Dress to Impress: How to Build a Professional Wardrobe

The phone rang at 5 p.m. “Can you come in tomorrow morning at 9 for an interview?” I hadn’t expected such a fast response to the job application I submitted online just hours before. “Yes, absolutely,” I replied. After I hung up, a mix of excitement and nervousness flooded my veins. The small music management company where I had been working unexpectedly shut down, and I found myself unemployed. With bills looming, I was grateful to get a call back from a new company so quickly.

When I walked over to my closet to plan my outfit, I discovered nothing I owned was appropriate for the more formal, corporate environment in which I would be interviewed. I wanted to make a good impression and knew that how I presented myself mattered. In desperation, I ran out to the nearest H&M, pleaded with the security guard to let me in even though it neared closing, and did a mad dash through the store. In under 15 minutes, my mission was accomplished: I left with a pair of conservative black pants and three blouses. Frazzled, I vowed from then on to always have a professional outfit on hand. If opportunity was going to knock, at the very least, I wanted to be dressed to open the door.

I was thrilled when they hired me, but soon realized I needed to update my wardrobe to match my new position. Beyond dressing to impress in an interview, I wanted my appearance to meet the expectations of my new workplace day-to-day. Here are some tips for building a professional wardrobe that are sure to make a good impression.

How to select what to wear for an interview

When deciding on an interview outfit, make sure whatever you wear is clean, unwrinkled, and flattering. An interview can be a bit like a first date with someone you really like: Your goal is for them to call you back. Unless you’re certain the work environment is laid-back, it’s better to err on the professional side and wear a suit or a conservative dress.

How to decipher the (dress) code once you’re hired

Find out if your new employer has a dress code. It’s easy to be confused about the lingo. Business casual (think: khakis/dress pants and a nice shirt or top) is different from both “casual” (think: jeans and sneakers) and “business” (think: a business suit with a tie or a dress in black, navy, gray, or brown). A lot of companies don’t follow these rules to a tee, so make sure you observe before deciding if you can rock your new Yeezys, ripped mom jeans, or short-sleeved polo to the office.

Check your employee handbook, ask your supervisor for clarification, and observe your coworkers. It’s best to dress more formally for the first week or two on the job until you get a good vibe for how “casual” you can be. And on days you have to give presentations, always opt for more professional wear — all eyes will be on you and you want to look your best.

How to shop for a work wardrobe — even on a budget

You can’t go wrong with basic pieces that can be mixed and matched or accessorized. For both men and women, a pair of plain, black pants (not jeans or leggings) can we worn year-round and paired with just about any top. A simple blouse or shirt in a light color may seem like a boring staple, but can easily be transformed with different ties, blazers, or necklaces. (Pro tip: Some lighter colors will show perspiration, so if you’re prone to nerves, or it’s the middle of July and you need to take three subways to get your place of employment, stick to black). Keeping a blazer in the office can also dress-up a blouse/button down if you are called into an important, unplanned meeting, or it can save you from freezing if the AC is too high. And the importance of comfortable, appropriate footwear cannot be overstated. Comfy feet equal a comfortable body. Invest in a pair of dress shoes that fit well and offer good arch support.

Sign up for email lists for stores like H&M, Express, The Gap, Banana Republic, and J. Crew, which often send discount codes that only email subscribers can enjoy. Forty percent off a new wrap dress? Yes please. By paying attention to sales, you can save a bundle. And don’t overlook thrift stores like Goodwill. I used to shop at Housing Works in an affluent New York City neighborhood because I discovered that thrift stores in wealthier areas seemed to have a bigger selection of business attire.

How to dress for confidence

When I taught English classes to young adults at a community organization in Brooklyn, I noticed that when I dressed more professionally, my students listened more carefully and took my suggestions more seriously. When I dressed casually, they equated me with their classmates and tried to take liberties with not completing assignments, leaving the room to make personal phone calls, and talking to each other during class. The more professional I looked, the more I felt like a leader who was guiding my students toward greater proficiency and the more they listened to me. By presenting myself as someone there to teach them, they became more open to learning.

Lastly, growing up, my mom gave me fashion advice I always remember: “The most important thing you wear is a smile.” Look sharp!

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