I want to dress like an adult, but I'm paralyzed by the idea of spending
October 31, 2015 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I've recently started working in a new office where everybody dresses quite well. Prior to this, I was in full-time student mode, so I never cared about what I wore. I want to start looking more put-together. It shouldn't be this difficult to buy about 5-6 basics to update my office wardrobe, but I am SO. PARALYZED. at the idea of having to spend money on more than 1-2 items at a time. I waste hours and hours looking at clothes online and never buy a single item. This needs to stop.

This anxiety is even getting in the way of my studying. I know that I should just suck it up and buy a few nice items so I can get on with it and look put-together at work. I've never thought of myself as a fashionable person, but I would like to take pride in my appearance. Things I've tried to do include making a list of specific items I want to buy, and identifying the general color scheme I like.


I have an incredible amount of anxiety over this, and a bunch of questions are running through my head: is $30 an unreasonable upper limit for pants? Is it unreasonable to buy a red skirt if I will feel mentally locked in into buying a top that matches with it, too? Do I try to buy from one online retailer so that I can get free shipping? Should I try to maximize my wardrobe by searching for pieces that could work in both casual and office settings (e.g., colored or patterned pencil skirts), which would put additional pressure on me to find "the perfect" [clothing item]? Or, for example, you know how accessories help tie an outfit together? It's getting extremely challenging for me to fathom buying jewelry or belts because I've always viewed these things as frivolous. I don't want to buy accessories that are made-in-China junk, but decent fashion jewelry can cost as much as a blouse sometimes! Does. Not. Compute. More stress.

I know I don't even technically have to update my wardrobe, but I also know that I'm not as well-dressed as I would like to be, and that women in the office do notice when I wear the same outfit twice in one week.

I'd like to invest in classic pieces that won't fall apart after 1-2 years, so I'd like to avoid H&M, Express, ASOS, Ann Taylor Loft, ModCloth. For example, I want a few cardigans that are high quality (merino wool), and from searching around, Metafilter seems to like Woolovers, which looks fantastic. That's fine. But the idea of spending $150 for free shipping (even if it is for cardigans that will last me a long time) is so hard for me to process. So I just keep filling my shopping bag and browsing online stores and nothing ever gets purchased. When I finally do purchase something, I am full of guilt.

I don't have a very good idea of what I should be "allowing" myself to spend on these items. The idea of having to buy 5-6 items at an average of $50 each or so (so, total of $300-400) is FREAKING ME OUT. Also, of note: I'm still a student, so I'm not exactly making my own income yet, even though I'm also not digging myself into all that much debt due to a combination of scholarships and student jobs.

I need somebody to talk some sense into me. How can I dress myself like a working adult without having a meltdown?
posted by fernweh to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (61 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
cost per wear. Cost Per Wear. COST PER WEAR. This is your concept—for the stuff that is a workhorse, you want to get as many wears out of a single item as possible. This suddenly makes the $250 shoes I agonized over purchasing—and have worn at least 150 times each winter for five years and going—a complete steal at 33 cents per wear. This might help you with the anxiety a bit.

That said: There is nothing wrong with paying for shipping, or only buying one piece at a time, or even starting out with cheap/fast fashion stuff and slowly upgrading the pieces that end up being workhorses. Or having a mixture!

You deserve to have clothing you like and that makes you feel good about yourself.
posted by mynameisluka at 7:08 PM on October 31, 2015 [40 favorites]

Do you have an outlet mall nearby? I have a hard time spending money on clothes, too, but find I am much more amenable to outlet pricing than mall or internet pricing. I just replenished my fall wardrobe (3 pairs pants, two skirts, two cardigans, a blazer, five tops) for about $400 via an outlet mall, primarily at J. Crew and Banana Republic.
posted by something something at 7:14 PM on October 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Quit it with the online shopping. Buy your clothes in person to make sure they fit you perfectly (but keep in mind that you can and should have them altered for a custom fit).

Also: join your local Buy Nothing group and ask for what you need. Chances are that you'll get exactly what you want, for free.
posted by halogen at 7:17 PM on October 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Rome was not built in a day, and neither is a good wardrobe. It takes time- to figure out what you like, to figure out what looks good on you, to know what you need to have a range of options you can mix and match. You are putting too much pressure on yourself to get this done right this second. If you are still a student, I don't see how spending $400 in one shot from one store makes any sense- that's a ton of money, and your wardrobe will look like you bought it all at one store. Why would buying some transitional pieces from places like LOFT or Express be so terrible? Unless you work in fashion, the women at your office are shopping there, too.

Sidenote, how do you feel about consignment stores? There are some upscale stores where you can find nice stuff at a steal of a price.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:17 PM on October 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

A good strategy would be to research capsule wardrobes. Shop your closet first, then make a list of needed items. Shop from your list an item at a time, make it fun, not a chore.

Remember a good work wardrobe is an investment in yourself and your future.
posted by Requiax at 7:18 PM on October 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

The thing about consignment stores is that I'm a size XXS or XS or XS-petite, which makes things kind of limited in the area that I live in, unfortunately.
posted by fernweh at 7:19 PM on October 31, 2015

I should also say that, in general, money doesn't fix anxiety. Don't spend $400 to find you still feel like shit. Get to the root of what is stressing you out about this before you open your wallet.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:21 PM on October 31, 2015 [17 favorites]

I definitely spend time/energy planning things to buy for my "work wardrobe," but the stuff I wear every day is not necessarily the stuff I planned out the best. I've done the over-analyzing online shopping thing, but a lot of the stuff I actually wear to the office every day is stuff I bought in person while just walking by say, Gap, and seeing that they have a sale. Planning super-hard won't necessarily give you a perfect, waste-free wardrobe.

I don't understand the specifics of your objection to cheap clothes that will fall apart in year or two, which would affect my advice. If it's about sustainability/labor practices, far be it from me to encourage you to buy cheap "fast fashion" clothes, with all the ethical problems that that entails. But if the only problem is the idea of wasting money on something that's not going to last a long time: cheap office clothes make a lot of sense for me financially. I have Old Navy Pixie Pants I bought over the summer and have worn 1 or 2x a week for the last 3 months. They were about $30, and I don't foresee them wearing out until at least the end of the year. They're not going to be an heirloom for my grandkids, but I don't think it was wasteful to buy them. I'm also a student, and cheap stuff makes more sense because I change jobs more often than someone settled into a career. Every workplace has different standards, so stuff I've spent a lot of money on while working previous short-term jobs, thinking that it will be a long-term basic, isn't necessarily fitting with the culture of the place I work now.

It sounds like you have an unusual amount of work-clothes shopping anxiety, so it might make sense to think about whether it's related to general anxiety about money, or anxiety about starting your career or this job, or something else. I don't want to give you too much unsolicited emotional/mental health advice, but if you are feeling very anxious about work clothes, the solution might be in exploring and addressing the anxiety (in a "know yourself", not a"SEE A DOCTOR" way), rather than getting a bunch of different ideas about the perfect wardrobe.
posted by sometamegazelle at 7:22 PM on October 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

Nthing Luka that you should have clothing you like that makes you feel good.

