Help us choose and buy formal business attire for newly employeed female hotel supervisor?
July 1, 2010 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Look for hive mind advice for a newly hired female hotel front desk supervisor who had been telecommuting in a different industry for years. We need your knowledge and opinions on the best formal, conservative women's outfits that look expensive and include a jacket (mandatory) or suit. Bonus for any tips on where to buy in the Maryland/DC/Northern Virginia area.

After four years of telecommuting followed by a year of unemployment, my wife has been hired as a front desk supervisor by an international hotel chain. Since I seem to have married one of the few women in the world who truly doesn't care about clothes, she is relying pretty heavily on me to help pick out her new outfits-- something I actually sort of enjoy.

At a minimum Mrs Seasparrow needs to wear a jacket or suit every day. In my own life, I've read with interest, believed and tried to follow this advice, and since the same author wrote a book (15 years ago) for women I am also inclined to follow his guidance here as well.

Does anyone have good tips on where to find women's career wear? For the type of timeless, conservative look we need, my first instinct was Brooks Brothers, but they only go up to a size 16, and depending on the maker, my wife usually wears a size 18. Any recommendations for online stores, specific labels or brands would be gratefully received.

Also, any local recommendations for the Washington DC/Southern Maryland/Northern Virginia area would be even better. My wife additionally needs shoes, which should probably be something like a pump, but also comfortable (seems like that's asking a lot!) since she is on her feet all day. Personally, my most comfortable shoes have been French Mephistos, but they are quite expensive and the styles I've seen so far for women don't quite seem right for the look we are going for, so I'll certainly consider other brand/model recommendations.

We are trying to save money, and don't mind shopping at thrift stores as well-- my research at this website seems to give a lot of good leads. But we fully expect we may end up having to buy new clothes.

I don't know how reasonable this is, but I would hope to spend maybe $700-1000 this weekend, and possibly be able to find a comfortable pair of shoes, two skirts, a jacket (or a suit) and maybe 2-3 blouses. Hopefully they would all work well together. Colors like navy blue and medium gray seem to have scored well in the books I cited earlier. That plus the few clothes she already has will enable us to get by for the next month, after which we'll start to expand her wardrobe.

I've seen a lot of good advice here on askme, and I'm really hoping the hive can help me come through and be a minor hero for my wife. She is so happy with this new job, and I don't want our own ignorance to mess anything up! Thanks for reading, and any advice you have will be read carefully and with gratitude.
posted by seasparrow to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I can't recommend anything specific, but there are a number of upscale consignment stores in the area that will probably have better suits.

For shoes, I like Aerosoles, they have a location in Tyson's Corner.
posted by JoanArkham at 7:40 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nordstrom will carry the size your wife needs, and the clothes will look expensive--because they will be expensive. Although today I just got an email from Nordstrom that says "selected styles" including apparel, shoes, and handbags are "up to" 50% off. She should also have a wide range of conservative to trendy styles that she can choose from.

I suggest a thorough going at Norstrom to begin her new job. Spend your initial $700-1000 on quality clothes that will last. Then note the brands that work well with her figure and style, and find more like them for much less on eBay.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:45 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

You may want to hold off on buying too many new clothes until she starts work and has a chance to observe what her colleagues wear.
posted by sallybrown at 7:48 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To save you some money, she should look into Lane Bryant, Catherines, Avenue, Dress Barn and possibly Jessica London (mail order). When I needed to wear suits to work, I stocked up at Lane Bryant. I purchased coordinating slacks, sheath dresses and blazers. I would offer them up to your wife, but I have since passed them on to my mother-in-law.

She should look for solid colors and pinstripes. If she's wearing slacks and a blazer, she can wear a flashier shirt.

There is an Avenue right next to a Dress Barn in the Dulles Town Center in Sterling, VA. There is a Lane Bryant Outlet and a Catherines in the Potomac Mills mall in Woodbridge, VA as well.

