Professional Wardrobe Basics for Women

After the first month of first year, no one dresses up for classes anymore. It’s all just sweats, jeans, sweatshirts, and anything comfortable you can get your hands on. So half of your wardrobe ended up being full of the most comfortable clothes you could find.

The other half of your wardrobe ended up being the more “speciality” stuff. You had your clothes for going out drinking with friends. You had your party clothes. You had your one nice outfit to wear to events with your family. There were dresses for formal events, dresses for sorority events, your one nice pair of dress pants for presentations and job interviews, costumes for Halloween and themed parties, a onesie to wear to sleepovers for girls night, and every free t-shirt you’d collected since starting school.

Now, from all of this, what can you wear in a professional setting?

Yes, you have your interview outfit. You may even have two or three office appropriate outfits you can wear. But what happens when you land an internship, or get an interview for a job you really want, or get a position in student government that requires formal meetings with officials from other schools? If you’re not prepared, you wind up making a mad dash to the mall, buying whatever you can find that will work, and usually spending way too much.

And even if you wind up avoiding all of this while you’re a student, what happens when you’re looking for a job after graduation? No matter if you’re applying to be a secretary, or a graduate student, or a pipe fitter, or a human resources manager, you need clothes for interviews and office settings.

So what are the basics you should grab?

Where To Spend

First off, look at what you will get the most use out of. It makes more sense to spend more on items that will last longer if they are things you can wear for years. A few pairs of good dress pants in black, grey, brown and/or navy blue will last you quite a while.

Blazers are another thing you can spend a bit more on. Stay away from anything too trendy (shoulder pads, giant glittery buttons, bright contrasting lapels, etc). If you want a trendy blazer, then buy it cheap or used. A good classic black blazer can make almost anything look professional.

Skirts are another thing you can spend a bit more on, if you buy classic pieces. I like to make sure I have one black pencil skirt, one grey pencil skirt, and a grey flared skirt in my closet.  Any other skirts, I get for cheap.

The last things you should really invest well in are your purse and your shoes. You need things that look put together, not trendy, and that will last. You don’t want to buy a cheap purse, only to have it fall apart in an interview a month later. The same goes for shoes. You need a few pairs (flats and heels), so don’t go too crazy spending on them. But don’t just buy the cheapest ones you can find either.

Basically, anything you will be spending a good chunk of money on needs to be something you can wear again and again. Don’t go out throwing money down on trendy pieces, bright colours, flashy things, or big jewellery. You want things that are classic, that pretty much anyone would wear. You want the basics. Pants, skirts, shoes, blazers, purse, all in neutral muted colours. This way, you’re not dropping money on new pants every few months, and you can mix pretty much anything with basics.

What To Save On

This is where you can have some fun with your look. I worked with a woman who always wore black or navy pants or skirts, but had on the brightest, most patterned blouses I’ve ever seen. It was easy enough for her to throw a cardigan or blazer over the blouse when she needed to tone down her look a bit, but she could also be as bright and shiny as she wanted to.

Blouses and shirts are the first thing you can skimp on and still look damn good. Styles change every year anyway, so it’s best not to spend too much on these items. Just don’t go too out-there, and know your audience. If you’re still applying for jobs and need interview clothes, tone it down a bit. You’ll need a basic white blouse, maybe a black one, and then get some colour that isn’t too loud. I like to stick with jewel-tones (deep purples, burgundy, deep blues, reds…… anything that looks like it could be found on an antique crown).

If you already have a job, or have been hired somewhere, take a look at what everyone else is wearing. You can still look like you, but you need to fit in a bit here too. If the office is more conservative, then tone down the brightness and patterns. Pinstripes are always a safe bet, as is argyle. If your office has a more relaxed vibe to it, then you can start breaking out the plaids, polka-dots, stripes, and more abstract prints.

Another thing you should skimp on a bit is cardigans. This is only because you can never have too many of them! I just did my annual closet cleaning for charity, and thanks to a combination of weight loss, garment damage, and things just being so out of style they can’t be worn in public anymore, I am down to just two cardigans: a roomy grey one, and a more fitted green argyle one.  So on my list (thankfully it’s near Christmas, and we just got a brand new Forever 21 in our local mall, so I can wait until my Christmas gift cards come in) are cardigans in black, grey, burgundy, bright red, and brown. I like to have one for every day of the week, and for every occasion.

And you should always try to save money on anything that goes under your clothes, but over your undergarments. Who needs to spend $80 on a pair of pantyhose? You and I both know they will last maybe a month, if you’re careful, before they rip and run. I found it’s always better to grab pantyhose at the drug store, where they’re not so cheap that they’re super poor quality, but they’re not so fancy that they cost you more than any other part of your outfit. Any sort of under-shirt, tank-top, camisole, or t-shirt that you wear under your blouse or sweater is the same. Unless it’s going to be seen by everyone, don’t spend a lot on it. I always wear a tank top under my blouse, just in case of buttons popping off. I also found a great place that sells tank tops for $3.50 each.

