Update my wardrobe!
September 4, 2013 10:17 AM   Subscribe

I will soon have around $500 to spend on clothes. Help me be a grown-ass adult woman.

I am about to get a slight windfall, and am planning to spend about a third of it on clothes (saving the rest). I'm a 25 year old kinda-professional-job-having woman, and my clothing philosophy up to this point has been "well this thing in a thrift store looks cool I guess". Worse, I've been brokeish for a while and live in NYC, so I've been wearing out clothing faster than I buy it, and am down to a kinda lame and uncoordinated core of clothes I don't even really like. Seems like the perfect time to replace a ton of it and start over with a core I actually like!

My preferred look, what I go for when I'm going for anything at all, is like in these tumblrs- blazers, oversized sweaters, button-downs, men's shoes, skinny pants, but also girly accents like jewelry and sheers and fitted everything. (And not so much the bowtie/suspenders side of the look either.) This look will totally fly where I work, so I don't really need a whole different work wardrobe.

What I need: basically everything. I have a couple button downs, a couple tees I like, one blazer, two sweaters, one pair of tan skinny jeans, two pairs of shoes I really like in brown and grey... basically, I can dress how I'd like to for about a week and then it's on to ill-chosen blouses and dresses and weird wide-legged pants from 1998. To be honest, I would almost rather start with pretending I have NO clothes, rather than saying "well, I have a sort of ok version of X, so I guess I don't need an awesome new one."

I am fully on the bra-fitting bandwagon, and have four bras that actually fit me. I probably need more? I should probably also get all new underwear and socks, just 'cause.

So... how should I allocate this money? I know $500 may not get me that far, but I'd like at least some well-chosen basics that I can use in a lot of ways as I gradually accumulate more clothes in my style.

Here's the only recent photo of me in which I'm not wearing a dress and makeup. Too many weddings!
posted by showbiz_liz to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (23 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I seem to recall this being one of those "hats in the house"-esque arguments in the past, but I for one think that four bras is perfectly plenty, as long as you have your bases covered (one strapless or convertible, at least one t-shirt, one nude, etc).

I kind of hate these threads where people say they have a huge amount of money and are ready to spend it all and finally have a wardrobe! Unfortunately I do think these things have to happen organically and you'll get much more out of your money if you say "What is the one item of clothing that would improve my wardrobe the most right now?" then go out and buy it. Then live with it for a week or two... and then ask yourself the question again. Rinse and repeat. You might think right now that you need 10 Xs and 2 Ys, but after buying 1 X and 1 Y and seeing how they fit into your day to day, you might realize that you really don't need than many Xs. That sort of thing.

It sounds like you only have one pair of pants/bottoms that is working for you, so I think that is the one item that you need to buy right now. The rest of the $500 will not literally burn a hole in your pocket so it's OK to go slowly.
posted by telegraph at 10:26 AM on September 4, 2013 [15 favorites]

Use the bulk of the money on tailoring. Single out some pieces you own that you love, and that are constructed of quality material, and take them to a tailor. The fit of clothing is what will make you look great, especially with that style you've shown here. Ill-fitting clothes of that ilk can skew sloppy, rather than stylish.

Then use some of the money to find one fantastic blazer, probably in black or grey, and get that tailored too. Get 1-2 new button-downs, and get those tailored as well.

Then buy a kickass pair of shoes.

That should be most of your budget. If you have anything left over, buy underwear. Who doesn't like new underwear?
posted by rachaelfaith at 10:27 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I kind of hate these threads where people say they have a huge amount of money and are ready to spend it all and finally have a wardrobe! Unfortunately I do think these things have to happen organically and you'll get much more out of your money if you say "What is the one item of clothing that would improve my wardrobe the most right now?" then go out and buy it.

Oh sure, I don't necessarily think I'm going to spend this all in a day. But I at least want a plan.

RachaelFaith: that would be assuming I have any clothes worth getting tailored in the first place!
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:30 AM on September 4, 2013

Best coat you can afford
Pencil skirt
tights from Target
black booties
black bag
black skinny pants (or two)

Add color along the way when you have a couple extra bucks.
posted by thinkpiece at 10:37 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

You have two approaches you can take with this. The first is to use the $500 on three or four good-quality basics that are going to last you a long time, getting them tailored and gradually building your wardrobe organically from there.

