Reader Request: Durable Dressing

Style tips for when you need to wear durable clothes

Reader Andrea sent me this plea:

I and a friend own a dog training business, so we could wear anything we like. However the job itself puts limits on it. I can’t wear anything delicate, easily snagged or damaged or anything fussy. Drapey sleeves, dangling scarves or anything that hangs away from the body poses a serious problem with the mouthy pups we work with daily! We also can’t wear anything too dear as destruction via tooth or claw (or drool!) is an issue. Comfy, sensible shoes are a must. I find myself wearing boring old tshirts and jeans with a zip up hoodie most of the time.

Do you have any advice for us gals who need to dress in a utilitarian manner? I’d love to add some interest and to appear stylish.

I’m sure very few of you are in Andrea’s EXACT situation, but know there are plenty of moms to tiny kiddies, art teachers, and women working in the great outdoors who would love to get on the stylish-yet-utilitarian train.

I think my main advice would be this: THRIFT. Anything you buy that’s used and cheap won’t cause as much sorrow if the pooches/kids/hawthorn-bushes make mincemeat of it. Nab skinny jeans with stretch or funky colored cords, embellished tees or durable and washable blouses. Seek out quality fabrics and well-made goods at thrift and consignment shops and you’ll get cute looks for less.

Any woman who does work that is potentially messy and damaging to clothing but is also extremely ACTIVE needs close-fitting tops that allow her to move. I think jersey knit garments are your best bets. Even sweaters could snag on puppy teeth or get damaged by an overzealous tot. So scour that thrift store for printed long-sleeved tees, tees with embellishments that you like (preferably near the neckline), patterned/striped/polka-dotted tees, and great, vibrant colors. Layer for added interest – a deep-v long-sleeved tee over a contrasting tank top, a long-sleeved tee under a short-sleeved one, a fun tee peeking out from a crinkly cotton button-down with the sleeves rolled up.

Depending on the vocation and situation, a leggings-and-tunic look could work for a gal leading an active lifestyle. Durable, washable, well-made tunics are a must, so hunt those down in person and online. The leggings, on the other hand, can be cheap. Even high-quality, spendy leggings aren’t going to stand up to REAL wear and tear since they’re basically a tight, thin layer of spandex and cotton. Up to you, of course, but I’d say go Target, Sears, etc. for the leggings, if this look appeals.

Now, if you’re willing to invest some bank in a few nicer pieces, scope out vendors who cater to athletic women, like Title 9 and Athleta. There are tons of sport-specific garments on these two vendor websites, but both companies also sell “lifestyle” garments with the same durable, washable fabrics and quality construction, but a more fashion-y bent. Hit up the sale section and snag a tunic or dress for those days when pants and a tee just don’t feel fun enough.

Finally, check 6pm and Amazon for funky, inexpensive boots. I imagine that closed-toe shoes are a must, and believe that, styled correctly, boots can be worn pretty much year-round. (Unless, of course, you live in a hot and humid climate – in which case, try Mary Janes or Dansko closed-back clogs.) My advice is to avoid athletic sneakers as much as you can; It can be quite a challenge to make puffy cross-trainers look chic. Invest in a few pairs of cheap but interesting boots, and rotate them out when they get too worn.

Images courtesy athleta.com.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

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  • Kasmira

    LOVE your suggestion to thrift! That's the first thing I thought of.

    As far as shoes go, I'd also suggest non-athletic sneakers…low-profile, leather sneakers are really comfortable and can be stylish, too. I'm sure there's a better name for this style of footwear, but I don't know it!

    What about jeggings instead of leggings for durability?

  • Kelly @ blackdog finds

    I second the Danskos!

    My sis is a dog trainer and she lives in Carhartts for ladies, particularly the canvas jeans. They are slightly flared/bootcut and have a zillion pockets and are, well, Carhartts, they can withstand a lot. And, they come in khaki shades so it breaks up the monotony of blue jeans.

  • Anonymous

    I second the love for thrifting!
    I work in a research lab, and am constantly working with chemicals and reagents that destroy clothes. I'm also not able (or rather, shouldn't) to wear open toed shes or anything exposing a long length of bare leg. I've found that jersey dresses of shorter lengths plus leggings are an easy way to go, and look great with flat boots. It's a little dressier than the tunic solution, but on the same idea.

    Accessories are good too, I'd suggest chunky not super dangly necklaces, acrylic can stand up to a lot, and interesting stud earrings.

