While blue jeans and T-shirts may have served you well in college, if you want to command respect, look like a professional, and impress your boss, you’ll need to make some major changes in your daily attire once you make the move into the working world. That prospect can seem daunting on a number of fronts, whether you hate to shop, have a small budget, or don’t really know what qualifies as work-appropriate clothing. Luckily, building up a work-ready wardrobe isn’t as hard as it sounds, and by starting with essentials and working your way up by adding a few well-chosen accessories, you’ll look professional and stylish in much less time than you’d imagine. Here are a few tips new grads can use (divided up by gender) that will give them a solid start on building a professional business wardrobe.
The male work wardrobe is relatively simple and even the most fashion-backward can establish a good rotation of essentials that will take them through the work week in style. These tips can help young grads like yourself figure out what’s most important to buy and what can wait until you’ve built up a bit of savings before investing in.
Here are some of the essentials every man’s work wardrobe should contain. With these items, it’s important to choose quality over quantity as they’ll see a lot of use both at work and anytime you need to dress up for personal events or occasions.
- Dress pants: Unless you’re in an office where suits are mandatory, dress pants will be the workhorses of your wardrobe. Invest in two to three pairs in neutral colors like gray, black, navy, and tan. Fit is key here, so remember to figure into the costs of the pants the tailoring that will be needed to hem or adjust them to your size.
- Blazers: In an ideal world, a business wardrobe should include at least two blazers, but newbies can usually get by with one, especially if it’s in a neutral color that works with all of your dress pants. Experts advise shopping for lighter fabrics, as this allows blazers to be worn year round. Additionally, avoid trendy fabrics like corduroy and velvet, as you want to go for a classic look.
- White shirts: At the heart of your business wardrobe should be three or four solid white dress shirts. Why white? It matches every color of suit, blazer, and dress pant imaginable, and always looks professional. Even better, it’s a classic style that will last you for years.
- Ties: If your workplace requires a tie, then you’ll want to make sure to purchase two to three high-quality ties. When choosing colors and patterns, keep in mind that the brighter the colors, the less busy the pattern should be. Solids are also a great choice and can be incredible versatile wardrobe essentials, too.
- Black dress shoes: If you’re going to splurge on a wardrobe item, shoes may be just the place to do it. You’ll have to wear them day in and day out, so you want them to be comfortable and durable. Start out with buying a nice pair of lace-up, black dress shoes in a classic style. These shoes should work well with the other elements of your wardrobe and if you select good quality shoes, may last you a decade or more.
- A suit: Even if you don’t work in an office that requires you to suit up, it’s still good to have one on hand for occasions when you want or need to look extra professional (like the job interview that landed you this position, for example). For most, a single gray, navy, or black suit will do, but if you have to wear suits daily you’ll need two to three so that you can rotate between them during the week.
- Dress socks: White gym socks don’t quite cut it when you’re heading into work. You’ll need to invest in some black socks that you can wear comfortably with your dress shoes. If your office is laid back, you can invest in socks with patterns to give your outfit a bit more pizzazz.
- Briefcase: You might not have the money to afford a seriously nice briefcase at the moment, and that’s OK, but you will need some kind of bag to bring papers and other essentials to and from the office. Find a budget-friendly bag in black or another neutral that can help you to stylishly transport your stuff. You can always upgrade later.
- Black leather belt: The one accessory that every business wardrobe must have is a nice leather belt, preferably in black since belts should match shoes. This will give you a polished look, whether you need the belt to hold up your pants or not.
Nice to Have
If you’ve already checked the essentials off of your list and still have money to burn, these items can also be a nice addition to a work wardrobe.
- Khakis: A nice pair of khakis will give you some options on casual Fridays, letting you still look professional while enjoying a fit that’s a bit more comfortable and relaxed than traditional dress pants. For those who work in a more laid-back office environment, these may be an everyday essential.
- Shirts in colors and patterns: Having a few shirts in a variety of colors and patterns can help add interest to your wardrobe and lets you break out of the monotony of wearing a white shirt to work every day. When choosing colors and patterns, keep in mind the dress code and attitude of your office and select items that are appropriately conservative.
- Brown dress shoes: If you’ve got the basic black shoe covered, you may want to move on to dress shoes in a variety of other colors. The most wearable color is brown, but tan, camel, and oxblood are all also very office-appropriate.
- Polos: Another casual essential, a polo can look great on its own, or put under a jacket. Just avoid any polos that boast logos on the front, as that’s not especially professional-looking.
- Dressy sweaters: You can mix up your work wardrobe in the cooler months with a few nice sweaters, ideally those in a finely woven merino wool or cotton. Paired with a dress shirt and tie, a sweater can help build an incredibly stylish layered look, and can even be worn under a blazer if you’re heading out.
Trying to take your work wardrobe to the next level? These items are great to have, but should only be purchased after you’ve built up a respectable collection of business attire.
- Cufflinks: Cufflinks can add a little something to your work ensemble, but they can be pricey and aren’t a requirement unless you only own French cuff shirts.
- Dress coat: A nice trench or neutral-colored wool pea coat can be a great way to top off a winter business wardrobe. It’s a luxury item not only because it’s seasonal, but also because it’s something that it doesn’t pay to skimp on as you can wear it to a wide range of other places and events, too.
