Thursday, March 01, 2012

Wardrobe Essentials: How To Build a Foundation For Your Best Work Wardrobe

As I've mentioned before, when I first began my current job almost a year ago now, I literally had one pair of pants, two shirts, and a blazer.  I was totally unsure what my own personal style was, not to mention how I was going to acquire the clothes that I needed for the position I'd taken on the budget that position provided!  I was hired to fill a Receptionist position in a multi-national, Fortune 500 company, who had very firm ideas of how they wanted their company represented at it's main entrance.  I cover over 500 employees, all professionals in one of the R&D divisions.  On any given day, I will assist Vice Presidents from our company offices in France, Ireland, India, or Mexico....make small talk with Ambassadors of countries representing our interests overseas, serve coffee to patent attorneys from in from back East....and my employers require a very put-together, professional look.  At the time, I totally bluffed my way into the job working with what I had on hand, literally grabbing the blazer on my way to my final interview!  With tricks of the mind and sleights of hand, I was able to fake my way through my initial month or so using cardigans, jewelry, and scarves, as I tried to figure out what my style was going to be.

If you are finding yourself in a similar position, are wanting to build a new more up-to-date wardrobe, or just desire to breath some new life into your current work wardrobe choices, there are a few basic foundation pieces that you'll want to have.

Two Pairs of Comfortable Yet Dressy Pants
A good pair or two of nice, slacks are an essential wardrobe basic item.   Think of them as the pencil that draws the outfit you'll be wearing.  These should be of medium weight, good fabric, and not too easily prone to wrinkles.  Look for a poly-blend; but when doing so, make sure they're of good quality....not the kind your Aunt Esther wears in colors not found in nature.  Go for black and dark blue as your seed pair.  These colors contrast with almost every color top and accessory and are easy to turn into completely different looking outfits, even if they're the only two pairs of work pants you can afford for awhile.   If you can't find something like this on the sales racks for reasonably cheap at Kohl's, Dillard's, or JC Penney's, fantastic stores to find these in are stores like Ross, Marshall's, and TJ Maxx, discount fashion stores that sell overstocked or mislabeled clothing for a fraction of what it originally sold at higher end retail stores.  Last week I picked up a pair of navy Jessica Simpson cuffed trousers that originally retailed for $69.  I paid $12.99.  I can honestly say that they are some of the best-fitting pants that I've ever owned.  But I wouldn't have shelled out at their original price.

The navy pair of pants alone can be paired with literally any colored top.  When dressing for a professional position, I've found it isn't so much the colors you pair together that make or break an outfit as it is the styles you pair together.  We'll get into that in a different post.

A black pair of pants will also go with anything at all.  You can take a pair of simple black slacks, that are paired with any colored Oxford shirt, a  brightly colored scarf in coordinating colors, and a pair of low-heeled shoes, a fantastic basic work outfit.  If you've got an important dinner, or a date after work, throw a couple of long gold chains, some gold earrings and a chunky bracelet, and a bright colored pair of heels into a bag, and you can change in your office bathroom and you've got an entirely different look for an evening out.  There were a number of weeks that the only pair of pants I owned was a black pair, and I've learned that the women I work with had literally no idea that was all I was working with.  And my very bestest best advice is an assurance that you can find a truly good quality pair of pants or two for just over $20 if you search out your local discount fashion stores.

                                 A Mid-length Skirt
This is one of those items that never goes out of style.  A simple black or dark blue skirt, about knee-length, can take you through a good 40-year span of your fashion life.  It's one of those simple, basic items that never change in themselves, but travel through trend after trend, never aging at all.  Because they've been around for so long, you can find them in every second-hand shop anywhere you go, in every style and length and material imaginable.  If you'd like to have a little bit more variety in your selections, go for a dark grey/charcoal or brown, something different than the pant colors you've selected.  These are also good colors to ahve around and will go well with the black blazer/white blouse combination as a good pallette for a bright scarf or piece of jewelry.
If you'd like a little bit of a change, choose a dark grey, or even a print with lots of color that won't tie you to just one look.  For instance, this skirt could go with that white blouse, blue, orange, or really any variety of colors that are in the skirts' pattern.

