Like so many people working from home this past year, Leticia, a 40-something in North Carolina, had put her work clothes away in the dark recesses of her closet. For Zoom meetings at work, all she really needed were some nice tops, and she was set.
But she’ll be returning to in-person work soon, which means a full slate of travel, meetings, conferences and full work attire. Unfortunately, Leticia’s work clothes from 2019 ― her “Before Times” wardrobe ― no longer fit 16 months into the pandemic.
“Right now I weigh 30 pounds more than I want to, 20 pounds more than I did before the pandemic, and 10 pounds more than I ever have in my life,” said Leticia, an educator who, like others interviewed for this story, asked to use her first name only for privacy. “About half the tops I have still fit, but they only look good from the sternum up, which is all you see on camera!”
“I got one outfit out of my first Stitch Fix box, and I’m hoping I can add a lot more to my wardrobe before my first work trip,” Leticia said.
Wes, a 32-year-old from Philadelphia, is in a similar boat after having a baby during lockdown and gaining about 60 pounds.
“I actually had an interview for a promotion during all this,” she told HuffPost. “Finding postpartum interview clothing at the local Goodwill as a newly minted 0XL was not fun.”
Wes and Leticia aren’t alone in navigating this closet conundrum. According to the American Psychological Association’s latest “Stress in America” report, more than 2 in 5 of surveyed adults (42%) said they gained more weight than they intended over the past 12 months. On average, they put on 29 pounds.
As employers call their staff back to the office, personal stylist Mellicia Marx said she’s hearing new and longtime clients say they’re concerned about fitting into their old clothes.
“As it is, heading back to the office can feel like going from 0 to 100 with little support. When you feel critical of your body, that just adds to that stress,” said Marx, who owns the personal styling company Poplin Style Direction.
“It can make folks dread going back to work rather than seeing the positive aspects like reuniting with co-workers in real life, visiting a favorite lunch spot or meeting friends for happy hour,” Marx said.
I’d rather go up a size and have it be stylish and comfortable than hold on to the idea that 'I AM A 6!' and then be constantly readjusting things all day. Rose Jubb, a virtual wardrobe stylist and image strategist
Marx reminds her clients of one of her favorite style mantras: You don’t need to change your body, you just need to change your clothes. Little tweaks and additions here and there can go a long way.
That’s what Tobias, an 18-year-old who’s heading back to work and school, is in the process of doing right now as he sorts through his closet.
“For a while, my fashion turned into big pants and oversized hoodies,” he told HuffPost. “I started wearing some of my bigger clothes from previous years; I was lucky enough to have bought multiple sizes in some of them.”
He said he’s exercising a lot more lately, but in the meantime, he’s taking his size difference in stride, just like Leticia and Wes said they were doing, too.
“It was a pandemic, so realistically, in stressful situations, it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and gain some weight,” Tobias said. “Stress and exhaustion can cause that, so even if you’ve gained 5 or 50 pounds, you’re still you.”
Still you, absolutely ― but also still in need of some flattering workwear. To make that process easier, we asked stylists like Marx to share their best advice for putting together back-to-the-office looks that are comfortable and confidence-boasting.
Just buy a few key pieces. (And buy secondhand.)
Rose Jubb, a virtual wardrobe stylist and image strategist, said a lot of clients have said, “My pre-pandemic closet is tight and uncomfortable. I’ll get back to that weight, but do I need all new things in the meantime?”
The short answer is no.
“A few key pieces will help fill in the gaps between sizes,” she said.
When budget concerns come up (and even when they don’t), Jubb points people toward consignment sites or local secondhand shops. (Think: Goodwill or vintage clothing shops in your area.)
“There are online consignment retailers like Depop, ThredUP and The RealReal that make it very easy to search by brand, style, size and more,” she said. “You can find amazing deals on the brands you love, often with the tags on and brand new, for a fraction of the price.”
Measure yourself and buy clothes that will actually fit.
Be mindful that when it comes to sizes, every brand is different.
“Just because you’re a 12 now in Calvin Klein, doesn’t mean you will be a 12 in every brand,” Jubb said. “When shopping online, release your attachment to size numbers. Take your own measurements, compare them to their size chart, and buy the size your measurements fit into.”
As disheartening as it can be when nothing in your closet fits, it’s doubly disheartening when everything you ordered arrives, nothing fits and you have to go through the hassle of returning and purchasing again, Jubb said.
“Fit is always number one in style,” she said. “I’d rather go up a size and have it be stylish and comfortable than hold on to the idea that ‘I AM A 6!’ and then be constantly readjusting things all day and feeling a low vibe and distracted because of a number sewn on a shirt that only I can see.”
No need to let go of the stretchy pants.
The dressier ones, that is. (Sorry, yoga pants, you’ll have to stay home.)
