Build My Work Wardrobe From Scratch
November 21, 2008 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Fashion Help For The Clueless Girl: After two years in a job where wearing a clean pair of pants each day was considered a major fashion accomplishment, I'm moving on up and I desperately need new clothes. Help me build a work wardrobe completely from scratch.

For the first time ever, I'm working in an office that calls for "business casual or better" and I have absolutely nothing to work with and no clue where to start. I'm so clueless that I don't even know what I need. This is your chance to mold me in your own stylish image. I tend to like retro-ish and indie style clothes and accessories, and would like to stay true to that as much as possible while staying workplace appropriate in a fairly conservative town.

My vital details: I'm a female in my mid-20s. I'm 5'2" and about 130 pounds. I'm somewhat oddly proportioned which makes shopping for nice tops a particular challenge. I have a small frame and very narrow shoulders, but a very large (32G) bust. I've never been able to find button down shirts or blazers that fit right.

Suggestions on where to shop and specific pieces are very much appreciated. I'm really bad at putting together outfits and knowing what goes together so the more detail the better. I'm on a bit of a budget, so no $150,000 shopping sprees at Neiman Marcus.
posted by fancypants to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (32 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of button-up shirts and fitted blazers, consider wearing loose shells and boxy jackets (which look more retro). Examples:

Tie-Neck Top
3/4 Sleeve Top

Cropped Jacket
posted by muddgirl at 8:13 AM on November 21, 2008

I would suggest going to a department store and actually get a buyer. I was the same as you with my sandals, shorts and message t-shirt then had to dress more professionally. I went to a department store and asked for a buyer who I told:

1) my budget;
2) sizes (some will measure you to be sure);
3) environment or settings for the clothes;
4) taste preferences including how maintenance prone you are

use the phrase, "capsule wardrobe" and the buyer will definitely have an idea of what to look for item wise.

Be prepared to spend money because your time is valuable and you want quality clothes. Only start buying cheap when you start having an idea of what you like and what works otherwise, poor decisions are made. For this first round, buy good, solid pieces that can you last you multiple years and seasons.

Hiring a professional is no shame and saves you in the long run.
posted by jadepearl at 8:21 AM on November 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Watch "What Not to Wear." I'm serious. The show is kitschy at times, but it is incredibly educational and in the last year I've completely changed how I dressed at work because of that show (and I look damn good, if I may say so!). They work with lots of different body types, so I've figured out how to handle my long torso/short legs, broad shoulders, etc, even though most clothes are made for narrow-shouldered girls with long legs.

And the most important thing I've learned from that show and now from experience is to not be afraid of tailoring. I usually buy up a size to fit my shoulders, then have it taken in. Sounds like that may be what you need to do with your shirts... buy to fit your bust and have everything else altered. If you can find a good cheap tailor in your area, it's invaluable.

I have a few courderoy blazers from H&M that were cheap and are wearing well. ArdenB occasionally has good sales on their jackets. Banana Republic has lots of sales and I've gotten some tops from then I'm really pleased with (though some of their stuff is way overpriced for crappy jersey knit fabric).
posted by olinerd at 8:21 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recommend target for workclothes on the cheap, some are actually quite cute and it might be a good place to experiment to find what you like without dropping a ton of cash. you'll probably have to try a lot of stuff on/don't get frustrated if the cheap tailoring just doesn't work for your body. i've actually found some nice-fitting "slacks" their, which is a brand new addition to my wardrobe vocabulary since i started working in an office this year.

i'm also a fan of "nice" tshirts as work clothes instead of fussy blouses, like the slightly spandexy kind they sell at target...can be dressed up with a sweater or jacket
posted by dahliachewswell at 8:23 AM on November 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

I just went through this exact same dilemma. I went from working at a daycare, where I wore yoga pants to work, to a corporate office. I also am around the same height/bust as you so I can relate to your shirt issues.

The way I deal with shirt bunching in the bust is that I wear a sweater vest or buttoned jacket over my dress shirts. This does a pretty good job of masking any buttons that are about to pop.

Ann Taylor Loft has a lot of great petite styles; their sale section is awesome. I also lucked out at H&M and found some one-button jackets that work. The button is lower than the bust so it doesn't compete too much.

