“Work Wardrobe Building, Part Two: The Basic Elements” is a post by Adina J, TimelessFinance columnist and author of Blue collar / Red lipstick.
PART TWO: The Basic Elements of a Work Wardrobe
- You will need: 1 or more
- You can expect to spend: $50-$100 (and up) per suit
Even if it’s not a daily necessity in your field of employment, a suit is still the best fail-safe when it comes to job interviews. When in doubt, always go with a suit. A suit in one of the main neutral colours – black, navy, dark grey – can triple its usefulness when you consider that its pieces can be worn together, or matched with other separates. To get the most use out of a suit (especially when you only own one), go with a solid colour and a classic style (two buttons, no shoulder pads, no funky lapels, no pockets).
A few tips on picking suits. As long as the fit works for your body type, a cheap suit will look no worse than an expensive one. I’m not sure if this is an advantage that women’s suits have over men’s, but my personal experience in some of the most conservative professional work environments around definitely bears it out. Cheap suits aren’t the most comfortable things – polyester never is – but you won’t look unprofessional. Plus, with the proliferation of quality consignment stores, your options are better than ever. You should have no problem picking up a decent quality suit (Calvin Klein, Ann Taylor, Tahari, Liz Clairborne) for well under $100. Save the more expensive suits for the day when you get promoted to an office with a window.
If your proportions don’t conform to the standard sizing that most retail brands use, you have two options: go with a more expensive suit that fits better, or get a cheaper suit tailored. Either way, you may have to invest a bit more, but few things are as important as fit when it comes to looking well put-together.
- You will need: 5 or more
- You can expect to spend: $20-$40/item
This is where you can have a little fun. Resist the urge to buy solid-colour tops in “safe” neutrals. Keep the rest of your wardrobe full of neutrals that can be easily mixed and matched, and use tops as a way to inject colour and/or patterns into your outfits. Using one pattern per outfit is a fool-proof method for adding some visual interest to an outfit – no advanced stylist skills required. Because you’re not using doing head-to-toe print, considerations like the size or type of the pattern involved are less important; just go with something you like. These days, even the sternest HR managers won’t bat an eye at leopard prints and other “wild” options – provided you’re comfortable enough to pull it off.
I highly recommend buying tops made of either cotton or silk for the sake of wearability and comfort. This does not have to mean a large outlay of money, especially if you’re willing to look at second-hand options. Most of my blouses and camisoles are 100% silk, from brands like J. Crew, Laundry, Ann Taylor and Banana Republic, and I rarely pay over $20 for them. If you’re looking for a retail alternative, check out places like factory stores or outlets, Joe Fresh, H&M, and Winners. Quality can be hit-and-miss in all of those places, but it’s not difficult to find a good deal if you know what to look for. The name on the label isn’t important; the fabric, cut, and overall style is.
One last tip: don’t be afraid to tuck in your tops. This can not only help you look more polished and professional, but it can also be more flattering. It’s all about proportions; you never want the length of your top to terminate at your widest point (unless you’re making some kind of Lady Gaga-esque fashion statement), as it only serves to emphasize this width and to (visually) shorten you.
- You will need: 1 or more
- You can expect to spend: $20-50/item
If you’re not a “skirt person”, one black skirt will probably be enough. Pencil skirts are flattering on most people; if your hips qualify you for “pear shape”, A-line skirts are your friend. Just make sure that the hem of whatever skirt you pick falls no higher than 2 inches above your knee, or two inches below. If you’re on the shorter side, you get more leeway above the knee; or below the knee, if you’re an Amazon.
If, like me, you prefer skirts over pants, then go ahead and buy a few more. Again, it’s best to stick to neutral colours, like black, brown, navy, grey and cream/beige, in order to maximize the mix-and-match potential. Pick one or two skirts in heavier fabrics (like wool blends or heavier knit fabrics) for the colder seasons, and lighter fabrics for the summer. Always look for skirts that are lined, ideally not with polyester material, to avoid static cling, visible panty lines, and other such horrors.
- You will need: 2 or more
- You can expect to spend: $20-80/item
Generally speaking, the same considerations apply to pants as to skirts. Stick to neutral colours, particularly those that best complement the rest of your wardrobe palette. Black goes with everything, naturally, but grey and navy are also surprisingly versatile. I’m not a “pants person”, and a big part of that stems from the fact that well-fitting pants are a bit of a clothes-shopping holy grail. There are a few things to consider.
First, the length. The hem of your pants should be about an inch off the ground whatever heels you happen to be wearing. The evident implication is that you will need “flats pants” and “heel pants” – i.e. pants hemmed to different lengths depending on your footwear options. (Editor Joe’s note: don’t wear heels, they’re bad for you. Get a good pair of flats and orthotic inserts.) The only exception is the cropped pant, which can be worn with either heels or flats, but poses its own limitations come fall or winter.
