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Home » The Vine

The Vine: June 7, 2017

Submitted by on June 7, 2017 – 11:45 AM30 Comments

I need help building a professional wardrobe.

I'm a 40-year-old woman and have never had a job that has required one (I've mostly worn scrubs). I'm in the U.S. now, but will be moving next year to another country where clothes and shoes are prohibitively expensive; and because I'm not sure what industry I'll be in, I wanted to try to pull together a functional, multi-purpose work wardrobe before I leave.

I will probably need mostly business-casual, with one or two business-formal/interview outfits. I would like mix-and-match items so that I can do the most with the least. I am 5'2", US women's size 8-10 on top and 10-12 on the bottom, with a long torso and short legs. I'm a curvy pear in shape (big boobs, small waist, big hips, butt and thighs). I look good and am comfortable in unpleated, lower-waisted pants; fitted tops; wrap and retro/rockabilly-style dresses; woolly tights (but not nylons or leggings); and pretty much anything in stretch jersey. I struggle with button-down shirts; higher-waisted pants and skirts; empire-waisted dresses; straight, tight skirts that make it hard to walk; showing my legs, especially knees and up; stiff fabrics; and anything I have to iron. (I HAAAAAATE ironing and am no good at it.) I desperately need some nice-looking flat shoes too: I have small, wide feet and bad ankles, so I almost never wear heels. And finally, since there's still a fair chance that I'll end up in another job where scrubs are the norm, I'd like the clothes to be suitable for non-work-wear as well: that way, if it turns out that I don't need them for work I won't have wasted the money.

My wife is also looking to bump up her work wardrobe. She will probably need more business-formal wear than business-casual. She's 40 years old and 5'4" with an athletic build, but she wears men's clothes pretty much exclusively — or if they're not specifically men's clothes, they can't have any "feminine" styling, shape or features. Unfortunately, her boobs and hips often fight with the button-down shirts and pants she'd like to wear. She looks great in polo-style shirts but it's likely that those won't be formal enough for her to wear every day; collared shirts and dress pants are probably in order for her. I know there are now some online companies that make men's-style clothes for women's bodies, but they're all quite expensive and their return policies are not always helpful. If anyone has had good luck with a particular one, I'd love to hear about it. She typically wears men's Fluevogs as work shoes.

We're moving to a semi-tropical climate, so we need mostly warm-/hot-weather clothes, with warmer layering options for winter and for air-conditioned offices. We don't have a lot of money to put toward this, so I need to be budget-conscious. I usually don't mind spending a bit more on pieces that will last, but realistically I need to keep the whole thing to under $1,000 total for both of us. I know that will be hard, but international moves are criminally expensive so it is what it is.

So after all that information about my wife and me, and knowing what you know now, what would you say are the most useful items in a work wardrobe, and how do you get the most out of them? I would also appreciate advice about specific items, stores, designers, and styles to try. Thank you!

Late To The Game

Dear Late,

Stylists always say this, and nobody ever does it because it seems kind of Too Much for those of us who aren't in the fashion industry, but I think it's good advice for this situation: invest in some mix-and-match suiting from, say, Banana Republic or Tahari (which you can usually find at department stores, if you're going in person) and get it all tailored. This is probably particularly good advice for your wife, and while I'm over here mourning the loss (over two decades ago; shut up) of Joseph Bank's women's line, your bride can roll in, buy a suit, get three free, and have it all tailored onto her for no extra charge. The fact is, off-the-rack clothes won't and can't fit every body type, and the kind of tailoring we're talking about here — throwing in a princess seam; taking half an inch out of a waistline — is not that pricey.

I can't speak to current sources for business-y clothes; I dress like a Wes Anderson headmistress, and Boden is great for that, but might not fit the brief here. But whatever you do, don't cheap out on the shoes. A chunky black pair of Borns or Fryes will last you forever, look great with dresses or jeans, give you a little bit of height without feeling like heels, and most importantly will not torpedo an otherwise-cute outfit by adding a blistered limp to the proceedings. (Ditto a men's penny loafer; if you have the size for it and like men's styling in shoes, get the men's shoe. More comfortable and better made almost every time.)

