Imagine you’re in college (like me) and just got your first “real job” (me, two years ago).
Heck, imagine you’re you and already have life experience and an awesome job, but want to overhaul your image and class it up in the process.
You already heard from me about some of the golden rules for business casual. Now, I want to talk about a basic shopping list for a functional (yet reasonably-priced) intro-to-business-casual wardrobe.
If you acquire items of good quality that fit well, they become the building blocks for you to expand your options over time.
I suggest obtaining five different pairs of pants as the most essential and basic outfit components. I recommend pants that are high-waisted because they tend to fit better and you run little risk of embarrassment when everything is covered.
- Formal, Lined Black Pants: These pants are part of my suit, but you don’t necessarily need a suit. The important point here is that they are your most formal. Look for structured construction, and lining because that will help the pants hang well on your figure. Tapered legs and a wide waistband work for most women.
- Black Dress Pants: Just like your little black dress, these pants will be your go-to for daily wear. They can be cheaper than your formal pants, but you should still look for quality material. Avoid the temptation to buy pants that stretch. They may be marketed as dress pants, but you’ll look more professional in traditional slacks.
- Gray Dress Pants: The basic professional wardrobe can get a little drab. I like gray as an option because, while still formal, it’s a neutral that can match any of the tops you’d pair with your black pants.
- Khakis: Everyone needs a pair of khakis. They hint at management, but also at mobility and flexibility. They’re a step above casual and give you room to dress up or down. Avoid the temptation to buy a pair that fit like your favorite skinny jeans; dress clothes should never be as tight as your “fun” clothes.
- Dark-Wash Trousers: The difference between trousers and jeans is the integrity of the material. This is what you would wear for a casual Friday ensemble, paired with a printed top and blazer. Again, avoid the super-stretchy and skinny temptations, and opt for a high-waisted, straight-legged stiff fabric that holds a crease.
The most abundant item in your new wardrobe should be an assortment of tops. You can get away with wearing your black dress pants all week, as long as you pair it with a new top each day. Grab a few in each of the following categories.
- Camis: A cami is the cheapest and easiest way to put a top with a bottom. This can be the pop of color sandwiched between neutral shoes, pants and blazer. Find them on sale, and stock up.
- Button-Ups: Not just for men, the button-up blouse is a shortcut to professional. Pick up a few solids and a few patterns, and you can mix and match with your dress pants for a dozen different outfits. Don’t forget to tuck them in.
- Knits/Sweaters: A great sweater is essential. Three great sweaters is even better. I prefer mine in solid colors, and have one neutral (gray), one blue v-neck and a very flattering cowl-neck in black. Avoid chunky cable knits; look for sleeker options that could fit well under a blazer.
- Statement Tops: As long as you avoid really stretchy materials and seek more structured cuts, your top choices can vary. This is the one component of the basic wardrobe where you can emphasize your personal taste. I like prints, so I have a lot of sleek and floral batwing, tunic and empire waist tops.
Your jacket or blazer is the item that adds a sense of completeness to your outfit. It frames your neck and face, and often does most of the work in defining and flattering your curves.
- Black Blazer: Honestly, I collect blazers when I thrift shop. They’re such an easy piece to swap around to change up outfits, I love finding new ones. Just remember to keep your outfit in harmony. A well-fitting blazer should feature arm seams that meet at the edge of your shoulder, and should not gap when you button them.
- Peacoat: This is my favorite style of coat, and is a great jacket to own as outerwear. I have two; the short one is a spring jacket for chilly walks to work, and the long one is actually designed to go over dresses and look classy (bet your North Face can’t do that!)
- Jean Jacket: This isn’t particularly professional, but Dress Barn does sell more formal iterations that are perfect for many dress styles. A good jean jacket, like your khakis, can work on more casual days.
- Cardigan: A cardigan or shoulder shrug is essential for anyone who prefers to wear dresses to work. A cardigan can also go over statement tops when the A/C kicks into overdrive – keep one in your desk drawer or in your car.
Love your feet; they’re what hold you up. Shoes are my guilty pleasure, but I’ve narrowed it down to the essentials.
- Black Pumps: You might actually want a dozen pairs of these, if you find some that are comfortable. Low-heeled black pumps will take you anywhere. This is an important pair of shoes, so I recommend investing in the heels cushions and other little doo-dads that help make them more comfortable.
- Black Flats: Flats aren’t as professional as heels, but, when you’re walking a mile or two every day in an office building, I don’t blame you for wanting better shoes. Again, black goes with everything.
- Low, Heeled Boots: Boots can be easier to walk in than pumps, and you can get away with wearing them during the winter with your slacks and your sweaters.
- Statement Heel: I can’t resist adding a statement heel. It should still be demure and professional, but I don’t see a darn thing wrong with a red pump when the rest of your outfit is well-cut neutrals.
Some fun and funky jewelry can be the defining factor that breathes life into your wardrobe of “basics.” These are the pieces you shouldn’t go without.
- Watch: Wearing a watch is the easiest way to tell the world you know how to be on time (whether it’s true or not). In a perfect version reality, you’ve got one in silver and one in gold, and one with a leather strap. In my version of reality, I’ve got one in silver. Luckily, most of my other jewelry is silver.
- Business Bag: The difference between this and a purse is durability and size. They make fashion bags designed to hold a laptop, which is perfect for the professional girl on the go. I look for bags that mix black and brown, because then I only have to buy one.
- Silver Studs: Sometimes I wear one set of earrings for six months at a time. A pair of silver studs is understated but pretty, and is a “set-it-and-forget-it” item.
- Leather Belt: If you ever have a need to keep your pants in place, you should do it with a simple leather belt, in black or brown. When your wardrobe expands, fee free to add accent colors, but the basic requirement is the traditional leather.
My favorite shopping locations are local thrift stores (often, the business clothes are in the best condition), dressbarn, Ross and Forever21. If I could afford it, I would buy everything from dressbarn because their sizing works well for me and I usually like the styles – a dressbarn sale is my kryptonite.
Don’t worry if you can only afford to add one piece per paycheck. It can take a long time to amass this basic set of clothing, but it’s a huge relief when you do. Take your time, and remember to look for clothing that is neutral, structured and durable.