The second option is to take that cash and go to somewhere like Forever21, Zara, or H&M. I did this with a guy friend recently and he built an entire new wardrobe from H&M for $400. I find that their basics are decent quality, and they have enough variety and on-trend pieces that you can end up with a fun yet classic wardrobe. YMMV but if I were you that's what I'd do. Maybe hit up Gap online for sale skinny jeans or whatever you want to update the wide-legged pants.
posted by stellaluna at 10:37 AM on September 4, 2013

4 good bras is plenty so don't worry too much about that.

When I came out of college my mom gave me $1000 that I HAD to spend on clothes for my new job.

I bought one great wool coat (about $300) and then I went to The Limited on a weekday during one of their (many) 40% off sales and I told the girl I needed all new clothes. I was there for 2 hours and I felt like Pretty Woman trying all that stuff on, it was awesome! I spent about $500 there and came out with like 4 pants, 10 tops, 3 skirts, 2 dresses and a blazer. Then I went and bought shoes because I love shoes.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:38 AM on September 4, 2013

I tend to go with Tim Gunn on "what I need in my closet." Everything else is just fun stuff to play with but those are the essentials. I find most of mine at the thrift store and favor Ann Klein, Dana Buchman, Banana Republic and The Gap (yes, I find those brands at the thrift store.)
posted by nubianinthedesert at 10:51 AM on September 4, 2013

I always sound so repetitive in these threads, but I like J.crew.

I'd budget $300-350 for 2 pairs of pants that fit fantastic, (one black, one charcol) and then two skirts (I'd do one pleated, one pencil). Assume that you're paying 60-70 bucks per item, and that you'll need a smidge of hemming on the pants. Make sure the pants really do fit well, otherwise, quite frankly, you won't end up wearing them.

now your butt is covered.

For tops, I'd take $100, and spend that in H&M, madwell, and Zara, try to get at least 4-5 on the sales rack. Look for buttondowns in funky colors/patterns that fit your aesthetic.

For shoes, I'd spend the last $100 and get a pair of awesome oxfords. I have these Born Arlettas and I lived in them last fall- winter. And probably will go buy a fresh pair for this winter pretty soon.

I assume you've got some oversized sweaters/cardigans- otherwise, once fall properly rolls in, I'd work on finding simple, clean lined cardigans that you can throw over the base layers you built with your initial $500.

Also a pretty solid thrift store is The Cure on e13th st, but NYU is now in sesson, so pickings may get slim. Consignment stores on the upper east/west side do sometimes have killer stuff, but you really need time to find it. (I don't have the time usually)

posted by larthegreat at 10:53 AM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

You have enough bras as long as you take care of them - don't throw them in a washer/dryer to get beaten up. Hand wash (bathroom sink), line dry (shower rod or hanger).

You could get a few high-priced basics, but if you need a new, professional-ready wardrobe, you need volume so that you have a number of outfits that can be mixed and matched. I'd go to The Limited, Marshalls/TJ Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, and H&M and pick out less-expensive basics: slacks, cardigans, blouses, blazers, coat, and sweaters. Also pick some non-flash accessories so that you look put-together. Spend the rest on shoes. Depending on what else you have, a decent purse would be good.

After you have those basics, you can slowly build-out your wardrobe with more expensive and classic pieces as your budget allows. But, for now, I'd go for volume and look for coupons and sales.
posted by quince at 10:54 AM on September 4, 2013

I kind of hate these threads where people say they have a huge amount of money and are ready to spend it all and finally have a wardrobe! Unfortunately I do think these things have to happen organically and you'll get much more out of your money if you say "What is the one item of clothing that would improve my wardrobe the most right now?" then go out and buy it.

this is ideal but to be honest there are those of us that HATE shopping. just getting it all at once, once a year it's about all i can muster.

i think you should spend a little money so the blazer is of good quality, that way you can dress up or down as desired. focus on getting one that is versatile - not crazy patterned but something you could wear (with different colored pants) at least twice a week with different patterned shirts underneath.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 10:57 AM on September 4, 2013

I like to start with a silhouette.

This post helped me (especially the part about proportions).
And this example.
posted by 4bulafia at 11:00 AM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm of the mind that since you're starting out, maybe it's best to look around at H&M/Uniqlo before you get into purchasing investment pieces. That said, here's what I'd go for:

2-4 pairs of skinny ankle length pants (in black, camel, grey, and maybe burgundy or a print)
2-4 silk blouses (these seem nice!) in basic colors
1 blazer
1-2 cardigans or sweaters (maybe hip length ones to go with the aesthetic you like)

I agree that spending good money on shoes (especially in NYC) is the way to go. And yes, obviously you'll want a well made wool coat by the time November hits.

