Monday, November 7, 2016

How to Build an Affordable Work Wardrobe

For many millennial women, what to wear to an internship or entry-level job is one of those dilemmas that haunts them throughout their college careers. Putting together a professional wardrobe can be a daunting task - especially when you barely have the funds to buy pizza on a Saturday night.

Luckily, your career isn't the runway by any means, unless you happen to be a model, designer, or other member of the fashion industry. Most of us can easily put together a simple, yet elegant work wardrobe from ready-to-wear separates sold at any old department store.

Think of this wardrobe as a "starter kit." These probably aren't the pieces you'll own for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, cheap clothing doesn't tend to last that long. But this wardrobe will achieve its true goal: getting you through your broke-ass twenties. You may need to invest in a new purse in a few years, have a tailor repair a rip in your pants, or pick up a piece here and there, but you'll never be stuck without an appropriate outfit for a job interview, internship, or entry-level position.

Most importantly, you'll have a 12-piece professional wardrobe - and only a $270 dent in your bank account. Spread out over $50-60 purchases every paycheck, you'll hardly notice the dent at all. Think of it as an investment in your career! The better dressed we are, the more confident we feel, the more professional we're viewed by others, and the more likely we are to knock that important presentation out of the park.

My picks:

How to Build an Affordable Professional Wardrobe

Black purse. Primark, $12.  

A little black bag is an important staple in any work wardrobe. Stuff it with workday essentials, like hand sanitizer, bobby pins, and, of course, snacks for the ultimate survival kit.

Leather watch. H&M, $20.  

Always have the time when the cute guy at work (not to mention your boss) asks. The leather wristband and gold face give it a vintage feel that translates into every season.

Navy blouse. Primark, $13.  

Neutral navy keeps this blouse versatile for every outfit. The short sleeves make it perfect to pair with a blazer or cardigan for winter/formal occasions - but it can still stand alone for the hot summer months.

Blue pants. Primark, $18.  

A blue pinstripe gives these pants a classy vibe, while the bow waist keeps it fresh and edgy for the fashion-forward employee. You'll look smart and feel comfortable during every meeting.

White blouse. H&M, $10.  

Every lady needs a white blouse in her closet. Ruffles add a feminine detail that keeps this work essential from getting too stuffy.

Navy skirt. H&M, $25.  

The pencil skirt, like the white blouse, is a staple in any girl's work wardrobe. Perfect for when you're not feeling pants, but don't want to show too much leg to the guys at the office.

Pink blazer. Primark, $26.  

Blazers push an outfit over the edge from stylish to professional. Throw it over pants for a menswear vibe, or take it a more feminine direction by adding a pretty pink touch to any dress.

Grey pants. Primark, $16.  

These pants dress up the jogger trend in a work-appropriate way. Pair them with a blazer for casual comfort, or a blouse for serious board room power.

Colorful dress. H&M, $50.  

Splurge on this figure-hugging patterned dress to add a pop of color to your wardrobe. Bonus: the grown-up silhouette will mature your wardrobe, so you'll never have to worry about being taken seriously as a millennial!

Nude flats. Primark, $18.  

A touch of silver keeps these shoes and young and fashion-forward, while the nude body means they'll match everything. Wear them to dress down an overly-formal outfit for a coffee date or brainstorming sesh.

White dress. Topshop, $50.  

Every girl needs a power outfit in her work wardrobe - well, this is yours. You're guaranteed to get sh*t done in this stunning wrap dress that will have the whole meeting's eyes on you.

Black heels. Primark, $11.  

A good pair of black heels is one of those basics no girl should have to live without. At just $11, these beauties are an absolute steal.

My advice:

Buy one outfit at a time.

This piece of advice is an oldie, but goodie from my mom, who was forced into the working world in her early twenties: for your first couple of paychecks, set aside enough money to buy one work outfit. In just a couple of paychecks, you'll have enough clothes to fill an entire wardrobe!

Splitting up your outfit purchases into manageable chunks will help you afford the economic burden of putting together a whole new wardrobe. You won't have to shell out crazy sums of money all at once, meaning that you'll still have enough money to buy groceries, pay off student loans, and get sh*t done - all while building up your professional closet. Plus, as an added bonus, you get the amazingly fun experience of getting to go shopping once a paycheck - if only for a little while.

In the meantime, while you wait to build up a canon of professional clothing, you probably have more work-appropriate fashion hanging in your closet than you may even realize. Between the blazers, nice dresses, pencil skirts, and blouses you already have, you'll certainly be able to make do during the adjustment period of shopping for new clothes.

Know the dress code.