How To Save

This is where planning early comes into play. You need to keep your eye out at all times, but not in an obsessive sort of way. When you’re at the mall, check out stores that sell office attire. There is usually a clearance or sale section somewhere in the back. It’s always a good idea to check back there, see if there’s anything you need. I found a fantastic red dress that reminds me of Mad Men on clearance two years ago, that I still have and love. At 75% off, it was a steal! I like to throw a black cardigan over it, some black tights or pantyhose under it, and cute t-strap heels with it. Pearls (fake ones, of course) can dress up the look, a simple silver necklace with tiny hoops dresses it down, and my red and green bells makes it festive enough for an office Holiday Party!

It’s also good to check places often, like every time you’re at the mall. Let the employees there get to know you. And clearance sections are just the “what’s left” things in the store, so it’s often hard to find things in my size. Checking back often means there’s more of a chance of me finding something as it’s going into that section and there’s still some in my size, as opposed to me finding a rack full of things I can’t fit into but wish I could.

Another place to check out often is the nearest thrift stores and second-hand shops. People give away things that don’t fit them, that just need a little care (sew a seam or button), don’t fit their needs, or they just don’t wear. You can find some high quality pants and skirts there, if you just look. My favourite pair of dress pants are my grey pinstriped ones from Value Village, that were only $3 because the hem fell out of one pant leg!

Find Your Style

I never understood Pinterest until I had to work on my professional wardrobe. Need to know what’s in style? Need to know what to do with a cardigan? Want to wear polka-dots but don’t know how? Just look it up on there! I looked through my closet, found the styles and colours I gravitate to most, and then started looking them up on Pinterest. I have something like 130 pins in my Dream Closet board, most of it being work attire.

Women’s magazines, websites, fashion blogs…. the list of places to find a little inspiration for your style are seemingly endless. It’s all just a matter of finding what works best for you, sunshine.

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Make Yourself Memorable

As I’ve said before, I work in customer service at a very popular store near the university campus. I have friends in the area come through my line all the time. We’ll chat a bit, catch up, maybe make plans with each other. Other times, it’s people I haven’t seen in quite a while. Sure, we have each other on Facebook and have liked each other’s statuses from time to time, but we haven’t actually talked in ages.

A few weeks back, a young man came into the store. It took me a second to recognize him before I remembered him from his old fraternity. Back in school, we used to hang out at the DJ table at his frat parties, get goofy on the dance floor, and keep an eye on the other party-goers. We had what I thought were many a good talk at charity events, and would see each other regularly at greek events on campus. He wasn’t a very close friend, but a good enough acquaintance that I was happy to see him that day. When I walked over to say hi, he didn’t remember me. I brought up a few events we had worked at together, parties we were both at, a few memorable times we had……. and still, nothing. It wasn’t until I mentioned a certain friend that he had that light bulb moment. “Of course, you’re Becky’s friend! I remember Becky? How is she?”

Sadly, this happens a lot. I spent the fist part of my university career living with my best friend. We did everything together. When we weren’t in class, we were usually together. Having a lot of the same friends, this was pretty easy. We already went to the same parties, the same events, and the same bars. Living together AND being BFFs, it just made sense to just go to these things together.

After I moved out, not much changed. Sure, we weren’t sleeping under the same roof, but we were still together all the time. We joined some of the same clubs, sat on the same committees, even took a few classes together. Soon, people saw us as a pair, and our roles in this pair became clear: I was the Garth to her Wayne. She was the one everyone knew, everyone remembered, everyone talked to. I was just sort of…… there. Sure, I had a good time, and made a few good friends. But to everyone else, I was just sort of Becky’s shadow. Even when I ventured out without her, people asked me where she was.

Now, all these years later, this is coming back to haunt me. It turns out, I don’t have an identity of my own. I’m not anything to anyone. I’m nothing memorable. I’m just….. there. And you know what? It really, really sucks. People I used to know just two years ago look right through me, and only remember me once I mention Becky. And it’s not just the first time they run into me that this happens. The guy who came into my store? It turns out he lives across the street from me, and sees me pretty much every day from his study window. He still had no clue who I am, though.

I’m really not sure what kind of advice I can offer to make sure this doesn’t happen to you. I mean, obviously I more than failed at being someone who people remember. If anyone out there has any advice on how NOT to let this happen, please tell me! Because this really sucks. It hurts to realize that no one wants to remember you. It hurts knowing that you are just an afterthought when a certain someone else isn’t right there with you. And it hurts knowing that what you thought were great memories with great people were really just meh-times for them, not worthy of ever remembering again.

A Little Bit on Networking

Networking is a VERY important part of life. In fact, it’s such a vital, important, life defining part of your life that no one ever bothers teaching you about it.  Yep, networking is such a vital part of job hunting, starting a career, career advancement…….. and no one bothers teaching it!

Mind you, this is a HUGE topic! Every time I think I have it all worked out, I learn there are another 47, 623 things I need to learn. How do you meet people? Keep in touch? Is there some sort of protocol for communication? Seriously, how do we do this?

Well, I don’t have all the answers. BUT, I’m learning them. I’m working things through, learning as I go, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. I got myself a LinkedIn account, go through my University’s Alumni Newsletters, and look for workshops to take. Still, I have no freakin clue what I’m doing.

So, I’ll update as I go, let you all know what I learn. And, while I’m doing this……. anyone out there have any advice they want to throw my way?