Dressed for Success, the Frugal Way

Anne writes in:

After searching for most of a year after getting my degree, I finally found a great job which I’m starting just after Memorial Day. The problem is that I don’t know what to wear. I don’t want to stand out as being poorly dressed but I don’t want to dump thousands into a work wardrobe. What should I do?

Here’s my game plan for this situation.

First, contact your new co-workers, particularly your soon-to-be-boss. If you don’t have this information yet, contact the company and request it. You may be able to find more of them using tools like LinkedIn.

Contact them individually, asking what normal attire is in the workplace that you’ll be joining. Ask what they wear – brands, level of attire, and so on.

You should pay particular attention to what your boss-to-be actually wears. Don’t be afraid to ask this.

Your best bet would be to dress at a level similarly to your boss, but not in a way that’s miles beyond the workers at your level. In most workplaces, you’re better off overdressing a bit than underdressing. The problem is that each workplace has something of a different definition of what “overdressing” and “underdressing” is and by finding out what your coworkers wear, you can get a bead on that right off the bat.

Once you’ve figured this out, go shopping. In my experience of buying clothes that work for professional use at good prices, I’ve found that the best place to shop first is at consignment shops. It’s often amazing how many very nice clothes can be found there. That’s where you’ll find business attire – often barely-worn stuff – from people whose life situation has changed direction, and it’s often available at great prices.

Rather than buying a lot of clothes right off the bat, you should stock your work wardrobe with fewer items that can easily be mixed-and-matched. Don’t go for the flamboyant – go for the presentable items that you can rearrange easily to create the appearance of a fresh outfit. For example, you’re a lot better off with six shirts and six ties than ten shirts and two ties – not only is the former set of clothes cheaper, it’s also easier to create the appearance of a more diverse wardrobe.

You should also be patient and be picky. You don’t have to buy everything right off the bat. Look at lots of consignment shops. Don’t be afraid to buy a few new items to mix in with the consignment items.

If you’re unsure what looks good, identify a consignment shop or two with a number of items you’re interested in and then take a friend. I usually let my wife be involved in the selection of such clothes because she has much better taste and a better eye than I do – I tend to often fall in the “if you’re clothed, then you’re good” path. Take someone along who can identify what is well-made, what items go together well, and what items simply look better than other ones.

If you’re uncomfortable dressing up for work – as I have been – do what I used to do. Put on comfortable clothes – like a t-shirt that you like to wear – and dress well over the top of that. I would often wear my favorite t-shirts and shorts under my dress clothes for work and sometimes I would literally take the dress clothes off on my way out of the workplace at the end of the day.

A final tip – it’s almost always a large net savings if you read the instructions on the tag and follow them for cleaning purposes. If you’ve got a nice wardrobe, it might seem cheaper to just wash them with minimal cost and effort, but you can drastically extend the useful life of good clothes by following the garment instructions.

Good luck.

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  1. Reading the instructions on the tag is important to avoid the “dry clean only” items, too! (At least in women’s clothes – I suppose men have no choice about suits.) I find those are awfully expensive to maintain, as well as costing extra time and driving.

    You can also do well at thrift stores, if you can find some that get donations from ritzy neighborhoods. Or yard sales in those same neighborhoods ;-)

  2. et says:

    Anne – Congratulations on the new job!

    As far as figuring out how to dress appropriately for the office, rather than asking your new boss/co-workers what they wear (unless they are friends you can talk to about this), request a copy of the office dress code from HR if they have one, & request a tour of the offices if you haven’t already had one – & check out what people are wearing. An appropriate first-day-on-the-job question is whether they have a more casual day on Fridays.

    If you know brands you like & how they fit you, ebay can be a surprisingly good source. Most of the big box stores have adequate to good basic clothing styles, to get you started. Fashion blogs are all over the place with loads of advice – find one & then follow its links to others for affordable fashion finds.

    The area I live in doesn’t have much available in terms of consignment/thrift store goodies (esp. for women) except on the very rare occasion, & I would find it hard to use them to put together separates that work together on a fairly short time table like you have.

    If you’re really unclear about how you’ll want to dress, then just get enough to put together 6-7 basic outfits, with one or two pairs of shoes. Try to look at your current closet for pieces that would be ok in the work setting, at least temporarily. Then as you figure out your new office look, you can begin to spend $ on better pieces for the long haul.

    Oh, yeah – I don’t know any women who wear their comfy security clothes under their work clothes as T suggested! Seriously?

  3. eva says:

    If contacting your new coworkers asking what they wear is too forward for you (frankly, I don’t find that professional behavior; and starting a new job is stressful enough already), dress conservatively your first day–skirt or nice slacks, a button-down or plain, modest blouse, flat shoes–and then observe what the older women in your office wear. Typically they are the most conservative and most judgmental about fashion. Then, follow said advice, shopping for a half-step or so above what they seem to prefer.

    That has worked for me as a junior-level female worker in various white-collar type jobs, your industry may vary.