Second, the flare. Most dress pants are far, far too (unintentionally) roomy in the leg. This results in the dreaded droopy, dumpy look. Fastest way to “drop” twenty pounds? Buy a pair of pants that are straight cut, and eliminate the “flappy tent” engulfing your calves.
Third, the pockets. Far too many pants have pockets cut on the hip. These pockets inevitably gape, thereby visually widening an area that doesn’t usually need help in that direction. Pockets are, generally speaking, bad news when it comes to dress pants. Wherever they’re found, they just serve to add volume and bulk. They are perhaps only marginally better than pleats. And it goes without saying: no pleats!
Fourth, the rise. Low-rise dress pants are (or should be) an oxymoron. At the same time, high-waisted pants are best left to the runways and 19 year-old style bloggers. Finding the correct rise will depend on your torso; as a generally rule, aim for your belly button, unless you’re very short-waisted, in which case, pick a pair that hits a bit lower.
Fifth, sizing. Always, and I mean always go up a size if the front of your pants creases and pulls. Just trust me on this. Being able to sit down comfortably, for 8 hours at a time if necessary, is a blessing that cannot be understated.
So, you see what I mean about pants being tricky. If you are able to find a pair that meets all those criteria, congratulations! You should probably buy two pairs, because chances are, you won’t find anything remotely equivalent any time soon. Again, if you shop smart, you should be able to find pants in the $40-80 range (or less); my favourite pair of dress pants cost me $20 at consignment (original retail over $200), and they are lined no less. (If you can find a pair of pants that is lined, buy it immediately! It will be the most comfortable thing you have ever tried on, I promise.)
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- You will need: 0 or more
- You can expect to spend: $20-100/item
Strictly speaking, dresses are entirely optional. If you only want to invest in one, the (little) black dress is the way to go. Don’t listen to anyone telling you that “x” is the new black. Black is, and forever will be, the only black. An LBD will take you from the office to after-work drinks, and beyond, with only a minimal change in accessories. Keep in mind that you need to look for something with sufficient cleavage coverage and appropriate length. If you’re not sure about which style(s) would be most flattering, try a wrap dress. Its reputation as almost universally flattering is well-earned. Any cleavage concerns can be addressed by layering a tank top underneath.
Again, Winners has a great selection of mid-range brands at reasonable prices, especially on clearance. As an example, they tend to bring in a lot of Calvin Klein dresses that are usually office appropriate, and priced around $60 (a lot less than the price of the same dress at The Bay). And I have had amazing luck finding great dresses for under $20 at places like Goodwill - everything from lower-end brands like Club Monaco and Banana Republic, to designer labels like Isaac Mizrahi and Tocca. Most of them were a few seasons old, at most, and certainly not the 80s throwbacks that you might expect to find in thrift stores.
- You will need: several
- You can expect to spend: $20-60/item
“Cover-up” options cover the gamut from blazers and jackets, to cardigans and sweaters. I prefer the comfort of cardigans over structured blazers, but the latter often look more professional. At a minimum, you will need at least 2-3 cover-ups in neutral colours to go with your skirts and pants. Black, navy and cream are my favourites. Although many people shy away from cream, it is a very wearable colour that is much more forgiving than white and it goes with almost anything.
When it comes to cardigans and sweaters, they can also be used to add a pop of colour. Don’t be afraid to mix patterned tops with solid colour cardigans or sweaters; an easy way to avoid clashing is to make sure that the solid colour is one that appears somewhere in the pattern. To avoid looking frumpy, look for cardigans and sweaters with ¾ sleeves. Although chunky cable-knits are periodically trendy, lighter knits are best for layering, even in colder weather, in order to avoid a too-bulky look. Which means that you can always try layering a sweater under a blazer or jacket for added effect (and warmth).
- You will need: 2 or more
- You can expect to spend: $80-300
Depending on where you live, you will likely need at least 2 coats: a lighter spring/fall coat, and a winter coat. In some climates, a third, transitional coat may be necessary. For warmer seasons, a trench is a great choice – and it will always be in style. For winter coats, style may have to cede to utility, but don’t think that you are destined to look like the Michelin Man; these days, you can find stylish parkas that look nothing like the old puffball monstrosities that you might have encountered in the past.
Outerwear is one area where you will likely have to drop some serious coin. On the plus side, if you buy the best quality you can afford, you will likely get at least a few years’ worth of wear for your money. With that in mind, Winners is a great place to get stylish, quality outerwear on the cheap(er) side, especially if you can wait for their periodic clearance sales. Don’t wait until season end either; sales on outerwear can begin within a month or two of their arrival in store, when chances are better that racks won’t be completely picked over.
Stay tuned next week for a post on tips to expand your work wardrobe beyond the basics. And if you think that my “basic wardrobe” sounds like a lot of clothes already… you have not seen my closet.
Speaking of which, if you are interested in seeing how to make the most of your work wardrobe every day, you can follow my Remix Challenge over at BCRL. Every Sunday, I recap a week’s worth of (mostly work) outfits to show just how much mileage a well-edited wardrobe can give you.