Mar 28, 2010

Her Makeover Attempt: Clothes for Work

This weekend, I have frantically been scouring department store after department store (and smaller shops) to find the perfect outfits for my first week at work. While back in my high school days I'd have trouble narrowing down my piles of "loves" on shopping trips, these days I can't find things I even remotely like. Partially, as my body ages I've developed curves in places clothing designers are terrified of admitting existence, so few things I try on even fit. Then, there's the question of - what does a 26 year old wear when trying to dress older and more professional but not too old or too professional to a job that interfaces with many different types of people... in an informal left coast city?

The other thing is, I really don't want to spend my entire paycheck on a new wardrobe before it's even deposited in my banking account. I will if I have to, but that seems really silly. I do have expensive tastes, but in the past my purchases were more often sale rack than full retail, even in nicer stores. But in this role I really feel like I need to look expensive. Does this mean my clothes need to be?

Some days, I wish I was a guy. Men have it so easy. Wear a pair of slacks, a button-down shirt, slick your hair, wear nice shoes, and you're done. Being a women... there are way too many variables for the professional world. What hair style do I wear? Up or down? Should I wear a skirt, pants, or a dress? Long sleeves or short sleeves? Or a jacket over a tank? Can I take the jacket off at work if I get hot? What shoes do I wear? Closed toe? Peep toe? Should I wear heels or can I get away with flats? Yikes.

Yesterday, I spent the morning shopping at Bloomingdales because they are having a 20% off sale and I also had a $25 off coupon expiring in April. Figured it was worth a look. The whole shopping experience there infuriated me. First off, finding my size... or anything close to my size... in items I liked was fairly impossible, with the exception of when items were "small, medium, large" -- I'm somewhere between a 10 and a 14 depending how the designer cuts the clothes. Petite only in my inseam but everything else is, well, average to large. 31" waist last time I measured. Probably bigger than that now. I have big hips, a protruding behind, and thighs that don't look like they belong on legs with a 27.5" inseam. Thanks mom.

Even when I found a few things I liked that seemed to fit I had to stop and ask myself -- does this make me look too young? Can I be taken seriously in this? There is one skirt there by Marc Jacobs that I've been eying for months and I was surprised they still have it. It's a $200 a-line black skirt in a thick fabric that just feels really nice on. Size medium was a little too tight, but I almost bought it because I have a habit of buying black skirts knowing I'll wear them. Then I looked at the skirt again. It was flattering, covering my belly bulge with the exception of where it was slightly cutting into my stomach (must exercise), but it just didn't make me look older. In fact, the whole outfit made me look younger. I tried the skirt on with the sleeveless shirt and sweater they were showing it with on the rack. The shirt, which looked like something I'd wear when I was 5, was a sleeveless with hearts on it and these gaudy gold buttons. The sweater was grey and preppy but oversized, and only available in a large or extra small. I grabbed the large and headed into the dressing room to try out the look. And, yes, I looked like I was 5.

Who wears this stuff, I constantly asked myself browsing all the expensive options by designer labels... half of the collections at the store look like they're designed for people in high school or maybe college, and the other half (ralph lauren, eileen fischer, etc) look to be designed for women in their 40s. What do professional 20/30 year old women wear?

I've always found myself drawn to certain brands which seem to come close to what I'm looking for. Theory, one of my favorite brands in terms of style, had a few options. But at $200-$300 an item, I stop to wonder, can't I find this style some place cheaper? Do I need to spend $250 on a pair of pants to earn the respect of my colleagues and move up the corporate business chain? And even if I do, is Theory the right brand to get me there? Surely, it's a better option than anything offered by Marc Jacobs (really - WHO WEARS THIS STUFF?) but with each outfit costing $700-$1000, it's tough to splurge without it being perfect. And nothing was perfect.


I found a nice grey half-sleeve sweater that I instantly knew would become a classic in my closet, so I felt that was worth the $200 price tag. There was a blue sleeveless cotton dress with ruffles on the neck which I could see looking nice under the grey sweater if I had a brown leather belt to tie it all together. So I bought that, the sweater, and a t-shirt length black turtleneck, all by Theory. Total cost after discount: $355. And really, I don't have much of an outfit there. I still need shoes and a belt and handbag to make the dress/sweater look complete. The $75 black turtleneck feels like heaven and will be worn, but I'm not sure what bottoms to put it with.

So today I'm still looking for what to wear tomorrow. I really want to look like a million bucks without spending anything near that much money. But how? Sure, I could buy a suit at Macys for $99, but a suit really isn't right for this environment. It's too formal, especially for my role. Funny how it costs much more to do business casual than true-blue business. At least for women. I could definitely find a nice suit outfit for under $200 on sale. But to really look slick, slightly trendy but also professional, that's where the money starts to become an issue.

