how do I build a professional wardrobe when I’m just starting out?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I’m (she/her) going to be graduating and beginning work next year. I’ll be working in a more professional environment than I have in the past, and I’m thinking about building up my wardrobe. What are good pieces to have? I’ve been buying blazers and button-down shirts but when I think about a professional person’s wardrobe, I can’t really picture it. I would also like advice on shoes. I am not a heels person, but don’t know what (comfortable) shoes would still look professional and nice.

We covered putting together a business casual wardrobe last year, so today let’s get some advice on building a more formal business wardrobe. Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 550 comments… read them below }

    1. Kate*

      Funny (yet embarrassing) story:

      When I was earlier on in my career, I never felt particularly professional on the inside. I somehow got the idea in my head that if I dressed like the “real” professional women I admired, who always seemed to be in shift dresses.

      Long story short, I acquired quite the closet of shift dresses, and most of them still have tags on them.

      Turns out that every morning, I would go to get dressed, and every morning, I would somehow still wind up dressed in dress pants. I am incorrigible!

      It has been an expensive lesson in judging my insides by other peoples’ outsides.

      Actual advice: you don’t have to build a professional wardrobe all at once. It’s okay to go piece by piece. A business jacket is a great place to start– you can get away with a cheap blouse or even a t-shirt underneath them if you have a good one, but it’s harder to get away with an expensive blouse and a cheap blazer.

      1. Hey Nonnie*

        Piggybacking on this story, one of my best early-professional-life epiphanies was when I saw a co-worker, who was also about my age, wearing Doc Marten shoes with a professional pants-and-blazer outfit. She looked great, and I never wore pumps or any other uncomfortable shoes at work again. (This was in Washington, DC, so suit-and-tie was de rigueur professional wear.)

        If men can wear nice oxfords, loafers, or boots, so can we.

        1. Ra94*

          Her outfit sounds super cool, but I have to day, Doc Martens would never fly in the formal office environments I’ve been in (for men or women). Women’s oxfords and loafers are very popular, though!

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            Please do realize there may be more than fashion choice if you see someone wearing them. Strong laceup boots provide excellent support for people with ankle issues and/or recovering from injury. And those of us whose jobs send us out into manufacturing or shipping&receiving areas often are required to have steel-toed footwear.

            1. Ra94*

              Laceup boots can look professional, but the chunky and classic Doc Marten look reads very punk/fashion to me in a way that classic boots do not. Also, I was referring to formal offices (e.g. law, finance), obviously manufacturing and shipping environments are completely separate.

              1. old curmudgeon*

                In point of fact, there are Docs that are not lace-up boots and that are entirely appropriate for office wear. I have owned several very comfortable Mary Jane-styles, slip-ons and similar shoes made by Doc Marten, and they were an ideal addition to professional office attire. Granted, you usually have to order them through the Doc Marten website (at least I’ve never seen them in stores in the city where I live) but if you like wearing Docs, don’t assume they’re all those big lace-up boots.

                I also really like Keens and Merrills for comfortable office footwear that doesn’t look awful.

                1. aebhel*

                  Yeah, Docs run too narrow for my feet, but I have a nice pair of black leather Merrill clogs that are wonderfully comfortable and look nice.

            2. Sammi*

              The office runs in business casual – good jeans (no holes, glitter, etc) and a nice top. I personally don’t have many jeans, and most of them are heavy duty (not fun to be in all day, better in the field). I tend to dress more formally than the rest, and all are okay with it – they attach it to me being like twice everyone else. I wear solid leggings and tunics.

          2. Yarrow*

            Doc Martens makes some very nice loafers and oxfords. I have a pair of nice monk-strap ones that definitely go well with a suit.

        2. Agent Diane*

          I’ve made myself a promise to either wear boots or brogues at work. Nice ones, but still many miles away from courts.

          If OP feels brogues are too far, loafers are a suitable alternative that looks more like a trad femme work shoe.

          Oh, and buy blouses/skirts/trousers rather than dresses. Two good blouses that co-ordinate with a skirt and a pair of trousers will get you four outfit combinations.

          1. another Hero*

            Eh, if you prefer wearing dresses, I don’t think anyone is paying that much attention when you repeat clothes

            1. Librarian of SHIELD*

              Particularly if you have multiple accessory options that coordinate with the dress. Week one, you wear the dress with a blazer and a good pair of shoes, week three you wear the same dress again with a nice cardigan or scarf and a different shoe option. It’s not as obvious as a repeat wear as it would be if you pair the dress with the same accessories every time.

            2. Tuppence*

              I’ve worn the same dress literally three times this week – it’s a solid, medium-dark colour, and I’ve just put a different cardigan or jacket over the top each time.

              1. she/her*

                I really like the ease of “dress = outfit” and haven’t done much to accessorize, although I do try not to wear the same one twice in one week.

        3. Cedarthea*

          I wear Blundstones with everything. I figure as long as they are clean and tidy, they are not going to be the focus of me.

          1. A tester, not a developer*

            Me too! I have the rustic black ones for my grey outfits, brown ones with oxford type heel and toe caps for lighter colours, and the classic black one for my black clothes.

        4. Workallday*

          Wedges are awesome for adding professional polish but not making you feel like you’re going to fall on your butt!

        5. Quill, CCO & Bee Queen*

          Saving up for some docs because they seem like the only kind of “dressier” shoe I can actually stick my feet into and be able to walk. (I’m good in a variety of hiking boots and steel toes, so clearly the shape is working for me.

        6. C*

          I had a pair of monkstraps made for this express reason. It’s still dressy but I shouldn’t have to suffer 3 inch heels. They are 1.5in,just enough so they’re not flat.

        7. K*

          I’ve been wondering about this. As my job is evolving I have recently acquired my first formal trouser suit in a decade, and though I really like the suit I feel I’m completely out of the loop on what shoes to wear with it. I have fairly major issues with my feet, can’t do heels or anything with a pointy toe, and have to wear fairly chunky rigid orthotics that take up space and lift my foot up; slip-on flats, even loafers, tend to fall off my feet. So most of my shoes look like what you’d pick for a kid with growing feet: rugged walking trainers, canvas sneakers in summer, or flat Mary Janes with roomy toes and chunky straps. The Mary Janes are OK with office casual skirts but look funny with trousers. The last formal occasion I had, I wore nearly-flat pumps, was not comfy, and had real trouble keeping them on my feet.

          Could I wear lace-up oxfords and still be formal? Ankle boots? Ankle boots with laces? (I do have a pair of those but again, I think they look better with a skirt.)

        8. TardyTardis*

          So agree! I am short, and could probably use heels to impress people more, but found regular oxfords were so much more comfortable in the Air Force that I wear heels mainly at gunpoint. Plus, if you tell a table full of men about loving them while in the military, the odds are reasonably good that someone sitting at the table has been in the military or knows someone who has. This works only if you yourself are a veteran, but hey, if you are, work it for all you’re worth.

      2. Guacamole Bob*

        Yup. I struggled to maintain a wardrobe I felt good about for a long time and would spend a lot of time on “should I wear this today? no, I want to save it for the big meeting tomorrow, though this other shirt looks better with it and that’s dirty…” kind of angst. Eventually I realized that I felt best with dress pants, some sort of short sleeve or sleeveless blouse and a blazer or sometimes a cardigan. I basically never feel overdressed in business contexts, even if others are in slightly more business casual clothes, and also don’t feel underdressed unless everyone else is in a formal suit.

        I have a bunch of these items, many in shades of gray and black that mix and match easily, and wear them basically every day unless it’s a casual Friday with no important meetings. I never wear skirts or dresses, and finally gave up on button downs because they don’t flatter me tucked in and they look messy untucked, at least on me. When I go shopping, I only really focus on buying more of these three items, which helps a lot.

        Other people have closets full of dresses or skirts or like more variety or enjoy shopping and choosing outfits, and that’s great. But that’s not what works for me, and I don’t try to fight it anymore.

        I’ve found a bunch of the same Calvin Klein sleeveless top at places like Burlington and Ross in different colors and patterns, different enough that I doubt anyone notices that I own like six of them. They are obviously designed by someone who thinks like I do, because a lot of the patterns will use a color palette that’s extremely flexible for wearing with a variety of navy/black/gray pants and blazers.

        That’s a long way of saying: there’s a lot of variety in women’s professional work clothes. Don’t feel like you have to conform to one exact image of professional and find what works for you.

        1. Velma*

          I have five identical Calvin Klein shells, too. They are supposedly dry clean only, but they handwash beautifully and drip dry over night.

            1. Kat in VA*

              With a few exceptions.

              I got a white CK shell (I have many of them) with black piping. I wore it once before washing it once, then threw it in the washer and dryer…and it came out with ghostly grey streaks everywhere.

              Should’ve looked at the tag – DRY CLEAN ONLY.

              At least I only paid $12 for it on sale.

        2. TardyTardis*

          When I did laundry, I would pull the ‘hang up clothes’ out of the dryer and put them together in sets so all I had to do was to pull the Hanger Of The Day in the mornings.

      3. J.*

        I keep buying blazers because some of the best people I work with can really rock the tee shirt + jeans + blazer look, and they just sit there in my closet until the next time I clear it out. I keep forgetting that blazers are deeply uncomfortable for me and ALWAYS would have be better off getting tailored because of my proportions. At some point I decided I was going to stick to my A-line dresses and own it, and I (mostly) haven’t looked back.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          I’ve got a handful of blazers in my closet that I never wear for the exact same reason. They don’t look or feel quite right off the rack and I never get around to getting them tailored, so they stay in the closet, unworn.

        2. TardyTardis*

          I found a blazer that was cut to my proportions and wore the poor thing to death…but alas Dillard’s no longer exists.

          1. Counter of the Beans*

            Dillard’s still exists–there are two in my mid-sized city. You can also order from their website.

      4. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        If they still have tags on them, get thee to a consignment shop, bricks-and-mortar or online (ThredUp, anyone? PoshMark?) and recoup some of your expense. Someone out there needs, wants, and will love those dresses. If that’s too much hassle, maybe donate them to a closet that provides career clothes for women who are climbing out of troubled circumstances and into the workplace.

    2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      It does depend on workplace but I agree that dresses are at least as professional looking and can be cheaper (no bare legs in a formal office though).

      Those of us who are more busty tend to get on better with dresses than button-down shirts which have a tendency to gape or unbutton; and you obviate the difficulties of having things untuck or ride up during the day.

      My other top tip for those starting out, or returning to work after a career break, is to consider thrift stores / charity shops / clothing exchange etc and their online equivalents if you’re confident in sizing. About half an hour’s drive from me is an upscale town with several charity shops which are always well stocked with last season’s business formal. I picked up whole suits for the price of a new shirt.

      If you spend slightly more on the basics (pants, skirt, shift dress, jacket) then you can get away with slightly cheaper tops (look at knits as well as shirts). Also you can look at accessorising plain clothing with jewellery or scarves if that’s a comfortable style for you.

      The AAM commentariat has also discussed how different haircuts and hairdos and makeup styles read as professional or less so. Leaving aside how unfair that might be, it would be sensible to make sure one’s non-clothing presentation matches the required image, eg hair not looking unwashed or uncombed, not trying out intricate Viking braiding for a tax law meeting, keeping the heavy contouring for the YouTube channel, etc.

      1. Alicia*

        I’m going to strongly disagree with the no bare legs statement. That’s very regional and very dependent upon the industry.

        I live in a very, very conservative area and no women under the age of 60 wear them in the office. I used to work in liberal California major city and no one wore them there.

        I’m a lawyer now and none of the women wear them to court. Even with the most conservative of judges. It used to be part of the dress code. It isn’t anymore.

        Also, a lot of women I know wear tights int he winter.

        1. Alicia*

          PS Even Emily Post now says bare legs at work are acceptable unless it’s a highly formal environment.

          “ Happily, unless you work for a conservative office that specifically calls for them, pantyhose and stockings can be left in your drawer. Bare legs with a knee-length skirt is 21st century work appropriate.”

          I also cannot remember the last time I had to wear pantyhose as a matter of course for a formal work event.

        2. JR*

          Totally agree. Having worked in NYC, Boston, and California, no one I knew wore stockings – tights if it was cold, bare legs otherwise. The only friend I recall having to wear stockings to the office worked in the White House (years ago).

        3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          Fair enough – I’m in the UK where it’s only too hot for tights about three days a year ha ha! I’ve had comments before about bare legs when I was wearing a pair of very low denier tights (also law).

          1. Aja*

            I suspect the UK and US are different on this.

            Personally, I was always a fan of the London look of a skirt and dark tights + boots.

          2. londonedit*

            It might be different in very professional offices outside London, but here it’s very normal to have bare legs with dresses in the summer.

        4. Tidewater 4-1009*

          I wear lightweight nylon stockings in summer because my veins don’t look good.
          I suppose I don’t have to – but I feel a lot better!

          1. Jay*

            I always wear pantyhose with a skirt unless I’m wearing tights in the winter. I am not comfortable with bare legs – I have some discoloration on my legs that I’m very self-conscious about. Even if no one else notices (and it’s likely that no one else would notice) it makes me unhappy. One of my recent indulgences are higher-end stockings that feel luscious (Hue brand, which I usually buy from Zappos). I feel fabulous when I wear them, and that’s what clothes should do. Hose are not required by our dress code and I would never tell anyone else they had to wear them as long as no one says I’m not allowed to :)

          2. TardyTardis*

            My legs are usually a color too pale to be attractive, and thus the pantyhose (knee highs if the skirt length will let me get away with it).

      2. Vemasi*

        For the bustiness, if you don’t like dresses, I always got away with pairing sleeveless blouses with blazers or cardigans, or even a button-up shirt if it made sense. It gives you more room in the shoulders.

        If you can’t often find the right stuff at thrift shops (either style or size), or you want to avoid Goodwill, try the clearance racks at Kohl’s. I hate Kohl’s, but they discount a lot of businesswear (and other great finds) down to almost nothing if you’re willing to search through the unsorted chaos.

      3. BeckySuz*

        Yes. Love thrift stores. I have so many amazing things I’ve found at thrift stores. But I also love Poshmark and Thredup. I have many J Crew dress pants I’ve scored on thredup. Find some well made and well fitting basics(pants, shift dress, pencil skirt) and then rotate different tops around that. Also my biggest thing is that boring classics never go out of style. Simple shapes, clean lines, neutral colors are your best friend. Then have fun with accessories if that’s your jam

        1. BeckySuz*

          Also I recommend going into some stores and trying a few things on in the brands you like. It’s easier to buy online if you have a good idea of what size you are in that particular brand. It doesn’t guarantee fit but it certainly helps

    3. AY*

      Shift dresses and professional a-line dresses that are machine washable are the true holy grail of work outfits. Boden is usually good for machine washable work clothes, but you are definitely going to pay for it.

      As for shoes, I recommend loafers or oxfords when you’re not feeling heels. I have a pair of millennial pink Sperry’s I absolutely adore. I find that ballet flats wear out quickly, and I always regret buying them.

      1. Not a Blossom*

        The trick with ballet flats is to skip the ones with basically no insole and a very thin outsole. I don’t know if they are considered true ballet flats, but Flexy by Naturalizer is a go-to for me. They are super comfortable and last a long time. I finally just broke down and ordered a new pair of black ones after multiple years of heavy wear, and I added a pair of brown to my order too.

        1. Mama Bear*

          Agreed on the ballet flats. I have a collection of about 8 pairs that are my grab and go. I never know if I’m going to be running around or sitting at my desk, and heels just don’t work well when standing on my feet all day. I doubt anyone notices how often I wear each pair.

      2. Sparrow*

        Loafers are a great option, and I’ve also seen some really nice looking oxford-style shoes for women. Personally, I mostly wear dressier flats from Clarks, which are quite comfortable, and a lot of ankle boots during the fall/winter. As a general rule, I don’t wear stilettos, but I can do a shorter stacked heel on an ankle boot or even like a mary jane or t-strap style shoe. It tends to dress the shoe up a bit while still being very wearable for me (and, more importantly, walkable, since I live in big city and don’t have a car.)

        1. DataGirl*

          I can’t wear heals due to foot problems, so Clarks and Naturalizer are my go-tos for work shoes. Sketchers also make some cute, comfortable flats that are appropriate for work.

        2. Ama*

          If you time it right Cole Haan has really great end-of-season clearances on their website. I have a pair of black loafers and some great short boots that I scooped up on clearance that are amazingly comfortable.

          I’ve also had great luck with Aerosoles, especially their A2 line, if you want comfort but a little bit more flash (I have a pair of red loafers from them that get so many compliments and are comfortable enough to survive a 14 hour day running a conference.)

          1. Person of Interest*

            Seconding the Cole Haan loafers – I have them in three colors and I’m wearing the black ones right now!

        3. TardyTardis*

          A store called Off Broadway in Sparks, Nevada has heels with wide toes and wide heels, which look very nice a professional. If it wasn’t for the bone spur in my right foot I’d wear them a lot more.

      3. Dresses Every Day*

        I have to second the Boden comment, even though it is a pricier option. I used to feel so frustrated trying to choose shirts/skirts/pants that matched, stayed tucked in, did not wrinkle, fit appropriately, were comfortable, etc. I “discovered” Boden and have been able to build a wardrobe of professional dresses that don’t wrinkle, are comfortable, and are machine wash. (I wear dresses because it alleviates the need to “coordinate” an outfit and I certainly look much more put together than when I tried to wear separates.)

    4. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

      I’m actually going to second this, but modify it to “power dresses” and echo the caveat Kate mentioned. I work in a business formal office and while in my casual life I am allllll about pants, at work, I basically wear nothing but dresses. I found that I admired the professional dresses of women like Cam on Bones so I opted to emulate her style. I shop ThredUp, Poshmark, Nordstrom Rack and thrift/consignment stores to find my power dresses. I typically pair them with a slick blazer or other nice indoor jacket. Some dresses are of a profile that don’t need an extra layer too, which is nice. My work doesn’t require hose, thankfully. As for shoes, I have two pairs of shoes I wear for work. I have a workhorse set of black almost flats – simple black shoes that have the barest hint of a heel that make them look slightly more polished than complete flats. I wear those when the weather is nice. As soon as the weather changes, I move to my other shoes, which are a simple pair of black, knee-high boots with a tiny heel. They still look polished and they play well with my dress lengths.

      For me, dresses are easier than pants because it’s fewer pieces of clothing to keep track of in the morning. It’s dress+blazer+shoes instead of shirt+pants/skirt+blazer+shoes. That being said, if you’re not comfortable in dresses, don’t spend your money on them.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Yup – that’s where I buy mine. And Calvin’s in particular are always so nice with beautiful, vibrant colors (I purchased a cobalt blue shift dress from his line at Marshalls and it’s stunning – I get compliments every time I wear it).

      1. Tidewater 4-1009*

        In theory I like dresses, but in practice it’s rare to find one that
        fits + office appropriate + warm enough for air conditioning.
        Some women seem ok with wearing summer-weight clothes in 60-degree offices, but I would get a cold.

          1. feministbookworm*

            I am a destroyer of shoes, too. So that I don’t need to buy a new pair of black flats every few months, I’ve started keeping my nice pair under my desk, and wearing other shoes to the office.

      1. Sparrow*

        Yep, my go-to work flats are Clarks. They look nice and are the most comfortable flats I’ve ever had.

      2. Librarian of SHIELD*

        I’ve tried Clarks, and they’re not nearly as comfortable for me as they seem to be for other people. But Dr. Scholls has a line of flats with really great support, so that could be an option as well.

    5. voluptuousfire*

      This. Old Navy quite often has shift dresses for reasonable prices onsale. I ended up finding one for $19 on sale last summer in prep for interviews.

    6. bookends*

      Yes! I’m a little late to the game here, but I’ve found some good ponte knit shift dresses at Land’s End – machine washable, structured but stretchy, never need to be ironed, and they have pockets! Plus their website nearly always has a 40% off coupon.

  1. skippy*

    my advice is if you are located in a country where there is a uniqlo, check them out! i got some great versatile blouses and slacks from there for a pretty reasonable price compared to a lot of places. i also hate and do not own any heels. i suggest either flats or loafers; i like the penny loafers from gh bass (weejuns) because they are SO comfortable and less than $100.

    1. cyanste*

      YES! I tried out going to outlet stores at first, but UNIQLO is really the place to go for anyone starting out. They have great basics that can be easily accented with tops from other stores that may go out of style sooner, or just in general they make a great wardrobe.

      For shoes, I would also suggest flats that are neutral in color to get a feel for the workplace because every place is different. Shoes that don’t show the toes or the back of the foot are a generic go-to that aren’t overly dressy or under-dressed. I like heels but first started with cheap heels and tore up my feet… invested in some heels around $100-150 and they’re actually comfortable and not falling apart.

      1. BeckySuz*

        Dr Scholls makes dressy flats that are awesome and so comfortable. You can always find those on Poshmark . I have several pairs of them as well as their slip on tennis shoes. Memory foam insoles….amazing. And they are really cute too ! Not grandma-y or anything.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          Check out Earthies, too! They make cool lug-soled penny loafers with comfortable orthotic insoles. They’re my go-to, especially when I fly for work; I’m never in pain at the end of even a very long day. I wear them with dress slacks and suits, jeans, and leggings.

      2. Glitsy Gus*

        Yes. Also, while you’re at Uniqlo, pick up some of the really thin v-neck undershirts in light grey or close to your skin tone.

        Wear the undershirts under your nice sweaters and blouses, especially the ones that need delicate washing or dry cleaning, then you don’t need to wash the fancy stuff after every wear. This helps them last a lot longer and saves you money on dry cleaning. I like the stay cool Airism version because I tend to run hot, but if you tend to be cold in offices the Heattech will also protect you from over enthusiastic A/C systems.

      3. PhyllisB*

        Speaking of loafers and outlets, I have three pairs of Coach loafers that I bought at the Coach outlet store and I just love them. They’re super comfortable and I get tons of compliments on. I paid $80.00 for one pair and $60.00 for the other two. They come in yummy colors and last really well. (I realize $80.00 is not “cheap”, but for shoes that wear well, it can be worth considering.) I’m not certain, but you might can get them online at a discount price if you’re not near an outlet store.

    2. peachie*

      My suggestion as well! I’m no longer just starting out, but still, SO many of my work (and other) clothes are from Uniqlo. I don’t have one near me so I go online — you may even find better deals that way.

    3. LSC*

      I second the Uniqlo advice! They have a lot of the basics in good quality fabrics (silk, cotton, linen) for a very reasonable price.

      For shoes, in addition to flats and loafers, oxfords could be an option. If you are just not a fan of super high and slim heels, nowadays there also a lot of options of low block heels, which I personally find to be more comfortable than flats. I also find that if you do end up needing to wear heels on some occasions, a round or square-toed shoe will me much more comfortable than a pointy-toed shoe of the same height.

      Also, while I am a big fan of color in formal clothing (my country’s culture is a bit more flexible on that than the US), when you are starting out it makes more sense to have things mostly in neutral colors so that you can mix and match your pieces. You can have brighter colors in scarves and other accessories (and maybe the occasional top).

      1. Elizabeth*

        Also keep in mind that neutral doesn’t have to mean “no color at all”. I use maroon as one of my neutrals, along with gray, black, navy, and off-white – and sometimes forrest green.

        Think of a neutral as a base/foundation color that will match with most other colors in your wardrobe.

    4. Onerous Amorphous*

      I love Uniqlo! I live in their bra-top dresses (which they usually release a bunch of every spring, they don’t have any on the website right now.) Granted, my work environment is far from business formal, but their dresses range from mini-short sundresses to dresses with a knee-length or longer hemline and short sleeves that would look great under a blazer. I haven’t had good luck with buying pants there since I’m tall and bottom-heavy, but I’ve gotten some great skirts and blouses at Uniqlo too.

    5. Amy*

      YES to uniqlo! I have shopped solely off their website- there are lots of good sales and an easy return policy. I’ve mostly purchased dress shirts, sweaters, and a few dresses. I am extremely impressed with the quality of the fabrics and the clean, modern lines of the clothes. It surpasses the more “expensive” brands like banana republic or j. crew. The fine-gauge merino sweaters and rayon and poly dress shirts are my fave. And bonus points for pockets in most of the dresses. But some of the cuts are intentionally VERY boxy/oversized, so check the reviews and description before you order–I have ordered down a size or two in many instances.

    6. The Green Lawintern*

      I think 80% of my wardrobe is Uniqlo at this point! If you’re willing to be patient, you can get some of their stuff on sale for extremely cheap when they’re clearing out their inventory.

  2. Fabulous*

    Cardigans are great to pair with slacks instead of blazers! I amassed several while working in a more professional office. Ballet slippers are usually my go-to shoe in the office (I prefer flats as well) but you may be able to find some nice kitten heals or wedges too that are comfortable.

    1. RainyDay*

      Yes to the cardigans! The right ones can dress up even basic tees and tanks. My “work uniform” is a cardigan over a flowy tank (from Old Navy! I buy them in bulk when they’re on sale).

      Layers in general are my go-to. You can get items that are a little on the nicer side for your outside-work everyday, but paired with a pair of black pants and good shoes are perfectly acceptable for the office.

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      I love both blazers and cardigans (the former more so in the winter just because they tend to be heavier), but cardigans really are year round staples in a way blazers just aren’t. I have something like 20 cardigans of all different cuts, colors, and thickness levels – they really are a simple way to upgrade a boring outfit into something polished and presentable.

      Kitten heels are good, but wedges are probably better for people who just can’t do heels for whatever reason. They have more support and, depending on the wedge, can be dressed up or down so you’ll get more wear out of them. I have a pair of black leather Lanvin wedges that I wore to interviews that have held up beautifully over the years and really are the most versatile pair of shoes I own (and I own about 90 pairs, lol).

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Yeah, they’re very pricey, but I got mine from The RealReal for $60 a few years back. Only do luxury brands on consignment – you’ll pay a third (or less) of the price that way.

    3. MD*

      Yes! Cardigans, cardigans, cardigans. I own a cardigan in almost every colour of the rainbow. Also, even one pair of black dress pants goes a long way.