“Just because you’re going back to the office doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable,” said Miranda Schultz, a plus-size fashion blogger and personal stylist.
“Grab a nice pair of stretchy dress pants (I love ponte knit) so you’ll look like a boss but feel like you’re still in your comfy clothes working from the couch,” she said.
Formal dress code at work? Invest in some versatile neutrals.
If your workplace leans on the formal side, online personal stylist Michelle T. Sterling recommends building up a mini wardrobe capsule with the following items: Slacks, jackets, skirts in black ― and if you can swing it, the same items in navy, heather gray or white.
“Decide what neutral color appeals to your taste, then add a handful of tops that you like in color to mix things up,” she said. “Then mix and match those tops with your black staple pieces and let’s say your navy staple pieces. That can be your professional wardrobe cluster to get you through the summer.”
If you end up losing weight, you could always get the clothes you purchased tailored, Sterling said.
Accentuate the positive.
Try on an outfit you’re considering wearing to work. Now, take a step back and focus on where your eye goes. Is it going where you want it to? The goal is to draw the eye to features you love and minimize attention to the places you are less enthusiastic about, Marx said.
“Bright and light colors, textures, prints and skin will all draw the eye,” she said. “Dark colors and stiffer fabrics are less interesting to us.”
Feeling sensitive about your bust? Try red or other brightly colored pants to draw the eye downward.
Is your waist a little wider than you’d prefer? Draw the eye to your vertical middle and show off your arms and legs, she said.
“Also, you want to look for pieces that do the work for you, like options with color blocking in all the right places or cuts that show off your best assets,” Marx said.
Embrace the wrap dress.
We’ll forever be grateful to Diane von Furstenberg for reinventing the wrap dress in the 1970s: This particular style is figure-flattering for all body types and offers versatility across occasions, said Stitch Fix stylist Ashley Sanchez.
“Reach for a true-wrap style that will allow for you to cinch the waist where you feel most comfortable now and later,” she said. “While silk and satin fabrications may be best for more formal office environments, cotton and linen options are available for more casual dress codes.”
Take advantage of exchange programs.
“They have this thing called the Fit Liberty program which allows customers to exchange clothing for a smaller or larger size within one year of purchase, no questions asked,” Schultz said.
“I love the program because often we avoid investing in high-quality clothing items when our bodies are changing,” she said. “This program allows us to have the freedom to wear great clothes now and not lose out on our hard-earned money if our bodies do change.”
You could also take advantage of clothing rental services to supplement the wardrobe essentials you own, Schultz said: Companies like Gwynnie Bee, Nuuly, Eloquii Unlimited and others allow subscribers to wear and return items.
“They even take care of the dry cleaning, so that’s one thing you can take off your to-do list as you adjust to going back to the office,” she said.
Add something fun like a bomber jacket.
You run the risk of getting a little staid in your choices if you’re just thinking “must-buy basics.” Have a little fun with your new additions, too.
“Bombers work for all genders as a timeless option that offers flexibility as your size changes,” Marx said. “Consider a fresh approach in an unexpected color.”
Find dressing up for the real world exhausting? Opt for an easy “uniform.”
If you don’t have the mental energy to devote to clothes, don’t sweat it. Marcy Guevara-Prete, a stylist and co-owner of The Plus Bus boutique, recommends creating a work “uniform” of go-to pieces that look great on you.
“I remember in Lady Gaga’s documentary they talked about how she stayed looking so stylish when she was traveling so much and so busy,” she said. “It was because she wore a uniform! Hers was great black jeans, a crisp white tee and a bomb leather jacket.”
Steve Jobs famously had one, too. Guevara-Prete practices what she preaches and also leans into her uniform.
“I’m on TV sets a lot, so I love my favorite tee from Universal Standard, some Good American jeans and a fab jacket, blazer or sweater,” she said. “Target is currently doing the Lord’s work when it comes to style and even Nordstrom is offering some amazing deals. For men, I love Rag and Bone, too.”
Don’t be overly critical of your body just because of a size change.
While you adjust to dressing for work again, don’t forget to be kind to your body. After all, it got you through a global pandemic safe and sound.
Be mindful of any negative self-talk that runs through your head while ditching some clothes and trying on others, Marx said.
“As a women’s stylist, I hear things like this all the time,” she said. “When a pair of tights cuts into a woman’s waist, she often feels like something is wrong with her body. That negative self talk distracts her from what she should really be focused on that day.”
The key, Marx said, is to have pieces that make you feel like your authentic self when you walk out the door, then quickly disappear from your mind. (Up until the point a co-worker compliments you on your look, of course.)
“If men and women could eliminate these stressful distractions from our lives about fitting a certain body ideal, imagine what we could achieve at work and elsewhere,” she said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.