Please help me level up my work wardrobe.
April 13, 2012 8:05 PM   Subscribe

Dress Code Filter: How do I make the jump from business casual to full business dress code with the clothes that I have? What are some pieces that I need to have?

I interviewed for a client-facing position in a law firm. While sitting in their waiting area, I noticed that women walking by were in different modes of dress, so I asked about the dress code out of curiosity, and was told that even though the office is business to business casual, due to the client-related nature, the attire for the position needed to be more formal (so looking to what other women were wearing wouldn't help). The interviewer said that what I was wearing at the moment was totally acceptable (black pants and jacket with a coral button-down shirt), but inside I was cringing because the jacket is one of only two I own (the other is light blue and probably unacceptable).

I have many pairs of slacks, pencil skirts, closed-toe shoes and collared button-down tops (in neutral colors so I can mix and match a lot), but I'm used to wearing these with cardigans or sweater vests, if that, in the offices where I have worked in the past, and in more recent years I have worked from home and didn't need to work even that hard. I cannot afford to buy multiple suits right now, and my size (18-24) makes finding second hand suits very unlikely.

My questions: As I assume "business" means wearing a jacket every day, how many more jackets do I need to have in my rotation? One to match every potential pair of slacks/skirt/dress I might wear? What are some other things that I need to make sure that I have?

Thank you, in advance.
posted by koucha to Work & Money (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Get yourself a few more jackets that you can pair with two or three of your slacks/skirts/dresses. I would think one for every work day so you can switch them up through the week.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:20 PM on April 13, 2012

"how many more jackets do I need to have in my rotation? "

You can get away with 3 total as long as you're swapping the shirts, especially if the jackets are neutrals. If you have black and blue, I might add a camel/linen/taupe color for the summer, and then add grey for the winter later on, and build from there. Depending on what "client-facing" means, you don't need to wear a matching suit every day; just a jacket that coordinates with your slacks/skirt and shirt. (If you're going to be a courtroom lawyer, you need suits, obviously. If you're a receptionist, jackets are fine. If you're going to be doing presentations to clients to convince them to spend money, probably suits for those days.)

Lots of companies make women's suits that also work well as separates, so as you start to build your wardrobe I'd definitely pick up a couple of suits (on the clearance rack!) that look good as separates too.

(A lot of young male lawyers start with two suits and five shirts. People notice your clothes repetition less than you'd think.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:34 PM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'd say buy one suit and one jacket to start with, and then build from there as you have the money for it. Just make sure not to wear the same jacket two days in a row so they have a chance to air out and perhaps steam them a little, but with three jackets and a bonus light blue for emergencies/guaranteed to be relaxed days, you can go a long time. A charcoal pantsuit (if you tend to prefer skirts, a skirt suit would work as well, but for many places stockings must be worn with skirts and personally that would really annoy me) in a medium weight would probably be the most flexible for you. You could wear your blue jacket with the neutral bottom and one of your button downs, for example, and layer warm underthings in autumn.

I think that you can ramp up to "business" with some judicious accessorizing, too. Make sure that your jewelry is tasteful and elegant (so no, like, big chunky colorful beads, but yes to small pendants and stud earrings), that your hosiery is subtle, that your shoes are in coordination with your outfit and not just for comfort around the office. (But I wouldn't go splurge on a bunch of heels, either.) Get a good haircut and maintain it. If you give off an overall air of polish and knowing how to carry yourself, the repetition of your wardrobe is far less noticeable. If you don't have one already, you might want to go get an iron that will steam creases nicely for you.
posted by Mizu at 9:22 PM on April 13, 2012

Others may disagree, and I work in a fairly casual environment, but I have always thought a twinset over a nice skirt or slacks looked as polished as a jacket. It might be a more affordable option for non-presentation days or Fridays.
posted by elizeh at 10:00 PM on April 13, 2012

Not sure about Minneapolis. but in the Pacific Northwest any pants or skirt with jacket/blazer seems to qualify as a woman's suit, as long as top and bottom reasonably match. A more put-together suit is one in which the top and bottom are of the exact same fabric and were clearly cut to complement one another, but attire need not meet that criteria to be deemed wearing a suit. The East Coast is more buttoned up, and standards seem to vary across the country.

I agree that you need at least three jackets. One should be black. The others should match neutral pants, skirts or dresses that you own -- if you can get one jacket to match multiple bottoms, that is a win.

Watch for sales. Every other year or so I seem to get a few suits for $60-$90, marked down from $300 or more, at department store sales. You may also be able to find good clothes at outlet malls, if there are any near you.

Don't be tempted by a good price on professional clothes if: You don't like how they look on you, they are too big or too small, you can't walk easily wearing them, your shoulders are constrained if you reach up or out, you see loose threads or other flaws, you don't know what other items in your wardrobe you will pair with them.

