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A Comprehensive Guide to Building a Work Wardrobe

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The most common questions I get asked as the Designated Fashion Friend in my peer circles have something to do with my work wardrobe. Over the years, I’ve worked at a whole variety of office jobs, including everything from desk jobs where you answer phones and greet guests to the kinds where you’re on your feet for hours, unpacking boxes, or dealing with clients. In the same span of time, I’m proud to say that I’ve finally cultivated a work wardrobe that’s up for any challenge thrown at it, and still shows off some of my personal fashion sense. Don’t worry: I’m not keeping tight-lipped about it. I love sharing tips and tricks with anyone who asks, and have decided to compile a more comprehensive guide for fashionable folks at every style level. 

BEGINNER/STARTING WITH A VERY LOW BUDGET

If zero percent of your current wardrobe is work-appropriate, you’re going to have to start building with basics. Similarly, if you have an extremely tight budget to work with, you’ll want to spread the funds you do have as wisely as possible. Here are my best do’s and don’ts:

INVEST IN:

  • A mending kit: There are absolutely no excuses for anything in your work wardrobe to be ripped, torn, tattered, or smelly. You should know how to patch up a hole, sew on a lost button, and fix a fallen hem so you never look sloppy, but this will also get you more wear-time from the few garments you have.
  • An appropriate “uniform”: A lot of people I talk to say that it’s helpful to think of their work clothes as a uniform, since it takes a lot of guesswork out of the whole thing. If this appeals to you, find the no-fail combo that works best for you and your work environment, and find different ways to stick to it. This can be very literal –like, always wear black pants and a blazer — or more conceptual and disciplinary — like you cannot under any circumstances wear sweatpants to the office because they break uniform code.
  • An attitude that matches your objective: What I just said about the sweatpants? It actually defines a lot. If you think it’s acceptable to wear sweatpants to your office (and honestly, depending on your company’s dress code, it might be) you will wear sweatpants to the office at some point. Because we all have those days when our alarm didn’t go off and we’re running late and our priority is being clothed and on time, not supermodels. But if you think that your work wardrobe is a reflection of your work ethic, you’ll find it just as easy to pull on a pair of slacks on in a hurry as you would leggings.
  • Really sturdy quality pieces: If you have relatively few pieces in your closet, you’re going to want them to last many washes, many commutes on the train, and several seasons. Your statement pieces (like jackets, brief cases, etc.) shouldn’t look flimsy or “cheap” (regardless of how much cash they cost), and they are worth “splurging” on, whatever your definition for that is. If you’re not able to lay out a lot of money all at once to buy a whole closet full of new duds from a department store, try slowly accumulating great secondhand pieces, either from friends or places like Housing Works/Goodwill that have quality designer pieces for relative pennies.

AVOID:

  • The fast fashion trap: When you’re on a budget, stores like Forever 21 seem really appealing. I get it. But in the long run, shopping exclusively at fast fashion stores defeats the purpose of your work wardrobe: to make you look professional, stylish, and polished. Picking up a few layering tops from H&M and Forever is fine, but get your pants, dresses, and blazers elsewhere so they don’t shrink, fade, or stretch on you and become useless. (See quality importance above.)
  • Pieces that are just too “too.”: At this level, your best bet is to be safe. Sure, maybe khakis don’t speak to your soul, but they get the job done. You want to prioritize the professionalism of your pieces rather than your fashion sense or personal style, so avoid anything too flashy (people will notice you wear it all the time!), too revealing, heels that are too high — anything “too.” You should be able to do every element of your job while wearing each outfit, from taking a business meeting to bending/lifting if that’s what’s required.

Now, this all brings us to…

INTERMEDIATE:

Whether you’re newly confident with the basic pieces you’ve acquired, or you are now interested in expanding your work wardrobe beyond them, you’re at the next level! Here are my tips for you:

  • Learn from your past: If you’ve been working at an office space for a little while now, you’ll have a better sense of the climate than when you first started. What do other people wear around you, and do you care about that? What fabrics and styles work best for you? Is your building always freezing/boiling, and you find yourself needing more multi-taking capabilities from your outfits? You’ll find all the problems easily, and do what you can to fix them without giving up on your goal to craft a professional style. Don’t keep buying poly blend tops if they make you sweat profusely. Leave a structured jacket at your desk for chillier days or unexpected client meetings.
  • Push boundaries… a little!: Once upon a time, I had a closet full of solid black blazers and pencil skirts from The Limited, and I thought that’s what “professional” meant. Then I realized that there was nothing inappropriate about my dresses and opaque tights. So I started wearing them to work, and I never went back. (Seriously, I have a pair of wonderful black Calvin Klein slacks with the tags still on them.) You can move past feeling like you can only wear boring, personality-less pieces to the office. I only recommend the basics because they’re a no-fail way to look put together, and they’re a great way to learn what you like and what works for you, while teaching you how to put together separates/accessorize in an adult professional way. (And those aforementioned mornings where you oversleep? Just grab a button-up and those wrinkle-free slacks and you’re golden.)

Which all leads me to my final category.

ADVANCED:

There are two types of people who fit into my “advanced” wardrobe-crafter category. 1) Fashion Girls who feel like their stylish souls are being crushed by their boring work clothes and 2) Lucky ducks who are finally comfortable at that job of theirs and are making some good money that can now be invested back in to the wardrobe. So I’ll address both separately.

  • Fashion girls: No matter what kind of office you work in, unless you have an actual uniform, you can be more stylish than you think. Even if none of your coworkers are. Even if you’re not walking a runway show for people. As long as your clothing meets your company dress code, why not have fun with bold prints? Why not wear those cool vintage boots you picked up? My best tip is to take those classic work pieces and elevate them. So don’t (always) wear a crazy prom gown to your desk job, but your solid black blazer? Replace it with a polka-dotted number. Have a designer obsession? Work those bold colors and textured fabrics into your ensemble. Leave the tags on those Calvin Klein slacks and save them for a rainy day.
  • Financially luxe: If you’re finally making some dough at your 9 to 5, reward yourself in a way that furthers that success you’re having. If you’re constantly meeting clients, invest in some designer shoes or a quality briefcase/handbag that will impress AND make you feel powerful.

When you reach a certain point, you’ll feel comfortable adding new pieces to your existing wardobe and even start to let your own personality and style shine. After all, we spend most of our time at work, so we don’t need to feel confined to stuffy duds forever.

Have any specific questions? Have any tried-and-true tips to share? Leave a comment below or tweet us @Collaboreight!

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About Kristine Kowalski

Editor-in-Chief Kristine is 25 and lives with her parents in the fabulously tan New Jersey. She writes all about teen celeb fashion and beauty as the Web Editor of TwistMagazine.com. She has previously worked fashion and accessories at Lifestyle Mirror, the beauty closets of Marie Claire and Seventeen, and wrote about celebrity babies as HollyBaby Editor of HollywoodLife.com. Clinton Kelly told her she looked fabulous - twice. When not quoting Tolstoy or catching up on her Twitter feed, she can be found watching iCarly or perusing the clearance racks at Bloomingdales.

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