Reader Request: Utilitarian Pant-based Ensembles

Tiffany said:

I know you’re not a pants girl, and I’m not either, but I have to wear pants to work (engineering/construction inspector). Unfortunately its a field of men, so I don’t have a lot of examples to look to, hehe.

I would love to see a piece on how to make a utilitarian pants outfit more interesting (and no, I can’t do it with shoes…steel-toed boots are a must)! I just feel like I wear the same outfit in different colors all the time.

Ahhh, there are so many fun things that we women can do to jazz up pants-based ensembles. Here are just a few suggestions:

COLORFUL PANTS

If you’re confined to pants, why not invest in some pants with personality? While I’d love to direct you to red, green, and electric blue pants because that’s how I roll, navy, maroon, and olive are all fantastic options, too. Color is always a marvelous way to enliven your looks, and challenging yourself to incorporate some new shades into those pant-based ensembles is a great way to branch out.

PATTERNED TOPS

Fun and funky patterns instantly add spice to otherwise bland outfits. I’m not big on patterned pants, but texture and pattern in tops is always a good bet. For a more conservative look, put a graphic blouse in subdued tones beneath a blazer or cardigan. Turn up the heat a little by swapping in a blouse with a brightly colored pattern. Or if you want the pattern to be the focal point, go for a patterned blazer, cardigan, or other outer layer.

TUNICS

Just because you’re wearing pants doesn’t mean you have to confine yourself to blouses, sweaters, and tees. Mix up your proportions by throwing a few tunics into the mix. Since Tiffany is doing steel-toed boots, she may have a tough time finding a pair of slim-fitting pants that look natural. And although tunics often look best with skinny or slim pants, they can work with bootcut and widelegs if done right. Go for a close-fitting style, a belted version, or a shirt-dress design with some structure and fitting.

ACCESSORIES

Hopefully those of you required to stick to trousers for work can add a few embellishments here and there. Throw an embellished belt under your blazer, tuck a vibrant scarf beneath your cardigan, or grab a bright leather handbag.

JEWELRY

“Utilitarian” and “jewelry” don’t always play nicely together, but there are a few pieces that can be beautifully unfussy. Brooches sit close enough to the body to pose few risks, and some simple rings are often both decorative and durable. Long necklaces and earrings may seem like overkill, but tasteful studs and simple chains will work wonders to add elegance to a pared-down ensemble.

Those of you who work in labs or factories and are required to wear pants but DON’T have Tiffany’s footwear restrictions, I’d encourage you to explore fun and funky shoes, too. Expressive and interesting shoes needn’t be heeled, expensive, or uncomfortable! There are loads of brands and styles out there designed for comfort and ease-of-wear. And there’s hardly a thing in the world more happy-making than a darling pair peeking out from beneath your pant leg.

Top image courtesy Old Navy.

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  • I actually like pants and I’m trying to find more ways to wear mine and to add more pants color. I definitely feel like my pants-based outfits end up a little more on the conservative side color and accessorization-wise, but I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that.

    A style blogger I’ve just found who wears sort of utilitarian pants a lot is Headlines and Hemlines. She’s a photojournalist, and does outdoor shoots. She always looks pretty fab in minimalist outfits.

    One thing I would think about is embracing the unisex in your unisex outfits. Why NOT look to male style icons? Maybe not the dudes on your job, but one of my male style icons is Mark Wahlberg. On days when I’m casual and out and about, I actually think about his neat, body conscious minimalism. Maybe he’s not your cup of tea or you need to be more formal and suity. I’m sure there’s a man out there who has something to say to you stylistically, and that you can find ways to use that. I think women sometimes feel an obligation to differentiate with their clothes — it’s part of that same complex of the world feeling like it’s our “job” to be pretty, and us feeling like we somehow owe it to someone to do that unpaid job. But why? The last thing I care about at work is my secondary sex characteristics, and I don’t want anyone else at work to really think about them either. See if you can find ways to embrace and enhance utilitarian unisex. There are some people who do it SO well, and it’s awesome.

  • I work at a job where jeans are really the most practical thing to wear. I am still rehabbing my wardrobe (which had been slipping a bit too close to “frumpy business” and “sloppy casual”).

    I have happily settled into a simple formula: dark-wash jeans, solid top with a flattering neckline, and bright accessories. I am always looking for interesting shoes, colorful scarves and jewelry, or patterned silk blouses to wear under sweaters. I do have some colorful corduroy pants and some nice dress pants (gray, black, and camel). But most days, I wear jeans.

    I agree with Cynthia. Everything doesn’t have to be “pretty” or overtly interesting. You can dress simply and look well-dressed.

    I do the colorful accessories because I want to– because I enjoy just a touch of color– and not because I feel the need to add variety or detail.

  • Louise

    Tiffany might consider a “makeover” on her steel-toed boots and shoes. I had to wear them back in the 80s, so I know the styles for women are limited and pretty boring. But a good cobbler can re-dye leather, so a pair of tan workboots could become, for instance, maroon or forest green.

