Please help me navigate the waters of fashion in the artsy west coast city office!
May 19, 2011 8:42 PM   Subscribe

I am a 22-year-old female who has just been informed that I have received a prestigious arts and culture internship in my Western U.S. city's government. This is my first real job, and I'm perplexed about what clothes to buy for a professional, yet comfortable summer wardrobe.

I will be working full time through the summer (temperatures up to 100 degrees), working both in the air conditioned office and pounding the pavement talking to constituents.

My budget for my summer wardrobe is $500, so I have to pick carefully.
I want to find quality, versatile separates that will last, and let me look good five days a week. I am not adverse to shopping in outlet stores or thrift stores, but I don't have a lot of time to search.

I'm 5'1", size 8-10, busty, with long straight black hair. Given the choice around my college, I will wear schlubby outfits because they are comfortable: designer jeans with long, shapeless tops. I know that this is not a professional look and that I need to transition into a new style. But with all the walking in the city heat, I do want to be comfortable.

I went to an Ann Taylor outlet store this week and tried on a bunch of trousers and tops, and everything looked so cheap, I was discouraged. The only thing I liked was a pinstriped trouser suit set, but my sister told me it was too distinctive, and I couldn't get away with wearing it very often.

Can you please point me to photos of great looking office outfits that suit my needs? Can you recommend brands that are made well and will hold up? Do you think my sister is crazy for telling me to try tunics over trousers and jumper dresses and tights over long sleeves tops?
posted by gothchick33 to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I was going to suggest knee-length skirts or dresses for comfort in the heat: long enough to look professional, short enough to be cool. My summer work outfits are generally: skirt or lightweight trousers, dressy sleeveless or short-sleeved shirt/shell, and a light cardigans or drape-y thing that cover the shoulders. That way I can take off the outer layer when I'm outside and put it back on when I need to look more professional. Lightweight scarves are great in the a/c, help keep your neck from getting sunburned if you're pounding the pavement, and can add a splash of color and/or texture.

If you're not into the cardigan thing, blouses or tailored shirts with 3/4-length sleeves are nice for looking professional but not being smothered. If you want blazers, go for lightweight and easy to wash.

I've had good luck with Banana Republic lately (look at their "stylish work" section), but I'm built very differently from you and don't know what would suit your shape. You can get away with wearing the same plain, neutral-colored trousers and skirts pretty often, but you might need a greater variety of tops.

I have a few cheap cardigans from Target that look surprisingly nice. A few colors of something basic like that will go a long way.
posted by bassjump at 9:05 PM on May 19, 2011

It's government. IT's HOT out. This means you have to be conservative, but also not die and melt. Because of this I recommend mostly dresses and skirts. You can always dress them up when you're indoors with blazer or cardigan, and you can wear them outside without wanting to pass out.

I like this as an example of versatility

But don't spend $158 on one skirt -- I'm just linking so that you can see how one piece (yellow skirt) can make a three or more good outfits. You can get white oxford shirts from Old Navy or whatever.
posted by blue_bicycle at 9:08 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would strongly suggest waiting to see what people in the office are wearing before you buy your summer wardrobe. You may be surprised. And if you're not surprised, at least you'll get some ideas of acceptable outfits.

Here's an example of "you might be surprised": I went to NY&Co to buy clothes for my new job. They didn't have black pants in the cut and size I needed; but they did have cropped ones, which I figured did me no good at all, because wtf cropped pants in an office? And yet it turns out that's exactly what my co-workers (and now I) are wearing. We wear them with high wedge heels, mostly. It's quite comfortable, and would be fine for your purposes with a nice light blouse; IF people in your office dress that way. And if your office is in a west coast city with hot weather, it's probably going to be fine.

Also: if part of your job is going to be out walking around, then whatever clothes you buy need to work with your comfortable shoes. Dresses on their own might be fine summer professional wear, but if you need to wear heels with them, it's going to get real old real quick.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:21 PM on May 19, 2011


I'm 5'0", 32DD, size 2 and have had little luck finding stuff that fits well at Ann Taylor, other than their button-down shirts – people have actually asked me whether I had them tailored. Well worth the $80 or so on sale, especially if you buy them in neutral colors that go well with both skirts and pants.

As far as your budget is concerned, I suggest that you shop sales at stores like Nordstrom – last week I got this dress for less than $50! The dress looks great during the day with a youthful white jacket I picked up for $70 – pairing it with boots and a jacket instead of a blazer ensures I'm not wearing an outfit more appropriate for middle-aged professionals while still looking put-together. Put on a pair of wedge sandals instead and you're ready to be out in the street.

You're 22 and need to protect your skin from the sun – don't be afraid of accessories like a flattering wide-brimmed straw hat for when you have to be outdoors. I've gotten tons of compliments on the one I linked to.
posted by halogen at 9:39 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you working with the planners or the politicians?
posted by salvia at 10:12 PM on May 19, 2011

Even if you are not a skirt person, skirts. I work in a posh private medical clinic, and while I am completely a pants girl out of the office, at work I find that skirts make me look/feel way more professional. I would suggest a basic black skirt as your first buy, before starting work--then once you see what your co-workers wear (seconding that!) you can fill out your wardrobe. A basic skirt can look dressy or casual depending on what kind of tights/nylons, what kind of shoes, etc. A rather casual top with a skirt, stockings, and nice shoes can look young but professional. Or you can go dressy with the top and skip the stockings, etc, etc, etc...