My advice is to start with Brick & Mortar stores before looking online because at least you can try them on. And, this is going to sound weird, but try the Lands End stores embedded in Sears. They are decently priced, and offer good plain basics, which is all you need right now.

Right now go plain. Don't worry about work-to-evening, or casual. Get plain white shirts, black trousers and skirts. The more pattern-y you get the harder it will be to match things.

Do you have a Charming Charlies near you? It's like a grown up Claires and it's pretty good. Here's where you dress up your plain black & white outfit with scarves and belts and earrings and things. Everything is dirt cheap. The quality is not great, but it is good enough for now.

Once you have a store where you know how things fit you, buy yourself a gift card there. Now this money is fixed. You must spend it, and you can only spend it there. That might help with some of the cost anxiety.
posted by Caravantea at 7:22 PM on October 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

is $30 an unreasonable upper limit for pants?
Yeah, that's way too low, unless you're shopping at thrift or consignment stores. Nice pants are going to cost more than that. I would only buy a few pairs of pants and budget more like $80 or $100. You can repeat pants without anyone noticing.
Is it unreasonable to buy a red skirt if I will feel mentally locked in into buying a top that matches with it, too?
You shouldn't ever buy a skirt if you don't have more than one thing to go with it. However, you can wear any black top with a red skirt, so do you have a couple of black tops? And if not, could you get some that you could also wear with other pants or skirts that you have or will buy?
Do I try to buy from one online retailer so that I can get free shipping?
I would try to buy in person initially.
Should I try to maximize my wardrobe by searching for pieces that could work in both casual and office settings (e.g., colored or patterned pencil skirts), which would put additional pressure on me to find "the perfect" [clothing item]?
No, absolutely not. You already have casual clothes. You're just looking for stuff for work. You're already putting way too much pressure on yourself. Do one thing at a time.
Or, for example, you know how accessories help tie an outfit together? It's getting extremely challenging for me to fathom buying jewelry or belts because I've always viewed these things as frivolous.
It's worth investing in a decent belt. If you decide on a color scheme (ie, either black and things that go with black or brown and things that go with brown), you can probably get away with buying one decent belt. For now, don't sweat expensive jewelry. Nobody is going to notice if your jewelry comes from Claire's.

When I got an office job right out of grad school, I went to the Banana Republic outlet and got two pairs of decent gray pants. One was light gray and the other was dark gray. It's been six years, and I still wear them. I paired them with not-so-fancy tops and cardigans. I've had to replace those. I got some not-so-fancy scarves, and then I put out word that nice scarves were a good thing to get more for birthday and holiday presents. I got a nice black belt and a decent, comfortable pair of shoes. Then I upgraded the rest of my wardrobe slowly.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:23 PM on October 31, 2015 [8 favorites]

Outfitposts.com has good capsule wardrobe ideas--see her "One Suitcase" series.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:23 PM on October 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Absolutely cost per wear. Or love. But to start out with, dont be afraid of buying a bunch of cheap things. Because the thing is, you probably won't develop your own style until a few years down the track. that's when you'll know whether something is going to work out on a cost per wear basis.

Basic work wardrobe: get yourself enough to make five plain outfits. 2-3 black or grey shift dress. A plain grey pencil skirt, matching jacket and pants. Keep everything as plain and classic as you can.

Then go nuts with cute cardigans etc. Pure wool is tricky, it can pill really easily and is endless handwashing. I don't do that. Do not buy anything that is 100% acrylic, EVER. That is for one wash then the bin.

Accessorise every day! Just go to Claire's or whatever you have where you are, get those $2 sale items. Just wear one at a time. And fwiw, I have LOADS of H&M and Asos clothing that has lasted really well. I have H&M dresses that are 15 years old. The colour has faded but that's it. I've only started shopping at asos recently so I don't have anything really old but I have several asos dresses and casual weekend stuff that I wear almost every week and they're going great after 2+ years.

The only thing i would spend big on at the beginning of your career is a really good pair of plain black heels. Not too high. Really comfy. Buy the best shoe you can, not the most fashionable brand. Apart from shoes, I wouldn't buy things priced so that they freak you out. I'm known in my circle of friends as the fashion lady but people have no idea that so many of my clothes are old, second hand, Target, $12 asos sale items, cut up tshirts...You can learn how to dress on the cheap without looking cheap. Plain things are good for this.

And finally, are you paralysed because you don't really know what suits you or what you like? You might have to read/watch some Trinny & Susannah and take yourself to the shops and try on lots of different shapes until you understand what makes you feel like you look nice. That's what you ultimately want, something that makes you feel good.
posted by stellathon at 7:26 PM on October 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

the other advantage to buying from the "cheap" stores that you listed (and where I like to shop) is that if you get tired of something or it goes out of fashion/wears out, you can buy something else without it breaking the bank. I personally get tired of my clothes sometimes, or my body changes and I need to replace something. You may also get a new job which requires a different wardrobe. Also, if you are wearing clothes just for the office, they will last longer- you're probably just sitting in a chair there, right? These clothes last longer than you think sometimes. I've had many items from these stores for several years.
posted by bearette at 7:34 PM on October 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, if you have a group of outfits in mind, you could start in thrift stores, pick up a few pieces you like that fulfill roles you need, and with those savings, splurge on completing the sets with new pieces.
posted by nickggully at 8:03 PM on October 31, 2015

I talk about this all the time: go to Nordstrom and use their personal stylist. Be specific about what you're looking for (think capsule wardrobe) and price ranges. This is a perfect scenario for using them! And it's free! You could pick up a couple of pieces now and then continue filling in as needed.
posted by marmago at 8:05 PM on October 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I feel you on the XXS/XS petite. You can still look at consignment stores but I've given up on them after being a few years out of college. The options just arent any good for people our size. And yes, please do take care to avoid the H&Ms, Lofts/AnnTaylors, GAPs, all that money I spent I could have just spent on better quality items.

Do you live near a Nordstrom Rack? They typically have a petite area (but not all stores do) with good quality pieces. This is also why I almost exclusively shop at Nordstrom. Great shipping and return policy (no min to ship or send returns). They have good petite stuff in a reasonable price range.
posted by driedmango at 8:06 PM on October 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

1) Shop in person, and only buy items that you LOVE. Cost per wear is on point for expensive things, but also, I mean, if you find a skirt at H&M that looks great on you, why not? I used to care a lot about quality, and then I realized that just because something is 100% wool or expensive doesn't mean I'll actually like and wear it a lot.

2) Shopping online lends itself to paralysis because you keep building on one simple purchase and pretty soon your cart is overflowing and it's just a bad trip. When I was shopping too much, I immediately cut out online shopping and it was great, because I can tell if I like or don't like something in person, while online it might look a lot better than it would in person. Plus it makes shopping into a compartmentalized thing. It's an errand you have to do, you dedicate a few Saturdays per season to it, then it's done.

3) You can pick a few colors that you really like and base your whole professional wardrobe around them. This took me a long time to figure out, but eventually I realized that I really do like neutrals for a reason (easy, nice menswear/tomboy vibe), so I mostly buy black, while, navy, camel, and grey. These can be remixed in lots of ways, they're not too boring, and if I buy something that pops it will match with at least some portion of my wardrobe. I'm going to say straight up that picking a color like red is fine, but if you're a newbie at wardrobe building, it probably will constrain you to a certain range of basics that play well with that red. So if you LOVE red, go for it, but you might want to keep an eye on how many statement pieces you buy in general.