I would recommend focusing on the basics. You can always go shopping for more stylish things later but what you'll really need is a great black suit, lots of black dress pants and white dress shirts that can be worn in various ways. Add a cool necklace or vest and you're set! (Don't forget comfortable but professional shoes!)

Good luck!
posted by ginagina at 8:23 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I second watching What Not to Wear. It helped me completely revamp my wardrobe from NEEDING to go on the show to being able to pinpoint the participant's problems just before Stacy and Clinton mentioned them.

I also recommend The Lucky Shopping Manual which gave me ideas on how to put outfits together.

I can't give you specific store recommendations for your needs but I would really encourage you to find a tailor. That way you can find tops that fit the most challening part (the bust) and have the shoulders and sides taken in to fit you. This is an investment worth making for yourself.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:29 AM on November 21, 2008

To maximize your wardrobe budget, try to buy pieces you can wear dressed up or down. If it doesn't look good with jeans and a dressy skirt, then don't buy it. Shop sales at high end places or go to department store clearance stores like the Rack. Target is good for basics in a pinch, but you'll find the quality of the high-end department stores to be better.
posted by fiercekitten at 8:33 AM on November 21, 2008

Response by poster: Piggyback question: Does anyone know of a good, inexpensive tailor in Washington, DC?
posted by fancypants at 8:37 AM on November 21, 2008

I have a similar frame. I have utterly given up on the button down shirts, but I have a few from previous shopping trips. I have two Banana Republic shirts, and I pinned the layers together between the two buttons on the bust that gape open. One of these days I may try buying a larger size and having it tailored, but the difference in size on every other part of the garment (length, sleeve length, shoulder seam, ribcage) is so large, I can't imagine it being feasible.

Most of my nice work tops are knits (and I have lots of the spandexy knits from Target as mentioned above!), not wovens, because of the stretch that I need in the bust. You can also buy a button-down that almost fits, and wear it exclusively under sweaters or vests.

You'll want mostly v-necks. Round necks will make your bust look even more expansive. They make me look like my boobs go up to my clavicle, which is just not true.

For putting outfits together, I am madly in love with The Working Closet photo pool at Flickr. I'm not sure if you have to be a member to see the photos, but you should join! You don't have to submit photos, you can just view them.
posted by peep at 8:38 AM on November 21, 2008

In addition to the "What Not To Wear" show, try "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style." (Although I think the season just ended maybe.) I think he has a book out, too. He's got a list of 10 items "every woman should have" - like a suit, a "little black dress," stylish trenchcoat, etc.
posted by dnash at 8:39 AM on November 21, 2008

Ditto tailoring - you can also go to thrift shops, when you have a good idea of what you want. If you dig around a bit, you can find some great clothes that may be too big for you, and the tailor will help with the real fit.

If you're comfortable with the idea of getting a tailor, it may help to keep you from getting discouraged while shopping.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:47 AM on November 21, 2008

I swear I'm not shilling for J. Peterman, but I'm a big fan of their 1947 dress. The waist is belted and the cut is very, very forgiving. (For reference, I'm also 5'2, 130 pounds with narrow shoulders and in my mid-twenties at a business casual or better worksite. I don't have your bust, though I do have massive hips that the dress hides beautifully.) Match the gray with a loose white or black cardigan, for example, or the black with sweater over the shoulders or just plain with some indie-type jewelry, and it's retro and classy as hell.

Also, seconding ginagina on the necessity of getting comfortable, but professional shoes. I like Merrells dressier shoes, which are sneaker-comfortable for regular everyday wear. I wear a pair of their 2.5 inch heels everyday for the half mile walk to work and tramping down the hall 1238 times a day to the copier. If you're inclined to splash out for a special pair for that big presentation or meeting, Cole Haan Nike Air heels are the best in the business, though they do tend to run narrow for their size.