Good luck!

(also, have you seen this girl's style?)
posted by singinginmychains at 11:01 AM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Coincidentally, I recently was given a $500 windfall to spend on clothes. I can just tell you what I got (and if you look at my blog, which is linked in my profile, and go a few entries back, you can see pictures of nearly everything I got. :D)

- black boots (on the pricey side) from Aerosole
- brown boots (very cheap) from 6pm.com
- new bra from Soma
- navy a-line skirt from Target
- two long sleeved v-neck t-shirts from Target
- black and white striped knit skirt from Macy's
- Spanx leggings
- khakis from ON
- coral button down from ON
- fun silvery cream t-shirt from ON
- black work pants
- green/blue scarf
- navy/white striped t-shirt with sequin collar from Banana Republic

Now, I know it doesn't all sound terribly exciting, but I can mix and match almost everything, and I just need a few more things (like a chunky cardigan) to make me feel better about the fall. My job is somewhere in the middle between business casual and dressy, and I can wear any of that to work. (Well, the leggings will have to be under a skirt or dress.)

I tried to be thoughtful about what I was buying (my first instinct is to imitate a magpie, which by the two sparkly tops I got is impossible to completely overcome) so I don't end up with a bunch of clothes that don't work together.

Have fun!
posted by pyjammy at 11:03 AM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think I'd buy a couple of pairs of pants, probably one black and one denim, to complement your tan pants. You could do that for $150 if you shop the sales at gap, jcrew, banana republic. Others are suggesting spending a lot more, but I wouldn't, given your informal job and limited funds. Don't get pairs you have to dry clean.

Then I'd mix it up with shoes, because they can really change your look.

Do your two pairs of shoes cover you winter through summer? Since you like wearing skinny pants, boots might be a good investment. Maybe $150 for that. I got very versatile riding boots from Jcrew. I wear them with skinny pants and skirts.

I know you said you like mens' shoes, but the first link is making me suggest one pair of heels, and one of ballet flats. You can probably do this for $100. DSW is a good option. If heels don't fit into your look, maybe a pencil skirt? Wearable in summer and winter (with tights and boots).

Spend the rest on tshirts and button downs that are somewhat cheaper. I find my tops just don't last as long as my bottoms, probably because I wash them more. This seems to be the case even when I spend more. I find they last a bit longer if I air dry them.

Then, over time, collect the girly accents like jewelry and special shirts. Those take a bit more consideration and time, I think.

Have fun!
posted by pizzazz at 11:04 AM on September 4, 2013

I could probably write 2,000 words on this, but I'll spare you:-) Just a few thoughts though:

-I agree that you shouldn't spend it all at once. Really think, and I mean make lists and draw little pictures if you have to, about what the major holes in your wardrobe are. What are the things that you find yourself saying "I wish I had a ____ right now" again and again.

-It sounds dumb but buy expensive, nice t-shirts. The dressy-ish kind that you can wear to work if your work is business casual, but also wear to get coffee, to go to dinner, etc. (Anthropologie is good at these.) The first time I bought an $80 t-shirt I felt like a horrible person, but it has outlived countless $15 t-shirts and I wish I would've just started buying only expensive t-shirts when I was your age.

-If you don't have a nice, professional-looking leather bag (or the equivalent if you don't do leather) get one. A cheap/plain outfit can ride so far on the coattails of a nice bag, and if you choose it well it will last forever. If you spend up to $300 of your $500 on a bag, you'll probably not regret it in 10-20 years.

-After bags, the thing that makes me look/feel the most "professional adult" is earrings. And they don't have to be super expensive. Just get a pair of serious earrings. My two pairs of these are large silver studs (one pair is square-shaped, the other is like little cuffs) and it's really bizarre how much more "grown-up" I appear in them.

-Don't listen to those "10 essential wardrobe items" lists in magazines. They might apply to you but they might not. There is no earthly reason that every woman needs a white oxford shirt and a camel turtleneck sweater and a whatever else. You might find one of those items really helpful, but if that's not your style, they'll be such a waste.

Good luck, this sounds really fun!
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:33 AM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm hesitant to participate in those "every woman needs X in their closet" because there have been too many times where I've bought X and never worn it because it didn't *feel* like me.

