Guest Post: The Politesse on How to Build a Work Wardrobe on a Budget

I’ve linked to The Politesse a few times already, but today I’m excited to be sharing this guest post from its co-founders, Allyson and Andrea.  Both are fashion journalists who decided to launch The Politesse after noticing a lack of social skills, business protocol and basic etiquette amongst their female interns, assistants, and interviewees. The blog helps young women navigate the professional world with the amusing mantra, “You can climb the corporate ladder in heels, but we’re here to make sure you don’t flash us on the way up.” Using good-natured humor and grounded common sense, A + A provide answers to questions like “How do I follow up without being a stalker?,” “Is a crop top office appropriate?” and “Should I decorate my cubicle?”

Today, they’re going to share some tips for creating a work-appropriate wardrobe on a fresh college grad’s budget. Please welcome them both!

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building a work wardrobe on a budget

Years ago, when we got our first jobs in the fashion industry, there were limited options for on-trend, wallet-friendly fashions. We’d eat Ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches for three solid weeks just to save up for a pair of shoes from Bloomingdales. It was a different time.

Today, there are endless options for fashion-forward, work appropriate wardrobe solutions—perhaps even too many to choose from! With the abundance of cheap, enticing styles popping up in your inbox, social media feeds or even your walk to and from work, it can be difficult to know when to splurge and when to save.

Not to worry! If you’re new to the workforce and/or have limited funds, read on for our tips on how to build an office-appropriate wardrobe on a budget.

When to spend

It’s best to set a budget for your work wardrobe, and we recommend spending roughly 60% of your budget on quality basics. While we love a bargain, your whole wardrobe should not be made up of disposable fast fashion. It’s just not economical, and here’s why: Imagine you purchase a black polyester blouse for $30. You wear it six times and then it falls apart—that’s $5 a wear. Instead, think about buying a silk blouse for $90, one that will last a whole year. If you wear the top once a week, that equals less than $1.75 a wear. You save money in the long run!

When to save

Though it can be tempting to buy trendy fashion from cute boutiques with beautiful visual merchandising, helpful sales associates and designer brands, resist the urge. When it comes to trendy, fashion-forward pieces, fast fashion retailers are your BFFs.

Want to buy 70s inspired flares and pussy-bow blouses for fall? Head to H&M for vintage color palettes and denim under $40. Interested in purchasing some statement chandelier earrings for a work event this spring? Check out the jewelry section of Forever 21 for unlimited options, most under $13.

Brands to know

One of the most amazing things about modern retail is the ease and availability of ecommerce. We can shop whatever brands we want, whenever we want with

hassle-free returns (most of the time) and free shipping. Since the choice can be overwhelming, here are our favorite brands for budget-friendly workwear, and the

best items they offer.

  • Everlane: Producing designer items at wholesale prices, Everlane creates small capsule collections that often sell out within days, so we check their website regularly for new styles. Some of our favorites include their silk blouses (we’re loving their new mint color for spring) and perfect layering tanks.
  • H&M: Shopping at H&M is all about separating the juniory, cheapy pieces from the higher-quality, European-inspired pieces. When shopping online, we click through to the “Trend” section, which offers pulled-from-the-runway, sophisticated separates (how chic is this crepe robe jacket?) In store, just ask a sales associate to direct you to the “Trend” section, and you’ll find amazing coats for under $75, well-made dresses for under $50 and colorful printed tops for under $35.
  • Zara: Though Zara hasn’t made its way into every US city (yet), the Spanish brand’s ecommerce site is super inspirational and offers a flat shipping rate of $4.95. We turn to Zara for sleek basics like single-button blazers, French-girl stripes and effortless summer dresses. Did we mention that all returns are free?
  • ASOS: UK-based ecommerce site ASOS is our go-to source for fun, fashion forward items—think coordinated separates, playful sandals and statement sunglasses. The best/most dangerous thing about ASOS? Completely free shipping and returns. Be careful, ladies.
  • Gap: A little bit nostalgic, a little bit utilitarian, Gap’s product selection is perfect for building an affordable work wardrobe. We pick up staples like classic black pants and crisp oxford shirts, but every now and then we’ll spot a perfect shirtdress or a laid-back moto jacket. Trust us, Gap is still great.

For more advice on what to wear to work, or to ask us a question regarding career, etiquette or life in general, email us. We’d love to hear from you!

