I've got to change my ways, dress for business every day
January 24, 2013 9:23 AM   Subscribe

Cluelessly-dressed 30-year-old office-working lady here. I have come to the conclusion that it is in my best interest to start leaning much more toward the business side of business casual on a daily basis. Professional women/fashion mavens of Metafilter, could you lend me a hand with these business wear-related queries?

To wit:
* What does your average working woman wear to help project an air of earnest, unshakable strength and confidence (à la Michelle Obama, if Michelle Obama was 5 feet tall and secretly terrified of everything)?
* Where does she shop to find these items, please say thrift stores?
* Any reliable brands that I might try to specifically seek out at thrift stores, especially brands well-known for making high-quality petite clothing?
* Are there any tried-and-true wardrobe selections that I can buy once and then make them look good paired with almost anything?
* What is a good basic set of professional gear (ex: 3 skirts, 3 pairs of slacks, 5 shirts, 1 pair of flats, 1 pair of *twitch* kitten heels, &c.)?

After experiencing unsettling epiphanies in these threads, as well as the sudden realization that I have spent nearly 15 years being perpetually underdressed, I figure it's time for a wardrobe sea change.

My parents did not work, so I never got the whole 'received wisdom about what adults wear to their adult jobs' thing. To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, at age 15, I was reprimanded by my first employer for wearing my super-sweet Hot Topic bondage pants to the office because I didn't quite grasp the first part of "business casual," and things have not gotten a whole lot better in the intervening years.

Current appearance: I am very petite, like easily-fits-into-childrens'-clothing petite. Fair-skinned, lots of freckles, typical black-framed glasses, pretty much covered in tattoos. Close-cropped dark hair sprinkled liberally with silver, zero cleavage, obsessed with being mega-sparkly-clean 24/7/365 and always smelling like I sleep underneath the counter at LUSH. I am not infrequently presumed to be and subsequently addressed as a man, but whatever; "feminine" (ugh) clothes are OK but not a must. If I had to describe my existing personal style, it would probably be something like "miniature goth librarian." In an ideal world, I could wear the same suit and tie to work every day and just be done with this nonsense already; sadly, this is not that world. I hate shopping for clothes more than I have ever hated anything in life. Every second inside of a clothing store is pure torture for me.

Yay!: Below-the-knee tapered skirts, sweater tights layered over colored regular tights, cardigans, button-up dress shirts, pinstripes, suits, peacoats, simple silver jewelry, cerulean blue or navy green with brown, maroon with dark grey, otherwise all black everything, Doc Martens.

Nay!: Long dresses/"flowy" skirts, anything with flowers on it, roughly 90% of prints, anything that could even vaguely be construed as "pink" or "pinkish" in hue, anything white/beige or pastel, pantyhose or "control top" anything, any type of vest, open-toe anything, any shoe with a heel taller than maybe 1/2", any outfit that involves a belt that serves no purpose except as a fashion accoutrement. Also, makeup -- nary a dab. Not happenin'.

Normally, how I dress wouldn't even register on my radar screen as long as I felt tidy and presentable, but I am lucky enough to be on a rather highly sought-after career track and have been at the same company for 11 years with minimal upward movement (but the world's best co-workers). Thankfully, I just got a promotion that could definitely turn into something more.
As such, I would like to sartorially beam out a message that my ideas should be heard, considered, and respected, damn it, even though I don't have a high school diploma and started out here as a data entry clerk.

Thoughts, tips, suggestions, words of advice or caution as I attempt to more pointedly approach the career ladder?

These previous questions are along the lines of what I'm looking for, with exceptions: one (but I like wearing grey!), two (there is no way I could ever afford to shop at Nordstrom), three (lists books instead of brands/stores), four (not my body type), five (ditto).
These previous questions were very helpful but less specific than what I am hoping to find out here: one, two, three.

Thank you so much for any suggestions or help you might be able to provide!
posted by divined by radio to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (47 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
J. Crew should be paying me by now for the amount of business I'm sending their way, but their petites selection is way better than most (in terms of variety and fit), and they have tons of options for utilitarian but respectable-looking business wear. They're not cheap, but for the quality they're not exorbitant. You probably don't need more than 3 pairs of nice work "bottoms" (skirts/trousers) right now-- just pair with different solid-color blouses or sweaters (which you can get at cheaper places), maybe get some flats or sleek black knee-high boots to swap out for the Doc Martens, and you're on your way.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:39 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recently did a complete overhaul of my wardrobe, and most of what I bought I bought secondhand. I have two recommendations for you. One is the blog The Vivienne Files. The blogger puts together outfits from a small number of core items chosen to work well together. She has both casual and businessy outfits, but I'd say overall the selections lean businessy. This will give you great ideas for color palettes, key pieces for a capsule wardrobe, and accessories. (By the way, I love moderate wedge heels. They are professional and add height but are easier to walk in, and less prim, than kitten heels. Specifically I like Calvin Klein's Saxton - the wedge is neither too high nor too low, the almond-shaped toe is neither too round nor too pointy.)

The Vivienne Files blogger chooses expensive stuff to build her capsule wardrobes, so my second recommendation is that you buy or check out the book Secondhand Chic. It's a great book with tons of detail about how to spot quality stuff at thrift and consignment stores. Just be warned that if you hate clothing shopping, you may hate secondhand shopping even more. You can walk in and easily spend an hour in a thrift store and walk out empty-handed. But when you do find something great for a few bucks, it's a happy day.
posted by payoto at 9:41 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've never had great results looking for professional wear at thrift stores, but if you've got a high willingness to spend a lot of time on it, you might find some good things. Bring a tape measure, it'll save you time in fitting rooms.

Try going to stores that do have a reliable stock of petite professonal women's wear. Ask for help finding items that fit and work for you, it'll save you time and trouble. Specifically, ask which items the store regularly carries from year to year. Once you've got more of an idea which items you really like and what sizes work, note down the brand, size, etc. Pay attention to fabric care and quality -- what looks good on first sight may not after only a single wash.

Maybe you'll luck out and there'll be a great sale or a coupon and you can stock your new wardrobe right then, but more likely only a couple of items will be affordable. Take your notes home and hit eBay -- there are plenty of sellers who hit thrift stores for the good stuff and resell it at fair prices. Now that you know your brand and size, you can get the great stuff for cheap without having to deal with endless racks of fast-fashion trash sorted by color at your local thrift stores.

For general wardrobe advice: if suits aren't appropriate for your workplace, consider a lot of mix-and-match tops and pants/skirts. Solid-colored, probably black/gray bottoms and a variety of tops to add color are a pretty foolproof and inexpensive way to go.
posted by asperity at 9:45 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Limited has 40% off sale like once a month (it seems, might be every other month). Go in either early in the morning on a weekend or in the middle of the week. Tell the girl working there you need a work wardrobe.

I spent two hours there trying stuff on, I came out with enough work clothing for a couple weeks (multiple pants/skirts/tops/sweaters/dresses) for like $400. Don't forget to hit the clearance rack at the back too.