  4. moom says:

    My problem with formal clothes is they’re too hot. I certainly wouldn’t be wearing two sets of clothes!

    I’d recommend showing up in more dressy clothes the first day or two, see what everyone else is wearing and only then go shopping if need be.

  5. cathleen says:

    If you’ve been out of work for awhile you may be able to use a “Career Closet” shop in your area for the newly hired. I’ve donated clothes to them over the years, they generally have professional suits, jackets, etc. Very well made clothes for free or almost free.

    I work in Silicon Valley (famous company) and you can always tell the when the new hire shows up, they are almost always overdressed! :) But that’s OK, better to overdress at first and adapt to your personal style and company culture after you’ve made your first impressions. (There’e actually a guy in my building who occasionally wears pajamas to work. And nobody bats an eye.)

    Invest (doesn’t have to be a lot) in a core group of clothes in a basic color like black or navy. Well cut pants, fitted jacket, skirt if you wear them, a basic black sheath dress which you can dress up or down.

    Nina Garcia has a great little book you can get at the library (here’s a link with the list http://aconnecticutgirl.blogspot.com/2009/04/nina-garcias-100.html) and it’s a great reference for those who care about classic style. You don’t have to spend what she would, these are items that can be found in all price ranges.

    Lastly, put out the word to friends and family. Most people would love to purge their closets of things they don’t wear anymore knowing they’ll be used again :)

  6. Although I think this post is good in a vague & non-specific way (especially since you talk about ties, which Anna probably would not wear since she’s a girl), it’s not as useful if you don’t have consignment stores near you, or if you’re an odd size.

    Anna, usually your industry will dictate the level of formality in your wardrobe. I would ask your boss is there’s a dress code, but don’t call your coworkers – that’s one of those things that should be normal, but most people would be weirded out. Your boss should be able to let you know what’s expected, if you need to wear a suit, or if pantyhose are required, or if you can wear jeans every day.

    My workplace is business casual, so my bare bones work wardrobe would look something like this (assuming I have all the required underpinnings):

    3-4 pairs of pants in neutral colors (black, brown, gray, navy)

    1-2 skirts in neutral colors (I like pencil skirts, but I’d recommend buying what you like best)

    1 dress in a neutral color

    2 white blouses (basic oxford button-down are what are usually recommended, but I think any crisp, woven shirt would work)

    3 colored blouses (again, button-downs are the most basic)

    3-4 sweaters or cardigans

    1-2 pairs of shoes, I’d go with a pair in black and a pair in nude (but anything that goes with the pants/skirt will work).

    1 large tote in a neutral color (I have one in olive green, and I swear, it matches everything in my wardrobe!)

    some fun accessories (belts, necklaces, scarves) to add color & interest

    Then, mix and match! Belt a cardigan over a buttondown and wear with a pencil skirt. Layer a turtleneck under the dress. Throw a few strands of pearls over a simple sweater and trousers.

    I think that these items would work very well in any office environment. Just make sure everything fits correctly, since nothing will make you look less professional than too-big pants or hems dragging on the ground or buttons gaping open.

    It’s worth spending money on these things, but if you’d prefer not to dump tons of money up front, check out stores like The Loft, H&M (I have a pair of pants from H&M that I’ve had for 5 years!), Old Navy, Gap. American Eagle has some of the best button-down blouses I’ve bought. Consignment and thrift stores might work for you, but I have never had good luck with them. Try to combines sales and coupon codes. If you find a brand that works, check ebay for your size.

  7. Becky says:

    Anne – I was in the same situation about two years ago. Many who are credit card adverse might not agree with this, but some stores give you discounts for opening a store credit card. If you plan on buying most of your cloths at one store, and aren’t against any of the opening credit card issues, you can save 15-50% depending on deals and cancel the credit card the next month (or keep it). Between sales and opening the card I saved almost 50%, while getting some higher quality clothing that won’t wear out quickly. I paid it all off with the money I had set aside for my work wardrobe and canceled the card.

  8. Aerin says:

    When you went in for the interview, what were people wearing? Were the women wearing skirt suits with blazers, hose and heels? Or dress pants with nice button-up shirts? That tells you what type of clothes you need.

    A very formal workplace (suits with hose and heels) is harder to do on a budget, but there are ways to save. Spend the money on a good work suit – blazer, pants, and skirt. Get a neutral colour like black or grey. Then mix and match with less expensive pieces like blouses and skirts. Splurge on another, more colourful, blazer if you can – a nice blazer dresses up any outfit, and will go with the dark pants or skirt. With 2 blazers, a dark skirt and dark pants you can easily fill in with less expensive blouses and skirts and mix-and-match to get 5 different outfits.

    Less formal offices are even easier. Nice dress pants and a dressy blouse – done.

    Do look at second-hand or consignment shops. I don’t often find good, fitted pieces like blazers, but frequently get skirts and blouses suitable for the office.