I like to make a list of "fashion rules" for myself about once per season. These aren't actually rules, per se, but it's kind of like a list of accumulated knowledge about my style and style evolution. Here's an example for this fall/winter:

1) I'm having a major black is the new black moment right now, so don't worry about too much black, I'm all about the black.
2) Thus even if I see a pair of beautiful cognac leather boots on sale, don't buy them because they will look girl-next-door on me and they aren't going to go with my current dramatic wardrobe. Ditto accessories of all kinds; don't buy cute and buy what goes with black.
3) A lot of people say wear neutrals and buy colorful accessories, but I actually prefer neutral accessories-- so when choosing a scarf that comes in multiple colors, unless you LOVE a color and it's fairly unique, probably go for the neutral version, which you will actually wear. I like to tone down something loud with a neutral accessory.
4) In general, stick to "grown up" styles like chic leather, pointed toe shoes, delicate jewelry, etc. When I wear "young" clothing I look very young, so I like to be a little deliberately sophisticated in my clothing choices. From experience, I know this makes me feel the most comfortable and me.

... etc. I know having a style concept or a fashion identity takes time and experience, so you should maybe start one piece at a time. Think, what outfits would I really like to wear on a regular basis? Skirts? Pants? Dresses? And then start seeking out nice versions of each thing in person, gradually accumulating a decent wardrobe. It helps to find a style icon and come up with a few outfit ideas in your head inspired by that style.

For me, I have certain things I like and reasons why I like them. I like trapeze tops because I hate feeling self-conscious about my belly. I like skirts because they're comfortable and wearing tights is nice. I like booties because they go with everything. I like black jeans because to me, they instantly complete an outfit. It's all arbitrary but deep down, you probably know what you like and just need to tie it together.

Also, statement jewelry is a good addition but I think of it as 201 level. I would stick to 101 now-- having a functional wardrobe that makes you feel happy and "you." As you get a better idea of your style, you'll realize what jewelry vibes with that style and you'll be able to invest in versatile pieces that complete your outfits. The "no jewelry" look is fine for now.
posted by easter queen at 8:27 PM on October 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Also, rather than shopping for items that can be dressy or casual, I'd maybe think more about items that are trans-seasonal. That way you won't be like, oh I finally completed my winter wardrobe, oops it's summer!

Pinterest is a good place to type in keywords (like if you love high-heeled booties, you can just type that in) and find a bunch of wardrobe examples. Capsule wardrobing might help you? But it actually kind of hurt me because I spend too much time overplanning and being a perfectionist and buying things I ended up not wearing just because they fit in my capsule.

Also maybe think about your favorite outfits you have right now (or your favorite outfits of all time) and try to describe your style in terms of silhouette, proportions, colors, etc.
posted by easter queen at 8:29 PM on October 31, 2015

The people above me have given you good advice about what to shop for and where, so I'm going to go a little philosophical with my advice. I'm also a student, and am slowly making my way from, 'eh, it's clean and it fits,' to 'wouldn't be embarrassed to walk into a meeting with the CEO.'

Clothing that makes you feel good is an investment in yourself. I'm on the heavy side, and the only clothing I had access to previously made me feel fat and frumpy. Once I came to the US and could find clothing that I liked (not just whatever miserable dregs people like me were forced to wear because of our size) it was like night and day. This wasn't expensive clothing, either- the dress I get the most compliments on was $10 from Target's clearance rack. The important thing is that I was dressing in clothes that made me feel happy, and confident, and powerful. In my case, this was skirts, dresses, and other feminine things, but it might be completely different for you.

So my suggestion to you is this. Before you do any for-real shopping at all, take the time to define your style. Leaf through magazines, find pictures of women whose style you can see yourself emulating. (This is not always the same as women whose style you adore. I love Vivienne Westwood, but on a day-to-day basis I aspire to dress like Michelle Obama or Princess Kate.) Take a day, wander around a mall with a ton of stores, either by yourself or a friend. Try absolutely everything, even clothes you don't think will look good on you at first glance. Take selfies and/or notes, figure out what looks you like, what looks make you feel powerful and competent.

Once you have that down, then start shopping. Depending on your style, I would get a pair of pants, a skirt, and a few tops, all in neutral colours. Don't be afraid of getting just ONE trendy, eye-catching piece, but make sure it matches with at least two other things in your wardrobe. I would honestly not dismiss the idea of a fast fashion starter wardrobe - I would spend, say, $250 on getting a week's worth of good, solid basics and some accessories to jazz them up, and then slowly building my collection of classic, expensive pieces.
posted by Tamanna at 8:34 PM on October 31, 2015 [10 favorites]

Absolutely cost per wear. Or love. But to start out with, dont be afraid of buying a bunch of cheap things. Because the thing is, you probably won't develop your own style until a few years down the track. that's when you'll know whether something is going to work out on a cost per wear basis.


Also, bear in mind that women's fashion unfortunately changes rapidly. While there are some items (good black trousers or skirts, black pumps) which age well, most things will look dated in just a few years. I have some classic blouses which have made it 10 years, but for most things it is immediately obvious that the clothing not recent. It isn't the same for men, which sucks, but that is what it is.

Does COS exist in the US? It's the H&M A Brand, and If find the clothes stylish and relatively affordable. The fabric quality is good.
posted by frumiousb at 8:36 PM on October 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've had decent luck with ThredUp for work clothes at consignment prices. You can sort by size and also retailer. Personally, I do not have good luck with buying things that cost more but I can use forever. I'm not good enough at predicting what I'm going to love enough to wear forever. Plus the idea of wearing it forever feels like a big commitment which might lead to your paralysis. If you don't have a ton of money now, it's ok to save buying investment pieces until you do.
posted by katieanne at 8:38 PM on October 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Though I do think it's worth spending more on clothes that you love and wear all the time, I don't think it's a always a good idea to seek out investment pieces. I wouldn't advise it for you right now, because you're early enough in your sartorial journey that you don't yet know what would be worth the investment for you. It often takes a bit of trial and error to discover your personal style rules, and five or ten years later you'll end up revising them. And it's actually really useful to use mall-store clothes as fodder for experimentation, so if you end up not liking a color or cut, you're not out $100. You'll also learn how to sniff out quality; in my experience the H&M-level stores (as well as a lot of higher-end stores!) have some things that are practically disposable and others that will last for years. It is perfectly fine to start out cheap and slowly rotate in higher-end stuff.

Don't shop online if you can help it. Shop in person, and try everything on. If you have any friends who enjoy shopping and/or have excellent style, ask them to accompany you (and buy them beers afterward). Absolutely use the personal stylist service at Nordstrom if you have one near you, especially since Nordstrom tends to have good quality clothing.