Grab the dry cleaner sheets from the store to do your dry cleaning at home in your dryer.
posted by magnetsphere at 9:49 AM on January 24, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the advice already!

Sorry to post again so early, but I forgot to include an important bit of information: I'm vegan, so I don't buy or use wool, leather, etc. (pregan 10-year-old Docs get a free pass as I feel throwing them away would be wasteful).

Also, very honest question: Is spending $130 on slacks or $240 on a jacket generally considered normal, for professional wear? I have not even once spent more than $5-7 on a pair of pants, so this concept is very foreign to me. However, I would love (!) to dress exactly like this, forever.
posted by divined by radio at 9:50 AM on January 24, 2013

Best answer: Well, ditch the Docs for a start, they're too young for you. At least at work.

You can make black the centerpiece of your wardrobe, I have for years. Unless you love skirts (I do) you don't have to wear them.

I'm a plus-sized person, but they always put the Petite section next to ours (evil, evil corporations).

Here are some brands that I like for quality and for good fit, I tend towards classical and prep though, YMMV:

Jones New York
Nine West
Talbots (You'll have to go to their store, or better yet, their OUTLET!)
Ann Taylor

The reason you want to buy Petits is because they are cut and tailored for your figure and stature. My Mom is 5'1", but can't shop in Petits because she has big boobs and long arms.

I hate to say it, but steel yourself, you'll need to go and try on a shit ton of clothes. Bring a friend who is helpful, not someone who will abondon you to check out the sale on sparkly tops. This person is going to handle the putting of items back on hangers, fetching other sizes and in general doing the scut work. If you live in Atlanta, memail me, I'll do it for you. Also, this friend will tell you if you are being swallowed by that blazer.

If you like skirts, get a black one that you love. Wear with black tights. You can wear kitten heels (if you like them) or smart flats with a slight heel (If you hate to teeter around on heels, as I do)

Wear your button up shirts with your skirt. Wear a lovely silver necklace with the shirt. A cardigan in black or a nice color to coordinate with your shirt, and voila, you're done.

Black Slacks, button up shirt, flats, and a cardigan.

Khakis, white button up shirt, awesome red leather belt, red loafers, argyle socks and a red cardigan. Too smart for words. You can do brown leather and cardigan instead of red, but red is so powerful.

Your black skirt, a button up shirt with a Peter Pan collar or puff sleves, with a vest over, tights and flats. Elegant and comfy.

Simple separates that you can mix and match are the best way to go.

I like to shop at Macy's because they have a huge selection and their markdowns, clearance and sales are insane! Look in the paper for the ubiquitous 20% off coupon. I typically get a sweater for about $15.00, and Pants for about $20.00. I've really scored and got stuff for under $10. No other department store discounts so consistantly and thouroughly.

You can look on their website and sort by price, you'll see what I mean.

I also like alot of the designer stuff at Target, as well as Missoni and Cherokee.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:51 AM on January 24, 2013 [11 favorites]

I think Corporette might be useful to you. Also, high-end thrift shops. As a smaller-sized person, you are going to find some great things there that others never wore because too small.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:52 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is spending $130 on slacks or $240 on a jacket generally considered normal, for professional wear?

Not in the history of my long professional life have I spent that kind of money on clothes.

You don't EVER buy retail. Always buy on sale, and with a coupon!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:52 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

For brand-new quality stuff, yeah, it's expensive. I can't afford that, so I go with discounts, last-season-or-earlier clearance stuff, and the aforementioned eBay shopping.

Unfortunately, clothing manufacture really isn't automated to the degree you'd think from seeing new clothes on racks for <$10. That pretty much guarantees you cheap fabrics that don't hold up and less time spent on things like seaming by the sweatshop workers who make it for you (this is the main reason clothes now are so much cheaper than they were 30 years ago.)
posted by asperity at 9:54 AM on January 24, 2013

You're not specifying what industry you're in. I think your best bet is to take cues from your coworkers. Find someone whose style you look up to, who is in a role you aspire to, and who isn't a vastly different age from you. And then ask her to be your mentor, or just have some casual conversations about what she's wearing, where she got it, etc.

So my current boss is 25 years senior to me. It is helpful for me to benchmark against her various styles, in a "hmm, that would never work for me" or "hey, that's something to think about" kind of way. But there are other women I work with from whom I've definitely taken sartorial cues.

Disclaimer: Middle-aged transgender lawyer working for the government; I transitioned last year, so I've been building my work wardrobe from scratch for the past 6 months or so.

I have had some luck with thrift stores, but it's been really hit-or-miss. I have had MUCH better luck with ebay and shopping for known-quantity/quality suits (Ann Taylor, Pendleton). And -- this is the key -- the once that I like I'm taking to a tailor for (slight) alterations. Not sure if skirt suits are something that fits into your style, but for presentations and off-site visits where I feel the need to "dress up" (i.e., suit), I currently have a rotation of three skirt suits and two dresses (over which I wear a blazer). Roughly half of 'em were bought on eBay, with the other half from the outlet mall.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 9:56 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Banana Republic. Go to the one in your area with the largest petite department. Try on everything. Get on their mailing list. Then wait until one of their 40% off all sale items and stock up. I wear grey and black pants with a regular button-down shirt (I know, button-down shirt technically means the ones that have buttons on the collar, but that's not what I mean, a normal dress shirt that looks like what men wear). I work in IT, so I get away with not really having style, but I think it's more important to fit in with my coworkers and the general vibe of my office. Add a blazer or suit jacket if you're cold or want to be especially professional.
posted by valeries at 9:58 AM on January 24, 2013

Here is a thrift store trick to capitalize on if you are lucky - at one particular store, I found a suit donated out-of-season that fit me perfectly. It was in good shape so I bought it immediately even though it was for the summer. In the summer, I happened upon the same cut suit, same size, in a wool blend. I also bought that one. When I took it home, I realized that the right pocket on both of them were worn in the same way, as if the previous owner leaned on it. Eureka! This woman, my exact size, refreshed her suits every season, and brought her old-but-good-enough-for-me suits to that shop!! I started to look out for them, and even let the owner of the shop know. I was lucky, but frequenting the same shop helped.
posted by typewriter at 9:58 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is spending $130 on slacks or $240 on a jacket generally considered normal, for professional wear? I have not even once spent more than $5-7 on a pair of pants, so this concept is very foreign to me. However, I would love (!) to dress exactly like this, forever.

I would say it is on the high side of normal unless you work in a high-paying industry. But I think you will have a hard time finding a suit in that price range that isn't wool or a wool blend. The suit you linked to is wool, of course, and that accounts in part for the high price.
posted by payoto at 9:59 AM on January 24, 2013

I'm petite myself. I think black and grey are your friends -- they are two colors that never go out of style -- and you can add pieces to go with a base wardrobe in that color. I also think you may want to focus on some interchangeability among your pieces, and aim to spend more on a few pieces rather than spending less on a lot. And you want to aim for classic, which doesn't need to be replaced each season, and tailored, which gives us petite people plenty of dignity. Lastly, for style models think Hilary Clinton, not Michelle Obama -- Hilary is the petite person that EVERYONE takes seriously. OK, so here's where I'd look if I were you, and what I'd aim to buy:

1. One black trouser suit, and one gray trouser suit. Solid colors. Pinstripes are tricky for petites. I really recommend Ann Taylor petite.

