When you graduate from college and enter the work force, you are expected to hang up your jeans and pullovers and start wearing business attire. If you are a normal intern, you probably won’t have enough pieces in your closet to build a professional wardrobe. But never fear, you don’t need to panic. You only need to buy 15 pieces to build a strong foundation for your professional wardrobe.
1. The Suit
Super 120s Two-button Blazer (J.Crew, $230)
Super 120s Fluted Skirt (J.Crew, $118)
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, or in this case, a single suit. Through trial and error, I’ve found that J.Crew makes the most durable, easiest suits of any mid-price retailer. The best part is that if a jacket gets damaged or if a pair of pants are too small, you can just replace them.
For your first suit, don’t go cheap. I have had my J.Crew suit for five years and I have easily worn it three hundred times. For that kind of an investment $350 is a small price to pay
As for style and color, I suggest that you buy navy, year-round wool, with a two-button jacket. I prefer a skirt, but you can buy pants if you don’t like skirts. However, the benefit of the skirt is that you can wear it with any pair of shoes and not worry about it dragging on the ground or showing your ankles.
2. The Trench
Calvin Klein Belted Trench (Nordstrom, $128)
Nothing looks sillier than a woman wearing a suit and heels under her North Face jacket. It’s a non sequitur that is hard to ignore.
I highly recommend buying a classic khaki trench. It goes with everything and never looks too dressy or too casual. I have also been known to wear it over workout clothes for impromptu trips to the pharmacy. It’s like bad outfit camouflage.
3. A Skirt or a Pair of Pants
If you like skirts, you should add another skirt to your wardrobe. You can choose a fun print or a basic pencil, it’s up to you. Personally, I’d select a black pencil skirt because you can dress it up for an evening out or dress it down for lunch with the girls.
If pants are more your thing, I suggest a pair of grey or khaki trousers to match your navy blazer. Make sure that they fit you properly. This means that you need to find a tailor who can take them in at the waist and hem them properly.
4-7. Four Versatile Tops
Silk Rosette Blouse (Halogen, $58)
That’s right four tops. Don’t believe you can make a whole wardrobe out of four tops?
Oh, ye of little faith.
You will need (4) one silk blouse like above. Printed or solid, your call. I recommend short sleeves.
(5) One v-neck sweater in a light knit so it can be used for layering. Mine is emerald green, goes with everything.
(6)One cardigan, also in a light knit. I recommend a neutral color like black or grey.
And (7) one white button up blouse that fits well and has a good strong collar. Banana Republic makes a nice one, and if it’s good enough for Carolina Herrera then it’s good enough for me.
Seriously, those are the basics. You can layer the shirts under the sweaters and pair them with any of the other separates that you own (suit jacket, skirt, etc.). Just keep them dry cleaned and pressed so that they are ready to wear.
8. One Blazer
One blazer is good, but it does not a wardrobe make. You will need at least two. If you go with the navy suit, I recommend grey. Not as boring as khaki and it goes with black, so if you chose a black skirt or pants for item number 3, you now have multiple outfits.
9. One Basic Black Dress
Tailored Scoop Neck Dress (Asos, Sold Out)
This dress is sold out, but this was the best example that I could find of a structured black dress that is good for work and play. And while some of you may find black really boring (I do), you can use the other pieces in your wardrobe to jazz it up. Just make sure to choose something in a good, natural fabric so it will hold it’s shape and it’s color.
10. One Wrap Dress
Modal Jersey Wrap Dress (Spiegel, $40)
Wearing a wrap dress is the closest thing to wearing your pajamas to work. When I don’t know what else to wear and I’m not feeling so great about my body, I reach for a wrap dress. Looks professional, is comfortable, looks good on everybody. And I do mean every body.
11. One Pair of Comfortable Pumps
Arturo Chang Nude Heels (Piperlime, $89)
If you can only afford one pair of pumps, I suggest you buy nude-colored ones. They match the color of your legs, so you can wear them with anything and they won’t clash.
Running around the Hill on errands and walking to work, they will need to be comfortable. Belle’s comfortable shoes checklist (time tested, podiatrist approved) says: 1) heel under three-inches, 2) rubber sole, 3) padded foot bed.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend open-toe, but these are the first ones that I found that met the other criteria.
