Leaving graduate school involves a lot of change and upheaval. It might mean adopting a new 9-5 schedule, or deciding that Every Word of a Title Should Be Capitalized (thank you very much), or it might entail a new wardrobe. Graduate students enjoy the luxury of being able to wear whatever they want: t-shirts and ripped jeans, skull motifs, or dreadlocks. On the other hand, graduate students are often wearing what they can afford, and putting together a new work wardrobe can be expensive.
So how do you go about building a career wardrobe before your first pay check comes in? Don't go overboard. In a pinch you can get away with rotating clothes and changing out accessories to stretch five tops, one or two pairs of pants, and a skirt for the first two weeks. The key is to not wear the same top and bottom, or layer a cardigan or distinctive necklace to make your outfit look different. Don't believe it can be done? Check out this blog which restyled the same dress 365 different ways for an entire year.
I recommend beginning to acquire pieces as you go. Getting a suit or picking up a few tops for conferences mean you should already have an interviewing outfit. For those of you trying to assemble an entire wardrobe, or curious about what it entails, I've put together some suggestions based on 1) My experience of what I actually use; 2) Some tips for saving money.
What to Buy New:
You need one classic suit. Normally, I would recommend a matching black suit jacket and pants with a skirt. Express, Banana Republic, and Macy's are good places to purchase these. Express and Macy's both have frequent coupons either in the paper or by mail. Expect to pay between $150-$350 if you aren't willing to spend a lot of time and energy trying to save money.
However, if you have at least one good black suit jacket, women can get away with getting a suit set from Ross or Marshals, where you are unlikely to find the perfect basic black suit. I often find Anne Klein, Tahari, or Calvin Klein for $100 or less for a full suit, but often in gray, or a less formal cut than you would want for your most versatile or classic wardrobe. But, if you are pressed for cash it may be cheaper for you to just purchase a nice black jacket you can mix with separates, and the best-looking and best-fitting full suit you can find. Unless you are working in the most corporate of environments, a non-black suit will be just fine. You might even feel overdressed or like catering staff if you wear a black suit jacket and black pants in a less than super formal work environment.
Of course, if you can find a full suit at a thrift store or consignment shop in good condition, congratulations! I've never been able to do it, but pat yourself on the back and please put the money you save toward happy hour.
What to Buy Used:
Once you have a nice suit and/or a versatile black jacket, you can afford to expand your search. I find that the easiest work attire to find at thrift stores and consignment second hand shops are sweaters and tops, and skirts. Work appropriate dresses are generally harder to find, and attractive suits that look like they are made for people under the age of eighty five are generally rare. The exception is uncoordinated jackets. I have picked up tons of blazers in various colors and textures, which work great mixed with the various skirts and tops (leather, corduroy, plaid, blue, etc.).
Skirts and dresses can be dry cleaned, or you can tie them in a pillow case and hope they make it. If your purchases from the thrift store smell, throw a cup of white vinegar into the washing machine and voila! Everything will come out unscented. If you skip this step, it doesn't matter how many loads you run it through, something about the vinegar really removes any scent.
How much should you expect to spend? Well, there are some great places where everything is 99 cents. I don't have those where I live. In my experience, a thrift store dress will run you between $3 to $9, and skirts $3-$6 (at least where I shop). You might decide it is worth the risk to see if it can survive a cold wash hang dry on delicate. Dress shirts are typically $3-$5 a piece, and you can get a sweater or dressy top for between $2-$5. The upper ranges I have listed here are generally for the best quality, brand name items, and I don't often pay that much.
So, to recap: What Do You Need for Your New Wardrobe?
One Suit (Buy New)
One black jacket (Buy New)
Dress Shirts (Buy at Thrift Store, five in assorted colors)
Sweaters (Buy at Thrift Store, five in assorted colors, including black)
Cardigans or button up sweaters (Buy new or used; three in black, a neutral brown, and your favorite color)
Tops (Buy at Thrift Store, non-button up, and not long sleeve sweaters, up to ten, in assorted colors. )
If you buy one suit, make it gray or black. Brown and Navy are more distinctive and harder to wear frequently. Striped can work if they are not too distinctive. Once you have the basics, then you can add additional suits.
If you are big busted, traditional button up shirts might not be for you. I can't stand how the buttons create a gap and won't lie flat, so I finally abandoned shirts for sweaters and dressy tops. I've never looked back. Of course, you can also wear some button up shirts open over a tank top.
Add a cup of white vinegar to the washing machine to remove any scent that lingers.
Some thrift stores also have necklaces and bracelets. You can also check Target, and Forever 21. I look for colored pieces to mix and match with different outfits. I have a mix of green, yellow, turquoise, and coral that match at least three of my tops.
Anthropologie often marks its belts down significantly on sale. I have picked up some really nice, distinctive belts for as cheap as $10. Remember, you can wear a belt under an open cardigan, or over the cardigan to create a more polished look.
My favorite resource for shoes is Nordstrom's rack (boots and colored dress shoes). For a classic pair of heels that aren't so high they kill your feet and you can walk in, you can't beat Nine West.
Try shopping in some regular stores to learn which brands fit you. Then you can go out and look for those labels or wait for a sale. If you have a hard time finding things that fit you, thrift store shopping can be educational because you get to try so many brands.
I haven't discussed quality and how to identify fabrics at all. Luckily, frugal scholar does that. Ultimately, this is the most important part of successful second-hand shopping.
If you are really tiny, try J Crew, Banana Republic, Forever 21, BCBG, Express, and Theory ($$$).
Do a clothing exchange with friends.
Shop your closet. You may have more work appropriate clothes than you realize, and pulling everything out to inventory it first can save you money.