2. Low black leather boots.

3. Some blouses in dark grey, light grey, blue, maybe a dignified dark red or dark pink.

4. Very simple classic silver jewelry. Necklace, earrings, bracelet, maybe a ring. Wear them all the time, it'll look fine.

I.e., go simple, then buy anything else in future to go with these items. I'd actually steer clear for now of cardigans, which tend to make things look a whole lot more casual. I'd also avoid below the knees skirts, which don't work too well on us petite people unless we wear heels -- instead, look for lengths which hit at or just above the knee, and tailored cuts like sheath styles.
posted by bearwife at 10:00 AM on January 24, 2013

I think you're going to have a hard time finding professional, vegan, inexpensive clothes. The synthetics that replace wool and leather will read as cheap, unless they're very high-end and more expensive than the natural things they replace.
posted by KathrynT at 10:02 AM on January 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Ack, just saw you don't wear leather. OK, make it low black boots in a non-animal material.
posted by bearwife at 10:03 AM on January 24, 2013

Response by poster: I work in the federal defense industry, so -- government, for all intents and purposes. Generally, male office employees do not dress up (polos and khakis for most everyone below executive level), but all women in the office definitely have a markedly professional edge.

The vast majority of my indirect (outside of my department) co-workers are much older than me, so our fashion choices aren't really congruent, while my only female departmental co-workers dress in a manner that is significantly more 'feminine' than I would feel comfortable with emulating myself.

Fantastic answers, everyone, I'm all ears! Armed with all these brand suggestions, eBay is looking really tempting.
posted by divined by radio at 10:03 AM on January 24, 2013

If you're going ebay route, steer clear of Pendleton, which just isn't cut right for petites. And go to some stores to try on things for fit before you start buying on line, because sizing varies from brand to brand.
posted by bearwife at 10:12 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, very honest question: Is spending $130 on slacks or $240 on a jacket generally considered normal, for professional wear? I have not even once spent more than $5-7 on a pair of pants, so this concept is very foreign to me. However, I would love (!) to dress exactly like this, forever.

You can certainly dress a lot cheaper than this by getting suits at, say, Express or Victoria's Secret (catalog not shop) or heck, Target. (And if you don't wear wool, that may be exactly where you're headed!) But to look genuinely professional on an adult woman, those suits will need to go to the tailor because their fit and finish will be poor and they will be made out of a slightly rubbery poly-rayon-spandex blend. They will also require, IME, more maintenance than more expensive stuff, and they will quickly start to look pilly and dingy.

Here is what I would suggest: summer is coming, which means cotton suiting in traditional shapes. If you have the money, unchain a few dollars for something righteously expensive from JCrew, Talbots or a high-end brand and then have it copied in other cotton fabrics by a local tailor. This won't be cheap, but it is likely to be the most cost effective in the long run. Also, look into getting a less structured jacket of this general type since these can be hand or machine washed. If you have a pair of cotton trousers and a soft jacket like this, things don't need to go to the dry cleaner, hurray!

Also, Ebay has become my very best clothing friend - I know what things fit me in what brands and then I check the measurements given for each item so that if it seems like a really weirdly sized Talbot's blouse even though it is nominally in my size, I skip it.

Me? I actually wear the dressier kind of cotton pants from the Gap (generally via eBay), button front shirts from Land's End or Old Navy (again via eBay) (although you could probably wear Brooks Brothers boys' shirts, making you one of the luckiest women alive, shirts-wise) and cardigan jackets. I am not dressy enough for management, but I look appropriate.

To dress better, I would get shirts in dressier fabrics and finishes (for me silk, for you probably fine sateen, lawn or broadcloth) and real jackets.

Seeing your update...well, I work (sort of) for the state, and I feel like you could up your look pretty simply with some dressier cotton pants (like these or these), button-front shirts (seriously, go try some on at J Crew, then look around on eBay - if you're small, the world should be your oyster) and invest in a couple of unstructured or knit jackets. You can easily put together navy/grey/black/pale blue ensembles. (Although I would like to point out that dots or fine stripes on white are actually very versatile.)
posted by Frowner at 10:14 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Corporette expects you to be shopping on a BigLaw budget. So although the site has great information about what to wear and how to wear it, it won't be useful to you for practical shopping advice because it sounds like that's way past your budget. That J Crew suit is low-end (or sales) pricing at Corporette, but pretty normal for average professional woman shopping, in my experience, but then I am a lawyer, just a public interest lawyer (not a high salaried BigLaw lawyer).

Your Yay! list seems like a workable foundation (although Docs are tricky in a lot of professional environments, particularly because chunky boots with skirts tends to read as "youthful", "trendy", "frivolous" rather than "professional"). Many people recommend a "capsule wardrobe" that works for you, such as:
--One dress in a solid color that works with your other clothes
--Three professional "bottoms" (skirts, pants, as you prefer, in a solid color nicer fabric with a more conservative styling)
--One suit (bonus if it has more than one piece that goes with the jacket--like a skirt and a dress or a dress and pants)
--One business casual bottom (skirts or pants in a print or a non neutral color with a less conservative styling)
--Five cold weather tops that match the bottoms (don't forget, sweaters can be layered over dresses)
--Five warm weather tops that match the bottoms
--A cardigan or blazer
--One day-to-evening dress for business functions

Make sure almost everything can be worn with everything else and then you have mix and match outfits. You change up your shoes or your jewelry for interest and fun. Or you buy "fast fashion" trendy tops to pair with your higher quality, more classic bottoms.

You don't *only ever* wear the capsule wardrobe, but you base your workday dressing on it, and you budget your professional wardrobe spending around it. You start with these basics and add to it as you find what you really like and note what you really wear most often.

Also, consider Zque-certified wool. Zque certification has to do with ethical sheepherding and shearing practices. It's highly sustainable and does not allow cruel practices like mulesing (don't search for it if your search displays images or you are squeamish). I don't know of any professional women's clothing made from Zque-certified wool (I know of a few casual clothing sources and it's all pretty expensive, but it will never wear out)
posted by crush-onastick at 10:15 AM on January 24, 2013 [13 favorites]

Seconding valeries. I also hate to shop but don't mind shopping online and having stuff just arrive at my house. Get on the mailing list for Banana Republic and Ann Taylor Loft who both have good Petit sections and constantly send you online coupon offers. AT Loft sends sales offers practically everyday and once you know your size, you can get great pants for cheap. JCrew is great but unfortunately their sales aren't cheap enough for me.
posted by biscuits at 10:17 AM on January 24, 2013

Linen is vegan, right? I have some heavy linen or linen blend shirts, the kind you don't tuck in and that you can wear either buttoned up or over another layer. You can find a lot of these by googling "linen shirt jacket." A lot of times I wear one of these over a nice tank top or t-shirt type thing. (But nice; not a regular t-shirt.) You could accessorize this with your silver jewelry.