You may also have some luck with the shops in the Leesburg Corner Outlets.
posted by onhazier at 7:53 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: sallybrown: She has been working for about two weeks, and is obviously a good fit and so far the management is very happy with her. That's why we feel OK spending so much money (to us) for clothes now. As far as what her colleagues wear, it can best be described as understated (bland?) ultra-conservative traditional office wear, the more expensive looking the better. This is an upscale hotel that charges a lot of money, and gets many wealthy guests. Thanks for the suggestion!
posted by seasparrow at 7:55 AM on July 1, 2010

I'll second Nordstrom, even though it is pricey. They usually have very helpful salespeople and an excellent shoe department.

I've heard great things about the Cole Haan pumps that feature Nike Air soles. Expensive, but simple, long lasting, and extremely comfortable.

One big trick is to get clothing tailored to best suit (no pun intended) her shape. That ups the expensive-looking factor.
posted by sallybrown at 8:10 AM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The problem with a lot of plus-size women's professional clothes is that designers don't seem to understand that plus-size women also need clothes that are somewhat sharp-looking - ie, not loose, blousy tops and elbow-length suit jackets.

That said, definitely try Nordstrom's and Lane Bryant. The latter is completely hit-or-miss but seems to be pretty decent right now. By stuff one size too large, and then go to a tailor and get them to adjust the clothes so that they fit perfectly. This will do more to make clothes look expensive than anything else.
posted by lunasol at 8:12 AM on July 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In terms of colors, I would suggest sticking with black for now, and expanding to other colors like navy or charcoal later. Staff I've seen at the types of hotels you describe wore head-to-toe black. A well-fitting, good black jacket is a must, so be willing to spend money on the jacket. You can go cheaper with the skirts. I would suggest also looking for dresses that can go under the jacket - this can be a much more stylish, put-together look than blouse-skirt combos.

For shopping, don't start at the cheap places. Start some place like Nordstrom, perhaps make use of their personal shopper service. You don't actually have to buy everything there, you're there to educate yourself as to what's available and what high-quality items look like. Once you have a good idea of the kinds of things you want to keep an eye out for, then go to the lower-priced stores and see if there are things that might pass. If there's no suitable lower-cost substitute just get the higher-priced item that meets your requirements exactly.
posted by needled at 8:13 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd highly recommend she check out a TJ Maxxx or Marshalls for inexpensive suits. They might not be quite as high quality as what she'd find elsewhere, but they'll be much, much more affordable.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:14 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You probably know this, but, with apologies to onhazier, do *not* go to Lane Bryant or any of those stores. Their stuff is cheap and looks it.

Talbots is what you want. Only some of their stores have the plus sizes (call first?), but there's always the catalog. Other than that, department stores are probably your best bet. I used to have decent luck at Macy's and Lord & Taylor in addition to Nordstrom. Summer tends to lean more casual, but maybe they will have fall stuff in already. Jones New York career wear is moderately priced, conservatively styled, and holds up well.

For boutiques, I haven't tried them, but I've heard good things about Trentacosta. If you want to blow you budget out of the water: Marina Rinaldi.
posted by libraryhead at 8:20 AM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack for Misook pieces because they are comfortable, relatively stylish (if you're careful about which ones you pick), sized generously and go in the washer and dryer.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:21 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I love reading the Corporette blog. She gives lots of fashion advice, highlights good sales or deals, and definitely tends toward the conservative side (she's a lawyer, and apparently fashion for female lawyers is conservative in ridiculous ways. No pantsuits or open-toe shoes in some courts? Really?)
posted by olinerd at 8:22 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have worked at the front desk of a middle-market national hotel. We were given suits as uniforms, so we didn't have a lot of choices there. But from my experience in the industry, bland, conservative, expensive-looking is basically what you're going for. It's sort of a throwback to late-nineteenth-/early-twentieth-century type personal service, so contemporary and stylish isn't really what's in view.