    4. KAD*

      Cardigans are great…especially when you are a bystander in the office war over the thermostat. I ALWAYS buy mine in bulk at Banana Republic or GAP outlet stores only when they are having a sale. You can get them around $20/ea and they last forever!

      I used to wear heels everyday because that is what I thought was “professional”. And now, I go for comfort, especially when working long days. Ballet flats and wedges are my go to. I swear by Cole Haan. They are more expensive so I usually buy them from Nordstrom Rack or DSW with a coupon (reg $120 vs $80 on clearance or coupon). While more expensive, again, they last forever. My oldest pair are over 5 years old and I wear them at least 3 days a week.

      1. BeckySuz*

        I have some of the Nike Cole Haan shoes and they are so comfy. I think they stopped making them though. Mine are like 7 years old

    5. another Hero*

      Whether it’ll work for you depends on how you’re going to wear them and possibly your body, but cardigans sold in the men’s section are almost always thicker and warmer

  3. FormerFirstTimer*

    Cole Haan has some great ballet flats if you like those types of shoes. They go on sale a lot and are super comfortable. I literally keep a back up pair in the box, in my closet in case they ever stop making them.

    1. MissMeghan*

      Second Cole Haan. Also, they have really comfortable wedges if you want something with a little height. They will last for ages, but if they’re leather or suede definitely get some of the waterproofing shoe sprays. I spray all my shoes before I wear them and they stay looking nice for a long time.

      No matter what you get if you style your hair and keep your clothes clean and pressed it’ll take you much, much farther than buying expensive things and having wrinkles.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        +1 to the second point.

        Formal professional means polished. Take care of your clothes.

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      Cole Haan really does make very comfortable shoes. Sofft does as well.

      For nicer ballet flats (that are admittedly on the pricier side of things), I highly recommend Tieks. I have about seven pair of these things and not only do I not feel like I’m walking on the ground (I have virtually no arch in my feet, so I feel everything when wearing flats), but they’re also an excellent travel shoe. They’re designed to be folded in half repeatedly so you can fit them into these tiny pouches, and I usually bring at least four pairs in my carry on bags whenever I fly somewhere.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I love Sofft. And Clarks. And I’ve got a couple of pairs of Bass that I really like. And I am not above buying gently-used shoes so I can afford better brands.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          I have a pair of Sofft heeled loafers that are black patent leather and to die for! Lol. They just look so cool with my vest/turtleneck combos.

      2. Rezia*

        Do Tieks have arch support?/ do your feet feel tired after wearing them? I always felt since they folded they must be very thin.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Tieks have two blue “heels” on the shoes that keep you from walking directly on the ground – basically, you get a little lift, which I like. They’re also slip resistant.

      3. Alicia*

        I cannot recommend Allbirds enough. I walked over 20 miles one day in their ballet flats. Not a single red spot or blister.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          I’ve seen them on Pinterest and wanted to buy a pair of the loafers, but they don’t ever have the size/color combo I’m looking for.

    3. Tib*

      I bought a pair of Naturalizer’s Emiline flats on the borderline-zealous recommendation of people on reddit’s FemaleFashionAdvice and….they’re great. They have a ton of different colors and are just as comfortable as I was promised. It’s easy to find them on sale, and they kind of straddle the line between flats and loafers.

    4. Bee*

      Cole Haan mules are awesome and come in such cute colors. I have a pair of light pink mules from there that I’ve worn into the ground. I think mules are a little more “fun” than ballet flats (and, imo, don’t get as smelly because of the open back) while still providing similar comfort. Some offices require shoes to have a back, though.

    5. Drago Cucina*

      I have a pair of Zero Grand oxfords that are very comfy. The shoes are black, but the soles are white with black splatter, so there’s a bit of personality to them.

    6. MCL*

      Not to hijack the thread, but how are the above recommended brands of flats when it comes to arch support? I have very high arches and am starting to get plantar faciitis in my arches. Along with stretching, my doc recommended getting highly supportive shoes, like Birkenstock-level arch support. I know that’s maybe unrealistic for ballet flats, but are any of the Cole Haan, Naturalizer, Sofft, etc even moderately supportive?

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        Cole Haan and Sofft are, yes. I can’t speak to the other brands. Sofft has memory foam like insoles at the balls of the shoe and at the arch depending on the style, and Cole Haan had Nike insoles at one point (I have a pair of their Nike collaboration heels) that are heavenly – I don’t think they sell these anymore, so you’d have to hunt them down on eBay or another online consignment shop.

    7. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Love Cole Haan. I just bought a pair of Zerogrands for under 50 bucks because I keep an eye on their sales. I have terrible feet and love all of their shoes.

  4. SaffyTaffy*

    Loafers are very professional and comfortable! Ballet flats in a solid color with one small detail or no details are very professional. You want to avoid raised, rubber soles that signal “orthopedic” or “LL Bean Hiking shoe” and avoid laces unless you’ve gone full Oxford brogue. Generally, matte colors will look more polished than shiny patent. Boots tend to be a little less professional, but not UNprofessional, and they’re very popular. A pair of plain ankle boots can be worn with tights and a skirt/dress and be striking without being unprofessional, and with trousers they just look like nice shoes.

    1. Fabulous*

      Ooh! I second loafers! I got a pair when Payless closed down and they’re hands-down my favorite, most comfortable, office-appropriate shoes.

      1. SaffyTaffy*

        Torrid is also selling loafers in black and leopard print right now that are SHARP and come in wide widths up to size 13.

        1. voluptuousfire*

          I’m a Torrid fangirl (my local Torrid store I’m on a first-name basis with their manager), but their shoes are CRAP. I know what leopard print loafers you’re talking about are gorgeous but will not hold up.

          1. SaffyTaffy*

            Hm, I’m into my 3rd year with my winter boots and summer flats from Torrid, and I walk over a mile a day.

    2. Bee*

      Flats are having a great moment right now – five years ago it was mainly the omnipresent ballet flat, but now you can get fantastic loafers, oxfords, and much more interesting kinds of plain flats. A pointed or almond toe looks sharper than a round one, but go with what you prefer. If you’re going to end up in a more business casual environment than business formal, you can even go with some flashier colors (I have two pairs in silver – one pointed-toe flats, one Chelsea boots – which is actually tremendously versatile) and patterns.

      1. BeckySuz*

        I have a pair of brogues I love, but my husband and kids hate. They always make fun of me when I wear them. Don’t care, love em ! I’m definitely at the point in life where comfort reigns supreme , but also I wear what I like, not what other people like. Zero f***ks !!

    3. Just J.*

      Seconding loafers. I used to wear heels all the time and now I am into loafers. I would also suggest checking out Bass shoes. Their penny loafers are classic.

      Plus for shoes, handbags, etc., Zappos is your friend. Free shipping both ways!

      1. Velma*

        Yes! Tried Everlane and other trendier brands, but I am back to a favorite of my teen years: Bass Weejuns. I”ve got a black pair that fit me better than anything, look sharp, and have excellent arch support. So comfortable.

    4. eshrai*

      Hey, don’t knock the orthopedic shoes…some of us have to wear them! I try to go for the most professional looking ones, but there is only so much you can do when you have chronic plantar fasciitis. I think its time shoe requirements for women changed so we can wear comfortable shoes anyway.

      1. voluptuousfire*

        +1 on this. I have hallux ridigus in my right big toe (aka big toe arthritis) and I can’t wear shoes without a wider toe box. That pretty much the majority of regular flats. Luckily there’s tons of cute flats that are “orthropedic” but don’t look it. Dansko has a lot of cute flats. I have a pair of black leather ankle boots from Abeo that I took the insole out of that I’ll use for interviews.

      2. Maddy*

        Exactly. They aren’t that bad and unless you are in fashion it’s doubtful anyone cares. What would you rather have – no pain or passing some non-existent fashion test? Wear comfy shoes!

      3. TechWorker*

        + 1000 – I am not even 30 yet (soonsoon) and have to wear orthopaedic shoes or I literally cannot walk for more than about 10min due to the pain. Yes, women’s shoes are crap. I am lucky that I do not have to dress formally at work and can get away with trainers – but you *can* find orthopaedic shoes (/shoes that fit orthopaedic insoles) that aren’t awful. Josef Siebel and Rieker are the best brands I’ve found. Tbh – yes – they’re not as smart as ‘normal’ women’s shoes but sometimes there’s no choice.

        Regardless of orthopaedic issues – if you don’t find heels comfortable do not force yourself to wear them to work! Double standards can fuck right off :)

      4. K*

        +1 on the orthopaedic shoes (or shoes that fit the requirements). I am hypermobile and have no functional arch, and have to wear prescription rigid orthotics, which means that I’m limited to flats, which must have enough width and depth to fit the lumps of plastic as well as my feet, needs to have an insole that’s either very flat or removable, and must stay firmly on my feet. So I can’t do pumps, ballet flats or most loafers (and the ones that stay on tend to be the chunky-looking kind that don’t look so professional).

        I work part-time and in my home life I wear jeans and walking trainers most of the time. When I’m in business casual I wear skirts and broad, flat Mary Janes with wide straps, but they are too hippie-ish when I have to take it up a notch. I’m steeling myself to go shopping…

    5. LilyP*

      I have two pairs of brogues from a company called “Tomboy Toes” that specializes in masculine-style shoes in smaller sizes and I love them both! Boots are also a good option

    6. Quill, CCO & Bee Queen*

      I wish we’d ditch the idea that less well supporting or less well fastened shoes are less professional. We should all be taking care of our feet!

  5. DC Cliche*

    Buy one pair of black pants and swap out blazers. Consignment/secondhand shops are good as is H&M and Loft. Get a sense of your industry first though! I am typing this in jeans, an Everlane sweater and snug socks sitting in a cafe. My mom had me buy all these blazers when I was graduating and my first job was …. teaching kindergarten.

    1. Mr. Tyzik*

      I highly recommend LL Bean’s Perfect Pants. They come in black and other colors, and have an elastic waist do they always have flattering fit and silhouette. Great for those who are between sizes. You can gets different cuts depending on your style. They’re about $50 per pair but worth it.

    2. Person of Interest*

      Black pants are pretty easy to find and go with everything. I used to work with someone who literally wore black pants every day, with a dressy top and sometimes a blazer or cardigan. She told me once it was just easier for her to not have to think about it and black pants are always appropriate – so true!

    3. Mama Bear*

      Land’s End will let you specify the length of your inseam on pants, even on sale pairs. This can save you $$ tailoring pants elsewhere.

      I buy a lot of workwear at Land’s End or LOFT on sale.

    4. MissDisplaced*

      Black pants are great, but I’d recommend getting a dark gray pair too if you can. The gray will still go with everything. Generally, stick with neutral colors: black, gray, navy, tan/khaki.
      If it’s a little more casual, a dark denim trouser jean is office appropriate and can be dressed up or down.

  6. Lena Clare*

    For UK readers only, if you are claiming Job Seekers Allowance (which I recommend you do as soon as you leave uni if you haven’t gt job lined up) then the DWP will set you up with a grant to buy some clothes for the interview which you can also use as work clothes of course. Dorothy Perkins does a 10% discount for claimants also.
    And there are numerous charities which will also subsidise you in the UK. The Duchess of Sussex set 0ne up for women to get into work , for example.

    Councils will occasionally do grants depending 0n where you are. Look at Turn2Us for further grant info.

    Then there are the ‘posh’ charity shops and seconds shops around. If there are no M&S seconds shops near you, then go to a relatively wealthy town and shop in the charity shops there.

    Lots of luck!

    1. StellaBella*

      Second this. I live in an expensive city. Probably 85% of my clothing is from a charity shop. I own 6 high end cashmere sweaters that I hand wash, all were under 25$ at second hand shops. Same for jeans, and a few nice pairs of pants. Charity and second hand stores are also good for the environment. ;) I also bought a Dolce and Gabbana coat for winter 4 years ago – for 50$ and the shop tag was still on it. It was 10x that price. Some good advice is to buy things you can mix and match. Two pairs of nice black trousers and two nice black skirts maybe, can be worn alternatively with sweaters, blouses, tank tops under blazers, etc.

    2. Sally*

      I just looked at the Dorothy Perkins (US) web site and they have beautiful shoes in WIDE that are reasonably priced!

    3. MayLou*

      Unfortunately a lot fewer people will be able to claim JSA after university now, unless they were earning enough to pay class 1 NI contributions while a student, and I don’t think this option exists for Universal Credit claimants. There are charities that help job seekers find professional clothes, particularly in London.

    4. LawLady*

      Your advice about posh charity shops is true in the U.S. as well. Goodwill has regular goodwill stores (at which I’ve found some treasures), but they also have Goodwill “boutiques”. They try to route high end stuff to these boutiques to make more money off them. The prices are definitely higher than in regular goodwills, but still super reasonable ($13ish for a blouse), and rather than digging through piles and piles to find high end stuff, it’s all high end stuff.

    5. SarahKay*

      They may be a bit high-priced for you right now if you’re a totally broke student but I love Hotter Shoes for comfort with just a bit of heel. They also do some very nice ballet flats and loafers if you prefer something totally flat. They’re about £60-£80/pair but they’re leather, so will last well if you care for them, and will usually do everything in a wide fit as well as a normal fit and many also have an extra-wide fit option.

      I love them – I have a navy pair and a black pair I keep for work, both with about 1 inch heels, and I find the placement of the heel is excellent for comfort. If your workplace demands 2 inch stilettos with pointy toes then Hotter are not going to cut the mustard, but for combining reasonable smartness with comfort I’d recommend them every time.

  7. Marny*

    Oxfords for women are back in style and are a great alternative to heels when you’re wearing dress pants or a pants suit. I bought a pair of red patent leather ones and a pair of silver ones for work (I have officially finally swore off heels) and get compliments on them all the time. You can get them at any price point. I don’t think they work with skirts or dresses though.

    1. Heather*

      Seconded! Nice, well-maintained leather oxfords are perfectly appropriate with dress pants. And unlike most flats you can wear socks in them, which always helps in freezing offices.

          1. Marny*

            I got my red ones at Nordstrom (Halogen brand) and they came in a few different colors. Zappos has a lot of options and their return policies are amazing if you want to order a bunch to try on. My silver ones are from Banana Republic but I don’t know if they have any Oxfords right now.

          2. Usually Lurks*

            I have a couple of pairs of Clarks oxfords that I love; found them in the clearance/sale section of their website. Clarks in general are good for low- or no-heel work shoes that are comfortable.

        1. TechWorker*

          Whether insoles fit depends on how deep the shoe is – which is not necc. the same as whether it has laces… but basically yes, about :p

          Signed: someone who has to wear orthotics 24/7 and hates the shoe choices

          1. K*

            Me too!

            I miss the pre-orthotic days when I could heedlessly buy fun shoes from the discount rack. Though I don’t miss constant foot pain.

    2. Bee*

      I think oxfords work well with shorter skirts and shift dresses OR midi-length skirts, but I wouldn’t pair them with a knee-length skirt, no.

      1. Marny*

        To me, that looks more casual (or dowdy, depending on the dress/skirt). But it really depends on the formality level of the work environment, of course.

      2. BeckySuz*

        I like oxfords best with an ankle length pant. Skirts I usually go ballet flat. More leg flattering imho. But then I have not so cute legs so ymmv lol

    3. Triumphant Fox*

      I feel like these are great for those with small feet. For me, I feel like a clown. I prefer flats and wear the skechers knit flats all. the. time. (they are basically a cheaper Rothy’s)

  8. ThatGirl*

    If you have 1 or 2 nice blazers/jackets or more structured cardigans in neutral colors, I would recommend building a collection of shells/blouses/shirts to wear under them. You can have a little more fun with different colors and textures and fabrics to swap out depending on the season and occasion. I would browse some clothing stores’ business wear sections to maybe get an idea of what goes well together?

    For shoes, there are plenty of great flats or very low heels that look professional and polished. Oxfords, loafers, mary janes etc also pair well with pants.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      I would recommend building a collection of shells/blouses/shirts to wear under them. You can have a little more fun with different colors and textures and fabrics to swap out depending on the season and occasion.

      Agreed. I’m a huge fan of layering.

    2. Bee*

      The other bonus to blouses is that they’ll work equally well with skirts, dress pants, and jeans. I started at a jeans-welcome job last year and my wardrobe now is 75% high-waisted jeans and a cool button-down blouse, which looks polished but still easy. But if I need to dress up for a meeting, the same blouse that works with those jeans will look equally great with a wool pencil skirt!

      1. Bee*

        I used to recommend Loft for these, but they seem to have killed their Utility Blouse, alas. Express has pretty good ones, as does J.Crew. Seconding ThredUp below, though the restocking charge they added a year or so ago has taken a lot of the fun out of it.

        1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          Thredup is the best! I just ordered a ton of stuff for my new job and got some great items! Most of the things I ordered were between $8 and $15, and they are all great quality. I got my whole maternity wardrobe from there too.

    3. SomebodyElse*

      You just described my work wardrobe.

      Wool/Cashmere cardigan – Neutral colors
      Blouse- white cotton, printed sheath (high pattern, neutral color to loud color), camisole/tank (white or neutral)
      Black pants- boot cut or trouser cut
      Black heels – ~2.5 in generally mary jane style chunky heel.
      Black blazer

      I’ve morphed to this wardrobe mostly because of the work travel, one disaster of bringing a brown based outfit with only black shoes will have you going to an all black shoe based wardrobe super quick.

      I know the OP mentioned they are a no heel wearer, and that’s totally fine. But I’m going to offer a suggestion for heels… look for chunkier heels for more stability if you want to branch out into heels they can be a little hard to find, but for me just as comfortable (if not more) than a flat, but also stable so it doesn’t take any more effort to walk than a flat. (fluevogs are still my favorites, and while most of their styles are pretty flamboyant they have several very classic looking styles that work well for daily wearers)

      I have been eyeing some of the loafers that seem to have hit the market again, but I’ve had a lot of problems in the past finding ones that fit my feet… fat toe bed, high arch, and skinny heel… I swear my feat are the anti-loafer models.

  9. Lynn*

    I am a big fan of ThredUp. They are a clothing resaler — but because they are online it is easy to find your style and size by filtering. It’s an affordable way to build up a wardrobe when you suddenly need a whole bunch of new outfits at once.

    I also love Naturalizer flats. I bought a pair for my first big job 6 years ago, and just re-bought the same pair because they were comfortable and cutre.

    Also, lots of people think that women’s professional wear is a pencil skirt and a silk lacy (lingerie) top — I blame Hollywood. Do not do this. If you can, buy a few things to get you started, take stock of what other people in your office are wearing, and build out your wardrobe further from there.

    1. Amber T*

      ThredUp is great (and AAM will occasionally post sponsored links with discounts!). I recommend second hand in general, especially when you’re first starting out and need to buy a bunch of pieces to make a wardrobe.

      I have 3 pairs of one type of pants that fit me well (two black and one gray), and another 2 pairs of another type (black and navy). I have 3 dresses that are the same brand/size/cut but with different patterns. If you find something that fits you well and you like, buy multiple. If they’re truly neutral (like solid color pants), literally zero people will notice. If they’re slightly different (like my dresses), people still won’t notice they’re the same type of dress.

    2. Catwoman*

      I second ThredUp! I buy most of my clothes from there now; I even got some gorgeous, fancy Kate Spade heels I wore at my wedding for $50. The run sales pretty often as well.

    3. Ranon*

      Thred Up, Poshmark and local second hand shops are great places to pick up high quality basics without blowing your budget. For Poshmark in particular if you have a measuring tape and know your measurements and the measurements of the clothes that fit you best you can usually figure out sizes pretty well.

      If you like shells/ blouses Boden has some great silk/ viscose blends that are machine washable and are my favorite tops for beneath blazers

      1. Sally*

        The only issue I have with Poshmark is that you can’t return something if it doesn’t fit. So now I only get trays and other housewares from there.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s a great place to look but it very much skews [naturally so] towards people within the standard sizes and body types.

      Everything in my size range is hideous AF.

    5. Wakeens Teapots LTD*

      I lost a LOT of weight over about a year. When I got to the end, I had to rebuild an entire wardrobe because I had zero as in none and nothing.

      ThredUP!! ThredUP!!

      90% of what I rebuilt came from ThredUp and I didn’t spend more than $15 on any individual piece. Plus, you know, helped the environment. (which, is what I kept telling my husband when packages kept arriving, how I was saving the planet and making us tons of money at the same time)

  10. Diahann Carroll*

    Blazers are a good start, as are nice cardigans for times when you want to be a little less formal. If you don’t like or can’t wear heels, there are very nice loafers and oxfords for women on the market – check out DSW. I have a pair from Abella I think that are black patent leather and they look smart, too.

    For where to shop – try secondhand shops, either thrift stores or consignment. This will allow you to get more items at a cheaper price point. Just watch out for fabrics. I always try to buy things that are 100% cotton, wools, nice cashmeres, etc. that way my clothes last longer. If you go the secondhand route, please invest in a good tailor to make sure your stuff fits properly. I have an excellent tailor who has taken apart pants and dresses and remade them to my specific proportions, and everyone thinks my wardrobe is much more expensive than it actually is.

    1. Aaron*

      Marie Kondo has led a lot of people to shed a lot of really nice clothes. Go out to a consignment store in a rich neighhood and you’ll find some great bargains. My friend got a Rag & Bone dress for like fifty bucks, that had clearly been barely worn. Must have been $500 new.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        Nah, rich people have been shedding brand new and like new clothing long before Marie came along, lol. I know because I was buying Manolo Blahnik’s brand new for $90 at consignment shops (still in the box), Alaia flats that retailed for over a grand for $120, and designer cocktail dresses/gowns with the tags still on for $80-100 a pop. But yes, the latest Kondo craze has just upped the ante a bit, and my own wardrobe is very grateful for it.

    2. Ama*

      Also if you struggle a bit with finding blazers too constricting but need to have them for work (I don’t wear them everyday but unfortunately my job is such that I have to look the most dressed up on days when I’m running an all day event), I highly recommend blazers made out of knit or ponte fabric. They are so much more comfortable for all day wearing (particularly if you’re going to be moving around a lot) and I also find they don’t get as wrinkled when crammed in a suitcase for a work trip. I’ve purchased good ones from Zara, Banana Republic, and Boden so they come in a wide variety of price points.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        You can also find them on ModCloth – that’s where I got mine, and yes, they don’t wrinkle a bit.

      2. Anne*

        The ponte blazer is a dream for those of us who like a little/lot of stretch. Same with a 3/4 sleeve (just gives a little more room). I also second the travel convenience of the ponte blazer. So nice!!

    3. ce77*

      Agreed. Start with a nice blazer in a neutral color you can wear with a lot. At the beginning, it can be helpful to start with Black or Navy (similar to building a travel wardrobe) or brown. 1 shade for the neutral, with a blazer, a good pair of pants and/or skirt and mix it up with the other pieces. I work in a very professional environment (legislative). I have a black dress and a gray dress I wear almost every week, with different accessories. They are both bland enough that the accessories speak for them a lot more, and you don’t realize I’m wearing 2 dresses week after week. Same thing with a good pair of black pants. I also love scarves – like silk scarves. You can get them for cheap at thrift stores or shop a relatives’ closet if you can. I have always worn them with my professional wardrobe (from ages 21-present at 38) – a fashion choice, but one that lets me drastically change the look of an outfit without buying more clothes. Thrift stores, thred up, etc for good deals. Also, Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft will have crazy great sales sometimes – I’ve gotten professional work dresses for $20 from them.

  11. Alton*

    I’m a big fan of loafers, especially since I often find ballet flats to be too narrow and lacking in arch support.

  12. Eillah*

    Poshmark! Also– don’t scrimp on certain items. In the long run (environmentally and otherwise), sometimes it’s better to go with better quality for the staples. Things like classic blouses, work pants, blazers, etc. Also– Betabrand! I love their yoga pant dress pants.

    1. HollyWeird*

      +1 for betabrand I live in their dress pant yoga pants, they are the only pants I don’t mind wearing when I get home. They have sales fairly frequently too. My typical outfit is Sam Edelman Loraine Loafers + DPYP + blouse although I have a large collection of suits from Ann Taylor and Express for when I need to be a bit more dressy.

      1. eshrai*

        I’m wearing some right now! I hope to expand from the two dress pant yoga pants that I have right now. I only like the ones with real pockets though. They are pricey, but wait for sales. The only downside I have found so far is they aren’t the kind of pants you can tuck a blouse into. Great with a fitted jacket or with a cardigan, but not for a more dressed up look than that.

    2. N*

      I just purchased a pair of Betabrand dress pants and now those are probably the only pants I will ever own, they are so comfortable!

  13. Another young office worker*

    What about when you are extremely gifted in the upper chest region? Like, can’t find your bra size in a store and have to order online gifted. I have tried to find blouses for good prices, but the dreaded gap. And they very plainly don’t fit well, it’s not just a matter of safety pinning the gap closed. I did some google searches and found some $160 blouses that say they are designed for people like me, but I can’t pay $160 for a shirt.

    Anyone else deal with this issue?

    1. Marny*

      Can you buy pullover blouses instead of button downs? Another option is buying a shirt that’s too large but fits your chest and then having it altered to fit.

    2. Lime Lehmer*

      40 DDD here, rather than button downs, I go for knit shells and henley style tunics that only have buttons at the necks. Knit rather than woven fabrics are my friends.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        + 1 to this and the pullover blouse suggestion

        Avoid all tops with buttons. I’m busty for my size (36D at 5’2 1/2”) and build, not as busty as DDDs though, and I still avoid button downs unless they’re oversized and meant to be worn kind of shapeless. Otherwise? I’ve lost too many buttons in the past and definitely ended up showing off the lady bits unintentionally.

      2. SheLooksFamiliar*

        42 DDD here, and I gave up buttoned blouses years ago. Took a deep breath during a staff meeting, popped a button, and gave a show no one needed to see.

        I have a more formal style for work – I rely on suits, suit separates, and pencil skirts. Pullovers like luxe knit T-shirts, fine-gauge knit sweaters, and even nice cotton shirts are my best friends. On more casual days, I’ll wear tunic sweaters with a pencil skirt and boots, and accessorize.