    Fit and style are crucial. Clothes should fit well and suit your environment. An expensive, but ill-fitting, blouse looks much worse than an inexpensive blouse that fits properly. Don’t worry so much about brands and labels. Unless you work in a style-savvy industry, no one will care if your blouse is Anne Klein or Target. Just make sure it fits well, is clean and pressed, and suitable for the office (not too low-cut, for example).

    Finally, most women will not wear a t-shirt underneath office clothes – women’s dress shirts are not meant to accomodate an undershirt like men’s dress shirts are. That’s just a strange suggestion.

  9. tas says:

    It’s also worth finding fashion blogs for people in your line of work. I’m an academic so love academichic (academichic.com) and they’re a great resource to start with even if you are in a different field. First they cover ways to use the wardrobe you have creatively, including how to mix colors effectively (my wardrobe suddenly started matching when I realized how to do this!). Second they follow and comment on a wide variety of fashion bloggers works — including people who dress up for work regularly; so check out their links to start finding this larger community.

    As you look at these blogs, check out how they create a core wardrobe of basics, like the 6 shirts + 6 ties that T mentioned. If you have a few staples (skirts, pants) in neutral colors plus a few shirts that pop you can mix and match quite effectively, buying less but having a more diverse wardrobe. Lots of people also emphasize using accessories rather than a new shirt to create a new outfit. A scarf can dramatically change the outfit you wore last week!

    And don’t follow instructions for washing because that will cost more than the clothes! Most women’s professional clothing says dry clean only when a delicate cycle or dryel will work fine for the majority of your regular needs.

    Let me echo T’s comment not to buy everything at once. Start with enough to mix and match for a week and a half or so and then as you become comfortable with this new style and know your coworker’s styles more clearly, you can branch out and make that style uniquely yours.

  10. J. O. says:

    I would add this to Trent’s advice on following the garment care instructions: try to find clothing that doesn’t require special care in the first place. These days many pieces of even dressy clothing are machine wash/dry. You can save time and money by avoiding items that need dry cleaning.

  11. Sheri says:

    I think it will make a bad, bad impression on your new boss to quiz him or her about clothes–especially about particular brands. You are a big kid now, and you should be able to assess the level of formality required and dress appropriately without a lot of hand-holding. Fitting in to the office culture is part of the job, after all, so approach this as your first job “assignment.”

    Definitely ask for the dress-code policy from HR in advance of your start date. Show up dressed very nicely (much as you did for the interview) on the first day, and then LOOK AROUND. How are the bosses dressed? How are people at your level dressed? If there are employees below your level, how are they dressed (if they are the only ones wearing jeans, for example, then you should avoid jeans).

    I have had great luck finding items at local thrift stores, but thrift shopping requires time and patience. If you need a number of items fast, consignment stores are a good idea–or discounters like TJ Maxx. Don’t be embarrassed to start with just 4 or 5 outfits that you can mix and match and one good pair of shoes. You can pick up more items later in thrift stores. Good luck!

  12. KJ says:

    Trent, asking what brands folks wear isn’t as appropriate as commenter #1′s suggestions.

    Otherwise, I really appreciate this post, as I think lots of folks want to feel “all set” and don’t realize that they can wear some well-pressed cheap and re-washed shirts for a week or two while they figure it out.

    An additional comment: often, those “dry clean only” items can be hand-washed and line- or rack-dried with no adverse affects. Not all the time, though, so don’t buy an expensive piece just to experiment with it. : )

  13. I just went to a few clothing exchanges to get my business casual clothes. A cardigan here, some slacks there and a blouse or two and bang! You got it going on.

  14. Liz says:

    Go to Target for a black skirt, black pair of pants, neutral hose and some mid-heel shoes. You’ll be set with tops you probably already own, at least for the first week, but you can also pick up a cardigan if you want to layer, depending on how the office temperature is. (I’m cold, so I always bring a sweater.)

    Asking about brands isn’t appropriate, unless you’re friends. Asking for the HR policy (per commenter #1) is fine, but the above will get you set up pretty well until you’ve sorted out what you need.

  15. Matthew says:

    Rather then ask your boss, or the co worker, best to ask the HR Recruiter what is appropriate.

    I buy my business wardrobe annually by shopping sales at the Tommy Hilfiger outlet and the Brooks Brother outlet. I do it once a year and refresh my dress shirts and slacks at about 25% of their retail cost. Ties can be bought at Ross or Marshalls’s quite cheaply. Buy one pair of dress shoes, black loafers, and keep them polished.

    Keep everything low key, white, yellow, blue shirts, khaki pants or grey slacks. A Navy blue blazer is always very useful. The rest of the year, I do not shop for clothes….