Think about the clothes that you already own and love. I wear a lot of blue and green so I try to think of things that compliment blue and green like charcoal grey and yellow. When I buy things, I try to think of a few outfits I can make with that item that I couldn't before - this blazer would look awesome with this dress, these pants, etc.

I love a good pair of boots. I have these and they're great - I think I have them in two colors. And they're on sale!

You can get a lot of mileage out of rad accessories. Lately I've been feeling my navy blazer so I'd get one if that speaks to you. Good luck and have fun!
posted by kat518 at 11:52 AM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fun! In addition to everyone's solid advice on clothing, I'd like to add in: scarves. My fashion style runs similar to yours plus like 100 scarves. I'd say a chunky, knit scarf that you can wind around multiple times for the winter; some scarves made of great fabric and print; and a few breezy ones you can use to fancy up or for lighter weather.
posted by inevitability at 11:55 AM on September 4, 2013

Glad to see that you're on the bra-fitting bandwagon.

I would like to propose another bandwagon: Buy clothes with a care plan in mind. If you're not going to dry clean something, ruthlessly refuse to buy dry-clean-only clothes. If you aren't an ironer, don't buy things that have to be ironed. I also never ever put my jeans in the dryer, and they last a long time now.

I've become a recent convert to sending my button-down, collared shirts out to the laundry. It's worth $2 each to have them professionally laundered and ironed. I wear them a lot more often (and don't just default to T-shirts). I know that I own an iron, and that I could launder and iron them myself, but I just don't do that. I just don't. The dry cleaner? Always does it.

Specific wardrobe suggestions.
- I would buy at least two more pairs of pants. One dark blue skinny jean, one black skinny jean or other pant that's not made of anything fussy that has to be dry-cleaned or anything. Put the bulk of your money in pants. Fitting okay is not good enough.
- Buy blouses/shirts at TJ Maxx/Marshalls, Zara, even H&M (but you have to be picky about quality; if it feels imperfect in the store, it will be REALLY imperfect once you wash it and wear it a couple of times.) Your taste is right in line with what's in stores right now: Cute sheer-ish blouses and adorable printed stuff. You can pick up a bunch of them for less than $20 each, and then you'll feel like your wardrobe is bigger by not having to wear the same shirt all the time. Prints are your friend, especially if you tend to spill stuff on yourself (I do). A solid shirt with a small grease stain is ruined. A printed one might look fine with exactly the same grease stain, because it gets lost in the print. (Obviously, you have to have some judgement about this. Do not become the stained-shirt lady.)
- Avoid knits that are cotton/modal blends. There are a ton of them out there right now; they ball up and look terrible. Cotton (or cotton with 3-5 percent spandex) ONLY. Be very careful about buying knits from Target; I've not had good luck with them.
- There are ton of cute oxfords out there right now, and they sound like they'd fit into your lifestyle and wardrobe. You'll be able to find these at Nordstrom Rack/TJ Maxx/etc too. Black, lace-up. Probably with some heel. I'm super-over knee-high boots this year. Ankle boots are fine.
- Do you have a coat? Buy a coat.
- Buy one nice sweater or blazer. One that makes you feel like a superhero. You're going to be wearing it ALL THE TIME, so make sure it's something you want to wear ALL THE TIME. For sweaters, don't go for the softest one; it'll ball and start to look crappy. A natural-fiber (wool or cashmere) sweater with little bit of stiffness (don't get crazy or anything) will make it last longer. (This is out of your budget, I think, but the Brora cardigan I bought last year has held up dramatically better than every other shitty cheap cashmere I've bought at discount stores over the past 10 years. I wish I'd not spent $60 each on all the ones that balled up and got wonky and just bought the stupid expensive Brora one.) I'm not just an expensive clothes junkie, though: Shirts that cost more than about $20 are going to be a waste of money for you.
posted by purpleclover at 12:42 PM on September 4, 2013

These are some great answers. I really like telegraph's approach of thinking about one thing that would most benefit your wardrobe right now and take it piece-by-piece. Since you are in NYC, I would suggest shopping at the following in addition to thrift stores. All of them have locations in or right near Union Square.