I'd recommend she ask her manager, to be honest. Nordstrom and Macy's are both good places to start (Brooks Brothers would actually be ideal but for the sizing issue), but for style recommendations it probably makes the most sense to just ask management what would be appropriate. I'd be highly surprised if they had nothing to offer.
posted by valkyryn at 8:24 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, Misook is like the inexpensive version of St John knits, so it's very in-keeping with the upscale image. If you call Nordstrom, give them your requirements, size and budget, they will (for free) fill a dressing room with things that fit and then hang around getting you additional sizes or other options until you're done. Their in-house alterations are no longer free, but are reasonably priced and high quality.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:29 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 2nd-ing Talbots, they go up to 24W, and also have woman's petites, depending on how tall your wife it. I worked there briefly one Xmas season, and like Nordstrom they are known for their customer service, so you could call ahead and have them pull stuff for you. These days they always seem to have some sort of sale going one. They also have a killer outlet in Pittsburgh, if you're ever out that way.

I cannot, however, recommend Talbots shoes, I've never found a pair that was comfortable. For dress shoes, I love all my Sofft pumps. Available at Macys, Zappos, Nordstrom, smaller shops etc., and I've even seen them occasionally at Marshalls.
posted by snowymorninblues at 8:35 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nordstroms is probably a good place to go, I would agree. I've had good luck with Dressbarn. (Note that they just opened a new one at 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. in DC and I saw some ads for promotional discounts.) Talbots has a range of larger sizes - not inexpensive but good quality and last well. They have online shopping as well as physical stores. Her best bet is to initially buy a small amount of good quality things in similar colors, and then mix and match to stretch the outfits, then gradually add to the wardrobe as money permits.

I've not always been happy with the quality at Lands' End, but if you shop carefully you can get decent things, and they do carry her size. See, for example, their current sale/listing for overstock women's plus size jackets and blazers.
posted by gudrun at 8:39 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a size 18, and recently went looking for professional clothing at Lane Bryant and it was a real waste of time. Nthing good department stores, and keep in mind that their stock varies by store location. You'll have better luck with professional clothing at the more upscale malls.

Also, as a size 18 you can sometimes shop in both the "women's" and "misses" departments. (Ugh, hate that terminology.)
posted by JoanArkham at 8:58 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

For shoes consider New Balance's Aravon. They have a handful of pumps, but more importantly, are very comfortable. Nthing the avoidance of Lane Bryant, especially if you're short on time.
posted by SMPA at 9:33 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with JoanArkham to give Lane Bryant a miss, and also Avenue (definitely Avenue, it's all capri pants and giant t-shirts fer chrissake). The only exception might be if your wife is very busty and having trouble finding blouses that fit anywhere else. Otherwise, considering your budget, I think you would find the clothes poorly made and the fabric not of a high quality.
posted by cabingirl at 9:34 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I HIGHLY recommend the Nordstrom's personal shopping service. It will save you tons of time and frustration. After being out of a traditional office setting for 5 years, I went to them when I started my new job 3 years ago. I needed (quickly) a starting professional wardrobe and it was wonderful.

Here is what I would do. Call Nordstrom and request an appointment. I was able to talk to the personal shopper before I arrived and I gave her a general outline of what I was looking for. This included - List of what I needed, general budget, size, things I'd like to minimize (bust, hips etc.), colors I like, etc. Hopefully, this will give the personal shopper time to think about what they want to pull for you over the next few days. Then, when you get there, you won't waste lots of time covering this material, she can go right to trying things on.

I really agree with your concept of spending the bulk of your money on a few great suits...preferably one will be a matching set of pants, shirt and jacket. Also, I might go with a mid-weight dark charcoal versus a black. . A quality suit will last for years and you can then spend some of your budget on more "fashionable" items like shirts, jewelry, scarves etc. These items can be phased out as they start to look dated or "old" and be replaced without too much budget pain.