  16. Henny says:

    Hmm. I slightly disagree with this advice, at least for women. First, don’t wear one outfit under another. But you already knew that. I would plan to start off striking a clothing note that you know will probably be a little formal. Honestly, this is what I expect from new coworkers. If you’re working at a law firm, wear suits, if you’re working in a cube, find a couple of sweater sets, slacks and classy heels. This is one step above what most people will be wearing, and that’s OK. You’re new, people expect you to be on your guard at first. You have years and years to fit in, what you dont’ want to be taken for is a slob right off the bat. Don’t invest in any denim, or khaki, or polo shirts or tank tops in the first month. If you have access to consignment shops, trent’s advice is right on. If not, I’ve had decent luck at Marshalls, Filene’s basement, TJ Maxx and online at Sierra Trading Post finding work clothes at 80 % or more off. Set a budget for yourself, (when I’m in a clothes-acquiring mode, I set a budget of 100 bucks a month, although I am really cheap) and I would say that even 6 outfits is a lot–you can get by with 3-4 right out the gate (esp. if you buy a pair of great fitting slacks and a stellar skirt that has a versatile cut) and then I would plan to go shopping 2-3 weeks into the job ( maybe right after payday?) and then plan to do that 3-4 times over the next few months, each time looking for 1-2 new outfits or 3-4 new pieces that go with stuff you already own. Also, in terms of getting the most bang for your buck, I would aim for twice as many tops as slacks. They are usually cheaper, it’s easier to find flattering, classy tops, and really, the one person in your new office who notices you’ve worn the same pair of pants twice in one week isn’t the person whose opinion you should care about anyway.
    Then, here are the real keys: first, but yourself a nice cardigan or blazer. Offices are cold. Almost universally. Whatever you wear, you’ll be wearing a sweater or jacket over it at least 50% of the time. Buy an awesome piece that you love, make sure it reflects your style, and flatters your figure. No skimping here!!! Second, it sounds so girly, but accessories. Nobody will really notice if you wore that white oxford shirt on Monday as well as thursday, but what they will notice is a stunning necklace or beautiful scarf. All my best accessories I got at thrift stores or costume jewelry shops. I’ve never paid more than 20 bucks for any one item, but the real gems get compliments every time I wear them.
    Lastly, and my own pet peeve, please don’t wear white socks.
    good luck, and knock em dead!

  17. Bird Dog says:

    Trent, please don’t tell us you were printed T-Shirts under your dress shirts. And shorts under your dress pants? I find that a bit odd. I am a firm believer in a white cotton undershirt under everything but wearing your work out clothes under your work clothes just sounds downright odd.

    BTW…I would feel quite odd if I hired someone and they started asking me what brands of clothing I wore. Questions about what is acceptable and what is not are always welcome.

  18. Bird Dog says:

    *were should be wear.

  19. et says:

    I steer toward washable items only (don’t like the chemicals, don’t like the hassle, & it seems perpiration smells more/sooner on these!). I’ve read somewhere that a tag saying “dry clean” means you MIGHT be able to handwash/air dry, but “dry clean only” means just that. You can freshen dry cleaned clothes by tumbling briefly (in a bag) in the dryer (or use the kit you can get at the store, which includes a scented packet & a nice big bag – but it doesn’t really clean them.

  20. M says:

    Dressing is not just a matter of clothing. How you look is a combination of your physique, face, grooming and clothing.

    You can save money by mixing higher quality garments with lower quality garments.

    The higher quality garments should be the statement pieces, such as a sport coat, a long winter coat, a long rain coat, good shoes and watch. There are plenty of good books available about this subject…

    So you can wear an Armani jacket (purchased from a consignment store) with a Gap white tee shirt. Wear fabulous shoes (again, from a consignment store), socks from Costco and an inexpensive but well fitted pair of blue jeans in perfect condition.

    Your tie should not be outdated. Every year, get two ties for the warm weather and two ties for the cold weather. Get rid of four ties. This helps to keep your wardrobe looking fresh.

    Ladies, make sure your bras are doing the job and doing it well. The undergarments are critical to your overall look. Go for a fitting every year. You will look thinner, feel taller and be more attractive if the girls are where they should be. Your clothes will look better on you too. Clothes don’t look good with back fat rolls and/or droopy boobs.

    Good grooming is a must. Chewed-upon fingernails are disgusting. Dandruff flecks, hair strands, lint and other yucky things on your collar are gross and say that you are unfocused and don’t pay attention to details. It implies that you don’t complete your tasks with an attention to precision and that you let things fall through the cracks. That is not exactly a good impression to make in your professional or personal life.

    Your work clothes should be well cared for and ironed. Those khaki pants need to be free of frayed edges or stains.

    Have you checked the condition of your belts?

    Iron your clothes. When a thread is hanging from a button, fix it that day.

    Shoes should be clean, shiny and un-scuffed. Polish those babies every weekend. Don’t wear Dockers to work unless you work on a boat. Don’t wear sneakers to work unless you are a professional athlete. T-shirts say that you are not promotable.

    If you have a gut or other indications of being overweight, drop the weight and get in shape. You can put great clothes on a pig, but it is still a pig…

    If your haircut style hasn’t changed in four years, it’s time. Ditto on eyewear including sunglasses. Ditto for makeup.