The other thing I realized is... I don't have much of a life outside of work. I mean, maybe all the clothes they sell at Bloomingdales are for women who dress up to go out at night and on the weekends. But I don't go anywhere. On occasion my boyfriend and I go to dinner but I don't really need to buy new outfits for that. I have plenty of dresses and things that work for my non-professional life. I have no reason to spend $1000 on an outfit that I wouldn't be wearing to work. So I never would. I like to spend my money on nice clothes for the office because I'd end up wearing them most of my life. And it's the only opportunity I have to dress up and look nice in my life. Even with my potential $100k salary, I live a $40k life. And I'm ok with that. I just like to dress up sometimes and where else am I going to do it other than the office?






4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Do you need to look great at work? It helps! Does that mean you need to pay full retail for everything? Definitely not, particularly if it's business-casual. I would focus the most on what appeals to YOU and what fits YOU well. Confidence will shine through a lot more than what you wear/don't wear. It might sound extravagant, but it might be worth the money to spend an hour or so with a personal shopper to help experiment with some looks.
My strategy for work shopping is very simple.
1. Choose a neutral or two and stick to it. Black brown grey tan or whatever looks best with your skin tone.
2. Visit the outlet versions of the best chain stores -- my favorites are Banana Republic, Ann Taylor/Loft and J. Crew. Shop the sales to find base pieces you like in those neutrals. Spend your money on these pieces which are good quality.
3. From there choose tops in a nice range of colors that coordinate with those neutrals. I tend to spend less on things like cardigans and knit tops because they generally need to be replaced every season or two (stains, tears, pilling, style changes etc).

It's taken me awhile to get to this point. I haphazardly bought "work" clothes for various internships and when I got afull time job I was like What do I wear with these weird grey pants? But now I know that I can throw together something out of my closet and it's a giant relief.
I make sure I can wear whatever I buy with at least three outfits. I only spend money on stuff I LOVE -- if it's a "meh" I won't go there. I also try and buy stuff that's easy to wear - I got tired of waking up in the morning and needing to iron before I got out of the house. Finally, don't feel tied to what people deem to be a "basic" piece -- since I was little my mom and the fashion books have said every woman needs a white dress shirt. Well, I've had a gazillion of them -- no dice. A pain to iron, they never fit my boobs and button-ups just tend to make me look stumpy.
If you're shaped like a real person, as are most people, I think you'll have better luck at some of the above-mentioned places than the top-end designers. The clothes are cut more forgivingly. I'm a size 2-4 and trying things on in Theory makes me feel like a cow.

The Frugal Beagle said...

I have run into a lot of the issues you describe above. For work, I like to buy dress shirts from Gap, H&M, or Target. I stick with neutrals that will blend well together and in various combination and then add in color with flat shoes or a sweater/cardigan.If you like wearing pencil skirts you could throw into the mix.

Slinky said...

I also shop at H&M a lot. If you can't find pieces that fit your age well, I find that the best way to get what you seem to be looking for is to combine the "high school" with the "40's crowd". Don't pick a whole outfit from one or the other. Wear conservative wool dress pants, but with a shirt that has stripes or a ruffle or bow. Wear dress pants with a shiny silver pinstripe with a conservative top, like that black turtleneck. Wear a totally conservative outfit, but have on lime green shoes.

Also, Anonymous has some great tips. Concentrate less on outfits and more on a whole wardrobe. I stick to a couple of neutrals, but I also tend to restrict my colors to a smaller range that look great on me and mostly all go with each other. Almost everything in my closet is either grey, black, blue, green, red, or purple. I almost never have the problem of not finding something to go with a certain skirt or top.

My advice for beginning a wardrobe, is to buy either quality staples that you'll keep forever or cheap stuff that you can replace as you have more time/money. For my first office job, I hit the end of year sale and bought five identical black or grey dress pants, three or four button down shirts, two sweaters, and a sensible pair of black shoes. After that point, like anonymous, I never bought anything unless I loved it AND it fit or could be altered to fit. It's REALLY hard to create an entire wardrobe of stuff you like all at once. SO, get something to start out with and build from there.

Also, I think putting your hair up with chopsticks is a great office look. It's a bit conservative because it's a bun and pulled back from your face, but still has a younger, trendy thing going. Especially if you get fun chopsticks, like bright red ones.

paranoidasteroid said...

I'm a bit late on this, but I love Ann Taylor Loft for work clothes. The advertising has gone a little J. Crew, but they still carry work basics for a reasonable price.

Post a Comment