A White Button-down Shirt
Finding one of these was one of my biggest challenges.  Not that a simple white shirt with buttons is hard to find.  But finding the perfect white button-down shirt took me months.  In my experience, you want one that meets the following criteria:
  • Is of a medium-weight material heavy enough not to wrinkle too easily.
  • Is not too long or too short.  You'll want to be able to have enough of it to tuck in  or leave out depending on the look you're going for.
  • It shouldn't be too sheer, but at the same time not so heavy that you're limited to wearing it only in winter.
  • A fitted blouse gives you less leeway for different outfits, whereas a looser-fitting top will allow you to wear it tucked in and bloused, left out and belted, left out and loose, tied in a knot at the belt line for Casual Friday....far more versatility than a fitted shirt provides (those are nice to have too, but aren't essential for a beginning wardrobe).
  • Buttons in a neutral color.  You'd be amazed how hard it is to find plain buttons on a plain shirt.  I finally found a shirt I loved in every way, but the buttons were outlined in gold with black centers.  For about $3, I picked up some plain white/clear buttons, bought the blouse, and just replaced the buttons myself. (Btw, this trick alone will freshen up the shirts or jackets already in your closet.  You'd be amazed what changing the buttons will do to the look of a piece!)
Because a white button-down shirt is one of those timeless pieces that tend to incorporate itself within every trend, you won't have any difficulty finding a dearth of them everywhere you go, no matter what time of year.  For this piece, I would specifically suggest a reuse shop.  Not only is second-hand your most inexpensive option, they will have the largest selection of different styles of this specific item.  Most of the reuse shops I frequent have row upon row of hangers, each a different white shirt, and most in good quality condition.  Take the time to find the shop that has the highest quality inventory overall...these stores tend to be on the "good side of the tracks".  Pick out 5 or 6 that appeal to you and always try them on first.  In fact, grab a pair of dress pants on your way into the dressing room, and try the shirts on with the pants to get a better idea of how the end result will look.  After a lot of trial and error, the shirt I ended up picking as my go-to white, I paid $2.50, and I promise you will find the same!

A Short-Sleeved, Feminine Blouse (or two) In Your Favorite, Most Flattering Colors
Again, the reuse shop is the best place with the biggest selection.  My current favorite shop right now, Ares Thrift Store in Loveland, Colorado, is set up with sizes on the racks according first to clothing type (long-sleeved blouse, short-sleeved blouse, t-shirt, sweater, etc.), and then by color.  This could not make finding exactly what you're looking any simpler.  My last trip, I was looking for a shirt that had bright coral in it.  Yes, I know the rule is that you should purchase shoes to match your clothes and not the other way around, but I fell in love with a coral pair of platforms and had nothing to wear them with.  But I digress...about shoes...go figure...Anyway, I tooled into the store, which is the size of a grocery store, and where I've found the most amazing deals.  Within about 10 minutes, I had about as many choices, and it was only a matter of trying them on and deciding which to pick for the look I was going for.  For you, choose a color that is not only flattering to your coloring and build, but one that makes you fell absolutely fantastic when you put it on.  Make sure that you can pair it with both pairs of pants.

Black Blazer, Black or White Cardigan
This is sort of the bread course of your outfit.  Again, you can find a very good quality blazer at one of the discount stores listed above.  I've also found fantastic bargains on designer jackets at resale shops.  Actually, the bulk of my blazers I've bought second-hand, and I haven't spent more than $5 on any of them.  I started off with the black Kenneth Cole that I picked up on the way to my last interview, and spent my last $20 bill and change.  That was the last 'new' blazer I bought.  Since then, I've gotten a fantastic dark grey-green, a bright red wool (that looks fantastic with dark-wash jeans and that white shirt, and I paid $3 for it!), and a navy wool that goes with the grey slacks, the khaki chinos, and the navy slacks.  I've literally spent more on having a fabulous designer blazer dry cleaned after buying it second-hand than I paid for the blazer itself.  Be ware of spots, especially on the cuffs and collar, and make sure that you've checked it over very well in good light before purchasing it.  Most stains will come out with a good dry cleaning (again, usually under $5 for each piece), but if you've spent very little on it, those that don't come out won't hurt quite so much as if you had spent a large sum on the jacket to begin with.  In this gamble, I've only had to discard one piece that I misjudged a stain that didn't come out on dry cleaning (and it was a white jacket from Bloomingdale's that I paid $4.25 for, so my heart wasn't broken). :)

Another must-have is a good sweater or cardigan in a neutral color.  These (lucky for those of us saving) are another of those timeless items that trend well and are available in every second-hand shop in America.  Again, I've picked them up for as little as $1, in fabulous condition, and in every color imaginable.  If you're just starting off, pick one or two in both neutral and in a fun color.  These are paired well with the blouses you've picked as your basics, and can go with different jewelry, pairs of shoes, and scarves.  They're great in winter in that they provide extra warmth for layering, and work just as well in summer when you want to wear a sleeveless top but don't feel comfortable showing arm (or it's against your company's dress code).  Another great place to pick these up for very little is Forever 21.  Their online store has a great selection in tons of fun colors, all for usually under $10.  

