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Making the Utility Fashion Trend Work for You

Functional and timeless pieces that can be dressed up or down


By definition, trends come and go. Suddenly, it seems that cargo pants, field jackets, camp shirts and utilitarian jumpsuits are everywhere. But these wardrobe workhorses have been around for a very long time. Created for men in the military, explorers or those doing heavy manual labor, these serviceable items were designed to address practical considerations. The materials, such as cotton drill and denim, are sturdy. The khaki/olive color palette camouflaged dirt and stains. The pockets could hold tools, nails and ammo. What’s new is that these styles are being reinterpreted for women, often in feminine fabrics and colors, and being worn in unexpected combinations.

spinner image Zara Belted Denim Jacket; Lucky Brand Long-Sleeve Button-Up Two-Pocket Camo Utility Jacket; L.L.Bean Women’s BeanFlex Utility Jacket in Barley
(Left to right) Zara Belted Denim Jacket ($70, zara.com/us); Lucky Brand Long-Sleeve Button-Up Two-Pocket Camo Utility Jacket ($83, zappos.com); L.L.Bean Women’s BeanFlex Utility Jacket in Barley ($90, llbean.com)
Zara; Zappos; L.L.Bean

The jacket that does double time

I first tried wearing the look in the early ’80s when the Banana Republic catalog spread its special brand of adventure fantasy with affordable, safari-inspired clothes and some very savvy copywriting. Back then, stores had props — such as crashed jeeps and pith helmets — placed among the stacks of khakis, and soundtracks that included squealing monkeys and squawking parrots (which got a little campy but, hey, “shopping as theater” was a visionary concept in retrospect!). When I bought my belted khaki safari jacket, I realized I could not only wear it on the weekend with jeans and flats but also to work with a black pencil skirt and pointy-toed pumps. And the same goes today. Talk about timeless style. Here are some of my favorite toppers.

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spinner image Banana Republic Factory Tencel Cargo Jogger in Steel Green; Gap Factory High Rise Girlfriend Utility Khakis in Mesculen Green; Daily Practice by Anthropologie Parachute Pants in Pink
(Left to right) Banana Republic Factory Tencel Cargo Jogger in Steel Green ($42, bananarepublicfactory.gapfactory.com); Gap Factory High Rise Girlfriend Utility Khakis in Mesculen Green ($24, gapfactory.com); Daily Practice by Anthropologie Parachute Pants in Pink ($88, anthropologie.com)
Banana Republic; Gap Factory; Anthropologie

The cargo-free cargo pants

Give your jeans a rest and give cargos a shot instead. You can do the dress-it-up/dress-it-down trick, as I learned with my safari jacket, to get the most mileage out of these casual pants. For example, you can pair cargo pants with a crisp white shirt and sneakers for running errands, or with a silky blouse and strappy, heeled sandals for an evening out. Remember, even if the pants feature lots of pockets, don’t make the mistake of filling them with stuff! (OK, maybe just your phone.) No need to bulk up.

spinner image Dickies Women’s Long-Sleeve Roll-Tab Work Shirt in Nutmeg; J.Crew Garment-Dyed Chambray Shirt in Cloud Purple; Lauren Ralph Lauren Utility Blouse in White/Multi
(Left to right) Dickies Women’s Long-Sleeve Roll-Tab Work Shirt in Nutmeg ($40, dickies.com); J.Crew Garment-Dyed Chambray Shirt in Cloud Purple ($100, jcrew.com); Lauren Ralph Lauren Utility Blouse in White/Multi ($101, bloomingdales.com)
Dickies; J.Crew; Bloomingdale's

The pocketed camp shirt

Work shirts look great worn under a blazer, tucked into trousers and skirts to the office, or loose with jeans and joggers for casual events. However, if you have large breasts, this style may not be your best friend, as the pockets will exaggerate your chest; you can try wearing one unbuttoned over a tank or T-shirt or even a swimsuit. Conversely, if you are small-busted, the pockets can add some figure-enhancing volume.

spinner image Banana Republic Finley Poplin Jumpsuit in New Khaki Beige; Old Navy Collarless Tie-Belt Utility Jumpsuit in Pink Bamboo; ​ASOS Curve Long-Sleeve Twill Boiler Suit in Black
(Left to right) Banana Republic Finley Poplin Jumpsuit in New Khaki Beige ($120, bananarepublic.com); Old Navy Collarless Tie-Belt Utility Jumpsuit in Pink Bamboo ($45, old navy.com); ASOS Curve Long-Sleeve Twill Boiler Suit in Black ($56, asos.com/us)
Banana Republic; Old Navy; ASOS

The surprisingly easy-to-wear boiler suit

There is nothing like a jumpsuit for getting dressed in a hurry, and if you have never tried wearing one, you may be surprised how flattering they can be. In solid colors, these aviator/mechanic-inspired garments create a lengthening effect, perfect for petite women. In darker colors, the long vertical line creates a slimming illusion, especially when worn with heels or wedges. What’s not to love?

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