    Ladies, gray hair is unsexy and it hurts your career. Yes, it’s unfair. Being right doesn’t help the bottom line. Get the right color with a hair colorist. Attend to roots every month. Once you have the right color, you can probably do some of the hair maintenance at home. Your skin tone and complexion changes over time so your hair color needs to be adjusted every few years too.

    Men and women, take a good look in the mirror at your face. Sun damage makes you look old. Get the sun spots lasered off. Sunscreen is not expensive. Use it every day. If your teeth are not white, there are economical ways to address that problem. If you have flaky and or greasy skin, large pores, etcetera, do not ignore the problem. It won’t just go away and yes, other people do notice. Would it bother you if you earned 10% less than your coworker because you don’t take care of your face?

    People who look good and aren’t fat earn more money. Since one of the primary motivators for working is acquiring money, doesn’t it make good financial sense to maximize your odds?

    Attend to the details of dressing, groom yourself daily and don’t get fat so that you look better, have a happier, healthier life and earn more money.

    If you combine frugality with maximizing your income then you have a very winning strategy. You can’t maximize your income just by being smarter and working harder. You have to look the part too.

  21. rosa rugosa says:

    If Anne will be working in a professional/office environment, I would recommend starting with a couple of dark neutral slacks or skirts (e.g. gray, navy, brown, or black) and some nice blouses or twin sets (probably in more vibrant colors) since we’re getting into the warmer weather. If the environment is business professional, I would next shoot for a black suit ASAP, but since suits are more expensive, I’m thinking this makes more sense to do with a paycheck or two under your belt. Even if suits are not the everyday norm, there will be at least the occasional special meeting that you’ll want to have the perfect outfit for, and in today’s office setting, that seems to be some version of a black suit for women. This also gives you two very versatile pieces that you can mix with many other colors and separates. If it turns our to be more of a business casual environment, then the twin sets and blouses will still work well and will perhaps be the special meeting outfits, with more blouses and sweaters to eventually fill out the wardrobe. I’ve never had luck with consignment shops myself, but by all means, try this avenue if there are good ones in your area. Otherwise, I’m a firm believer in spending a little more for well-made, classic pieces, which can last you years and years if you take good care of them. I should note that I work for an insurance company, and we’re on the conservative end of the dress spectrum. I’ll also mention that a lot of offices keep the a/c on frigid all summer, and many women have an office cardigan or pashmina wrap that has a semi-permanent place on the backs of our chairs!

  22. christie says:

    Wow; cyberstalking and buttonholing your future co-workers to demand they tell you how to dress for work is completely inappropriate and disturbingly unprofessional. That will only ensure you are never taken seriously by your colleagues and supervisors; I cannot even imagine how to react if I were approached in this way. I’m really disturbed that this is advice.

  23. valleycat1 says:

    “I would often wear my favorite t-shirts and shorts under my dress clothes for work and sometimes I would literally take the dress clothes off on my way out of the workplace at the end of the day.” Trent, this I think ranks in the top 10 for your “why I’m a stay at home writer & blogger” list! I don’t know any adults who dress that way (comfy clothes layered under dress clothes) – my husband also dresses year round in shorts & a tee, which is why he’s also much happier now that he’s self-employed. But if he has to dress in regular clothes, he doesn’t wear that on top of his shorts & tee.

    Do you think it would impress the boss & coworkers for a young 20-something female (or anyone, for that matter) to start removing their clothes as she (or he) walks out the door?

  24. cv says:

    Asking about the dress code is completely appropriate (I’ve done it before), but I think asking about specific brands is kinda weird, myself.

  25. maryann says:

    A good basic black pencil skirt a pair of heels can be mixed with all sorts of different tops and belts and sweaters to create a number of looks. Try checking ut some fashion websites for ral-world kideas.

  26. Nate Poodel says:

    I find a basic wardrobe of 3 pairs of pants, 10 shirts for various seasons, a blazer/jacket or two, and a pair of Rockport shoes suitable for business wear would do just fine. I’ve been using this very formula for the past 10 years without any problems.

  27. Gretchen says:

    I’d be uncomfortable in two sets of clothes, too.I guess you just mean a “fun” Tshirt as an undershirt for your suit?

    We are really casual at my office: the dress code is “don’t look like you smell.”

    I would also think a new coworker who contacted me before the job actually started was really strange- if you can even get that information.
    Wear what you wore to the interview and notice your first day, then go shopping.

  28. Andrew says:

    I just discovered what I call the “surplus” stores. Here in Florida, I go to Ross and Steinmart for all my business clothes. For guys, it is especially great, as you can get name brand dress shirts, pants, and ties for very cheap. For example, I recently got a pair of dress pants for $20 that had a suggested retail price of $70. I highly recommend you check these stores out if you haven’t already.

  29. Steffie says:

    A basic black top and skirt or dress can be jazzed up with a scarf or pin or long necklace. You could wear it a couple of times a week, if your’e not sweating in your new job! People will look at the accessory especially if it is a bright color/print. If you go for Khaki pants, try the mens dept, the pants are often 10-15 dollars cheaper and look the same as women’s. The same with some shoes, loafers etc. You may be able to obtain some clothes from a group called ‘Dress for Success’ if they are in your area.

