I recently began working in my first Big Girl job since graduating from college three years ago, and I'm expected to wear really nice things. Add to that my boss's casual age-ism related to wardrobe ("stop wearing that, you look like you're in college"), and I feel self-conscious about the wardrobe Broke Self was able to keep up. But the problem is that I'm not actually paid enough to start a whole new wardrobe from scratch. So my question is this: how do I build a new, work-appropriate wardrobe without breaking the bank? And how do you budget for that kind of thing?
My dearest Fancy Rising,
Congrats so much on getting a Big Girl Job! That’s such an exciting move forward into adulthood, even if you aren’t yet making that corner office cash money. In my dream world, we’d all be judged by the content of our quarterly reports rather than the color of our blazers. (But then again, in that dream world, there is no Dear Fancy.) In the meantime, the best way to be valued for your ideas and work rather than superficial bullshit is to follow the rules so that you never have stained pants or sloppy email diction distracting from your awesomeness.
So how to get to there on an entry-level budget, and how much to budget for that stuff?
My first step for you is simple: take stock of what you’ve got. There might be something there you forgot about that is completely serviceable. I, for one, recently found a pair of heels from... well, probably the bar mitzvah circuit, but they’re actually very workable shoes for my office job, and if your feet are like mine, they haven’t grown at all in ten or so years. You also need to know how far you have to go: do you have three suits? Are all your dress shirts in terrible shape? You need less than you think to get the bare minimum covered. Depending on where you live and what line of work you’re in, you might be halfway there already.
The next thing is to consider what look it is you’re going for, and start to build a wardrobe around that. If you’re into fashion, you’ve probably already done this, but if you aren’t, I recommend the Esquire Handbook of Style for men or the Lucky Guide to Mastering Any Style for women. It’s a good way to bone up on the language you need to parse item descriptions and narrow down where to shop. About six or seven years back, I decided to stop it with earthtones and tunics and default to primary colors and Mad Men silhouettes. At this point, basically everything goes together, so I don’t wind up with a Blondie/Joni Mitchell outfit mullet if I get dressed in the dark. If you don’t define your style and take stock of what you do and don’t have, you’re going to end up buying a ton of stuff you don’t use, struggling to make professional-looking outfits, and defaulting to things you wore to your work-study in college. Be realistic about what looks good, and stick to that. Consider these two steps, then consider your budget: I lay aside a few hundred dollars a year for clothing purchases and maintenance, and I try to always pay in cash so I don’t get excited and overspend.
A dealership owner I know told me to let someone else drive the first 10,000 miles for you on any new car. Those are the most expensive miles, and the Rolls-Royce devalues the instant it crosses out of the parking lot and onto the street. The same goes for clothes: the second you pull the tag off them, they’re all the same to the Goodwill ladies. Would you rather have a brand new Sorento or an old but recently detailed fancy car, maybe with suicide doors and a Grey Poupon tray? Stop going to Forever 21 and Old Navy, and start going to the used car lots of style. I promise you can get the quality I love to harp on on a budget you can afford.
Consignment stores are your first stop. Visit them all until you find a few that consistently stock things you like, and visit often since there’s tons of merchandise turnover and scheduled discounting. The pickings are less slim at these, and although they’re pricier than Salvation Army, things are more likely to be on-trend and gently used. Typically, these stores fall into three categories: the good, old-fashioned consignment shop, the upscale or designer consignment shop, and the clothing resale shop. The simple consignment shop can range from a thrift store in a blond wig to an “OMG where did all these Chanel bags come from” joint; a good designer consignment boutique will get you a Milly dress for less than the price of a new one at American Eagle. And check out resale shops like Plato’s Closet that are aimed at teenagers; kids are like, “UGH MOM I WANT TO WEAR A HALTER TOP!” and they donate the J.Crew blazer their folks got them for their internship to buy more navel rings at Claire’s. Another similar source for work clothes is charity sales or estate sales, so keep an eye on the “garage sale” tab on Craigslist or in your newspaper.
Explore the honest-to-God thrift stores, too, but be prepared to have more work cut out for you; I usually drive out to one out in the wealthy suburbs where there are likely to be stay-at-home parents who left their corporate jobs and donated the bulk of that wardrobe. You’ll have to dig, and I’ve found that menswear is usually better at most places like this. The shoe selection tends to be pretty dire, but it never hurts to take a quick glance if it means walking out with $3 Cole Haan loafers. (They typically don’t wash, dry clean, or check items for holes or stains, so be careful when you inspect the wares and know that any smell that it has is a smell it’s going to keep on having.)