For shoes, I've started going with Naturalizers (Option 1, Option 2, Option 3 - the most classic option. They look professional, aren't too expensive and are very comfortable for my foot.
posted by victoriab at 9:49 AM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you wife has never spent any serious $ on undergarments than you should visit this department at Nordstrom as well. Your personal shopper can recommend someone for you to work with and the correctly sized undergarments will make a world of difference in how the clothes fit. I would plan on spending at least $200.

Also, I would probably only buy the suit and undergarments at Nordstrom (or any items that your wife falls in love with). Accessories are great items to be purchased at Marshalls, TJ Maxx, or Macy's. Shirts are tough...maybe try Macy's or even the Land's End section of Sears. Their button down shirts look nice and definitely go to larger sizes. Remember that you can also have shirts err on the side of buying a larger size (to fit the bust area well) and then you can have them tailored to take away any excess fabric around the middle.
posted by victoriab at 10:14 AM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

libraryhead, no offense taken. I've found that the clothing coming from the mail order version of the stores I listed has a MUCH lower quality than what I can find in the stores themselves. As for the suits I've bought from LaneBryant, I found them to be well made, fully lined and good quality. I never felt uncomfortable, embarrassed or looked down upon in my $200 suit when dealing with clients in $2,000 suits.

I've not had to buy or wear a suit for six years and the quality may have gone down. However, I've also found HUGE differences between the various LB stores in an area. When I lived in Virginia Beach, that store carried much more professional and well crafted clothes than the store in Norfolk which was about 15 miles away. When I asked the store clerks about the differences, they explained that the primary demographics of the surrounding neighborhood impacted what was stocked at a particular location. The better suits were being sold in the more wealthy neighborhood.
posted by onhazier at 10:21 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

For shoes, there are several Comfort One shoe stores in the DC metro area. There are 3 in Dupont Circle alone. The one nearest the Phillips Collection has the best selection of dressier shoes. The other branches skewer towards younger, more casual styles (clogs, Campers, Naot sandals and the like). As the name suggests they focus on brands that are comfortable and offer good support. Taryn Rose is the name of one brand that they carry that includes comfortable dress pumps. They are expensive, very expensive, but on your budget, I would splurge on an expensive pair of shoes. I'd try them on at the store and then do a price search on line to see if there is a radical difference.
posted by kaybdc at 11:25 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just have a general tip about 'looking expensive'- I would encourage your wife to spend the most on the jackets. If she can't find a suit that really looks like a million on her, separates have the potential to be just as classy, and you can look more 'expensive' more cheaply with separates, as long as coordinating separates are in line with the hotel's dress code.

I can spot an expensive jacket from 100 feet but its a bit harder to tell the difference with pants and skirts when they are tailored properly. With a cheap jacket, the lapel sits differently, the fabric looks stiff instead of having the drape of wool or silk, and the buttons will be chintzy shiny plastic. From across the check-in desk, her guests will definitely notice these things, but they will be less likely to notice an inexpensive skirt or pants as long as they fit, and the great jacket takes front and center.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:35 AM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Good jackets, good shoes, good foundation wear will make all the difference. Pick a basic color scheme and stick with it.

I'll second the recommendation for a (free!) personal shopper appointment at Nordstrom. The key will be to pick the local Nordstrom that has the largest womens' department (it's called Encore) to get the best selection. They vary vastly by location - even here in the land of Nordstrom's founding. A good personal shopper, with the right selection, and Nordstrom's free alterations, will make the slightly higher prices worthwhile. Your wife should pay attention to the accessory pieces (blouses, etc) that the shopper suggests, if she likes them, and then do some comparison shopping for similar pieces at less-expensive stores like Macys. I did this when my husband sent me to a personal shopper as a Christmas gift, and I ended up really stretching my budget that way.

Get at least two good pair of classic, comfortable shoes to alternate. Nordstrom is a great place sussing out which brand will work best, with generally knowledgeable sales people.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 1:10 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well I Love so much my husband wrote about me, uggh, THANKS though for the wonderful advice!
posted by seasparrow at 2:18 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

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