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How to find Australian workwear that doesn’t suck

Images via E Nolan
Words by Isabelle Sacks

Because we all deserve better than polyester chiffon blouses.

After a year where my uniform consisted mostly of trackies paired with birks and socks, the concept of putting on proper pants to go to work again has been surprisingly exciting.

But here’s the thing – women’s workwear has historically been dead boring. I want to look cute as well as professional, feel confident, be comfy as hell and avoid sweaty polyester chiffon blouses that make my arm hairs stand up.


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So, to find out more about building an aesthetically pleasing, ethically-minded, corporate-ready wardrobe from the ground up, I spoke to two experts: Olivia Smythe and Emily Nolan. 

Olivia is a stylist working across media, film and TV. She’s also got her finger on the pulse when it comes to ethics and sustainability within the fashion industry.

Emily is the designer and creative force behind the powerhouse womenswear brand (and Melbourne Fashion Festival National Designer Award finalist) E Nolan. The brand brings together classic, Saville Row tailoring methods with a tongue-in-cheek approach to self-expression, offering a new standard for women’s suiting in Australia.

Cover your bases 

Olivia’s advice is to start with some great shirts and trousers and work your way out from there. Her top Australian labels for elevated classics are Nobody Denim, Arnsdorf, Viktoria and Woods, and St. Agni. Her favourite brand for beautiful and ethically made t-shirts is Vege Threads, she loves Kowtow for great trans-seasonal pieces, and Suk Workwear for people in more physically demanding work environments. 

 

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“The common thread between all the brands that I like is that they’re quite timeless and classic. I think that that’s important when you’re investing in pieces just for them to be classic and timeless, so you can wear them for a long time,” Olivia explains.

Emily tells me her capsule workwear wardrobe would include: “a shirt you can count on, a comfortable tailored trouser that allows you to move, a jacket that pulls you out of moments of imposter syndrome, a piece of knitwear for Melbourne’s transient weather and a baggy t-shirt that reminds you where the day started.”

Splurge on a great suit

Olivia immediately namechecks E Nolan when I ask what items are worth splurging on, “Definitely think about investing in a suit tailored to you,” she says. “Get something that’s custom made for you, that feels really special and that you will keep for a really, really long time.” 

“A suit is a true investment – a canvas to layer almost anything else onto. Depending on your location, workplace, identity or mood, a suit can go anywhere from blouse and heels, to shirt and loafer, to sneakers and singlet, to turtle neck and boot. The work wardrobe has the potential to see you through your best and your worst days, so I think it’s about curating pieces for the long haul and buying well-made, quality garments,” Emily explains.

Save (the planet, and your dollars) with secondhand

While Olivia hints that the top item to save some cash on can be shoes, the best way to live your affordable, ethical corporate fashion dream is to go secondhand.

“I think it can be really daunting because it is expensive to shop at the Australian-made ethical sustainable brands,” Olivia acknowledges. “I think a really great way to buy ethically is to buy what you can secondhand because that’s a really great way to participate in a circular fashion economy.” 

She recommends taking a look at Goodbyes, Vestiaire Collective and even Facebook Marketplace to find secondhand pieces.

 

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Outfit repeating is fine, nay, encouraged 

Given that we go into work 240 odd days a year, the expectation that we should be switching it up all the time is emotionally, fiscally, and environmentally draining. 

“I don’t know why we feel so inclined to wear a different outfit every day. It throws cost per wear out the door and gives the headache of status anxiety and decision fatigue. Why on earth do we need to show up in something new every day? There is something stunning about wearing the same jacket or trouser in six or seven different ways. We are also time-poor. Wear what you love and can rely on, and wear it to death,” Emily says.

Olivia’s solution is to embrace outfit repeating and even make it part of your personal brand. “A really great approach is to adopt a Steve Jobs mindset, sort of settling on a personal uniform so that you aren’t buying excessively and you just have this one streamlined look of a few great pieces that you rotate throughout the workweek,” she suggests.

Stay comfy

The biggest thing with workwear is that it’s got to serve a utilitarian purpose. It has to make us feel confident, capable, and comfortable enough to help us perform in our jobs. While a teensy part of me wishes I didn’t have to give up wearing my pyjama bottoms to the morning meeting, Emily encourages me to think about comfort from an emotional perspective, beyond the purely physical aspects of it.  

“Comfort isn’t just about wearing something loose and homebody specific, it can also be about wearing something that fits you in just the right way and allows you to move seamlessly through the various aspects of your daily life. Day to day life is uncertain at the best of times. I like garments I can reach for that will stabilise my restless nature, and I think right now is a time of restlessness for many. I think some of us will want to feel a bit more ‘armed’ by our clothing, something that can provide both physical and emotional support, and so a tailored blazer might be just the thing to feel ready to take on the world again.”

To mine our experts for more wardrobe wisdom, keep up with Emily and her label here and Olivia’s work here.

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