Many men and women who start new jobs can relate to Meghan Markle’s struggle to dress like royalty.
Dressing for a new job can take a lot of work.
That’s what Samantha Merz learned when she took on a temporary receptionist position at a commercial real estate agency. While her contract said looking “presentable” was a must, it didn’t detail what that meant.
“I mostly work part-time as a retail clerk with a basic uniform,” explained Merz, 25, from Vancouver, so her closet was already stocked with some professional pieces. She dropped $46 on new black fitted pants and dress socks that she could wear with her blouses and blazers. “I learned the importance of being resourceful, and making do with what I currently had to wear in my closet,” she told Moneyish.
Zack, 29, who asked to withhold his last name, got comfortable dressing in slacks and button-down shirts for the past five years at a New York City engineering firm. But now his new gig at a security consulting firm calls for more formal office wear. “My first day, I showed up in a sport coat and dress pants to make a good impression; the next day, I showed up in khakis and a flannel shirt, and my boss told me I need to spiff it up,” he told Moneyish.
So to fit in, he’s spent $1,500 over the past few months on two new suits, 12 dress shirts, five pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes at Century 21 and sample sales. “I had so painstakingly curated my wardrobe with really, really nice jeans, sneakers and shirts,” he said, “and now I have to figure out a way to sneak those into my office and still make it look professional.”
The sartorial struggle to tailor outfits to a new job is also real for Meghan Markle. Despite her reported $1 million wardrobe, she appears to be having a hard time conforming to her new royal dress code. The former “Suits” star’s sexy, polished looks have become frumpier and more ill-fitting, critics complain, since she married Prince Harry.
Plus, as work spaces continue becoming more casual, and the $48 billion athleisure wear market pushes activewear into offices, even the employees settled into their jobs can get confused about what’s work-appropriate. So Moneyish spoke with some stylists and workers who recently changed jobs to get their tips for dressing for success — without spending your entire new paycheck:
Don’t go on a shopping spree. “Don’t drop a ton of cash before you change into that new job. Or, if you do, make sure that you keep all the receipts and know the return policies of the various places that you purchased [from],” warned Kaarin Vembar, a personal stylist who co-hosts the “Pop Fashion” podcast. “Because what you think people dress like in the job might be very different from the reality of everyday work life. You don’t want to blow a bunch of cash on suits just to get to an office and find that most people are in hoodies.” Play it safe by dressing conservatively in nice pants, shirts and blazers or shift dresses until you feel out the office dress code.
Go through your closet. Carol Rose, 51, from Phoenix, who returned to work in PR last year after a 15-year hiatus, had to build her work wardrobe from scratch. “I could not afford to buy everything I needed at once,” she said, “so the first thing I did was look at everything I had, to see where the holes were.” She had pants, so she bought dressier tops with ruffled sleeves. And she’s built up her wardrobe with a few more pairs of pants since then, spending about $200 total. “Everything I buy is versatile and can be worn different ways,” she said. And you can get away with pilling on your old knits, but don’t even try passing off anything with stains or holes.
Borrow from friends and family. Merz received three knee-length dresses from a relative before her temp job. “I must have saved at least $50 [probably more] from receiving three dresses in good condition,” she said. And when Rose noticed her college-age son never wore his nice Oxford button-downs, she took them for herself. “They look great knotted and worn with jeans, or under a light sweater for a preppy menswear look,” she said.
Invest in a couple of key pieces. “You can’t go wrong with some basics — flat front pants, a white button-down shirt, and a great blazer. A black knee-length skirt is always helpful. If you end up wearing it to work or just have it in your closet, it’s a great wardrobe builder,” said Vembar. Zack agreed: “Splurge on suits and shoes. If they’re well-made, they’ll last you a while, and can always be fixed/adjusted. Shirts and pants are eventually going to get stained, rip or whatever, so don’t overthink them,” he said. “And if you have a pair of brown and a pair of black dress shoes, you’re set for anything.”
Consider a capsule wardrobe. If you can only afford a few pieces up-front, get versatile separates in neutral colors that you can mix and match; or create a “uniform” that you wear every day, like Mark Zuckerberg’s gray t-shirt and jeans. When Robyn Coburn, 56, had to upgrade her office attire when she started at an organization that helps homeless people find work, she went the capsule route. “I really love this way of dressing. I do dark gray and black, with white and gray shirts, and the occasional burgundy top or colored tee. My jacket is black,”she said. Hey, it’s worked for Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
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