I was recently having lunch with a young attorney who just started her first “real” job out of law school, and the question came up – how do I build a business wardrobe without breaking the bank? As a student – whether it be college or grad school – your wardrobe consists of jeans, t-shirts and sweaters, and flip flops or sneakers. But when you graduate and enter the workforce, you will likely be working in an office that requires you to dress at least “business casual,” if not “business.” (This can also apply to people who start new jobs in the middle of their careers and end up at a place with a more formal dress code.) Running out and buying a bunch of suits and fancier clothes is cost prohibitive, and you don’t want to be spending your entire paycheck to build your wardrobe. So here are a few tricks that I used when I first entered the workforce:
Check the dress code at your new place of business
When you first start a job, it is better to be overdressed rather than underdressed. I showed up at PERA wearing a suit on my first day, but learned that is not typically expected. It’s good I hadn’t stocked up on suits before my first day. Observe your surroundings and determine what the expected and accepted dress is.
Buy at least one suit
Trust me, you will likely need a full suit at some point, and it’s better to be prepared. This is a place where I recommend spending a little more so you can have a higher quality piece of clothing that will last and will look professional. Get a “classic” suit look that won’t be outdated next year (I’m talking grey/black/navy) – stay away from the trendier cuts that will be quickly outdated. And in terms of saving money on this purchase, see #5 below.
Pick a few versatile pieces that you can use as a base. Think black or grey slacks (or a skirt) that can be used with a variety of tops and can be dressed up or down depending what you wear on top. It isn’t wrong to wear the same black or grey slacks more than once a week with a different top – no one will even notice.
Don’t go crazy
I'm talking about shoes and accessories. As above, you can have a couple of pairs of “professional” shoes that are versatile and go with most of your wardrobe. The same goes for accessories – think simple and versatile. If you buy shoes and accessories for every outfit, you will be spending a lot of money up front. You can slowly build variety into your wardrobe as you progress, but you don’t need to buy it all up front.
Shop the discount stores and the sales
If you want to save money, don’t go to the trendiest boutique in town to get your clothes. Many places like Nordstrom Rack, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and the outlet stores will have higher end items at discounted prices. Sure, it can be hit or miss, but I often find nice work clothes at these places for a very reasonable price. I also am a big fan of places like Banana Republic, Gap, The Limited, etc., but I never buy anything full price. Those stores frequently have 40-50% off sales (I’m talking every single item in the store) – so hold out for one of those sales and you never need to pay full price. If you sign up for their mailing lists, you will also frequently get coupons in the mail (but don’t let that be an excuse to spend money unless you need something). It is also worth keeping in mind that if you find a great sale item that doesn’t fit perfectly, it may be cheaper overall to get it tailored than to find a comparable full price item that fits perfectly.
I’ll admit it – I really hate buying clothes on-line because I can’t try them on and it’s hard to tell how they will fit. But, it can be cheap and convenient if you do it correctly. I always try to buy from a site that offers free shipping. I try to always buy from a place that offers free shipping both ways so I can easily return items (or buy from a place that I can return for free in a store near me). Zappos is a favorite of mine because you get free shipping both ways (LINK: zappos.com). Amazon has good options as well.
Check the cleaning instructions
Dry cleaning costs can add up quickly if you aren’t careful. I try to stay away from having an entire wardrobe of dry clean only items. Sure, I have to dry clean my suits and certain other pieces in my wardrobe, but I have made an effort to focus on pieces that I can wash at home to keep the dry cleaning bill down.
Add items slowly
As time goes on, you can add items to your wardrobe. But when I buy new items I always try to ensure that they are versatile and will go with a variety of different items in my closet.
What are your tips for building a professional wardrobe? Leave them in the comments!