Building a work wardrobe: revisited

About a month ago, a woman wrote into TSD with a question about building a work wardrobe for her new job. Trent told her that she should buy more ties and fewer shirts and make sure to get everything from a consignment store. He also told her to call her new coworkers and ask what brands they wear.

I agree with what he says, almost.  Mix & match pieces will go much further than a larger number of items that don’t go with anything else, even if his example didn’t apply to a female’s wardrobe. Consignment stores and thrift stores can be a good source of inexpensive clothes. And looking to your coworkers is a good way to gauge the dress code in any office. However, thrift stores can be a total crapshoot, and the consignment stores near me always seem to be selling clothes for the same price you’d pay during a great sale. Also, there’s no better way to alienate your coworkers than to ask them what brands they wear.  Most importantly, I felt like he was ignoring one of the biggest parts of her question by giving her a few vague tips and not some actual concrete advice on how to build a wardrobe.

I know I already tried to cover this topic in my Building A Work Wardrobe for Under $500 post, but I thought I’d talk today more in generalities than specific items from specific stores. 

First of all, your industry usually dictates your dress code. Lawyers need to be more business professional, office workers usually need to be business casual, and technical people usually can get away with wearing a casual wardrobe. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask your new boss about the dress code, and if it’s a strict policy (e.g. pantyhose required for women), you’ll usually get a copy from HR.

If you honestly have no idea, make sure you have a killer outfit for the first day (a suit would be best, especially if you have a place to stash your blazer in case the workplace is more casual) and a few clothes to make it through the week. If you look all right the first day, most people won’t remember the rest of the week, and you’ll have a chance to scrutinize your coworkers outfits to determine the dress code.

Business professional means suits, or at least separates. If this is you, there’s no way around it: buy a suit. Buy as many as you can afford that will get you through the week. Buy both the pants and the skirt version (assuming you’re female) because blazers are expensive. (Bonus tip: Try to avoid wearing tanks underneath – I know it’s a cute look, but the less contact your suit has with your skin, the fewer trips you’ll need to take to the dry cleaner.) Make sure you have shoes that match in color and in height (no dragging hems or floods!). If possible, get suits that coordinate; you can wear a gray tweed blazer with the matching pants or with black pants.  Most importantly, make sure the suit fits.  A $50 suit that is the right size will look a lot better than a $400 suit with too-long sleeves or pants that encase your legs like sausage.

My workplace is business casual, which can mean lots of things along the formality spectrum. Some people think it means you start with business professional and take off your blazer. Some people think it means khakis and corduroys with embellished t-shirts. If I were building a bare-bones business casual wardrobe from scratch, it would probably look something like this:

5+ bottoms in neutral colors. If “neutral” is a new term for you, it means any color that goes with every other color, and here means black, brown, gray, or navy.

1 dress in a neutral color. Women only, optional.

2 white shirts. Usually websites recommend basic oxfords, but if you’re a busty lady, any crisp, woven white blouse would be appropriate.

3 colored/patterned shirts. Again, women can go for structured tops. Some classic colors that go with almost anything would be best – a light blue or pink color, stripes, etc.

3-4 sweaters or cardigans or vests. These can be layered over the button-down shirts/blouses in case of a chilly office, or worn alone with a t-shirt or tank underneath.

1-2 pairs of shoes. Men, go for black and brown. Ladies, I’d go with a pair in black and a pair in a nude color that matches your skin tone. Remember, this is bare bones – you only need shoes that will match all of your bottoms.

1 large tote or briefcase in a neutral color. It’s OK to go a little offbeat with this one. I have an olive green bag, and I swear, it matches everything in my wardrobe. If you can pull off a brighter color, I say go for it.

Some fun accessories. This includes belts, ties (I honestly have no idea what the rules are for ties – my male coworkers don’t wear ties unless they’re presenting to a customer), necklaces, scarves, etc. Something to add visual interest to your look.

If you can afford it, a great neutral blazer. Black is the most classic.

