+ Building a Wardrobe

Building a Wardrobe: 15 Easy Pieces

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Today, we’ll be covering the 15 pieces that you can use to build a professional wardrobe.  These are the foundation of a wardrobe that is versatile, feminine and chic.

Tomorrow, I’ll turn these pieces into outfits.  So if you already have your wardrobe together, you can get some ideas for how to mix in accessories to create different looks.  But let’s start here, shall we?

1. The Suit. (J.Crew Stretch Wool Blazer $288, Skirt $118)  

Even though I’m not as in love with the new J.Crew suits as I was with the old ones, I still think they’re the best suit for the money if you’re looking to make an investment.  This is especially true if you can catch them on sale.  Other stores to check for suiting include: Limited, Dillard’s, Nordstrom and Banana Republic.  I recommend buying navy if you’re interning or starting work in the spring/summer and black if you start in the fall/winter.

2. Two Skirts. (J.Crew Telegraph Skirt $138, Topshop Pleated Skirt $96)

If you like pants, feel free to sub-in a pair of grey pants for the grey pencil (I like these), but I prefer skirts.  A longer pencil skirt, like this Telegraph skirt, is a sleek way to bring a hint of vintage into your wardrobe.  I chose the second skirt because I wanted to bring in a more relaxed, printed piece.  If you’re anti-print, you could try a colored pencil or a solid pleated skirt.

3. Three Pairs of Shoes. (J.Crew Miri Pump $198, Nine West Andriana $79, Edelman Patent Flats $100)

You can make it the entire summer with just three pairs of work shoes: a black pair, a “nude” pair and a pair of colored flats.  You should also add a pair of commute flats if you’ll be in a city where you walk a lot.  If you’re not crazy about red, feel free to choose another color (like coral or green), but red is my go to.

4. Three Dresses. (Lace Inset Dress $97, Mint Pleated Sheath $55, Faux-Wrap Dress $25)

My wardrobe is heavily dress-dependent.  They’re the easiest summer outfit imaginable.  You just pick a dress, choose the shoes, add a couple of pieces of jewelry and you’re off.  I like sheath dresses like this lace inset dress and this cap-sleeve mint dress because they can be dressed up or down.  And wrap dresses are great for casual Mondays or days when you need to be in the office but don’t have meetings.

If you’re looking for a few more dresses, I like the Antonio Melani line at Dillard’s.  I’m also a huge fan of hitting Nordstrom Rack online and Neiman Marcus Last Call.  And if you’ll be working during the August recess, you might want to invest in some casual dresses like this printed shirt dress and this short sleeve jersey dress.  I highly recommend stripe jersey for recess attire.

More pieces after the jump…

5. Three Blouses.  (Mango Plumeti Blouse $99, Sleeveless Tie Neck $52, Iris & Ink Silk Tee $95)

I like to have a nice selection of long sleeve, short sleeve and sleeveless tops on hand.  Here, we have one of each.  Notice that the sleeveless top still comes all the way to the edge of the shoulder.  This is so you can remove it without exposing too much skin.  And the sleeved tops can be worn with or without a jacket or cardigan.

Looking for some more inexpensive blouses? Try this long-sleeve placket blouse that comes in a myriad of colors.  I also like this Broderie short sleeve shirt and this crisp short sleeve poplin shirt.  And this printed ikat short sleeve shirt.

6. One Cardigan. (J.Crew Tippi Cardigan $85)

If you like cardigans, feel free to buy more than one.  But if you choose a well-made, neutral cardigan in a classic shape, you’ll only need one.  I like ivory, but grey, navy or tan would also work.

7. One Jacket. (Tildon Vintage Drape Blazer $78)

I like to have one jacket that’s not a blazer on hand.  You can pair it with pencil skirts for a less staid look.  You can wear it with jeans on casual Friday or with more relaxed pieces.  The draped jacket is a nice choice, but you could also buy a tweed jacket, a bright collarless number or a cropped jacket.

8. One Handbag. (Piazza Lucca Satchel $125)

If you’re only going to buy one professional bag, I think a medium-size satchel is the way to go.  I like this Dooney-knock off, but this black Steve Madden and the Kelly and Katie bag from yesterday are nice too.  ASOS is also a great resource for inexpensive, stylish handbags.

However, if you were going to use some of your graduation cash to invest in a good work bag, I highly recommend it.  This Michael Kors tote is one of my favorites.  I also love this Coach bag.  And if you do splurge on an inexpensive bag, I recommend buying it from a really nice department store like Saks or Neiman’s and asking for the gift wrapping/gift box service.  It makes it even more special.



  1. Kim says:

    I absolutely agree with most of this. I would probably favour some brighter colours for the tops and sub the casual skirt for pants, rather than the pencil.

    But I think it is important to point out that if you are going to buy your basic suit somewhere like J Crew or Banana Republic which sell as separates, I think you are better served by investing in a three-piece suit. Getting both the pants and skirt that coordinate with your jacket brings significantly more mileage to your suit all year. It allows you to do things such as conferences or multiple rounds of interviewing where you will see the same people more than once without investing in a second suit, but also while not looking like you are wearing the same outfit twice. Also, I find that I get more use out of the pants in winter and the skirt in summer. Don’t lose the opportunity to give yourself more options in the future.

    And it may not seem like it at first glance, but summer dresses really are one of the most comfortable warm weather options for office wear. It is amazing how not having to worry about bunching or interaction of multiple pieces during the day becomes more significant as temperatures rise. All hail the stretchy office dress!

    May 8, 2013/Reply
  2. Lady Lawyer says:

    This is a great post…for me too, and I’m definitely not an intern anymore!

    I agree with Kim above– if you can afford the pants and the skirt for a suit set, get both. I’m NOT a pants suit fan, but sometimes, you just need pants.

    I would add that I got a “professional” bag from Lauren by Ralph Lauren out of school. Kind of a splurge at around $195. It’s the Newbury Shopper tote and it comes in lots of colors (black here). I still own my original burgundy red and have branched out to other colors and shapes as well: https://www.zappos.com/lauren-ralph-lauren-newbury-shopper-black

    It holds everything- laptop, extra shoes, umbrella. And it’s held up really well over the years! I think most of the totes from the Lauren line are great, nice quality, and won’t break the bank.

    Good luck interns/summer associates! It’s a great time for you, enjoy it.

    May 8, 2013/Reply
  3. JAG says:

    How are the Tippi cardigans sized compared to things from Banana Republic? I am trying to decide whether I should order a small or a medium…

    May 8, 2013/Reply
    • SLG says:

      @JAG, J. Crew just re-did their vanity sizing (again!), so I’d recommend going a size down on the Tippi cardigan. I usually wear a size 6 in Banana Republic dresses and I bought an x-small Tippi.

      May 10, 2013/Reply
  4. Jill says:

    Black suit in the winter, navy in the summer… Is that a fashion rule, or just a personal preference? I’ve not heard that before.

    May 8, 2013/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Most stylist will advise you to buy a navy suit first since it works in all seasons. I wear so much black in the winter, and so much navy in the summer, that it’s just become my go to.

      May 8, 2013/Reply
  5. Maureen says:

    I’m not a intern (nor am I going to be working in DC), but I’m a recent college graduate who desperately needs to build her grown-up wardrobe. This is a great starting point. Thanks!

    May 8, 2013/Reply
  6. Julie says:

    great post, even for those of us not so new to the workforce. Helps me think about my core pieces, and whether they need refreshing.

    May 11, 2013/Reply
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