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How to pack for a work trip

Packing for a work trip can be nerve-wracking! What does everyone wear at the Phoenix office? Is the Portland office a lot more laid back than yours in Madison? Is Boston as conservative as they say? The good news is that if you are a creative or in tech, the vibe at almost every office is casual to business casual, and you are probably well aware of the standards and conventions of dress across the industry. If you are looking for help on how to pack for a work trip, we assume you are in a more conservative field, such as the law, finance or acquisitions, and are worried about walking the proverbial tightrope.

Packing for a week-long business trip to another city where you will be meeting, working or presenting in another office is tricky. As an up-and-coming executive, you want to fit in, but leave a distinct impression. You want to be perfectly appropriate but also let your personality show a little bit. You know that lots of your colleagues will be forming opinions about your city or your office based on what they see of and learn from you. Let us guide you. Happily, with some common-sense advice, a few tips from those in the know, and a couple of trade secrets, you can pack for a work trip and be prepared to face any situation that might arise!

Yes, you need a suit.

You need a suit. It might be a skirt suit or a pant suit according to your taste, though the absolute best option is a ladies' three-piece, which is a suit set consisting of a jacket, skirt and dress pants for maximum versatility. Even the most traditional offices in the most conservative industries accept ladies' pantsuits now, so if you confine yourself to pants suits out of gender parity or convenience, we salute you and assure you that you will look entirely appropriate. At the same time, a three-piece provides tremendous flexibility, so if you wear both skirts and pants as part of your everyday workwear, this is your optimum choice. We strongly recommend a charcoal grey or dark navy—black is great if that's your favorite, but it may be a little predictable. A suit like this makes packing for a work trip simple and straightforward.

The truth is, people aren't thinking about you, they are thinking about themselves; you could probably wear just that suit with a fresh shirt each day and no one would notice, let alone mind. But we understand you want to look and feel your confident best, so let's talk about how to mix that suit with a few other key pieces to achieve your wardrobe goals!

Styling your suit for versatility.

Let's say you go with a three-piece suit. Construct a whole outfit for each variation of that suit. One ensemble may feature a sharply tailored women's blouse and conservative high heels , while the other suit outfit channels a softer look based on a silk shell top, peep-toe heels and dainty jewelry. It's okay to play with the parameters of the suit you choose! Then, find a sweater or summer sweaters that you can pair with either the skirt or slacks for an easier office look. A sweater is ideal because they lay well and can be both soft and tailored at the same time. Summer sweaters made of silk or very fine-gauge cotton give you the style of a sweater in a weight and breathability suitable for warmer weather. That's three outfits, effortlessly.

Next, we recommend a business dress. A tailored sheath dress that can be topped with a blazer, but doesn't have to be, is what you're looking for here, and go for a color. Bright blue, magenta, yellow—anything you really love that you can wear with the blazer you will have on hand is fine! This is a place to show your personality, so go for it. If you're stuck for ideas, check out what newswomen or your favorite woman in politics is wearing. Business dresses are becoming more and more mainstream; our only caution to you is that unless you are actually in the news, make sure you can wear a jacket over your dress if even only for coming and going from the office.

Lastly, a packable ponté knit or jersey dress is an absolute must. You can wear your jacket over it if you need to in that particular office, but it makes a great, easy office appropriate look all on its own, and they pack up so easily!

How to pack for a work trip, after hours.

The likelihood of you being taken to dinner is high. You may be asked to a happy hour, or you may be expected to appear at an industry event. Pack a Little Black Dress, but be certain it's not too little, too sexy, or too flashy. Think dinner at your parent's club, not date night on the town! You can style an LBD you already own with lower heels and a cardigan to downplay its sex appeal if you prioritize versatility. This is another place you might like to wear your knit dress—with an open shoe and the right accessories, they look just as good at a restaurant as they do in a conference room. You will want a pair of jeans and a couple of cute knit tops in case you find yourself with an evening to spend as you like. Shopping or catching a movie is more fun in jeans than in a suit, that is, unless you're shopping for more suits!

A tip from me to you: if you're uncertain, ask. It may feel awkward to ask your colleague what the dress conventions are for an after-hours event, so make friends with the company receptionist, or a colleague's assistant. Bring him a tea or help her carry in the mail, and say, "I'm not really sure what to expect at the XYZ Inc. dinner. What do the women usually wear?" While times have changed—for the better!—and a receptionist is no longer just a pretty face at the front desk, lots of real power and information still rests in the hands of office support staff! Be kind, be honest, and they are usually happy to help.

Remember to bring the intangibles!

If you really want to kill it on a work trip, the right clothing is only part of what you need to bring. Bring the goods. Bring your A-game. Prepare and know your stuff. That will take you just as far as the perfect suit or just-right ponté dress.

Basic Packing List for Five-Day Work Trip

  • Ladies' three-piece suit
  • Two blouses in different styles
  • Two sweaters or good knit tops that mix with the suit skirt and trousers
  • Business dress for office or after-hours, should match jacket
  • Ponté or jersey dress for office or after-hours, should match jacket
  • Little Black Dress for after hours or event
  • Casual clothing for downtime—jeans outfits are ideal
  • Conservative pumps, office-appropriate kitten heel, evening shoes
  • Undergarments and sleepwear
  • Medications, cosmetics, toiletries
  • Work materials
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