First office job? Here’s how to build a work wardrobe on a budget

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As if landing your first real job after college, or making a major career change isn’t stressful enough, there’s the onus of having to “dress the part.” I remember when I was interviewing for an editorial job at magazines straight out of university, I had one suitable outfit: a Ralph Lauren dress my godmother purchased for me after graduation, a hand-me-down blazer that frankly did not do me any favors and T-strap heels I’d owned since junior prom. I had always been into fashion — but to me that meant raggedy jeans, band t-shirts and flirty vintage dresses. Entering a business environment meant I’d have to spend some dough on new attire.

And spend I did, often on stuff I didn’t truly like. While I’ve since managed to build a spiffy collection of office-friendly apparel, I wish I’d had a style guru or two to help me build a professional wardrobe without breaking the bank. I imagine many women today are in the same position I was, so I consulted a number of fashion connoisseurs and bargain shopping pros to make a list of essential pointers. Since I’ve become something of an expert myself in recent years, I threw in some hard-earned tips of my own, too!

1. Borrow or trade clothes

Before you commit to purchasing anything, see what you can get away with borrowing. Not only is this free (ideally), it will help you get a feel for what you like and give you time to scope out your new company’s dress code.

“Reach out to a few friends who are around your size and ask if you can borrow a pair of pants or a top for a couple of weeks,” says Kaarin Vembar, co-host of the fashion podcast Pop Fashion. “Keep a list of what you are borrowing and whom it belongs to. Do the neighborly thing and clean it before you give it back.”

You might also want to arrange a clothing swap with your friends.

“Clothing swaps were huge in the mid-2000’s, and I’m all for continuing on the tradition,” says Vembar. “Everyone brings a few pieces that they aren’t wearing anymore to a party and everyone swaps clothing. It can infuse new life into your wardrobe.”

2. Take your time

One mistake I made was thinking that I needed a whole new wardrobe to make the transition from college kid life to working adult life. Not only did I waste money with this approach, I got a lot of stuff I didn’t need (or particularly want) — plus, I ended up with massive clutter since I didn’t want to part with any of my non-work clothes.

“Too often people feel like building a business wardrobe means they have to buy everything (an entire wardrobe) all at once,” says Patrice J. Williams, style expert and writer. “But when you’re on a budget, that just isn’t feasible; instead I suggest creating a list of essentials and prioritizing them based on your job’s daily functions. For example: if you’re on your feet a lot at work, a pair of comfy sturdy patent pumps would be a priority. If you take a lot of meetings with clients on off-site locations, a structured bag would be a nice option. Slowly building a wardrobe is a great way to go.”

3. Create a ‘capsule wardrobe’

Creating a capsule wardrobe (aka, a collection of essential, timeless pieces) is not only useful if you’re looking to downsize, it’s a great way to bring focus to your closet makeover.

Here’s what Holly Quartaro, fashion stylist at Galleria Dallas recommends as your professional capsule wardrobe staples:

  • Black suit (can be worn as separates)
  • White or cream blouse
  • Black pumps
  • Large structured handbag

The idea is to get items that “can be mixed and matched with existing pieces to create a wide variety of looks,” as Quartaro notes, so choose a neutral shade like beige, black or taupe.