  30. Sarah says:

    Anne,

    I like TJ Maxx and Marshalls and find they may offer more sizes than a consignment shop. When you invest in a basic wardrobe, think about cost per wear. I think more than anything, pay very close attention to FIT, which I think is easy to compromise when you’re trying to save money, but actually works in reverse. For instance, if you buy a pair of men’s khakis for $15 less, and they don’t fit as well, you probably won’t wear them as often, and your cost per wear will likely be more than if you’d just bought the more expensive women’s pants in the first place.

  31. Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com says:

    I love dressing frugally. It feels great to not be wasting money. When I earn more though I will start paying for great clothing that costs more but also lasts a lot longer.

  32. I agree with Rosa #8, be sure to have things to layer with. My office is either freezing or boiling hot with no in between! We all have the afore-mentioned office cardigan.

    I would also agree with the other posters…go for the core outfits, that can be mixed and matched with many things, but look professional no matter what. Find out if you’ll be standing or sitting all day and get shoes accordingly. This is something I don’t think I would go to Goodwill to find, personally, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune either. Find a nice pair of dress pants or skirts and get at least 3 in neutral colors. Find a good blouse and get 5 in varying colors, that go with the pants. Get a nice blazer or two to top it all off. Raid your closet for things that will work.

    I’ve had to rebuild my bank wardrobe for maternity clothes, and while my wardrobe isn’t exciting, I still look nice, and it is getting me through the next several months without buying tons of new clothes.

    Also, it doesn’t seem fair since our office is 75% women, but our corporate office offers a nice discount on a local mens suit store. :-) See if your work offers discounts!

  33. hr says:

    I’m not allowed to clothes shop alone… not because I’d go overboard or anything, but because I lack any sense of style. Fortunately many of my non-girlfriend girlfriends love to shop, so there are always people I can drag along. It’s always helpful to get an outside opinion before you fork out significant money for a new wardrobe.

  34. SLCCOM says:

    If you get a suit and wear top and bottom as separates, be sure to wash or dry clean BOTH PARTS at once. Otherwise, the more-washed one will end up a different shade of the color.

  35. Roshni says:

    I would also like to mention that she should look out for Memorial day sales, which are usually quite good for women’s clothing

  36. Stephan says:

    love the last tip about reading the washing instructions, its so true and can not only save you money but also keep yourfavorite clothes presentable and fresh. I also follow one of your tips quite regularly when i bring my gf to go shopping with me. like you, i have a bad eye for good fashion and it takes a lot of the frustration out of the shopping experience if your significant other approves of your new clothes.=)
    Preferred Financial Services

  37. Al says:

    Don’t forget sale racks! I generally don’t look at full-price tables but head right to the sale racks. At the typical mall stores, you can generally find classic work items on pretty good markdowns. I’ve gotten pieces from BR, for instance for as low as $20 or $30 on markdown for wool trousers or nice sweaters.

    Stick to the classics as you’re building up the wardrobe – black, navy or grey trousers or skirt and button-down oxfords are all timeless and will blend in almost any office. Nice pants/skirts can be mixed with more casual pieces and still look good.

    Most offices don’t require suits or jackets any more, especially if you’re a recent grad. I wouldn’t bother trying to buy a suit too fast – that’s something where fit is important.

  38. Mippy says:

    Department stores, even Topshop, in the UK offer personal shopping services. Try one of these – no obligation to buy – and then see what ideas they come up with. Then tailor these to your budget.

    I highly recommend buying a few good quality items over lots of cheap ones. Wait for the sales for these, unless you’re an unusual size that disappears quickly.

  39. Not sure why this wouldn’t post the first time…

    Although I think this post is good in a vague & non-specific way (especially since you talk about ties, which Anna probably would not wear since she’s a girl), it’s not as useful if you don’t have consignment stores near you, or if you’re an odd size.

    Anna, usually your industry will dictate the level of formality in your wardrobe. I would ask your boss is there’s a dress code, but don’t call your coworkers – that’s one of those things that should be normal, but most people would be weirded out. Your boss should be able to let you know what’s expected, if you need to wear a suit, or if pantyhose are required, or if you can wear jeans every day.

    My workplace is business casual, so my bare bones work wardrobe would look something like this (assuming I have all the required underpinnings):

    3-4 pairs of pants in neutral colors (black, brown, gray, navy)
    1-2 skirts in neutral colors (I like pencil skirts, but I’d recommend buying what you like best)
    1 dress in a neutral color
    2 white blouses (basic oxford button-down are what are usually recommended, but I think any crisp, woven shirt would work)
    3 colored blouses (again, button-downs are the most basic)
    3-4 sweaters or cardigans
    1-2 pairs of shoes, I’d go with a pair in black and a pair in nude (but anything that goes with the pants/skirt will work).
    1 large tote in a neutral color (I have one in olive green, and I swear, it matches everything in my wardrobe!)
    some fun accessories (belts, necklaces, scarves) to add color & interest

    Then, mix and match! Belt a cardigan over a button-down and wear with a pencil skirt. Layer a turtleneck under the dress. Throw a few strands of pearls over a simple sweater and trousers.

