Life Skills: Building A Lasting Work Wardrobe

Pitti Uomo by Nam of STREETFSN

Emily Gullickson ’10 was lead editor of MiddBlog during the ’09-’10 school year. She is the original writer of the Sunday Reading series. She is now a consulting associate at Cambridge Associates in Boston. This post is part of our life skills series.

When I graduated from Middlebury, I found that the three things most responsible for draining my graduation money and left-over summer internship stipends before I even received my first paycheck were the following: moving to Boston and setting up an apartment, being social enough to make new friends and keep old ones, and building a work wardrobe. The first ended up being a one-time set-up cost (though I should have asked Sarah for advice), and the second became a built-in line item in my monthly budget (Boston has way too many delicious restaurants for my own good). As for the third, I’ve had to figure that out as I go along.

When you embark on your first post-college job, you learn very quickly that those shiny new shoes/suits/gear/briefcases/backpacks you buy for Day #1 of your shiny new investment banking/art/park ranger/social networking/journalism job are barely enough to get you through the first real change of seasons (i.e. three months). Soon, you find yourself digging through old interview and internship outfits and (begrudgingly) even some college day-to-day wear (i.e. Sperrys) in an effort to save money. This means, however, putting up with worn elbows and frayed hemlines and a generally deteriorating quality of your self-presentation.

To avoid such deterioration, here are a couple of insights (5 to be exact) I’ve picked up. They’re a little more advanced than paging through the J. Crew catalogue. However, if adopted (and mastered) early, they’ll allow you to continue building a lasting, quality work wardrobe that’s entirely yours and maybe even a little enviable and trendy.

#1 Know your size in inches and centimeters.

The sad reality of shopping today is that a Medium isn’t a Medium isn’t a Medium. You’re going to be a Small at one place and an Extra-Large at another, especially if your job involves spending time in multiple countries. So, to make your life easier and to save yourself the expense of buying a million different pieces of clothing that don’t fit you, measure yourself. Go to the nearest hardware or craft store, buy a $2 fabric measurer, and figure out your dimensions—shoulder to shoulder, bust, sleeves, waist, hip, rise (waist to groin), inside leg (ankle to groin), feet, preferred length for hemlines. Write these numbers down, and you’ll never mess up an online order from Net-a-Porter or REI again.

#2 Find a (good) tailor.

Unfortunately, even if you do buy according to your exact measurements, your clothes probably won’t fit you perfectly, especially suits. Because, really, it’s not about the pieces; it’s about the ensemble. So find a tailor, any one will do but it helps if they’re good and you can trust them. (Best places to look are your nearest Chinatown or Little Italy. Americans are only slowly re-discovering the art of tailoring). Having your clothes (and not just suits, but dress slacks, leather jackets, dresses, too) tailored serves two purposes: 1) it makes your clothes look more expensive because they fit you well, and 2) it makes your clothes last longer so you end up saving money by buying less that looks better.

#3 Find a good cobbler (shoe repairman).

It doesn’t matter if you start with Ferragamos or New Balance US574s. Carpets, sidewalks, mountains, and cobblestones kill shoes that are supposed to last for years, especially when you’re in that phase of your life when you’re working 60-80 hour weeks. To keep this from happening, find a cobbler. Get your shoes waterproofed, and spend $10 to get a rubber sole or grip added to those that don’t already come with them. Every six months or so, have a cobbler add new tips to heels or soles on everything else.  Those steps and a good shine will cost you less than $30 from anyone who really knows what they’re doing. This allows you to buy new shoes when you want them (i.e. Barney’s end-of-year sale) instead of when your boss quietly pulls you aside and tells you that you have to.

#4 Pay attention to what others are wearing (and recommending).

Paying attention to what others are wearing fulfills two purposes. First, it adds to your own style idea bank. Your job will get repetitive, but your wardrobe and personality don’t have to reflect it, unless you want to be the next Steve Jobs. And by “others”, I mean everyone from your cube mate to your work spouse to the Sartorialist or your favorite magazine. For a few good outside sources, I recommend starting with, for menswear, Marisa Zupan’s (Professor Zupan’s daughter) blog and network of up-and-coming menswear creators and stylists, and, for womenswear, stick with individuals like Garance Dore or the Man Repeller, not glossy magazines built on large group personalities. Second, one of my first work mentor’s told me that you should always dress for the job you want. While I don’t believe you always have to do this, if you notice that your boss always wears a tie and you want their job someday, start wearing ties a little more often.

#5 Be willing to pay up for shoes and quality leather goods.

A senator’s wife once told me that how well a person takes care of their shoes and accessories (particularly purses and briefcases) speaks volumes for how well they take care of themselves and, by extension, everything else in their life. You’re going to have off days, days when you throw on whatever you have available because you haven’t had time to do laundry, or days when you oversleep and put on different colored socks. But, as long as your shoes are still nice and your purse free of wear and tear, people will recognize that, deep down, you really care. So, if you splurge on anything your first few years out of college, make it leather goods. They will last your forever, from entry-level to executive-level, and add one thing in your life you can depend on, a rarity those first couple of years.

Parting words.

Ladies, learn to walk in high heels. Wobbly ankles and tentative steps make others believe you lack confidence. Find the maximum height you’re comfortable in, wear them around your apartment for a few hours first, and sway your hips and relax your knees when you walk (runway models don’t do that just for effect).

Gentleman, ties are one of the few things left that are exclusively for you (“menswear as womenswear” trends and restaurant waitstaff aside), so have fun with them. Also, learn to polish shoes.

At the end of it all, the important thing to know is that there are no hard and fast rules to dressing for the work force, no matter what your employer’s dress code says. (Dress codes are really just meant to prevent you from embarrassing your employer. They aren’t meant to be your shopping list.) Just take care of yourself and remember that presentation is half the battle. You always want people to call you out for wearing clever socks, not for looking like you use your iron as a panini maker.

photo via STREETFSN by NAM.