    There are a few nice steel-toed shoes out there. I saw these at Zappos and thought they were pretty cute: http://www.zappos.com/ariat-safety-toe-clog-black

  • I enjoy pants, and this is all good food for thought. In my line of work I don’t want to be too formal (my department had a tie day once and it confused the hell out of everyone else- someone even asked me if we were all leaving the company). The problem is that I will too often opt to wear jeans and a quirky t-shirt and leave it at that. The end result is that, when I leave work, I’m always asked what my major is, and then I have to tell them I graduated four years ago. *facepalm* I don’t have a lot in the way of interesting tops, but this seems like a good area of my wardrobe to develop.

  • I am required to wear pants and am not allowed many embellishments. I love the idea of getting some colored pants and then dressing it up. I’ve always been “scared” of them, but you make it sound easy and possible. Thanks for the marvelous suggestions.

  • Sadie

    I had a job for three years where pants and steel toed shoes were the order of the day (technical writer at a company with an extensive factory floor that I visited often). I was NOT a fan of colorful pants because, if I had to slide under a big machine with the digital camera to document it, my pants got dirty/dusty. So I stuck with blacks, browns, and olive green. It has taken me years to break out of the style rut that this period of my life induced.

    Two ideas to share:
    * Steampunk! Steampunk glamorizes Victorian engineering. Mix up the pants with interesting Victorian/menswear inspired shirts, vests, and even hats. And there’s zillions of delightful accessories.
    * Engineering/construction inspector = outdoors a lot, yes? A coat that you really love could make a lot of difference. Even if you have to wear it under a fluorescent orange safety vest.

  • I totally agree. Pants are not just comfortable and practical but extremely stylish too. Love you’re tips to make them more stylish.

    I used to work at a company that only allowed formal pants. My role as a training manager also restricted the color spectrum of my tops. Jewelry and accessories was to be kept to the minimum in order to ensure complete attention on what I was saying not wearing (training/presentation rule No. 1). I felt restricted at first because I was all about big, bold jewelry at that time but learnt to work within the rules and still stay true to my style.

    I absolutely used some of your tips to make it work!

  • Triglypha

    I can sympathize with Tiffany’s plight. My wardrobe requirements aren’t as stringent as hers – no steel-toed shoes needed for me – but as an architect (Sal and I actually have the same employer!), I still spend plenty of time tromping around construction sites. What works for me, especially in the colder months, is sturdy-but-cute boots/shoes and menswear-inspired wool trousers in subtle prints like plaids and pinstripes. I like to keep it simple on top with solid-colored sweaters and simple accessories, but if the pattern on your pants is subtle enough, you can do a patterned top as well.

    While wool pants do need occasional drycleaning, especially if they’re lined, I find them far more durable than other fabrics (except denim, of course). Sometimes dirt can be just brushed off. In the warmer months, I switch to lighter-weight fabrics and more summery patterns. No white pants at work for me, though!

    Also, I second Sadie’s above comment about steampunk. I’ve recently been shopping for some steampunk accessories on Etsy – they add that little bit of edginess to otherwise-conservative outfits.

  • Hi All! i’m on ‘blog hiatus’ right now, but a couple of my posts on style while camping (!) might be helpful to those wanting to spark up some bland base pieces.

    http://tinyurl.com/4fr5bl5

    http://tinyurl.com/4vnnaxt

    (these were posted on August 12 & 13, 2010, if you want to search thru the archives.)
    these posts talk about using accessories to make a very basic outfit interesting. I style two different ‘base layers’ in three different ways each – with pictures!

    i love my cargo pants, and love romantic, vintage looks. so i look to Amelia Earhart and Isak Dinesen for style inspiration re: cargos. Work clothing of the 1940’s is a lot of fun, too. hope these help! steph

  • Sue

    Im glad you did this post. I work in a lab and wearing dresses and skirts is often not practical for safety reasons. Something could spill on an exposed part of your body and you also stand the chance of ruining your nice clothes. I mainly wear jeans, corduroy or light cotton or khakis in warmer weather. I agree that it’s difficult to dress these up at times. Interesting and comfortable footwear is essential. I’ve been wearing sneakers a lot but now I’m trying to branch out into non-athletic shoes. A nice top and cardigan usually works plus simple accessories like a necklace or earrings. Look up the suggested blog, Headlines and hemlines(http://www.headlinesandhemlines.com/). She has some nice ensembles with pants.

  • I’m not required to wear pants, but because of a lymphatic condition that makes me a tad… self-conscious… about my legs, I tend to prefer them. I have a lot of either jeans or smart-casual pants that I’ll wear with shirts or smart long-sleeved t-shirts – but I’ve also just recently discovered wearing tunics over pants, which I really love. If I have a meeting, I’ll dress up the pants with a smart business blazer / suit jacket (usually in the same colour as the pants) and a pair of comfortable, heeled ankle-boots (the only kind that will fit my ankles, alas!). I used to use pretty scarves to accessorise quite a bit as well – I should really get back to doing that!

  • Sonja

    I love pants, I do not usually wear skirts or dresses. I’m racking my brain about how to make them to tempting to someone who is not a pants girl. Hm …
    As always you could search for some inspiration admiring the looks of other fashionable ladies – when it comes to pants, my style idols are Katherine Hepburn and Charlie’s Angels.
    Maybe you could also try out some styles (skinny, highwaisted, whatever) that are different from what you wear usually, or go for a suit with a matching jacket.