Ask Allie: Cheap Work Clothing

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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.

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.

capsule work wardrobe

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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  1. Another option – in many cities there are groups/nonprofits that give quality work appropriate clothes to women returning to the workplace, who have limited funds. Google on the group in your town. For those of you cycling either up or down in weight, try getting those formerly fitting clothes to women who could use them.
    Alternatively, put together a clothing swap. There are hosting instructions online. They are lots of fun, get you neat new (to you) clothes, and you meet cool people. Good luck.

  2. And what do you recommend for one that has wayyyy to many clothing items in her closet such as me, I wore corporate 7 years ago, and went on to business casual for the past 5 years, now I am starting a job this coming Monday again as office casual; what does that entail when your local thrift shops only consist of Goodwill and there is nothing there below a size 6?!?!?

  3. Alison
    Is there anyway you can showcase us the looks for a capsule wearing the items along with accessories for the dim witted ones like me?
    Thank you so much

  4. Also: Thrift stores are GREAT places to buy quality blazers for a fraction of the cost. At my local thrift store, you can get nice blazers for under $6.00. Even with the dry cleaning bill, It is still under $10.00. Check it out if you really need a blazer!

  5. Love your capsule wardrobes! They give me so much inspiration when it comes to building a professional wardrobe. I was wondering – what would you suggest for a capsule wardrobe if skirts/dresses were not work appropriate due to the nature of your job? If you can’t guess, I work in a place where skirt wearing is not technically against the dress code for the work place but it’s not something anyone wears because of what we do [and tragically, same goes for high-ish heels – short heels are okay]. I want to look professional and not have to worry so much about what I’m wearing but I can’t figure out a good capsule wardrobe that involves just pants that isn’t boring.

    Thanks for any suggestions [both from Allie and other readers!]

    1. Hi Randa,

      I don’t think there’s any reason that pants have to be any more boring than skirts or dresses. I’d just pay attention to a) getting at least 3-4 pairs of quite different and stylish pants (i.e. wide leg, tregging, pinstripe, lighter/brighter colours etc) and b) a range of exciting tops/ blouses/ sweaters etc to wear over them. Play with colours (don’t just stick to ‘safe’ colours, go for a bit of red, or cobalt blue or winter white or whatever suits you), use accessories like belts (over your tops as well as to just hold up your trousers), scarves if they’re safe in your workplace, short chunky necklaces, bangles etc. Pay attention to your hair and makeup if you wear it and have fun!

        1. Thanks so much for both of your suggestions! I plan on going through my current wardrobe and see if I can pull something together for now [and be able to better plan for what I need to buy]. Thanks!

    2. You could easily switch out the two skirts in the capsule wardrobe for a pair of gray and a pair that has a subtle print like tweed or pinstripe and have the same results. Also same with the shoes, which is easier with pants – an ankle bootie, flat, or loafer would be perfect. Layers on top make a big difference – blouses with texture (ruffles, sheer, bows, unique collars) under cardigans, a belt or necklace over it, wear a sweater tee over a long-sleeved blouse (every time I think of this look I think of Jennifer Connolly in He’s Just Not Into You), scarves tucked into the collar of your shirt… lots of options and far easier to reuse pants in a week than skirts!

  6. I’m so glad you posted about this again because it has been on my mind since the first post. I wanted to send the original questioner an email to say please, please do what you can to get a decent work capsule put together. Shoes matter! (she mentioned wearing Tevas, if I remember right).

    Since I started working in HR a few years ago, I have completely shifted from make-do work wear, to best-I-can-do work wear. After hearing managers discussing people, promotions and hiring, I will never again be lazy about my look. I’ve realized the way we present ourselves at work is the one thing completely in our control that can influence decisions about our future. (Let’s face it- you don’t have any control over bad bosses or whacko company decisions.) If it means you have to sell stuff on craiglist, ebay or eat cheap for a month, please just do it. It will be worth it.

    And, if you really cannot afford the key pieces, please consider getting help from one of the nonprofits, Dress for Success or Working Wardrobe. They are wonderful and want to help and they know that coming up with a good wardrobe for work is expensive and time consuming.

  7. Right on the spot!
    I always enjoy reading these posts… I have to do a REAL closet cleanse… i keep buying things i like that sometimes do not fit to perfection.

  8. May I suggest Kohl’s for wardrobe fill-in’s. I purchased a sweater very similar to the leopard one above for under $20 and it has held up very well. I agree that it is much better to shop the highest quality you can afford for basics. But if you want to add an inexpensive and fun item without spending a fortune, Kohl’s is an option.

  9. This is a great post! I have a few more suggestions. I work for a non-profit but still need to wear suits. I’ve found suits on clearance at Ann Taylor – my favorite classic black suit I got for $50 from there has lasted with care for 9 years! I’ve also found Jones New York petite suits (very classic colors and cuts) at Ross, TJ Maxx, Filene’s Basement, Boscov’s and Macy’s (the last two during sales) for $50 – $79. If you want a suit to last for years, be careful to buy something classic that won’t be dated in a few years. I worked in an office where a woman’s court attire in 2002 was a suit with giant shoulder pads from the 80’s. I still get compliments on my black Ann Taylor suit from 2004.

    Since I’m petite, I follow a few blogs for petite women that alert to sales at more expensive sites like Ann Taylor that have petite sizes. Last year thanks to Extra Petite, I grabbed a J. Crew Lady Day coat with thinsulate for $56. I also follow groupon for deals to local thrift stores. I recently paid $10 for $20 at a local thrift shop through groupon. I redeemed my groupon in August and it happened they had their summer clothes 50% off. I ended up getting some brand new or extremely gently used clothes (a top from Talbots still with tags, pants from Talbots, a theory cardigan, another cardigan, and a belt from the GAP still with tags) for $10! Most of it is work appropriate. For shoes, I keep an eye on the clearance section at Marshalls. I hope this helps!