You can and should cheap out on statement jewelry! Yes, there's a definite difference between Claire's and precious metal jewelry-store jewelry, but expensive trendy jewelry is very often no different from the cheap stuff. I like H&M and Forever 21 in particular for cheap but stylish statement necklaces, and sometimes the jewelry-making aisles of big-box craft stores will have cheap stuff that requires little to no assembly.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:50 PM on October 31, 2015

Here's the other thing about places like H&M or TopShop or ASOS -- almost all the stylish, well-put together women you know have and wear pieces from there. The Duchess of Cambridge has worn H&M; Beyonce has worn H&M. So don't shy away from fast fashion because you think it's just going to look crappy -- I have a Forever 21 cardigan that's 10 years old, and everyone thinks is rag &bone. High street is totally allowed and I am 100% sure the other women in your office shop there too. Ditto cheap-o jewelry. I wear two pieces almost all the time: a gorgeous, expensive delicate necklace from Catbird that was like $400...and a bracelet from Forever21 that cost me $3. The cheap stuff is fun and fine -- just don't get, like, enormous faux diamond rings, and you're fine.

More important: Do you have a stylish, bossy friend who would like to go shopping with you and feels no anxiety about these things? (I am this person for some of my friends.) Take a friend who is good at this and have her help you.

And remember: you don't have to do this all at once! You're allowed to just spend one Sunday finding a decent pair of pants or a work dress or whatever, and then go home and chill.

(As for your red skirt question, I have a red skirt! It's more versatile than you think. I can wear it with a white top, a navy top, a denim top (VERY cute), the right black top, a camel-colored top, a gray top, AND a variety of patterned tops. You probably own tops that match it already. )
posted by Countess Sandwich at 8:58 PM on October 31, 2015 [13 favorites]

I have horrible fashion sense. Which directly opposes compliments I get on my fashion sense. The trick I've come to realize for me is paying attention to what other people wear and emulating their styles. Not copying, but getting a general feeling. "Okay a 3/4 sleeve cardigan with a long sleeve button down shirt and a brassy gold necklace does work well with a plaid skirt. So match a cardigan to the dominant skirt color, and play with differing sleeve lengths for layering contrast. Got it." Don't feel bad doing the same thing with your coworkers as long as you're not copying them exactly. Bonus points, people see you looking like them, giving you a leg up on fitting into your office's culture!

Television shows can also be great, and then you can feel free to literally copy outfits. I have often used in-store models and mannequins the same way. It seems like cheating, but it works!

For me, also learned to generally not by single items. I have to have at least one matching top/bottom combo, ideally with layers on top. Sometimes I still slip up, but generally I've realized that when I buy clothing meant to go as an outfit, the overall result is much better. I can still mix and match because there is naturally some overlap, but it works better than single piece buying. I'm a little better now in that sometimes I can see exactly what piece it will go with in my closet. If I can't, no matter how cute, it goes back unless I find something to go with it.

I also shop in the juniors section still, in my late 30s. This is more tricky, because you need to decide what works and what is too young. But the advantage is that many fashion trends hit juniors before disseminating to wider demographics. You can buy high fashion that's very speedy, or be selective how you shop in juniors ( or junior like stores such as h&m or forever 21).

Finally tailoring, tailoring, tailoring. I haven't had much tailored lately do to financial constraints. But it really makes a difference when I do have my clothing tailored. I should probably just learn to sew, but until that day....

Shopping online for clothes generally sucks. So much is about how a specific piece fits. As you know your body and fit better you might be able to make some guesses, but even then it can be tough to get it right all of the time. The only time I do it is for accessories and something that has a really easy, no cost return process. Target is one I've used because I can just return in store. But online shopping can be helpful for getting a feeling for what a store has, and putting some outfit's in your minds eye.

Finally, shopping with a friend can help. Sometimes clothing looks wrong to ourselves because it's a look we're not used to seeing and doesn't match with the image we have in our heads. A friend can correct you and say "oh yes, that looks awesome!" when you're ready to tear something off in shame. Or tell you if something is just not quite right for you...
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:11 PM on October 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have similar issues shopping for clothes and get overwhelmed/paralyzed fairly easily.

My husband gave me a Stitch Fix subscription for my birthday a couple months ago and I love it. You provide measurements and notes, and they send you a box with five items. After the first box or two, everything has at least fit and it's good quality.

I'm updating my work wardrobe, narrowing in on my sense of style, and don't hate doing it. It's a great shopping experience because I try things on at home, in small doses and with my full complement of clothing available to try combinations.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:36 PM on October 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

I hear what you're saying on investing in quality pieces. However, it sounds like you're still in college and still figuring out your personal style. I'd say it's okay to buy some H&M, Ann Taylor Loft type stuff. My sense of style has changed a lot since I was college-aged, and if I had invested in expensive clothing at the time I would have wound up spending a lot things that may have lasted for several years ... gathering dust in my closet.

I think allowing yourself to buy some less expensive clothing, especially at this stage of your life, will take off some of the pressure and allow you some flexibility. Do keep looking at thrift stores, and pick up nice times if you find them, but it's totally okay to buy some work clothes at H&M. Then if you discover that for example you really love tailored button-front shirts and they really work for you as career wear, upgrade when you're ready to buy new ones.
posted by bunderful at 10:08 PM on October 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Since you're still a student have an obligation to dress professinal, I'd hold off before you say no Ann Taylor and H&M. First, you wear XXS so H&M may be one of the few places that carry that size. When I graduated I went dept stores Macy's and JCPENNEY and picked up some basic neutrals. I don't wear dress pants because I look much better in dresses and skirts but a I got some in gray, black and navy and then picked up some simple business causal tops. Since, you starting out by on the cheaper side for now and save your money for investing a good suit, dress shoes, bag etc. Also, I personally find that smaller peoplease are able to pull off cheaper clothesore easily.

Don't discount stores like TJMAXX and Marshalls either. Lastly, I know your hesitant about having to replace something in 2 Yeats but I believe that as you age you should upgrade your wardrobe in an appropriate even for work. For example someone in their 20s dresses very different than someone in their 50s.
posted by CosmicSeeker42 at 12:25 AM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Forget the idea of investing in "classics". As others have said, they're never as classic as people want to believe. (With the exception of wool/cashmere sweaters, and good wool cashmere that lasts and doesn't pill is expensive. Aim for wool if you can, but realistically, blends are mostly what's available in the mid range.) You need clothes to get by for a couple of years. You'll add to them and swap things out as you go.

The quality of mid-level stores is not great and imo not worth the non-sale price, but that's where you should aiming. Banana Republic is made for office wear. Their sizes are probably too big for you, but you might get lucky, try some things on. As an alternative, don't know if you have it where you are, but Club Monaco makes the same kind of stuff - slightly more fashion-forward, smaller sizes, more expensive. Also, your city's best department store.

Wherever you buy, go in person and shop the sales. (I never pay full price at BR, they offer 40% off once a week, usually.)