  • La Historiadora de Moda

    I'm completely with you on thrifting. It's certainly not as painful to have dogs drool on or shred something that cost $.87 as it is to have them do that to something that cost $87.

    I also wonder about non-athletic sneakers. I have some really adorable pink ones that add some color to a simple outfit of jeans and a tee.

  • jokerine

    I'm a chemist and the lab can be hard on shoes and pants. Fortunately tops are covered with a labcoat and jackets can be removed, so I usually put all my style up top. I have taken to wearing Chucks all summer, they're closedtoe and come in cool colors and patterns.

  • Kendra

    I have ALWAYS wanted to get certified as a dog trainer. And since I am into fashion I even thought about how I would dress in that profession. I think I would have the business invest in some "smocks" that can be worn during training sessions and then taken off. I say this for a couple reasons.
    1. You want to look presentable, professional and grown up to the "parents". So when not actively training you can remove the smock and feel more spiffy when meeting humans.
    2. The smocks can be emblazoned with the company logo and your name in an attractive way.
    3. The smock can be washed a million times and replaced.

    And a smock can be any shape, color, size that pleases you and is function. I guess kinda like the smocks employees where at Walmart (only more fitted).
    Pair it with practical pants (jeans, khakis, leggings), and sensible shoes (I would stick to leather and other cleanable materials.)

  • gina

    I totally agree with thrifting. When all your clothes are under $5, it just doesn't matter as much if they get ruined on the job.

    I also agree with the sneakers suggestion. Chuck Taylors and Sketchers are my personal favorites, but other companies make stylish looking sneakers.

    I really like the look of trousers with tees and sneakers. I have lots of professional looking trousers that I dress down with colored tees and sneakers on the weekends. You can thrift trousers as well, or buy them cheap on sale from places like Forever 21, H&M, Express, NY&Co. This is a more adult look, but still practical. I prefer my sneakers and tees in bright colors that stand out from the more basic trousers.

    Other suggestions:
    -fitted jackets (that still allow full range of movement)
    -stretchy mini skirts over leggings (modest enough, allows movement, no dangling loose material)
    -doc martens
    -sweatshirts (Flashdance style)
    -shorts or capris (worn alone if your legs don't need to be completely covered or over leggings)
    -rompers, jumpers, playsuits, or whatever you call them (see Cat of Impossible Colour for an easy way to make them out of old thrifted summer dresses)
    -funky hairstyles or colors (I've always wanted to do blue or red streaks, but that wouldn't be conservative enough for my job)
    -cuff bracelets (if they fit well, they don't move around or get in the way)
    -choker necklaces
    -boots, boots, booties, and more boots
    -khakis or (brightly colored) cords instead of denim
    -colored denim (American Apparel style, lots of blogs have diy dying and bleaching how-to's that you can use on cheap sale or thrifted denim)
    -pajama bottoms or sweatpants (Victoria's Secret style; yes, this is a college look, but you work for yourself and can wear whatever you want)

  • Charlotte

    Excellent suggestions for running errands wear, too, Sal. It's a bit more effort than the jeans-and-tee-and-Danskos that I usually wear, but not much, and it looks more polished.

  • kjlangford

    I'm with Kasmira- Skechers has some great non-athletic sneakers, a little pricey, but super durable, really cute and really comfy.

    Or what about some great converse sneakers!

    Also- you can shop at stores like Academy for athletic tees or tanks and bottoms. They are starting to bring in many stylish looks that aren't super expensive (and they usually have great sales). Or Old Navy and Target also carry great athletic wear for a good price.

    I know you don't necessarily want just athletic wear, but you can mix athletic wear (which tends to be very durable) with more traditional wear- a yoga pant with an embellished tee. An printed athletic tank with your favorite jeans.

    These are my favorite items to wear when attending or leading dance rehearsals or teaching dance classes. It's not an issue of claws for me, but movement and fabric that can withstand a lot of movement and stretch and be comfortable.
    kj

  • Julia

    great suggestions – these also apply to a lot of lab environments as well, as others have mentioned. Even lab coats don't always protect top garments (acid holes always manage to appear). Also a lot of lab work requires fixing instruments (on your hands/knees on the floor), doing some plumbing, working with tools, etc so snags in clothing usually are unavoidable.

    I agree with Kasmira and LHdM- the non-athletic sneakers are a great addition – they come in all sorts of fun colors!