    3. R*

      T.M Lewin is pricey (but not as bad as $160 and they often have deals). They have a type of shirt that has extra buttons in the bust area to eliminate the gap. Wearing an undershirt with a built in shelf bra (AND a bra) can help keep things in place as well. So even if there is a gap, all that they see is your undershirt. Also, you don’t have to wear button downs. Cami’s are good too!!

      1. Herding Butterflies*

        +1 to this! 38F here. Cami’s are a necessity. Then I can leave the top few buttons undone. Pair with a long necklace to make it all look coordinated.

        A very good bra can help with the gap issue. Try Bare Necessities for those.

        Usually though I avoid button up shirts. Camisoles and cardigans are my go to.

    4. vampire physicist*

      I’m not quite that gifted but – any way to avoid button-ups? Unless you absolutely love how they look or you have an exceptionally strict office dress code, you can usually get by with nice crew neck sweaters (including short-sleeved ones in the warmer months) and shells that you can wear under cardigans or open blazers.

    5. RainyDay*

      Can you buy larger sizes and have them tailored? I have the opposite problem in the upper chest region so I don’t speak from personal experience, but Ive heard that’s a reasonable option – getting something hemmed/tailored is not awfully expensive, so maybe you can buy an affordable shirt and have it taken in and still come out on top?

      1. Chesty larue*

        Brands for the older generation often are cut more fully in the bust. Chico’s and Coldwater Creek blouses work for me without safety pins. Foxcroft too, but they’re too dowdy without enough shaping

    6. V*

      Yes. I am very busty. A knit top in a very nice fabric with a bit of a cowl neck is my professional best friend. Look on Nordstrom rack or at Macy’s sales – you’re looking for more drape and sheen than a t-shirt knit. Microfiber knits often look professional and wear without much pilling. Ponte knit is less drapy and more structured which can work well in a tailored looking sheath dress. If you can shop sales, both Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein do beautiful workwear tops- can be found on sale at $30-$40 quite often, wear for years, and both houses cut beautifully for busty people.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        Ralph and Calvin were going to be my next suggestions – I live in their workwear. They make very nice, long lasting pieces for a lot of sizes and Macy’s is always having a sale on their stuff.

      2. Lime Lehmer*

        definitely second Calvin Klein knit tops for busty women. They are classic styles, wear well and look professional. Easy to find on sale at Macy’s & TJ Maxx

    7. LJ*

      Same issue and frankly, I’ve given up on shirts that button down the front. I’ve found “shell” type shirts and nice tshirts with stretch still work under blazers and suit jackets and don’t leave you wondering if anything is showing that should not be.

    8. beachlass*

      I don’t wear button fronts at all for this issue. There are great patterned or plain no-wrinkle knit shells blouses (recommended up thread as well) – I pair these with a blazer when needed, but more often with a cardigan (for warmth and/or tattoo coverage).

    9. Astor Bee*

      I have a cousin in a similar scenario. What we opted for was silk or knit shells and skipped button ups all together (everlane has some great options) which she then paired with a cardigan or jacket. For silk she sized up and tucked into her pants/ skirts. For knit she could go with something more fitted since most have a bit of stretch. We just were careful to pick fabrics that were thicker and offered more “structure” so she didn’t risk a see through effect.

    10. KaterTot*

      I’m not quite as gifted (I can go to, say, a Nordstroms and walk out with a bra but I can’t get my size at Victoria’s Secret)
      If you’re okay with clingier tops, knits allow for a bit of stretch and with a cardigan or cute blazer overtop to add a focal point besides your own anatomy, that might work. Personally, I prefer dresses in general at work, and thankfully am generally able to find ones that fit my topography without breaking the bank. I find some good stuff at Nordstrom Rack, Marshalls, and sometimes TJMaxx.

      I also swear by Clarks and Naturalizer for professional, comfortable shoes.

    11. Georgina*

      Yup. I’m a 48K and I just don’t do shirts or blouses, full stop. It’s not worth the hassle of worrying about button gaping.

      I wear a lot of tops in a tshirt cut (but smarter fabric), a lot of cardigans or blazers open over tops, and a lot of sweaters.

    12. WearingManyHats*

      Same! I wear ‘dressy’ tees with a cardigan or blazer. I have a few of the pop-over blouses, but generally only wear them with a buttoned cardigan, as I feel they make me look questionably pregnant (I am not).

    13. QED*

      Yes! I avoid button-down shirts like the plague, honestly. Shells and other non-button shirts tend to work pretty well for me, as well as nice sweaters. Shells are good for under a suit, but I put a thin sweater under a blazer the other day and it worked fine. If you’re finding that getting a shirt that works for your chest is way too big elsewhere, you could try getting it tailored–Nordstrom does some free alterations on stuff you buy from them, like shortening the sleeves. Not sure about taking a top in at the waist. I also do well with suit dresses because they’re structured and generally getting it large enough in the chest doesn’t make it fit weirdly elsewhere.

      For blazers, I mostly don’t worry about trying to button them, which means that it doesn’t have to 100% fit my chest, but if you wear one a lot, I think it’s worth it to get a fairly inexpensive one large enough in the chest and then have it tailored if it really doesn’t fit anywhere else. Hope this is helpful!

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        You can also just buy blazers that don’t have buttons on them. I have a few of these from Zara and BCBG, all of which I purchased for cheap on thredUP.

    14. Lionheart26*

      I buy most of my work clothes online from eshakti and they make everything to order to your exact measurements. You can also choose the neck line (no more dreaded too-low v neck!)

      1. Another young office worker*

        I have been too scared to try eshakti. It almost looks scammy – have you been really happy with the results from them?

        1. Marny*

          I’ve bought two maxi dresses from them and was thrilled. The quality was great and I loved that the dress was made to my height (I’m very short– even petite maxis are usually too long for me).

        2. sofar*

          They are amazing. When I got my first package, I texted the friend who recommended them and was like, “eShakti can have ALL MY MONEY.”

          They are not scammy. They are an India-based company that is disrupting the sweat-shop model with humane and good working conditions. They adjust clothing to your height for free, and you can add other customizations (specific measurements, neckline, length, sleeves other factors) for a reasonable fee. I order straight-sized stuff (no adjustments), and I have not returned a single item I’ve bought from them.

          The quality is good. They have nice twists on basics that make them less boring. They have mastered the art of the tunic top that doesn’t have cut-out shoulders and back fabric. Most of their stuff is cotton and good material, rather than cheapo fabrics.

          I found my way to them because I was looking for outfits that fit modesty requirements (a branch of my husband’s family tree observes religious modesty clothing requirements, and so I needed some outfits to wear when visiting them/staying with them that weren’t all Little House on the Prairie). Now, I buy things from eShakti for work.

        3. HugsAreNotTolerated*

          eshakti is pretty great, ‘custom’ made clothing for a reasonable price? Awesome! BUT go to a tailor/seamstress/other sewing professional to get your measurements taken. DO NOT rely on your self-measurements, because I guarantee you you’re probably measuring in the wrong place or the wrong way. Using professional measurements will mean that your eShakti stuff comes out true to what you need, and also will make your life easier when shopping online since you’ll be able to consult size charts more easily.

        4. Salsa Your Face*

          Eshakti is absolutely not a scam. I’ve been using them for years and years, half my wardrobe is from them, and I’ve never had anything go less than smoothly. The clothes I get from them look great and feel great.

        5. Another young office worker*

          You guys have convinced me. I spent an hour looking through their stuff. I didn’t mean to detract from the above commenter, but I have gotten some wonderful info today. None of my family have the large chest issue, and it really impacts how you can dress, if you’re a young 20’s something professional. I have struggled with my wardrobe for a while now.

      2. sofar*

        Also came here to plug eShakti. They have so many chic basics that are NOT boring, and fit is never an issue because you can customize (and make things more modest if needed — although they already start from a place of modesty!). If they’re running a sale or a promo code, I usually buy a few things. Their quality is good (no see-through fabrics). Their stuff is easy to dress up or down. I just bought a hoodie, a tunic top, and a kimono top from them.

        I’ve been so disappointed lately with my former go-tos for work clothes (Express, Banana Republic, etc.) So often I’ll see something cute just to realize it’s backless, sheer, too revealing on me, or very thin fabric. Their dresses and skirts are often too short for work.

        1. Marny*

          And pockets! Virtually all eShakti dresses have pockets (which you can opt out of if you want, but who would want that?!?!)

          1. Filosofickle*

            There are people who don’t want pockets because it “ruins the line”. And, I get that. Being hippy, poorly placed pockets stick out in a super unflattering way. But eShakti places the pockets really, really well (forward and deep) so no pulling! My first purchase was an a-line knit dress, and I went to a holiday party in it, sans purse, with the pockets filled with a gob of keys, a lipstick, and an iPhone, and you couldn’t see a thing. Genius.

            I have my eye on a shift dress with zipper pockets that I think would be awesome for travel. It would be so nice to be able to keep stuff handy but secure while, say, walking through an airport.

    15. Mind the Gap*

      Popover-style blouses rather than button downs is the only solution I’ve found. Buy the size that fits your chest, tuck them in to make them look neater. I buy some inexpensive ones each year to refresh my wardrobe and they look really professional under blazers or cardigans, and I’m not worrying all day about that gap.

      1. Temperance*

        This is a more casual look, though, and multiple layers like this can look frumpy on some body types.

    16. CupcakeCounter*

      Yes – I am a 38G
      Button downs are a hard no for me as are most blazers (also have very broad shoulders).
      I usually go with V and scoop-neck shirts in general as I have found that crew and turtlenecks tend to make things look bigger on top, especially if they are even moderately fitted. With the V-necks, I will usually wear a fitted tank underneath (the 24/7 layering tanks from Maurices work really well for this – fitted to the body but the neckline is fairly moderate so no cleavage).
      My other go-to is a chiffon shell and cardigan. The chiffon tends to be flowy as opposed to fitted and I can wear a cardigan with nice pants and low-heeled ankle boots.
      Depending on the size of the rest of you, Torrid (a trendier plus-size retailer) carries the Harper blouse which is a nice pullover that comes in a nice chiffon that dresses up and down really well and is cut for a larger chest and shoulder area. Maurices also carries a similar top but the cut is more standard so the only way get the room I need in the chest in theirs is to go up a size or two. Neither are the best quality but they look nice alone and under sweaters/blazers.

    17. Person from the Resume*

      Avoid the button down blouses. I saw the LW mentioned buying them and I thought that they must fit her better than they fit me.

      I bought many of my slacks from JC Penney. I can also find professional looking pull over blouses to pair with those work slacks there. You can often wear a cardigan or even blazer over a pull over blouse.

      If you really want that button-up to fit right, you may have to pay for alternations but that could be a great return on investment for you to feel comfortable in your clothes and not fearful of busting out or just concerned about stares.

    18. MD*

      I am a 38 H, so I haven’t worn a button-down since I was 12 years old. I find a lot of stretchy dress shirts at Marshall’s/Winner’s that are 95% Polyester/Acrylic, 5% Spandex. I find these most flattering because they define my waist. Shirts without stretch just look like giant tents on me.

    19. SomebodyElse*

      Pull over blouses or look for softer material. Honestly, I think cotton button up will have a gap no matter what the chest size is, and mostly because of the stiff fabric. Look for silk, rayon, jersey, or any sheath type fabric.

    20. Historic Hamlet Dweller*

      1. Are button downs a must? If not, try other options
      2. eShakti are fab
      3. Bravissimo (UK based but ship worldwide) sell clothes including suits and shirts which are cut for different levels of bustiness

    21. Ubiquitous Moose*

      Before I got a reduction a year and a half ago I was. 34G. Button downs were not happening. As was anything without a bit of stretch, like that weird fabric that a lot of business casual shirts and dresses seem to be made of (at least what I was finding in my area), because of my fairly small rib size anything that had no stretch and fit my breasts was like a tent on the rest of me. So knits and flowy fabric were my friends.
      …Still are my friends and I still mostly avoid button downs, since I’m still a 34DD (what the surgeon could safely get me down to).

      1. Another young office worker*

        I wish man. 36K over here. I just feel like everything I put on it makes me look huge. I have not learned the art of how to dress to minimize, without actually, truly minimizing.

    22. Nerfmobile*

      The NYDJ henley style blouses (pullover, with a slit v-neck and sometimes a few buttons) are very forgiving for those of us in the DDD+++ ranges. I have quite a few in my wardrobe, and similar styles from other makers as well. Nicer knits also work.

      1. Triumphant Fox*

        yes. Joie also has beautiful ones, but they are spendy. All of mine have come from second hand and nordstrom rack.

    23. allaegory*

      I’ve got the same issue (plus I personally really like the look of button-front shirts), and if you can do some basic sewing, it helps a LOT. I get a $30 button-front, turn it inside out and hand-stitch the gaps between the two or three most-stressed buttons–it doesn’t have to be pretty because there’s usually a nice thick fabric fold you can pick up with a simple running stitch. All told, it takes maybe 30 seconds and a couple inches of thread for a secure, subtle fix; I’ve literally done it in the morning before wearing the shirt to work. If you really need the buttons to be functional, you can always snip the stitches at the end of the day and do it up again later.

      If the waist is really baggy, that’s slightly more complicated, but I’ve used a sewing machine to put a simple V-shaped dart in the back of my bigger shirts. If you have access to a sewing machine, once you’ve got a sense of what size the dart needs to be, it doesn’t take more than 5 minutes unless you want to get fancy with it.

      Obviously a proper tailor is preferable and all, but as someone who’s short and curvy, I always do my own alterations when I can.

      1. TechWorker*

        if you do it yourself, put the shirt on inside out and pin darts so it fits, sew, iron and turn the right way *tada*

    24. Temperance*

      Just give up on button downs. They aren’t made for women with any sort of boobage to deal with. If I’m not wearing a dress, it’s a tie-neck blouse or a shell.

    25. Another young office worker*

      Not wearing button downs is definitely an option, but I guess its more I love the look of the things I can’t wear, so I wanted to try and find a way to wear them. And a lot of the women in my area have work provided shirts with our logo, and they are button down blouses. They mainly only wear these on our casual Fridays, but still, it is something I don’t do because of the aforementioned issues.

      1. TechWorker*

        Could you wear a large-ish size tucked into a high waisted skirt or pants? (Ok, it’s not going to look *amazing* but it can get rid of the tent effect if you can’t tailor the shirt)

    26. K*

      Bravissimo have clothing that comes in “degrees of curvy” as well as number sizes. I don’t know what their shipping’s like in the US though. I am lucky in that we have a store in the city I live in. I have bought their stuff and it works and is decent quality. (I can’t find bras in normal stores either.)

  14. AndreaC*

    Buy pants you like in navy, black, and grey. That way you can mix and match more colorful tops with them. People don’t notice your pants, so I usually wear them twice before washing. I also have some dresses from eShakti that are super-cute for summer days when I don’t feel like picking out separates.

    1. JokeyJules*

      +1 on this suggestion. The best piece of wardrobe advice i ever got was to buy in color families. When buying new clothes, try to stay in a color family, that way everything matches, no matter how you switch it up.

      1. eshrai*

        This is super smart. I always buy whatever I find pretty…then I find I can’t mix and match! Or worse, that I bought a shirt that I literally cannot wear with anything I own (don’t have the right bra or undershirt, or no cardigan matches it, ugh).

    2. Drago Cucina*

      eShakti for dresses with *real* pockets. I often find a style that I like and get it in different colors, sleeve length, and neckline. No one realizes it’s the same dress. I like elbow length sleeves. They look good and go from season to season.

      1. Nea*

        I did that with their original knit fit-and-flare dress, the one with no zipper. I was lucky enough to discover Eshakti when that was their big seller, so I got it in every color they offered and THEN used the fabric customization feature to get it in a few more colors after that.

        In the rest of life, everything has to match with black. Period. Then I know it will all coordinate.

        1. Filosofickle*

          Wait, you can do fabric customization?! The item I want not coming in the right color is what keeps me from buying more of their pieces.

          1. A Steampunk Kinda Gal*

            You can indeed get color/pattern/fabric customization from eShakti on certain items. I usually find a style I like and then check the customization page to see if it’s there. Very nice if you want a certain dress and it doesn’t come in a fabric you like.

            On shoes, I have found Adagio shoes very useful. They are marketed to nurses and other professionals who have to stay on their feet long hours, but they come in a variety of styles and leather patterns.

  15. Lurky-Loo*

    Take a look at Dansko clogs — I hate heels and got some in a nice matte black leather. They are comfortable and dressy enough for many workplaces.
    Seconding SaffyTaffy — loafers can be great.
    Also some ankle boots in suede.

    As for clothes, I rely on a couple nice blazers, a selection of nice blouses and shirts, and comfortable but professional pants. I have one or two dresses that I can wear with a blazer or cardigan, too.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Dansko “Professional” clogs are comfy and work pretty well with pants (though I’m not sure I’d pair them with skirts/dresses for business formal) – they also wear like friggin iron, I have two pairs (one black, one brown) that I bought at this point twelve or thirteen years ago and for at least six of those years I wore those two pairs of shoes exclusively, and they still look great. A lot of clinical folks swear by them for comfort. However, if you have weak ankles, be careful, I’ve heard that they can be easy to roll your ankle in if you’re prone to ankle injuries.

      These days my go-to for dressy shoes are Rothy’s round-toe flats; they’re a little on the spendy side, but again last for a good long time. They’re also super comfy, by which I mean I got a pair, took them out of the box, put them directly onto my feet and went for a three mile walk in them. I’ve worn them several times for 10-12 mile day treks around theme parks. They come with removable (and thus replaceable) insoles, but don’t have a lot of stretch or give to them. And they come in about twelve thousand colors and patterns. And they’re machine washable. And they look nice with everything from skirts to slacks to jeans. (They also have point-toe flats, but I don’t personally like pointy toed shoes, so I’ve never tried those.)

      1. Nea*

        A lot of the women in my office wear Kadees by Crocs. The patterned ones have gotten me the most compliments I’ve ever gotten on my shoes.

    2. voluptuousfire*

      Second the Dansko clogs. I have toe arthritis and while I don’t have the clogs themselves, I wear the Dansko Barbaras. They essentially clog booties and are super comfortable. Actually comfortable off the bat.

    3. Sled dog mana*

      Thirding the dansko clogs, and the rest of their shoes. I love mine, I also have one black one brown pair and they last for ever and match everything. They are pricy but over time they come out way cheaper.

  16. TiffanyAching*

    I also don’t like heels much, especially as I commute by foot most of the time. I personally have a selection of flats for warm weather, and boots for cold/wet . There are so many good options, especially depending on your personal style, but a pair of comfortable leather or leather-look flats, maybe with some kind of buckle-type detailing, can be very versatile and professional. You can wear them with pants of all lengths, skirts/dresses either with or without tights/nylons/leggings.

  17. AnotherSarah*

    Obviously a lot depends on personal style, but I get a lot of mileage out of sleeveless dresses, especially in neutral colors, which I can then pair with sweaters or cardigans. I can wear something underneath them. For me, I really go for greys, with a few cardigans of basically the same style in different colors. I also wear dressy boots a lot, in fall and winter, usually flat or with a very low heel. I’ve found that making sure that any one piece can be paired with at least 3-4 other pieces is a good way to ensure that you can get a lot out of your budget. For my workplace and style, a lot of the clothing at Boden (a British company that now does mail order in the US) works great. They’re pricier but I find the quality very high, and they have good sales.

    1. Fake Eleanor*

      Same, I find dresses to be really useful (but I live in a warm climate where I can wear them all year). Make sure they are stretchy, comfortable, and machine washable. I usually go to the clearance sections of Dillard’s, Macy’s , and Ann Taylor. On a sale day you can score some really good deals and the dresses are high quality/not fast fashion.
      Pair a dress w a sweater, cardigan, or blazer and getting ready in the morning is pretty quick.
      One mistake I made when starting out was buying more formal wear than I ended up needing. I bought suits and blazers but really ended up needing business casual on most days. I just thought that jobs after college = wearing suits everyday but I never ended up in a role where that was necessary. It might be for you but it’s worth really looking at what folks are wearing in the office.

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      I used to live in fit and flare dresses of the sleeveless variety by Closet London, which I would buy from ModCloth and yes, I even wore them in the winter with turtlenecks and tights underneath with cardigans over top. I still wear a lot of dresses, but more of the sweater dress variety in the fall and winter. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Opening Ceremony had some nice ones that I still wear to this day.

  18. Daisy-dog*

    When I was first starting out, I would look at Pinterest for inspiration. It helped me hone in on what style I liked. Don’t buy something that you think you need to wear (unless you really are in that type of setting and expected to wear only suits). Also, don’t buy too much until you know your company’s culture. 1 week worth of comfortable, well-fitting, professional outfits is good. Once you start to know what is expected, you can fill it out with more pieces.

    For shoes, I have black & brown ankles boots with a low heel (though the brown boots are steel-toe, combat-style because I work in HR for manufacturing). I also have black & brown flat sandals for summer. I just bought some blush pink loafers that I’m rather obsessed with.

    1. LunaLena*

      I was going to suggest ankle boots as well. I dislike heels and don’t wear them much, but ankle boots with low wedge heels work well for me. Amazon has a pretty good selection for low prices – I bought one pair last year for $20, added some Dr. Scholl’s soles that I got for $4, and they are perfect. I also got lucky once and found a nice pair of black faux suede ankle boots at Ross for $30 that I wore for years.

      Stores like Ross/Marshall’s/TJ Maxx can be a crapshoot, but if you take some time to look, you can find some pretty good stuff. I had a favorite pair of black pants I got at Ross and wore frequently for almost ten years, that I bought for $10. I also highly recommend Old Navy, especially since they have big sales pretty frequently. They have a lot of basics that can be mixed and matched pretty easily. Most business casual offices I’ve worked in were okay with khakis or corduroy pants, which they generally have in abundance at Old Navy as well.

    2. Skeeder Jones*

      I used to work for a water district and occasionally had to go in the field so I had to have steel toed boots as well, I was super excited to find pink steel toed work boots, like the typical style but pink! I loved them.

    3. Lies, damn lies and...*

      Im so old. I used to follow blogs for inspiration. Hah. Blogs or Instagram you can find some people who post the expensive look and different price points for the rest of us.

  19. Lime Lehmer*

    Dresses are a good item. They immediately look professional and make getting dressed easy. A longer hem (below the knee means you can wear knee highs rather than panty hose. Paired with cardigans or blazers dresses look polished.

    As for shoes, boots work well in the winter, and shooties or short heeled mules and flats also work.
    Whatever you choose, you should feel comfortable and confident.

    Cowl necks can also be a good alternative to button down shirts.
    TJ maxx can be a great source of budget friendly items.

    But truthfully, I would concentrate on interview clothes now and building a work wardrobe later as each employer has its own culture and dress code

    1. Nea*

      I bailed on interview suits a long time ago. Get a classic dress in a neutral color, top it with a blazer, and you’ve not only got something you can interview in, but something you can wear a lot of other places.

  20. vampire physicist*

    For shoes: note that I am a woman but I’m in a job where skirts/dresses (and heels) are impractical most days so these tend to look better with slacks than with skirts. My job is more business casual, but I’ve worn these shoes in business formal or interview settings.

    I recommend nice loafers and oxfords – they’re often quite comfortable, and oxfords with a pantsuit or slacks and a blazer are essentially what most men wear in professional setting. I’ve personally had good luck with Clarks and Born for comfort/quality/reasonable pricing; friends of mine swear by Everlane but their shoes run too narrow for me (they look great though).

  21. Moi*

    For shoes, I love a good oxford. I have knee issues that nix heels for me, and cute flats just don’t cut it in the winter. I find oxfords delightfully comfortable, I can put any inserts I need in them, and I can wear fun socks without them being glaringly obvious. I didn’t realize they were an option for women until I saw my director wearing a pair, and I’ve been all about them when I need to dress up. The current ones I have have a wood heel, so they can be a little louder than other shoes. I personally love that though, but your mileage may vary.

  22. ArchivesGremilin*

    If you trust buying shoes online, I highly suggest 6pm shoes (they’re Zappos discount site). And as someone who’s not much of a heel person unless I’m dancing, I wear flats (I try to get ones with memory foam).

  23. Reality Check*

    With foundation items such as skirts and especially shoes, I stuck to classic neutral colors such as navy, gray, khaki, etc. From there I could add more interesting pieces. But start off with basic, easy-to-match colors. It will save money up front and make things easier in the morning.

  24. The Academic*

    TJ Maxx or Macy’s Backstage, I get a lot of good quality but decent prices there. I also really like White House Black Market because their clothes fit well and LAST (if you care for them properly. I still have a dress that looks near new from 2006). I do like their heels, they pretty comfy for a heel and I can usually wear them for hours before I start hating life. They can be pricey but I’ve had good deals with coupons and sales.

    DSW can be good for clearance on shoes. I have some lovely black, pointy toed leather flats with a upscale bow on the top that are Cole Hann, I think I paid $50 2 years ago (still going strong). They were a replacement for another super comfy paid of Cole Hann’s that lasted white a long while. What can I say, they make good shoes.

    Generally, I think when trying to build go for fewer items that are better quality and get classic pieces. And the biggest thing: CARE FOR THEM PROPERLY. No hot water, line dry. You don’t have to spring for dry cleaning, I’ve found a lot of stuff can go in a dedicates bag and handle the washer fine that way.

    1. The Academic*

      Wow…. so many type-os….. My bad, guess that’s what I get for not proofreading (don’t tell my students!)

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        I get all of my stuff from them through thrift stores, lol. They really do have long-wearing, nice clothing.

        1. BeckySuz*

          Oh yes! Resale shop near my house must be the go donation site for a lady with lots of money because they have so much WHBM but only in like two sizes…if only I was a size 0-2!

  25. ArchivesGremilin*

    Also see if you there’s a young professionals listserv/facebook/twitter section for your profession. Ask them what they wear!

  26. Person from the Resume*

    When I went into the office, I wore flats (not ballet flats, but comfortably padded shoes with arch support) with dark jeans and slacks.

    I am particularly fond of the Clarks brand. I have one particular style (almost exact same style) in three different colors. I own about 7 different shoes that don’t get much use since I work from home and live in a part of the country where I wear long pants only 4 months out of the year. But I am excited that each time in the winter that I wear jeans and can pull out my cute Clarks to wear too.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      Also I shop at the big box shoe stores: DSW, Shoe Carnival, etc. They are always offering buy one, get one half off and other similar sales.