  10. Allie,

    You may have covered this in detail before. If so, please point me to the post. If not, will you please talk about it. What is it? Blazers. There are so many choices of fabrics, cut, and color. lined/unlined, etc. I don’t know what to do about blazers. What features should I be looking for in an inexpensive blazer that doesn’t look cheap? I like a little bit of shoulder pad, but what do you think about that? I prefer wool or a mostly wool blend in a dark color, grey, or camel. Wool blazers are not usually under $50, but I have purchased them on extreme sales.

    I now have 2 wool blazers that I’m kinda afraid to wear. They are both simple, lined, classic styling with light shoulder pads. One is navy and one is dark purple. Do you think they sound OK?



    1. Blazers are so popular right now and the collegiate look is hot, that blazers are a pretty safe bet as long as they don’t have any extreme shoulder pads, unusual lapels, or any non-current trends. Keep them classic – three buttons, medium sized lapels, single breasted, not a lot of frou-frou and they can work now and years from now. Your two sounds great.

      As for what to buy, if you like wool, get it lined so it will last longer and be more comfortable. The only blazers that work well unlined are knit (heavy like ponte) or a casual twill one which is usually better for weekends. The fewer details the better – buttons the same color as the jacket, lining that fits well, sleeves the right length or can be tailored to that, shoudlers that aren’t too big and hang off the body, it nips in at the right place in the small of the back.

  11. I rarely go to the outlets to shop, but a few weeks ago, I was visiting a friend, and she wanted to go shopping there. I tagged along, and I was pleasantly surprised. We went early in the morning, when they just opened, so there were fewer people around and I found some really nice work-appropriate knit sweaters at the Banana Republic outlet for only $20 each. I usually never shop at Banana because I find them to be too pricey, but to be honest, I would have payed $20 for a sweater at Target and it would not look as nice 🙂

    1. So true. I have a Banana jacket I got for near nothing at their outlet and have been wearing it for six years, even worked when pregnant. Wouldn’t have bought it at its original price and is far better quality than from Target!

  12. This is a really great/ useful post! TJMaxx, Marshalls, and Macys sales or clearance are responsible for my whole work wardrobe I have some really high quality pencil skirts and pants that I’ve purchased for $30 or less.

    1. Right below the image is a little link that says “via” which will take you to the Polyvore set I made. Do know that with Polyvore, I have to work with what is available on white backgrounds, and used as an example, not all are budget-friendly choices. 🙂

  13. Thrifting and the Marshall’s clearance rack, along with eBay saved my wallet when I was in the process of losing weight – while I could afford to, I simply didn’t want to spend more than $20 for a pair of pants or $30 on a dress when I wasn’t going to be able to wear them more than a half dozen times before they didn’t fit. The eBay seller bhexpress is basically like the Marshall’s of eBay – you just need to know what brands and silhouettes work on your body and pay close attention to the garment measurements before bidding.

    I’ve also had fabulous luck with the clearance rack at Macy’s, Dillards, and Ann Taylor – I’ve ended up with high-quality, expensive clothing at Walmart prices. Even now that I’ve reached my goal weight, I’ve continued to shop the same way – who doesn’t want high quality at a low price?

    I second the advice about heading out to consignment and thrift stores that are located in high-end areas – even the Goodwills in nicer neighborhoods carry better quality stuff; I found my Anne Klein cashmere/wool blend full length winter coat at one for $14.99. Just be careful to not fall into the trap of buying something that is only “okay” just because it’s cheap – a $10 dress that you’ll never wear is still a waste of money.

    1. This is really helpful! I am currently losing quite a lot of weight and nothing fits any more, but I am very reluctant to buy new nice clothes when I won’t be in them for long. This transition has been very difficult, fashion-wise, because I am also in the process of seriously re-evaluating my style. When my weight settles, I will have a lot of thinking and processing to do. But this is great advice.

      1. My other big tip is – dresses. You can wear dresses when they’re just a bit snug and they’ll still fit when you drop a size, sometimes two, depending on the style. Pants and skirts, on the other hand, tend to stop fitting every 5 pounds or so, especially if the waistband sits on the hips. I found that out the hard way – even a pair of pants that you paid $14.95 for is expensive if you only get to wear them once. I also learned not to buy pants that were just a bit small, thinking that I’d shrink into them – there were times that I shot right past a pant size or my body shape just didn’t work in those pants, even though they “fit”.

        One other thing that was great is that I did Weight Watchers with a group of women – I gifted my too big clothes to ladies who were still larger than me and was the recipient of some clothes from ladies who were smaller and we just kept passing them on. Not everything worked for me style-wise, but I did get a few things that at least saved me when I was losing rapidly.

  14. I cannot stress enough how awesome Target is for basic work attire. I have a blazer from there I wear all the time…and I think it cost me 27.99. They also have sales where cardigans, tees for under said cardis/blazers and dresses can be bought for DIRT cheap.

    1. Oh, and one more thing! To back up what Allie has been saying about the capsule wardrobe: I think when I was 22 I seriously had about 15 work appropriate pieces that I rotated. A few basic black dresses, one pair of black pants, one black shirt and various tops all purchased from Old Navy, Target and TJ Maxx. Accessories like belts, colored tights, and statement necklaces on the cheap (consignment, Target, NY and Co) helped me mix it up.

  15. Consignment stores are a great bet as well. Prices are around Target prices, but you get designer and better brand names. If you locate a consignment store in an “upscale” neighborhood with a lot of well-paid young professionals, you can usually find a good selection of blazers, oxford shirts, and cashmere sweaters. The Second Time Around chain of consignment stores is often a good bet for brands like J. Crew and tibi.

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