Am grown woman, need to look the part
July 30, 2014 12:02 PM   Subscribe

So I am about to embark on a new phase in life, one outside of academia (most likely) and am done having kids, and thus, need to finally get some clothes and other stuff (shoes, bras) to help my look transition as well. The problems? I like the clothes I get to wear now and I HATE shopping. So I need suggestions as to where to go and what to buy! Help please!

So I am a woman in my mid thirties, about 5'8" and a bit overweight (wear a medium/large top depending on the sizing and a 12-14 size pant, again depending on sizing). I've got a long torso, normal shoulders (not too broad but not narrow either), and a small head (teeny tiny, I can almost wear my 2 and 5 year olds hats). I also have long, narrow feet and hate wearing heels. Right now I tend to wear shorts or a basic knee length khaki skirt and a solid colored t-shirt most days, and during the winter/fall that changes to jeans and long sleeved tshirts (again tend to be solid colored), though I have a couple ankle or calf length khaki skirts I wear too. I wear sandals (Keen ones, not nice dressy ones) or sneakers 95% of the time. I have a pair of knee high boots (with about a 1" heel) and a pair of black, I guess ankle?, boots with a similar heel height that I wear occasionally during the fall/winter.

While these outfits work for me now, I'm always at a loss of what to wear if I need to dress up, and certainly don't have appropriate clothes for job interviews (which I hope to have soon) or for work outside of academia. I do have a suit, but only one shirt that I can wear with it that would look right if I took off the suit jacket. I did actually try to look for shirts recently, but I have no clue what sort of things to look for or where I really should be shopping. I know I look terrible in button down shirts, something about my shoulder to head ratio or something, and I have ample enough thighs and bottom that skinny anything is out. I buy most of my clothes now from either Old Navy or Lands End or LL Bean, but those aren't good places for the sorts of clothes I need now. Where should I look? Where is the best bang for my buck? I can't handle going through every store in the mall hoping to find something, I'll go crazy. I also can't afford to spend tons (though I'd rather have something slightly nicer quality that lasts that a bunch of cheap stuff). Where do women in their mid thirties shop these days? It would be awesome if I had stuff I could wear with a suit and with more business causal times (if not actually causal times too).

Also, I probably should get better bras, but this is another one of those things I'm fairly clueless on. I know there are tons of bra posts here, and most say to go get a good fitting. But I hate underwire bras and refuse to wear them. I feel like most higher end places that do fittings except that you'd want underwire. Am I wrong?

Finally, shoes. What kind of shoes do I get to wear with grown up clothes? I really don't like wearing heels, what women's shoes should I look into? I tried a pair of ballet shoes and it may have just been those shoes, but they looked odd because my feet are so long and they rubbed weird on my toes and heel and on the boney protrusion I have under my ankle bone.

So, in sum, I suck at buying clothes that are good for work and will take any help or recommendations you want to give!
posted by katers890 to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Clothes: If you just want one store, Ann Taylor Loft is a really good pick. Sign up for their emails, as they frequently have 40% or 50% coupons. Go there and explain you want to build a "capsule wardrobe". They also have a non-advertised student discount you can get by showing ID (as do the other mainstays JCrew & Banana Republic).

Shoes: Clarks and Born are both comfy, well-made brands. Try DSW for discounts, or Zappos for ease.

Bras: Pretty personal, but Wacoal tends to be the standard that gets rave reviews; I personally like Patagonia.
posted by susanvance at 12:16 PM on July 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

I see that you're in Massachusetts so if at all possible for bras go to Intimacy in Boston*. They are really amazing and they helped me find bras in my size that I actually like and not just ones that look like they're made of industrial elastic. They will be expensive but really understanding and sympathetic; apparently they used to have saleswomen go to Victoria's Secret for a bra fitting so that they'd be empathetic to their customers and understand what bra buying experiences are really like for most of us.

If you get the right bras (and undies) first, your posture might well improve (mine did) and you will look and feel much better as you try on all your other new clothes. Good luck!

*I'm sure they're all good but if you'd like the name of my saleswoman I'm happy to give it to you, just MeFi mail me.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:17 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are nonwire bras which are actual bras (not yoga bras or bralettes or sportbras or other uni-boob making crap), but they are hard to find. Spanx makes one (pretty limited sizes) as does Gap and Wacoal (which tend to be high quality) and Cosabella (which I have no opinion of) are among the easiest to find. A good bra fitting will tell you which size generally fits you (no two brands are quite the same, unfortunately) but more importantly will show you how a bra which fits is supposed to look and feel. If the store can't find you a wirefree bra to sell you, don't feel guilty about the fitting, just take your newfound knowledge of how a well-fitted bra looks and feels out into the world and try on some wirefree options.

