Monica writes in:
At my new job, everyone dresses incredibly well. Everyone is wearing expensive – or at least expensive-looking – suits and other businesswear. My wardrobe is simply not up to snuff. Catching my wardrobe up to the level of everyone else is going to be really expensive. Do you have any suggestions?
First of all, I view it as a completely reasonable thing to dress at an appropriate level in the workplace. If your workplace has a dress code, whether informal or formal, then you should measure up to that dress code.
That being said, I don’t think it’s realistic nor expected that you immediately have a $10,000 wardrobe if you’re new to the environment. There may be a subtle expectation that you eventually reach that level, but I don’t think you need to go out tomorrow and get thousands of dollars in debt to play catch-up.
If I were in your shoes, I’d actually use this situation as an opportunity. You are in a great position, being new in the workplace, to establish some relationships in the office, and your clothing situation is a great opportunity to do so.
Look around your office and identify a few people that you consider to be very sensible and potentially compatible with your personality. If you pay attention, you’ll be able to find people who are more sensible than others. What people use mass transit for their commute? What people drive more sensible cars? What people are solid and reliable in the workplace and are liked by everyone? Look for those people.
Then, approach those people individually and privately and ask how they put their wardrobe together. Where did they shop? How do they seem so well put-together? Don’t be afraid to add some compliments when you ask, as everyone likes to be flattered.
Be honest about your financial situation. Make it clear that you’re new and that you don’t have a lot of accumulated money.
I have approached people – and been approached by people – in situations very much like this one. Each time, it has become the source for a good relationship. Most of the time, people like to help others, and they particularly feel flattered if you’re coming to them specifically for advice. That’s a great first step for a good workplace relationship and/or friendship.
Another point of advice: buy modular clothing, especially at first. Buy clothes that can be easily mixed and matched to give the appearance of different outfits so that you’re not having to buy as many articles of clothing at once.
I’ll openly confess that I find this pretty easy to do for my own dressy clothing, but I am rather unfamiliar with the specific needs of professional clothing for women. My only experience in that department is through Sarah’s clothing, and she seems to indicate that mixing and matching works reasonably well for her, too.
For myself, anyway, I have a suit and several pairs of dress pants, but I have several shirts and a number of ties. Most of the permutations of shirt, pants/suit, and tie work well together, so it can appear like I have a lot of dress clothes when I actually have very little. Since there are clearly some combinations that don’t work well, I don’t wear a combination unless both Sarah and I think it looks good.
The result of this is that I don’t have to invest in lots of different clothes to make a variety of nice clothing work. I just have to maintain compatible clothes and replace the individual pieces as needed (which isn’t too often – I rarely have to “dress up” for professional or personal purposes).
If you use that clothes-buying strategy along with the tactics and tips suggested by your new workplace acquaintances, you’ll not only build a solid wardrobe at a very passable cost, but you’ll also build a much stronger professional network.