- 1 pair of "casual dress" work-appropriate shoes. Get these first, so you know where to hem the pants if needed. They should be comfortable, stay way from high heels. Buy another pair in a few months (similar heel height).
- 3-5 pairs of dress pants (~$80-100 is about right, I agree). 1-2 black, 1-2 grey. (1-2 navy or brown if you like. But pick one or the other so you don't have to stress about tops.)
- 1-2 belts.
- 3-4 button-down shirts, to match your pants. 1-2 white or off-white, 1-2 in a pale colour that suits you (pink, yellow, blue; delicate patterns are ok; not frills etc) and matches most of your pants
- 2-3 dressy tees / non-collared shirts, same thing re colours
- 1-2 cardigans, one lighter, one heavier. (Get 1-2 full sweaters later if you want.)
- 1 suit, if you need it, but probably won't be necessary this year, if it's your first job.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:08 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm short (5'1" or ~155 cm) and in my early twenties was a petite XS. In my rocky transition to office wear (I wore babydoll sundresses to my internship at the U.S. Senate), I found that one good skirt plus two or three fast fashion tops and a black or neutral cardigan held me in good stead. If finding one "bottom" (skirt or pants) and pairing it with a top seems too stressful, find one dress that you like. I find that for short women like us, dresses are often the way to go since you don't have to hem it.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:45 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's totally okay to start with cheaper stuff - it's a great way to figure out what you really wear all the time, and what's worth replacing in better quality when it wears out.

Otherwise, I sympathise. Shifting from Forever 21 to.... Not is hard. But I'm 33. When I was 23 I had to dress business professional and it was all carefully selected Forever 21 and GAP.

The clearance racks at Macy's are also generally really good. Nth trying on *everything*. I hate shopping so this was exhausting, but it did help.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:00 AM on November 1, 2015

When someone is overwhelmed like this, I make this recommendation. I give a lot of detail because it will help you get it right first time. It will work if you follow it to the letter.


What dress will fit you even though you are the smallest possible size? The wrap dress. Go to eBay and get 7 knee length wrap dresses with sleeves. Make sure they are "true wrap" dresses that fasten by tying them at the side, not "fixed wrap" or "faux wrap" dresses with a seam. Look carefully to make sure, but sometimes it isn't clear, so if in doubt, leave it out.


Now if I were you, I would look for Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses and stick strictly to that brand only, IF you want to get this right first time. I say this because sometimes wrap dresses made by other brands have problems, like flapping open or being too low cut, whereas with a DVF dress you NEVER have this problem; they are really well made and are design classics for a reason. They are expensive even in the second hand market, sure, but I've so far never made a mistake with one or had one I just wanted to throw out. Also, I am notionally a size 6 in a DVF dress but I have worn them in sizes 4 to 14 and not once have I had a problem with fit.

Having said that, no matter how well the dress fits, you will probably need to use a safety pin at the bust to stop your cleavage from showing. Either that, or go to the mall and get a fistful of tank tops in all colors, and layer one underneath the wrap dress.

Keeping Prices and Stresses Low

Use a bid sniper to set your maximum price without driving the price up or having to keep checking to see if you're winning. If you miss out on one, another will be along soon, so don't stress too much.


I encourage you to get one in solid black, one in another neutral colour, and then just pick the other five in whatever colours and patterns you like the best. Just enjoy!

Keeping Them Clean

As for care, they say "dry clean only" but IME you can just cold hand wash them, which I do at night as part of the undressing process. If you then spin them and hang them straight on a hanger you may not need to iron. Don't just throw them in the machine - the colors will fade.


As for shoes: get two pairs of M&S Insolia or Footglove comfort shoes, in black, at least one of which should be patent because patent will take you from day to evening. You should not wear the same pair of shoes 2 days running. Choose a 1 to 2 inch heel, and definitely not higher than 3 inches.

If the shoe almost fits

Notice that the particular ones I linked to are wide fit, so YMMV. I have wide toes but narrow heels FYI, and their wide fit ones are good for me except they fall off at the heel. You can go to Amazon and get clear plastic straps to keep shoes on for very little money, so that's what I do and hey presto.

Keeping them clean and well-heeled

Wipe the shoes with a baby wipe when you get home in the evening.

Go to a shoe repair store and ask them to sell you a basic shoe polishing kit and two pairs of shoe trees or puffs, and ask them what is the best way to care for patent leather. When the heels wear down, take them to the shoe repair shop and ask for metal heels. You probably cannot resole this particular kind of shoe, but if you can, ask them also to stick on a rubber sole at the same time as you reheel them.


Don't forget the underpinnings. If this isn't right, nothing else will be right.


Go to the lingerie department of a store near you, get fitted, and get two basic bras in a shade close to your skin colour, plus two in black.

Keeping bras clean

After about three wearings, soak a bra overnight in a pan of water and shower gel (best at soakinf off body oils), then rinse, towel, and drip dry in the morning.


Also get 7 pairs of your-skin-colored laser-cut seamless boyshort panties, plus the same in black.


For hosiery, get 14 pairs of fine-gauge fishnet hold-up stockings in a colour close to your skin colour. When these get a hole in them, you can repair it with needle and thread and they will last a very long time. Like, years.


Because your shoes are black, your bag should be black, but personal preference and ergonomics are idiosyncratic so just go to the thrift store and expect trial and error. Also, be warned that real leather bags may transfer color to your clothing, so go for faux leather.

If you're impatient, I have had great luck with LYDC faux leather bags which you can buy online; they have a more expensive real leather range which you won't need.
posted by tel3path at 2:48 AM on November 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh! And I will add this tip.

To keep a wrap dress tied securely, I mean really securely, as well as neatly: you tie ALMOST a normal bow, with one difference. Afger you make the first loop, and as you wrap the other side around the base of the loop - wrap it around twice instead of once. Hey presto, a secure bow without bulk, that stays all day.
posted by tel3path at 3:29 AM on November 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

AND ANOTHER THING it's rare for DVF dresses to be made or lined in 100% synthetic, but if you spot one, don't get it. You want something with some natural fibre in the mix. Then you can wear it all year round.

Also: rayon/viscose is a natural fibre.
posted by tel3path at 3:31 AM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]







posted by tel3path at 3:48 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Scratch that fourth one - it is lined in 100% synthetic and may be too short. Have this instead.
posted by tel3path at 3:51 AM on November 1, 2015

Now, one more bit of explanation. I realize those dresses will seem VERY expensive to you - they do to me, too. I don't normally like to spend a lot of money on one piece. But I'll explain why I think it's a good idea in this case.

Number one, as I already said, the quality is good and the design is such that the dress won't cause you any unexpected problems with fit or comfort.

Number two, the classic DVF wrap dress is timeless. To look at one, you wouldn't know if it was made this year or 40 years ago. They've done reprints from 1974 that look as up to date now as they day they were printed. It is a cliché to say something will "never go out of style" but in this case it's true.

You could keep these for years and in theory never need to replace them. In practice, the colour will probably fade from washing eventually, no matter how careful you are - but you know what you can do then? Dye them. I've always had success dyeing garments as long as I follow the instructions exactly.

And if your style evolves, they have good value in the resale market for the exact reasons I said.

I set the maximum price to GBP 100.00, which is the price at which I can win a DVF auction and still feel like I'm getting away with something. That's about $150 USD. I have gotten things for much less. You could set a lower maximum and search on that. But you also need to get out of your analysis paralysis, so I can definitively tell you that that is a reasonable maximum to set for something this good.
posted by tel3path at 4:25 AM on November 1, 2015

Why has nobody mentioned the capsule wardrobe blogs yet?

Here's one that points you into several great pieces and then shows you how to change looks. Remember those kid's books that had three parts and you could change the eyes, nose and smile of the characters on the page? This site does the same thing.