I also have a shitload of jacket-y cardigans bought in sales. Some are wool but some are cotton or cotton and cotton and linen blends, just thick and tight weave, so they look structured.

Did you say if you can deal with scarves? I hate to spend money on work clothes but I will spend it on scarves that I like, because they are fun to have and can dress up a look. Although you may have to watch looking too boho in your line of work.
posted by BibiRose at 10:18 AM on January 24, 2013

Look for consignment or resale shops--thrift stores are so picked over by vintage vendors that you're going to spend hours looking for anything decent. I ditto J Crew. A couple of expensive pieces will work with cheaper items, and get things tailored so they really fit. Nothing makes a petite person look younger/childish than poorly fitted clothing.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:20 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ah, federal business wear! Totally agree with crush-onastick's good suggestion about "capsule wardrobe" as a base, and agree that Corporette is going to be less relevant for you in that sector.

My husband's female colleagues all seem to have a "core style" that they work with---one wears gray, black, or navy pantsuits with colorful silk blouses (she also has a cool eyeglasses wardrobe); one wears fairly wacky dresses under more conservative blazers; one wears a black top and pants with colorful scarves or necklaces; one dresses like Corporette, actually.

My sister-in-law who is a fancy-dancy administrator at NIH usually wears either black or grey pants and sweater with colorful blouse or tee, or black or grey pants and top with colorful sweater. She gets a lot of her work clothes at Nordstrom Rack and Ann Taylor.

One tip she has is to buy a pantsuit (she likes Tahari) and wear the pants with sweater or blouse for regular office days and then as a suit for conferences and similar. But the key here is to get the jacket cleaned whenever you get the pants cleaned, even if you've hardly worn the jacket, so the fabrics of both will age/fade at the same rate.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:25 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

Here's an example of what I was thinking of for you from Ann Taylor petite. Note the skirt or pants option with this jacket, and classic tailored styling.
posted by bearwife at 10:29 AM on January 24, 2013

Best answer: I work in a business casual environment, in a private sector setting that likes to pretend it's academic but is not, and am generally considered to be on the "fast track" in my industry and in my current company. Our clients are almost exclusively the federal government. Although my field is split about 50/50 between men and women, the upper echelons are more male, and I increasingly find myself in situations where I am the only woman. This has made me more conscious of my appearance, for the same reasons that alarmed you.

Here's what I wear every single day: black shoes, a black skirt and a nice shirt, with accessories. I have one suit (black skirt and jacket) that I wear when it's required (a meeting with a client, for example). I own three machine-washable black skirts that I really like, and I wear them year-round. In the winter I wear tights under them for warmth. In the summer, I switch to sandals.

My shirts are generally plain (quality tee shirts, dressier shirts with something going on at the neck, etc.). I wear them with scarves and jewelry that I like -- I do play up my jewelry, but I don't think it's necessary. Everything except the scarves is machine washable. I usually wear my skirts twice before washing.

In 10 years of dressing like this, no one has ever noticed that I wear a black skirt every day, even when I've pointed it out to people I am close to. I'm not going to win any fashion awards, but my clothes are comfortable, appropriate, cheap -- and most importantly, it takes me only 5 minutes to get dressed in the morning. I can also go easily from work to going out without feeling under or over dressed.
posted by OrangeDisk at 10:33 AM on January 24, 2013 [10 favorites]

Nthing consignment shops - I'm extremely lucky in that there are several within easy access of me. If you live in a decent-sized city, there should be at least one.

Once you get a good idea of what fits and is flattering, then you might try branching out to finding second-hand clothing on Etsy or Ebay. Vintage clothing that doesn't look costumey might be perfect for you, as a lot of vintage pieces are sized VERY small. To keep from looking costumey, it's best to wear one vintage piece at a time. But done right, vintage can look very professional, and small slender women usually have some of the best vintage clothing options.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:53 AM on January 24, 2013

Get on the phone and call a few department stores to ask if any do free alterations on women’s clothes. (Nordstroms often does when ask.) You can certainly shop in thrift stores, but understand you are going to need to get that altered which will increase the costs. Pants get tailored to the correct length. Skirts are altered it hit your leg at a flattering spot. Don’t get hung up on where fashion magazines say skirts are supposed to be this season. Your skirts should hang correctly on your body.

Next pick a neutral palette – 2 neutrals. (For me that’s beige, black, but for you it might be navy, or gray or whatever.). You need bottoms and a jacket in your neutrals. Spend money here on quality fabrication and alternations. These are investment pieces that will go with anything. These are the things you match your accessories to and it’s much tougher to deal with shoes, bags and accessories if you have tons colors floating around in your basics.

Buy at least one shirt in a flattering white (cream, ivory, bright white, whatever works for you - and something will). You can add other colors in shirts and sweaters, but one white shirt is good to have.

As for brands – Ann Taylor (not Ann Taylor Loft), Talbotts for classic cut skirts, pants and jackets (but watch out because some of it is frumpy. A high end Macy’s (Charter Club, but not INC.)
posted by 26.2 at 11:16 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to provide a somewhat different angle on this. Instead of recommending specific pieces, which are very subjective, I think you should develop a 'theme' and build your wardrobe around that. For example, my professional wear 'theme' this year is '1950s French Lady Intellectual'. I don't model it on a specific person; it's an idea that I can draw inspiration from when I am shopping, because I hate shopping and I hate spending money on boring professional clothes and when I am in the store I tend to freeze and buy things to get it over with.

In my mental image, '1950s French Lady Intellectual' wears lots of black cigarette pants, slim sweater tops, flat loafer-y shoes, narrow skirts, white button-down blouses, and cool glasses. She may wear cardigans or wraps in a non-neutral, and occasionally a piece of interesting jewelry, but she never wears boot-cut or flared trousers, printed wrap tops, >1.5" heels, or blazers.

I find that when I make a story like this, it informs my shopping better and I am less likely to end up in the J Crew/Gap/Target 'business professional' rut. Also, it makes it easier to filter items from thrift stores. An ex of mine did something similar; his 'theme' for years was 'Sleazy Mod'. Last year my theme was '1970s Eccentric globe-trotting recluse'. The possibilities are endless and it makes shopping much more fun.
posted by par court at 11:23 AM on January 24, 2013 [92 favorites]

Academichic is no longer being updated, but is still a good resource for ideas and concepts.
posted by barnone at 11:42 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you have a pretty coherent wardrobe / personal style, it just needs a little tweaking for professionalism. I'd drop the colorful tights. How do you feel about (fake) pearls and silk scarves? Both luxe / mature, neither super femme. Maybe sub a trenchcoat in for the peacoat. Think about sticking to one neutral and 2-3 colors for optimal matchability and ease of dressing.

I've had good luck finding stuff at Ross/Nordy's Rack, and they have some petites. If there are multiple locations near you, visit them all - often one location will get all the businesswear.