I prefer the look of pencil skirts, but YMMV based on your taste, body shape, etc. I don't know about your sister's dress suggestion... the look might be nice, but I think you'll get even less wear out of a dress than your pinstriped suit. You could wear pinstriped pants fairly often--the full suit look is what's distinctive, and that's probably not necessary every day anyway.
posted by equivocator at 12:03 AM on May 20, 2011

First of all... congrats!

And second of all, I would second all the recommendations for skirts. It looks pulled together if you wear high-waisted A-line skirts with tucked in lightweight button ups.

If you're looking for a range of really good examples, go to this blog. It's a fashion blog about a group of graduate students who are transitioning into the working world and need to find the right thing to wear... Seems to be right up your alley!

Good luck!
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. at 5:05 AM on May 20, 2011

Are you able to take a tour of the office before your start date? Dress codes vary from place to place, and "business casual" can mean anything from "we'd like you to wear a suit every day, but we can't force it" to "jeans are fine as long as they're on the nice side."

Anyway, off the top of my head:

- Nthing skirts. They'll keep you cool and you don't have to worry about hemming them, finding the right shoe height, or stepping into puddles.

- Since you're on a budget and starting from scratch, no dresses. They're just less versatile.

- Pick a couple neutrals that coordinate, and stick with them. Don't buy anything that can't be worn with your chosen neutral. I prefer black and gray, and have the hardest time coming up with outfits based on khaki/tan/beige stuff, so I just avoid that color family. Don't overload on one color, because blacks fade at different rates and there are eight hundred different shades of gray, etc.

- You will be tempted to buy shoes at Payless, but it's not a good idea. They'll wear out quickly. You don't have to pay a fortune for shoes, but you don't want to get the cheapest ones.

- Look at the care instructions. If you know you're going to be lazy about dry cleaning and hand washing, factor that into your shopping.

- Other things you want to watch out for: pilling (if the material already looks fuzzy on the rack, avoid), wrinkling (grab a wad of fabric in your fist and let it go), sheerness, especially in knits.

- Necklaces! They will instantly make you look better dressed. Get a few from the thrift store or your preferred cheapy mall store. Aim for noticeably bold but not huge and statement-y. Something like this is good.

- I often find really good basics at the Gap outlet. Target is good for "I need something businessy right now" but not always as good in the long run.

Congrats and good luck!
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:06 AM on May 20, 2011

It can be hard to buy just a few pieces and have them work for you all summer, so I'd strongly recommend looking at what you already have that COULD work for the office (your tops and shoes especially) and build from there by choosing a color palette. That way you can mix and match things easily through the whole summer. I posted about this concept earlier in regards to someone packing for a work-related trip, but the advice still stands.

My fashion magazines tell me that color combos fashionable for this summer include turquoise/pale blue/cream, coral/pale yellow/white, and melon/grass/khaki. YMMV. Look at what you already have and try to put things together in 2s and 3s.

As for where to shop, since you're on a tight budget and are looking to get this done quickly, I'll dispense with my usual advice on quality thrift shopping and tell you to head to New York & Co, since they have things in "short" length which will save you some time on tailoring. (I'm similarly sized to you and do well here.) Depending on what you already have, go for 5 bottoms, as many tops as you can afford, and take everything to the tailor and tell them "make this all fit." Then head to your local thrift shop or Forever21 or whatever's local to you to pick up accessories - wide belt, skinny belt, scarves, sunglasses, wide-brimmed hat for when you're in the field.

Also, don't listen to people who tell you to stay away from linen. It's a great summer fabric, and if it fits right, it doesn't wrinkle as soon as you move in it. Pick up a cheap steamer or Downy Spray Wrinkle Releaser and enjoy being more comfortable than the linen-haters.
posted by juniperesque at 6:30 AM on May 20, 2011

I particularly like linen mix fabrics, especially linen and rayon--you get the lovely drape and softness of rayon, but with a nicer texture and more breathability. You do have to iron it, though.

My summer uniform is cropped pants, which can be quite dressy if you get the right ones. I would try Coldwater Creek for those, as well as no-iron tops. The knit tops are nice, though I stay away from the tee shirts, as the fabric is really thin and see-through. Check the reviews on their website to see which shirts have this problem.

If you want quality that will wear for a long time, there's always Lands' End and L.L. Bean. Something like this skirt will go with everything, be comfortable, and look good even when it's hot. And it comes in petite sizes. I have three of their Bayside Twill Skirts, have worn them endlessly, and they still look new.

I would second the recommendation to wait to buy until you get some feel for the office culture there and what's expected; I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the dress is pretty casual for people who are pounding the pavement.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:41 PM on May 20, 2011

Two really great fashion bloggers that can help you sort out workwear:

Angie at You Look Fab

Susan at The Working Closet

Angie is great at sorting out what works for your body type. Susan does that but also talks about appropriate clothing for various offices/jobs.

You can also email them for advice!
posted by mdiskin at 2:34 PM on May 20, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for your thoughtful suggestions! I want to give a shout out to each of you but that's silly isn't it?

Skirts seem like a great solution. I actually bought a fantastic, black pocket skirt for $10 at the consignment store and am so glad to learn all the different ways I can make an outfit out of it.

I think I will wait to buy a majority of my items until after I get a sense of the culture of the office.

I was really anxious about this and now I feel like it is under control thanks to this great community. MetaFilter rocks!
posted by gothchick33 at 9:24 PM on May 20, 2011

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