  27. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    I like wearing dresses, but have completely failed on being able to solve the shoe issue at work (primarily because I honestly have no interest in dealing with the hassle, having big/wide feet that send me nearly to the drag queen section of the store).

    So I have settled on pants, and own far fewer pants than one would expect because they are pretty much identical and plain (I have black and grey and lighter grey) so who’s to know? I have exactly one pair of black “booties” (Clarks) with a nice solid heel that I wear everyday. They live under my desk with a neglected pair of brown ones. They don’t go out into the world much at all, so they last for a couple of years before I buy an equivalent pair.

    I wear solid shirts with mostly solid unstructured jackets or sweaters. (If I had a more formal office, they’d get upgraded to blazers, I suppose.) Then I jazz up with accessories — really awesome chunky necklaces and/or patterned scarves.

    The more you do the uniform/”capsule wardrobe” thing, the better. It takes care of the bulk of your day to day dressing needs, and you can always get a few more interesting outfits over time to spice things up.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      I also keep a pair of black ankle boots under my desk. I commute in black sneakers and wear the boots at the office every day.

  28. many bells down*

    Target has these high-waisted side-zip pants that are SO COMFORTABLE I need to buy every color. Old Navy has similar ones that I own several pairs of, but Target’s are nicer.

    I have way too many clothes, but I LIKE them all!

    1. dwigt*

      Seconding the target pants!! They don’t have pockets, but they are so comfortable and have so many options! They are also some of the only pants I own that fit in the waist and the hips without a belt.

        1. londonedit*

          In general, yes, but when it comes to fitted/smart trousers, I don’t really want pockets. I have wide hips and pockets on the sides just end up gaping and adding even more width!

          1. Diahann Carroll*

            I don’t like pockets on pants, either. I usually get my tailor to sew them shut, lol. They puff out and ruin the silhouette of my looks all the time.

            I do like pockets on my dresses, though, so I’m glad more and more designers are incorporating them into their looks.

  29. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.*

    Do they have those wardrobe subscription boxes where you are? That might be a good way to try out a bunch of things. I’ve been tempted myself, but have yet to pull the trigger.

  30. Beatrice*

    I would also advise buying only a few items before you start working, and then watching what everyone else is wearing. There are a lot of different levels of business-y that vary by company and region, and it can be difficult to tell from outside what norms are.

    1. Bernice Clifton*

      I second this. Also, if you don’t have a lot money to spend on work clothes, you can get cheaper stuff on Amazon, Old Navy, TJ Maxx, etc., and replace items as you have more money to spend, or you gain weight, or the clothes wear out.

    2. Manders*

      Yes, this is my advice! Business attire varies so much by region and industry that if you try to build your wardrobe too fast, you might end up with a bunch of clothing that’s not actually the right fit for your office.

    3. MissDisplaced*

      I swear by JCPenney for my office clothes.
      The dress pants there are some of the only ones that fit me and the sales are great.

  31. LunaMei*

    I don’t do heels, and I have these weird big toes so I need a really roomy, large toe box. I have found Dr Martens work really well for me. They have various options in loafers and oxfords.

    My advice – spend more money on the shoes than the clothes. Get 2-3 nice pairs of shoes that will be comfortable, versatile, and durable. A classic, well-made black oxford or loafer will elevate any outfit.

    I’d check Uniqlo, Poshmark, and thredUP for various clothing pieces, so you can try out some cheaper items until you really find your style, and then upgrade them later if you wish. If you are able to, get things tailored – you don’t have to do or spend a whole lot, but having a pant hemmed at the right height, or a waist tucked in just a bit, will make a piece fit a lot better and look better, even if it was cheap.

    A good rule to follow as far as style goes – more structure = more formal. Stick with woven fabrics that have more structure instead of drapey knit fabrics.

    1. Amber T*

      Regarding pricier shoes – I’m a convert. I spent my young adult life in shoes from Payless for under $30 that would fall apart in six months and would ultimately become unbearably uncomfortable to the point where walking hurt even out of them. A coworker sang the praises of Rothys, and I’m never going back. The flats are incredibly comfortable and are fine for work. The pointed ones look awesome. I even have a pair of the loafers (I’m wearing them right now!) that still look work appropriate (I’m business casual though, so I’d get the lay of the land at whatever work place you’re at before dropping that money). At $125-$165 each they’re not cheap, but they last and they’re comfortable, so hopefully should be worth it.

      If you’re going to be on your feet for any amount of time (I have a desk job, but I’m running all over my office all the time) a good quality shoe is important. Read lots of reviews and make sure they’re of good quality, and you won’t just be paying for brand recognition.

      1. EmEmCee*

        I love, love, love my rothy’s (I have giant wide feet – I think I’m in a 12.5 in rothys?). One problem I have with flats is my swamp feet. I also hate those little sock things that are supposed to hide in flats but never do. Rothys are awesome because you can machine wash them and they look like new.

        You can get a discount on your first order with a referral code. You can find them everywhere online because the referring person gets a credit with your order.

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      My advice – spend more money on the shoes than the clothes.

      I second this advice and would take it further to include purses and coats/jackets. These are the first thing people will notice about your appearance, so if you spend good money getting quality pieces for your outerwear, no one will realize you’re wearing a $3.95 shirt from Walmart underneath (ask me how I know).

      1. LunaMei*

        I do most of my clothes shopping at Target, and I think my business-casual wardrobe from there is quite respectable. They have really upped the quality and styling of their brands. However! I find that the shoes are still kind of lacking, especially for my weird toes. So I’d much rather have a comfortable, sharp looking pair of $100 shoes with my $30 outfit. It just makes the whole thing look so much better.

  32. kittymommy*

    I tend to more suit separates. The Worthington line by JC Penny is really good for this. I can mix and match between jackets (both structured and looser), skirts, pants, capris, etc. They also match well with some of their shift dresses.

    1. Pilcrow*

      Seconding suit separates. They’re great if you have a sizing difference between top and bottom. My jackets/tops are 2-3 sizes bigger than my trousers. I can’t wear a single-sized suit, but I build them from separates. You can typically get multiple colors, too. Get black, gray, and navy, if you can afford it.

      I’ve found Calvin Kline’s woman’s collection works very well for me.

      Regarding the large chain stores, the basics tend to be in stock for a while so you can save up. They also tend to have sales on odd holidays like President’s Day where you can get more for your money. Often you can get even more off if you sign up for their store card. A few years ago I got $800 worth of suits* for $250 when the President’s Day and Valentines Day sales were combined with the store card incentive.

      * I got laid off after 16 years at the same employer and found I had NOTHING to interview in. Cue mad shopping spree!

    2. SomebodyElse*

      Love the worthington line. Great for basics, toss them in the washer and dryer, and good price point.

  33. EngineerMom*

    Flats are completely appropriate in a professional environment, especially when paired with slacks. Until you have a better feel for the specifics of the environment, stick to neutral colors like black, brown, or navy, without embellishments. I’m tall (5’9″), and I spent a while caring for older adults who had completely messed up their feet with heels, so I’ve worn flats or very low (1″ or less) loafers my entire working career.

    In terms of comfort and wardrobe flexibility, I’ve found it much easier to choose plain black slacks as my “base”, rather than skirts or shift dresses, and then to “dress up” the outfit with accessories. For example, plain black slacks, plain black shell, black dress socks, black flats, plum blazer, long gold necklace, and dangly gold earrings.

    If you’re topping things off with a blazer and appropriate jewelry (or scarves in winter), you should be fine. One of the most formally-dressed women in my office (upper management in a customer-facing role) rarely wears skirts or dresses – she wears a lot of pant-blazer suits, plus amazing accessories. She does tend to wear heels, but she’s not very tall, so that might be part of it!

    1. Amber T*

      If you’re on the shorter size and still wonder if you need to wear heels – nah. I’m 5’0 and haven’t rocked heels in over a year. Professional looking flats are perfectly fine.

  34. University Minion*

    Hold off on buying much of anything until you see what the folks in your office wear. Once you have an idea of what they wear, try to envision how to mesh that with your own personal style if you have one.
    Here’s what works for me and my body type (Medium, averagely proportioned). If your taste and/or body type differs, you may not have the same experience. In general, thrift stores tend to skew towards conventional sizes, particularly small/medium, so I get that this won’t apply to everyone.
    Look for the Goodwill or other thrift stores in the wealthier parts of town (but make note of local culture… I’ve also lived in cities where there are relatively few professional women, and the thrift stores reflected that). Comb the racks for classic, well made pieces. I know for my taste and body type, Talbots almost always fits perfectly. It’s going to take some trial and error to find what works, but when you spend <$10/piece at a thrift store, a misfire doesn't hurt as much. If you're buying new, every now and then Target surprises the hell out of me. It's really hit or miss, but I've gotten some awesome pieces that wore like iron over the years. It's worth a quick scan of the department from time to time.

    For shoes, this is where you want to spend some money, especially if you're on your feet all day. Don't let anyone tell you that you *need* to wear heels if you don't want to. Again, know your office and know your feet. I like Bass Weejun loafers (classic, lasts forever, can be dressed up or down) and Rockport/Cobb Hill (they have a T-strap dress shoe that is feminine and really comfortable!). I work in academia, so Birks & socks make frequent appearances :-) Dansko clogs are also popular in casual offices and places where folks are on their feet a lot.

    1. Sarah K*

      I second the Anne Klein flats! I have black and navy – they look great with skirts and slacks and are very comfortable. DSW often has a great deal on them too.

  35. Johanna*

    Before you buy too much, get a sense of the office temperature. More formal offices tend to be freezing because the men are in suits and are frequently in charge.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      Also, men run 3-5° cooler than women on average anyway.

      Merino thermals can be useful in such workplaces – they can look like a smart shell but actually keep you cosy.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        That is, Caroline Criado Perez teaches us that men turn the thermostat down compared to women, just because of biology.

  36. CM*

    I’d suggest waiting. Save your money, have enough clothes to get you through your first week of work, and plan to see what other people are wearing in your office before buying a lot of clothes. You may find that in your specific office, people have a certain uniform or norms about what they do and don’t wear.

  37. sam*

    Obviously it very much depends on a variety of factors, including the dress code at your workplace, what you’re personally comfortable wearing, and (for me at least) the availability of clothes in your size (I am plus-sized).

    For starting out where you don’t know all the “rules”, having some basic layering pieces is key – neutral colors (black grey, etc.) for pants and skirts that can be dressed up or down. For tops, if you like button downs, that great, but also look at ‘shells’ and other blouse-type tops and sweaters. Having a few key jackets is also key, particularly in a more formal setting, but unless it’s a strictly business-dress environment where you have to wear a suit-suit every day, most women I know wear cardigans or sweater sets or something along those lines a lot of the time.

    For shoes – recently I’ve moved away from wearing heels most of the time because they’ve been causing me issues, and I’ve gotten some really nice flats and loafers at DSW – if I find a pair I like, I buy them in multiple colors to have options (and also to extend their life). For colder days, I’ll also wear some low-heeled ankle boots with tights (either under pants or a skirt).

    In terms of places to shop, I actually get a decent amount of the REALLY basic stuff (black pants type stuff) at gap/old navy – gap does extended sizing up to size 20, which is exactly where I am. I also got a stitch fix subscription, and it can be hit or miss, but I’ve gotten some really nice tops through them that I would have never considered otherwise.

    Also, don’t count out old-school department stores if you need actual suits/separates.

    Lastly, I find that good statement jewelry (earrings/necklace) punch up any outfit. My main source for a while was H&M, but their selection seems to have gone downhill – now I’m mostly browsing at Anthropologie, TopShop and Aldo.

    1. Marny*

      +1 on statement jewelry as a way to dress up/style up an outfit. I recommend Bauble Bar (online). They have great fashion jewelry and have sales and coupons all the time. I love the stuff I’ve gotten from them.

  38. Glomarization, Esq.*

    Corporette-dot-com is a good blog for professional fashion. They discuss building a wardrobe from scratch, how to find lower-cost pieces, etc.

    As for shoes, I’ve generally sworn off heels so I have some experience dealing with trying to find shoes that go well with pantsuits and business casual. What works for me is to wear “commuting shoes” — sneakers or boots — and then change into something more dressy at the office. I’ll carry my dress shoes with me, and I’ll also keep one or two pairs at my desk. For dress shoes, I tend to wear highly polished loafers or something very flat in a driving moccasin style. I avoid open-toed shoes because in lawyering they’re often seen as less than professional. (Different areas of practice and areas of the U.S. will vary on women lawyers wearing open-toed shoes.) My best go-to pair of office shoes are Franco Sarti loafers; if you’ve read The Devil Wears Prada, these are exactly the shoes that Miranda Priestly criticizes Andrea for wearing.

    One of the best ways to keep your footwear looking professional is to take care of your shoes. Keep them polished. Get them re-soled as necessary. Air them out and don’t wear the same pair two days in a row. Don’t wear them while commuting, especially if your commute involves a long walk or public transportation.

    1. NJAnonymous*

      I was coming here to say the exact same thing. Corporette also has a few pinned articles that give specific recommendations by budget, too, so it’s a great place to start. I would recommend getting basic pants/skirts/blazers and be ‘fun’ with tops.

      I have a long commute so I typically wear sneakers/boots into the office and carry heels or fancy flats with me. I also have a pair of knee-high boots and ankle boots with a high heel and stacked heel that are great options too if you’re not a fan of pumps. I do not have a cube/desk/office (I travel all the time and ‘hotel’ when I’m in the office), so I also bought a bag that fits my laptop and comes with a compartment for shoes. Makes a big difference (and keeps shoes looking clean).

      I also hate most button down shirts. They don’t look great and don’t fit great. I typically buy shirts in nice fabrics that either go with suits or work with trousers by themselves. You’ll easily find those in basically any store.

    2. Aerin*

      Also wanted to second Corporette. They feature a lot of pieces in different styles for different types of office, so if you’re specifically having trouble picturing what professional dress for women looks like, they provide a lot of inspiration.

      One tip: a moderately nice piece that is tailored will look significantly more polished than a really fancy piece that doesn’t fit you properly. Investing in a few wardrobe staples and getting them correctly fitted will help provide a solid base for your wardrobe.

      Also, your ability to mix-and-match will be significantly enhanced if all your pieces look good together. Like for me, I stick to cool colors and jewel tones. So I can basically reach blindly into my closet and come out with a functional outfit. (As long as only one piece has a pattern, that is.)

  39. ursula*

    When I was in this position, my answer was (a) loose, blousey shells with good drape that can be dressed up or down under cardigans or blazers (often bought cheaply at Target, Winners, etc and you can easily update them when bored); (b) about 3 cardigans of different colours/weights/lengths that work with the above; (c) start with one good plain black blazer, then add a slightly less dressy one in grey or blue, and then one with some style (mine is a preppy blue tartan which has turned out to be surprisingly versatile); (d) 2-3 pairs of pants, one that goes with your good black blazer, the other 2 that work with your shells and other blazers/cardigans; (e) some shift dresses if you feel like it; and (f) MOST IMPORTANTLY, choose all of the above within a somewhat limited colour palette so most things go with most other things. I basically didn’t mess with brown for the first 3 years I was working – my wardrobe was black, grey, blue, forest green, cranberry, and plum, with cream accents. Variety comes from patterns in your shell tops. You never have to think too hard about what to wear. This is my recipe – maximum possible YMMV here.

    1. The Original K.*

      Seconded, particularly consignment stores in or near affluent neighborhoods – they tend to have more of a selection of business attire.

  40. A Medical Librarian*

    When looking at slacks, be sure to get some that are full length. Ankle length is very popular right now, but some professional environments do not consider it office appropriate. When buying business clothing, factor in the cost of cleaning. If everything you purchase is “dry clean only”, you will start racking up significant dry cleaning bills. Blazers can be worn several times between cleanings, but shirts and pants may need more frequent washing, so I try to find materials that can at least be washed on a gentle cycle. Loafers are my go-to flat shoes, but ballet flats and low-heeled boots are fine options as well.

    1. Oxford Comma*

      ^^^^^^^^^^^Always read the labels before you buy. I own a lot of business clothes that require dry cleaning that A Medical Librarian mentioned or are hand wash/line dry. While many items can be washed even if they say dry clean only, I have ruined enough clothes that I don’t like to risk that.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        Dry clean only clothes can also be handled with the Dryel and Woolite at home dry cleaning kits. These save you tons of money on dry cleaning – I pretty much only dry clean my clothes professionally once and then use the Dryel/Woolite cloths until the end of the season when I send the clothes to be professionally cleaned one last time before they’re “retired” for the next season’s clothes.

    2. Stanley Nickles*

      STRONGLY agree on avoiding dry-clean only clothes (namely tops and pants). They end up in a pile of “when I get around to it, I’ll take this load” and end up out of rotation for awhile, in addition to the cost. I have tried doing at home dry cleaning, but it never works as well.

    3. Aerin*

      They also make sweat guards you can stick on the underarms of blouses and blazers. Helps so they don’t need to be washed quite as often.

  41. TootsNYC*

    Women get a break here, in that there’s more room for creativity (of course, that comes with more decisions to make).

    I think that adding a top layer of almost any kind bumps you up in a level of professionalism.

    So: jacket of any type, sweater, vest, even a scarf

  42. CatCat*

    For shoes, dress flats and loafers are totally fine, imo. I like Rockports because they are comfortable. I mostly wear those. I do occasionally wear heels, but they are a low heel and they also live at the office (I change shoes when I get in).

    I’d stick with one or two basic neutral colors for core pieces like jackets, slacks, and skirts. If you’re just going with one color, go with black. Dark gray and navy are also nice neutral colors. For a really polished look, get your clothing tailored if it needs it. You can also go to stores Macy’s or Nordstrom and ask for help in finding pieces and they often have in-house tailoring available.

    You can have shirts and accessories for more personalization and color. I am a huge fan of nice scarves! You can find videos on YouTube for various ways to tie and drape scarves to look polished.

  43. Chauncey Gardner*

    Sweater “jackets” are great. They read like a blazer, but feel like jammies. You can pair with skirts, dresses, and slacks and there’s your uniform. The skirts and dresses can be worn with tall boots or dressy sandals (if open toed shoes are OK in your office). If you stick with a lot of one color for the foundation pieces, you can get away with not spending much on them, saving your $ for nicer boots, shoes and sweater jackets

  44. Oxford Comma*

    I am a big believer in spending a little more money on staple pieces. For instance, buy a couple of decent pairs of trousers in navy, black, grey in classic cuts. The blazers you mentioned. If you live in a place where it gets cold enough, pay a little bit more for a nice coat. If you want to be more trendy, I would suggest doing that with the tops, but for those I wouldn’t lay out quite as much cash.

    You’ve already started getting blazers and button downs so that’s good. Cardigans and shells can be another way to go.

    For shoes, flats or shoes with a low heel. You could begin by going to places like DSW until you figure out what works best for you. Best advice I ever got about shoes was to shop for them later in the day because feet tend to swell and the last thing you want is a pair that’s too tight on you.

    I would say start with the core pieces. You don’t have to buy everything at once. Clothes are usually marked down pretty quickly, so you can possibly avoid paying full price for what you do locate.

  45. NW Mossy*

    From my own experience, I’d advise pacing yourself on buying a lot of professional clothes, especially if you’re in an area that’s more relaxed generally (like the west coast). My industry (financial services) makes most people think suits and ties, but it’s increasingly common to go more casual. Just in the 10 years I’ve been at my current employer, we’ve gone from business casual with jeans on Friday to adding Thursday, and beginning this year, jeans and sneakers are allowed any day.

    While the change is nice, it’s definitely presented some wardrobe challenges for me because a number of my work outfits now seem too stuffy (tailored dresses, mostly). I still wear them, but as I add things now, it’s with an eye to a more relaxed look. I’ve found that accessories (especially inexpensive costume jewelry) are a great tool to dial a look up or down depending on the situation, which expands the workable range of specific garments.

    1. LawLady*

      Yeah, there are now very few truly formal environments. I’m a BigLaw lawyer, and many of my clients are bankers. There are times where we dress up, but business casual is now the norm.

  46. Amethystmoon*

    It depends on where you work. Many companies allow for business casual (i.e. khakis or dark-colored slacks and nice knit tops). Most companies will ban things like T-shirts and sweatshirts. I have gotten quite a few things from eBay, and also local thrift stores. Try not to buy things that look too dated, though. eBay has a lot of things that are “new without tags.” I guess that means the person wore it once or twice and decided they didn’t like it. I’ve bought quite a few things like that. Those tend to be cheaper than the “new with tags.”

    Many workplaces will allow what they call twin sets, knit tops (make sure not to buy an actual T-shirt), unlined casual blazers, and cardigans. You can always wear a knit top underneath a matching blazer or cardigan. If you live in a state that gets real winters, you will need things for each season. Pick things that look good on you but can be mixed and matched.

    Gaudy jewelry is usually frowned upon in workplaces. I would go with some simple necklaces (look for what they call the minimalist style). Something like a silver or gold bar necklace, or even just a nice chain, is pretty good and you can wear it with lots of things. Consider at least one neutral scarf also because they can be used to hide small stains on tops if you can’t get it out with water at work.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Gaudy jewelry is usually frowned upon in workplaces.

      This isn’t true in any of the workplaces I’ve been in and I’ve been in education (for profit school), law, insurance, transportation, and now software.

      1. Historic Hamlet Dweller*

        Likewise, unusual (think acrylic, resin, wood) jewellery has been part of my working wardrobe since I started working. I don’t do big stones, but lots of folk do.

        1. Amethystmoon*

          Well, it does depend on where one works. But I work in a corporate environment and have heard people gossiping about what others wear. Most interview advice these days also says to keep jewelry minimal.

  47. Laura*

    I echo ballet flats and ankle boots.
    Also, know your company not just your industry. I interviewed with an insurance company and they required business professional with a preference for heels, skirts and a required blazer. I got a job with the insurance company literally across the street. I bought clothes like the female Vice Presidents which consisted of khakis or similar pants and sweaters.
    The skirts and blazers I bought during my senior year of college were too informal for one and to formal at the other.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Ha! This sounds like my me and my mom. We both worked in insurance (she still does – I left and am now in software), and her company, which was right across the street from mine, had a very formal dress code policy – like, still requiring women to wear pantyhose strict. My company, on the other hand, was business casual all the way, though I dressed more towards the business side because I like dressing up in blazers and structured dresses. And I wore fishnets with a lot of my knee length dresses, which would have been banned at my mom’s workplace.

      1. Laura*

        Yep. I work in healthcare now. Men at the Director level and above must wear ties every day. The insurance company. You would know who was meeting with the CEO that day as they would carry a tie and jacket on a hanger in the elevator to only wear during the meeting.

  48. Sal*

    I do not work there, I do not contribute, this is not in any way a paid endorsement–but the blog Corporette is great.

    I also like flat ankle boots for colder days (you can wear socks!). If they’re sleek enough (think a refined Chelsea boot), you can wear them with skirts/dresses as well. (Just make sure your socks are low enough they don’t show.)

  49. From The High Tower on Capitol Hill*

    I always try to get as versatile of pieces that I can. Essentially my summer and winter wardrobe are the same with a couple of alterations. Since I live in the tundra, I usually wear darker colors in winter. So pairing a staple with a basic black or gray blazer. In the summer I will usually pair things with some brighter cardigans (Old Navy is great for cardigans). In general, I buy my “staples” from factory stores (i.e. Banana Republic Factory, Loft Factory, J Crew Factory) and they are all neutral colors. White House Black Market while yes extremely expensive had a huge sale on dresses and their work pants recently so I picked up two pairs of pants and four work dresses for about $150. For clothing that is specific to one season, try to shop off season. For instance, if you want a dressier wool coat for winter, the next month or two is the time to buy since everything will be clearanced out.

    I also shop quite a bit at Good Will. I am lucky and in a city of 200,000 people so I go to the Good Wills that are in the rich suburbs quite a bit and have found brand name clothing and accessories (Ann Taylor, Kate Spade) for really low prices.

    For flats, I love the Sketchers Cleo Bewitch Ballet Flat. They are super comfortable if you are on your feet all day and a pretty good knock off of Rothys. I would go a size down though as they do stretch. If I do need to dress up and wear heels, I just keep a pair of spare flats at my desk and change into heels as needed. The only heels I own are from LifeStride (a wonderful brand) and just a basic black and nude pair is all you need.

    Now to ask a question of you, Commentariat, does anyone have suggestions on some other clothing stores for women under 30? I just want to widen my horizons and haven’t found many work tops that I am in love with recently.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      For clothing that is specific to one season, try to shop off season. For instance, if you want a dressier wool coat for winter, the next month or two is the time to buy since everything will be clearanced out.

      This is a great tip, and I do this all the time.

      As to your question: TJMaxx and Marshalls are good places to look. I basically lived in those stores, especially TJ, when I was in my 20s. At 32, I still shop there from time to time, but thredUP has seriously replaced the need for me to really go into any physical store and buy clothes ever again. They have something of everything on that site.

      1. From The High Tower on Capitol Hill*

        Huh, I’ve never actually tried ThreadUP but I have some old work clothes that don’t fit that I was looking to get rid of. The TJMaxx by me is pretty nasty, so is the Marshalls. Not in the best part of town and the store smells absolutely awful unfortunately.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Ewww. Yeah, stay out of there then, lol. They have online shipping options – if you know your size in things, you can buy stuff from them that way (returns are pretty easy too).

    2. AnotherAlison*

      I wanted to reiterate to actually get a dress coat!

      Many people just wear their casual coats to work with dressier outfits, and that reminds me of kids dressing up for school banquets or debate tournaments. They have the clothes, but not the accessories. You don’t want to look like you’re playing dress up. You want to convey that this is your normal look.

      1. From The High Tower on Capitol Hill*

        Agreed! For me, it is regularly below zero without the windchill where I live, including a week last year where it was -40 to -60 degrees with the windchill, so we do really have to wear intense winter gear to work. I am usually in a parka, hat, and mittens when I walk into work but that is just the norm for my office since you can get frost bite in a matter of seconds during our winters. But late September-early December you will find me in a dressy knee length wool coat and in the spring I have a dressy rain coat that luckily has a fleece lining so it is pretty versatile from 40 degrees to 65 degrees.