    I think that these items would work very well in any office environment. Just make sure everything fits correctly, since nothing will make you look less professional than too-big pants or hems dragging on the ground or buttons gaping open.

    It’s worth spending money on these things, but if you’d prefer not to dump tons of money up front, check out stores like The Loft, H&M (I have a pair of pants from H&M that I’ve had for 5 years!), Old Navy, Gap. American Eagle has some of the best button-down blouses I’ve bought. Consignment and thrift stores might work for you, but I have never had good luck with them. Try to combines sales and coupon codes. If you find a brand that works, check ebay for your size.

  40. J says:

    I would avoid dry clean only if at all possible. If you dry clean it, you spend money. If you hand wash it, you waste time.

    There are lots of workplace-appropriate clothing that can go in the washing machine and the dryer, then be hung without ironing. Take advantage of this.

    I used to travel a lot of work in a customer-facing position for which the attire was a shirt and tie, slacks and dress shoes. I skipped the 100% cotton shirts and fancy wool pants and went right for the poly blends. Nothing was fantastically expensive, either — figure $20 for a shirt and $30 for the slacks on sale (and they hold sales for just about every holiday, real or imagined) at a department store.

    All of this clothing could very easily be washed on the road in a hotel laundry or at home and packed up again with minimal effort and it came out of the suitcase pretty wrinkle-free. If something got torn, something spilled on it, or my luggage got lost, no big deal since it wasn’t expensive to begin with.

    But definitely get the feel of the office before you go in. I now work for a really laid back software company and I wore shorts and sandals to work today with a short sleeve shirt. No one cares. My boss dresses the same way.

  41. KC says:

    Anyone else think it was strange that Trent recommended that Anne (a woman) buy 6 shirts and 6 ties? :)

    I personally think it would be strange to ask about the dress code beforehand, especially particular brands. On the first day I would dress similarly to how your interviewer dressed, or just wear black pants and a nice shirt/blouse. Don’t buy too many clothes until after your first week. I work for a Fortune 500 company and everyone I had seen before I got the job dressed very nice so I bought a lot of new clothes. But I ended up working in a department that does more “dirty work” and doesn’t interact with the public, so we mostly wear jeans every day.

    And I am a woman and I do wear a comfy T shirt as an undershirt, but this might not be as easy in more formal attire. I also second the comment about making sure you have a cardigan because offices are cold a lot of the time!

  42. Tracy W says:

    My suggestion – any top with buttons on it you can make look much more expensive by removing the plastic buttons and replacing with fancier ones – eg wood, metal, cloth-covered. Even if you are very extravagent in your choice of buttons, spending $4 a button, you can still replace 5 buttons for $20, and you’d need to spend at least $100 more to get that sort of boost in expensive-look by buying a whole outfit at the shop.

    Plus when hand-sewing a button you can tie it down properly and reduce the odds of losing the button later on. My father re-sows all his buttons on his new shirts even though he doesn’t replace them for this reason.

    Learning how to sew on a button is easy. I do my sewing in front of the TV too, so it doesn’t feel like taking time out of my day.

    Just look out for terra-cotta buttons, I put some on a coat but the edges kept breaking through the ordinary thread, and I wound up buying some super-strong thread as I liked the buttons a lot. Incidentally, that super-strong thread has come in handy elsewhere.

  43. Katie says:

    Anne – congrats on the job!

    I second the advice to ask HR for a policy and a tour and pay attention to what others are wearing. If you notice women whose style you think would be flattering for your figure and coloring, compliment their outfits, strike up a conversation and ask if they have any advice or suggestions for you about office temperatures, what to wear and where to shop. Note nail polish colors, accessories, hair styles. Is everyone there in a high quality, tailored skirt suit with hose and pumps? Or is there more of a mix? What are the people your age wearing? How tight is the fit? How high or low are the necklines and hemlines? Are women wearing sensible square towed low-heeled pumps or three inch Jimmy Choos?

    Once you have a sense of what you’ll need, ask a fashion-savvy friend to help you shop first in your own closet. Try things on, make a pile of anything that needs to be cleaned, mended or tailored and then do it. If you don’t know how to do basic ironing, tailoring and mending, ask a friend who does to teach you. How many outfits can you make using your interview suit as a foundation with the tops and accessories you already have? What color blouses and twinsets can you add to that mix to make it stretch a little further? Looking at those colors, what other neutral colored slacks would mix best with what you have – gray, black, navy, khaki, brown? What shoes do you have? Do they need to be re-soled at the cobbler or shined? What shoes do you need? Do you have or need a professional handbag, laptop case or briefcase? Make a list of what you need.

