How I Built a Professional Wardrobe on a Budget
Updated: Jun 28
Guest Post by Career Intern Alana, Finance, Class of 2019
When preparing for an interview or getting ready to start your first full-time position, there are a variety of things you must do. In additional to mock interviews, company research and other tasks there is another critical step you should consider. Know what to wear. Investing in a professional wardrobe is a large part of being career ready. The reality is your attire can help a great deal throughout the job search process and shaping your image as a young professional.
Why Does It Matter What I Wear?
Along with promptness, confidence, and preparedness, what you are wearing is among the first things people notice that contributes to a first impression. Whether we like it or not, your attire matters. How we dress conveys who we are and who we want to be. Whether you are interested in fashion or not, your attire choice needs to send the message that you are the ideal prospective colleague or competent new hire. Choose an outfit can both send a message and empower you.
Interview Attire vs Office Dress Code
Don’t make the mistake of under dressing for an interview because the office culture is more casual. It will always be appropriate to wear a full suit to an interview, even if the everyday dress code with the organization is much more casual.
How Do I Know What the Office Dress Code Is?
ASK. It is as simple as that. If you do not know what attire is proper at your internship or job, simply ask the recruiter or your manager. You can email your contact at the company, or even bring this question to ask during an interview. You can also take note of what employees are wearing during your interview, as they are likely dressed for an average day.
Dear (specific name of the hiring manager or recruiter),
I am looking forward to starting my internship/position in a few weeks. As I prepare, I wondered if you could share the dress expectations on a typical day. Are there any specific dress codes I need to follow or days when the dress code will be different than normal?
Asking for this information does not indicate you are ill-prepared, instead it shows that you took the initiative to ensure that you are interested in building a professional reputation. For a networking event or any other professional event, it should indicate the dress code on the invitation. When in doubt, wear business professional (smart pants and a blazer). It is always better to be overdressed than under dressed.
Dress for your Industry
Take time to research dress norms considering your industry. Banking, for example, is one of the most stringent industries, where traditional all black suits and shirts/ties/blouses in neutral colors are the most appropriate. In comparison, some of the artistic industries will be more lenient with trendy fashion choices or vibrant colors, even expecting personal style to be on display. Not sure what aligns with your industry? Reach out to a mentor on Lehigh Connects to ask "When building my wardrobe, what suggestions do you have for industry expectations?"
Where Do I Start with My Professional Wardrobe?
One of the largest expenditures you may make throughout your college career is investing in a work wardrobe for your internships and later, your full-time position. As a student, its likely you will have a limited budget, which means looking for options that give you the best bang for your buck are important. Yes, you will need to repeat outfits but investing in versatile pieces that you can mix and match will help save money. 10 different pieces can equal 30 different outfits. Since I identify as female, I will be listing pieces for women, but there are equivalents for men of all of these, often at the same stores. I will also be sharing advice based on a business casual environment.
Purchase multiple pairs of smart pants and pencil skirts in a variety of colors, patterns, and styles. Look for fabrics that are high quality, and colors or prints that can easily paired with several options. Keep in mind, that pencil skirts should be at or below the knee. Make sure that you feel comfortable by choosing the bottoms that you feel are most flattering on your body type. Nothing feels better than wearing pants that make you look your absolute best.
Tops are more complex because there are many varieties for women. A good rule to follow is choosing conservative styles and cuts that you would wear in front of your grandmother. However, don’t be afraid to have fun with it! I like to show my personality with my choice of top, my favorites are high collared shirts and turtlenecks. They suit my style, and most importantly, I feel really good in them. Identify styles that work best for you by trying on brands and styles to find a few that flatter your shape. Also, don’t be afraid of color! I heard from one recruiter that color is a good way to make yourself stand out. If you really are nervous about what is right to wear, the white collared shirt is always a safe bet.
Blazers can be a dreaded item to purchase. They tend to be expensive, it is hard to show your own personal style through them, and somehow the sleeves on them are always too long or too short. I would advise taking the most time to make blazer purchases. Even if you will be expected to wear business casual attire during most work days, you will likely have to wear a blazer for important occasions, such as presentations and client meetings. Once you find the perfect blazer for you, you will feel like a boss woman at all of those occasions. There are so many styles of blazers, notice how none of my picks below are the boring black blazer (which can be amazing if it fits correctly). And, if the sleeves are too long you can get minor alterations at most dry cleaners to help the fit be right for your size.
The best part for some and the worst part for others. Are all business shoes for women uncomfortable or ugly? They don’t have to be. Last Summer, I chose to invest in Banana Republic’s “Madison 12 hour pump.” They are the most comfortable heels I have ever worn, but yes, they were expensive even though I waited to get them until there was a store-wide sale. However, I have worn them for every single interview I have had since because they just make me feel so good.
If you are not a heels girl, flats are perfectly fine for any occasion. Try the loafer, the ballet flat, or even the mule if your office is casual enough. Shoes are another investment piece. Think about it, throughout your work day you will probably alternate between (maybe) three different pairs of shoes. They are worth the investment for more durable shoes, especially if you are walking in the city. I highly recommend Marshall's or other discount stories for bargains. Again, choose options you can wear with several different clothing options.
Where to Shop?
My “go to” stores are Banana Republic and J.Crew. I know what you’re thinking, those are expensive stores (and you’re not wrong). However, don’t forget that there are outlets stores that carry those brands for males and females, and you can find sales nearly all year. I found some of my favorite trousers on sale at J.Crew Factory for just $20, which I bought in several colors. To my mother’s pride, I have found some of my favorite work items from TJMaxx and Nordstrom Rack. For those that are into fashion, I highly recommend consignment shops that carry name brand pieces. The discounts you can find are unbelievable, and if you are concerned that the items look worn, there isn’t much that an iron and a lint roller can’t fix. Even the Senior Director for the Center for Career & Professional Development, Lori Kennedy, brags on the four Brooks Brothers wool blazers she scored at a local high end designer consignment shop. You don’t have to sacrifice quality, but you should be focused on buying staple pieces within your budget.
Look Good, Feel Good
You can build the perfect work wardrobe on any budget. It may take some digging, but for a wardrobe that you will use five days out of the week during the work week, the search for affordable and fashionable work wear is worth it. Start shopping now, so you can add pieces over time instead of making many purchases all at once. Ask for gift cards for graduation, watch for sale days and most importantly, make choices based on items that build your confidence and the professional image you want to convey.
Need more help understanding business professional guidelines? Check out the guides on Handshake or bring your questions to Career Lab (drop-in career question hours). During the semester lab runs Mon-Fri, 11 am - 4 pm in the Career Center, MG Hall Ste. 500. Throughout the summer Career Lab is held virtually. Visit Handshake events and search career lab for details.