While blue jeans and tees may have served you well in college, you’ll need to make some major changes to your daily attire upon entering the working world. A put-together look speaks to more than just your fashion sense; it can influence the way are perceived in the workplace. “Take the time to get the look that sends the message of who you are and how you wish to be known,” says Marian Rothschild, a certified personal image consultant and author of the best-selling style book Look Good Now and Always. “Attention to the details of your personal style can help you feel confident, intelligent and interesting, improve your sartorial image, and help to increase your income.”
Young grads who aren’t keen on breaking the bank may cringe at the idea of shopping for a new work wardrobe, but fret not. By starting with the essentials and working your way up, you can establish a rotation of stylish professional wear in no time. Read on for tips that new grads can use to get a solid start on building a professional business wardrobe.
The male wardrobe is relatively straight-forward, so even the most fashion-backward should be able to amass a classic collection of workwear pretty easily. When cultivating a core wardrobe, Rothschild stresses the importance of opting for quality over quantity. “This will take some thought and investment,” she says, but ultimately, “it will be worth it.”
- Dress Pants: Unless you’re in an office where suits are mandatory, dress pants will be the workhorses of your wardrobe. Rothschild suggests custom-hemmed flat-front lightweight wool trousers in colors such as charcoal gray, navy, black, taupe, and chocolate brown. “Pant hems, for a traditional look, should be 3/4″ from the floor,” she adds. “For a more contemporary style, pants that are more tapered can be slightly shorter.”
- Sports Coats: Ideally you should own two or three sports coats in neutral colors. Generally you’ll want to aim for lighter fabrics, such as cotton, so that they can be worn year-round. Take your measurements beforehand and keep these tips in mind when determining the right fit for a coat.”
- Dress Shirts: At the heart of your business wardrobe should be a few solid white dress shirts that fit in flattering way; find a reputable tailor and make sure the shirt isn’t too clingy or too saggy. “Shoulder seams on shirts, sweaters, and jackets should line up with your shoulders,” says Rothschild. “Sleeves should end 3/4 inches from the wrist, not at your knuckles.”
- Ties: If your workplace requires neck decoration, you’ll want to invest in five or six high-quality ties. Devoreaux Walton, a fashion writer who runs the style blog The Prep Pursuit, suggests solid-colored ties for a business professional look (specifically, red, blue, black, navy, or gray) and patterned ties for a business casual environment (plaid, paisley, and stripes). If you consider yourself the trendy type, you may even be inspired to spring for a bow tie, a.k.a. “the necktie’s quirkier cousin“.
- Black Dress Shoes: Quality shoes are essential; you’ll have to wear them day in and day out, so you want to make sure they’re comfortable and durable. Invest in some hard-soled, black leather shoes. Polish them regularly and replace the soles once they’ve worn down — a nice pair of shoes may last you a decade or more.
- A Suit: You may not work in an office that requires you to suit-up, but Walton insists that every man should own a tailored suit nonetheless. “Regardless of your size, the leg of your pants taken in closer to the ankle will create a visually appealing silhouette or shape”. Once again, you’ll probably want to stick to neutrals like navy, gray, or black — add a splash of color with a pocket square or a lapel pin.
- Dress socks: They may not be very exciting, but black socks are a necessary item for every man’s professional wardrobe. If your office is a bit more casual, invest in some patterned socks for a bit of (work-appropriate) pizzazz.
- Leather Accessories: If toting all your paperwork in a backpack just doesn’t cut it at your office, you’ll want to purchase a leather briefcase. A belt is also a must for a polished look. Go for a dress belt and a casual belt, and keep in mind that black belts should be matched with black shoes, whereas brown shoes will require a brown belt (other leathers, such as briefcases and gloves, do not need to match).
Nice to Have
- Brown Dress Shoes: If you’ve got the basic black shoe covered, you’ll eventually want to invest in dress shoes in a variety of colors… at least within the beige range. The most wearable colors are brown, tan, camel, and oxblood.
- Khakis/Jeans: A nice pair of khakis are a good option for casual Fridays, and they provide a fit that’s a bit more comfortable and relaxed. For those who work in a more laid-back office environment, khakis and jeans (a dark wash with no rips or fraying) may be an everyday essential.
- Colorful/Patterned Shirts: For the sake variety and perhaps your sanity, you’ll likely want to break out of the monotony of white shirts every day. Rothschild suggests a selection of light blue, pink, and lavender shirts, as well as a few patterned oxford shirts.
- Polos: The polo shirt is one of the most classic and versatile clothing items for men. Long-sleeved or short-sleeved, a polo looks great on its own or layered under a sports jacket or sweater. Stray away from large logos in an office setting.
- Sweaters: You can mix up your work wardrobe during the cooler months with a few nice sweaters, ideally those in a finely woven merino wool, cotton, or cashmere. Paired with a dress shirt and tie, a cardigan sweater creates a nice layered look.
- Accessories: Cufflinks or tie clips add a nice touch to your work ensemble, but typically aren’t required (unless you only own French-cuffed shirts). A nice watch is also worth splurging on.
- Dress Coat: Don’t skimp out when purchasing a knee-length trench or overcoat. A quality dress coat may be pricey, but you can wear it on almost any occasion.
- Boldly Colored/Patterned Suits: Your basic suits are good enough to last you for quite some time, but if you want to mix up your wardrobe, pinstripes, windowpane, and bird’s-eye patterns are excellent choices. Bold colors are also great for making a sartorial statement.
