The beauty of having a blog grow in popularity is you get a lot more feedback and questions from readers. This past week, I received two comments and an email from readers essentially asking the same thing. While they enjoy my wear to work Sunday night posts they noted that I always use handbags in the outfits. For them, and most working women, the handbags are just a mode of transportation to take their things to and from work. Once they arrive at the office, the handbag gets tucked away. Given this, they wanted to tips on adding color to work outfits and creating stylish work looks when you don’t have the handbag as part of the equation. A very smart question, for sure.

I guess, in my mind, adding the handbag to work outfits was smart because it helped solve the “what type of handbag do I carry?” question because, invariably, if I didn’t, I’d get questions about this, instead. However, thinking it through, it does make sense to show how to create a stylish work outfit, sans bag, because it’s not like a good and complete outfit hinges on what type of bag you carry.

With this in mind, I thought about one of my clients who has a very corporate job and remembered that we never style her work looks with a handbag. The handbag is usually an afterthought. Thankfully I take photos of all the outfits I put together with my clients and this particular client was kind enough to let me share some of her outfits to show you some of the very styled looks I have put together for her. Using them, my tips and some outfits I created, I will give you my tips!

Adding color to work outfits: Three Part Approach

When putting a work look together, or any look, for that matter, think of getting dressed in three parts.  These parts are called the Base, the accent and the pop.

The Base: The base is the foundation of an outfit.  Typically, these are tailored pieces, investment items and more classic styles that, while very important and functional, aren’t exactly trendy or exciting.  As I like to call them, they’re like really reliable friends.  For work, these base pieces are suits, skirts, jackets and blazers and tailored pants and are usually in neutral colors, like black, navy, grey, camel, tan, brown, olive, and so on.  However, base pieces don’t have to be neutral, they can just be in colorful items, but should still be seen as core pieces that you can get a lot of wear from.

The Accent: The accent part of an outfit are pieces that are more fleeting in trend, perhaps, not as expensive, a little move novel or colorful.  Often it’s the accent pieces that revive your more classic base items and can be things like a novelty top, a cardigan in a bright color, interesting pants, a cool blazer, a funky dress, and things like that.  Unlike base pieces and their loyalty and reliable friendships, accent pieces are not as lifelong or responsible, like those friends that are a good time, yes, like the ones you may have danced on a bar with while you were in college.

Conversely, some accents can be base pieces when they are paired with bases, like a classic navy blazer or a grey cardigan, for example.  Yet, despite this, accent pieces are always the pieces you put on second, after your base and make up a smaller percentage of the outfit.

The pop: While most women have base and accents in their wardrobe (because they’d be naked without these categories, the pop is what most women are missing.  The pop is the flavor of the outfit, the finishing components, and what you add to an outfit to make it less “chicken-like”.  (Here is more info on what a chicken outfit is.)

When putting an outfit together using this strategy you start with the base, the foundation of the outfit.  Next, you choose your accent.  Third you choose your pop.  Given the fact that the pop is the hardest part for most women, keep these tips in mind:

  • The accent and the pop should relate to each other.
  • One way to do it is to work tonally, with accent and pop shades in colors of the same tone, or choose and accent and a pop in shades that complement one another, like coral and turquoise, pink and green, navy and yellow, for examples.
  • Another way to work with the accent and the pop is to pull out one of the shades found in a print and use that color as the pop.
  • Use some colorless jewelry if you don’t want to add color, like gold and silver, but in interesting styles.

Base, Accent, Pop: Client photos

Here are some photo examples that a client gave me permission to share.  Keep in mind, these are working photos that my client uses as references, never meant to be shown publicly.  Plus, to shield her identity, I cropped them in a way that doesn’t show who she is.  However, for purposes of these tips, these photos and my explanations should give you more than enough direction.

Photo #1

Colorful Work Outfits This photos is a great example of the base being a bright novelty color and the accent being a white blazer.  Regardless of the shade of the dress, it is still the base of this outfit and a piece that my client gets a lot of wear out of.  To add some finishing pop, I gave my client several options for one outfit.  In her hand she has multiple earring choices, that either work tonally with the color of the dress or as a complementing shade of blue.  Her shoe choices vary as well.  She can do everything from nude, to grey to cobalt to navy.  These pops are what make the outfit even better than it is without them.  Plus, with all these options for one dress there is no way she can get bored.