If you ever want to know what the formal-ish end of business casual looks like in a conservative environment, by the way, go into a Brooks Brothers store, and check out what they've got in the business clothes section/catalog. (The models on their website suck.) It's stodgy, and even sale items are usually hideously overpriced unless you've found one of their outlet stores that sells the out-of-season remainders from their big city branches, but nobody will ever, ever, ever complain in a business casual environment if you're wearing something that could've come from Brooks Brothers. And you can make something that you see at el Golden Fleece cooler by getting the same item in a prettier color or more youthful cut at J. Crew or by adding earrings/necklace/rings/whatever from etsy.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:48 AM on November 21, 2008 [6 favorites]

I've recommended this book before on Ask MeFi so you may have seen it, but i can't recommend How to Be a Budget Fashionista highly enough. The book focuses on helping you create a "base" wardrobe that you can then update every season with a few accessories. I found it a really helpful "getting started in building up a wardrobe" guide.
posted by ukdanae at 9:09 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

basic, versatile, comfortable work shoes?

Dansko shoes. Just ignore the clogs.

I'm completely inept at dressing myself (thanks a lot, Catholic high school), so I'm settling into a wardrobe of a pair of trousers (or a pencil skirt if it's not freezing out) and a matching blazer. I just wear a camisole underneath. I think I'm trying to dress like Rachel Maddow -- she looks impressive and successful!

I'm convinced no woman looks good in just an oxford shirt. When I had big boobs, I blamed them. After I got the reduction, oxfords still don't fit me. Bravissimo sells clothes for women with larger busts, but I can't personally vouch for them.
posted by giraffe at 9:16 AM on November 21, 2008

Don't underestimate thrift shops either, especially ones in more up-scale neighborhoods. Once you have a good idea of what you're looking for, it gets easier to weed out the good stuff from the crap.

I'm doing the same thing right now (recent college grad, office job, big into wardrobe_remix, not so much business casual) and I've found some vintage sweaters, dresses and modern trousers at Goodwill, Value Village and Salvation Army.

joyceanmachine, i LOVE that dress! it's on my list of things-to-purchase-once-a-paycheck-comes-through.
posted by chickadee at 9:55 AM on November 21, 2008

Really, Old Navy and Target are both great places for affordable work clothes.
I like retro/hip stuff, and they seem to have a lot of work clothes that fit that style. Some basics include: dress pants, cardigans, camisoles, plain-colored fitted shirts, and blazers. I don't wear button downs because I also have a large bust for my size, and they tend to pull in the bust unless I get them way too big in the arm holes. You could buy shirts too big everywhere but the bust and get them tailored, though. I like Old Navy because they have nice plain and patterned stretchy cotton shirts that look nice, but also are forgiving in the fit.
Blazers, like in velvet, add a hint of mod and retro. Thrift stores are a good place to go, just make sure what you get is in like-new condition.
As someone who is also 5'2 (on a good day), the only place I've found dress pants short enough off the rack is Express, but be prepared to spend $50-$80/pair unless you want to check out eBay, which I have had some success with.
I almost always wear nice flats when I have to dress business casual because I hate heels. A sleek/somewhat dressy flat will always look appropriate, whereas chunkier shoes, (like Dansko, not to be contrary or anything) may look too casual.

Nthing What Not To Wear, also. Their pointers have definitely helped me dress A LOT better for my body type.
posted by fructose at 10:24 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I, too, am just starting to learn how to dress more professionally, since I'm starting a career in accounting. One book that has been very helpful for me is Dress Your Best by Clinton Kelly and Stacy London (hosts of the aforementioned show What Not To Wear). It's got lots of great tips, and is chock-full of pictures of "real women" wearing flattering outfits and looking utterly smashing. Inspiring!
posted by velvet winter at 10:27 AM on November 21, 2008

Regarding shoes: I recently fell in love with Cole Haan's Nike Air line, but I can't afford more than one or two pairs of those. I then discovered Sofft, which also have comfy soles, but which cost much, much less (for me, a $100 pair of shoes I know I can walk miles a day in are a fantastic deal). They're very cute -- I got a pair of Mary Janes, and they have other pumps, flats, and boots -- and while not *as* comfy as Cole Haan, are certainly better than the other dress shoes I've had.
posted by olinerd at 10:38 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

As for work shoes, I favor Josef Siebel, "the European comfort shoe." I own several pairs of the Taylor and Tanya styles, and I adore them. For me they were comfortable right out of the box. I've never paid full price, either, since I buy them "gently used" on Ebay, but I think they'd be worth every penny even if I bought them new.
posted by velvet winter at 10:48 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Last year I went from a 10-year stint of wearing sweatpants while working at home to working in an office with a business casual dress code. I had to get a LOT of clothes fast, and I'd prefer to have things that are indie and unique that will make everyone go "WHERE did you get that?" And I'm a 38D, so I have similar issues with woven shirts. Here's where I've been shopping in the past year:

Ann Taylor Loft - like Garanimals for adult women in the corporate office. Each season they carry both conservative-looking and sort of hip-looking clothes. Their pants last and last, and they often have sales where you get a $25 voucher for every $50 you spend. Incredibly useful.