Women may have more options when it comes to workwear, but that doesn’t mean building up your business wardrobe should be any more complicated. “I’m typically a proponent of buying ‘fewer, better’”, says Lindsay Narain, the founder and designer behind the women’s wear line VAUGHAN. Check out the expert’s picks for planning a woman’s professional wardrobe below.
- Slacks: A nice pair of slacks will likely get the most wear out of anything in your work wardrobe, so it’s essential to choose a flattering style that has been tailored to fit. High-waisted, wide-legged, and cropped pants are trendy yet professional. Keep these tips in mind when determining where the hem of your pants should fall, and stick with solid colors. “Black is a classic, but I also love navy and gray, they’re a little less expected and look great with neutrals, bright colors, and pastels,” says Narain.
- A Blazer: “A nice blazer goes a long way because it’s something you can mix and match with outfits and looks,” says Ariana Pierce, a millennial fashion blogger and entrepreneur. Blazers are professional yet versatile, so they can be worn with dresses, slacks, or jeans. Start with one in black, gray, or navy. If you just can’t get enough blazers, invest in some statement pieces later on down the line.
- Pencil Skirt: The classic modern pencil skirt was introduced by Christian Dior in 1954, and has since become a staple piece in women’s fashion, particularly in the office. Pencil skirts can be dressed up or down with loafers or heels, button-ups, blouses, or as part of a suit. Again, opt for neutral colors, and consider the shape. “It can have nice fit, as long as it’s not too tight or too short,” says Pierce. “Usually for an office or business setting, knee length or longer works best.”
- White Shirts: White shirts are effortlessly sophisticated. While the crisp, classic button-down is perfect for the office, you can mix it up with different cuts, fabrics, and details — like ruffles, if you’re into that kind of thing. The fit of the shirt around the bust and shoulders is particularly important, so make sure you seek out a good tailor.
- Black Heels: Shoes for the office are one item you should definitely feel comfortable spending a little more on, as comfort is key when you’re walking around in heels all day. Look for high-quality closed-toe leather pumps in black, with a mid-height heel. You can always branch out later; try flats or heels in navy, brown, red, or a plaid or snakeskin print.
- A Suit: “A great pantsuit […] is perfect for the winter months, especially in colder climates when you want to keep your legs warm and covered,” says Pierce. “Plus it screams, ‘I’m A BOSS’”. Choose a suit in a solid black, navy, or gray. A good fit is crucial, so make sure to invest in alterations if necessary.
- Blouses: Blouses can be paired with blazers and suits to build outfits that easily transition from the workplace to a night out. Here you have a bit more room for sartorial expression, as there are dozens of different fabrics, styles, and patterns to choose from.
- Hosiery: Nylons, tights, and stockings may be required in some office settings and, in many places, are necessary for the autumn and winter seasons. If you’re opting for sheer nylons or pantyhose, make sure the coloring isn’t too light or too dark for your skin tone. Hosiery in a variety of colors and patterns may be appropriate for a more casual work environment.
- Leather belt: “I love the polish that a nice belt can add,” says Narain. “Cheap belts typically look… cheap. But styles don’t change too much so it’s safe to splurge a bit.” Later on, purchase a few belts that can be worn over a blouse, cardigan, or dress, cinching around your natural waist.
Nice to Have
- Hand Bag: A high-quality handbag that you can tote your personal and professional items around in should be one of the first things you invest in after you’ve hit all the other wardrobe essentials. “A great bag will give you the polished look you’re going for,” says Narain. “Check out the Coach & Michael Kors Collection for ideas. I’d avoid black in favor of another neutral color that’s going to work with a lot of your wardrobe. A basic black might feel boring after a while.”
- Cardigans: Cardigans and sweaters can help you to take your wardrobe from the warmer months into fall and winter (or help you make it through the day in an overly air-conditioned office). These types of sweaters can be worn over a dress, under a suit jacket, buttoned, unbuttoned, and so on.
- Dresses: While the classic little black dress is always a welcome addition to a work wardrobe, simple, printed dresses are chic, professional, and pair nicely with blazers and suit jackets. Remember, your dress shouldn’t be too tight, low-cut, or short. As a general rule, nothing should rise above your fingertips when you lay your hands flat on your sides.
- Work Coat: The ideal way to top off a professional outfit is with a beautifully made coat; invest in a trench or peacoat in a neutral color, such as tan, beige, cream, navy, black, or gray.
- Jewelry: Jewelry can be a pretty central part of a woman’s work wardrobe, but until the other elements come into place, it’s smart to wait and invest in nice pieces that can be mixed and matched with a variety of outfits. A statement necklace or a pair of elegant earrings can make all the difference when putting an outfit together.
- Boots: Treat yourself in the bleak, cold months of winter by outfitting your feet with a pair of nice leather boots in black or brown. Boots work well with work-ready dresses and skirts, and look great paired with tights. Just make sure they’re below the knee and have a matte finish.
Keep in Mind
Both men and women should consider colors that flatter their skin tone and eyes. “If you have blue or green eyes, wear shirts, sweaters, and ties […] in different shades of the colors of your eyes,” says Rothschild. “If your eyes are brown, get shirts in the same colors as the undertones of your skin. That will be either golden, earthy colors, or wine colors.”
Subscription clothing boxes are also an option for those who want a steady rotation of new items. Pierce recommends StitchFix.com — “A personal stylist will help you with a customized style and send you up to five items per month. You decide if and what you want to keep from the box.” Trunk Club is another popular subscription box available for both men and women.