Readers: any advice for either wife here? Secret sales? Bargains that turned out to be busts? Eileen Fisher System truthers? Let's hear it!

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  • Linda says:

    Just wanted to say for Late that HUE tights are the best! They are comfy and come in both traditional and fun colors. You can often get them cheap at Nordstrom Rack (although those might only be black, gray, or navy.)

  • lindsay says:

    I am no longer in the workforce, so sadly this arrived too late for me, but if I still needed a professional wardrobe I would give M. LaFleur a try

    I have myself had very good luck with a variety of clothes selected for me by Stitch Fix, although I have a more casual style. They do seem to have a great selection of business and business casual clothes, and I know they specifically tailor each delivery to the individual client.
    Or, if you'd care to throw yours truly a little credit with StichFix, here is my referral link ;-)

  • Beth C. says:

    I totally second the tailoring option. Nothing fits anyone off the rack, except some knitwear because it has room to bend to your will.

    Especially for your wife, if she really does prefer menswear it's best to find things fitted to her bust/shoulders/hips then have the waist etc. taken in, ESPECIALLY with button down shirts (says the girl with the DDs who used to have to wear button downs as part of a uniform). Going this route means she can even hit up some nicer thrift stores for men's suits, shirts, slacks, sport coats if you have a little time to troll around. Often women around her height can find good stuff that had to be let go of by the dude because he outgrew it, so low wear, higher quality is easy-ish to find. If she can find a seersucker sport coat she will love it in the summer.

  • ElizabethCS says:

    Oh guys, this is my jam!!! *cracks knuckles* I have several suggestions, though Sars is right on with getting things tailored, you'll get so much more use out of a piece if you know you look good in it.
    1) Make a list of what pieces you'll need, before you go shopping. It's so easy to end up buying a lot of one thing because that's where your preferences lie. I've been intrigued lately by the concept of a capsule wardrobe, more of which here:

    2) What to put on the list? I really like blogs that give me lots of suggestions for pieces, so I don't have to be out trawling websites myself. For workwear, I've been very pleased with Kat from She gives lots of options and variations for every suggestion she makes. The blog is formatted with lots of short entries, and tags, so it can be easy to browse. Kat is also a curvy lady, so makes good suggestions for suiting.

    3) Here is a plug for Lands End, I really like their clothes!

    4) If you're looking to save money, consider high end second-hand. Thredup is a good option online And look for brick and mortar stores in your local ritzy neighborhoods. And, remember that a good tailor can make iffy pieces look great!

    5) Investigate what they wear in the country you're going to. As a former expat, fitting in visually goes a long way to fitting in culturally. (E.g. in England women love their black opaque tights, not so much where I grew up in the upper South)

    I hope you and your wife have great fun living abroad!

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    AMEN to not cheaping out on the shoes! Every penny saved now is a blister or callous earned later.

  • Merberry says:

    Honestly, the Worthington line at JC Penney has always served me well. I'm roughly your same size, and they have petites that fit me well with no need for tailoring. I'd recommend getting petite pants and regular tops, and they hold up well to daily wear.

  • Laurie says:

    I'd advise finding a style that you can feel comfortable in – I went from working from home wearing yoga pants and t-shirts to working in an office and bought a bunch of dresses that were able to be dressed up with a blazer if I needed it (I didn't) or cardigans if I needed layers, or on their own, weather permitting. Basic colours like black, grey, and navy or crazy patterns with lots of colours let me change out the colour of the top so I had a bit more flexibility there.

    The dresses were mostly wash and wear cotton so no ironing (I don't think I even have one) and comfortable enough that I can wear them for running around or even now that I'm back to working from home.

    Also, @Sars, there's something wonky going on with your comment form – I'm seeing the name/email address of a previous commenter pre-populating the fields, which is a little unusual…

  • Heather C. says:

    OMG your description of yourself pretty much describes me – hourglass (I have to deal with a shelfbutt), bad ankles, long torso/short legs. I love Clarks shoes, and they last quite a long time. There are many pairs that are flats or have a small heel. I work in a public library, so I can go the business casual route, but my pants are regular-sized, not petite, and I get the legs hemmed. I prefer stretchy, pull on pants for work that are nicer than yoga pants, but have that same feel in the tushie/crotch area, and there are pants like that at New York & Co. in basic colors like black and gray. I know they aren't as high-end as other places, and you may prefer a different style of pant, but if you want a yoga pant feel with a more professional look, take a gander.

