November 28, 2012

Ask Allie: Cheap Work Clothing

I am 22 and find myself coming into work every day looking a hot-mess. Unacceptable. I'll admit I've stopped trying to put things together at this point. I am in serious need of advice as to a "starter wardrobe". I'm working with an extremely tight budget where $50 is too much for a blazer.

I’m getting back into the work world after spending four years at home with my sons and my closet is pretty much jeans and T-shirts. Any suggestions for building a work wardrobe from nothing and with practically no funds?

I wrote this post recently, and it’s worth a look. You don’t need to spend a ton of money to look professional in the office, you don’t need to own a dozen suits or expensive garments. However, it is important to look for versatile, quality pieces for the office. I can’t stress this enough – it’s more important to have a few well-made and well-fitting versatile pieces than a closet packed with cheap junk. It’s okay to wear the same black pants three times in a week, to wear the same suit for each business meeting, to wear the same pencil skirt twice a week if it fits well, is classic, and versatile.

Quality can be found at TJ Maxx, at Target, at Goodwill. You don’t need to go to a high-end retailer to find quality pieces. Shop slowly, shop carefully, be picky. Again, it’s better to only have one pair of black pants if they fit well and flatter. It’s better to buy a pair of $29.99 clearance pants and get them hemmed to the perfect length via the local dry cleaner than to spend $80 on a pair of pants that don’t fit well.

Shopping Online
I find a ton of great business clothing for less online. Subscribe to sites that notify you of online deals, or follow retailers on social media to know when they are having free shipping or discounts so you can save big. Also consider joining Ebates, which will send you a check a couple times a year just for regular shopping online.

Thrifting
Schedule thrifting into your schedule the way you would doctor’s appointments or book club. You will have the best luck when you go regularly, and know where you are shopping. Never buy smaller than you size, but some pieces a hair too large can be easily tailored with a belt, some Stitch Witchery, or your nearby dry cleaners or tailor. Don’t buy pieces that are damaged just because they are a great deal – for office clothing it’s important to have pieces in great condition. Thrifting is a great way to find blouses to give a new look to wardrobe basics – a black pantsuit looks completely different with a turquoise silk ruffled blouse than with a crisp white button-front shirt than with a shell pink silk sweater tee.

Shopping the Clearance Rack
I worked retail for many a year, and highly respected those savvy shoppers who entered my store and immediately went to the back to the sale rack. Stores you may think are outside your pricerange can have some stellar deals on the clearance rack. I own $19.99 blazers from Ann Taylor, $30 cashmere sweaters from J. Crew, and beautiful lined trousers from Nordstrom for less than $40. Again, follow these brands online to know when they have deals – recently Ann Taylor had a “private sale” for regular customers and offered 40% off sale merchandise. For less than $100 I got a pair of work pants, two shells, a cardigan, a skirt, and a merino wool crewneck… you can’t find that much workwear eat any discount mart for that price!

Quality at a Discount
Some things just make a piece look cheap, no matter the price on the ticket. Shiny synthetics, too many embellishments, visible logos, unlined non-knit jackets, too tight trousers, blatant trends (wide flared legs, super cropped jackets, extreme shoulders, cutouts, etc.) will make an otherwise nice work garment look inappropriate. I have found simple suiting-fabric separates at Target and Old Navy. Fabrics like matte jersey and Ponte knit look great at lower pricepoints and are work-appropriate for separates and dresses. Check out sites like 6pm.com for quality footwear at great low prices; also consider stalking eBay for specific pieces you have seen at retailers for a nice gently-used price.

Capsule Wardrobe
In my last post about a work attire, I focused mainly on the entry-level employee. However, you can look professional at any level with a small wardrobe. This capsule wardrobe is only an example – while you can click the link below it to see the specific pieces I used, do know I was working with pieces that have images available online, not on a model, and on a white ground. I chose pieces that I know can be found a low pricepoints and can look like quality even if they are purchased from a discount retailer; pieces that can look current even if they are purchased from a thrift store.

[via]
As you see, I chose a color story of black, gray, and shades of lilac as the accent hue. I chose black as a base because it’s a color that’s easier to mix and match from various retailers and easier to hide the price of a garment because the stitching and details are less visible. A gray “snow leopard” print adds interest and works with all the colors in the collection. All silhouettes are classic so they will work now and a couple years from now. Lighter-weight sweaters look more professional than chunky knits; warmth can be had with layers. I chose black pumps as the lone shoe since they are so versatile; if you can afford additional work shoes, a flat or a tall boot can be quite versatile and also classic. These pumps can be worn with bare legs (dress code permitting) in warmer months, with trouser socks for the pants, with tights or sheer stockings with the skirts come the colder months.
  1. Black jacket, black pants, ruffle blouse (can switch out pants for either skirt)
  2. Black jacket, black pants, white shirt (can switch out pants for either skirt)
  3. Black jacket, black pants, lavender sweater (can switch out pants for either skirt)
  4. Black jacket, leopard cardigan, black skirt
  5. Leopard cardigan, black pants
  6. Leopard cardigan, either skirt, ruffled blouse
  7. Leopard cardigan, white shirt, pants or either skirt
  8. Lavender sweater, gray skirt, leopard belt
  9. Lavender sweater, ruffled blouse, gray skirt
  10. Lavender sweater, white shirt, pants or either skirt
  11. Lavender sweater, black pants
  12. Black sweater, black pants, leopard belt
  13. Black sweater, white shirt, black skirt
  14. Black sweater, gray skirt, leopard belt
  15. White shirt, gray skirt, leopard belt
  16. White shirt, black pants, lavender sweater around shoulders
  17. Ruffled blouse, gray skirt
  18. Ruffled blouse, black pants
So with less than a dozen pieces, you can create over 20 different ensembles. An extra tank top or silk shell can add a handful more options. As you add to your wardrobe, keep in mind the color story and silhouettes so new pieces will fit effortlessly into your collection and increase the versatility of each piece.

When You Can’t Afford a Suit
It’s better to not have a suit than a cobbled-together mess. A blazer is expensive, and without stalking clearance racks, eBay, and your nearby thrift store you very well won’t be able to find a decent one under $50. So don’t buy one. You can look professional in a simple cardigan, blouse, and pants; a shift dress and pumps or flats, a button-front shirt and trousers. A matte jersey wrap dress, gabardine sheath or Ponte knit shift with a strand of pearls and simple black pumps can look just as sophisticated and professional while being far more easy to find at a low pricepoint. Don’t make it work, only own that which deserves to be in your closet.

So maybe now it’s a Forever 21 cardigan, Target pants, and a thrifted oxford as your work uniform – there’s nothing wrong with that. Take good care of them, launder them carefully, treat them like couture and they will be good to you in return. As you move up the corporate ladder you may replace these pieces with higher-end pieces once they wear out… or you may be pleased to find that quality doesn’t have to equal a higher price!

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