“I’m sorry, do you have some prior commitment? Some hideous skirt convention you have to go to?”
Fortunately, this is a line from “The Devil Wears Prada,” makes me laugh and is not from my real life. The newsroom I’ve been working in is (fortunately) not that of a chic fashion magazine. But the playful fashion banter from that movie has been haunting me lately as I’ve made my transition from college to the full-time working world.
As I mentioned in a previous post, dressing like an adult has been a tough — and pricey — part of my post-grad life. I’m putting the school-spirit T-shirts away and trying to compete with professionals who have been in the workforce for much longer. I know I feel more confident when I look put-together, and it’s worthwhile to me to invest in quality items.
That’s not such a bad perspective, says Kat Griffin, who runs the fashion and career blog Corporette.com for “overachieving chicks.”
When she was working as a lawyer, she says she spent all her time either at the office, out at night or working out (to which I can now relate). If her clothes didn’t fit in one of those three categories, they weren’t worth investing in, she said. Plus, there are cheap options for nightlife clothes that do the trick (H&M, even Forever 21), and unless you’re a Lululemon addict, there’s no need to shell out for Soul Cycle threads. So all things considered, your workwear is where the money should go.
With help from Kat, some friends and Money Under 30 readers, I’ve come up with six tips for building a work wardrobe on a budget that should help me avoid Miranda Priestly-style glares from co-workers.
1. Invest in a few keys pieces, and slowly.
Here’s a tip I partially picked up from binge-watching “What Not to Wear.” It’s much better to have a smaller wardrobe full of great pieces than a closet full of junk.
That’s why I’m gradually adding to my wardrobe and buying one thought-out item every few weeks. Kat says that’s a good strategy. “Quality pieces, taken care of properly, will generally last much longer than cheap pieces,” she says. “It makes sense to invest in things you know you’ll wear.”
She suggests spending more on items like black trousers, pencil skirts and blazers.
2. Keep it simple.
My friend Maggie has, since high school, been one of the best-dressed women I know. She works at a design firm in Michigan right now, but she recently visited me in New York and conversation turned to my work wardrobe insecurities and how much I envy her style.
That’s when she let me in on a secret: Pretty much all she’s wearing these days are all-black outfits and bold necklaces she mostly buys at T.J. Maxx.
Brilliant! As a former school uniform-wearer, I love that idea. I know she was exaggerating a bit; she doesn’t only wear black. But I do like the idea of making mornings easier with simpler choices. For my own adaptation, I’ve taken to buying exclusively nude-colored flats. They match everything and make walking in the city easier … and not once has an editor called me out for unimaginative footwear. If it happens, I’ll let you know.
3. Stay away from full-priced department store items.
When you’re on a budget, it’s not necessarily possible to walk into Nordstrom and go straight for the full-priced items. Luckily, that’s not a barrier to finding some great pieces.
Kat suggests shopping at stores like Century 21, T.J. Maxx and Chelsea Premium outlets, especially if you know your brands and what you’re looking for.
Money Under 30 readers Laura D., Kate and Sarah said consignment and thrift stores, especially in pricier New York neighborhoods, can be good options, too. They’ve had good luck at stores like HousingWorks and even Goodwill, they said.
4. Shop online.
I’m sometimes hesitant to shop online because I like to try the clothes on, particularly if they’re staples like I’d be buying for work. But after getting some tips from Kat, that’s a habit I might change.
She says she likes flash sale sites like HauteLook, but cautions it’s important to understand a site’s return policies. It’s also a good idea to do a quick Internet search before buying to make sure it’s actually a good price.
Another good tool for deals, she says, is the Shop It To Me newsletter. Using this service, you enter your sizes, favorite brands and when you want to hear about deals, and they’ll send you them automatically.
If you find a piece you like, and need help finding a better price on it, there’s a site called Hukkster that will email you when it goes on sale.
And RetailMeNot.com is a great way to find coupons for checkout, she says.
Finally, Kat recommends Amazon’s 70% off sections. It can be hard work, but can yield some great deals.
5. Sell old clothes to offset the costs.
In college, at the end of a semester, we would often clean out our closets and try to pawn some clothes off at a consignment store. We were rarely successful (the store had pretty high standards for merchandise), but it was always worth a try.
Money Under 30 reader Kate suggests trying the same thing now. She began selling her clothes on eBay as she entered the workforce, she says.
“That way you help the next generation, and it provides you with some cash for the clothes you need,” she says. “You may be able to sell your clothes and perhaps even find some other outfits that may work for you now, but cheaper.”
6. Be yourself.
When I first started commuting to my office in Midtown, I became mesmerized by the professional wear other women were sporting. They looked so formal and fashionable, and I felt casual and young in comparison.
It finally dawned on me that they did look formal — much more formal than the look I should be going for. They were likely headed to jobs in finance, where there is a different culture and they’d be making much more money than I would as a journalist.
Young journalists in my office don’t look like that, and I don’t really have to either. As I got comfortable in my environment, I started scaling back on the skirts and heels (which, frankly, made me feel a little more Joan Holloway Harris than Peggy Olson, and not in a good way) and upping the number of days I wear pants, blazers and my trusty nude flats.
That also makes me feel more comfortable, and not like I’m trying to lead with my outfits instead of my (super-recently earned) diploma.
At the end of the day, these tips are not going to land me a job at Vogue. But I’m not too upset about it. From what I’ve seen in the movies, a job like that is pretty stressful.
Are there any workwear tips I missed? What are your favorite stores and websites for professional clothes?
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