Then, mix and match!

Men, pants + shirt + shoes. Add ties and sweaters as necessary. Cardigans on men are always very attractive and I wish I’d see it more often.

Women, you have a little more leeway to be creative. Belt a cardigan over a floral blouse & wear with a pencil skirt. Layer a turtleneck under the dress. Throw a few strands of pearls over a simple sweater and trousers. Wear a floral scarf with everything, or tie it on your bag.

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. I am firmly in the camp that it is worthwhile to spend money on work clothes, especially if you don’t enjoy shopping. In general, higher-quality items will be more expensive, but will last longer.

If you’d prefer not to spend a lot of money, head to a thrift store or a consignment store. I personally don’t do this, but it’s mostly because I have a hard-to-fit body type and thrifting excursions usually end in tears and vows to get liposuction. If something doesn’t fit quite right, if you need a size bigger, you’re out of luck. That is what I hate about non-retail stores.

I don’t have many specific store recommendations for men. Department stores are an easy starting point. J. Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, might be good places to check. If you want to spend $300 on a tie, go to Thomas Pink.

Ladies, if I had to choose one place to recommend, it would be LOFT. I have had nothing but good luck there, and though I fit into standard sizes, they also carry a petites line and plus sizes. The prices are also really reasonable. (I should also note that I have no advertising relationship with LOFT, I just really like the store. Although, if LOFT would like to pay me in cute clothes for constantly mentioning their website, I would not object.)

If you’re willing to pay a little more, I like Ann Taylor, J. Crew, Banana Republic. Anthropologie has the best patterned blouses and accessories, if you like something a little more whimsical and feminine. If you’re looking to spend less, I have had great luck at H&M – I still wear a pair that I bought there more than 5 years ago! I also love American Eagle since they have the only button-downs that will fit my chest without being huge in the waist.

If you find a brand that works for you, check eBay for items in your size. That’s how I got my Anthropologie shirtdress for about 1/3rd or the retail price (not much of a score if you think about how much their items cost full-price, but you know, I probably would have bought the dress anyway).

Readers, do you have any office style recommendations?  Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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3 Responses

  1. One thing I did to prepare for work clothes (I spent $300) was buy a suit that I could wear different jackets/bottoms with. Then bought 2 different jackets and another pair of pants to go with all of it. Then 5-7 different tops that can be worn with or without jackets. Then I can mix and match the jackets/tops/bottoms so that I’m wearing the same things each week – but in different combinations. Sticking to one color scheme (browns or blacks) also makes it much easier!

  2. I agree it would be in very bad taste to ask a coworker what brand he/she wears, or really even where they shop (it could be awkward if they shop at a thrift store, or even at an expensive designer). Maybe a very occassional “oh, I love that blouse, do you mind if I ask where it’s from?” is OK, but you can still build a fine wardrobe from almost any brand/shop by simply looking at your coworkers.

    I love all your recommendations but I have to suggest Boss (Hugo Boss) for blouses for busty women. I LOVE their “button up” shirts because they don’t actually have any buttons! They look like classic button ups but really zip up the side and have a faux button up area – so no gaping, ever! I too have a small waist but larger chest and hate that I can’t wear generic button up blouses. Boss is not cheap, but they do sales all the time so once or twixe a year I buy one of those shirts in my size in whatever color they’ve got on sale. I also got a black suit there last year on clearance that fit me like a glove right off the rack.

  3. I remember reading i think it was in “your money or your life” about factoring in wardrobe costs when working out what you actually earn. If you need to buy 3 suits a year, 3 shirts, 2 pairs of shoes, etc etc, every year than you should factor this in when working out what you really earn. Earning less money but being able to wear what you want might actually earn you more money in the end. In Aus anyway unless it’s work specific clothes ie a uniform or safety equipment it’s not tax deductable so your paying out of your pretax dollars. 3 suits and dry cleaning might cost you $2000/year might be $3076 a year before tax. That’s a lot of money maybe it aint worth it.

    Just an idea.

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