      2. TechWorker*

        But also… try not to sweat this one too much! A dress coat could be a significant expense when you’re starting out and may turn out to be completely unnecessary in your workplace. I’m thinking the literally hundreds of people I see every day who wear very formal business wear with trainers for the walk/commute in – clearly it’s acceptable for them to not look perfect on the way in and change shoes when they get there, don’t really see why having a super formal coat would be different! You could always sling it over your arm when you enter the building if you’re worried about the ‘look’ as a whole.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Fair point. . .I live in a suburb car commuting type of area, so what you wear in is what you wear all day.

          I also have the type of job where going to meet clients in business attire is part of my duties, and I’ve learned that I just don’t want to stick out. One time, not long enough ago, I went to a hockey game with clients, and I wore a snowboarding jacket that is salmon colored. The next time I was on the job site in my Carhartt coat, he said, “Oh, you aren’t wearing your bright pink coat today.” I wasn’t going to wear a wool dress coat to a game when I’m wearing jeans, but I didn’t think the “pink” coat was going to be so memorable, either.

          1. From The High Tower on Capitol Hill*

            I am pretty similar in that I spend the majority of my time in the Capitol outside of my office (lobbyist) so having a formal coat is pretty important for my job when it isn’t -40 degrees outside. If you are going to go for a regular winter coat, I always think something classic and black is good (similar to North Face parkas but not actually North Face because they’re obscenely expensive and not actually that warm). You can also dress it up with scarves and other accessories.

            In the end it isn’t totally about what you wear, it’s about confidence and how you carry yourself. So keep your head up and you’ll go far kid.

  50. Elisabeth*

    I love capsule wardrobes (a number of neutral pieces that all fit together), I think it’s a great way to build a professional wardrobe at any price point. I’d start with a blazer, pants, and skirt that match, add a couple blouses and t-shirts/cardigans, then add a coordinating pair of pants (or two) and another skirt or dress, etc. Add two or three pairs of shoes and you’re set! Accessories can help change up your look, and if you don’t like/want to wear skirts, you can make it all pants. This makes it super easy to get dressed in the morning, too. :)

  51. dwigt*

    I’ve found a lot at Express – they seem to always be running a sale. Particularly, I like the Portofino blouse (so many options in color, pattern, and sleeve length!) and the Downtown cami for underneath a cardigan or blazer that I don’t intent to take off.

  52. frogsandturtles*

    The sales at Anne Taylor, Anne Taylor Loft, Banana Republic, J Crew and Talbots can be excellent online and in store, especially when they do the 50%+ off sale stuff (which is honestly very frequent, there’s no need to ever buy anything even at the regular sale price–just get on their email lists). They all have decent size ranges now too from petite to plus. You can get very decent suit separates for less than $50-$60. Talbots is good for low-heeled work shoes (flats, oxfords etc) but they will all have some.

    I also just got a really great like-new, fashionable Anne Klein suit on ebay for $22. For the whole suit. The RealReal & Poshmark might also be good places to look.

    1. 867-5309*

      Anne Klein is a good mention. Macy’s will often have sales on their business attire, in addition to Calvin Klein and others. My favorite and only suite is a grey Calvin and Klein skirt and blazer combo. I’ve had it going on a decade and it still looks great.

    2. Allypopx*

      I am wearing a super cozy Loft sweater right now that I got for like $15 and is both cute and versatile. Love their sales. And I have had really good luck with Banana Republic pants as someone with unruly hips.

    3. Diahann Carroll*

      The RealReal is horrible these days. I recently ordered shoes from them, and they sent me damaged shoes that they knew were damaged (even though the listing said they were in Good condition with only minor scratches) – the whole top bauble on one of my heels fell off as soon as it was unwrapped! And it was the only heel that was wrapped, so whoever packed the box saw it and put it in there anyway as if I wouldn’t notice. They rightfully refunded me the entire cost even though they were final sale items because WTF?! The quality of their stuff has gone way down over the years.

    4. DataGirl*

      These are mostly my go-tos as well. I would happily buy and wear pretty much everything in Talbots store. The designs are classic, the clothing is well made, and their petite lines actually fit me! I also like Ann Taylor, White House/Black Market and New York and Company (these clothes are cheaper and will wear out faster, but can be a good source of fun pieces). I get a lot of things on ThredUp lately- I limit my search criteria to ‘new with tags’ or ‘like new’ and still get tons of results for relatively low cost.

  53. merry*

    My suggestion would be to buy a few basic pieces (black pants, cardigan, etc.) and then wait until after you start your job to figure out what kind of clothes are the norm in the office you will work in.
    When I graduated from college, my parents gifted me a ton of business casual work clothes, but it turns out that at my job, jeans and a sweater is about the nicest I ever have to dress, so I got absolutely no use out of all those much nicer clothes.

  54. The Rain In Spain*

    I had a similar approach when I first started and then realized that in my industry, most women don’t wear blazers or button down shirts on a regular basis. Camisoles with cardigans or nice blouses are more common. So it’s helpful to know what’s more common in your area of work. You also have to know yourself- I amassed a shocking number of pencil skirts and button-down shirts (because, FORMAL! cute! on sale!) and don’t ever actually wear them.

    If you live and plan to work somewhere with different seasons, you may want to check out end of season sales this year to get some high quality pieces for a great price. Places like the loft, ann taylor, banana republic, j crew, etc. have some good options for what I consider professional attire.

    For a base wardrobe, I would recommend a few pairs of nice pants, 5-6 camisoles, 5-6 blouses, and some sweaters to mix and match (along with your existing blazers). You can add in a few skirts and/or dresses if you’re into that sort of thing. I would recommend having at least 1-2 higher-neck shells/tanktops/shapers/whatever you want to call them to wear under lower-cut/sheer shirts. I prefer to interview in a full suit, so I have one of those too.

    One easy to way to make a smaller wardrobe work well for you is to stick with a narrower color scheme & several solid pieces (vs patterned) so it’s easier to mix pieces together. If you’re into jewelry/accessories that can change up your look.

    I exclusively wear flats. In general you can’t go wrong with a solid close-toed ballet flat/loafer. In my current office I can wear leather loafers with a white sole, but it’s more casual than my previous office, where I would stick to solid black or navy leather flats.

  55. Silicon Valley Girl*

    Aerosoles & Clarks usually have a variety of comfortable, classic-styled flat shoes appropriate for a formal business environment. They’re good quality & last for years.

  56. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    One thing I’d suggest, is not buying too many pieces until you’re sure what type of work environments you’ll likely be working in. I tried to build up a “professional” wardrobe, once in college and once after I left my first full-time job. I have to say, both times I ended up buying pieces that I wasn’t able to get much use out of. I’d assumed that I’d be wearing “business” clothes, like dress pants, blouses, etc., and beyond interviews/important meetings, that wasn’t the type of work environment I ended up working in.

  57. lnelson in Tysons*

    Don’t be shy about looking at second hand stores. Granted I liked the ones in the UK better than some of them in the US. Yes, there is a lot that won’t work for you, but you can find some gems out there too. At one point, I found a great second hand store in a wealthy town. Proceeds went to cancer research and I found a lot of business suits at bargain prices. Naturally harder to find your exact size, but even with only be able to wear the skirt (the top didn’t fit quite right) the whole suit was $15.
    Basic black pants can be mixed and matched with so much.

  58. janon*

    For shoes, highly recommend a plain pair of Rothy’s. They are comfortable, washable, and last. A solid black pair would go with anything from casual to professional.

    And for clothing – H&M is great for blazers. Banana Republic Factory will have sales all the time on tops, pants, dresses, etc. that can help build that out. But don’t go crazy! Get some staples and add as you see things.

  59. Vee*

    They can be pricey, but I like the pants from Express (I bought a few pairs during their 50% off sale… But it still was around $100). H&M also had some good business-y pieces.

    My office is more business casual, but on days where I “dress up” I usually mix my Express pants with a cowl neck long sleeve shirt.

  60. sometimeswhy*

    I started with a capsule collection/work uniform concept. A few pairs of plain-or-close-enough trousers in the on the dark end of a neutral color family* A few shirts and sweaters on the light end of the same neutral color family. Two cardigans, one light, one dark. Two blazers, one black, one color. One pair of flats/oxfords, one pair of heeled boots for when i need to be taller than everyone in the room. Then scarves and lapel pins in bright colors.

    I started with inexpensive items and then over the years replaced them one at a time with similar pieces that were more of an investment. One sweater here. A better pair of shoes there. It helped the uniform evolve to just the right thing but not having to think about it AT ALL at first was valuable in figuring out what my comfortable work style is. I still wear both of those first two blazers.

    My boss has a similar thing where she has a few bright and/or patterned shift dresses and tops and trousers that all match each other that she rotates through + statement jewelry, scarves, neutral outer layers.

    * I went dark grey/black for trousers and white/light grey for shirts but you could just as easily do this with browns and khakis or even a non-neutral color if, like, blue is your thing.

  61. cactus lady*

    Dresses! They’re a little bit more of an investment up front (though you can get some good deals on Poshmark) but they ALWAYS look polished. As for flats, I have a friend who swears by Rothys but they’re a little too casual for my office – I get mine from Ann Taylor.

  62. 867-5309*

    There are so many stylish and more formal flats these days. A great loafer will take you far. Check out DSW and outlet stores like Cole Hahn, if in the U.S. I keep a pair of basic black flats in the office so when the weather isn’t great, I can change from commuter shoes (sneakers, boots), without needing to carry an extra pair of shoes. Boden also has cute flats, if you want something with a pop of color.

    I still have dress pants from a decade ago because I invested in good basics in black and grey, including skirts, pants, dresses and blazers. I dislike button downs with a fiery passion that most people reserve for Hatfield and McCoy-level family feuds, so opt instead for different tops ranging from sweaters to cotton blend silky tees.

    Ann Taylor and Banana Republic are starting to return to solid business basics after years of chasing trends and decreasing quality. It still isn’t as great as it was a decade ago but they are a smart spot for picking up these items. They frequently run 40% and 50% off sales so just wait for one of those and purchase. (I wouldn’t buy full price.)

  63. BK*

    Turtlenecks! I know many people dislike them, but if you don’t, they’ve been amazing for me for colder months. Plain, solid colour (for me that’s black or dark green, but can’t go wrong with any neutrals), and made from a thin but warm material. They are so versatile! Tucked into skirts or trousers, and with the aforementioned blazer, they can look very professional, sleek, and put together. I also often put a boxy sweater on instead of the blazer, but my office isn’t very formal. And, if you’re somewhere very cold, they do come in some hitech thermal materials too!

    1. 867-5309*

      Oh man – I spend the entire day scratching my neck if I wear a turtle neck but they do look chic.

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      I wear turtlenecks all the time in the winter underneath sleeveless dresses and with cardigans/sweaters. I even buy the ones that are thicker material – I love them. They instantly make you look polished without much effort.

  64. Former Retail Lifer*

    I work in an office where we have to dress professionally, but with a foot injury and a bad back, I don’t do heels. I live in nice ballet flats. You can get some decent ones at Target, or spend a bit more if you’re able and get some super comfy, well-made ones that will last. I have a few by Easy Spirit that are really comfy.

    If money is tight, get a couple of black blazers and a couple of pairs of black pants that aren’t dry-clean only and rotate between them. JC Penney has a great selection of business wear and you can always find a great sale and a coupon there. Their Worthington brand is reasonably priced and good quality. Raid the sale rack for anything that could look business-y under a blazer. You can rotate through different tops and almost no one will notice you’re wearing the same suit. If you find something that fits you well and makes you feel good, and you can afford it, buy it in a few colors.

  65. Pickled Watermelon*

    Black pants. Charcoal pants. Gray pants (yes charcoal is a shade of gray, so lighter than charcoal). Be daring and throw in some colored pants (I have no colored pants but always want to buy them, but then I chicken out). In the summer and spring I wear mostly dresses and skirts, but they are more on the casual side but I know not everyone likes to wear them (even though I find them way more comfortable than pants!). But skirts in solid colors are versatile. I wear a lot of ballet flats. Pretty much anything leather will do. I also like Rothy’s because I travel for work to some dusty places and being able to toss them in the wash is awesome.

    1. Student Affairs Sally*

      I second the Rothy’s recommendation! They’re a bit pricey, but they’re super comfortable (after a few wears they basically mold to your feet), washable, and go with literally everything I own. I have them in black, gray, and the newer wool-blend style in eggplant (with a pointy toe). The purple ones especially have become kind of my trademark at work, because they’re unique but still professional and are great for adding a pop of color to an otherwise neutral outfit.

    2. Guacamole Bob*

      Ha – I have the same experience with pants. I eventually found a pair in navy and realized later it’s almost more dark blue, and then I got a pair of burgundy/wine colored pants in a thredup box that fit well so I kept them, and I wear both regularly, and I then I expanded to a pair of dark olive green pants. Navy is a little tough because it often can’t really work with all the other stuff I have that’s centered around black (though it can work with some grays so that’s what I end up doing).

      So maybe try looking for muted dark colors as a first step, rather than eyeing the red or turquoise and then chickening out?

    3. Diahann Carroll*

      I just started wearing colored pants and jeans last year (in green, mustard, red, blue, pink, and florals) – I love them! I don’t know why I hesitated for so long to buy them (maybe I thought colors other thank black, navy, gray, and brown on the bottom would be weird), but they really do punch up a dull outfit when you’re wearing a neutral top.

  66. Kuododi*

    If someone else hasn’t mentioned Dress for Success I would certainly give them gold stars. Their goal specifically is to help women starting out/returning to the work world. (IOW ladies who need help organizing wardrobe on a budges.). I’m fairly certain they haven’t expanded out of the US. Worth a few minutes internet research to find a convenient location. Best regards.

  67. r09*

    I would recommend buying some professional outfits somewhere cheap first, like Old Navy or Target. That gives you some time to learn the office norms and culture (and temperature!) before you “complete” your wardrobe. Wait a month to get a better idea of what you need and what you will actually wear each day, so you’ll know if there’s an item or two that’s worth splurging on. And it also gives you some time to collect a few paychecks before you spend your money.

    When I graduated from college I went out and bought a bunch of “professional” outfits (based on what Pinterest considered “professional” lol) and ended up with a lot of clothing items that I never really wore.

  68. NomadiCat*

    The best advice I can offer for actually acquiring clothes is: figure out what size you are reliably in certain brands, and then eBay, eBay, eBay. This may involve a measuring tape and crawling through the size charts on a bunch of websites, but it will make things so much easier.

    In terms of what pieces to buy, blazers that can be swapped with skirts or pants are a great start. Any tops in a “knit” fabric that doesn’t need ironing will be your friend. Be careful with button downs, and maybe grab a friend to watch you stand and sit in all your button downs to make sure there are no gaps in the buttons– that’s hard to see in a mirror. In fact, make sure you can stand, sit, bend, and kneel in all your clothes. You never know when you’ll have to.

    I still tend to only buy clothes with classic lines in a certain muted color palette (grey, black, navy blue, and that dark purple that’s been so popular the last 3 years) so that they can easily be mixed and matched (capsule wardrobe FTW!). And then I’ll splurge on ONE trendy and colorful top or jacket per year to put in the rotation so that if I need to look distinctive I will.

    If you’re female, you probably need enough clothing to make it through about 7 work days without repeating an outfit. You can repeat certain elements, but depending on your industry people can get weirdly judgy about how frequently you wear certain tops or skirts, even if if they’ve been washed. Dudes can and will wear the same thing every day, but female presentation gets held to a different standard.

    This would also be a good time to start watching for sales on professional-looking cold weather gear, if you live somewhere with cold weather. Land’s End has some amazing sales if you sign up for their mailing list and wait a couple of months for the perfect sale to come along. They make very nice wool coats in a variety of silhouettes, colors, and sizes that are sturdy as hell and last for years.

    Good luck!

  69. Emilia Bedelia*

    – The easiest wardrobe is one where all of your clothes go with all of your other clothes. This allows for maximum flexibility and minimum thinking in the morning. You also do not need as many pieces of clothing, because you can build more unique outfits.
    – Pick 1 or 2 neutral colors that you like, and base your wardrobe around those – for example, if you already own a black blazer and a grey blazer, don’t buy a pair of navy blue pants. Same goes for shoes.
    – Buy things that will go with as many pieces of clothing as you can. For example, if you own a lot of patterned shirts, buy a solid colored skirt instead of a different pattern. If you already own a lot of blue/green/purple shirts, buy a patterned skirt that goes with those colors.
    – Black and white prints are my personal favorite for versatile office wear. It looks classy and polished, there’s many different styles of pattern to fit your personal taste, and black/white goes with basically any color.
    – Don’t be afraid to decide that you don’t like a certain style, even if you think it’s “what a professional person should wear”. After buying several blazers and pairs of khakis because that’s “professional”, I realized that I didn’t like them and never wore them. Instead, I wear a lot of dresses, skirts, and sweaters. Now I wish I hadn’t wasted money in the first place on things I don’t like.

  70. 2 Cents*

    Recently switched from a casual office job to a just-shy-of-formal business office. I’d get a blazer or Jardigan (jacket cardigan) in black or blue to put over tops I felt comfortable in. I detest button downs and shift dresses and heels.
    I only have to be in the office 3 days a week, so I rotate between:
    —3 pairs of dress pants in neutral colors (black, blue, grey)
    —2 a-line Ponte dresses from lands end in plain colors (no prints) that are easy to add a jacket/cardigan/scarf to
    —Ponte blazers in neutrals (I bought mine from target and waiting to find the right ones to upgrade)
    —2-3 plain cardigans / jardigans to add to the tops and dresses
    —5 tops in cuts that are appropriate and flattering (several shells, a few short-sleeve)

    For shoes, I swear by Anne Klein Ursula sport flats and wedges. I don’t wear heels either, but the sport flats, particularly, come in a wide range of colors and prints (I have black, blue and brown snakeskin).

  71. Project Manager*

    Others have covered what professional pieces are pretty well above. My advice, as someone who has trouble finding clothes that fit, is to find a designer that generally fits you well and fits your style and then haunt that designer on ThredUp. Even if there are a few misses, there should be enough hits to get you a decent wardrobe for a good price.

    1. Admin4Life*

      This! I did this starting out with a new business professional wardrobe and it was a great way to go.

  72. architeuthis rex*

    It took me a long time to figure out how to build a wardrobe (as opposed to “I have this one dress I like – what can I wear with it?” and “I can wear this shirt with these pants”). For me a huge “a ha” moment was to start paying attention to 1. what I like to wear and 2. what I thought I would want to look like if I styled myself well. I started a pinterest board and would pin cute clothes from all the websites I liked, I would find stylish outfits I thought looked cool, etc. Once they were all in once place, I could start to see patterns (slim pants and collared tops, one button jackets, etc) and also how those go together (the jacket can go with the shift dress, etc). I’d also recommend looking at capsule wardrobes and seeing how people build a wardrobe of pieces that go together. Then you can look at what you have, see what you feel you are lacking, and decide if you want to invest in a long-lived piece (like, definitely pay for good shoes and good pants, but maybe pick up a bright scarf wherever you find one) and slowly add to your wardrobe! Starting with a good pair of black pants, a comfortable/flattering shell, and a jacket/cardigan combo is a perfect beginning. If you like skirts/dresses, then start building in that direction as well.

  73. Chronic Overthinker*

    I went from a retail environment with a uniform shirt and denim to a business casual environment. It was a heck of a transition. That being said, I recommend getting a couple pairs of basic slacks in black/navy/gray and Khaki or your favorite neutral colors. If you are a skirts/dresses kind of person, shift dresses or A-line cut skirts/dresses work really well paired with a blazer or cardigan. I often wear a solid color t-shirt (no pocket) with a cardigan and a pair of slacks. I have a pair of black leather flats, a bright red pair (which are fun to wear with a black monochrome look) and a pair of low heeled leather booties. Be mindful of cleavage or showing too much skin (depending on your company culture, of course) and don’t forget to have fun with accessories like jewelry, scarves, overpieces and the like. I personally love to do a monochrome look with all black slacks and top with a pop of color from either my shoes or an accessory like a scarf. You can definitely showcase your personality in your style while still looking professional. Good luck and have fun shopping!

  74. YRH*

    It all depends on your industry, but my go to’s are skinny jeans (dark wash or black), a blouse (no buttons), a cardigan or jacket, and flats or boots. I also wear dresses a good bit (sheath or fit and flare work best for me) and sweaters in the winter. When I need to be dressier, I tend to wear a nicer dress and a blazer or black pants and a blazer. Long sleeve dresses are great for networking. For affordable places to shop, Old Navy, Nordstrom Rack, and high end resale shops are great. Also be on the lookout for sales. I only buy machine washable or hand wash stuff.

    1. MK*

      I absolutely agree on only buying machine or hand-washable stuff! You will save so much money and time over the course of your career by not having dry clean-only clothing! And look for items that have wrinkle resistant fabric and permanent creases so you never have to break out the iron – weirdly, women’s pants and shirts seem a lot less likely to come that way than men’s clothing, but you see it occasionally and those items are gold!

  75. Admin4Life*

    My go-to wardrobe are those basic target tees (the fitted ones and the loose ones) with A-line skirts or Slacks and a really good blazer. I love the Whitehouse Blackmarket outlet store. Their blazers are great and are often very versatile and consistent in their fit. I prefer a block heeled Mary Jane because they’re easy to walk in and I never step out of them. Ballet flats are great too!

    My only advice is dress your body type. You will look so much more polished and professional in something affordable and that fits when compared to the very expensive options that might gape or be too tight in places.

    I have expensive work dresses that I rarely ever wear because they require dry cleaning-something to keep in mind.

  76. BlueWolf*

    I would wait to feel out what other people are wearing before buying a bunch of things. No point wasting money on a bunch of clothes you’ll never end up wearing. My wardrobe consists of basically several pairs of dress slacks in black or grey which I can pair with any of my variety of shell-type blouses in summer and sweaters in winter. Most of my clothes came from the Limited. They had these great shell blouses and I just bought a bunch of them in different colors. I did wear a blazer on my first day since I wasn’t sure of the exact environment, but I haven’t worn a blazer since. For shoes, I just wear basic lace-up black leather shoes because I can’t do any heel at all and any sort of slip-on flat doesn’t work for me either because I guess I have weird feet or something.

  77. Secretary*

    A lot of great suggestions in the comments, don’t get overwhelmed LW!! You’ll probably collect your wardrobe over the next few years so don’t stress too much.

    My advice is to find a few role models of how you want to look. These can be people in your field who you admire their style, or someone on a TV show you admire. Consciously try to copy their looks and you’ll create a professional style all your own!

  78. Lady Glitter Sparkles*

    I would recommend The Loft. They are not very expensive and they have sales all the time. I wear a pair of flowery Dr. Marten boots as my daily shoe, but I think flats are perfect for those of us that don’t do heels. Good luck! It was difficult for me to shift from wearing a uniform and boots for 9 years (military) to dressing business casual, but I think if I can do anybody can! (I was super nervous I would either be too formal or not dress-y enough.)

  79. SusanB*

    There is a FB group called What Kristin Found and I would recommend following that if you can. It’s not all career friendly but she will post dresses and shoes that are almost always for sale on Amazon and almost always cheap. I purchased some Amazon flats because I saw them on that group and they were $16 and pretty comfortable and I wear them to work. I have a few dresses and tops I saw on there. I like it because if you read the comments, women of all sizes will posts photos of themselves in the item so you can see how it fits on a variety of real body shapes.

    I’m a 44 year old woman and I follow it because I just don’t have the time to go shopping so finding something and then seeing how it looks and seeing that it’s cheap is all a win for me. There’s a whole bunch of us at work from 25-50 who follow the group and we’ll be like “Oh are those the shoes from Kristin?” so it’s a pretty good bet.

  80. Lily Rowan*

    In addition to what other folks have said, especially about waiting until you’re sure of the office you’ll be working in before buying too much, I’d focus on your interview suit. You definitely need one! And if you can make sure the jacket and skirt/pants are pieces you will be comfortable wearing separately, there’s two of your basics right off the bat.

  81. Catwoman*

    Two words for you: basics and layers.

    If you have a limited budget, stick to basics in black at first to add to your button-ups and blazers: a few pairs of black pants, black pencil skirt (if you like skirts), black ballet flats. Black is simple and classy, easy to dress up or down depending on what you wear with it. I know a few people who have an all-black wardrobe; that may feel a little extreme to you but it works.

    If you want to play with color, stick mainly with solids and concentrate on your tops and maybe get a fun statement blazer if that works for your office culture. You can do a lot with jewelry, scarves and other accessories to dress basic pieces up or down.

    As you expand your wardrobe, start with other neutral colors: browns, dark greens. This works with shoes too. I only buy shoes in black or brown and have one pair of each “category”: tall boot, short boot, heeled pump, flat. This covers me for basically any work situation.

    1. Catwoman*

      Pay attention to the tags when you’re buying clothes–I never buy anything that’s dry-clean only!

      1. Allypopx*

        This is a huge one. Dry clean only is usually more expensive, for one, and almost always a giant pain.

  82. J. F. Scientist*

    I am a fan of the mix and match: I have like ten pairs of grey and black pants, a bunch of sweaters and button-down shirts, a selection of, yes, shift dresses, and then an assortment of nice blazers to put on top. I also have a bunch of pencil skirts from my last job but my current office is so cold I haven’t worn any this year.

    Most of my clothes came from the local thrift shops; I live in a college town so there’s a lot of really nice stuff there, but I also teach labs where students routinely explode stuff on me. Loft clearance, BR, even Old Navy have supplied some pants and shirts too.

  83. Princess Leia's Left Hand Bun*

    I walk to and from work and follow a smart dress code. I have a pair of heels stashed for super serious occasions, but 90% of the time I have a pretty mindless clothing routine.

    One light wool suit “set” – blazer, skirt and trousers with a 3/4 sleeve top or one of a batch of three dresses that switch with the season. That plus either a pair of ankle boots or ballet flats means I look smart but can deal with foot mileage.