A word to the wise: you’re going to be dealing with wildly inconsistent sizing when you shop this way, so don’t just look at the size you usually wear. Something might have been altered to fit its previous owner, or it may be handmade. I check everything from 00-16 and have found stuff at all those sizes that fits (or was altered to fit) and looked great. Also, try to shop off-season for the best deals. You won’t get the instant gratification of wearing it to work on Monday, but you can get a great overcoat or linen jacket if you show up on the right day of the wrong month. Plus, it’s like a present to yourself because you forget about it!
If you want to buy new clothes, sign up for the mailing list of your favorite brands and stores (then sign up for Unroll.me and get a daily roundup instead of a million annoying emails). You’ll find out about their warehouse clearance sale (90% off at Billy Reid, I love you!), the opening of their outlet store, new items on the sale rack, a flash sale, sample sales, and coupon codes. Set up an eBay alert for items you loved at the shop and keep an eye out for them; a $3,000 briefcase becomes a $300 dollar one, even with the tags on, once it leaves the store. Only buy something new and full price if you’re positive you can’t find it later somewhere else or if it’s, um, underwear. Don’t buy used underwear.
Yours in Sartorial Conspiracy,
I have been teaching college lab courses for three years. Each semester, I have roughly 120 students whom I only see a dozen times, if that. Learning names has never been my forte, and so I've relied upon addressing less memorable pupils as "sir" or "ma'am." Lately I've been trying to eliminate my use of gender-biased language in the classroom. While most of this has been an easy transition ("y'all" sounds much better than "you guys") I have had more trouble finding a suitable replacement for the "sir"/"ma'am" system. Should I drop the honorifics altogether? Is there a gender-neutral alternative?
All the best,
Nominally Challenged TA
Dear Nominally Challenged TA,
I know I’m not supposed to play favorites with my question writers, but this is a great question. A common complaint from the "I-do-what-I-want" camp is that manners are sexist and old-fashioned and don’t actually mean anything, and that’s a charge with which I disagree and agree completely. Though some of the norms are indeed as such (I am awesome at door opening, and everyone will still get just as married if I wear a white dress to my cousin’s wedding), they’re also the way we display courtesy and respect regardless of protected class status. Unfortunately, a solid chunk of the ways you express said feelings of courtesy and respect in English are very gendered, which can be a tricky landscape to navigate among people you don’t know well in situations where “what are your pronouns”-style discussions never come up.
The best way to combat the possibly biased aspects of politeness and social cues is to just default to being kind and thoughtful, and doing the best you can. For talking to the group, you could address them using a neutral collective noun like “class” or "students” rather than “ladies and gentlemen.” I also liked the idea of calling them “comrades” but based on the .edu from which your question emanated, I’m going to guess that that might not be the best move for you in terms of job security.
If you call on someone specifically, you can ask them to state their name at the beginning of their question, and then say, “Okay, I’m sure a lot of you were wondering this! Thanks, Christina! Here’s the answer to Christina’s question, class!” which, again, sidesteps your need for “her” or “him” in a situation where you’re talking to and about folks you don’t know. Repeating their names once or twice might help you learn a few, too, which in turn might get you a chili pepper rating on RateMyProfessor.com.
Lastly, there’s the problem of talking to people directly, which is the hardest to combat. What I recommend is the method of direct address. Make it evident you’re talking to someone, and then speak respectfully. Tap him on the shoulder, or walk over to stand nearby to eliminate confusion. If two people respond, you can say, “No, I’m sorry, I was addressing the student in the black shirt. Remind me your name again?” English just doesn’t have an honorific that means “I’m addressing you with respect!” that conveys the same feeling as “sir” or “ma’am,” so until we have one, that’s going to be the best method.
The last piece of advice I have for you on this is to not overthink it. While it’s fantastic that you want to make everyone feel valued and safe, don’t beat yourself up if you slip and call someone “sir.” Your students who don’t care won’t notice, and your students who do care will let you know they’d prefer not to be called “he” or “a lady.” Make a mental note of that, and your class will appreciate it.