I'm with you, I can't stand underwire bras. You're supposed to be getting most of the support from the band, anyway.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:25 PM on July 30, 2014

I've found Talbots to be a good place to shop for women thirtysomething and beyond. Their cuts are much more forgiving of women who have hips and bosoms.

The first thing you need to do is get your bra situation sorted out. I am wondering if you hate underwire bras so much because you haven't worn properly fitting ones before. Do your clothes shopping after you get a well-fitting bra, as this will have a large effect on how clothes hang on you.

I tend to wear a blazer / dress pants combo or pantsuits to interviews. Of late I've also been wearing dresses with a blazer over it. This solves the problem of trying to find a good top to wear with a suit. It's surprising how not very expensive dresses can look very dressed up just by wearing a nice jacket over it.

As for shoes, you don't have to wear heels - since you are a fairly tall woman, you can get away with wearing flats or shoes with very low heels. As for the ballet flats you tried, they were probably the shoes. I don't think there's any getting around trying on shoes until you find something that fits your feet and is attractive.
posted by needled at 12:28 PM on July 30, 2014

I'm in a similar size range, and it sounds like similar shape. I work in a business casual office, with more formal clothes for meetings/conferences/special events. I like Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor Loft, J. Crew, and Banana Republic in general a lot, but they can get spendy. They have outlets, or you can do what I do and hit up the thrift shops in the rich neighborhoods.

My closet is basically made up of a wide range of cardigans in many colors, a bunch of nice t-shirts and shells in many colors (surprisingly, Sears can be good for this), a couple of black knit blazers (everyone tells you to get things tailored, but I'm cheap), a couple of black pencil skirts, and some black and charcoal trousers from Sears. I also have a handful of solid-colored dresses (all thrifted, with the exception of my Lands End black jersey dress - it has POCKETS), which I wear either with a blazer or cardigan depending on how formal I need to look. I have some low-heeled black Clarks pumps, and a rotating cast of cheap flats in colors that compliment my tops - usually a metallic and maybe a color. I have a pair of black knee-high boots that I wear with skirts or dresses in cold weather.

Basically, I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to bother with khaki, navy blue, or brown as base colors. Only black and charcoal grey. I can wander into my closet, pick out a random combination of top, jacket/cardigan, and bottom, and look appropriately dressed and coordinated. I HIGHLY recommend this approach. And it's basically all machine washable (although I line dry), because again, I'm cheap and lazy.

And as far as bras go, I highly recommend skipping the department store and going straight to the fanciest lingerie store your town has. I went to the one in my town for the first time, and not only was the fitting a very pleasant experience, but I noticed they had a wide range of wired and unwired bras in a vast array of sizes, colors, and styles. I prefer underwire, but I was very nearly sold on one without wire. After you have one bra that you really like, you can buy more of that for much less on eBay, as long as you're not overly squeamish about that. Lots of people sell things they wore once and regretted on eBay. It's GREAT for expensive European-manufactured bras.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 12:32 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

You sound a lot like me (size, career, typical clothes, yep). I go to the Ann Taylor outlet once or twice a year, blow a few hundred bucks that get me a LOT of versatile clothes, and call it a day.
posted by Dashy at 12:39 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Once you get the immediate "I HAVE TO DRESS NICE SOON" out of the way, maybe look into Stitch Fix. I have no time to shop (mid thirties but a 1 year old kid), so I've been using them once a month this year to freshen up my wardrobe. So far they've skewn a little younger in a couple of "Fixes", but I've gotten some very nice quality jeans, shorts, sweater and skirt from them that I am quite happy with in brands/colors/styles I wouldn't have thought of previously. Note: this is not cheap, bargain stuff. But a "grown woman" might prefer for the slightly higher priced and much better quality stuff.
posted by jillithd at 12:48 PM on July 30, 2014

Your existing wardrobe doesn't sound like a bad starting place for professional clothes (assuming you'll need business casual clothes for a normal office, not a wardrobe of suits for investment banking). I'd add a couple of black/grey/other neutral knee-length skirts (either a-line or pencil, depending on what you like), a couple of pairs of non-jean pants (ponte is comfy but may or may not be "professional" enough, cotton sateen or wool/blend would also work), and then some nice, well-fitting cardigans or blazers (knit blazers are great for everyday office wear) to go over your existing t-shirts (I'm assuming your t-shirts are the cute variety and not the gym shirt variety). Ta-da! Business casual accomplished. I also like fine-gauge scoop-neck sweaters to wear with my skirts/ponte pants, and that's professional enough for 99% of my work days. You also might want to see if you like wrap dresses.

As bowtiesarecool said, pick a color palette (either browns/khakis/navy or blacks/greys) to focus on. Trying to maintain both requires more shoes than I'm willing to buy, so I stick to black and grey.

