinist trying to keep women down with the patriarchal shackles of lengthening mascara, but looking polished beats looking like you just rolled out of bed -- which is generally how you look without makeup, and often how you look if you're juggling a family and a job. Take five minutes in the morning to put on a little makeup -- unless you're a lifeguard. In which case, carry on.

Take care of your shoes. If you can't splurge on new shoes, at least keep the old ones spiffy with a good resoling and a polish. Splurge on a professional shine if you can; every time I do, I look down and think ahhhh, right. That's why I did it.

Get a killer haircut. If you do nothing else, do this first. If you color your hair, make sure it doesn't look like you had an accident with the Manic Panic in your bathroom, or that you're still playing with Sun-In. Remember, you can always change your clothes, but you wear your hair every day.

Once your basics are covered, invest in one trendy piece. As much as classic pieces like neutral cardigans, a black skirt, black leggings a simple dress can serve you well, when you wear something from this century (and hopefully, this decade) it sends the signal that you've still got it. It could be a fabulous necklace, killer boots, or a belted dress you know won't be in style three years from now.

If you're lost, Omiru is a clever fashion blog that helps you translate runway eye candy into something more wearable. And hopefully more affordable. A few of their recent suggestions for the coming season: Military style boots, harem pants, flouncy white oxfords (see?), structured polka dot dresses. Not all at once, of course. I also really like some of the florals for spring showcased on Lindsay Ferrier's new fashion blog, She's Still Got It.

Has anyone else returned to work in a new capacity? What are your favorite tips and tricks to avoid running out of outfits by Thursday, or running out of money before payday?

Liz Gumbinner is the publisher and editor in chief of the shopping blog Cool Mom Picks and the author of the personal blog Mom-101, which she always writes wearing pearls and her senior prom dress.

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