Can you save some cash buying children's clothes (and tailoring if needed)? I'm small enough that this *almost* works - lots of places have school uniform lines that include blazers and other basics.
posted by momus_window at 12:48 PM on January 24, 2013

Best answer: So many good answers above. You've researched so thoroughly, and I love how you're sure of your colours. I, too prefer black, but found my life made easier when I realized three things: I love teal, and all shades of it. I love deep rich reds. I can wear one element of colour -usually a scarf or one layer of clothing in an actual colour - and it really ups the outfit. And I learned the hard truth that gray does nothing for me next to my face - but it makes a great layer. Now when I shop, I don't have to shop all the colours - just what goes with what I already have and know I'll like. If you hate stores, don't think of them as stores - think of them as sections. You don't have to shop a whole store - you just have to shop the black v-neck sweater section. My other tip? Salespeople are bored. They would rather actually help customers than fold sweaters on a table up front, so if you walk in there with "I'd like to see what you have in ladies' tailored blouses" they'll actually help you find what you want. Use them.

I'll throw out these suggestions:

One step up from thrift stores are consignment stores. In Canada, we have, for example, Ex-Toggery. Once you find a good one you can develop a relationship with them, and they'll call you when things you'll like come in. Or they should - that's good business. For example, when I had to wear a suit to work every day, I haunted one in particular where I kept finding great things, and it turned out that I had a "suit sister" - someone who had way more money then me, the taste to buy what I would if I had it, and exactly my figure. Every time she consigned clothing, they'd call me and I'd beeline there. I never knew who she was, but I was grateful for her shopping and consigning habits. They are most often small businesses, and they want to develop good customer relationships. I like shopping at places like this best.

Right there next to thrift stores are clothing swaps, if you have any in your area. Here is one I participated in last week, and realized that over the past nine swaps, most of my favourite wardrobe comes from them. It's like shopping with best friends who don't know me - they'll say "not a good fit" or "that looks bulky - you can do better." I'll take the risk and try things to see if they're "me" or people will hand me things; and it seems I have several "swap sisters" there, who donate to the swap things I'd never buy firsthand.

About shopping anywhere: Shop with a pocket tape measure, and know your measurements, because sizes are all messed up. It saves a lot of frustration, and the voice in your head becomes "this won't fit me" instead of "I won't fit this." And shop not just in your size in thrift stores, but every rack. You'd be surprised at what ends up where - people move and hide things all day long.

I'll also suggest DapperQ, for street styles to look at, based on your description and how you indicated you'd prefer to dress if you had your way. What I notice most about the people featured is great skin, good haircuts, and they all look spanky clean and like they smell good. Their clothes are all immaculate, well-fitted and in good repair no matter what their size and shape. What I notice is that interesting shoe choices, really simple clothes and talent in layering and attention to detail is common to those I admire most. Many of those featured are very professional people, and only a few small changes would be needed to make any outfit more feminine - a scarf in place of a tie, a brooch, a narrower shoe... The Seven Days of Dapper features how one person can maintain their style through the week, always looking like a version of themselves appropriately dressed for whatever occasion.

One more tip - to up your game, I realized my friend was right after I read what she said here "Nothing makes you look pulled together faster than a necklace. It says – maybe I didn't sleep last night, maybe I've got someone else's breakfast on my shift dress, but I've still got it." It is freaky - I started wearing necklaces the day I read that, though I never did before, and started getting "You look nice" compliments - though I never did before. I know belts for fashion-purposes are off limits, but one good brooch or necklace will add some polish to anything. You can think strong and sculptural design, not frilly, if the idea scares you.

When looking for clothing, especially since wool and such are off-limits, look for quality fabrics and manufacture. Choose matte, not shiny, whenever possible. Take a handful of something, wrinkle it for a minute and let it go to see if the wrinkles fall out and to see how it's going to look after wearing it. On patterns, see if the pattern matches at the seams. Look for clothing with linings and reinforcement at stress points. Look for good seam allowances so things can be tailored. I'll have to agree that quality professional clothing is not often synthetic. The thing about wool is that it's durable, breathable, and can be worn in all seasons and it repairs well and doesn't show alterations. It also can be worn a few times between cleanings, which saves money in the long run. Things like pilling fabric, loose threads and wavy seams and shiny or worn spots will all take away from your hard work in looking good. Well-taken care of well-made leather shoes (like Docs) will last decades and still can be passed down. We buy a lot of vintage at our house, and consider buying a wool overcoat that's already sixty years old and will last another sixty if it's cared for well a purchase that's more ethical than some of the more debatable modern choices. The business suits I still have (kept now primarily for funerals) are approaching 15 years old, still fit and are timeless - you might consider allowing yourself more exemptions if they fit the criteria of being second-hand, quality, durable and timeless, and dispose of them in a way that allows more use.

This book, Laundry: The Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linens will help you take better care of your clothing. Looking well-kept is a huge part of looking professional.

This is what got me through a week of looking professional, back in the day (because I showed jewellery, wearing navy, black or charcoal was the dress code besides being my preference) and considering a few items would be at the drycleaner's at any given time:

1 black wool crepe shift/sheath dress (suitable for all seasons) - worn over blouses, light sweaters, under jackets and on its own, with tights or hose or bare-legged, depending. (example) (Mine was Marks & Spencer, not unlike this, bought on sale for under $50)

2 jackets (2 three-season + 2 linen for summer), grey or black with tonal patterns - worn over shift, with trousers, with skirt)

1 black skirt

2-3 pairs of dressy trousers in black/grey tonal patterns

1 suit with both trousers and a skirt (charcoal glen plaid)

2-3 suits, of jacket and trousers

An assortment of white tailored shirts, tissue-weight tees, knit wrap-tops, light sweaters in shades of grey, white, and pale blues

One classic, long wool overcoat and one classic rain coat

Shoes: ballet flats (for to and from work, lunch breaks and changes to rest my feet); various oxfords; many pairs of low-heeled loafers (worn with skirts and dresses, so I bought as dressy as possible) and plain but elegant boots and one pair of good black pumps (which you probably don't need)

And, on preview, par court has something there. mrgood and I tend to dress in retro styles on a daily basis, so my style inspiration was Katharine Hepburn, and so I'd go looking purposefully for wide-legged gabardine trousers and on casual days I'd wear things like 49er jackets with wide-legged jeans, loafers and white blouses. I'd say find someone whose personal style you admire, and ask What Would XX XXX Do?
posted by peagood at 1:00 PM on January 24, 2013 [14 favorites]

You sound like we have a very similar aesthetic. I really like Extra Petite for her discussions about tailoring when you are a small size. I've recently embarked on a journey of trying to dress more professionally, and I confess I have bought cheaper pieces to get a better idea of what I actually like to wear, and then have been replacing the pieces I feel the best in with better pieces as I found them. What I've discovered is that my personal style is different than what I'd expected it to morph into. I have a huge list of bookmarked blogs (many of which I found due to this question) that I'm also happy to share if you are interested.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 1:56 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK, I promise I'll permanently check out of the thread after this to avoid threadsitting any more than I already have, but -- first, I had no idea that it was widely known that dressing professionally as a vegan would be difficult, let alone that the vast majority of suits are made of wool, or that vegan clothing is often considered to look cheap. That will definitely be a wrench in the works.
Second, can one or all of you please come to the store with me to help me learn how to shop? There are terms being used in this thread that are brand-new to me ("capsule wardrobe," "shift dress," "cigarette pants" -- who knew?) and I'm feeling more than a bit naive about the whole thing.