Many workplaces have their own specific codes of dress; however, if you're a college student or still searching for a job, knowing the basic rules of your industry will help you put together an affordable wardrobe that's both cute and appropriate. That way, you can hopefully avoid the sticky predicament of getting in trouble with HR on the first day!

Most workplaces probably follow a business casual or business dress code. For business casual, nice tops or blouses, pants or skirts, and semi-casual dresses are all acceptable. With business casual, you also have a little more room to play with color and accessories than you would in a business setting. Business dress codes, on the other hand, require you to dress a little more formally and use a little less color. Think pantsuits, blazers, and pencil skirts in shades of black and gray.

In general, how you dress depends on what field you work in as well as where you work. For example, a nurse knows she has to wear scrubs to work no matter where she's employed, whereas a lawyer knows she probably shouldn't wear bright pink in the courtroom. It's also important to note that the rules of dress differ a little bit for creative fields, like tech startups and design, where it's important to incorporate color and patterns that show off your imagination!

At any workplace, you'll want to avoid wearing anything your grandmother wouldn't be proud of - meaning, hemlines below the knee and no low-cut or see-through tops. One tip I have is to always check both sides of your reflection before you leave the house. That way, you won't miss an important wardrobe malfunction around back, like a too-short hemline or being able to see your panties through your skirt (oops!).

Also, keep in mind that you'll want to have business formal and business clothes no matter where you work, as different occasions might require a different dress code. For example, at an interview or when starting a new position, it's always a good idea to dress more formally than you think you need to. Once you start working there, you can follow the example of others in your office for wardrobe inspiration - but until then, it's best to dress conservatively.

Stick to a color palette.

3-5 colors is all you need to keep your wardrobe versatile, yet still fresh and interesting. Choose one or two favorite shades (in my example wardrobe, I chose pink) and complement them with neutral colors like whites, blacks, browns, navies, and nudes.

When choosing a color palette, always keep in mind the dress code of where you work. Neutral colors are more appropriate for business or business formal settings than bright primary or secondary colors - whereas for a creative internship or job as an elementary school teacher, bright colors might even be the norm.

To get the most wear out of your separates, don't depart from the color palette. Having one brightly-colored skirt that can only be worn with one, specific shirt in your closet won't help you get the most value out of your money. Instead, choose pieces that largely match the others in your wardrobe.

Don't forget to consider how often you'll wear certain pieces, too. Pieces like blazers, pants, and skirts that you'll wear with a variety of different outfits will serve you better in neutral shades. On the other hand, you can almost certainly afford that "pop" of personality you're craving with a colorful blouse or dress.

Mix & match separates.

If you want to put together a professional wardrobe with a minimal number of pieces, the key is to choose pieces that can be mixed and matched. Sticking to a color palette helps, because it ensures that you won't wind up with a canary yellow blazer in a sea of baby blues and lilacs. But it's also important to consider characteristics that would make it hard to wear a certain piece. For example, is a blouse difficult to tuck into a skirt or pants? Can you wear a jacket with this dress?

Before you buy anything, experts recommend that you think of three ways to wear the piece using clothes you already own. This helps you ensure that you can mix and match your wardrobe before you even buy anything! 

Here are some examples of ways I would mix and match these picks for an affordable professional wardrobe:

Pink blazer + white dress + heels

Pink blazer + grey pants + flats

Pink blazer + white blouse + navy skirt + heels

White blouse + blue pants + heels

White blouse + grey pants + heels

Navy blouse + gray pants + flats

Navy blouse + blue pants + heels

Navy blouse + navy skirt + heels

Invest in functional accessories. 

One purse, one watch, and two pairs of shoes - those are all the accessories I included in my professional wardrobe. In my opinion, you shouldn't need more than that, at least in the beginning. 

The key to stretching your shoes and other accessories is choosing neutral colors that can be worn with every outfit. For bags and shoes, black, grey, brown, nude, and white work well with every outfit. You can also choose an accent color from your color palette if you're feeling a little friskier with your fashion choices.

As far as jewelry goes, chances are you already have plenty of jewelry in your collection, and don't need to buy more specifically for work. I generally wear jewelry I've been given as a gift rather than going out and buying my own.

Regardless, when dressing for a job, I recommend choosing one color of jewelry - silver or gold - that matches your color palette, and sticking with it. Mixing and matching silver and gold looks cool on the street, but doesn't necessarily leave a sleek and professional impression on your coworkers.

The one piece of jewelry you might want to invest in, if you don't already have one, is a watch. Watches are business-appropriate and helpful in situations where it might not be okay to keep your phone attached to your hip. Plus, dainty leather ones like the one I picked out from H&M are just as trendy as they are practical! (Everyone on campus is wearing them.)

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