Yours in gender equality,
I've reached the age (post-college) where I have to start showing up places looking nice, and as a result I've started buying more and more fancy things to wear to those places. But after spending years waiting tables, napping in university libraries and spending all my downtime getting drunk and/or eating pizza, I am so bad at keeping my nice things nice. I'm at a place where Forever 21 stuff isn't cutting it but I have a hard time justifying buying fancy stuff if I'm gonna accidentally spill empanada grease on it.
Another thing is I don't know how to tell if things are expensive because they are well made or if they are just overpriced. How do I know what stuff to "invest" in, so to speak, that will look good for a long time with a bit of care and also withstand some of the rougher points of my youthful endeavors? I don't really foresee myself growing out of the accidentally-melting-a-Reese's-cup-in-my-pocket phase either, as my nearly 60 year old, arguably fancy mom does this on the regular. She just has a way bigger dry cleaning budget than I do.
Dear Dry Cleaning,
The dry cleaner is sort of my own personal Battle of Bouvines; the whole thing seems routine and like a clear victory, but then everything goes amiss and pretty soon I’m signing a Magna Carta of laundry, replete with a bunch of signed concessions that I am, in fact, the stainer/tearer of my clothes. The fumes alone will make you agree to near anything. For this reason, I avoid buying anything I can’t wash at home like the plague, and I recommend everyone take this path of much, much, much less resistance.
Okay, gentle reader, let’s break this down into three parts: what nice things to get, how to know if that nice thing you’ve decided to get is nice or just expensive, and how to take care of it once you’ve got it.
I hate to lunge at you like this right out of the gate, but my first piece of advice is to never think of clothing as an investment. Like I said to LW1, as soon as you cut the hang tag off it, it’s all the same to the ladies at the Goodwill, so always remember you can’t get your money back out of it; it’s a sunk cost. That said, there are some places to spend and some places to save. T-shirts and tank tops, gym clothes, going-out tops, white anything, and trendy pieces are a great place to save. I don’t advocate buying the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff for ethical reasons, but you need a $70 white t-shirt like you need a hole in the head. It’s fun to have very current pieces, but you have to recognize that Grace Kelly did not wear harem pants.
Where you should spend your money is on good shoes in basic colors and styles, a black sheath dress if you wear dresses, suits if you wear suits, and blazers. Get all that ish tailored within an inch of its life, and then jazz it up with different ties, necklaces, scarves, or whatever else. There’s also this in-between “spend” and “save” category (spave?) that is harder to reckon with. In the spave category, I put things like jeans, black ballet flats, and dress shirts. On the one hand, I wear them a ton, but on the other, they’re in heavy rotation, so they get destroyed quickly. I advocate taking a middle ground here: don’t cheap out, but don’t feel obligated to spend big, and stock up at mall stores whenever they have sales.
The next part is how to know if you’re spending your money well, and this is pretty straightforward: look carefully at the garments. You’re looking for a high number of stitches per inch (20-25 is good), pattern matching (this means that the stripes/dots/plaid/paisley matches up along the seams), quality of material (too thin is bad; if it feels good, it is good), and single-needle stitching (basically, you want to see one line of stitches and not two). The best places to look for this are along the sides of the garment and at the buttonholes; a poorly constructed buttonhole is the canary in the denim mine. There’s a dressmaker in New Orleans, Trashy Diva, who makes things that are about on par with Banana Republic price-wise, and they’re vastly superior in terms of construction and quality. Another thing to think about is how long a brand has been around. Consider that Saddleback Leather Co. has been around for more than a century (tagline: They’ll Fight Over It When You’re Dead) and that a new leather satchel from them costs about $50 dollars more than one from J.Crew (est. 1983) and comes with a lifetime warranty. Much of the time, smaller labels that are made domestically aren’t necessarily more expensive and are better made.
You’re going to love this last part: the best way to take care of your stuff is to follow the instructions on the label and don’t wash them too much. If you spill something on your clothes, get stain remover on it NOW, not at the end of the episode of Covert Affairs you’re watching in bed on Hulu. Hang your things up correctly to help them preserve their shape, and fold bras, sweaters, and other very delicate things, you know, delicately. Use a gentle detergent, and take your stuff in to your tailor or cobbler the second something seems amiss. Don’t wait: a heelcap can be replaced in five minutes for even fewer dollars, but once you start to destroy the heel itself, you may as well start sitting shiva for your boots.
Yours in Cashmere,