For interviews, find a non-stretchy blazer you love in a neutral color, and either a sheath dress or pants and a neutral silk or poly shell to go underneath. I have a grey blazer that I wear with black pants and a black top and a black blazer I wear over a grey sheath dress, and those are my interview clothes.

LOFT, Gap/Banana Republic, Boden and J Crew (and J Crew Factory) are all good bets for these sorts of clothes. The sizing runs very differently across the brands, so definitely shop around to see whose pants fit you well vs whose shirts fit you. I can't wear J Crew pants, for example, but their shirts fit me really well.

Now, shoes. You have a good start with the boots you already have. I'd look for a pair of black ballet flats from a comfort brand (naturalizer, soft soles, geox). I've also been really happy with Payless's "comfort plus" heels if you do want an inexpensive pair of pumps for interviews and more formal office events (I've had mine a couple of years now, and regularly walk 2+ miles in them when traveling for work).

I'd hold off on buying too much until you have a job lined up and know what the dress code will be. I think starting off with a skirt/pants or two, a blazer that coordinates, a blouse or two, and maybe a pair of ballet flats or pumps should do it until you start your new job.
posted by snaw at 1:01 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Career clothes: TJ Maxx and Jones New York outlet.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:04 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Capsule wardrobes are brilliant, and the blog Already Pretty had the best advice I found on putting one together. Academic Chic isn't updated anymore, but is still up and has good outfit examples and they're all thirty something with little kids too.

Also: personal shoppers and bra fittings!
posted by jrobin276 at 2:26 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some great recs above. If you are close to one, get thee to Nordstroms. They are having a great sale through the weekend, some of the prices are very reasonable right now. You can get a professional bra fitting and an appt with personal shopper to boot.

Also Boden is doing free shipping/free returns right now. If I had the need for an office warddrobe I'd be all over it, very cute and office appropriate.

You Look Fabis another great blog about capsule wardrobes.

I'd definitely hold off on getting very many pieces until you know what the culture of the work environment is.
posted by snowymorninblues at 2:51 PM on July 30, 2014

If you can get to a Nordstrom's or other department store that has higher-end brands (not Sears or Penny's), I would suggest making an appointment with their personal shopper. This is almost always free, and they can help you figure out a style that works for you and put things together for you, so you don't have to do as much brain work. They will even have lingerie and shoe selections for you, if you ask.
posted by Mchelly at 3:28 PM on July 30, 2014

I highly recommend Lady Grace for bra fittings. The ladies that work there have been doing fittings forever and are so knowledgeable and helpful.Their main store is in Coolidge Corner in Brookline, and they also have stores in other cities (Woburn, Waltham, more): Their inventory is huge and I always find what I need/want even though I'm hard to fit. I also HATE underwires--can't wear them at all though I am amply endowed. Lady Grace has a good selection of non-underwire but supportive bras, even some really pretty ones.
posted by primate moon at 4:53 PM on July 30, 2014

Primate moon: Lady Grace is a bra/underwear shop? I live in Woburn and drive by there all the time and have always wondered but been slightly afraid to go in there.

For people saying personal shoppers, really? They are free? Why doesn't everyone use them if they are free? Is it because the clothes are expensive?

My plan wasn't to buy a lot, mostly some shoes and some new shirts. What I have right now sort of works for business casual, but are definitely on the casual side. The shirts are mostly this sort, some with more scooped neck, so a step above what most people think of as gym or around the house tshirts, but definitely still tshirts.

I've tried Ann Taylor and J Crew, but I think mostly I get turned off by the pricing (most of my shirts are $10/shirt, so I may just need to adjust my price point for grown up clothes), so maybe outlets are a way to go. I think Boden may have some stuff I've liked in the past, so free shipping/returns definitely makes me happy. : )

Thanks for all the help! I think you all are convincing me that I can go out and do this somewhat quickly, and thus preserve my sanity.

Got any good dress recommendations? I find that everything is either too short, too long, or shows too much of the belly paunch. I have a 50s style dress that I love (and has POCKETS!) except for the neckline which is a bit high, but it's my going to a wedding dress for now and so seems to formal to wear just to work.... I may be wrong about that though.

I'll follow up on the shoe stuff too, I love Zappos so I guess just hunting through there is the way to go.
posted by katers890 at 5:31 PM on July 30, 2014

A note on method. There are ballet flats and ballet flats, and the only way to know which will work for you is to try them on. You have to do that for everything. Try lots and lots of things on, and when something works, notice why. A personal shopper can help you see things, and make suggestions, but ultimately it's hours in the freaking dressing room. I'm sorry. The upside is, once you've done that a few times, you can get to the point where you can clock a pair of pants that are 80% likely to work from across a room, and you'll spend less time shopping down the road.