    The suit was courtesy Banana Republic’s semi regular insane sales, everything else was sales or second hand. I stay clear or blouses or dresses with button tops as my chest doesn’t fit in them, luckily thicker jersey fabric or Uniqlo jumpers dress up well under the blazer.

  84. Can I get a Wahoo?*

    This is somewhat off topic (please delete if too off topic).

    I love the look of a sweater on top of a button down, especially for my biz casual office, but every time I try and put that outfit together everything bunches uncomfortably. Am I using the wrong pieces/sizes?

    1. Can I get a Wahoo?*

      Also–long sleeve tops under cardigans/blazers: how?? Am I buying my blazers too fitted? They look great with a tank, but I can’t get a long sleeve blouse into the sleeve without the bunching mentioned above.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        Either your blazers are too tight in the sleeves or your shirts are too bulky in the sleeve. That’s usually what causes bunching when I have that problem (which is rarely now that I pay more attention to fabric density).

    2. Allypopx*

      Can you describe the bunching more specifically? Where/what is looks like/feels like? You’re probably not wearing the right size of something, but it could also be the material or maybe another issue.

      1. Can I get a Wahoo?*

        Like, I can’t move my arms or even get the under layer down my arms. Both pieces fit fine on their own, but I suppose I should be looking for larger sizes in the sweater? I also have a slightly large chest, so there’s some fabric “puffing up” in that area.

        1. Allypopx*

          There’s a chance it just might not be a look that works great for you with a larger chest, because you’re going to be adding a lot of fabric in that area. But yeah if you’re putting a shirt under something it needs to be a little roomier than it would be if you wore it on its own.

        2. Allypopx*

          I’d recommend finding some button ups that are a thinner material and sizing up your sweater and seeing how you like that – you can always try it on at the store first!

  85. AnotherAlison*

    Just came here to say this is not limited to a new grad problem, so OP, don’t stress too much about making a few stumbles. I’ve been working in business casual for 20 years, but my current group just leans more professional. My keys – accessories, no sloppy sweaters, “polished” shoes, black/gray slacks. You can go up from there, but never go down from that as the minimum.

  86. KitCat*

    This is so relevant to me! I am struggling right now with shoes (I’m a young woman). I keep feeling that I need nicer looking shoes, but most nice shoes hurt me as I have plantar fasciitis. Any advice on how to have nice but very supportive shoes without blowing the bank?

    1. Jo*

      I look for clearance most of the time. I like Zappos and DSW the best. I will admit though, comfortable shoes are not cheap and easy to find. I feel like I spend the most money on shoes.

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      My mom has this issue and has found some nice looking Clarks and Franco Sarto shoes at DSW that don’t hurt her (her podiatrist recommended Clarks – said they’re the best for PF).

  87. Shmems*

    Cardigans are everything…wear them over a silk/poly shell top with pants or a pencil skirt. Wear them over a shift or A-line cut dress. They are super versatile in a business casual environment (and much cheaper than a blazer). I refuse to wear heels at work, so ballet flats and loafers are my go-to (and boots + tights in the winter). If you have an outlet mall nearby, check Banana Republic, J. Crew and Loft outlets for affordable and work appropriate clothing. The regular Loft stores also routinely put an extra 40-60% discount on their clearance – I’ve found their sizing to be pretty consistent so once you know how their clothes fit it’s easy to order online.

  88. Jo*

    I have found some great clothing at thrift shops – we’re talking like new Banana Republic, Loft, Boden. I wouldn’t buy too much until you have a feel for your workplace, but maybe look for a pair of dress slacks & a sweater.

    I work on a college campus so I need comfy shoes that I can walk a lot in. This is the one item that I won’t buy used and I tend to spend the most money in this area.

    I tend to mostly wear black dress pants, a blouse (loft, banana republic), and a cardigan. My office is pretty casual so I will wear jeans a lot if I don’t have a lot of meetings outside my building.

  89. voluptuousfire*

    For shoes, I’d check out the clearance section at DSW. I recently got a pair of Dankso sandals offseason that were originally $140 for $35 with coupons and clearance markdowns. It’s remarkable what you can find in there. I quite often see job-interview appropriate flats for knockdown prices.

    TJMaxx is also a great option for this as well.

  90. A Simple Narwhal*

    I love high-waisted pencil skirts, they’re so versatile! You can wear them in the warm weather with a flowy blouse and pair them with pumps or ballet flats, or you can wear them in the winter with tights and boots (knee high or ankle booties) or again with flats and a long sleeve shirt or cardigan or blazer.

    They’re comfy, cute, and flattering while also looking very professional. I definitely spent the early part of my career hating business clothes, I didn’t think there was a way to feel stylish and look good and also be comfortable.

    1. A Simple Narwhal*

      Oh and definitely check out Poshmark! I’ve only started using them and they’re fantastic for getting name-brand clothes for much less than store prices.

  91. Caroline Bowman*

    For shoes, I would go for smart loafer / oxford styles with pants, in a neutral colour, better to buy a good, leather comfortable pair that will last. Interestingly, a colour such as a sort of biscuit or even a light camel colour works beautifully with black or brown or grey.

    Then for dresses or slightly more dressed-up, a pair of what I can only describe as what look like ballet flats on the foot, but with a little bit of a wedge heel. I mean, really quite little, but stacked, so that your foot isn’t forced into the typical ”high heel” shape all day.

    knits are great for tops – no need to iron and they wash and dry really quickly and look smart and professional under a jacket / dressed up with a scarf or suitable jewellery.

  92. Josh Lyman*

    When I (she/her) started out I was at a more business casual nonprofit. My career then took me to a very corporate city agency setting. Most of my colleagues were older than me and the women seemed to exclusively wear suits: slacks or skirts with button downs or other shirts paired with their blazers. That really didn’t feel like me, but I wanted to fit in. So I found something in between my business casual wardrobe that I already had the more formal one I was entering into. I took the dresses that I would wear without anything or with a simple cardigan at the nonprofit and paired them with a blazer. The matchy-matchy suits that my older female colleagues would wear felt corporate and uncomfortable and not me, so I paired the cute, professional workplace skirts I had from the nonprofit (mostly in patterns), with said blazers. I invested in some (Ann Taylor, on sale) solid color tops and that was my go-to look: solid top, solid blazer, patterned skirts.

    Ann Taylor’s website is really helpful because they literally have a section called “work.” It helped illuminate the space I needed to be in that wasn’t all the way stuffy and corporate. I only ever shopped their sales and it was doable. ThredUp is awesome – a great way to not only clean out your own closet, but to find new pieces, too.

    Re shoes, while I am a heels person now, when I was just starting out I wasn’t. Flat actually hurt me (my back, the bottoms of my feet), so like my wardrobe. I needed something in between. I landed on wedges. Aldo had these great, not-too-high, closed-toe (had to be where I worked) wedges. Aerosoles also had some nice low to medium options.

  93. Princess Leia's Left Hand Bun*

    And because the above need to resist anything that gets thrown at them, Scotchgard and ShoeGoo are life savers for either prepping fabric against stains and splashes or nursing shoes to their next re-sole.
    Spot cleaning and Febreze wears on the suit much less than full cleaning.

  94. Aly_b*

    As far as style goes my own experience seems to be work in a office with better dressed women for about 5 years and then do what they do (this can certainly be done more promptly but here we are.)

    But as far as actual useful advice – buy as machine washable as humanly possible. I wear that way more often than anything I have to dry clean, and even if I spend a bit more at first it pays off over time. Almost everything exists in machine washable if you look hard enough. At the very least, having a couple of fully washable outfits in case you’ve forgotten to pick up the dry cleaning the day before can save so much worry.

  95. LadyByTheLake*

    I also note that thrift stores often have very nice scarves for cheap, and a nice scarf can dress up an otherwise plain or inexpensive outfit and also provide the appearance of variety even if you are frequently re-using the base pieces.

  96. Captain Janeway*

    Two things have made a big difference for me:

    1. Machine-washable clothes! Dry cleaning is such a pain and so unnecessarily expensive. Easy-care alternatives are available and life-changing.

    2. Comfortable shoes! I strongly second the recommendations of oxfords and loafers; so many ballet flats are not designed to be worn all day. I’ve noticed my male colleagues tend to have two pairs of shoes they wear all the time, while my female colleagues often have a dozen–usually cheaper, less comfortable, and requiring frequent band-aid applications. Shelling out for a pair of “old faithful” high-quality soft leather shoes I can wear no-show socks with, and that work with most outfits, has solved what I thought were intractable problems of foot odor and blisters. So worth it.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      #2…I am a huge fan of Nine West. Most of their shoes are real leather and it only takes a few hours of wear time for them to conform to your feet. You can monitor their website for big sales. And they have great classic, never going out of style shoes.

  97. Ann Perkins*

    I’m a big ThredUp fan also. Your city might have high-end consignment stores that will feature more name brands like White House Black Market, Ann Taylor, etc and that’s a good way to stock up on staples like nice blouses. If you stick with solids instead of lots of patterns, it’s easier to mix and match. My staple at this point in my business professional office is nice ankle pants (usually from Kohl’s or Target), a nice blouse, and either blazer or cardigan, and pointed flats.

  98. AndersonDarling*

    When starting from scratch, choose pants/skirts that are solid colors. Start with black, grey, and brown.
    Choose the same neutral colored cardigans (or blazers if you need to be more formal).
    Then get some tops that can be solid colors or patterned. I try to get some that will go with black/grey and brown shades so I can completely mix and match my wardrobe.
    Get clothes that fit well! Don’t be swayed by a sale or discount! If each item doesn’t look good on it’s own, then you won’t want to wear it.
    Do a color analysis to find out what color tops to get. You don’t want to find out years and $$$ later that you look your best in autumn shades and you’ve been buying cool tones. There are websites that you can load a picture into and it will give you an idea.
    Don’t buy “in fashion” anything! Stick to the classics for your base wardrobe. That ruffle shirt will be embarrassingly out of style in 3 months. Same with platform shoes, or high waist skirts. Get classic basics first, then you can branch out to the fashionable items when you have a disposable income. If you are in an industry that needs you to be hip and fashionable, then hit the jewelry clearance section to get some very cheap in-fashion accessories for pennies. Layer a pop necklace on you base outfit and you are good to go!

  99. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Something I do is invest in a few core pieces that last the longest and have them tailored. Even in my much smaller location previously, I got a suit jacket off the rack on sale for less than $50 and tailored to fit perfectly for $30.

    The key is always getting things on clearance and having them tailored to save you the most.

  100. Kate R*

    I recommend something like Pinterest to find work outfit inspiration. I’m not great at branching out from button down shirts and dress pants, so it lets me kind of play with styles and find things I’d be comfortable wearing (I’m not a dresses at work person). Once I find some styles, I can start looking for the pieces within my budget. Currently I’ve been pretty into the Banana Republic Outlet since it’s cheaper than their regular store, and I really like the way things fit me, but I think Target and Old Navy have some nice work clothing too. Also, you can sometimes find good brands for cheap on Poshmark.

    I’m not a heels person either, so I recommend ballet flats. I find Anne Klein Sport flats to be really comfortable. In the winter I switch to Oxfords, but I haven’t found any that are particular comfortable yet.

  101. Jdc*

    Neutral color shift dresses are my go to. I cannot wear slacks or button downs. I find them so uncomfortable. I switch the dresses up with different blazers or cardigans on top. When I do wears jeans to work I wear loafers and a blazer most of the time.

  102. Rockin Takin*

    I used to debate in high school/college and for debate rounds I would have to wear business casual up to 14-16 hours a day. Comfort, affordability, and wrinkle-resistant were the biggest challenges in finding stuff for tournaments.

    I started out with 2 or 3 pairs of nice dress pants that I found on clearance, pretty much all the same color so it wouldn’t be noticed if I was wearing them often. Then I would look for tops in clearance aisles or at nicer secondhand shops.

    I am busty and button downs never worked for me, but I could always find a lot of cute simple blouses that were comfy and wrinkle resistant. Bonus- they look good tucked in AND not tucked it.
    I have this style top from Calvin Klein in about 4 or 5 prints (I find them clearanced out a lot)->!5203!3!340020735090!!!g!539103276636!!92700046360391157&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI2aay9-ar5wIVSr3ACh0xNgYREAQYAyABEgKeHPD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds

    Cardigans are also great to wear with a simple blouse, and usually you can find cheap ones just about anywhere.

    For shoes- I’ve never had a problem wearing flats or booties with the tiniest little heel. But I also work in an industry that is pretty relaxed in business casual.

    Good luck!

  103. Nathalie*

    I have a lot of experience with building a work wardrobe on a budget when your office is more formal and your salary is low. I’m not sure if budget is an issue here, but since you’re just starting out, you may find it helpful regardless. What worked for me was getting a few solid basics and supplementing with cheaper pieces — the best investment for me was a really nice black pencil skirt, and I bought a bunch of cheap “professional” tops (usually in more exciting colors) that I could pair with it. Think Primark or Forever 21 (RIP) — stores like that will have a lot of tops that can really pass as nicer than they are, even if the quality won’t hold up as long as more pricey pieces. Basic cardigans or blazers that can match a lot of outfits are also helpful investment pieces. If you wear the same simple skirt with a different top, no one will know that the skirt is the same one from Monday.

    If you’re a dress person and looking for more investment pieces (~$60+), I cannot recommend eShakti enough. They allow you to filter by occasion (work), and each dress can be tailored to your exact size, which can be a huge help in looking put together (I have a friend whose boss told him he almost wasn’t hired because he wore too-big clothes to his interview that made him look disheveled). Also, most of the dresses have pockets!

    It might also be worth waiting until you start a job before investing in a giant wardrobe. Definitely have interview outfits (at least 2) and enough clothes to cover a couple weeks until you can shop, but in my experience, many offices tend to be more informal than you think, and you don’t want to dump a ton of money into three-piece suits if they’ll make you stand out.

  104. Recent Grad*

    If you are located in the US near a J Crew outlet they have lots of basic professional clothes and will apply a 15% student discount on top of any existing markdown if you have a student ID.
    As for shoes, if you aren’t opposed to leather a pair of leather loafers will last you for years if you treat them well (polish them regularly). They also tend to look more polished than ballet flats.

  105. CupcakeCounter*

    Look for outlets in your area – for the higher end stores, it usually the same stuff as the regular stores but from a prior season. For these types of stores, seasonality doesn’t matter too much as they tend to have more classic styles anyway.
    My interview suit is from a White House Black Market outlet. A similar suit online was over $400 but I was able to get the jacket, pants, and a couple of shells for around $150. The shells are chiffon, wide straps (so not a cami), and have a higher neck with a split kind of like a Henley but no buttons and very polished looking. I got some bold colors such as berry and cobalt blue and wear with black pants and a black cardigan. Personally, I think the V-neck, button up cardigans look much more polished than the open style (although those can look really nice with a shift dress). NY and Company would often have their basic V-neck cardigans on sale for $20. What’s nice about the bold color shell is that people focus on that pop of color and don’t really notice the basic black pants/sweater so you can rewear those more expensive pieces more often without too much notice as you build up your wardrobe.
    There are also a few classic color combinations that look very polished. One of my favorites is black and camel with gold accessories. A few others that always look nice to me are navy and light gray, black and white or gray, dark chocolate brown and a rust/brick red.
    Definitely put your money into classic, well fitting pants and sweaters/blazers. I usually go a littler cheaper/trendier on the shells or other types of tops as a way to keep things fresh and seasonal.

    As for your shoe question…I go with a low heeled, leather ankle boot (I have black, gray, and brown) in the winter and dressy sandals or ballet flats in the summer. As I have a lot of foot problems, I go with Dansko, ABEO, and Vionic.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      Oh…and shift and faux wrap dresses are great staples too and can easily change season with a sweater or blazer on top.

  106. I Lurk In Peace*

    I use a Rent the Runway subscription and I could not recommend it enough! You are allowed to rent four pieces at a time, and you can keep them as long as you want or return them right away (all four pieces do not need to be returned together). I always have new clothes to wear, I wear more expensive pieces than I could afford to buy, I’m able to have more fun with my fashion because it doesn’t have to be a staple piece that can make multiple outfits, and I’m more sustainable in my fashion by not buying new clothing constantly (I reviewed their section on sustainability before subscribing, but here is the caveat: I still am not as educated as I could be on the debate of manufacturing vs shipping).

    I’ve been in the workforce for four years, and I had a lot of trouble gathering a work appropriate wardrobe (first with spending money to have enough pieces, then having to keep spending money for wear and tear, then having to keep spending money when I went up a size).

  107. Have you tried rebooting?*

    I really like the capsule wardrobe idea for work. When I worked in a professional office, my wardrobe was the following:
    2 sheath dresses
    1 pair of black trousers
    1 pair of dark grey trousers
    1 black blazer
    1 dark grey blazer
    Shells in various colors
    Heels in nude and black
    White button town blouse

    All of it was wash and wear except the blazers. As long as it all fits well and you care for it, really that is all you need.

    I am so glad I work in a business casual environment, but my principles are the same. As long as everything goes together, it can work really well.

  108. AnonGoodNurse*

    Also think about your accessory game. Lots of stores like Anne Taylor and Banana Republic often do sales on their necklaces, bracelets, earrings, scarves, etc. Stock up when you can. If you get fairly basic wardrobe staples, you can supplement your style with different necklaces. I like long chains with different patterns and colors, but I also have a collection of chunky pieces to mix it up. One of my favorite looks is a basic navy or black dress with a chunky choker or a long chain. Today I have on a dark grey knit dress with a gorgeous grey and white scarf. I could wear the same dress next week with a red beaded chain. It’s an easy way to maximize your basics.

  109. Lisa Babs*

    I know this advice is for collecting a more formal business wardrobe but does the letter writer need that. I’m just asking because when I was first graduating I just assumed that is what I would be needed. Because that is what I just assumed business clothes was.

    I then landed in a business casual environment. So if you find something on sale, of course, pick it up, especially if it’s returnable. but don’t go crazy until you get a feel for your particular office.

    1. MayLou*

      This is an excellent point. My office isn’t even business casual, it’s straight up casual. My manager sometimes wears a denim minidress. Of course it varies wildly and if we were client-facing instead of telephone-based I suspect it would be different, but it’s a case of know your workplace.

  110. EGA*

    I graduated a few years ago and one of the main things I recommend is waiting to buy most things. I say this because you might think you are a dress person, but then you go a whole winter only wearing dresses a couple of times, for example.

    I found that I prefer pants in the cold months and mid-length skirts and dresses in the very hot months (I live somewhere with 4 very distinct seasons, and because it is a city I am outside getting to and from work).

    As for shoes, I am all about comfortable and stylish since I have the feet of someone 50 years my senior. Clarks, Earth shoes, and Vionic are great brands, and worth the price. When I was starting out I would purchase one new pair per season-ish (boots in the winter, shoes/flats in spring and fall, and dressy sandals in the summer). I also picked up a pair of classic Bass Weejuns second hand and have absolutely lived in them. They sell them on ebay pretty frequently, but it would be worth it to purchase a new pair as well.

  111. deesse877*

    I agree with those advising a measured pace, as there are just so many factors–fit, level of formality, budget, comfort, ability, your preferred gender presentation, and even the messages about class and age that some items and brands can broadcast. (With regard to class messages, I think of Express and Torrid as brands that many of my co-workers would find “trashy,” and or “too young,” for example, but I doubt that generalizes beyond my industry and sector.) If I had to give three general rules for starting out, I’d say:

    1) go for neutrals and basics; avoid anything that draws the eye until you are confident of local culture
    2) limit care as much as possible; bottoms in particular can often be machine-washable
    3) if you have money, spend it on neutral, everyday shoes first, ideally from an established brand and with leather soles (which are more comfortable, easily repaired, and “classic”).

    And finally, beyond the specific problem of interviewing, remember that you can always adjust as you go! No single outfit is likely to be that high-stakes.

  112. Beatrice*

    Keep what you buy to a minimum, and at modest price points, until you figure out what’s the norm at your job. Watch what other people wear. When you’re just starting out and still have plenty of room to grow, aim on the nice side of normal for your level/office, or the average of the level above you.

    I try to make as much of my wardrobe all-season as possible. A lot of the tops I buy are sleeveless and/or lightweight, so they work in summer, and I have a few basic neutral cardigans I pair them with in winter. I have warm tights that make my dresses wearable longer and work under pants on the really bitter days in February.

    Color – I try to get all the basics in neutral colors. I have a lot of black and gray. When I mix it up with a pop of color, I try to stick with a couple of colors at a time, and look for patterns that combine them. I’ll usually start by picking one or two fun cardigan colors and then find a few tops that incorporate one or both colors. If I’m ready for some new/different colors, I try to pay attention to what new colors are predicted to be big for the upcoming season. If I time it right and pick the right tones, sometimes I can ride the same general color trends for 18-24 months.

    1. Beatrice*

      More on color: I’m about to buy some fun pieces, and I’m looking here for what’s going to be in:

      I like greens and blues, so I have my eyes on the Chive color and the Mosaic Blue. I’ll look for items with prints using one or both colors, and then a solid piece or two in each color. And my plan always shifts as I shop…I might start out looking for those two colors, but then find a really cute top at a great price in the purple color that’s in, and shift my plan a little to incorporate it. Also, one of the colors I went for last spring was yellow, and I still have a couple of inexpensive pieces with life in them from that, so I will keep an eye out for a couple of pieces with prints that incorporate one of the new hues I am looking for, with yellow that will work with the older pieces I have – like this top: I also like to get a piece or two with a pattern that has a lot of color variety, like the stripes in this dress – I have three cardigans and a blazer that would all look great with that dress!

  113. A Frayed Knot*

    Be deliberate in your choices. Once you decide on what works for you (I don’t do button down shirts, I do cotton t-shirts or shells for comfort), buy one or two quality “timeless” (not trendy) pieces as you can afford them. They will last longer and can be paired with trendy, colorful, whimsical pieces – whatever you feel like. I have slacks and suits that I bought 15 years ago that still look great. It takes some time to build a complete wardrobe, but it is worth the patience.

  114. fancypance*

    I am terrible at creating outfits, so I buy capsule wardrobe e-books and simply follow along withe outfit suggestions. The book will tell you what to buy for clothes, shoes, and accessories and how to combine them in different ways. My favorite site for this is Classy Yet Trendy. You can get a lot of looks out of very few items if you buy the right things.

    If you have limited funds at first, stick to neutral colors (no prints) so you can rewear them often and it won’t be memorable.

  115. Amber Florek*

    You can’t go wrong with a couple of closet staples (classics): I’d start with black slacks because they go with everything. In fact, I’d get a pair of slacks in black, navy blue, and gray, which will cover all your bases. Next, I’d go with a couple of good blazers, one in black and one in grey. If you don’t like blazers, try fitted button-up cardigans in classic neutral colors (black, grey, navy, red, brown, white). For shoes, I’d go with an oxford or penny loafer, and again, start with black. You can add more colors later.

    Once you have those pieces, it’s just a matter of swapping out blouses to give you outfits variety, keep them interesting, and make you feel like you aren’t wearing the same thing every day. Get creative with your blouses. You can find tons of cute styles (button-up, turtleneck, sleeveless, etc.) that will go great under your blazers/cardigans. I’d look for interesting styles and prints for super cheap at discount stores like Ross or TJ Maxx. That’s all there is to it!

  116. Yvette*

    Don’t be afraid to buy the same pant/skirt in different colors. If I find a pant that fits I get it in black, navy, gray, etc.

    1. HugsAreNotTolerated*

      Amen! I’ve got the (technically) t-shirt from St. John’s Bay at JC Penney’s that I’ve got in 8 colors. I’ve picked up so many over the years that now I’ve a collection of crew neck, V-neck, long & short sleeved. They’re all solid colors and work with just about any patterned bottom or jean I’ve got. Literally nobody in my 8 years in the workplace has ever said “Isn’t that the same shirt?”.
      Before it went out of business Payless was my favorite place for shoes, their Comfort Plus line of heels was the PERFECT heel, and I have it in almost every color it came in.

  117. Rose*

    You don’t have to wear heels – in the 3-4 years, I’ve seen more and more women wear flats, usually loafers and sometimes ballet flats. Personally, I work in a very professional environment and wear leather mary janes.

    When I was first starting out, I bought a piece or two each paycheck, or a whole suit once a month (I get paid bi-weekly). I chose things that could be changed out to make more outfits. It’s helpful to choose your neutral and stick with it (navy or black). I thrifted a lot. I spent more money on classic pieces and bought trendier stuff I liked from cheaper shops. Clearance is also your friend.

  118. Why isn't it Friday?*

    I would build a good closet of basics: work pants, silk shirts, shells, cardigans, a couple shift dresses and a couple of blazers. Banana Republic’s Sloan pant looks great on me, so I have a couple of those. Basically any shirt Ann Taylor sells is acceptable. White House Black Market does great blazers and high quality pieces. I focus on blue, black, and grey pieces and then work in color with certain pieces, like shoes or a blouse. Flats are completely fine, as are nice oxfords, and low heels. I do a bootie once in a while as well.

  119. Granny K*

    Always have a pair of nice black trousers. If jeans are allowed at your work, go with the dark denim so you can wear them at home or at work. If you are doing tradeshows, as some point you’re going to need a pair of khaki (tan/sand color) pants for the show floor, but wait until they ask for that. Then I think you can write off the cost on your taxes because it’s required.
    As for shoes that are business, but comfortable, try Taos brand. They have some nice pumps that have a 1.5″ heel or less and still look like ‘work’ shoes.

  120. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    Does anybody have recommendations for plus-size work clothing?
    Loft/JCrew/Express/Banana Republic/other places recommended above have very limited plus-size options that are actually flattering and worth the additional $20-$40 markup for plus-size.

    1. EmEmCee*

      I mentioned it below, but Universal Standard. Not cheap, but huge size range (00-40) and they’ll replace some things if your size changes.

      Nordstrom Rack often has great workwear in plus sizes for very good prices. I get a ton of work dresses there.

      1. HugsAreNotTolerated*

        Thanks all! I’m adding all of these to my list to check out. Torrid’s made some strides in work-wear in the last year, but I’m finding that their quality has significantly gone down while their elevated prices remain the same. I’m job hunting and need to re-build a work wardrobe after 5 years in an office that ‘technically’ has a business casual jeans policy, but it’s very loosely enforced.

