Building a Professional Wardrobe from the Bottom Up

In high school, our teachers and counselors tell us that “dressing for success” is often the first step to obtaining the jobs and careers we want in the real world. But what does that really mean? What classifies as professional dress? Where would you begin to look? You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. We’re going to break it down for both ladies and gents how to successfully build that professional wardrobe from the bottom up.

Before we begin, it’s important to note why dressing professionally in college is a good habit to develop. One reason is that your college years are basically the start of your professional career. You’ll be invited to plenty of job/internship interviews, industry/networking events, awards banquets, etc. during this time. For those occasions, it’s critical to have something in your closet other than your favorite shorts and sneakers. Another reason is that first impressions matter. People usually determine what you’re all about within the first few minutes of meeting you. Much of that is based on your appearance and behavior. It’s important to make sure that your clothes convey the right messages. You want to show that you’re confident, competent, and ready for anything. Being well-dressed and put together helps to make a positive impression on whoever you’re interacting with. Let’s begin!

For the Ladies

  • Shoes

As always, ladies first. If we’re going from the bottom up, of course, we have to start with shoes. For professional purposes, it pays to invest in heels that are three inches or less in neutral colors. Neutral colors include black, navy, grey and nude/beige. Having shoes in these colors will guarantee that you always match your outfits with accessories and that your feet will be comfortable. Flats are acceptable in some instances as well.

  • Skirts and Dresses

The second must-have in your professional wardrobe is a pencil skirt. Pencil skirts flatter any body type and fall either just above or just below the knee making it office appropriate. Again, having a skirt in one or all four of the neutral colors gives you a great foundation when building your professional outfits. For dresses, a sheath or fitted one that can be paired with a blazer or pumps is suitable.

  • Pants

Dress pants are also helpful. Just be aware of the length. When wearing them with flats or heels; make sure that the cuff falls at the midway point of each type of shoe. In some instances, a tailor may be needed. 2-3 pairs in neutral colors is fine.

  • Straight leg jeans

Straight leg jeans in a dark wash are another must-have for your closet. They are the perfect solution to the “what to wear on casual Friday?” dilemma. They can be paired with a blazer, a nice top, etc. Jeans in darker washes tend to look more professional and can be dressed up or down depending on what the situation calls for.

  • Tops

With tops, you should have at least 3-5 that make up your professional wardrobe in the beginning. A white buttoned-down shirt is the first essential. It can be combined with just about anything from your pencil skirt to a paint suit. Just like in the case of your trousers or pants, take time to make sure that this fits you properly. Also, plan to have at least two of these in your closet. Since it is both versatile and functional, you’ll definitely be getting your money’s worth in the end. As always, stick with neutral colors starting out. As time goes on you will be able to experiment with prints and patterns later.

  • Fitted Blazers/Jackets

Another must-have is a fitted jacket or blazer. Preferably in black. Like the button-down shirt, this piece can be paired with many things, making for multiple combinations. Take your time and invest in some quality ones that fit. Neutral colors for business and also fun colors or patterns for other occasions down the line. These never go out of style.

Last but not least, a functional handbag. Never underestimate the power of one of these. When buying, look for one that is all black and able to hold the essentials you may need at work or in other professional settings. Like the fitted black blazer and the other must-haves on this list, it is something that if kept in good shape can be used for years to come.

For the Guys

Building a professional wardrobe for guys is somewhat easier. Here are the things that you’ll need.

  • Shoes

You can start off with two pair. One in black, the other in brown. These two colors will go a long way. As time goes on, you can expand your collection to include more styles.

Source: Pixabay user Unsplash

Source: Pixabay user Unsplash

  • Suits

Suits are essential for men. You should invest in a quality suit in the three basic colors. Navy blue, black, and gray. While you may not end up wearing a suit to work every day, a well-made, well-fitted suit can serve you well in and out of the office.

  • Dark Fitted Jeans

Having good denim in your closet is another essential for men and women. Dark fitted jeans are versatile and can be worn with a buttoned shirt, suit jackets for the business casual style, a fitted white t-shirt, and even your sneakers. In terms of the leg, these jeans should be slightly longer than your suit pants.

  • Shirts

Generally speaking, men should have anywhere between 3-5 dress shirts in their closet. There are five days in a typical workweek, so one for every day. Look for colors that you can get the most use out of. For example, white, a light almost pale blue, and even black to start. If you like patterns, start out with stripes. They’re more appropriate in a professional environment than some others.

Also, for a more professional look, swap out your t-shirts for polos, sport shirts, and even a few sweaters. Solid dark colors that are fitted, work best. In the case of sweaters, look for either wool or cashmere material. It lasts longer. Sweaters can be worn with jeans, pants or a jacket.

The tie is for men what a functional handbag is to ladies, a necessary accessory. 2-3 ties in solid neutral colors like navy blue or gray should be enough to start. Silk and woven fabrics are best. If you decide to add a pocket square here’s a tip: don’t buy it in the same material as your tie.

  • Fitted Blazers/Jackets

When buying jackets or blazers, consider this: Invest in some that you can wear with a variety of other things. For example, suit pants, a sweater, or even jeans to name a few. Again, when starting out, aim for the solid colors as they’re more versatile. You’ll get your money’s worth in the end.

We truly hope that you find this list helpful for your professional wardrobe. The beautiful part is that you don’t have to go out and try to get everything right this second. We understand that the college student budget is limited. Take your time, do your research, and build. Let your style evolve naturally. Also, make sure you feel great in the clothes that you choose. Then, go out into the world as the best dressed person you can be. Go on that job interview, internship, networking event, or whatever you’re after and rock it.

Still need some inspiration? There are plenty of professional fashion blogs online that have you covered. Ladies, go check out Work Chic for tips on how to be stylish on a budget and full color-themed outfit templates! Guys, try Ask Andy about Clothes–have questions of what to wear when? Wondering how to tie a tie? Ask Andy!