Professional You – Building your wardrobe

Image: The Container Store

One of the first issues of concern that I hear from new professionals is “What will I wear?” While this question may seem a bit frivolous to some, as a college student, you probably don’t own a wide (or any) selection of professional attire. You definitely want to dress appropriate to your field, without breaking the bank.

Ask around
Long before your first day of work, ask your supervisor what the expectations are for what you can and cannot wear to work. Typically, your line of work will dictate what type of attire you will need to buy. For example, if you work in the healthcare setting, you’ll likely need scrubs and comfortable footwear. If you’re working as a geology research assistant, you may be expected to own steel-toe shoes and protective outwear. If you’ll be working in certain labs, you may need to wear a hairnet. A job in finance will likely require you to own a number of suits.

There may also be some organizational or departmental policies about wearing jewelry (how and where it’s is worn), perfume, finger nail length, etc. Depending on your line of work and the organization, there may even be a manual or handbook that details this sort of information. Even if your employer tells you to wear “business attire” or “business casual”, these terms can mean different things to different employers. So, ask questions.

Guidelines for common business wardrobe terms
Business Attire:
Men – This typically means a suit in a conservative color (e.g. brown, dark navy, black, dark grey), a long sleeve shirt, conservative tie and professional shoes. Your hair should be short and neatly styled; nails should be clean. No jewelry, no or only light cologne should be worn. A watch and wedding band are acceptable forms of jewelry.
Women – Your options are a pant or skirt suit in a conservative color (e.g. brown, dark navy, black, dark grey), a neutral blouse, tan or light stockings, and low-heeled (no more than 1 1/2 in.) shoes. Hair should be style neatly; makeup should be conservative. If you wear jewelry, wear only one or two pieces; do not wear piercings (nose, brow, lip, or secondary ear piercings). Nails should be clean and manicured short.

Business Casual:
Men – Your options are neatly pressed khakis, chinos, slacks, or dress pants, collared shirt (dress, polo, golf) or fitted sweater, a belt that matches your shoes, leather shoes (such as loafers or oxfords), and socks that match your pants. Again, hair and nails should be neat.
Women – You have a few more options: khaki, chino, corduroy, or dress pants or skirt (no shorter than knee-length), a blouse, dress shirt or sweater. Stockings are not absolutely necessary, but if you wear them, they should be tan or light in color. Again, low-heeled shoes are a good bet. The standards for hair, nails, makeup and jewelry are the same as for business attire. It is fine to carry a small purse or a briefcase.

What to buy (at first)
If you do not currently own any of the articles of clothing mentioned above, the thought of building a work wardrobe can be quite daunting – and expensive. Where should you start? Below are some suggestions for where to invest initially; in time, you can build and diversify your wardrobe.

  • If you’ll be wearing business attire for work, there’s no way around buying suits. You’ll need them, so you’ll want to invest in 5 or 6 good quality suits. (If you’re an intern, working part time, you could get away with fewer when you’re just starting out). You will also need several, good quality, conservative button up shirts.
  • If your work calls for business casual attire, you’ll need to buy a few good-quality pants to start. You’ll likely want to buy more shirts/blouses that you can mix and match as needed.
  • Shoes are another item you should invest in, especially if you will be working in a healthcare setting, or any other setting that requires you to be on your feet most of the time.

Image: Mirror

What to avoid
Some of these suggestions will seem obvious, but they need to be stated anyway. Generally, unless specifically told otherwise, avoid clothing you would wear to the gym, club, beach, prom, or barbeque.Clothing that is too tight or too loose should also be avoided. In work settings that require business casual or business attire, avoid clothing or accessories made of denim. Some work settings may be OK with denim, but it’s safest to avoid it. Undergarments always should be worn, but not be visible.

A word on tattoos and piercings
While tattoos and piercings should be covered up when wearing business attire or business casual clothing, you may also want to cover them up in other settings – at least until you know for sure that your employer is OK with them.

What about you?
As a college student, I once, (oh the shame), wore a long t-shirt over biking shorts to a campus job and my supervisor had to explain to me about the dress expectations. It was my first week of work, but I wish I had asked about what to wear before I started! Have you ever had a wardrobe misstep at work? Have you heard of any wardrobe restrictions that have surprised you? Do you have a favorite place to buy professional clothes? Leave your comments below.


More wardrobe help
What to Wear to Work – from gradspot
Business Casual Attire – from Alison Doyle on About.com Job Searching

From Twitter – What should interns/new grads own to build their professional wardrobe?
@imageatwork – Grads need: suit for interviews, button-front shirts or polos, closed-toe leather shoes, nice pants/skirts. Grads should avoid: flip-flops, sleeveless shirts, T’s w/ messages, clothes too short/faded/raggedy/tight
@WhattoWearWherehttp://what2wearwhere.com/blog/2011/03/5-for-work/ 5 great looks for work! We will do a new post too!

The Professional You series offers tips and suggestions for college students transitioning to their first professional position, whether an internship or full time job.

Image: The Container Store
Image: Mirror

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