Budget-wise, I'm definitely not as destitute as I was when my wardrobe was first conceived, but I also have no experience with clothes shopping outside of abject poverty, so spending money on things I already have (i.e. clothes that fit and do not have holes in them) makes me sick and panicked. Is a $250 budget for 'the basics' a decent amount? Or $500? I have a tax refund en route in a few weeks, and would feel somewhat comfortable shelling that out for a sartorial spruce-up.

I am so grateful to all of you for this fantastic, practical, and overwhelmingly helpful advice and I wish I could respond to each of you individually. I made a new e-mail address to get all those super-sale deals lined up plus a big list of what you all consider to be must-haves. I will ask my girlfriends to be ready to support me in my hour of need when I actually have to enter the soul-masticating maw of retail to find out my proper sizing and such. And bearwife, this is great. Thank you for such a specific suggestion!

Per par court's suggestion of pursuing a 'theme,' prior to reading peagood's (completely amazing!) answer, I would have said something like uhhh... Rachel Maddow? Now I know what it really is: this! Those photos embody who I have dreamed of seeing in the mirror ever since I was a little girl and I had no idea it was A Thing, a known quantity! Now my heart is singing all these excited songs because there are apparently zillions of women who look and dress exactly how I want to look and dress. I am not sure if I can reconcile that with what would be considered an acceptable mode of attire for a professional woman working in the defense industry, but I will definitely be exploring it further.

Thank you again!
posted by divined by radio at 1:59 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

One more blog resource: she hasn't updated in awhile, but Professional Vegan might be useful for sourcing vegan clothing lines. Her site has a list of vegan-friendly stores and designers in the sidebar. Some of the prices are Corporette-y, but others are more affordable. (As for Corporette, she has a "Frugal Fridays" feature that you might find useful; here's the most recent of those posts, and her bargains section is worth a gander.)
posted by Pandora Kouti at 2:45 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your hot topic bondage pant anecdote reminded me of going for a job interview wearing hot-pink silk shorts, a rainbow striped shirt and my hair slicked down like Betty Boop. Oh my it was terrible. So bad. So so so so bad. We’ve all been there, it’s part of the journey. I think you are going to rock it sister! I wanted to chime in and say I think your colour palette sounds absolutely beautiful and the links to pics are really sharp and classic. FWIW, I dress for work at the lower-end of expensive – think J Crew. My tips are:

Shopping. After you have done the trying on, and know what you like/what suits you/what brands you are into. I always, always shop on sale. Allllways. And on eBay. I save, by my estimate at least 50 per cent. When I go into the shops (in Australia, so I won’t bother with brands), I cannot believe the prices. Outrageous. When I was younger, I shopped at thrift and consignment stores a lot. I have to say I never found a great deal of high-end work wear thrifting, but I did at consignment stores. This may vary by location/market, obv. For sales, know which brands you like, subscribe to their newsletters / become a VIP customer. Have a special email address or folder for their spam. Then, as sale season approaches, start checking that folder/address for discount codes etc. Mark dates in your diary. Seriously! Here, Christmas day is huge for online sales. I’m always up really early, so I spend a couple of hours online on Christmas morning fantasy shopping and pruning my sale basket (75 per cent off! My entire summer wardrobe!) and then buy in one fell swoop. The rest of the year its eBaby eBay eBay.

Quality. This is indeed tough for a vegan. Linen is a good suggestion – except that it crumples something fierce. I do see friends who are vegan in their dress also wear beautiful shoes from Vegan Wares in Melbourne, like the Estelle and the Nora here. These are expensive. But. Good shoes ARE expensive. I’m sorry to be the bearer of this bad news, but unless you are incredibly lucky/good with sales (can be done, get those subscriptions happening), prepare to spend more than a few bucks on your shoes so they don’t look cheap/shoddy.

Budget. Honestly, for two suits, a jacket, spare pants and five shirts, plus a decent pair of shoes… I would say $1000. Sincerely, you will do so, so much better if you buy the best quality you can afford. And it will last you way better too. But if you want to spend $500, that’s your budget and you can make it work. Go consignment! If you want to spend $250, you can make it work too, but it may take longer to build your wardrobe and you will need to be really creative and get over the fear of clothes shopping, because you will be doing a lot of looking/comparing. It will be super hard for shoes at this price point.

And. Have you thought about a personal shopper at somewhere like Nordstrom? If you hate it, you’re not obligated to buy the stuff, but it could be a good ‘practice’ experience. Take your pics! You sound like an absolute dream to dress btw – my sister in law has your build and she looks elegant and fashionable whatever she wears, lucky duck.
posted by t0astie at 3:32 PM on January 24, 2013

You do not have to spend a lot on clothes, but I have found that if you find clothing that suits you and makes you feel confident, you should buy it and take good care of it. I have a dress I bought for $150 from J Crew but it has lasted me 5 years and I feel great when I wear it. I find that in most cases, when you pay more for clothing, you get better quality and more use out of it.

More expensive shoes can usually be repaired and kept for a long time but cheaper shoes usually don't last as long. I have a pair of Salvatore Farragamo shoes I bought at an outlet (still $350) and have proudly worn them for 9 years. So if you can afford something, then consider it an investment in that you won't go having to shop again so soon to replace the cheaper item.
posted by dottiechang at 5:11 PM on January 24, 2013

I am glad you liked my answer. I enjoyed reading through the threads you linked to, some of which I hadn't read before. And in doing so, I found I wanted to comment again on a couple of points that have come up again in your question and response, about how much to spend - and go into the why.

In this one, Ghostride the Whip's comment really seems appropriate to mention here:
This was an interesting thing I noticed when I got into my clotheshorse jobs (detailed in my previous post) and really had to start caring how I looked.

I never cared about fashion and was aggressively jeans-and-t-shirt-forever-maaaan for as long as possible because I thought clothes never fit me anyway and they were all uncomfortable and scratchy and fell apart at the drop of a hat, so who gives a shit?

But I liked being employed and making money, so I had to gingerly dip my toe into the fashion pool, and what I discovered seems ludicrous in retrospect or if you know anything about clothes, but of course I thought clothes were scratchy and terrible and fell apart, I was buying bottom of the line stuff from Wal-Mart and JC Penney. Of course, I thought suits were terrible and looked awful and were incredibly hot, the only experience I had with them was the low-end all-polyester ones your mom buys when you're a teenager and you have to go to a funeral or something.

Once I stepped up--not into real high-end designer stuff, but into the quality stuff that seems eye-poppingly expensive if you've never dropped more than 10 bucks on a t-shirt--I was sort of astonished to find that there were all these clothes in natural fabrics that fit me pretty well and were actually comfortable, moreso than my jeans-and-baggy-t-shirt combo. I'm still kind of hard to shop for because big-and-tall but I've realized a lot of my preconceptions were built around growing up as a poor kid and not really having anyone who knew anything about male fashion to steer me right.