    Pair of Comfortable Yet Dressy Neutral-colored Shoes

Another must-have is a pair of comfortable, preferably black, dress shoes.  These don't have to be high-heeled, though even a kitten heel gives a dressier impression.  Your first pair of work shoes should be closed-toe, either a loafer or a pump.  Try to find one that is matte-finish, not patent (flat-color, not shiny).  You want something understated that will go with everything you're collecting, not a pair of shoes that jump out of your outfit. Not that there's anything wrong with that!  I love my cherry red patent leather Mary Jane's!  (In fact, I'm wearing them right now!).  Statement shoes have their place, but they generally don't go with more than a few select outfit combinations, whereas the shoes pictured at left will go with everything dahhh-ling.

I know I'm sounding like a digitally-unsound MP3 here, but again, Ross, Payless, Walmart, and Target are your best places for finding this item at a price you'll hardly blink at.  If you've followed this blog for long at all, you know what a shoe whore I am.  These places are my favorite place to haunt for amazing new pairs, and I don't feel the least bit guiltly when I'm paying $10 for a pair of shoes I absolutely love.

Accessories, Accessories, Accessories!!!

Finally, begin collecting accessories.  With only two scarves and a few necklaces and bracelets, you can make a variety of different outfits and looks for every day of the week.  Great places to pick up scarves on sale is Walmart and Target.  You can usually find one or two in the clearance aisle that you'd find a way to incorporate into an outfit for work.   Choose bright, multi-colored scarves.  The more colors the scarf has in it, the more ways you'll be able to pair it.  Animal prints are huge right now, and a nice understated python or cheetah print goes beautifully with the blazer and white blouse.  You can usually find a large selection at reuse shops, but I've rarely found anything very stylish when it comes to this item.  On the up-side, they're a dime a dozen almost everywhere else!  Ebay is a great place for inexpensive scarves, as it Amazon!  Look on line for ways to style them.  The options are limitless, even in summer!

Jewelry is another must-have.  This is the funnest thing to shop for, as there really aren't any rules.  Try to keep things understated for work, but have fun with it!  As far as essentials, my go-to is a strand of pearls, extra long that I can leave long, wrap twice for a shorter look, or tie in a loose knot in the front.  For $9 at Walmart in the jewelry making sections by crafts, you can get a tub of 'pearls' that are drilled-through.  For another $2, you can get a roll of stretchy filament.  With these two items, you can make a rope of pearls exactly to your own liking, along with matching bracelets (simply string them on a length of the stretchy-see-through string, and tie in a few good knots when you reach the desired length, and Bob's your uncle!).  I can't tell you how many times I've used just this one resource alone in an outfit.  If you're not superstitious, pawn shops have fantastic pieces for a fraction of what you'd pay.  Another resource, again, is Walmart and Target, who change out their jewelry selection a few time a year, which means that you can almost always find something on sale.  I've picked up a stack of bangles like these, 25 to be exact, on sale for $3.99.  These can be mixed and matched in different combinations, or worn singly for different looks.

Handbags are another option, though tend to run a little more for quality.  If you have one good, black or dark brown bag, you'll do fine.  Bags can be a little extravagant.  Again, reuse shops are good for this, but you have to be careful; I've noticed most of them have been loved past their prime!  But I found one amazing bag for $6 that I still use today.  Bags are also very trendy, and so they look dated very quickly.  But if you're careful and remember to stay understated in this category, you can find some good bargains.

Trouser socks are another item you can find at Ross or Marshall's, usually four or five pairs for about $3.  Stock up.  These are great for winter when you can't go bare-legged.

Finally, don't be afraid to think outside the box!  I saw a cute outfit using a mans necktie in a magazine that I copied and have had so many compliments on it, I've begun wearing the style a few times a month just for something fun and different!  For $5.49 in the men's section at Ross, I was able to find a Calvin Klein skinny black necktie that Rik was kind enough to tie for me.  It looks so cute with black slacks, a bright red button-down shirt, and black blazer.  I'm on the lookout for a cute pair of skinny suspenders to mix it up a little bit as the weather gets warmer.  But I always get the nicest compliments.  It tends to stand out in a group of women, something men find intriguing for some reason :)
Most of all, look at the building of your wardrobe as something fun  you're doing in exploration of your Self.  How we look gives others their first impression of who we are.  You don't have to have anything expensive or loud to express yourself.  It doesn't have to be new or even modern to be stylish!  It's true that the most stylish item you'll ever put on is confidence.  But in dressing confidently, make a rule that you're only going to choose pieces that make you feel amazing, and beautiful, and fierce.  When you shop smart, I promise that you'll be able to build an amazing, fashionable wardrobe without wasting a single second worrying about the money you spent on yourself.  Make yourself a priority; it really doesn't have to break the bank.  And when you feel good, those people who love you feel good and your interactions change, too!  You are your smartest, most worthy investment.  Don't sell yourself short.  You are so worth this.