How To Build a Work Wardrobe on the Cheap

How To Build a Work Wardrobe on the Cheap

There are all kinds of reasons why you might find yourself in need of a new work wardrobe. Maybe you have been working remotely and now you’ve been called back to the office. Maybe you were a stay-at-home parent for a few years and you’re dipping your toe back into the workforce. Or maybe you’ve gained or lost weight, changed up your personal style, or landed a job at a company with a dress code for the very first time.

Whatever your reasons, it can be daunting to create a work capsule wardrobe. For one thing, most of us don’t have hundreds of dollars floating around, waiting to be invested in something that might not last a season. Then there’s the fact that many of us have embraced an extremely low-key personal style over the past few years. How are you supposed to go back to wearing hard pants after months of yoga pants and sweats?    

You’ll be happy to learn that you don’t need to go broke or make yourself miserable in uncomfortable clothes to look professional at work. You just need to understand what’s expected in terms of business attire and make a plan to fulfill those expectations with as little stress as possible.

What Is Business Casual?

If your office has a dress code, it’s likely to be some variation on business casual. This means that although you’ll be expected to dress up a bit more than you would for a day at home, you won’t need to wear a suit or similarly formal clothing.

Generally, business casual means:

Pants That You Can’t Wear to the Gym

So, no yoga pants, sweatpants, or very stretchy materials. Khakis and trousers are usually safe. Depending on the company culture, you may also get away with jeans if they fit well and don’t have tears or stains.

A Nice Shirt

This can mean a button-down, polo, sweater, or top. Skip the logos, slogans, novelty T-shirts, etc. Make sure your shirt is wrinkle-free, has all its buttons or fasteners, and appears fresh and clean.

Business-appropriate Dresses or Skirts

Skip super-short skirts, revealing dresses, or anything more appropriate for the beach, gym, or bar.

Closed-toe Shoes

No flip-flops, open sandals, or sky-high heels. Aim for comfort but be wary of going too casual until you understand the office vibe. For example, Crocs will be fine at some offices and way too relaxed for others.

Accessories and Jewelry

Keep your accessories understated when you’re acclimating to the office culture. The goal is to impress your co-workers with your skills, not distract them with your style.


Plan for the climate in your location. Will you need a raincoat, a transitional jacket, or a raincoat? Make sure your outerwear is clean and maintained. Check out secondhand stores or thrifting sites for deals on coats that might otherwise put a serious dent in your budget.

Tips for Building a Work Wardrobe

If you’re starting from scratch, your best approach is to build a capsule wardrobe. Plan to buy a few versatile pieces that you can mix and match and adjust as necessary. As you get more comfortable in your role, you can loosen up your style rules based on the office culture.

For example, you might find out sandals are totally fine in this company culture, but jeans are a big no. Or you might learn that dressing too formally will make you stand out—and not in a positive way. It all depends on the organization.

Plan on Buying the Bare Minimum at First

Don’t overdo it before you start work. You don’t need a new pair of pants for every day of the week or six pairs of tights before you figure out whether you’re really going to wear skirts to work. Start with a basic capsule wardrobe: two pants or skirts, three or four tops, a sweater or jacket, and enough socks and underwear to get through the week.

Prioritize Neutrals and Basics

Later, you’ll have plenty of time to add bright colors and prints. But when you’re starting out, you want to make sure that you have the basics covered. It’s also a good idea to pick a neutral for now, e.g., black, navy, brown, etc.

Shop In-Person (or Pay Attention to Return Policies)

Sizes vary widely from one brand to another. If possible, it’s a good idea to try things on in a store before committing to a purchase. (Especially when you’re buying pants. Clothing brands seem to size their pants by throwing darts at a bunch of numbers on a board.)

If you don’t have access to a brick-and-mortar store—or you hate shopping and want to get it over with as quickly as possible—look for websites with easy and free returns. Then try on your clothes as soon as they arrive and drop the returns in the mail that same day, so that you don’t wind up spending more than you intended.

Avoid Buying From Social Media Ads

Social media ads seem to know that we’re anxious before we do. Resist the urge to buy the magic work-pants-that-feel-like-yoga-pants or miracle-ponytail-tool from social media while you’re gearing up for a return to the office. You can often find cheaper dupes on Amazon or gently used thrift finds on eBay, Poshmark, or ThredUP.

If You Love It, Buy Two

Found the perfect work dress, pants, or pair of socks? Buy two right now before they stop making them or change the design. You’ll prolong the life of the clothing item and safeguard your wardrobe against spills and other disasters.

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  • March 23, 2023