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Closet Essentials

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We all know that “professional” or “business casual” attire is somewhere between blue jeans and a black suit – but for women especially, that is a lot of range! Check out this image from www.thebalancecareers.com which perfectly captures the issue:

I remember hearing about this study last year which showed a clear patient preference for white coats, as well as the subsequent conversations with friends and colleagues about how we dress at work (long story short – it’s mixed). And, I remember reading this article several years ago about how younger physicians and physicians in training are missing the memo re: professional dress. So while I freely admit that clothing and style are personal, it does seem to me that some options are better than others, and navigating these choices isn’t always easy.

I found some potential resources, including the aforementioned piece, a video blog, and a fun television-inspired take, on what to wear. I also thought I’d share some key items from my own closet; ones that I deem essential because they always make me feel put together on the outside, which in turn revs up my confidence on the inside. While my style is admittedly East Coast, it will work for any professional setting, and I’ve gotten compliments on every item I’ve described below. Here are the six items that I think every woman physician should own:

  1. Pencil skirt: in a darker color, like black, navy, or dark gray. I think hitting above or below the knee can work depending on body type; I also think we shouldn’t be scared of getting items hemmed or otherwise tailored to fit us well. A less expensive tailored outfit often looks better than a more expensive but ill-fitting one. The pencil skirt profile is timeless and pretty easily and instantaneously amps up any top. My favorite ones are from J. Crew; my sister swears by the ones from Boden.
  2. Black blouse: maybe it’s because I lived in New York once, but I really do find black to be such a powerful color. I have a few in my closet with fun details: for instance, one from Ann Taylor Loft with buttoned shoulder straps, and another one from Club Monaco with really wide sleeves. I find that details like these transform clothes from being boring and utilitarian to functionally unique, and because black goes with every pair of pants and skirt that I own, it’s always a worthwhile investment for me.
  3. Colored button-down cardigan: I found my favorite mustard yellow one at a store called Promod while I was on vacation in Switzerland – and seven years later, I still wear it at least three times a month! I am almost always cold, and the extra layer comes in handy in my office and in conference rooms. I think that opting for a color over black or white gives me a pop and lets me unobtrusively brighten up a base layer of neutrals. I favor longer cardigans that hit at the thigh, but the same concept works for a shawl or a scarf. Next up on my wish list is finding something in this category in a royal blue, and in a blush pink.
  4. Shift dress: dresses are super easy because they’re only one piece, so no coordination is required. I like shift dresses in particular because the silhouette always looks polished, and because sometimes I really don’t want my clothes (or more specifically, my waist to hip ratio) to be a focal point. I also think that these dresses transition pretty well to an after work happy hour or dinner without coming across as too professional, another plus.
  5. Stockings: I love wearing skirts and dresses; I honestly find them to be so much more comfortable than pants. So for me, stockings or tights are kind of a no-brainer, because they let me stretch my spring and summer wardrobe into the fall and winter. I don’t remember having a lot of options when I bought these back in the day to wear with my high school uniform skirt, but now, I can find stockings in all colors and patterns, from ribbed to polka dots to flowers. Ann Taylor Loft is my go to place – they have an amazing fleece lined pair that works fine even in the middle of winter! I have also found good ones at Anthropologie and Madewell.
  6. Blazer: this one is lower on my list, but when I was discussing this blog post with my sisters (who are OB and ENT, respectively), they both said that a blazer is a must. I completely agree that wearing one looks sophisticated, and I have to admit that a blazer often looks more professional than a cardigan does, with the same benefit of being an extra layer. Recently I discovered collarless blazers, and I think now I might be a convert. For people like me who are new to this market, my big sister recommends Halsbrook and Theory as good places to start browsing.

Happy shopping!

Author: Lakshmi S. Tummala, MD, FACC

Lakshmi S. Tummala, MD, FACC

Lakshmi is a staff cardiologist at the DC VA Medical Center, and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. She is passionate about women in medicine and excited to share her thoughts and experiences as she navigates the novel opportunities and accompanying challenges of an early career. Any views or opinions expressed in this blog are hers alone, and sharing resources does not equal endorsement.


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