If you look up building a capsule wardrobe on the internet, you'll get a lot of very helpful visuals.

And I know I rabbit on and on about this website, but Pureple has completely changed how I decide what to wear by having some heavenly algorithm where I can put in my black pants and then it suggests outfits for me to wear. It is super genius.
posted by kinetic at 4:27 AM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh, another thing: I'm not particularly tiny, but I have really short arms and legs, and I have found that it is really worth it to invest in basic alterations. Jackets look a lot less sloppy when I get the sleeves shortened. If you're short, alterations can be a way to avoid the petite section, which is often pretty limited, in my experience. (Petite is clothing-retailer code for short, not thin, by the way.) I also realized at some point that I'm not proportioned for petite clothes, because my torso is too long, so I look better and am more comfortable in normal pants that have been hemmed than in petite pants with the right inseam. Unless you have a sewing machine and can do it yourself, you might end up needed to budget an additional $10 for every pair of pants for hemming. Some stores hem for free. I think J. Crew does, and Uniqlo definitely does.

Another hack that works for me, which might work for you if you have short arms and legs, is to get ankle-length pants and three-quarters-length tops and wear them as normal length. I also can buy things that were intended to be miniskirts, and they fall at a modest right-below-the-knee length on me.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:02 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nth earlier comments who emphasize that your approach is going to be slightly different because of your size. Lands' End's smallest size is XSP but it runs more like a SP. (I am about your size and have tried enough boxy LE pieces to know, especially now that they've discontinued the smaller-sized Lands' End Canvas line.) I've also had terrible luck at consignment and thrift stores for clothes/shoes, although sometimes you can find great scarves there.

You definitely can find business-appropriate clothing at H&M, and if you baby them (no dryer ever), they'll last longer than you expect. Also try LOFT which carries down to XXS and XXSP online; they do carry XSP in-store so you can try that on for fit. The next step up, for quality, is Nordstrom.

Stalking eBay for used designer pieces is kind of like fashion 301, so I wouldn't recommend it to you unless you know that you want something very specific. Lots of women, including myself, look terrible in wrap dresses and it being a DVF wrap dress doesn't change that. You really want some definition between bust and waist to wear a wrap dress well, so it's great for pear or hourglass shapes regardless of size, not so great for small-busted rectangles who fit a smaller bust size than waist size. (Is all this body type/shape talk confusing you? Read this and then look through the blog archives for the body type page that most closely resembles you, keeping in mind that most women have a primary and secondary type.)
posted by serelliya at 7:26 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I work in an office where we all have to dress nicely. For women to look well put-together, it doesn't have to be about wearing expensive clothing from head to toe. Finishing touches to make a complete outfit are more important - pretty shoes in good condition, a bit of jewelry, hair and makeup done well.

Most of my clothes are neutral colours in classic styles so that they are easy to mix and match - black, grey, muted browns, and white/cream. This way my clothes don't go out of fashion. Most of my jewelry is in gold tones because a) it goes with my complexion and b) it stands out against the neutral clothes. I bring colour into my wardrobe with scarves, which also keep me warm in the office.

Don't worry about buying "investment" clothes right away, you'll be happier with those items if you give it some thought, wait for sales, and keep your eye out for the right thing... maybe ask for it for your birthday. It is more important to figure out the style you want to go for, and the gaps in your wardrobe to achieve that style. I have found some nice suitable clothes at H&M, blouses and dresses that have been holding up very well - they were only $25 each, regular price. A good basic dress might be $80 or more but I have worn the same ones for a few years now. I shop sales all the time, particularly for jewelry, and I don't buy anything unless I absolutely love it and know I can wear it with a few different things in my wardrobe.
posted by lizbunny at 7:54 AM on November 1, 2015

How much time are you willing to spend on maintenance? Pure merino cardigans need special washing, have to be monitored for moth holes, etc. I'd go for a wool-acrylic blend, myself, unless you are already the kind of person who lovingly hand-washes her perfectly fitted bras on Mondays and Thursdays.

If you want a prescriptive answer: buy three interesting scarves and two cardigans now. Buy one item a month on sale for the rest of your wardrobe; very small sizes tend to be easier to find on sale, so you have an advantage here.
posted by yarntheory at 8:25 AM on November 1, 2015

If you are in your workplace as a student, for the most part the expectation is going to be that you have less money and experience at having an appropriate work wardrobe. Which is great because it takes all this pressure you're feeling off of you. Why not start small and cheap? Cheap is what you can afford right now. It will last until you have the time, money, and emotional space available to make an investment, if you want to. I'd also really strongly agree with the previous posters who have said that making an investment right from the get-go will be a waste of your money long-term, because, being new to this, you won't know a lot about what suits your body and a typical work environment in your field. Tel3path's advice upthread, for example, would have me out a thousand dollars on dresses that are both 100% inappropriate for my workplace and not my style, but I would not have known that when still a student. (I would have loved the idea of them at that point, and I'm sure that the advice would work for other folks.)

>is $30 an unreasonable upper limit for pants?
Not at this point. Possibly not even in general once you know what you like. I have a particular pair of Gap pants that suit me perfectly and seem to be pretty well-made. I get them when they're on sale for about that price, and always have a few in rotation. You may have to pay a little more for immediate convenience.

>Is it unreasonable to buy a red skirt if I will feel mentally locked in into buying a top that matches with it, too?
If the idea of the item taking up space in your closet doesn't please you, don't get it.

>Do I try to buy from one online retailer so that I can get free shipping?
Buy in person if at all possible unless you have a very strong sense of how that particular brand fits your particular body or are willing to let that money be a waste. It's funny you mention Woolover's because I just bought enough for free shipping from them, but frankly I make enough money now that if they are terrible, I'll be disappointed but won't need to live on ramen to make up for my mistake.

>Should I try to maximize my wardrobe by searching for pieces that could work in both casual and office settings (e.g., colored or patterned pencil skirts), which would put additional pressure on me to find "the perfect" [clothing item]?
You already own a wardrobe of casual clothing, so I wouldn't worry about this too much.

> accessories
201-level stuff. In most industries, a wardrobe that makes no impression beyond "not inappropriate" is just fine, so this is another thing you can save for after school is done, unless it makes you happy to do.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:42 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Go to stores that carry the clothes you like. Try on and figure out what fits and fits well. Then as time provides, head to consignment stores/Goodwill/Salvation Army and look for items from that store. In my case I love the fit of Talbots and Chicos, but will not, and can not pay full retail for them. Also in my area, the xs xxs racks are the most full. Don't stress, go out there and make a sport of it.
posted by PJMoore at 8:43 AM on November 1, 2015

I think she's a grad student in a professional program, for what it's worth, so probably not your typical 22-year-old undergrad.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:51 AM on November 1, 2015

they're never as classic as people want to believe

With the exception of DVF wrap dresses. (Good call, tel3path. I have two and ♥ them.)