Photo #2

Colorful Work Outfits This outfit is a great example on how pops of colorful shoes and novelty gold jewelry can add so much to an outfit.  Here, the base is a classic black (or it might be navy, I can’t remember) pencil skirt with a novelty ivory top.  With this look, I gave her multiple shoe options in colors to enhance this very simple look and suggested two different statement gold necklaces for her pop, obviously not to be worn at the same time.

Outfit #3

Colorful Work Outfits Next, I took one of my client’s classic grey skirt suits as the base, added a burgundy top as the accent and gave her multiple pop options.  For the pop jewelry she has the option to work tonally or to use mint as a complement color to the burgundy.  For shoes, I gave her the option of teal shoes, cobalt shoes (when she doesn’t wear the mint earrings), classic nude and grey heels.  A woman in a grey suit and burgundy top looks nice but a woman in a grey suit, burgundy top, mint earrings and teal pumps looks interesting.

Photo #4

Colorful work outfits In this outfit, the base is very classic– a pair of tailored pants and a white tank top.  For the accent I added a bright pink blazer.  The pop is the cobalt that not only adds some excitement to the outfit but also complements the bright pink.  Also note, I’ve used those cobalt shoes three times already in three very different outfits.  That’s the beauty of pop accessories, they’re versatile and can be worn multiple ways.  You don’t need a lot to get a lot.

Photo #5

Colorful Work Outfits It’s important to point out that using the base, accent, pop approach does not require colorful color combining.  As long as the three steps are included, and their is some style in the components (particularly the accent and pop) you’re good.  Take this outfit where a classic pair of brown trousers and ivory tank as the base is accented with a tweed novelty blazer.  With such a classic and neutral base, my client can go a few ways.  For jewelry we kept it all gold, but interesting, and, for shoes, my client can keep it all neutral with brown, tan or grey, or, if she wants to add a little color, a bright yellow.

Photo #6

Colorful Work Outfits The last way you can add a pop is, as I mentioned earlier, is to pull one of the colors from the print of pattern.  Here, using this dress as the base and the same white blazer as used earlier as the accent piece.  Next, I pulled out the fleck of orange found in the tweed and used that as the pop color in the jewelry.  My client has two earrings choices as photographed above.  for shoes, she has the pop options of the copper pair, grey and a teal pair that works with the color of the dress.

Colorful work outfits using the base, accent, pop strategy

To finish off my tips on this strategy here are some looks I created to give you some outfit inspiration.

Outfit #1-

In this first outfit, I took a basic navy skirt from Tory Burch and a white top from French Connection and used it as the base.  For the accent, I added a green novelty blazer from Boden.  For the pop, using coral as the complementing color to the green and the navy, I added coral and tan work sandals (if open toe isn’t okay at your workplace just sub in a coral shoe or even nude) and coral earrings from Max & Chloe.

If you’re wondering, for a handbag I’d go with tan, navy or coral.

Outfit #2

So you have a black and white dress and you’re wondering what to do with it to make it exciting.  Don’t stop with adding one color, try two.  Here, this black and white Reiss dress gets popped with this watermelon colored cardigan as the accent.  For the pop I added a third color of cobalt through the skinny belt and shoes and then finished the look with a beaded necklace from Anthropologie that brings the watermelon and cobalt shades together.

For a handbag I would probably add black or cobalt.

Outfit #3

This base of a rich brown T Tahari pantsuit, of this jacket and these pants, is styled softly with a pink tank as the accent.  For the pop, I worked tonally with the pink and added mint through these colorful Stella & Dot earrings, a mint bracelet and a richer pair of pink heels.

The next time you feel bored and uninspired in what you are wearing, look to see if you are missing some pop.  This small difference can have a huge impact on the stylishness of an outfit.  And, as you can see, you can create colorful work outfits sans handbag.

In this outfit, the handbag would be brown, soft pink or mint.

For more information on the base, accent, pop strategy, feel free to check out my video on this topic too, here.

Now, go get popping!