    These pants, along with other basic pieces, can be purchased online, so if something gets damaged or you wear something out, it can be replaced. If you can't ship overseas, ship it to a friend or family member, and they can send it to you.

    Also look at a-line dresses in a stretchy fabric. Depending on accessories, they can go up or down, and in the stores now you will find many in a style that works with the semi-tropical climate.

    Do you have friends with store credit cards? Sometimes they can receive extra coupons to make your money go further, and then you can write a check to them after the shopping trip.

    And have fun with it!!!!

  • Nanc says:

    Eddie Bauer has good basic women's button down shirts (and I believe they're on sale!). I've had good luck with them and I usually wear their stuff for at least 5 years, although after year 3 it rotates to non-work wear. They have short, 3/4 and long sleeve options so you can usually get the same thing with different sleeves. The color options are pretty much black, white, beige and light blue but it sounds like your girlfriend would go for the traditional colors.

    If there's an Eddie Bauer store near you, go in and order from their on-line station and have it shipped to store. They won't charge shipping that way. You can pick it up, pop into the dressing room and try it on and if it doesn't fit take it right to the register for return.

    Good luck–sounds like an exciting move!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Anyone else having the same issue as @Laurie? Looks okay to me, but I'm logged in.

  • Lore says:

    I'm having the same issue, and earlier I was seeing other people's comments that had the "your comment is in moderation" line at the top.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    …Weird! I'll check it out.

  • Lore says:

    (Totally not Lore, totally seeing her info, as evidenced above!)

  • pomme de terre says:

    Hey OP! I'm almost exactly your size and work in a slightly formal office which was a switch after a few years in tech. It sounds like the opposite of what you like (fitted tops are not my friend), but my go-to is Theory leggings (they have a jillion sales at the outlet malls) and blousier tunic tops and flats. Sometimes I'll do a button down shirt with the cuffs rolled up.

    I'll second the suggestion of finding a brick-and-mortar secondhand store in a ritzy neighborhood. I probably buy 75% of my clothes at my go-to place because I hate the mall.

    That said, for tailored suiting stuff, I'd give Nordstrom's a try. If you buy things full price, they will do basic tailoring for free. I've never used it, but I've heard good things about their free personal shoppers too. You (and your wife) could schedule an appointment with one and give them the same style brief you've given us.

  • Lore says:

    (Though now that I have commented, my info is sticking.)

  • Liz says:

    From your comments regarding the need for mostly business casual with a few dressier type outfits for interviews needed, to me it sounds like you could potentially shop at any mid-price mall store that suits your taste and be fine. Looking appropriate these days is more about fit and being clean / ironed (if necessary) than formal outfits like suits, unless you are in a very traditional setting like a law office. I suggest finding a pair of pants you like and getting it in a few different colors and then building a group of shirts / blouses / sweaters that you can mix and match and layer as necessary. Add a couple of dresses and skirts and you should be covered. If you start with a few pieces in your current wardrobe that you like, even better. Unless you dress super, super casual, most items from Loft, Eddie Bauer, Gap / Banana Republic, etc. should work for day to day was well.

    For shoes, I swear by Danskos. I have built my collection up to 7 pairs, most of which have some color or pattern because they are a fun way to jazz up a fairly plain outfit, and still make my feet happy. They are pricy, but there is an online outlet site which has a limited selection for about 40% off. And many styles can definitely be worn with skirts.

    Good luck!

  • Claire says:

    I can't really recommend places/what to buy, BUT I have how to do it advice! If I'm reading this correctly, it sounds like you won't need these clothes until early next year? If that's the case, then I would advise what worked really well for me when I was building up my wardrobe, which was to set aside $100 every month to spend on work clothes and then actually go out shopping once a month. This was great because 1) it made it a lot more low-pressure; it's terrifying buying an entire new wardrobe at once! and 2) it's also way less depressing to spend $500 over five months vs. $500 in one fell swoop. Whenever I tried to bulk up my wardrobe all at once, I would always lose steam halfway through because I would get bummed about how much money I was spending.