This falls under the habit #1 from The Five Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor: You Only Spend with the Short Term in Mind (previously) - along with #4 - Extra Money Has to Be Spent Right Goddamn Now! - you'll miss out on the great if you take your $250 - 500 and try to buy a wardrobe in one fell swoop. But winter coats are on sale right now, so it's the time to buy them. In fact, all retail stores tend to have sales cycles, and so it's smart to buy according to them.

This comment from kmz about why to spend more is important too:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

― Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Looking professional isn't just about styling, or wearing the appropriate items - it's about the care and quality of them. Just as I'll maintain that a clean old car looks better than a dirty new car, of course it's better to have whatever clothes you're wearing at their best.

It's not that vegan clothing looks cheap - it's just often made of fibres that don't wear well over time. Or they're shiny or flimsy or the colours achieved with dyes aren't the same quality as what you get with natural fibres, which reads as cheap. Rayon ages quickly, and is fussy about how it wants to be cleaned. Acrylic sweaters get pills faster. Synthetics, especially polyester, retain body odours (wear dress shields!) and hold grease stains rather than repelling them. I love that The Professional Vegan talks about how clothing feels and wears - I'm not vegan, so I'd never think to look there. But what appears unprofessional about synthetic clothing is more that it's obviously more disposable clothing, and part of giving a good impression in business is that you invest in your appearance, both thoughtfully and with careful purchases.

My experience comes from decades of handling and wearing vintage clothing, and along with that, working for years at a drycleaner with high-end customers, and watching them do things like have their shirt collars turned and their silk ties re-lined, because they were quality items that were meant to be repaired - not donated and tossed. And then in retail jewellery and antique sales, I observed details, and used such details as I've mentioned in being able to suss out a customer's budget. And then at the auction house, in observing people with money and the quality of items as they exist over time, I saw what had value on a secondary market. Even now, at the clothing swaps I go to, I will happily pick up some black Joe Fresh tee shirts because they're essentially "free" there - but I know that a $10 tee shirt will only be that nice deep black colour until the first time I wash it. I'd never spend my money on a new one now - especially because that's $10 I could put towards a $25 second hand 3-ply cashmere sweater found in a flea market that will last me twenty years. Shoes with plastic and cheaper, harder rubber soles will wear down and not be repairable and your feet will sweat and ruin the shape - and these days, the world is counting on people to buy disposable clothing that only lasts one season, so it's really hard to resist that stuff. My personal experience is coming from growing up in a rural area where nobody cared about such things, to coming into money and moving to a wealthy suburb where dressing was a competitive sport, to losing that money and eventually getting secure again.

If you like Rachel Maddow, she's got a very distinct style. Look via a Google Image Search: First, a great haircut with shiny clean hair. Good skin. Great groomed eyebrows (this is a professional person thing, too, btw.) Open necked shirts, or crew-necked shirts (usually greay, but occasionally in a colour) but most often with a dark, sometimes tonal print blazer. You can scroll and scroll, and she always looks like herself. This would give you a shopping list for yourself, if you wanted.

I wish I could go shopping with you. It's always better with a friend, and it sounds like it could be a fun challenge to find things that make you feel good about having them. If you were in Toronto, I totally would. My shopping advice: Don't go on weekends (too busy) and do go mid-week (fresh stock, tidy stores, settled salespeople.) I was told at our nearest Value Village that they have two times when they roll out stock: 11 am and 7 pm. I will try to swing by then and only shop the new stuff on the racks as they're putting it out. Don't be hungry, and do drink water. Wear shoes you can slip on and off. Upgrade your underwear too - baggy saggy stuff will make outer clothes look lumpy. Don't do more than three stores in a day, or you'll just get shopped out. Don't go with an item in mind - go with a running list of what you always need and shop by category. I wonder if in real life you don't have a friend who'd be glad to buddy up for this project?

(Sorry for the long answers and double-dipping -- I'm home sick today, and have all the time in the world for this, it seems, and I really feel for you. I wish you the best.)
posted by peagood at 8:30 PM on January 24, 2013 [6 favorites]

Well, there's already a ton of great advice already.

For me, as a twentysomething who had no job but wanted one, I had to be super thrifty about stocking up on my business-casual-but-more-business-than-casual duds. I was also completely starting from scratch.

I found that picking thrift stores in high end neighborhoods worked great. Some of my favorite finds were from a Salvation Army in a high-end residential neighborhood right outside of DC in McLean. Since I was just looking for classic work stuff like button down shirts and black slacks I had no problems finding things that fit well, so if there are any spiffy neighborhoods with thrift stores nearby, they might be a good bet.

I have also had fantastic luck with consignment/re-sale stores. I've gotten cashmere sweaters for $15, heels for $20 and matching blazer/pantsuits for under $50.
posted by forkisbetter at 10:11 AM on January 25, 2013

While I generally agree that paying a bit more for better clothing is a good idea, I would say that when you're changing up your style, it's okay to buy less expensive things from places like Target. You'll be buying different sorts of things than you buy now, so don't spend a lot until you're pretty certain you'll wear something. I've blown money on nice things that I didn't end up wearing.

A few years ago, I moved to a new climate so I needed pretty much an entire wardrobe refresh. I ended up coming up with a uniform of sorts: gray or black dressy-ish trousers, a nice t-shirt or button-up shirt, and, when it was cold, a sweater over the top. I went for color in the sweater or the shirt, but not both, and I generally stuck with blue and purple, my favorite colors. The pants were often from Target or the Gap, and were usually synthetic. You can pay a lot for pants and still end up with a synthetic, so you might as well not spend too much. For button-ups and sweaters, I preferred cotton. Anyway, it took me a while to get to that combination, and it worked well. (It's changed a bit since then, but that worked for a good while.) Now I'll buy more expensive things with confidence because I know what I will wear.

I also like buying on consignment. Would you buy wool if it was second hand? You might check local consignment stores for wool or wool-blend trousers and skirts from Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, J Crew, etc. That's better quality stuff, and you can always get the pants shortened if the pants fit well otherwise. I wouldn't pay for tailoring for the less expensive stuff, though.

I'm thinking Ann Taylor might feel a bit dowdy for a 30 year old, but you can check for yourself.

I've had good luck getting suits at Macy's on sale, as well as at Ross. Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 5:09 PM on January 25, 2013

I was going to mention what forkisbetter commented. Whereas vintage would be great for your body type it might not work for your price point as it has become so popular. When I was in search of "grown up " clothes for my latest professional job I made the rounds of the Goodwills in affluent areas. You will find a lot more high end brands that are longer wearing, all with reliable Goodwill pricing! Ask them when they roll out new womenswear and check back in, consistently looking for new pieces to add to your wardrobe will cut down on having to shell out big chunks seasonally.
posted by sweetmarie at 5:29 PM on January 27, 2013

Response by poster: OK, post-shopping update!

