When I was working in TV, image was everything. Even though my job as senior producer put me squarely behind the scenes – and away from the camera’s prying eye – the coiffed and polished anchors and reporters who spend their day in the field and on the air upped the style ante. It was nearly impossible to show up to work wearing jeans and a ratty sweatshirt, even if it was perfectly within office policy, because the on-air talent looked so darn good.
These days, my professional wardrobe is a shadow of its former self. Even the classic pieces in my closet are wrinkled and worn, and don’t exactly smell quite right (I can’t explain that last part; I guess that’s what two years in the closet without much use – or washing – will do to a garment). Because I work from home, I can get away with a barely-there professional wardrobe most of the time; but on the rare occasions when I meet with clients, contractors, or attend a conference, I know that to be seen as a professional, you have to dress like a professional. My work clothes need a lot of help.
So, I’m going to start setting aside a small monthly budget to replenish at least a fraction of my professional wardrobe. I don’t need an ensemble for every day of the week, but I do need a few go-to outfits. Here’s my plan of attack:
Step 1: Establish a Budget
I know a lot of people who let their needs or – even worse – their wants establish their shopping budget. This is wrong on so many levels. While I would love to add a tailored Gucci suit to my wardrobe, I know it’s not in my price range. As with everything else that has to do with money, decide how much you want to spend before you start shopping, or even window shopping.
Step 2: Consider Your Workplace
Not every workplace has the same M.O. when it comes to on-the-job style. At my old job, men almost always wore suits, while the women were in suits, sweater sets with skirts, or tailored pants with sleek sweaters. If you’re a teacher, this is probably a little over the top; if you work in a casual office, showing up dressed to the nines may make you stand out, but may also make it look like you’re trying too hard. Factor all this in to your professional wardrobe before you start buying, so you’ll be able to actual wear the clothes you buy, instead of letting them hand – unused – in your closet.
Step 3: Go Shopping!
This is the fun part, but if your execution suffers, it can also start to feel overwhelming, stressful, and excessive. If you’re trying to keep your budget in mind, you might want to try these tips to watch your pennies:
- Try online flash sale sites like Gilt and Rue La La. These sites offer designer labels at discount prices, often 50% off or more.
- You may be surprised with what you can find at consignment shops. There is a store in my area that caters specifically to professionals.
- Organize a clothing swap with your friends. Just because you’re tired of that floral pencil skirt doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for another friend’s wardrobe.
- Buy bargain brands… but remember this caveat: while you may get a great deal at places like Target or Kohl’s, these clothes are often not constructed to last forever. Stores like this are a great place to try new trends, which will go out of style in a year or two anyway, but skip classic pieces you’ll want to keep around for a while.
- Think of your professional wardrobe like a parfait. It should have different layers – the wardrobe staples are the first layer, followed by trendier pieces, and finally accessories. The staples are your investment pieces, while your accessories shouldn’t take up too much of your budget.
Step 4: Tailor Your Wardrobe
What good is a brand new pair of dress slacks if they don’t fit perfectly? Once you make your purchases, take them to a seamstress or tailor you trust to have them hemmed or fitted to match your frame. You’ll be amazed at the difference $15 can make to a pair of pants or a blazer.
Step 5: Take Care of Your Investment
You’re not going to look like a professional if you allow your clothes to become wrinkled, frayed, or covered with stains. Read the cleaning instructions on the garment’s tag; if it says “dry clean only,” don’t assume one time through the gentle cycle will do the trick. One of my favorite staples of my wardrobe was a pair of black Prada pumps; I’d bought them secondhand on a really deep discount, and kept them looking great by having them resoled and polished every few years. My routine maintenance kept my shoes looking good for almost a decade!
What items are the staple of your professional wardrobe? What’s the dress code in your office?