  • Ellen says:

    Howdy! As much as I want to punch their models for looking smug AF, as a petite curvy person, I've gotten lots of compliments on my goods from Soma & Chicos. I'm 4'9" & probably a solid 38DD w/the wonderfully named-earlier "shelfbutt", so looking great in Work Clothes doesn't come easy. That said, they have rad sales (Soma's big sale is on now; Chicos always has something going) and they're sister stores. So, too, is White House Black Market (which is a really effed up name now that I think about it…), but I've grown too, um, spacious for their lines. As for tailoring: yaaass. But also, with simple lines & unfussy things like knit pants & dresses? I'm not going to lie: I've become fab at hacking them myself when I'm truly in the cheap. Do take advantage of the in-house shoppers–they don't get paid extra for it & they know sizes well. Don't be afraid to say what you like & what you'd like to see burnt. I hope this helps!! Congrats &best wishes!!
    Ps. Amen to Theory & Tahari–both of which are outlet mall staples, if that's a thing for you!

  • Donna Mehta says:

    I agree about investing in good shoes. Tieks are amazingly comfortable flats that last a very long time, and they conform to the shape of your foot.

  • attica says:

    Here's an idea to contemplate as you shop: don't feel you have to have All The Variety in your work wardrobe. You can pick a neutral palette of, e.g. navy, black, and grey, and pick up a few V-necks, and twinsets in them, find a skirt that works and buy it in more than one color (or buy more than one in the same color), maybe buy a patterned dress or two. Don't buy any bottoms without pockets; you'll never wear them. Use your shoes to pop in color. Especially in a warm climate, red shoes will be 1)your friend; 2)adorable.

    Sticking to a fairly standard ensemble will make it easier for new coworkers to see you, not your clothes (like scrubs do). Don't worry about being fashion forward for the time being! Take a cue from all the men who wear the same grey suit everyday and just change out the shirt/tie combo. I have a coworker who never wears anything other than grey, and I only just noticed that fact — and I've worked with her for 5 years! Yes, she has 10 same-or-similar grey modal/span t-shirts, none of which (probably) cost that much, so she always has something crisp to wear, but nothing that she has to think about.

  • Cora says:

    Talbot's has several clearance stores near major cities in the U.S. — the one here near Chicago is in Park Ridge, and I can't recommend it enough. Usually Talbot's is way to pricey for me — who the hell pays $80 for a T-shirt? — but their clearance stores are amazing ; as in, same T-shirt for $9.99. They also carry a huge range of sizes. It's good quality stuff; I have no doubt you'll be able to find cotton layerables that work in the semi-tropics (I lived in Taipei for a while, so I feel you). I realize that you might not live near one of their outlets, but for real, I'd make a special trip. It's all final sale, so you can't return anything; but if you're good about trying things on, you'll totally be able to score that one go-to mid-weight business jacket that you can wear almost every day. Their stuff isn't terribly adventurous; but if you need, classy staple pieces, this is the place.

  • Elena (The LW) says:

    Thank you all so much for the fantastic advice! The Nation is a goddamned force of nature, and I will be digging through the rest of your suggestions over the next several days.

    An update: I ordered a bunch of stuff through Schoola. It was a risk because they don't accept returns, but I figured that for a grand total of $55 I could take a chance. There were a few duds in the mix, but I ended up with four pairs of pants and a suit jacket that were all new-with-tags and will all fit with minimal tailoring. A win, for sure. And when I was clearing out my winter clothes I found two old pairs of my own black pants that I had written off as very beat-up; in fact, they're 100% fine and just need hemming. So I reckon I'm set for bottoms, which tend to be the hardest clothes for me to find. Ace.