- Nordstrom Rack - basics like skinny pants and button-front shirts, and cardigans too. The clearance racks can sometimes have some fantastic deals.
- DSW - shoes and bags
- H&M - accessories. Seriously, I got my favorite ring there for $5. You can cover yourself in a crapton of jewelry for not very much money. My friend who is a professional wardrobe and product stylist loves their accessories because they have trendy in-season stuff on the cheap.
- Joe Fresh - basics like tees and button-front shirts
- Gap - underwear

I'd also hit up Loehmann's for... well, almost anything, and Target at some point for scarves.
posted by bedhead at 12:47 PM on September 4, 2013

Spend your money on things that can be re-worn without people noticing.
Then buy the other stuff at cheap places.
So get a good black blazer, nice pants, good shoes, good coat, and a good bag.
Then get shirts, accessories, dresses etc at cheaper stores.

The button down shirts at Uniqlo are really good for the price and nicely shaped.

If you need jeans, my secret excellent place to find them is the HousingWorks on 17th st between 6th and 7th. J brand, Paige, paper, etc all for under $35. Don't tell anyone, k?
posted by rmless at 1:51 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey showbiz_liz, my personal secret to using my clothes to feel awesome is to find just a couple of things that make me swoon...things that really truly feel like ME and my style, whatever their price is. I make the $$ work out by saying no to stuff I feel lukewarm about. Either I must LOVE it to pieces, or I must WEAR it constantly. And basic pieces to fulfill the latter you can usually find for cheap! The end result is fewer clothes, but more confidence and kickassery.

Looking at the tumblrs you reference (ahem tomboy femme and femmboy), it seems that what you're really looking for in your heart-of-fashiony-hearts is some rad clothes for tomboys (minus the suspenders and bow ties), with some girlier accents. I didn't even think a tomboy clothes spot *existed,* but it turns out it does, and it's this: Wildfang Full disclosure: I know the two women who birthed this little company, and they are smart and cool and I want everyone to love Wildfang as a result. It DOES seem like sort of a perfect fit for what you're seeking. Then, you can hit up Zara/H&M/Uniqlo etc to fill out with basics and frills. Good luck!
posted by red_rabbit at 2:28 PM on September 4, 2013

Lots of great advice here.

I agree with ignoring that 'capsule wardrobe' thing that the stylists always recommend. Sorry, but I do not like black kitten-heeled pumps with pearl studs and man-style white shirts, I don't care if it all goes together.

Buy the best-quality possible of neutral-ish things, sure, but things you like. That may seem obvious, but let me give an example: for leather items, I am more into brown or tan than black. Thus, I did not 'invest' in a structured black leather work purse. I waited until my favourite $450 (*gulp*) tan, soft leather laptop bag, beautifully lined, and with silver hardware, went on sale. I love it, it looks professional, it's top-quality, and it's ME.

In a similar vein, I bought: nicely-fitting skinny jeans in indigo (not tan or black). Soft leather ankle boots in tan suede (not black leather). A 100% lambs-wool tailored coat, in...pale blue. I get constant compliments on it, and it stands out in a sea of black/grey/camel.

So my advice is, clothes are supposed to be fun and personal. You can still build a functional wardrobe around core basics without looking like everyone else. Just something to bear in mind.
posted by Salamander at 11:00 PM on September 4, 2013

I am late to this party but would still like to put my 2 cents in because I am/was in a similar boat!

My advice is also to pick a "work sillouette." Through a lot of trial and error, I learned that I look and feel best in high waisted skirts paired with a blouse or sweater or sheath dresses. I pair with wool tights and heels or boots in the winter, and don't have to worry about hemming and heel height and all that noise. I also love quality, even though it's out of my non-profit budget. This is what worked for me:

I went to a bunch of "higher end" stores that sell professional wear and tried things on. I made notes of what fabrics and blends seemed to be the best quality and what size I was in different brands and types of clothing. (For example, I am a size 2 skirt in Michael Kors, but a size 4 dress). And since sizes aren't always fool proof, I also took measurements of garments that fit me best. Skirts are the easiest, because the waist and length measurements of your best fitting skirt can be used to easily guage if something else will fit.

But wait, there's a point! Then, I trolled Ebay for higher quality gently used or new without tag items that I could buy at a discount. Namely, MK skirts, J Crew sweaters, Zara dresses. Things that matched my style and that I could accurately assess without seeing in person by looking at fabric contents and measurements. My other suggestion is to look for things won't trend out quickly. A solid color J Crew Tippi sweater will last forever if properly cared for, never go out of fashion, and you can style it a million different ways to make it your own.

Sounds like a lot of work because it is, but the result is looking your worth without spending a fortune :) Good luck!
posted by starsatnight at 9:33 AM on December 5, 2013

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