Imo wool tailored shift dresses are great additions for later.

posted by cotton dress sock at 9:09 AM on November 1, 2015

Thanks, everyone. I should have clarified this earlier, but the main issue is actually the amount of time and energy I am stressing about this, and not the actual logistics of putting together a wardrobe. I literally put off sleeping just in order to look at more clothing online. This has gone on for the past two weeks. I think I understand the concept of putting together a capsule wardrobe, of when to splurge and when to buy fast fashion. The real issue is that feel like I am taking out all my anxiety on this wardrobe, and but I can't pinpoint what the actual source of anxiety is. Basically, I grew up not super well-off and my family gradually earned more money over the years. My parents always kind of guilt-tripped me when I was younger if I wanted clothing or something else deemed frivolous. So this transition is really rough and even though I think I'm okay at coordinating stuff, the guilt has really been internalized and I still feel like a little kid peering in to q candy (clothing) store.
posted by fernweh at 9:20 AM on November 1, 2015

Oh god. OP, are you me? Because that guilt is so damned familiar - just this morning I had to spend half an hour convincing myself to book a shuttle to/from the airport rather than take three buses half-asleep and dead on my feet just because it would be about $30 cheaper.

It's not easy, getting over guilt like that... but it is possible. If at all you have access to therapy, please consider it. My therapist was really useful to me in not only breaking from old patterns of behaviour but also learning how to trust my own instincts rather than the voices in my head, and also providing a reality check that I was NOT being crazy/unreasonable/frivolous.

In the mean time, as someone who's been there, who STILL struggles even with spending money on basic, essential things that could be considered frivolous (like $100 on a winter coat that fits me and actually keeps me warm rather than some cheap-ass $30 POS) I want to tell you that nice things aren't frivolous, and they're not a waste of money. You have to live 100% of your life in this body, and you deserve to clothe it in things that are not necessarily the cheapest/best value ever.

Hang in there, and feel free to MeMail if you want to talk.
posted by Tamanna at 9:35 AM on November 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

Do you have trouble making decisions in other part of your life? I certainly do. Not about spending money in particular, but I can relate to the stress you're feeling.

I've been going to see a CBT therapist and working on making decisions, and also not putting of doing things that make me anxious. My therapist had me make a list of things I'm anxious about doing and then just forcing myself to do them. It is very satisfying to check them off! Sometimes I do a happy dance out loud when I'm done, or tell my husband. Perhaps something like this would work for you?
posted by radioamy at 9:38 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh and in terms of trying to reduce the money you're spending, go sign up for email lists for every store you can think of. You might want to create a separate email account for this as it can get a little overwhelming/spammy. But practically every store has sales all the damn time. I pretty much never shop at places like Gap or Loft without at least a 30% off coupon.
posted by radioamy at 9:40 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Aha, ok. Well, there are probably a few understandably anxiety-causing issues. One might be the transition from student (with a range of possible futures) to working adult committed to a particular future, with responsibilities and some authority. Work clothes are a kind of costume it takes time to get used to, might feel inauthentic for a while, like you're wearing someone else's clothes. Worrying about getting the codes "wrong", and sending the "wrong" message across (via clothes in this instance) might apply? Imposter syndrome, maybe? There might be some anxiety related to class culture, as well - are you the first in your family to go into white-collar professional work?

Fake it until you make it. You need these clothes (and belts, shoes, purse, and coat - but not jewelry, scarves optional) to fake it so you can make it. Eventually, they'll feel more natural on.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:48 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

OP, I share your issues, both on clothing size and spending anxiety. Most of my childhood clothes came from thrift stores and consignment shops; my mother still finds it absurd that I spend $20 a month on a haircut when I could cut my hair myself for free.

If your wardrobe is causing you a significant amount of mental distress (and it sounds like it is), buying new clothes is not frivolous spending. It's validation of your own emotional and practical needs, and you should give yourself permission to do it.

If you buy something that you quickly regret, you can return it! Many online stores that carry petite sizing (J Crew Factory, Zappos) offer free shipping for for returns, and for stores that don't, you can usually return items for free at a physical store location. Giving myself permission to return things was a game changer for me, in terms of taking chances on clothes I previously avoided out of "what if I don't like it when it comes?" anxiety.

If spending a lot of money at once stresses you out, give yourself a monthly budget and buy 1-2 pieces at a time until you have what you need.

You deserve to present yourself to the world in a way that pleases you. Take a chance on some clothes that will help you do that. You have nothing to lose.
posted by Owlcat at 10:30 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you can bring yourself to buy one good-quality item, you might find that just the appreciation you have for it will make you realise it's worth it. I've never spent much on clothes, but about three years ago let myself spend about £130 on a down jacket - probably the most I'd ever spent on anything other than a computer or vehicle, and I took a long time to persuade myself to do it. It's so warm, and light, and a great colour, that it makes me happy every time I put it on, and I'm really glad I paid for it, as a result of the many days I've put it on and gone "Ahhh!".

I've also now got a running jacket that cost £100+ and which I marvel at every time I put it on (so flattering! so stretchy! so waterproof without being sweaty!) and a lovely leather bag (so soft and lovely to touch, such a great shape, smells divine...!). I've also still got lots of cheap stuff too, but those spendy ones give me a lot of pleasure.

And as others have said above, when you buy something good-quality, and you find it lasts for years, it stops feeling like it was an extravagance. You don't have to do this all at once.
posted by penguin pie at 11:31 AM on November 1, 2015

Would you also feel guilty if you were in a profession that requires an actual uniform? Try to frame it as uniform, because that what it is. Your professional wardrobe serves the same purpose, just more subtly. So that may be another way of looking at it.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:33 AM on November 1, 2015

Get on the email lists for the stores you like so you get notices of sales and coupons. LL Bean often has nice wool sweaters, and occasional discounts by email. In stores like Macy's, there are often small sizes in the clearance sales, but you have to shop often to find good stuff.

Buy 1 or 2 new outfits, and then start bargain shopping for more classic items.

Make sure you wear shoes in good condition. I just polished my shoes and boots and they went from sad and bedraggled to looking quite good. I realized I've had these boots for 7 years, so cost per wear is extremely reasonable.

At work, when you see someone looking polished, ask for advice. It's a tremendous compliment when it's sincere.
posted by theora55 at 12:24 PM on November 1, 2015

The places you mentioned as too cheap/shoddy are exactly the places you should be looking as you put together a basic work wardrobe for beginners.

You (like me) aren't in the place emotionally or expertise-wise to be shopping for "investment" pieces -- and frankly, I have never seen the mystique of these be born out, with the single exception of DVF wrap dresses. Women's clothing is made of flimsy fabrics more often than not*, and plenty of "designer" labels have the same flimsy fabric and meh stitching. You'll learn over time how to wash knits to get a little longer wear out of them, etc; but the likelihood of your clothes wearing out is very high, and you would not be well served by splashing out on high end clothing yet.

Find a cut of black pants that suits you from Kohls or H&M or Target or Macy's or wherever. Once you've found one that fits right, buy three or four. Hem one or two of them to go with the flattest heel height you like to wear. Make sure the other is at the right length to go with the highest heel you're likely to want to wear with pants.

Buy a black belt. Cheap is ok, you're probably not wearing blouses tucked into pants. You just want to be sure your pants don't sag towards the end of the day, when they've stretched out a bit. I'm embarrassed to say how many years it took me to figure out that a belt was the right way to solve this.

Then buy some tops that don't clash with black.