        1. Kit*

          In Canada Addition Elle is good for “adult” clothes (if a little frumpy from time top time). And they often have sales that make it much easier to shop there….

    2. Nea*

      Woman Within, Just My Size, North Style, Eshakti with the tailoring option.

      Generally I get my tops and sometimes skirts from the first two, cardigans and sweaters from North Style, and these days I refuse to wear any other dress than a tailored Eshakti.

    3. Lost Oregonian*

      Have you considered Dia&Co. It’s a superscription box like Stitch Fix, bu specifically for plus size. I am very cuspy between regular size and plus size and finding clothes that fit, look nice and are in my budget has always been really challenging. I did Dia for about a year getting a box every other month, and my wardrobe is better than it has ever been. They aren’t all hits, and I did get one box that was a total dud, but overall I was very pleased with the results and would highly recommend it.

  121. onetwosix*

    Definitely find a good, reputable tailor. Great fit is a way to make less expensive items look more professional. Your dry cleaner may be able to do more complicated things than just hems, but ask around to make sure before you hand over a key wardrobe piece. Also, know what lengths you want for things – where trouser legs and cuffs should fall, where you prefer a skirt hemline to hit, etc. Bring the right shoes with you – you can’t wear the same trousers with flats as you do with 4” heels because the length will be totally off for one or the other.

    Protip: if you have a bigger booty, ask for your skirts/dresses to be hemmed longer in the back (I usually go a half-inch to an inch longer in the back than the front) so that it’s at least even all the way around, if not a bit longer in the back than in the front.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      you can’t wear the same trousers with flats as you do with 4” heels because the length will be totally off for one or the other.

      You actually can if you get the pants hemmed either directly at your ankle or half an inch to an inch below it.

  122. Molly*

    When I got my first professional job (at a non-profit so not finance or lawfirm but still professional), I bought 2 pairs of slacks for $30 each at NYandCo. And 15 years later they are still my favorite work pants! Add to that a few blouses (Nordstrom Rack has great ones at a good price), a nice sweater, and 2 cardigans and you can put together several outfits, just make sure everything can mix/match. I only needed a suit jacket once a month (and that has continued for my entire professional career) so I got one in grey that can go with either pair of pants. Eventually I added a black pencil skirt. I still dress in blacks and greys on bottom with colorful blouses and sweaters on top. That way everything can go together and you can add to your wardrobe slowly.

    My favorite comfy yet nice looking shoes are Rothy pointed toes. They are great for travel too because they are super light and you can pop them in your suitcase easily.

  123. Joie*

    Find yourself a good economical tailor. Not kidding. You’d be amazed at how a small investment on cheap(er) clothing can make you look way more put together without a lot of effort.

    Seriously, I bought about $100 of 10-15 dollar pieces from a fast fashion place, ended up costing about $4 per item to get them taken in at the waist & sleeve to fit better and those carried me through about 4 years before I could afford to start building up a better wardrobe. I love sleeveless tops, I buy them at H&M for about $10 each and take them to a tailor to make them fit better and look nicer on me.

  124. higheredrefugee*

    Ask some mentors if they donate to any local thrift shops. I’ve lived across the US, and in about 3/4 of those places, I’ve found high end thrift shops that have helped me build my accessories/secondary neds, especially jewelry, scarves, puffer vests, cardigans, and occasionally, shoes. I also bought my last gala and swanky purse at my current local one. These tend to support niche causes, like conservation efforts or religious causes, so you may not be interested in supporting those causes, but there are women across the country who buy entire new wardrobes each year/season, and if they don’t do consignment, many go this route.

  125. PennyPincher*

    Ebay! Try on things you like at department stores, take a picture and note the size and brand, then stalk Ebay. You can set up a search that will automatically email you when something’s listed that meets your criteria. If you’re uncomfortable with pre-worn clothing, you can focus on NWT (new with tags) or NWOT (new without tags). I’ve snagged some really nice quality stuff that I’d never pay department store prices for; sometimes I even find the thing in a fun color or pattern that wasn’t in the store. Focus on classic pieces that don’t go out of style quickly and you can often find multiple people selling it when the season’s change and the store dumps its inventory.

  126. EmEmCee*

    Tons of great recommendations here.

    Universal Standard does really great work-appropriate stuff (also I love their jeans) with a spectacular size range (00 to 40) AND a bunch of their stuff comes with Fit Liberty (your size changes, they replace for free). It’s not cheap, but it’s so worth it.

    I have moved towards buying multiples of basics that I love that fit me well (we’re business casual, so for me that’s nice dark jeans vs work pants) – helps spread out wear instead of wearing the same black pants three days in a week.

    One other essential bit of workwear advice is to regularly prune what’s in your closet to just the things that fit you, are flattering, and don’t need repairs/cleaning. Saves a ton of time in the morning.

  127. Juniantara*

    For what it’s worth, I’m in a fairly conservative city in the Midwest and almost no one I know needs to wear full formal dress (suits, ties etc), except the lawyers and even then mostly on court days only.
    For 95% of office-type jobs, a pair of dress pants and a shirt that is obviously not a tshirt is dressy enough. When you are wearing pants, almost any shoe made of leather that covers both heels and toes blends in to the background (loafers, oxfords, ballet flats, boots). I wear black leather clogs because I use a standing desk and the only comments I have received are compliments.
    I personally own a selection of cardigans and tank tops (more casual) and some silky/dressy blouses (more formal) and have a blazer (and dress shirt if I’m going all the way) I can pull out when the big boss is in town.

  128. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

    Consider the concept of a “work uniform.” I don’t do this exactly, but most of my work clothes are variations of the same outfit, which can be dressed down or up depending on the needs of that day (e.g. a day without meetings or a day with formal presentations or meetings with VIPS).

    I decided a long time ago that I prefer wearing dresses to work — they are versatile and easy to match with a cardigan or a blazer depending on the day. So I have several black or navy shift dresses, wrap dresses, and a couple of other conservative but versatile styles. I have a couple of nice skirt suits, but my job does not require that level of formality 95% of the time. I typically pair with a sweater or a jacket and mix and match the combinations so I don’t feel like I am always wearing the same thing.

    For shoes, think about pointed toe flats or boots (or booties). There are so many brands of flats now that are polished looking but really comfortable at a lot of different price points. Rothy’s and Tom’s both have some good and durable professional options. My go to are wedge heels because they are safer on sidewalks with cracks and on uneven pavement, so if that’s one of the qualms with heels, you might consider looking for a wedge or a low square heel.

  129. Wendy Wardrober*

    Start out with neutrals: skirts and trousers in black, camel, grey, navy, etc.

    Buy blouses and pullover tops – dressier tees and turtlenecks in white, ivory, camel, black and white check or stripe; throw in a plaid or a paisley.

    Buy a basic black or navy dress that is neither dressy nor casual.

    Invest in jackets or cardigans in ivory, camel, black, etc. Spend your money on tops because you will be seen from the waist up at your desk and conference room tables. Use neck scarves to add variety to your look.

    Classic, conservative advice for starters. Jazz it up as you become familiar with the industry.

  130. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    Two very important things:
    1.) Don’t bother with dry clean only items that really only can be dry cleaned. They’re not worth the hassle. Depending on the fabric a lot of dry clean only stuff is fine if you wash it on delicate and hang dry. Same goes for hand wash only stuff.
    2.) This dress. Trust me. Buzzfeed has like six articles on why this is the perfect work dress and as an owner of 4 of them I can attest to the fact that it is undeniably awesome. It comes in 36 different patterns/colors, is machine washable (I hang dry mine), and the holy grail of women’s clothing… has FUNCTIONAL POCKETS!!!!!!!!!

  131. DrSusanCalvinSL*

    I have a professional dress code but bike to work and have a standing desk, so comfort is a priority (as is speed/not having to dry clean or iron). J Crew Factory – shift dresses, soft blouses/pull-on tops in professional fabrics (to avoid gaping issues), pants, and blazers and they all mix and match well, so you don’t need too many. They do great sales if you keep an eye out. And I wear Rothys, which are comfortable and washable, love them.

  132. Beatrice*

    Another recommendation – watch how the CUT of the pieces you buy limit what you can wear with them. Pay attention to what flatters your figure and what individual piece styles work best together, and invest most of your wardrobe budget into the most versatile combinations. Try to get mostly classic items with only a few statement pieces, and try to limit not just the number of statement pieces, but the number of statement types, if that makes sense. For example, if wide leg pants are your thing and you love them, great – get a couple pairs of wide leg pants and make sure you get tops that mix and match and look good with them. Don’t decide that wide leg pants AND maxi dresses AND big chunky cowl necks are your thing, because then the investment for coordinating pieces is higher.

  133. Cedarthea*

    I think there is an importance of dressing like you as you dress professionally. I have found I’ve had much better responses from my colleagues since I found my own professional style, rather than imitating others because I’m more confident and put together.

    I am a plus sized (largefat for those who use that system) cis female in my mid-30s. For me, it means dark black jeans, Blundstones, a well fitted cotton tshirt (with stretch), and a cardigan or plaid shirt and a wool scarf/shawl/pashmina. I don’t wear makeup, but I do get my eyebrows waxed so they stay tidy. I work in child care as a camp director, but during the winter I work from our office, which means business casual, and I have fellow female colleagues who wear heels and a full face of makeup, and others who wear sneakers and tshirts.

    I had previously been wearing “work clothes” as in polyester shells from Torrid and I’ve had more compliments on my appearance since I switched to my new system than when I wore “work clothes”.

    So find a way to bring your own comfort to your clothes, so they look like a version of what you wear, not a costume.

    1. HugsAreNotTolerated*

      Where were you purchasing your ‘Work clothes’ prior to changing your style? Torrid’s made some strides in their work-wear availability in the last couple of years, but I’ve found that their quality has drastically declined. Ex. I have two dresses that were purchased the year I graduated college (2011) and they’re in great shape, but several dresses purchased within the last 12 months that are already falling to pieces.

      1. Cedarthea*

        I’m in Canada so I really had Addition Elle, Laura Plus and Torrid, and as my style skews younger I mostly did Torrid, and I still wear their pants and camisoles and cotton items. There is lots of Torrid stuff I like, and wear, but I found that because the options of “style” are so limited that I was wearing clothes that weren’t ME because they were what was available.

        My t-shirts come from MEC (their 2XL fits me just the way I want it to).

        I know its a privilege, but I have the skills, resources and time, so I am learning how to sew my own clothes. It gives me way better fit and control, and the quality is infinitely better, but it’s not inexpensive or an option for everyone.

  134. Sharpie*

    I’ve recently begun watching style videos on YouTube, which is a great free resource. One of the thing that I’ve started looking at is developing a capsule wardrobe, where everything can work with everything else to make a bigger selection of outfits without necessarily breaking the bank. Some nice tops, some nice slacks and a skirt or two, a dress, and a blazer in colours that combine well, with a couple of different pairs of office-suitable shoes, and you’ll have something that will work for any business situation.

  135. Don't go crazy before finding a place!*

    I’m going to go against the grain here – get a couple comfortable outfits, but don’t go overboard until you actually have a job–workers may dress much more casually (or dressier) than you prepared for, so it can be helpful to just wait until you start somewhere and feel it out.

  136. 2e*

    Great tips here! I’d add that something that gives me some daily wardrobe flexibility is keeping a spare suit in my office. I know that when you are just starting out, the suggestion to buy clothes that you intentionally do not wear and keep at work sounds counter-intuitive, but I really recommend it! My office is technically business casual. People wear a broad range of outfits. However, sometimes more formal dress is required (and these occasions happen to mostly be professional growth opportunities like attending a client meeting, participating in a video conference, or going to court). Because I am pretty junior at my office, it’s semi-likely that I will not have a ton of notice if I get to go to one of these things; I could be asked to fill in or take notes at the last minute, or someone more senior might just not remember to mention it to me the night before such that I can select an appropriate outfit.

    Because I keep a spare outfit at work suitable for the dressiest end of my work-outfit spectrum, I can be more flexible with what I wear on a daily basis. For example, today I am wearing blue trousers, a maroon popover blouse, and a camel cardigan. This is totally appropriate for a normal day at the office, but not for one of the dressier occasions I mentioned. But if my boss called me right now and ask me to join a video conference this afternoon, great – I can put on the black suit pants and jacket I keep here. My backup business outfit is a full suit because I’m the kind of lawyer that goes to court, but your equivalent might be keeping a spare black blazer or nice neutral cardigan or whatever you notice your colleagues wear when they dress up a bit.

  137. A*

    If you’re in a major metropolitan area with same day delivery, Rent the Runway unlimited is a game changer. I’m a few years into my career so I’ve built a solid base for a professional wardrobe but this gives me access to an unlimited closet of designer clothes.

    So much of building your professional wardrobe has to do with knowing your body type. I’m an hourglass/pear so pants are not a staple of my work wardrobe. I almost exclusively wear dresses and skirts. It takes a lot of trial and error to find what works for you. When I find a dress that works for me, I buy it in multiple colors. I only have one suit even though I work in a business formal environment and it’s a skirt suit.

    I would also warn against buying stuff all at once. Wait to buy things until after you’re working and take your cues from the women senior to you that you think are well-dressed/polished.

  138. Creative in a Big 4*

    Wait to buy a full wardrobe until after you’ve started your job and have been in it for a couple weeks! Even within companies, different functions have different perspectives on dress codes. At my last job, my area (marketing) was business professional with jean Fridays yet my BF’s is in suits everyday with “casual Fridays” meaning no tie (finance). I bought a ton of formal, conservative business clothes before starting based on the company and the culture. I regretted it because I was out of step with my group and how I like to dress for work. I also came from the South to the Midwest and you can’t ignore regional differences when it comes to dress codes!

    On the flip side, a friend of mine works for a business casual company but her boss insists they dress more formally and requires the men to wear ties and her to wear heels…

    My recommendation is to get a few staples to get you through the first week or two then start building your wardrobe when you see what others are wearing. Also, read The Curated Closet by Anuschka Rees. This book helped me build a focused wardrobe of clothes/accessories I love all centered around my personal style. Before reading this, I had a ton of clothes but wore the same things over and over. It was eye opening to realize that I could like something while also not like the style one me.

  139. Ellie*

    Just coming here to plug dresses. They can be just as formal as a pants/blazer combo, and they are just much more elegant. I’m really into fashion/beautiful clothes (and it’s important to my self-presentation), and they let me feel like I’m staying true to that side of me, even at work. I *love* wrap dresses (they’re good if you’re always bouncing around a bit weight-wise). I used to love BCBG’s “Adele” wrap dresses. If you can find a used DVF dress (or one cheap), those are gorgeous too.

    You can find good work dresses at any price point – Ross often has great ones, I’ve gotten a lot of grey wool Calvin Klein dresses there. I like Nordstrom Rack as well. I gravitate more to ones that aren’t sheathes, because they’re more comfortable (and let you gain/lose 5 pounds without needing to be retired). The trick is to find dresses with sleeves – I think sleeveless sheath dresses make you look like you’re a morning show host.

    I actually think dresses are easier than pants (just one piece to buy and pick out in the morning!), and much more comfortable if you do them right. I was lucky enough to find cheap hosiery that fit me perfectly and was super comfy (No Nonsense Great Shapes – made in the USA even!). Hoisery really elevates a look, and it keeps your feet from getting stinky. Sheer black or nude. Opaque tights will generally make your dress look more casual. I buy my hosiery one size up from the charts, that’s been my trick all my life – less likely to run that way too and gives you more breathing room. Nicer jewelry (like pearls and simple gold necklaces) helps make dresses more formal, too.

    I realized when I was young that I was spending way too much on clothes – work clothes, evening-event clothes, church clothes. Everything separate. I challenged myself to find items that would work for at least two categories, which I was usually able to do. Recommend this approach because you can buy nicer things if they work for multiple categories.

    1. Delta Delta*

      I have 1 DVF dress that I love so much I am half thinking I’d like to be buried in it. If I had buckets of money I’d buy several more. They’re perfect for my shape.

  140. The Unclever One*

    Oooh – this is a good one. Any advice for someone who is plus sized and can’t wear button down shirts due to an abnormally large chest? I’m also on a very tight budget and can’t even afford to buy clothes at Kohl’s much let alone Macy’s. Thrift stores aren’t that great of an option due to my sizing. I see the comment about nice jewelry – and don’t have any except for my wedding ring. Any advice welcome! I’m at a total loss … Was going to post in the Friday Open Thread about this issue. My office is moving from business casual to business…

    1. HugsAreNotTolerated*

      JC Penny has been a winner for me consistently with tops. The St. John’s Bay stuff is good quality and a great price point, especially if you catch them on sale.
      I think you’ll probably find that with an office-wide change from business casual to business (which is odd, most places are going the other way!) you’ll probably have some leeway for the first few months while everyone adjusts their wardrobe and kinda feels out what the new normal is supposed to be. Don’t be afraid to grab pieces from walmart either. If you can grab two pairs of black dress pants from there and 5 of the St. John’s bay tops on sale at JC Penny (usually like $7) you’ve got a week’s worth of clothes.
      As for jewelry, I’ve found that pendants on a long chain go really far. I’ve got one in black, silver & gold and that covers most of my outfits. They’re not expensive, just pieces I picked up from like target or H&M, but they tie and outfit together and make it look like I put some thought into what I put on that day rather than put on the same black dress pants I wore yesterday and the same shirt just in a different color.

  141. Kiwiii*

    I went from unemployed and broke out of college to an office that prided itself in being on the business end of business casual. I basically scoured clearance and sales of all the department stores in an hour radius for anything office-wear in a neutral color in my size, and only really supplemented with a couple wrap dresses once it got full summer and a couple more sweaters in the winter. Alternated between a cheap but comfortable pair of black flats, and a black bootie until they both fell apart at the same time.

  142. Jennifer Juniper*

    I can’t wear heels due to bad balance. I’ve never had anyone give me a hard time for wearing flats.

  143. Hyacinth Bucket (Pronounced Bouquet!)*

    I work in a conservative industry, so my business clothes tend to be more business formal that business casual. Here are my tips:
    1. Macy’s and JC Penny are the only places I shop for suits these days. They have great sales running constantly (even better if you have one of their credit cards), reasonable prices, and classic pieces that you can wear for years. I found a great Calvin Klein suit on the Macys website that had a blazer with matching skirt, trousers, and shift dress. Three outfits in one! Bonus – it’s machine washable.
    2. Check out consignment and resale stores. I sold a bunch of old blazers that were in great shape but didn’t fit on Tradesy, Poshmark, and ThredUp. See if your school or area has a local “Dress for Success” type charity, and if they don’t suggest it to the career counselling office. My grad school just started doing this, and it has really helped people.
    3. Buy staple pieces in classic colors to start. I love fashion and color, and my work wardrobe was originally bright dresses and skirts in bold colors that couldn’t be reworn as often and didn’t go with a lot. I still have those bright dresses, but I have a lot more black/brown/white/navy tops and skirts.
    4. For shoes, look at flats, loafers, and brogues. Basic black and neutral point toe or ballet flats will serve you well with 90% of your outfits. Some workplaces will let you get away with clean, subtle sneakers (all-black converse, plain Keds, etc.) but wait until you’ve been working there a while. I really recommend investing in your shoes, especially if you do any walking for your commute. Your feet will thank you.

  144. OwlEditor*

    Thrift stores! The majority of my wardrobe is thrift stores. Yes, it can take some time, but I’ve found Calvin Klein, etc. at thrift stores. I have some wardrobe items that I won at a women’s religious conference from a “discount” store. It was $100 and I was only able to get like four things. All I could think was how I could have gotten three outfits for the same price as one of the shirts.
    I have lots of skirts, which I need to wear more, but last summer our office went way overboard with the A/C, so it was pants and a blanket. I realized today that I need to be better at dressing professionally. My office can be very casual, but I like dressing up.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I know everyone says that, but if you’re not a “normal” size thrift stores are a waste of time.

      I’m a petite plus with a DD cup. Trust me, I find nothing but shoes at thrift.

    2. Jennifer Juniper*

      Forget it if you’re plus-sized! I am, and thrift stores are a big fat waste of time for me. Pun intended.

      Or very tall. My mom is 5’10 and could never find anything to fit her. She also weighs 135 pounds, so she isn’t plus-sized.

  145. Theory of Eeveelution*

    Oh, man. This hurts to think about. I went through an agonizing period of unemployment right out of grad school. I applied and applied and applied to shitty jobs, and heard nothing. And then! A dream job in my dream field (museums!) popped up, and I applied… and got a reply that same day, requesting an interview for two days later! I was thrilled!

    Ev. Ry. Thing. Went wrong.

    I AGONIZED over what to wear, and eventually went with a black button-down, maroon pants, and (expensive/really couldn’t afford) designer ballet flats.

    They didn’t tell me where to go for the interview, so I went to the front desk. After the very nice girl at the front desk called them, they were visibly annoyed that I went to the “wrong” place, and that I was about 10 minutes early.

    I was interviewed by two women and one sweaty man who turned out to be the museum’s director. The women were both tall, white, blonde, and were wearing really confusingly huge, fluffy pastel skirts and tops. They both had HUGE diamond engagement rings. Like, comically huge! I am short, brown, unmarried, and I felt embarrassingly underdressed.

    They asked me questions from a piece of paper, and all three of them wrote down every word I said, so we never made eye contact.

    Then, to my horror, I realized that while I had researched everything about the institution, from their exhibition history to their mission statement to their educational pursuits, I had completely spaced on researching the role and what I would bring to it, so I really awkwardly stumbled through the question for that. I knew in that moment that I wasn’t getting the job.

    Then, when it was mercifully over, they didn’t offer to show me out, so I got lost trying to navigate my way out of their (filthy!) office. The sweaty director eventually noticed me wandering around and showed me the door.

    A month or so later I got a bad job at a good museum and realized I hated museums, and I now have a corporate job.

    I cringed so hard writing this. Thank you for joining me on this journey to one of my worst moments.

    1. Theory of Eeveelution*

      And, to make it worse, I just realized I commented on the whole wrong post! I love today!

  146. Nonprofit Panda*

    I agree with all the other people who say wait until you are at a company for a few weeks to build out a wardrobe. Once you get to that point, try to dress like your boss does. I am a director at a nonprofit that requires business formal attire. Most of my suits are from Express and JCrew (and their outlet stores). I am a huge fan of secondhand stores and sites as well. You get the quality without the big price tag. I am in the DC area so we have some great consignment stores. Most big cities have that option. I highly highly highly recommend TheRealReal and ThreadUp as well. I get all my DVF wrap dresses on TheRealReal and they are the best! A dress is very easy to throw on in the morning and still look polished. A good tailor and a great cobbler can help your pieces last a very long time.

    Some staples that are always good to have are solid slacks in a wrinkle resistant fabric, a few knee length pencil skirts, a wrap dress, a black pair of pointed toe flats, a black pair of heels (block heels are a good idea for people who don’t like stilettos), brown flats and heels too. I usually find good options at Nordstrom Rack. You want a structured handbag in a solid color. If you commute or carry a lot of stuff, a solid colored tote is a good idea too. Navy and Oxblood are always great color choices- not boring but still professional and timeless.

    Like others have said, a few cardigans are also a good idea- black, navy and gray. The one I have on today is from Old Navy and is easily 7 years old but is classic and timeless.

    I am a big fan of skirts rather than pants, but no matter what I wear, I highly suggest bodysuit style button down blouses. They look more professional because they don’t untuck themselves. Express often has them.

    The absolute best thing you can buy is a steamer. Expensive wrinkled clothes look more unprofessional than “cheaper” clothes. Taking two minutes to make sure your shirt is wrinkle free can make a big difference in how people perceive you. You can also steam your dry clean only items that aren’t really “dirty”, just worn once, to get another wear or two out of them.

    My final suggestion is to limit the amount of “prints” you buy. Solid colors or classic prints (like plaid) are your friend for two reasons. One, solids don’t really go out of style like trendy prints do and two, people don’t notice if you repeat them often like they would say a leopard print dress. That means you can buy less and have more money for better pieces.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      I agree with the steaming suggestion – either steam or iron the clothes. My mom swears I’m the only millennial who still irons her clothes, but I swear I’m not!

  147. Tidewater 4-1009*

    I got a great job several years ago and decided to wear traditional business clothes in the hope of being treated better. It worked! The key was button-down shirts. After a few months of shopping experiments, I found I could get nice button-downs at LL Bean that mostly didn’t need ironing.
    There’s also Gap “boyfriend shirts”, but they do need ironing.
    A few years after that I found a good thrift store that’s even better. They have lots of nice button-downs for only a few dollars. I highly recommend looking for a good thrift store with a good selection of nice clothes.
    I had also bought blazers at thrift stores, and one day I realized I was the only person wearing them. I switched to cardigans. Since I like a classic style that’s not too long these are harder to find, but I’ve managed to get a few.
    I always wear skirts, which I also bought at LL Bean or thrift stores. I don’t recommend twill skirts unless you get a very good deal, because after a couple of years they start fraying around the edges. Other types of skirts are good. Most dress skirts can be washed in a delicate bag and hung up to dry.
    In winter I wear knit or fleece-lined stockings and a nice pair of boots.

    1. Tidewater 4-1009*

      P.S. – The Walking Company store has a good selection of nice-looking comfortable shoes.

  148. peachie*

    Where to shop:
    1. If you have an outlet mall around you, check it out — a lot of my work clothes come from an Ann Taylor outlet and they have some great deals on the sales racks.

    2. A few of my older blazers are from H&M and they’re surprisingly well-fitting! (Haven’t been to an H&M in a long time, so I don’t know if this is still the case.)

    3. Nordstrom Rack Clear the Rack sale. You have to wade through a lot of nonsense and keep it moving — things sell out quickly — but you can get some bananas good deals. I have a $7 work skirt from that sale I’ve been wearing for almost 4 years now.

    Other advice:
    1. If you can find a few blazers — they don’t even have to be that fancy! — they’ll go a long way. They elevate the formality of an outfit much more than a cardigan, which makes it easier to go more casual on your other pieces. For example, I have tees/tanks that I wouldn’t wear to work on their own, but throw a blazer on it and it works just fine. Pants too — I can wear more jean-like pants (think: not denim, but shaped like a jean) when I have a structured blazer on.