12. One Pair of Good Flats
I like metallic flats because they go with everything. You can walk to work in them, wear them on casual days and with suits on days when you have tours to give (interns give tours, btw). They also look good with jeans for your off time.
If metallics aren’t your thing, choose a fun color. Neutral flats are kind of boring, but to each her own.
13. Statement Necklace
Louiselle Necklace (Chico’s, $44)
“Belle, why do I need a necklace? Why not a pair of pants or something?”
Thanks for asking, you need a necklace because a necklace raises a boring outfit from a four to an eight. Wrap dress and pumps? Boring. Add statement necklace, better.
White blouse and pencil skirt? Cater waiter. Add statement necklace and press and pop the collar (only in the back please), chic.
This is the piece that rescues all of the other pieces when you start to get bored. This is the piece that you will get compliment on all the time.
Mine is purple and gold, but you can choose any color that you want. Coral or turquoise would be very on trend right now.
14. Cool Belt
Wide Elastic Belt (Forever21, $5)
You need a wide belt for the same reason you need a statement necklace: it adds style. Bored with the blazer/dress/cardigan? Belt it.
It just gives it a little something extra on those days when you need it. Plus, you can belt just about anything including your wrap dress and your blouses.
15. A Good Handbag
Croc Embossed Satchel (Armani Exchange, $98)
Just like with your suit, the better your bag, the longer you will use it. My advice, ask for a good bag as a graduation gift.
Also, buy black or brown. You can wear them with anything and no one but the snobbiest of all fashionistas will think that you are mismatched. No one this snobby works on the Hill, I promise.
I like satchels because they have structure and they are big enough to hold the essentials. The essential are wallet, ID, iPod, cell phone, lipstick, hair tie and enough room for your shoes. You can also squeeze some extras in there if you need to, but overflowing purses are a pet peeve of mine.
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Great post Belle! I’ve been working for about a year now and it has taken a while to build up a wardrobe… and still working on it! But this really makes is so simple. As always, thank you!
JD Chic says:
Fabulous post! Great advice. A must-read for those entering the workforce.
Thanks for this Belle, I’ve just been accepted for an internship on Capitol Hill and I am already stressing about what to wear!
Thanks so much Belle. As someone who’s about to graduate, I found the idea of building a professional wardrobe far more daunting than finding a job or an apartment. Would you possibly address summer attire later this week? I feel like winter clothing is pretty up front…I have a far harder time understanding the role blazers play in August in DC
Anyone else have recomendations for good off-the-rack suits? There seems to be an overabundance of polyester in ladies suits.
b, I bought a pair of pants from Banana Republic’s lightweight wool suiting collection back in the fall and I love them. I just got the matching pencil skirt and jacket. I can’t attest to serious longevity like Belle, but I love the fabric (not too heavy not too light) and the fit. I don’t know if you’re a weird size, but I bought 00P and all three pieces fit well without any major tailoring. A miracle let me tell you…
I’m right with you ladies on the wardrobe panic! T minus three months until I enter the workforce full time and I really don’t want to be one of those women I look at in the metro and think "God, she really needs to read this blog…" lol
MAB in VA says:
Just clicked through to the Louiselle necklace from Chico’s — it’s now on sale for $9.99!! Totally snatching that one up — thanks, Belle! And as usual, great post.
Those "nude" pumps might match the color of most caucasian women’s legs, but it’s gonna leave out a whole lot of darker skinned ethnic women. I’t sad that the fashion industry has made an item a "must have" that completely leaves out an entire demographic of women.
The idea behind the nude shoes is to find a color similar to your skin tone. I’m an African American woman and my nude shoes are similar to these: https://www.dsw.com/dsw_shoes/catalog/product.jsp?productRef=SEARCH&category=&prodId=189010
Belle, this is great advice for any career…I’ll be passing this on to the students I work with who are heading for ‘the Hill’ for internships or future careers…keep up the great work! I’ve got your site bookmarked to keep it handy.
Wow! This is such a wonderful post! The whole blog is GENIUS!
I’ve been going crazy with all sorts of questions about work attire that’s fashionable and on a college student budget. Thanks so much!
Emily Kate says:
Great post Belle! Wish I had this list when I got out of school. I agree with you 100% on the JCrew suits. They fit really well and definitely have been my go to suits over the years.
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