Then a couple of dresses that make you feel great. Macy's often sells knockoffs of the DVF ones. That's a great cut that lasts.

Skirts are great if you wear them. Heading into fall now, I'd probably only buy weights that would work with tights, and make sure you have shoes for them. If you don't have a shoe/boot for them then skip it til you do.

Comfortable black shoes. Make sure the heel height is right for the pants you've got. Cuffs should be about 1 inch off the ground. You can't wear the same pants with heels as with flats.

Make outfits with accessories - the have amazingly cheap and fun colorful stuff at Forever 21. Don't buy any jewelry you don't have a top for.

The single biggest thing: audit your closet. Everything in there should go into two piles: "ready to put on and wear on weekend" and "ready to put on and wear to work." If it's anything else -- like "will fit when I lose 5 lbs... would fit if I had a different bra for it... not really anything I want to wear right now but maybe someday... would fit if I ever got around to hemming it... is brown and doesn't match anything else I have" it should not go back in the closet. Either it gets thrown away or dealt with (hemmed, etc.) It's ok if the piles are small!! It's much better to have a streamlined-but-everything-works situation waiting for you in the morning than a bunch of questions and dead ends to wade through.

Do laundry on the weekend so it's all ready on Monday morning.

It feels AMAZING to not have to worry about finding stuff to wear in the morning and the closet audit is the biggest part of that. Have fun!

*the exceptions seem to map to dowdy cuts, like like Land's End
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:51 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hey I'm basically an expert in this, so can I make a suggestion?

VALUE VILLAGE. Here's the trick:

Sign up for VV's store card. They will email you and tell you in advance when there is a 50-percent off sale.

Now disclaimer -- I'm a man. But I'm regularly complimented on the way I dress. And I cheerfully tell people that my closet almost ENTIRELY comprises clothes from VV. I recently spent $36 on shirts there, each of which would normally cost at least that much. I got NINE.

Plus it makes you feel good about recycling.
posted by Alaska Jack at 1:05 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I see what you're saying about how this has turned into a focus point of anxiety for you.
First things first, clearly this isn't working for you, so you've got to try a new approach! Suck it up, go to the mall and spend about $300 on clothes that fit you well and make you feel confident.
Justify this expense with this insight from an anti-jeans-in-the-office opinion piece I read a while back: if you show up to a football game, they aren't going to let you on the field if you aren't in full kit. To be successful in an office, it is REALLY going to help your chances if you look the part - which means having a decent work wardrobe that looks professional and includes 5-7 outfits (repurposing items to make up those outfits is fine, so long as no one can tell).
You will have a better chance to make more money if you're well pulled together in the office, end of story.
To the previous poster who mentioned the cab vs bus anxiety-inducing dilemma... Something that helps me is being aware that if I make a big sacrifice like that, I will probably use up that "credit" elsewhere from making bad decisions elsewhere because I'm tired.
posted by dotparker at 2:14 PM on November 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Capitol Hill Style does a Corner Office/Middle Cubicle/Intern Desk feature in her "Morning Line" posts which shows the boss/expensive version of an article of clothing, as well as two less expensive options. It's a pretty good series in showing new professionals how to look like a professional, in less casual clothes, while not spending more than you're earning or locking yourself into expensive pieces that end up not suiting your personal style,

In my opinion, young women who are new to professional life ought to do the capsule wardrobe thing: 2-3 bottoms (pants, pencil skirts, a-line skirts, whichever you like best and suits you best in neutrals), 2-3 dresses (wrap dresses, sheath dresses, fit and flare--again, whatever suits you, in solid, neutral colors like navy, black, grey, camel), 8-15 tops (blouses, nicer tees, sweaters), 2-3 cardigans or blazers, 3 pairs of professional shoes Add 1-3 suits as your profession requires. Mix in statement jewelry, scarves, boots, and you're good to go.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:45 PM on November 1, 2015

Here you go chickadee, 7 more DVF wrap dresses with a maximum price of GBP 50.00, all Buy It Now, all at least part natural fibre, all from highly rated sellers:








So like I said, the main thing is to get rid of your analysis paralysis and as these do reliably have at least some resale value, and are guaranteed to fit you, you could just get these and be done with it.

Nthing whoever said never to put anything in the dryer. In my house we air dry and I think that's why all my clothes tend to last really well, including the cheap tat. And as I said - there may be no need to iron.

And also nthing those who said that most designer stuff is indistinguishable from the cheap tat nowadays anyway. Sad but true. It may be especially true on a young woman with a very slim figure. So if you're going to pick stuff that's not a DVF wrap dress you might as well go to the bottom of the market. As long as it fits you really well, and you take good care of it, it'll look just as good as the high-end equivalent and last reasonably well too.
posted by tel3path at 3:37 PM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I suffer from this problem as well. For me, it has definitely been a manifestation of class-based impostor syndrome, and the logic goes something like this: 1) I don't deserve / can't afford / shouldn't waste money on nice clothes! 2) But, not having them, I stick out like a sore thumb! 3) I hate sticking out like this! I'm going to buy a bunch of things I can't afford in order to look/feel like I blend in!

It sounds like you are much wiser than me in that you don't actually do step 3, but I see a bit of this thought process in your rejection of the "H&M, Express, ASOS, Ann Taylor Loft, ModCloth [I'd add Target]" type stores (which, as a fellow student, I would venture to say are actually in your price range) in favor of "high quality" items you actually can't afford (but which are the types of things you would like to buy, thinking aspirationally about yourself as someone who makes even more money than you do now).

Bottom line, your guilt is both logical (you actually can't afford these very lovely but very expensive Woolovers cardigans) and illogical (but you CAN afford a perfectly nice cardigan from any of the places mentioned above!). It's basically that you're not able to perceive your own clothing budget clearly, maybe in part because it sounds like you are living at least partly on loans so your money doesn't really feel like it's yours (this was a factor for me; but listen, it IS yours, since you'll be paying that money back; and you deserve to be proud of the fact that you are mostly funding yourself through scholarships and jobs).

Personally, the way I have solved this problem for myself is by setting a monthly clothing budget (say $50, or 5% of your monthly overall budget, or whatever feels reasonable within your overall financial picture) and then thinking of that as a fixed cost, like groceries--because as others have pointed out, it is professionally necessary. Then, just totally free yourself of guilt for spending (and challenge yourself TO spend) that amount, and no more, each month. It isn't wasteful, and it isn't emotional impulse spending; it's a necessary form of self-care intentionally built into your budget, and if you get something that you don't love you'll have another chance to try again next month.

And, finally, it helps me to recognize that whatever clothes I get won't in and of themselves make me feel like I belong in my workplace. That's a gift I have to give myself, wearing whatever I'm wearing.
posted by Owl of Athena at 3:44 PM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

After having read through your follow-ups on what's triggering your anxieties on this I'm going to heavily recommend that you outsource this, to something like what other commenters have mentioned- StitchFix or a free stylist at a department store.

That way you won't be spending as much mental energy on the choosing and deciding part. When you pay for it, don't think about it as spending frivolous money on clothing- it is a required expense to be part of the adult working world.

Best of luck.
posted by raw sugar at 3:04 PM on November 2, 2015

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