  • futurelint

    I used to work with special needs teenagers for years and it was really hard to dress nice (no dangly necklaces or earrings for them to grab, shoes had to be runnable, anything I wore could potentially be splattered with paint or food, etc) and we went on field trips every day to lakes, parks, zoos, etc. I just got a million pairs of different colored canvas pants and shorts at Old Navy and wore printed or patterned tanks every day with ballet flats. Boring? Yes. Worth it? Yes.

  • angie

    Interesting and good ideas!

    I have a client who is in this exact position and we have solved the problem in another way. It might not work for everyone but it works for her. When she trains dogs, she wears fabulous sports gear from Patagonia, Lulu Lemon, Lucy and Athleta. Durable clothing at its best. As soon as she is finished with that part of her day, she changes into normal everyday casual or smart casual clothing. My client likes to get out of her sports gear once dog training and competing is over, so it's a win all round.

  • tricia

    a suggestion for good, inexpensive, yet durable leggings: newport news. yes, that newport news. 🙂 they don't come in a huge range of colors, but they fit, and they stand the test of time. something about the quality of the knit/stretch material is just right, i've found. and i'd bet they could be dyed too…can't hurt to experiment.

  • Rebecca

    Part of my job is a PE teacher–talk about not remotely chic! I don't feel right showing up to work in sweats, since I have other jobs at school as well. I tend to wear casual skirts or dresses (knit, denim, things I can move in) with leggings. When it gets warmer I wear athletic skirts. I do have to wear sneakers, though, and while not chic, my vintage New Balance sneakers are definitely hip.

    In the summer, when I work on a farm, I shower and put on a pretty dress every day as soon as I get home. 🙂

  • Elaine

    Great tips! I love the tunic-leggings look.

    clothed much, a modest fashion blog

  • Stephanie

    Mostly. I'm a sahm so my big rule is it must be washable. I also try to get bottoms out of more durable material. I refuse to where gym clothes when not at the gym bc its very easy to look frumpy in those. I also where the cute short leggings with lace at the bottom under shorter skirts and dresses so I don't flash anyone when bending over. I think mostly I'm just accepted that anything could get ruined so I don't worry too much about that and enjoy wearing what I like.

  • lisa

    My utilitarian go-to look always consists of jeans, a tee with an unusual neckline or some sort of embellishment, non-athletic sneakers, and stud earrings.

  • Make Do Style

    Tunic and leggings sounds best solution as the tunic can be bright/funky and not too expensive. Combat trousers with pockets would be good to and team with tops that have nice detail or denim shirts or khaki shirts.

  • stacy

    Leggings and a tunic — very good advice for this type of job. Now, can you help my sister? She is a scientist and tells me that she doesn't want to "get rat brains" on anything nice! I know… gross!

  • Amy

    I work in the environmental field, having to deal with dirt, shrubbery, dogs and the heat and humidity of Florida in the summer.

    The main thing keeping me from spending $$$$ replacing my clothing every time it gets stained or torn is shopping at thrift stores and outlets. This way I can still wear a nice Ralph Lauren polo shirt, but when it gets stained, I don't care because it only cost $4 and not $30-40.

    I mostly wear dark cotton trousers (to hide the mud some dogs like to brush on me) or jeans with a short sleeved or sleeveless collared shirt (b/c I'm outside so much).

    I also wear waterproof Merrells that I found at Marshalls and love them. I've worn them practically every day for a year, stepping in puddles, mud, tall grass and they still look new!

    Also the other key is washable. If it's for work, it must be machine washable.

  • Pat

    Hi Sal, you said "[I] believe that, styled correctly, boots can be worn pretty much year-round."

    Would you mind posting more about wearing boots in the summer? I often thought about wearing them but feel self-conscious!

  • Laura.

    ooh! this is my story! or maybe not. i'm an artist and i work in a studio by myself all day, which means clothes are subject to ink, acid, and solvents (and that no one else sees me at all). i want to not have to think AT ALL when i'm getting dressed, so i try to stay equipped with a few options for a sort of 'uniform'. it basically consists of my favorite jeans, thrifted/hand-me-down knit shirts in various colors, and my chucks. As long as the fit feels comfy and looks flattering, i'm good to go (and i don't feel bad getting the cheapo/free shirts dirty). i usually also add a giant square scarf. sort of like a security blanket, but around my neck.

  • Kat Astrophe

    I'm another research-lab type. I have a "uniform" consisting of a few different types of outfits:

    1) Jeans (or washable dress pants if you're in a more-professional environment) and cheap Target T-shirt, accessorized with "statement" jewelry. (Don't go with a scarf unless you want it to get dragged in chemicals, dangled from by a puppy, caught in machinery, etc.) This is what I wear probably 2 or 3 days a week.