Nordstrom - shop here for unusual looking staple pieces, like blazers/jackets. But if you're on a tight budget, wait for the big sales and stick with the house brands.

Nordstrom Rack - get Nordstrom clothes for a fraction of the original price. I got a $300 wool jacket for $38.

Boden - like a mix between Anthropologie and J Crew. Online & catalog only. ( Shoes and knit tops are overpriced, but the sweaters and skirts are a good value, though not cheap.

Etsy - unique, handmade, hip jewelry and other accessories (shrugs, cuffs, scarves, headbands, handbags). Some incredibly cute things can be had for incredibly low prices.

Also check out the books put out by Trinny and Susannah of the BBC version of What Not to Wear. They are excellent guides for transitioning from sweatpants and jeans to stylish individuality.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:05 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

A lot of the advice upthread is great.

One of the things that works for me is to find a brand/store whose style I like that fits me relatively well (I still might need some minor tailoring, but not much) and then I stick to that. It takes a lot of the work out of shopping, for me at least. I am really petite and previously, every other item I bought had to be altered. If I buy an inexpensive item, but then I have to pay $25 to alter it, I might as well have spent $50 on one that fit in the first place. Eventually, I figured out that Ann Taylor Loft petites fit me almost perfectly and I generally like the style of their clothes. So I tend to focus my efforts there (I almost never buy without a coupon though and there are sales almost all the time) and have been much more successful in building my wardrobe as a result.

Before I just had a hodgepodge of pieces - some fit, some kind of didn't, and overall it was very random. One of the messages in What Not to Wear is to build looks or outfits out of multiple pieces that work together, not just collect random pieces that you like. By staying within the same brand, a lot of the colors/styles go together and I am able to mix and match among seasons.

I throw in stuff from other brands/stores too, but the overwhelming majority of my items are from one place. I occasionally buy things from H&M, Target, Old Navy, and NY & Co, but I find that the quality is not always great and they tend to fall apart/lose shape quickly. They are good resources for a few filler pieces but it might be tough to build an entire wardrobe from those stores, particularly if you think your shape is unusual.

You can also start by buying a suit or two in neutral colors that you can "break up" if you want to (i.e. wear the skirt/pants and jacket separately, I would get three pieces if you can because of the versatility), then add a few tops. Breaking up suits is an excellent way to wear "business casual or better."
posted by ml98tu at 11:13 AM on November 21, 2008

Everyone else's advice has been great, and I'll add just a few more things: DO NOT shop in the junior's department. That stuff might 'fit', but not in a way that's flattering for a professional atmosphere.

Also, in terms of thrift shopping, I find that it helps for me to go try on the 'new' clothes from the store first. For example, I know what size I am in pants at Lane Bryant, and I also know what styles from there look good on me--not all the pants do. Then when I hit the thrift shops, I know what I can grab without trying on.
posted by catwoman429 at 11:31 AM on November 21, 2008

Thirding or fourthing Ann Taylor Loft. I despaired of ever finding pants that were comfortable, well made and affordable that fit my bootylicious hips and butt. Ann Taylor Loft (not Ann Taylor!) has 4 or 5 different styles of pants that will fit lots of different body types.

If you time your visits properly, you can find amazing deals on their sales rack.

I also have a large bust and finally found a way to wear button downs. I always wear camisoles under my shirts, leave the button down unbuttoned and tie the ends around my waist. It accentuates the positive and plays down the negatives for me. I buy my camisoles from Sam's Club, 3 to a pack for twelve dollars. They have an extra "shelf" bra that keeps everything where it should be.