Images courtesy Everlane

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13 Responses to “Guest Post: The Politesse on How to Build a Work Wardrobe on a Budget”

  1. Diane Stenglein

    I love this! While I am not currently trying to re-enter the workplace, when I do go back to work, it will be nearly a decade since I was working. (Stay-home mom…) It’s nice to have the advice there, since even classic pieces will need refreshing after that long!

  2. Monica H

    Thank you for this article! Even those of us gals who have more flexible budgets love a bargain!

    I will say though, there is one important budget factor they didn’t discuss: dry cleaning! That $90 silk blouse most likely needs to be dry cleaned. This can increase the cost per wear considerably compared to a washable polyester blouse.

    I would also suggest that The Limited would be a good addition to their brand list. It has become my go-to for work wear. They seem to do a good job with basics that can be mixed and matched, and their Ashton blouse/dress line (in washable polyester tee hee) seems to hit my perfect sweet spot for basic and versatile without being boring. I wouldn’t say the quality is amazing, but it’s in line with their price point and none of my items have fallen apart or become unwearable. They also offer petite and tall sizes (although the latter is online only I believe).

    It’s also worth noting that among their list, ASOS carries petite, tall, and plus sizes. Gap carries petite and tall. I don’t know about the other brands they mentioned.

    • K_Line

      I totally hear what you’re saying about drycleaning, but seriously, I went from doing it all the time to maybe 3 things a year. It was no problem. You can easily handwash most silk, wool, cashmere. Or put it in the washer on delicate, if you’re nervy. It’s only tailoring that makes me shy away from hand washing.

      • Monica H

        I’m sure you’re right. But after having shrunk my most favoritest $150 wool sweater several years ago, I suppose I’ve lost my nerve for this, LOL. On the plus side, I’ve found that the discount $2.50 cleaners by my house does a good job.

  3. amie stams

    Disappointing to see that there is no fact-checking before posting information. ASOS, your “go-to source,” eliminated “completely free shipping” almost a year ago. There are now minimum purchases required.

  4. ballewal

    What if their “budget” suggestions are outside of your budget? Fifty bucks for a dress just isn’t happening.

    • Rebekah Jaunty

      I was thinking the same thing about the hypothetical $90 silk blouse; lots of us can’t possibly find $90 for a single blouse, even if it’s well made. Most articles including “budget” fashion or beauty are much too rich for my blood.

      Thrift-shopping is always worth a shot; I used to find New York and Company dress shirts and Express trousers EVERY time I went to a thrift store. Preaching to the choir here, but it’s a good way to find nice-quality things for less than fast-fashion prices.

  5. FailBox

    I’d like to add that New York and Company can be good for fun, professional clothing – I’m a 24 year old medical student trying to negotiate that sweet spot between professional, youthful and cheap myself, and I have several pieces from NY&C that I get many compliments on.

    • Si Titran

      When I was a smaller size I think most of my wardrobe came from New York and Company! I still enjoy their style for office clothing for sure. And they have sales constantly.

  6. Katharine McArthur

    I agree with those for whom a $90 blouse would not be an option, even it is well made. I’m having great luck with the consignment websites Sally has share previously. I’ve found such great things on liketwice.com and thredup.com, I feel like I may not need to shop new much at all.

  7. disqus_8wYDeK1qDR

    A lot of this advice doesn’t really seem like budget advice. like, $75 coats and $50 dresses seem impossibly expensive to me. even that hypothetical $30 poorly made polyester blouse is, in fact, outside of my price range. its really depressing when you’re so broke even the broke advice is too rich for you.

  8. Amy

    For many many years I could not afford $50 dresses, (etc.) so my go for work cloths was either consignment/thrift or Marshalls/Ross/Burlington Coat Factory. I like places like Buffalo Exchange better than true consignment stores which I find are often overpriced for used cloths. Also – Gap outlet, and if you are lucky enough to live where there is a Zara, their sales can be ridiculous if you shop off -season.

  9. Si Titran

    Since only Asos is the one on the list with a true plus size department, I’d like to throw my plus sized two cents into the ring. Eloquii is my simply one of my favorites. The quality and fit are fantastic, with out being too dated and “old” as is often the case for plus size. Better in my opinion than Lane Bryant in terms of quality and fit, with non sales prices comparable to Zara. Lands End is another good place for quality plus size basics, which will work for most offices. I love their sweaters and layering tanks!