    2) Cotton/spandex minidresses, shirt dresses, miniskirts, etc. with opaque leggings and either boots or flats, with a cheap cropped cardigan thrown on top. This is also a pretty standard look for me.

    3) If I have an important meeting or presentation and I HAVE to wear my "nice" clothes in the lab, I throw a lab coat on to protect my clothes. Lab coats are pretty cheap; if you go for this approach, it's worth it to spring for the kind that belt in the back (more flattering), and you also want the kind with the slits at the hips (so you can get into your regular pockets).

    I Nth the thrifting approach: I also do a lot of shopping at stores like TJ Maxx, Marshall's, Ross, etc. One of my favorite outfits is basically a shirtdress + leggings thing that I spent a total of $10 on (mostly on the leggings). The shirtdress is actually a narrow but long man's dress shirt from a thrift store. It hits at mid-thigh, so I belt it at the waist and pretend it's a dress.

    A little cheap jewelry will go a long way, too. I usually go for big, chunky, brightly colored stuff, but I also have some really weird items like a cast-silver rodent skull on a chain.

    Shoes are going to be your most important consideration if you're doing a lot of standing or walking. I spend the majority of my clothing budget on shoes, because I want them to be comfortable, supportive, protective, and cute at the same time. I've had luck shopping for shoes via REI, Sierra Trading Post, Athleta/Title 9, etc. A lot of the makers of this kind of shoe make some butt-ugly designs, but if you do enough sifting, you'll find some cute shoes that are actually good for your feet. And you do need to wear flats. Even if you are totally comfortable in heels and you hate wearing flats because you feel they make you look stumpy (here's looking at me), it's better to just suck it up and wear flats at your job. You can wear heels on your days off.

  • Anonymous

    Great comments! i'm a little late, but i'm so hard on clothes that this topic is VERY close to my heart. for me, the downside of thrifting is that it's so hard to find anything that fits or i like that it takes a lot more time than buying/sewing durable clothes to begin with. so that's a factor. also, thrifted clothes are often 'pre-worn' so they never last more than 2-3 months for me. so i end up spending a LOT of time shopping with this strategy, which kind of defeats the purpose for me……so that's one perspective as to whether thrifting will work for YOU! : )

    as to ideas for making your outfits less boring, and more fun, try: barettes, scrunchies, etc.; bandanas/scarfs worn to tie back hair, tied around the wrist, tied closely around the neck (whoa! not TOO close!); stud earrings (these can be up to a couple inches across and still work as long as they sit close to your face and fasten securely); chokers or 18" max length necklaces; socks!!; belts; hats (berets, baseball caps, anything with a thinner brim – use a strap to keep it on your noggin); fancy shoelaces. pins will work if they fasten well (you can use safety pins for extra help) and are worn close to the neckline and don't have dangly-bits.

    if you think out your accessories so (for example) your hat, pin, neck scarf, and socks all have a similar 'feel' (punk, camo, victorian-girly, whatever) then you will come across as wearing a 'style' as opposed to looking like you are dressing solely to deal with the conditions of your work.

    Dansko clogs are great!! perfect for being on your feet, last forever, look great. choose ones with a back or straps so they stay on easily.

    Great topic! i'm getting great info from reading everybody's ideas, so thank you all!!!

  • Kate

    I taught preschool for two years (doesn't get much messier than that!) and I have 2 words of advice:

    1)KEENS. Keens, Keens, Keens, Keens, Keens. "Sienna" and "Calistoga" especially are super-cute, amazingly comfortable (no, really. STRATOSPHERES above any other brand!), and really durable.

    2)Short necklaces. Not long enough to dangle or get caught, but great for adding visual interest to an outfit 🙂

  • SimplePea

    Patagonia.com has some cute outdoorsy stuff too…

  • Sonja

    What immediately came to my mind when reading the request was a certain look that might be called British country style. Think horseriding, think hunting, think the royal family in outdoorsy clothes.
    Do you know what I mean? Riding boots or wellies, these quilted vests and the typical olive green jackets. Typical brands would be Burberry, Hunter and Barbour, Aigle and Seeland.
    Okay, I have to admit that it’s an expensive style, and it might be too conservative for some (me, for example). But then again it might work for you if you adapt it to your style. If you like the look but not the prices, go for inexpensive pieces that have the same spirit. If you love the quality but would like something less classic, look out for fun colours (pink hunter boots, for example) and combine those pieces with items you already own and love.
    Just an idea.