However, if you want to build a wardrobe on a budget, the way to go is to shop often, over a couple of months. Draw up a capsule wardrobe list. This gives you your set of goals. Shop once a week (yup, sorry again). If you see something nice that's on sale and on your list and fits, buy it. When you shop, you are just scanning for items on that list, not getting distracted by crap by the register.

Also, there is no reason to pay full price at any of the stores listed. I know BR has 30-40% off sales once a week. They'll let you know (boy, will they) if you sign up to their distribution list, so get an email account just for this purpose.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:33 PM on July 30, 2014

Also jillithd, stitch fix is fascinating. I'm trying to figure out if I'm brave enough to try it out!
posted by katers890 at 5:57 PM on July 30, 2014

Banana Republic and the J Crew outlet (I don't know about regular J Crew) have 30-40% of everything and half off clearance sales every two or three months. Never buy anything full price from either.
posted by MadamM at 6:50 PM on July 30, 2014

Stitch Fix is only $20 styling fee if you don't buy anything from them. Which is pretty doable (for me anyway). A box of 5 things sent to your house for you to try on and look at in your own mirrors, send what you don't want back in the prepaid bag within 3 days, and maybe get some good ideas on what you like and don't like. Really painless!
posted by jillithd at 8:36 AM on July 31, 2014

I am also a big fan of the dresses at JC Penney's. They get me every spring with one or two dresses that are just cute and stylish and usually under $100. They also have very convenient online ordering - I have no time to shop, remember - with easy returns at our local store if needed.

Our office skews a little more casual than business casual, so when I wear one of these dresses, I'm actually dressier than my coworkers.

Good luck!
posted by jillithd at 8:42 AM on July 31, 2014

See if J Crew's "Winnie" dress is available on ebay. No pockets, but super flattering and as comfortable as a t-shirt. It runs at least a size big and is stretchy, so order a size or two smaller than you think you'd need. I have it in two colors and wear one at least once a week from fall - spring.

I've also gotten some great work dresses from LOFT.
posted by snaw at 8:50 AM on July 31, 2014

A word on stitchfix - I tried it several times and received nothing I could not have found at the mid-range stores (Ann Taylor, Nordstrom) on my own... in other words, nothing exciting, nothing unique. For spendy stuff, why not have a personal shopper pick out say, three outfits in three different "moods": Casual but City Chic, Mother Earth-ish, JCrew conservative with a twist. You live in 'em, see if you love 'em, and if they make you feel fabulous. Then, go tackle replication on your own at stores and, as has been suggested, at better thrift shops.
posted by Lornalulu at 1:10 PM on July 31, 2014

Someone who hates dressing like an adult here, but has to for work. I favour fuss-free separates that don't need to be colour/shape coordinated, and also prefer clothes that feel like pyjamas.
Some combinations I tend to use as "uniforms" have helped me ace morning dressing, and helps shopping more strategically.


Tights (good quality ons) + shift dress/sweater dress + nice boots
Skinny pants + tunic style knit/loose shirt/blazer + flat shoes


Shift dress + nice shoes
Silk pants + flowy top + blazer + nice shoes
Maxi dress + blazer + nice shoes

It was only when I worked out what I was reaching for in my closet more and more due to sheer comfort (nevermind aesthetics), that I was able to actually start buying quality pieces to add to these uniforms.

Things that go a long way to making an outfit more adult/put together:

Jewellery - I have a bunch of costume jewellery that is understated and elegant for work
Nice looking watch - somehow you wear a watch and you feel more adult
Scarves - and they're fun too!
Belts - a couple of good belts will cinch in a baggy dress, update a tunic top, and make a maxi dress look more formal
Good bag - a great "adult" bag that can be as large as you want and holds all your necessities but yet looks elegant
posted by shazzam! at 6:59 PM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sign up for the mailing lists (and create a filter if needed to keep them out of your inbox). Banana republic has very frequent sales, as well as Ann Taylor to the tune of 30 or 40% off. Also, be aware that one shop may only be good for one thing for you (e.g., Ann Taylor Loft makes great dresses for me, but I've had very little luck with other items. BR is my good-to for cardigans. Jcrew factory makes great sleeveless shells, etc.).

Also, if you find a nice dress in a silhouette that works for you, check out H&M or other inexpensive stores and see if you can pick up a copycat dress.

Also seconding the idea for sticking to a color scheme to make it easier to match (e.g, I go with black or navy and have picked a few accent colors, e.g., teal, and silver jewelry).
posted by typecloud at 9:58 AM on August 1, 2014

Given your price point, you might also want to check out Uniqlo - I see they are opening several stores in the Boston area. Much better quality and better styled clothes at Old Navy prices.
posted by needled at 10:41 AM on August 1, 2014

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