    I found a very cute and comfortable pair of black Comfortiva Posie flats on Zappos. Turns out it's easy to find cute *black* flats from companies that make good shoes for my feet (Hush Puppies, Rockport, Dr Scholl's, etc.); but because the hulking, functional soles are *always* black regardless of the colour of the rest of the shoe, any colour other than black will look cheap, clunky and unfashionable. (For an example, look up the Hush Puppies Burlesque style in red. So effing cute, until you look at them side on… but not a problem in black.) I straight do not understand why they haven't figured this out, but I have another box full of shoes on the way so fingers crossed. I reckon I need a brown or gold pair, and I'd like one more pair in another colour as well.

    I signed up for StitchFix yesterday (Lindsay, I tried using your link – I hope it worked) with an aim to getting some colourful and stylish tops. I naturally incline toward Attica's suggestion of Neutral Staples, but I tend to lean in too hard and end up with what Sarah Vowell described as 'a wardrobe entirely in the colour palette of a bruise'. A little brightening would be good for me. (In this vein: can anyone explain The Mysteries Of Scarves to me? I fail at them, hard.)

    Thank you all again. This has been so helpful, and it's also reassuring to hear from a couple of you that I'm not the only one who missed this day in Adulting 101.

  • attica says:

    For scarves, I would recommend waiting till you get where you're going. There you'll find prints and patterns the locals wear. Pay attention to passers by for ideas. I've scored my favorite scarves on vacation.

  • OneoftheJanes says:

    I love scarves and still often have to overcome inexplicable uncertainty about actually wearing them. I've found a scarf ring helps, and I also find YouTube tutorials more useful than the many delightful scarf blogs.

    What's easiest for me is not to worry about All of the Scarf Ways but to pick a couple of ways that work for me and stick with them. I especially love vlogger Justine le Conte's tip to make an infinity scarf out of a long scarf just by tying the ends together; with scarves that aren't long enough to loop twice I often just tie the end in back and let them be a long circle. (Since I have no neck, styles that allow me to get more neck room suit me better than neck-wrappy looks.)

    And I so feel you on the sole colors, and I've never heard anybody complain about that before besides me!

  • AF says:

    Another yes on the cheap sole look. I know it must be far cheaper to just make brown and black soles, but it can end up looking terrible with other colors. Boots with heels seem especially egregious for this, with so much more material and heel to emphasize the contrast.

  • Jane says:

    I love JJill for work stuff – lots of nice, adult looking stuff that's very comfortable and well made. Sign up for their emails and then hold off for a 30% off coupon!

  • Camille says:

    Seconding Tieks for comfy flats. They are expensive but WORTH IT–the softest leather and cause zero blisters or rubbing. I will say they don't have the best arch support/padding, but if you're looking for not-clunky and a TON of great-looking colors (I get big compliments on the red, and they have everything from patent leather to prints), worth a try.

  • Jen S. 2.0 says:

    Seconding the Talbots clearance store suggestion. I live in DC, and there is one in Springfield VA. I frequently walk out of the place with multiple items for which I paid $5.

    Also, I cannot stress enough how far a decent pair of black pants will take you. If you find black pants you like, buy three pairs. Then mix and match them with tops of a variety of colors. (Likewise with a decent black skirt.)

  • Bo says:

    For some less chunky (I found Borns to irritate my hammer toe) shoes that last forever, are well made so can be resoled and even repaired by a decent cobbler, and come in wide sizes try Munro American. Still mostly business casual, but a bit more tailored looking. I live in mine in both shoes and booties

    Talbots has nice business and business casual things that are fairly well made (but not as well as they used to be) in a range of size types. Certainly worth tailoring and not dreadfully expensive. Also, some Land's End, which I use for business casual, again not terribly expensive and with the advantage of a completely no questions asked return policy (well, they may ask why but it won't affect their acceptance of the return–even washed and worn many times). For both Talbot's and Land's End, great on line shopping once you know what fits you and participate in eBates, with bonus percentages for special events.

  • Former tropical denizen says:

    Just jumping in on the shoes — since you're moving someplace warmer, if you need an everyday sandal, I *highly* recommend the Duo sandal from San Antonio Shoes. It's expensive, but if it fits your foot well they last a LOOOONG time and are super comfy. I had three pairs (three different colors) and those are the only shoes I wore for four years living in the tropics. Still wearable and comfy at the end of that time. May not be work appropriate (open toe and all that) but great for everyday non-work.

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