A new job usually comes with a big cost: a new wardrobe. Your first office job will call for a whole new wardrobe. Your second, third or fourth job may involve a different culture and style than your past job did. How do you dress for the job without breaking the bank?
The first step is to take your cues from someone of the same gender who is above you – not someone at your level. And not someone too far above you, either – no one expects an entry-level employee to be head-to-toe in expensive designer clothes, although a CEO may well dress that way. If the boss is trendy, then trendy is OK. If the boss is preppy, then preppy it is. If the office is business casual, don’t wear a suit. Show that you understand the culture, even if you interpret it your own way.
Once you have the style figured out:
- Organize your wardrobe around a simplified color scheme. Black is your best option, unless you absolutely cannot bear to wear it. That’s because black is flattering to most people, it hides dirt, and it helps you mix and match pieces of your wardrobe to get more wear from them. A black jacket can go with more skirts than a navy jacket, for example. Also, if everything coordinates, you will be saved from the horror of leaving the house wearing black pants and navy-blue shoes.
- If you are disciplined, take advantage of store credit card offers – as long as you pay off the cards in full and on time. (Cards issued by retailers usually have much higher interest rates than those issued by banks.) If you find a store that carries flattering items at reasonable prices that are appropriate for your office, a credit card there may give you access to really good discounts when you open the account and in the future.
- Pay attention to accessories. That shows attention to detail, which bosses always like to see in staffers; accessories can also change the look of an outfit enough that you can get more wear from a single item.
- Go for quality whenever possible. If your starting salary isn’t enough for Nordstrom, look for quality at a good price at thrift stores, consignment stores, eBay, and good sales at department stores. Even garage sales can have good deals – I once bought a cashmere sweater for 50 cents at a garage sale (and no, that is not a typo).
- Sometimes, you’ll have to do a little clean-up work on a bargain item. I found an absolutely amazing suit – great quality, excellent brand, perfect fit – at a thrift store for $15. There was only one catch: It had a few bleach spots. But the suit is black – I covered up the spots with a black Sharpie pen. You can’t see them! A shoe repair shop can take care of shoe and handbag fixes, and a dry cleaner can usually do mending and alterations if you can’t.
- Keep maintenance costs in mind. Unless your office is seriously business casual, you will probably have some dry-clean-only items in your wardrobe. Still, avoid that whenever possible – especially when buying shirts or sweaters. Most items that are labeled for hand wash can be washed by machine on gentle cycle and set out to dry on a rack.
As the paychecks come in, add a few high-quality pieces. There is something to the idea of investment dressing in the workplace; a few well-made, high-quality items can help you come across as more competent and professional. However, the effect isn’t quite as powerful as sales clerks and fashion magazine editors sometimes make it out to be. Be judicious. An expensive purse purchased with a bonus, ideally on sale and of a quality and style that will last through one year, is probably worthwhile – if you’re making progress on other financial goals.
Finally, what should wear on the first day of the job? Why, the outfit you wore on the first interview! Clearly, it helped you make a great first impression.