    2. If you’re able to, find a pair or two work shoes (comfortable enough, go with most things) and keep them at your desk to change into when you get to work. They’ll last much longer if you’re not commuting in them, especially if your commute involves some walking. (And buy some of those cheap odor insoles — I find that work-type shoes get REAL sweaty. May or may not have had to throw away a pair that was in otherwise good shape because they stunk up my whole work locker.)

    3. Dresses/skirts are great if you’re into that sort of thing because you can wear them with tights/hose in the winter and without in the summer. (And dresses have the bonus of only being one piece of clothing! Nothing to match!)

    4. Unless you can think of more than 2 things you could wear an item with, think reeeeeally hard before getting it.

    5. Unless you’re wearing something really distinctive, people don’t notice if you’re repeating outfits as much as you think they do.

  149. justagirl*

    Find something you really like, a particular style of cardigan or blouse perhaps, and buy a bunch of them in multiple colors. Mix and match with different pants/skirts. I love the long-sleeved blouses at NY & Co., so whenever they get them in stock I buy one in every color. No one will notice or care if you wear the same kind of outfit a lot. In fact, it might make your coworkers think of you as someone who always looks well put together! I’ve been wearing a long-sleeved button-down blouse with either dark trousers or a dark pencil skirt every day for the past 3+ years. Having a “uniform” saves me time getting dressed in the morning, and I never have to worry about not looking appropriate for work.

  150. Rachel*

    If used clothing doesn’t bother you, the best place to find business type clothes are thrift stores! I worked my way through college as a waitress, so only had play clothes and work uniform in my closet. Once graduating, needed an interview suit and short of funds, to the thrift store I went.
    There will be junk, there will be outdated clothes and there will be too used items, BUT there will also probably be exactly what you need too. I was able to buy blazers, button down dress shirts, shells for under jackets, and pants for under $50 – a whole week of work outfits and more. I have huge feet, so shoes needed to be purchased elsewhere.

  151. Kit*

    Not a heels fan myself, I wear flats – coloured oxford or similar look very nice with a lot of things. Same goes for booties or full boots – little or no heel and a good colour or texture.

    As has been mentioned, a good blazer can go a long way.

    You can kind of go one of a few ways: buy basic and good quality pieces that are in the same colour story or are neutral and use accessories for style; pick the pieces you want to build around by season if you are doing separates – then buy cheaper but on trend things to wear with those pieces; go full suit – get the jacket, pants and skirt/dress in 2 suits and just vary the under layer and accessories. Or some combo of all this haha.

    And if you are a larger size then embrace plus sizing – I order a lot of stuff from places like Eloquii and ModCloth, its much easier than trying to slog through sales racks and hoping there is a size left. And when you catch one of their sales it can be really great.

  152. Lina*

    The biggest mistake I made was going out to The Limited (they are no more…sigh) and Ann Taylor and bought a bunch of stuff and spent too much money. I should have just gone in there, tried some pants, blouses, skirts on, and only bought the ones that fit me perfectly and I felt good in. You don’t need a ton to start! Staples like black and navy pants/skirts, blouses in patterns and colors that make you happy, dresses, and cardigans.

    For shoes, I love Nordstrom because the associates are helpful and will make sure you find something you love and that fits right.

  153. KittyKelly*

    My workplace is business casual, which makes everything easier! Toward the middle of my career I developed a uniform that works year ’round and (thought I’m partial to Eileen Fisher) need not be expensive. For inspiration, check the EF website for its System pieces, which are basically shells and pants in black, white, and navy. Buy your basics (at any store and price point that works for you), and layer as the temperature requires. Buy nothing that must be dry cleaned, except a winter coat! Add color via a few jackets, cardigans, or pullovers. Finish with an interesting scarf or jewelry. Buy some shoe maintenance products (brushes, cloths, balms) and keep your footwear in great condition, because nothing ruins an outfit faster than cheap or ill-maintained shoes. Oh–and well-fitted undergarments make even the least expensive clothing hang and fit better.

  154. Quill, CCO & Bee Queen*

    Layers! If you are in a place that experiences winter, cardigans (start with a neutral grey) are your best friend.

  155. TJ*

    I feel like a good pointed toe flat is a great alternative to heels. For some reason I think of rounded toe flats as skewing young and not as professional. But I’ve done that pointed toe flat with ankle slacks and blouses – looks great, feels good. Rothy’s are great but expensive – I’ve had great luck with Target and Old Navy pointed toe flats.

    JCP for slacks – they have sales constantly and I used to get ankle slacks for $25/pair. Same with blouses, button ups. Usually can find them on sale. Blazers were always more difficult because the cut has to be right to look good – Kohl’s has some good ones too (although they tend to be a bit more pricey than JCP). When I moved to office work, I bought 3 pairs of slacks, 6 or 7 shirts and 2 shoes to start. Each paycheck I added another piece until I had a good working business wardrobe. I wish you luck!

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Pointed toe flats don’t look good on everyone – I’m short with large feet, and they make me look like the letter L. Round toe flats FTW (and they do look professional as long as they’re leather and don’t have frills).

  156. Rachel*

    I started off my work wardrobe at Kohls. Their work pants with stretchy waistbands (Simply Vera) are so comfortable, they feel like sweatpants, but look professional. I wore and washed mine weekly for three years and the only signs of wear are minor pilling. I had some work tops I started with, but really turned to Goodwill and other local thrift stores to fill out my wardrobe for cheap with high quality brands like Loft, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, etc. If you don’t have great thrifting options in your area, I know AAM did a post on ThredUp. My work environments have been more relaxed, but I still dress relatively business professional every day. For shoes, I wear flats. Sketchers ‘Bobs’ look like ballet flats, but are secretly sneakers and perfect for running around the office. They might not fly in more professional environments, but I’ve gotten many compliments at mine.

  157. CommanderBanana*

    If your neighborhood has a Buy Nothing facebook group, that’s a great way to look for stuff.

    1. CanCan*

      Seconded!!! The clothes are often higher-quality than I would buy myself, and you get more variety. Plus, you can pass it on without a shred of guilt if you discover it doesn’t work that well after wearing it once. Two of the three pieces I have on right now, as well as pendant and earrings, are from my Buy Nothing group. The third is from Value Village. Only lingerie and shoes were bought new.
      (And I could well afford new clothes from “real” stores. I just hate shopping, and even more hate making mistakes and having expensive clothes sit in the closet unworn, – like a number of items I got when I was in LW’s shoes.)

  158. Regerts*

    Maybe this goes without saying, but never buy work wear you can’t sit down in comfortably. I once got a gorgeous sale pair of lined Ann Taylor wool slacks. The first (and only) day I wore them to work was miserable, they bugged me all day since the lining actually cut into my hips when I sat down. I ended up donating them after they sat in my closet unworn for a very long time.

    1. sam*

      I have been known to either remove linings or at least slice the seams in linings in certain pants. I swear to god, it’s like clothing manufacturers recognize the need for variously sized clothes, but then just stick the same lining in every item. No really, you need to actually make the lining for a pair of size-20 pants ALSO fit a size-20 lady.

  159. MissM*

    I’ve found that if you wear a dress, everyone acts like you’re very dressed up. I wear non-work sweaters with skirts in the winter and cardigans are always timeless esp since offices tend to be cold.
    At your age, I had luck with places like the factory outlet versions of Banana Republic, but you want to try to buy staples that look like they’ll last. Also no one can tell black pants apart & Target has decent ones for work.

    1. Filosofickle*

      Right? Wear the simplest Old Navy jersey swing dress, and everyone says “Oooh, dressed up!” There is something about a dress that people perceive as fancy. I find dresses easier than almost anything (1 piece!) and yet I hardly ever wear them because those reactions make me feel overdressed.

  160. Delta Delta*

    I’m a dress person, generally. I have 4-5 solid color dresses that I’ve accumulated over the years from all sorts of sources. Surprisingly, one of my best ever professional dresses was from Patagonia. I’ve also found that I can get a lot of mileage out of solid color dresses by accessorizing with different colored scarves. Nobody knows that I wore the gray dress on Monday and Thursday if on Monday I wore the long red scarf and on Thursday I wore the square flowered scarf. I get a lot of mileage out of coordinating cardigans, too. Also, solid dark pants go a long way. You can usually wear pants a couple times before washing so you could really get by with one or two pairs, interspersed with other things.

  161. JoAnna*

    Scour thrift stores and consignment shops. Ask friends/family for gift cards to department stores for Christmas and birthdays. Do a lot of mixing and matching so you can get a lot of versatile looks with only a few pieces.

  162. Retail not Retail*

    Question – where do khakis or khaki colored pants fall in average female office attire?

    Are they common? I noticed at the thrift store when looking for work pants, all I found were what I consider dressy (small pockets on the mens! Come on!).

    If khakis are common, are the kind you can wear to death appropriate? Obviously I wouldn’t show up at an office job in the exact same pants I wore to work, but is that type of comfort and durability appropriate?

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I think khakis are common for women in the office, but they do seem to be more of a spring snd summer look, while the men wear them all year.

    2. Beatrice*

      They’re somewhere between business casual and smart casual, depending on the cut and the quality of the fabric. Whether they’re appropriate for an office job depends on the dress code in the office. My office allows nice jeans, so any khaki that wasn’t torn or frayed would be absolutely fine. But I’ve worked in offices before where they really needed to be suit-like pants that happened to be khaki colored, rather than durable cotton khakis, to not be out of place.

      If you think you’re on the edge of appropriateness but you’re leaning toward khaki because you need the durability for budget reasons, I’d go for it and make sure they’re always ironed (maybe with a crease if that looks right on the cut you have), and err on the side of more formal with your top, accessories, and shoes.

      1. Retail not Retail*

        I think whenever I make it to office(tm) wear, I’ll go after black pants to hide stains.

        The fact that our uniform requires khaki pants or shorts when more than half the staff gets filthy on a daily basis is… a choice. I keep them belted and make sure they’re rolled up or petite because the capillary function when the ground is wet is so miserable!

        We used this stuff today that’s got a dye in it and every time i know that it stains and every time i wipe my hands on my pants.

        1. Retail not Retail*

          We’re supposed to be clean but some stains don’t come out so we’re not penalized when things are dirty even after a washing or 4. And we all wear pants multiple days in a week when it’s winter unless the stain was like. Poop.

  163. Lies, damn lies and...*

    TJMaxx, Marshall’s, Dillard’s etc are great for dresses. Old Navy can find pants. Look for sales at Loft or Banana for more suiting styles. Even Target carries work appropriate clothes that can stand some wear. People live the advice of buy something expensive it lasts! But… if that’s at the expense of 5 outfits that will get you through the next two years… Well, no way man.
    Also, you can get away with having less supportive flats that you keep at work and don’t commute in.

  164. Jordan*

    Hello LW! I remember vividly being where you are at and having no idea what to do, so some things I discovered that I hope serve you well:
    H&M has a good staple work wear and shoe selection if you wear straight sizes
    If you have time to browse and order from ASOS, this can be a good option as they carry straight and plus sizes and you can order multiple sizes to check fit and send back the ones that are not right for you

    – Black ballet flats generally match everything and look sharp
    – I also personally like black lace-up brogue style shoes

    – Make sure your button up fits across the chest and shoulders. Everywhere else might be a bit big, but that can be fixed by tucking into skirts or pants.
    – I’m a pants/blouse type of person, but agree with the other comments that shift dresses, A-line dresses and skirts, and pencil dresses and skirts (if that is your style) are fine. Go with what you are comfortable in FIRST, don’t make yourself wear uncomfortable things because they are professional (ie, I cannot and will not do pencil anything).
    – Short-sleeve button ups are a thing, with levels of plain to embellished (ie fancy collar, fancy sleeves, fancy hems) depending on your preferences
    – There are always lots of just general “nice top” styles of blouses that are a bit stretchier/more versatile than a button up. Decide what colors and collar shapes you like (pastels, bright colors, monochrome; scoop neck, v-neck, simple round neck) based on how you look and feel in them.
    – Then get some solid color pants (black and gray match with everything and go with your black shoes).

    If you want to get more adventurous from there, go for it! But I like a pant that can go with everything, shoes that match everything, and a rotation of tops to make it seem like I have a large wardrobe when really I’m just changing my shirt.

    Good luck!

  165. Jonquil*

    With respect to shoes, I am also not a heels person. I tend to go for a closed-toe flat all year round. In summer and with skirts/dresses I do a ballet or pointed toe flat. I don’t spend a lot of money on ballet flats, because whether I buy cheap or expensive, I find they all wear out quickly (with the exception of ones by Ecco, mentioned below), so I don’t think it’s worth bothering. Otherwise, it is worth spending some money on one better quality pair of shoes over several cheap pairs.

    I also have a couple of low block heels for when I want to be more formal (I usually wear the flats on the bus and into the office, and change into the heels when I get to my desk/before the big meeting). I picked up an amazing pair of Chloe low heels from eBay for a couple of hundred bucks that I love. I also have a pair from Scandinavian brand Ecco, who are pricey, but the shoes really last. With pants I love a loafer, but I don’t have a pair currently, and in winter I invested in a pair of black RM Williams Adelaide Cuban-heeled boots that I wear with everything (they work quite well with skirts in a business casual setting). Oxfords and brogues had a bit of a resurgence a few years ago, and they are so practical and definitely worth considering if they fit with your personal style.

  166. Elizabeth*

    Lauren Ralph Lauren have jersey dresses which are stretchy (comfortable), flattering, machine-washable, don’t need ironing, and once you know your size you can just stock up whenever they go on sale. I have quite a few, and bought them all for around $40-50 on sale at Nordstrom or at TJ Maxx. They are all pretty similar with different details so I can switch out cardigans/blazers/jewelry/shoes but they all go with everything I own.

  167. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

    My go-to outfits when I need to be a bit more formal are pantsuits. They’re comfortable and look professional. I usually buy them as separates in dark, neutral colors like black, navy, charcoal grey or brown. You can show some flair with nice shell tops in different colors or prints to wear underneath the jacket. As for shoes, a nice ballet flat, kitten heel or dressier loafer works nicely.

    If you ever need to have the sleeves shortened, make sure you get a jacket without buttons at the wrist, or else the tailor will have to take it up from the shoulder- that’s a lot more expensive and makes the sleeve tighter at the top.

    Hope this helps! :)

  168. Jane Smith*

    Two tips to make cheap office-appropriate dresses from places like Target or Old Navy look way more expensive:

    – replace the crappy belt that comes with the dress with a nice (affordable) faux leather belt, which you can find at the same stores (or keep an eye on accessory sales at slightly more upscale stores like J Crew or Banana Republic – a good belt will go a long way
    – if the dress isn’t lined, wear a slip under it. Lining (or a slip simulating lining) makes a garment move differently (betterly :))

    I don’t know why dressmakers do this but even more expensive dresses often come with terrible, cheap looking belts. This is so easy to fix!

  169. Hoodie-Wearing Undergrad*

    I carry some extra weight around my stomach and am afraid shift dresses and silk shell tops will make me look pregnant. Are there certain styles or decorations (ruffles, buttons, etc) I can or should look for?

    1. 1234*

      I’m more apple shaped as well and nothing “boxy” ever looks good on me. Personally, I like more slim fit clothing but depending on how you are shaped, maybe A-line or circle dresses/skirts will work for you.

    2. Metadata Janktress*

      I have an hourglass shape, but my waist is a lot larger than off-the-rack proportions, so I feel you on this. I find A-line dresses and skirts work best for me. I also tend to like tops with a neck decoration (like a tie-neck).

  170. Erin*

    My usual outfit is a patterned blouse, cardigan, bootcut pants, and supportive flats. I rarely wear jewelry these days, but I do rotate light scarves with my outfits.
    Most of my work pants and skirts are from New York & Company or The Limited. They’re basic brown, black, gray, or blue for versatility. I lean towards cardigans, because they’re inexpensive, and my weight fluctuates too much for expensive, well-tailored blazers or suits. (For example, my arms don’t fit any of my blazers right now.) You can stock up on basic layering shirts/tanks to go under button downs, sweaters, etc at Target or H&M. My favorite skirt and black stockings are from Kohl’s. H&M is good for blouses, layering tanks/t-shirts, cardigans, etc. I stock up on stretchy sheath or A-line dresses at Macy’s, Ann Taylor, and Banana Republic, when they have holiday sales.
    I gave up on heels, and after years of wearing cheap flats, if I encouraged you to spend money on anything, it would be shoes. I literally had pain running through my back, legs, and feet from cheap, unsupportive shoes. My current go-to shoes are Trotters. I regularly wear their “Sizzle” style flat. Definitely save yourself literal tears and doctor’s visits by investing in good footwear as soon as possible.

  171. Alice's Rabbit*

    Every office is a little different, so I would assemble the basics – especially a couple of good interview outfits – and then wait to land a job before building a full wardrobe.
    As for basics, plain black flats are a great shoe; they’re the flat version of a basic black pump, and those go with almost anything.
    Some good slacks and/or business skirts are a must. I would stick with basic solid colors or suit fabric. Make sure any skirt is long enough that you can sit comfortably without having to tug it down, and that you’re not ever in danger of showing your underwear. I definitely recommend taking an honest friend on your shopping trips, so they can tell you if you have a visible pantyline, if the slacks make your butt look saggy, etc. You want to look effortlessly polished, not like a kid raiding her big sister’s closet. Fit is the most important thing!
    On that note, find a local tailor to adjust your blazers, hem your trousers, etc. An expert fit can make a $90 suit look like high fashion.
    For interviews, I would stick with a solid colored top (not red, hot pink, lime green, etc.) under a suit or blazer and slacks/skirt. Keep jewelry simple and minimal; you want the attention on your brain, not your bling.
    Make sure your hair is clean, combed, out of your face, and well behaved. If you have hair like mine that’s inclined to frizz, pull it back and give it a light spritz of hairspray to keep the flyaways under control.
    If you can, check out a business before you get dressed for the interview. See what the employees wear, and then dress one notch nicer. Like, if all the employees are wearing khakis and a polo, you wear khakis with a blouse and blazer; the pants show you will fit in at the office, while the slightly more formal top shows respect for the interview process and the people involved in hiring.

  172. Foxgloves*

    So I work in a fairly casual office, but my partner works in a very corporate law firm and I’ve met a number of his female colleagues. I’d say that your best bet are dresses- shift are particularly good but depending on your preference for clothing shapes, a-line are good too (and regardless, when you try things on, make sure they aren’t too short when you sit down). A good blazer is a must- I’d recommend getting one in black and one in navy. Most corporate offices don’t require you to wear a blazer all the time, but when you DO need one, you need to have it there. But really, in these early days, I’d recommend building a capsule wardrobe- one dress, one pair of trousers, one blazer, one skirt, and maybe four tops that all go with each other, and you can chop/ change depending on the day, or your mood. That will do you for a good while- and then you can build after paydays, etc.

    In terms of where, actually really rate H&M’s workwear section, there can often be great shift dresses or more interestingly printed dresses there. Midi skirts are good when paired with a smart top and heels/ ballet flats. Otherwise, as someone else has said above, charity shops (particularly in wealthy areas) are a great shout, and Uniqlo is brilliant for basics.

  173. ButtercupDC*

    In some “professional responsibility” seminar or something in law school, the professor leading the seminar talked about how a “rule of three” is a good rule for dressing professionally for women–3 pieces: pants, blouse, jacket/2-piece suit with blouse/pants or skirt with top and cardigan. My office is generally business attire, with some extra formality thrown in for meetings with higher-ups or outsiders, and I wear lots of dresses with flats (loafers, ballet flats), slacks or pencil skirts and nice sweaters, and I have a handful of blazers at my desk to put on when necessary. I don’t always wear a blazer or cardigan, but it does help to make an outfit feel more polished.

    Another lesson learned by me and some of my friends who were starting out as young attorneys was to keep things fairly simple, but you could get away with one big statement piece–a more formal suit or dress with a chunky necklace, or brightly patterned shoes, or a scarf. In my experience in fairly formal workplaces, these things are still well within the limits of conservative dress and can help you mix it up a bit more if you stick with basics in your wardrobe.

  174. Metadata Janktress*

    From both a professional and a goth girl perspective, I endorse the “invest in good shoes more than clothes” perspective. I have a couple of pairs of oxfords I use for work as I also don’t do heels.

    Well-fitted, neutral-colored cardigans are wonderful as well as well-fitted, neutral -colored dress pants. It means I can switch easily between more formal shell tops or button downs, and solid t-shirts and camisoles depending on how dressy I need to be. It also allows for more brightly colored and/or patterned tops if you are feeling that.

    I am a massive convert to eShakti. (Warning you now: if you visit their website, you will get 434,305,503 ads for their stuff on social media, etc.) Almost all of their clothing comes with pockets(!) and can be done in either off-the-rack or custom sizing for relatively affordable pricing.

  175. lkr209*

    I’d recommend a few pairs of black dress pants (you can never go wrong with black dress pants) and silk-material blouses. JCPenney’s offers tall and petite sizes, as does Loft. For shoes, one pair each of black and brown dress boots for the wintertime and ballet flats. Make sure to get a few pairs of trouser socks for the boots as regular cotton socks won’t fit under them or most dress shoes.

  176. Berkeleyfarm*

    I’m putting together a “more formal” interview wardrobe after being laid off.

    Button-downs don’t work for me super well because I am busty, but shell tops are my friend.

    I work in a job (IT operations) where I might need to crawl on the floor so I am super happy that trousers are now acceptable in all but the very most formal environments (they weren’t really when I was young). So it’s blazer, trousers, shell tops. If I am being super formal the blazers and trousers match, otherwise they can coordinate. If you find something you like at a good price get a second pair of trousers!!

    If you can wear skirts a good knee length or slightly below skirt is good to add to this mix. Shift dresses – boat neck and half to 3/4 sleeve, knee length or so – are a standard. Coat dresses also look nice.

    Shoes – low/stack heels or flats can work with dresses, slings might work for summer, a lot more like loafers/lace-ups/very simple clogs/mules can work with trousers.

  177. Vicky Austin*

    Elizabeth Warren and Samantha Bee are my fashion inspirations when it comes to the professional look. They wear a brightly colored blazer, a black blouse (or, in Bee’s case, occasionally a white blouse), black pants, black socks, and black flats.

  178. I usually lurk*

    How formal is your office? I can see that most people commenting here dress much more formally than I do (advertising). The formula I found that worked for me was skinny black jeans with stretch (comfy) + black ankle boots plus a sweater or some sort of patterned shirt worn with a French tuck (gives a more polished look). Maybe a piece of chunky jewelry (J Crew has good options here). I do my hair and makeup, and this combo comes off quite polished for a casual/trendy office. I hate heels and button-down shirts.

  179. Karak*

    OP: my first advice is don’t buy items you feel deeply uncomfortable with. If you don’t like dresses or heels, don’t get them. If you’re warm-blooded, don’t buy jackets. If you like supportive, plain bras, don’t get sheer or low-cut shirts.

    Layering things helps a lot with variety. Women’s camisoles are cheap at places like Target, but several colors/patterns. Grab blouses that are v-neck or button-up. I like blouses with sleeves that can roll because it has two uses!

    Don’t fear color. Again, if shouty colors make you uncomfortable, don’t buy it, but don’t think black/white is all. Rusty red, warm buttery yellows, dark greens, and patterns —flowers, shapes—all give you a bit of pop and variety.

    Buy pants with simple patterns and textures-pinstripes, black pair, gray pair, navy blue pair. You want the pants to look different from each other but still be neutral. You may need to get them hemmed since you don’t wear heels.

    Nice ballet flats, as long as your pants don’t drag, are fine! Very slight wedge heels look professional if you want to edge in that direction without feeling like you’re on stilts.

    Wait for sales. If you’re a plus sized person, professional wardrobes are a struggle, and I can’t advise too much on where to shop. If you’re not plus-sized, I suggest Express, I watch them like a hawk for their sales and snatch up pants and blouses.

    Remember: 3 pants, 4 camis, and 5 blouses make SIXTY distinct outfits. Just make sure they all can go together!

  180. Sarah*

    2 pairs of well-fitting black pants are my staple! They don’t have to be expensive, but they should fit well and not be obscenely tight! Cardigans and blazers are the second staple. You can add personality with what’s underneath…and you can get double duty out of ts or blouses by wearing something over them at work and wearing them alone for social outfits!

    I swear by pointy toed flats for work. They’re everywhere and the pointy toe sticking out from under wider legged pants looks dressier. I live in them and have a collection with different patterns and embellishments!

    Main rules starting out-not too short, not too low cut, not too tight! And for gods sake, don’t wear distressed denim to work….ever! Young women have enough trouble being taken seriously-don’t give them a reason to question your outfit! You can add “flare” as you get more comfortable!

  181. Sammi*

    The office runs in business casual – good jeans (no holes, glitter, etc) and a nice top. I personally don’t have many jeans, and most of them are heavy duty (not fun to be in all day, better in the field). I tend to dress more formally than the rest, and all are okay with it – they attach it to me being like twice everyone else. I wear solid leggings and tunics.

  182. CanCan*

    You’ll have to figure out your own combination of dressy vs. comfortable. I’ve discovered that the work world is stressful enough to also worry about not being comfortable in your own clothes.

    For example, things that make me uncomfortable:
    – Pencil skirts
    – Anything that has to be tucked in (unless it’s very thin)
    – Long sleeves (because they’re uncomfortable with a keyboard, and I end up tugging them up. I now know that I prefer 3/4 sleeves or shorter).
    – Shoes with heels
    – Clothes that sit very tight against the body (think Megan Markle in Suits).
    – Clothes that make me hot.

    Things that I like:
    – blouses/tops that have some decoration built in, so I don’t have to worry about things like necklaces.
    – knit tops, because they sit well and don’t have to be tucked in
    – having my jacket hang on the wall of my office, so I only put it on over my thin blouse for very special meetings. (Correction: so I *think* I might put it on sometime, but never actually do.)

    My advice: try to limit yourself to the bare minimum before you start work. Then add one or two pieces at a time, as you notice what others actually wear, what you like/don’t like, and what works well with your climate (inside and out).

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