After all the discussion about the part-time job I turned down, I’ve been thinking about what I’d do if I did need to return to work at some point. The first thing that came to mind was, Holy crap, what would I wear? The last two agencies I worked for allowed me to wear jeans, so I basically wore a t-shirt (with the company logo, at least), jeans, and sneakers or flip flops. I know how unprofessional that sounds, but it was SO NICE after a few years of wearing dress clothes! However, I know that most workplaces want their employees to look decent.
The fact is, if my situation gets bad enough for me to leave self-employment (even if it’s only part time), I probably won’t have the money to buy a whole new work wardrobe. After all, you get a job because you need money, not because you have too much of it! Yet none of my old dress clothes fit me now, so I’d have to find a solution.
When I got my first job out of graduate school, I was in the middle of filing for bankruptcy. There was no way I had money to go shopping for clothes! Since the dress code was business casual, though, I knew I had to figure out a way to build a basic work wardrobe without spending a lot of money – exactly what I’d need to do this time around.
Since pants are the most basic (and boring) part of an outfit, that’s where I started.
Men could probably get away with wearing the same khaki pants every day for a week without anyone noticing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way for women. For peace of mind, I allowed myself four pairs of pants for work (all of which came from Walmart or Target):
- One pair of black
- One pair of brown
- One pair of gray
- One pair of khaki
Obviously I had to repeat a pair of pants each week – I wore the black pants on Mondays and Thursdays (to space them out as much as possible) because black is one of the least noticeable colors. The khaki pants were for casual Fridays. This was the most expensive part of my work wardrobe at about $70, though I could have done better by shopping sales.
Shirts are great because (1) they’re relatively cheap, (2) they can go with multiple pant colors, and (3) people don’t really remember them unless they have a distinct pattern. When I was building my initial wardrobe for work, I bought 12 shirts (not counting a few I already had that were appropriate for work):
- 4 short-sleeved
- 4 long-sleeved
- 4 sweaters
Almost all the shirts I bought were in solid colors. That way I could mix and match them with my pants, and/or layer the short-sleeved shirts underneath. I went to multiple stores for these, including a killer sale at Old Navy, and only spent $55.
As a shoe addict, this part was easy for me at the time. I had two pairs of flats – brown and black. I wore the black shoes with my black and gray pants, and the brown flats with the brown and khaki pants. I also had boots in brown and black for winter, as well as other shoes that worked depending on what shirt I wore. I did spend $10 on trouser socks, 4 pairs in black and 4 pairs in nude.
This is where you can have fun with an otherwise plain wardrobe. Scarves, jewelry, belts, and even nail polish are super cheap ways to make your work clothes look more put together. Fun fact: I have a black sweater that I LOVE, but when I used to wear it to work, no one ever mentioned it. The first time I wore it with a scarf, everyone was chasing me down to say, “Cute sweater!” Just more proof that accessories make a difference.
When I built my first work wardrobe, I didn’t spend any money on accessories – I just used what I already had.
Total Wardrobe: $135
Until I started receiving regular paychecks, I wore the heck out of my $135 work wardrobe. I planned ahead on a printed monthly calendar so that all my shirts would be spread out – heaven forbid someone realize how few clothing items I owned!
Every payday, I would add a shirt or two to stretch my wardrobe further. Eventually, I had enough basics to begin adding decent pieces that would last longer. By the time I got a job that allowed jeans, I had a huge work wardrobe that honestly didn’t cost much money. I’m just sad that none of it would fit me now if I end up getting another job!
How did you build your first work wardrobe? Any tips for places to shop, items to buy, or mistakes to avoid?