How To Build A Professional Wardrobe

Building a workwear wardrobe immediately after graduating college can be daunting. Let’s take my example.

When I graduated college, my wardrobe primarily consisted of faded college hoodies, jeans, and stretched out t-shirts and sweaters. The only saving grace were a couple of nice pieces that I had bought for student internships, career fairs, and job interviews. In addition, like most fresh grads, I too didn’t have the budget to foot the bill for quality workwear and my understanding of style was limited to online magazine articles that were mostly irrelevant to pear-shaped bodies and corporate office dress codes.

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Circa 2015: all-nighters, consulting interview prep, and ugly t-shirts

Trial and error in the last few years have transformed the way I dress myself for work. Not only do I understand my personal style and budget for workwear, but I also know the cuts and fabrics that flatter my body type and pass the durability, breathability and wrinkle resistance tests for long work days. You too will learn through trial and error and discover what works best for you.

To make the process slightly less daunting, I am sharing my best tips to transition a casual student wardrobe to a classic, professional one.

Decide your budget

I cannot emphasize the importance of setting yourself a clear budget from the start. This will be your guiding compass when trends and sales try to sway you in irrelevant directions.

I recommend deciding a budget that you would use up front to curate a capsule wardrobe for a start. Then dedicate a monthly or quarterly amount you would use to add additional items until your professional wardrobe starts feeling complete to you.

My upfront budget was $500 and I dedicated $100 a month toward completing my workwear wardrobe in my first year out of college. If you’re wondering how I know these exact figures then I feel delighted and slightly smug to share that I referred my Google spreadsheet from four and a half years ago that I had used to budget living in NYC right after graduation.

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The gray blazer was one of my upfront purchases. Still wearing it to this day!

I was incredibly fortunate to receive $500 in cash from my parents as a graduation present. This allowed me to allocate my own savings from student jobs toward NYC rent and living costs until I received my first salary. Everyone’s situation post-graduation is different, so be realistic and creative with the options you have!

Discover your personal style

Personal style is always evolving in my experience, so don’t feel stressed about getting this one right. The idea is to get a sense of the kind of outfits you like and feel comfortable wearing. This will prevent you from wasting your budget on purchasing pieces that look good in a magazine but don’t work for you in real life.

Reflect on what you most like to wear in your daily life. For instance, I love dresses and skirts much more than trousers and I find working with a neutral color palette the easiest. Two points like these about your preferences would be a great start to curate your best workwear wardrobe.

You could give my post on planning a seasonal wardrobe a read, if you’d like to learn more about how to discover and define your personal style. A style quiz is also a good place to start.

Two YouTubers who have been highly influential in helping me discover my personal style and dress for my body type are Justin Leconte and Daria Andronescu.

Create a wardrobe formula

Depending on your personal style and preferences, I’d suggest creating a wardrobe formula. This will help bring your ideas regarding your wardrobe to life and also give you a sense of how to allocate the budget you  initially created.

I suggest 70 percent of the wardrobe to be your foundation pieces like dresses, tops, bottoms, and blazers. 20 percent can constitute shoes and accessories and 10 percent can be allocated to outerwear. Your entire wardrobe should reflect your personal style, but it’s particularly important to get your foundation pieces right so that you don’t have the “what do I wear to work?” feeling at seven in the morning.

Survey your current (college) wardrobe, seek hand-me-downs, and thrift

Even amongst the faded hoodies and stretched out sweaters, I could find a checkered turtleneck, pair of black faux suede heels, and a couple of satin blouses which could be styled for a professional environment. So, I would highly recommend to survey your wardrobe with an open mind and take inventory of items that can make the transition cut.

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Four and a half years later, still wearing the checkered turtleneck

You could also look to aunts and cousins clearing out their closets for hand-me-downs. An aunt gave me a cream skirt that no longer fit her. I used it to death my first three months at work!

While thrifting isn’t free like shopping your own or your aunt’s wardrobe, it’s one of the cheapest and most environmentally sustainable ways to shop. I found a Jones New York navy blazer with tags on for $8 in a Good Will store in Boston once. That blazer was the cornerstone of so many work outfits my first year at work. If you don’t have access to physical thrift stores, I do have a guide on how to start shopping pre-loved online for anyone interested.

I would advise not to shop for new items until you’ve generated an inventory of your current wardrobe, including hand-me-downs and pre-loved pieces.

Invest in versatile new pieces

An increasing number of studies show that over 50 percent of college grads leave their first job within a year. I planned to extend my NYC consulting gig which required a business formal dress code to a full-time job, but I ended up moving to Amsterdam and my first job here was at a start-up without any dress code!

I was able to use most of my NYC wardrobe in Amsterdam too because the pieces I bought were versatile enough to be dressed up or down. For example, I could dress down my blazer with t-shirts underneath instead of blouses. I could dress down blouses with dark-washed jeans instead of a pair of formal pants. I could dress down my formal pants with flat shoes and sweaters instead of heels and blouses.

Keep your focus on versatility, so if you change jobs or cities (weather plays a role) then you don’t have to start all over again.


If you have found this post useful, do let me know! I will do a part two with specific pieces that have worked for me and might work for you too!

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