It's been a while since I've visited a Dress Barn, but that store and others like it used to sell low-quality suiting. It might not fit well or last long, but if you're completely broke you may be able to find stuff at a store like that, and then invest in higher-quality clothes once you've brought home a few pay checks.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:25 PM on April 13, 2012

I think you can get by with a total of 3 or 4 jackets, and can probably even make do with just two (i.e., buy just one more) for a while if you are really strapped for cash. It depends on the market, and I'm not that familiar with Minneapolis, but I agree with previous posters you may not need a matched suit in an office environment, and could instead wear a blazer that is in a coordinated color (i.e., gray blazer with black pants, tan blazer with brown pants). I am in Boston and appear in New York frequently and I even see women attorneys appearing in court in these type of outfits this fairly often - it probably wouldn't fly in Federal District Court but in the courts where I appear its just fine. You just need to figure out what will work for the office, either by checking with another employee or by observing. You are right to stay away from bright colored blazers, at least until you get a feel for the office.
posted by ReBoMa at 10:41 PM on April 13, 2012

I am a big fan of the black/navy skirt/pant with a neutral top (I loathe button down shirts) with a blazer + accessory (lately its been a fabric flower in coordinating colour or pretty beads). I spent $100 on two blazers in a royal blue and soft brown and it really works. Linked is what I wear (Now I've decided I want a teal one too!)
posted by latch24 at 1:51 AM on April 14, 2012

A few nices scarves (fashion kind, not winter kind) mixed in with the various jackets and button downs will also help mask repetition.
posted by trixie_bee at 3:42 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your other jacket is light blue, I think it would be worthwhile to invest in a few more jackets in neutral colors. Department store sales are good, but another option is ebay. There are some really good deals to be found there. The drawback is that you can't usually return.
posted by seesom at 5:35 AM on April 14, 2012

Consignment shops might have more than you think. I've improved my wardrobe with coordinating jackets from there, as well as Penny's, Macy's, syms. I keep my eyes peeled for sales, but for a more immediate inexpensive solution try to borrow from friends.
posted by tilde at 6:14 AM on April 14, 2012

Also, you'll be able to find many used jackets, etc, in your size on eBay!
posted by trixie_bee at 6:34 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another vote for consignment shops. I have about three that I go to and they all carry nice, work-worthy jackets and bottoms (as well as tons of jeans!). Pick consignment shops in upscale areas, as they are more likely to have gently used business clothes. I haven't had as much luck with matched suits, but I put this down to the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there aren't many places that require the full-on matched suit (most women around here wear separates - jackets and slacks - when being formal).

Another option is Ebay, if - and only if - you know your measurements and can take something to a tailor to have it fitted. But if you do, you can find lovely work clothes on Ebay - that's another of my go-tos.

Finally: again, you should know your measurements, but if there's no Nordstrom near you, try online. Bonus is they have a wider variety of sizes and stuff on sale (I've found great work clothes on sale there).

It sounds as if what you need right now are jackets. Since a good, investment-quality business suit costs money and a cheap one really looks it, I would spend my limited funds on one or two more nice jackets to go with the bottoms you already have. Jacket + slacks or jacket + pencil skirt with a nice shell or button-down is a perfectly nice formal office look.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:34 AM on April 14, 2012

Also try stores like Marshall's, TJ Maxx etc (I don't know which chains are in MN). I've had lots of luck getting businessy stuff there. Also keep in mind that the sizing they carry depends a lot on who shops there, so you might need to try a few different locations.
posted by brilliantine at 7:37 AM on April 14, 2012

I am now a lawyer in court almost every day who was recently in a similar situation as you - I moved from a primarily writing job to a court-focused job. Like you, I had a wardrobe of fun "business casual" but little in the way of suits. I get by (not well, but I get by) with two suits and a jacket. Never wear the same thing two days in a row, and you can pair the jacket with many of your business casual outfits with a little bit of work. Even in this job, there are more formal and less formal ways of wearing a suit. I'm sure the same is true of you, and you will learn them. So, e.g., wear the jacket with business casual clothing on the "less formal but still formal" days and the full on black or grey suit (with pantyhose, heels, pearls or fake pearls) on the most formal days. For whatever it's worth, even on this limited clothing budget, I am regularly complimented for my style.

Meanwhile, become a member of Shop it To Me and Rue La La or Gilt and wait for a suit brand you like to go on deep sale. Then buy another suit -- even if you don't think you need it yet. Suits do wear out or rip so you need to be prepared to replace them, and you don't want to have to do that at the last minute, when you can't find anything at a decent price. (I had a third suit but ripped a hole in the pants when I tripped in a parking garage.) I have also had good luck with a combination of outlet malls and ebay.
posted by Nx at 8:35 AM on April 14, 2012

Lawyer here who used to work in a conservative office (now I work in a jeans and flip flops office woohoo). Here is what I would do.
1. Possibly wait until memorial day weekend for your big shopping trip. For the next six weeks, just eek by with the minimum while sticking with their conservative dress code. You can do this by wearing the same slacks and jacket during the week while rotating shirts scarves and jewelry.
2. Now memorial day weekend there will be SALES. The best place to go is an outlet mall (they are cheap to begin with and then you get sale prices on top). But if you can't get to an outlet mall a regular mall will do. I find Macy's has the best deals but Nordstrom has personal shoppers but you have to be clear about your price range and conservative requirements.
3. Okay: you have black, go get navy and grey and maybe a pinstripe suit. (I think Ann Klein jny,and Calvin Klein are best. Ymmv) I would aim to pay an average of $175-$200 per suit. This should be possible an outlet on a holiday weekend. Aim for four to five suits. For shirts you don't have to do button downs. Shells will work and are cheaper. I would invest in a really nice watch and a few classic pieces of jewelry that will last
posted by bananafish at 9:14 AM on April 14, 2012

I'm with the "jackets you swap out with coordinating shirts should be fine" detachment, although if you get the position, you can always ask for more details about what they expect you to be wearing. Ideally they would write it down as a codified dress code.

A note about buying jackets: as with any piece of clothing you may find difficult to fit, buy for the biggest part of your body the clothing will cover, and have it tailored. The money you invest in tailoring is worth a lot -- you can make a cheap jacket look "expensive" and chic just by making sure it fits you properly.
posted by shamash at 10:59 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

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