    Hit up the thrift and consignment stores and see if you can find those missing items. Probably not and that’s okay. I agree with the earlier commenter that if you know your size and style for major brands that Ebay could be a good bet. Especially for good quality, lightly worn shoes.

    You might also be able to put the word out to friends, family, and neighbors who are your size that you’re thrilled about your new job but need to borrow some office basics if they’d be willing to loan them for a few weeks while you get a sense of the dress code and save up a paycheck or two. Be specific about sizes, colors etc. and tell them you’ll return the items dry cleaned within a specific period of time – say six weeks. This will require some tact, but you could also reach out to women who used to be your size and are now a little bigger … don’t we all have an outfit in our closets that we can’t wear anymore but keep in hopes that ‘someday’ it will fit again?!? Twinsets and other knit tops would be particularly forgiving in terms of sizing. Slacks might be tougher. Jewelry, shoes and accessories would be easy to borrow.

    Dress for Success is a non-profit that gives lightly used professional clothing to women entering the workforce. If you still don’t have what you need and can’t afford to buy it, I’d see if there’s a branch near you and make an appointment. Later, once you’ve landed a few paychecks, you can return the favor by making a donation to support their work.

    After hitting the consignment stores, your social network, and perhaps Dress for Success, buy what you still need. Two pairs of neutral colored slacks that fit you properly and round out your wardrobe are a worthwhile investment. Jones New York just released a line of reasonably priced machine washable, dryable, no-iron, easy care wool suiting and button down shirts in classic lines and colors. TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, and even Target might have some reasonable options, depending on what you need.

    Fit is the most important part. Take your newly acquired wardrobe pieces and try them on in front of an expert tailor. Tell her your budget. Ask her to help you decide if some basic alterations to a few key pieces could make a big difference in polishing your professional look – sometimes a little tuck here and there can take a thrift store find to a whole new level.

    Lastly, you need to pay attention to hair and make-up. Ask a make-up savvy friend to give you a makeover, then head to the drugstore to buy the basics. The right foundation, basic black mascara, and a matte lipstick in a relatively neutral shade should get you through the first few weeks. Trim your nails and tweeze those eye-brows. Save the boldly colored eye shadows and metallic lip glosses for after work. Ask another friend to help you blow out your hair with the blow-dryer for a professional ‘do. Later you can splurge on a good quality department store foundation and a professional haircut.

    If the hair, make-up and dressing feel stressful, take a few practice runs in the days leading up to your first day on the job until the routine feels relaxed and ordinary and you have a sense of how much time you need to get ready.

    I agree with earlier commenters that cold-calling your new co-workers and asking what brands they wear could do more to damage first impressions than even the worst fasion faux pas!

    Good luck!

  44. Jason says:

    Good post. However, in reference to contacting your co-workers to ask them what clothes they wear…I would absolutely not want my co-workers and boss’s first impression of me to be ‘what am I going to wear to work’. Yes I dress professionally, but the immediate image I would want to project is the willingness to work hard to get the job done. If I hired someone new and the first thing he/she did was ask me and my subordinates what ‘brand of clothes’ we wear, I would second-guess my choice. Just offering a different perspective.

  45. Susan says:

    In the past I’ve used the Macy’s Personal Shopper service, which sounds fancy, but it doesn’t cost any extra as they just get paid on commission, based on a percentage of what you buy.

    The woman I worked with came up with several ideas for mix-and-match outfits, including accessories, listened to what I liked and didn’t like, and wasn’t pushy. She knows that she stands to make more money in the long run if I come back to her or recommend friends.

    Basically, I spoke with her ahead of time on the phone and told her the ‘style’ I was looking for ‘creative professional’ and my body type, and she lined up lots of things for me to try, without all the stress of hunting through the racks.

    Unfortunately, the location near me has discontinued the service, but I would definitely recommend it. I’m sure you could also give them a budget ahead of time that you need to work within.

  46. rosa rugosa says:

    I agree that asking about brands would be a little weird, but asking about the dress code would not be. I actually volunteer this information to my new hires even if they don’t ask. My new hires are usually entry-level, so might not know what is appropriate, and we have a “professional dress environment.” It is important to me that my employees feel comfortable on the job and make a good impression (which reflects well on me)!

  47. Laura says:

    Do you have a favorite color to wear? Pick that color, and buy a few tops, bottoms, accessories that either are that color, or coordinate well with that color (red with white, black, and gray for example). This strategy will help you be selective when you’re out shopping, instead of being swayed by whatever’s hot this season. It will also be easier to get dressed in the morning when you know everything can match together. Having a “signature color” helps give you an identity among your new co-workers as it gives a visual suggestion that you are a consistent and put-together person. I’m not saying dress all in red every day – just a few accessories or pieces here and there will do.

    If it were fall/winter, I would suggest that you get a decent-looking blazer. Blazers automatically make any outfit look more professional. Since it’s summer, though, that probably won’t be an option you’ll need to worry about for awhile.

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