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Legally Thrifty: Building a Budget Conscious “Back to Work” Wardrobe

[Ann Taylor Polyvore set created by me, click here for details on the pieces]

Ah, the air is cool and crisp, meaning Autumn is here.  Our younger selves would have looked forward to back to school shopping.  I loved shopping for new pens and notebooks, eager as a beaver to embrace my inner nerd.  Now that we’re working professionals, Autumn can still be exciting with “back to work” shopping.

Unfortunately, not all of us can afford to stock our closet with Theory suits and Christian Louboutin pumps.  So what is a poor working girl to do?  These days, good quality work basics can be had for cheaper than you think and if you shop smart, you can get miles out of your wardrobe.  Please read on for my personal guide on building a budget conscious “back to work” wardrobe! 

(Note – I focus on clothes that will work for a business casual environment.  From what I understand, the West Coast has an even more casual standard and a business formal dress code is rare these days and, so business casual seems to be the most universal for Ms. JD.)

1. Sign up for emails from stores like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic.

In this persistent recession, I think stores have figured out that people are less willing to buy their clothing unless there is a sale.  So nowadays there is absolutely no reason to pay full price for clothing.  I can attest to the fact that stores like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic almost always offer a discount, practically every day from what I can see in my flooded inbox.  You can easily find out about a sale by signing up for their emails.

To use Ann Taylor as an example, I’ve created a Polyvore set of work wardrobe staples that I picked from the site.  A simple wool-blend dress in a knock-out color, a statement necklace to go with the dress and other tops, a classic black pencil skirt, a fun leopard print cowl neck to wear under blazers and cardigans, neutral pumps in patent leather to jazz things up, a slim pant in a nice cobalt blue that will still be easy to match with everything, and a bright pink blazer just for a fun pop of color.  Several of the pieces are already on sale.  The grand total for the set is $627, but I guarantee that you can purchase everything for at least 40% off this total price.  I’ve seen Ann Taylor offer 40% off discount codes and buy one item at full price, get the second item at 50% off deals.  Thus you can easily freshen up your fall work wardrobe for around $300!

Thrifty Tip – A comfortable pair of pretty pumps will go a long way, no matter your price point.  Target’s Mossimo Pearce Pumps are $29.99 but look like a million bucks and I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews on these pumps.  I own Ann Taylor Perfect Platform pumps (regular Perfect version here) which cost around $100 on sale.

2. Buy tops that can easily transition from work to play.

A business casual work environment means greater flexibility in choosing pieces that perform double-duty functions.  Personally, I reserve my starched collared shirts for a day in court and prefer to wear tops that I can also wear on weekends with my skinny jeans.  During warmer months, go for sleeveless blouses and sheath shells in non-clingy fabrics.  Winter lets you play with v-neck sweaters and delicately ribbed crewnecks that can be paired with tailored bottoms like a slim pencil skirt or cuffed trousers.  For now, fall is perfect for getting yourself a silk equipment blouse (see the J.Crew Blythe) that has been both classic and trendy this year.  This blouse style can be found for all budgets.

Thrifty Tip – Do a cleavage check before you head out the door.  Gratuitous cleavage is not welcome in any work environment.  If a top appears too low-cut to be work appropriate, wear a camisole underneath.  In fact, you should always have a mini arsenal of basic tanks or camisoles in basic colors to wear with low-cut tops and sheer blouses.

3. Don’t be afraid to browse thrift and consignment shops.

Hand me down clothes used to be not cool.  Growing up, I felt like a pauper when my mom gave me clothes from friend and family and expected me to happily wear them.  Now thrifting is considered to be fashionable, chic, and individualistic, thanks to over-consumerism in today’s society.  Re-use, re-wear, and recycle! 

Thrift and consignment shops are abound with work wardrobe staples like pants and jackets.  On a trip to Housing Works, I discovered a GAP houndstooth skirt, brand new with tags.  I knew that this skirt would be a great piece for the office so I snatched it up and took it to my tailor for slimming down the sides into less of an A-line shape.  When you’re browsing, check for irreparable damage or stains that wouldn’t come out with a little TLC.  You want a bargain but you don’t want to have to do a complete overhaul of the item. 

Thrifty Tip - Don’t bring your sale goggles and stay away from purchasing clothes that you wouldn’t normally wear regardless of the price.  A great bargain is still money wasted if you don’t end up wearing it.

4. Style favorite clothing items to work for all seasons.

To get even more mileage out of your wardrobe, re-work clothing items to make them work for all seasons.  Belt a cardigan over a sleeveless top to keep warm when the weather gets cooler.  Layer a short-sleeved sweater over a crisp collared shirt.  The possibilities are endless!  For shoes, certain sandals like T-straps can be appropriate for fall if you pair them with tights.  And remember, most accessories are weather-resistant and can instantly transform an outfit.  A silk scarf, structured handbag, and collar necklace works regardless of the seasons.

Thrifty Tip – Spend a lazy weekend afternoon at the bookstore and peruse fashion magazines for inspiration.  For example, I love InStyle because they always feature clever ways to transition your clothing from season to season and articles on how to look sharp at the office with the simple addition of an accessory.

5. Take good care of your clothing – a little upkeep goes a long way.

Your work wardrobe is an investment in your career.  Accordingly, this is where being frugal doesn’t pay off.  Expensive clothing can still make you look frumpy and unpolished if it’s ill-fitting.  Find a good tailor who can shorten the sleeves on a jacket, fix the cuffs on a pair of pants, and do so much more to help you maintain a chic tailored wardrobe that will last for years.  Same for shoes – ask a cobbler to add taps to the soles and heels of your pumps in order to slow down the inevitable wear and tear on the bottoms of your shoes, especially if you wear them frequently for work.  I personally hate when the rubber tip has worn down and the metal part starts showing on the heels.  They make an annoying clicking, squeaking noise when you’re walking.  Unprofessional!

Thrifty Tip – Cut down on dry cleaning costs by hand washing your silk, wool, and cashmere tops at home.  The chemicals involved in dry cleaning actually degrade the fibers in these finer fabrics.  Wash the item in the sink with Woolite, then gently roll in a towel before laying flat to dry.  I’ve saved loads on dry cleaning by hand washing and taking only my skirts, pants, and jackets to the dry cleaners.  You can even watch your favorite TV while hand washing at home!

Well until next time, I hope y'all look chic and fashionable for fall while staying true to being legally thrifty.

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