* I have not yet been able to stomach purchasing a single item of clothing that costs more than $25. It is just kind of unimaginable, still. I need some time to work up the nerve. I am also going to have to enlist someone who will come to the clothing store with me and make me shop.
* I discovered that the best size button-up shirt for someone of my build is a boy's size 10-12, and that I feel my absolute shiny magical best when I am wearing said button-up shirt with a cute tie under a fitted sweater with skinny boot-cut pants. Totally bitchin'.
* Since I couldn't bear going to full-on retail establishments quite yet, I took y'all's list of quality brands and essential items and worked from there at thrift shops and consignment stores, especially more shi-shi suburban thrift shops, as suggested. I only bought brands like The Limited, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Nine West, Banana Republic, &c.
* Vintage/consignment shop: 1 Armani Exchange button-up shirt ($8!), 1 dressy t-shirt, 2 ties, 2 scarves, 1 pair of tags-still-on new jeans -- total of $45.
* Goodwill: 1 blazer/single-button super-business jacket, 3 nice pairs of slacks (2 black, 1 grey), 3 slightly above-the-knee skirts (2 grey, 1 black), 10 button-up shirts in varying colors and patterns, 6 sweaters in various colors, 2 more ties, 1 long floofy sweater kind of thing with a tie belt at the middle -- total of $70.
* Target: business socks, argyle socks, knee-high socks, leggings, sweater tights, 2 pairs of shoes (1 Mary Jane, 1 ballerina flat) -- total of $65.
* I have completely done over my wardrobe for less than $200, I have been wearing everything all week, and I feel extremely fucking classy. Maybe I'm totally wrong and I still look like a slob, but this has all helped assuage my inner paranoia that I "read poor," as well as my lifelong deep-seated fear that people will somehow always be able to tell that I grew up in the projects/on the dole based on my habits/how I look/dress/act/speak/eat/etc.
* Thank you all so much!

A few follow-up questions, if anyone's still reading...
* Leggings and sweater tights underneath pencil skirts: Yea or nay? They are so comfy and warm, but when I wore them out last night, one of my girlfriends said, "Sweater tights? I haven't worn those in 15 years!" which made me feel very scared and self-conscious.
* Is it a really big deal if I wear black shoes when the rest of my outfit is brown or blue, or does no one really notice that kind of stuff?
* All of the pants that otherwise fit me perfectly are WAY (4-6") too long, so I am perpetually walking on the hems of my pant legs. Is raising the hem of each pant leg something I can learn to do myself, double-stick tape style, or am I resigned to taking in all of my pants to a tailor?
* Is tailoring really expensive (NB I live in a dying city with a very low cost of living)?
posted by divined by radio at 10:31 AM on January 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Well done! You should be pleased. Feeling extremely fucking classy is a giant win.

Sadly, there will be some people who care if you wear black shoes with a brown outfit.

Hemming pants for a professional look has a greater learning curve than you'd think. Take them to a tailor.

Tailoring does not have to be expensive. Dry cleaners will often do this kind of work, you can ask them.
posted by KathrynT at 10:41 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I wear sweater tights. It's winter, yo. I should probably take better care of the ones I've got, though -- they'll look a lot classier if I don't let them get pilled. Hand-wash rather than machine-wash those for a sharper look long-term.

Hemming pants isn't too expensive, especially if you're in a less-expensive city. Ask around for tailor recommendations (many people do this sort of work out of their homes, which keeps costs down, but can make them harder to find) and call around for prices. Make sure that when you take your pants in for hemming, you bring the shoes you intend to wear with the pants.
posted by asperity at 10:59 AM on January 30, 2013


(I wish I were not a bit fat and wide-shouldered - finding nice clothes at the thrift store and on consignment is really tricky for me.)

You can learn to hem your own pants....I hem all of mine. But honestly, if you're really focusing on looking professional you should take them to a tailor. To hem your own pants, you need matching thread, for one thing, and it's really easy to get a lumpy or uneven hem. (Most of my hems are, honestly, a bit lumpy and uneven, and only the fact that I wear bulky men's style chinos hides this fact.) Also, hemming your own pants without a sewing machine is slow work.

Vis a vis shoes: it depends on the outfit and the shoes! Are you wearing navy or chocolate? Are your shoes relatively unobtrusive in color and texture? If you were wearing, for example, taupe tights and a pair of large, shiny black platform shoes, it would look a bit weird. But if you were wearing navy pants and relatively discreet black shoes, it wouldn't. Also, does the texture of your shoes blend with your outfit? Really shiny or really soft/nubby black shoes may stand out too much. Look in the mirror and see if your eyes are drawn to your shoes first - if not, it probably doesn't matter too much. Unless you are in a high-fashion or wealthy field, most people will not notice. But it would not hurt to have a second pair of work shoes.

Lots of people wear sweater tights. They sell sweater tights in the "currently fashionable" tights section at Target. Also, sweater tights are a classic item like a button-down or a pair of grey flannels - look in such fine fashion books as More Dash Than Cash if you don't believe me.

And the sad, sad truth is that most people really will not notice your tights unless they are brightly colored or extremely lingerie-influenced. It can be heart-breaking when you've got a really nice pair.
posted by Frowner at 11:06 AM on January 30, 2013

Sweater tights, I haz them and wear them (in fact I am wearing a pair right now). I see nothing wrong or dated about sweater tights, and they are a great way to keep your legs cozy while wearing skirts.

Black shoes with brown or blue? That depends. Black shoes with light brown or light-to-medium blue is fine, IMO. It's black with navy or dark brown that starts to look iffy. Think - is this outfit in a "color" (light blue is a color) or a "neutral" (like navy or dark brown)? Black and navy or dark brown can clash because there is so little difference in light or dark tones between navy and black. However, if you are at the point where you are just building up your wardrobe, and don't have a lot of shoes or clothes, then it's better to wear "good" black shoes with "good" navy clothes than, say, business clothes with sneakers.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:08 AM on January 30, 2013

Black shoes with brown or blue? That depends. Black shoes with light brown or light-to-medium blue is fine, IMO. It's black with navy or dark brown that starts to look iffy. Think - is this outfit in a "color" (light blue is a color) or a "neutral" (like navy or dark brown)? Black and navy or dark brown can clash because there is so little difference in light or dark tones between navy and black. However, if you are at the point where you are just building up your wardrobe, and don't have a lot of shoes or clothes, then it's better to wear "good" black shoes with "good" navy clothes than, say, business clothes with sneakers.

See, I totally disagree with this - and here is a thread from Corporette which seems to take wearing navy with black as completely normal.

And my fashion-snobbiest college friend always spun it as "black with khaki looks cheap and wrong, but black with a rich brown is classy".

Both blue-and-black and brown-and-black patterns are common in traditional prints all over the world. Any "rule" which declares that traditional Japanese or Kenyan fabrics "clash" is manifestly silly.

So anyway, I think there's grounds to use your judgment rather than a rule. I would still go with "how noticeable are your shoes?" as the decisive factor rather than the color. (Unless you are wearing, say, a black skirt and aqua tights and black shoes and the shoes are supposed to be a focal point.)
posted by Frowner at 11:37 AM on January 30, 2013

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