- Patterned suits and pants: Your basic solid suits are good enough to last you for quite some time, but if you’re bored with them or just want a few more suits to add to your wardrobe, experts suggest that pinstripes, windowpane, and birds eye patterns are also excellent choices for the workplace.
Women definitely have more options when it comes to business attire, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that things get any more complicated when building up a basic work-appropriate wardrobe. In actuality, many of the most essential items are the same for women and men. Just as with men’s clothing, the essentials should always be purchased with quality in mind, not quantity.
Young women looking to establish a great work wardrobe should invest in these items first, as they offer the most versatility and will help anyone look professional from the get-go.
- Dress pants: Dress pants are likely to get the most wear out of anything in your work wardrobe, so it’s essential to choose a style that suits you and get them tailored to fit. Wool blends will be the most durable and every woman should own at least three pairs in neutrals like khaki, navy, brown, gray, or black to take her through the week.
- Blazer: A dressy jacket is another wardrobe basic that every woman needs, as it can instantly make any outfit look more professional and serious. While brown and beige can work, most experts advise going with black, gray, or navy.
- Pencil skirt: A black pencil or A-line skirt is an excellent wardrobe staple. You can pair it with everything from a sweater to a suit jacket to adjust the formality of the look. If black is too boring for you, colors like navy and gray can also be good choices.
- White shirts: Crisp, white shirts are essential for completing your professional look. While the classic tailored look is best, you could also add a few shirts that incorporate ruffles or short sleeves to mix things up. Add two to four of these to your wardrobe, and ensure that the fit is perfect as you don’t want any gaping or buttons coming undone at the office.
- Black heels: Work-appropriate shoes are one area where you should feel comfortable spending a little more, as comfort is key when you’ll be wearing a pair of shoes all day, every day. Look for high-quality leather pumps in black, with a mid-height heel. Ideally, they should be closed-toe as that look is both comfortable and professional. You can always branch out later.
- A suit: If your workplace is formal or conservative, then you’ll need to invest in a suit or two to take you through the week. Suits can actually be a great investment, as you can wear each piece separately, too, so you can get a lot of mileage out of a single suit. To start out, choose a suit in a solid black, navy, or gray. Later, when you’re ready to get an additional suit, you can branch out and play with color and pattern. Like with dress pants, fit really matters on suits, so make sure to invest in alterations if necessary.
- Dressy tops: A few dressy tops should also become a key part of your work week wardrobe. Solid colors or prints can be paired with blazers and suits to build outfits that can easily transition from the workplace to a night out.
- Leather belt: When starting out your wardrobe, you’ll need at least one black leather belt to pair with suits and dress pants. Later on, you can add belts that cinch around your natural waist and can be worn over shirts, cardigans, and dresses.
Nice to Have
If you’re looking to add some variety to your work wardrobe, these items are a great place to give your clothes some color, variety, and seasonal adjustment.
- Classic bag: A nice, classic handbag that you can tote your personal and professional essentials around in should be one of the first things you invest in after you’ve hit all the other wardrobe essentials. Choose a neutral color and a high-quality material and you’ll be able to enjoy the bag for years to come, and may even find yourself using it on the weekends, too.
- Cardigans: Cardigans and sweaters can help you to take your wardrobe from the warmer months into fall and winter or just help you make it through the day in an over-cooled office. Cardigans can be worn over a dress, under a suit jacket, buttoned, unbuttoned, and in a myriad of other combinations with the other parts of your wardrobe, helping you add color and versatility to your basics.
- Dresses: Tired of the same-old pants and shirts week after week? Mix things up by adding a few work-appropriate dresses to your wardrobe. While the classic little black dress is always a welcome addition to a work wardrobe, simple, printed dresses can also help to mix things up and pair perfectly with blazers and suit jackets. Remember, nothing should be too short, tight, or low-cut.
- Colored and patterned shirts: Break away from the basic white shirts and buy yourself some dress shirts in a variety of colors and patterns to give your wardrobe a little variety. As with anything else, choose things that are in accordance with the attitudes and dress policies in your workplace.
- Hosiery: Some offices require women to wear pantyhose with skirts or dresses, so it’s always a good idea to have some on hand. Hosiery in other colors and patterns can also help make wearing outfits that bare your legs more practical in the colder months.
- Layering pieces: Camisoles, tanks, and other layering pieces can quickly become everyday essentials for women working in offices, as they can help to add a little extra detail, comfort, and professionalism to a wide range of looks.
Once you’ve established a great everyday wardrobe, consider adding a few of these luxuries into the mix that are both office-appropriate and stylish.
- Work coat: While your everyday coat will certainly suffice until you can afford a nicer version, the ideal way to top off the perfect work outfit is with a classy coat. Opt for a trench or pea coat in a neutral color for a classic look that you’ll be able to wear for years to come.
- Jewelry: Jewelry can be a pretty central part of a woman’s work wardrobe, but until the other elements in line, it’s smart to wait to invest in nice pieces that can mix and match with lots of different outfits. A statement necklace or a few bangles can turn a plain dress or suit into something really fashion-forward, so look around for styles that suit you and the atmosphere of your office.
- High-end denim: Casual Fridays will be a lot more fun if you have a nice pair of jeans to wear along with a cardigan, sweater, or nice top. Obviously this isn’t an essential, but you can justify it as you’ll get to wear the jeans when not at work, too.
- Dressy boots: Fight off winter chill by outfitting your feet with a pair of nice leather boots in black or brown. These boots can 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 (not shiny) finish.