Final piece of advice - don't try and buy everything in one shopping trip. It will end in tears with you frustrated and buying things that will end up going to Good Will. Make a list of what you absolutely need to dress for 2 weeks worth of work and buy based on that. Then you can slowly add to that list every so often. Good Luck!
posted by lootie777 at 11:36 AM on November 21, 2008

Lots of great advice here, i'll just add:

- Read all tags about garment care, and avoid buying anything that can't go in the dryer (and especially anything that needs dry cleaning, so long as you aren't expected to wear suits... those bills add up quick).

- Don't be afraid of dresses. It took me years to realize that they were actually easier and more comfortable than pants in many cases - you just throw it on and are ready to go, and you automatically look dressed up. The secret is to splurge on good quality tights, which are so much more comfortable than the cheap versions.

- Sign up for Ann Taylor Loft's mailing list, their petite line is great and they've been emailing coupons like crazy lately (good ones -- always between 20-40% off).
posted by susanvance at 12:26 PM on November 21, 2008

a caveat, I have to say. if you buy a lot of clothes at Anne Taylor Loft, well, you will be wearing exactly the same thing as about 3/4 of the women in this city, I swear. Banana Republic and J Crew also have petites sections, I suppose same caveat as Anne T though, everyone wears them. But clothes that fit are most important, you can add your own thing with funky shoes and jewelry and scarves.

there is a big Brooks Brothers store @ Connecticut Ave where it intersects with Rhode Island Ave, by the way..

tailoring, I have not been to these places myself so YMMV, but:">Washingtonian style Q&A (about halfway down the page, someone asks a question about recommending tailors)

A Serious Job Is No Excuse: tailoring
(more recommendations from commenters.. johanna doesn't update this blog anymore: she was/is on the Stylista reality show now!)

There is a store called Sylene in Chevy Chase (just up from Friendship Heights metro) that sells undergarments.. it is $$$$$.. but a good bra will most def make everything fit much better. not exactly a trendy place, but because of the size you wear might be a good idea to visit and get fitted?
posted by citron at 2:23 PM on November 21, 2008

Sorry bad HTML tag on that post, Washingtonian Q&A
posted by citron at 2:29 PM on November 21, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the tip on Sylene. I was fitted at Intimacy in Chicago and spent an ungodly amount of money on bras there, but it's always good to know more places where a girl can find her small band size, big cup, unreasonably expensive underthings.
posted by fancypants at 3:13 PM on November 21, 2008

Here's a similar question from someone with dimensions like yours.
posted by tangerine at 4:07 PM on November 21, 2008

When I started my DC, business-casual-or-better job, I was similarly clueless. I actually hung out outside the building and monitored what people were wearing as they left work. Somewhat weird? Yes. But it gave me a very good idea of what to go for.

Don't mean to scare you, but business casual means very different things at different companies.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:37 PM on November 21, 2008

My favorite late fall/winter business casual outfit is:
-black turtleneck
-dark blue jeans

You can also add:
-colorful necklace
-cowboy boots!
posted by ocherdraco at 9:56 PM on November 22, 2008

Forgot to add: A woman with a big bust can wear a button down blouse with 1) a camisole underneath, as lootie777 says upthread, and 2) with only the buttons under the bustline buttoned. If you used to watch West Wing, think CJ Craig (although small-busted) in her more casual hours.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 1:53 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's British, but Bravissimo is a company that caters for us big bust types. They were recommended in the thread tangerine links to. As well as underwear, they also do clothes, including blouses and suits cut for bigger boobs. No more gapping buttons. I've not yet had to work somewhere that needs smart clothes, but if I ever do, I intend to start building my work wardrobe right there.

One more tip, the smartest/most stylish person I ever worked with was colour blind. She stuck to a really simple clothes colour palette of red/white/black, so that she never ended up wearing anything that clashed. But the benefit was that the colours suited her, and she always looked immaculately turned out because whatever she was wearing matched. I've tried to do the same thing (but with the advantage of not being colour blind), sticking to a range of colours that I know suit me and go together, I can grab pretty much any combination of clothes out of my cupboard and know that they will work.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:07 PM on November 23, 2008

« Older Milk it up!   |   Keep it secret, keep it safe. Where "it" is a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.