Next up in my series “Avoiding employment” — professional clothing. We’ll talk through fashion faux paus (I’ll even dish out one of my own — yikes!), what clothes are essential, and how to find professional clothing on a budget.
Get the essentials.
It’s no surprise that professional clothing can be expensive. It’s pretty common for a nice tailored blazer to have a price tag of $80 or more. When you’re working on a tiny salary (or no salary at all if you’re doing an internship for credit), $80 isn’t going to fly. Trust me, I was there — I know. However, I learned what I should spend my money on and what I could save some. Here’s a basic list of what you need (for ladies):
- A neutral colored suit (black, gray, navy) — Yes, it’s going to be expensive, but this is one thing you can’t go without. In the words of Barney Stinson, you need to “suit up” if you’re going to make it in the professional world. So, save up and purchase yourself a nice, neutral-colored suit that you can wear with a lot of different shirts, jewelry, etc.
- Professional pumps — Invest in at least one pair of nice, neutral-colored shoes that pair with your suit. (I bought a pair of Steve Madden black pumps at DSW for less than $50, and I wore them for over two years until they got really worn out.)
- Two to three tops – Purchase at least two or three professional tops that you can wear with your suit or on its own. It’s okay for these to have some color and flair — whatever fits you best! Just be sure they’re not too revealing — any cleavage is a big no-no.
- Two bottoms – At the least, get a pair of nice black dress pants and a skirt. If you’re smart, you’ll get something that matches your suit!
Where to spend
Spend on your suit and your shoes. These two staples are essential to any job interview or professional presentation, so bite the bullet, find something you like, and spend the money. You’ll be happy you did.
Also, don’t be afraid to spend on a nice skirt or pair of pants. I’m really petite, so I know that if I find a quality skirt or bottoms that fit, I should buy them. Some of my favorite places to find bottoms are The Limited and the Banana Republic Outlet (both offer petites!). Because their clothes are typically higher quality, they’ll last you much longer than something you find for cheaper at H&M or another store.
Where to save
Tops and jewelry — You do not — I repeat, you do NOT — have to spend $50 for a necklace that goes with one outfit. Or even $20 for that matter. Just don’t do it. There are plenty of other places to find nice, fun jewelry (such as Kohl’s or Macy’s) that’s much cheaper.
In addition, I never spend a lot for tops. Whereas you can wear bottoms over and over again, you only wear one top every so often, so I try not to spend too much on professional tops. While stores like Express and The Limited can be expensive, they normally send out coupons that make their tops much more affordable. (Bonus tip: Like The Limited on Facebook — they’re always giving their fans deals!) My other favorite staples are Ralph Lauren button-ups that I found on sale at the outlet and a few pieces from New York & Co, TJ Maxx, and Marshalls. Of course, H&M has some great tops for really cheap.
Finally, look at what you already have. Your sundress may not be appropriate for the office, but when paired with a blazer and ballet flats, you can make it work for the office. You can also pair many of your existing tops with a blazer or pair of dress pants for work. (However, remember that for an interview — you always have to go with a suit!)
What to avoid
- Anything revealing: I feel like this is saying don’t have pictures of you partying on Facebook — it’s pretty self-explanatory. If you have cleavage, put it away for the workplace.
- Leggings: Say it with me — leggings are not pants. Leggings. are. not. pants. When you go to a networking event or anywhere else where dress is business casual, put those leggings away. They don’t count as pants — and it doesn’t matter how long your shirt is.
- Crazy shoes: I love shoes — what female doesn’t? But, the best advice I can give is to always wear comfortable shoes. You never know what you might be doing at an internship, and it might involve a lot of walking (especially if you’re in a city). If you can’t avoid donning your newest heels, consider slipping a pair of flats into your bag. That way, if you need to run out, you can just change really quickly!
- Going out clothes: Be sure you know which clothes are okay for the workplace and which ones aren’t. A rule of thumb: if you would wear the outfit to a bar, you probably shouldn’t wear it to work.
- Leggings: I’m saying it again because this was my fashion faux pax (It pains me to admit this, it really does.) At my very first internship, I thought it was appropriate to wear leggings and a long sweater with Uggs to work during the winter. (Cue gagging noise.) Luckily, my manager tactifully pulled me aside and had the “leggings are not pants” conversation with me. Never made that mistake again — and I hope you don’t either!
How do you dress professionally on a budget?