Dress Well on a Budget

In a perfect world, no one would care what you wear. The quality of your work would determine what they think of you. Unfortunately, people really do judge books by their cover. This is true of people who make decisions to hire you, especially if you do knowledge work. As a consultant, I am compelled to dress well so that my clients feel like they have invested in quality. 

The purpose of this post is to help women create the best packaging for themselves with the least amount of time and money so that they shine. It’s hard to find affordable, high-quality, and professional clothing for women. I wish there was an equivalent of the Men’s Wearhouse where you could buy suits and get them tailored instantly. Josephine A. Banks, where are you?

My recommendations are based on Dress for Success and Dress for Success for Women. These books are classics for a reason and recommend fabrics, colors, and cuts that look luxe without being expensive. Sex and The Single Girl and The Satanic Witch offer great dressing tips too. (Yes, really!).

My wardrobe is tiny, probably a little boring, but well-loved. Dressing well means having less clothes. Think of the French and their chic capsule wardrobes. I cannot afford the luxury of cheap clothes! Everything I buy must be worth it 

This post isn't sponsored; I'm just sharing things that work for me. 

KonMari Your Wardrobe

Sell, donate, or throw out anything that doesn’t spark joy. Get rid of anything that doesn’t fit, has bad memories, looks frumpy, is stained, or worn out. If you’re not constantly wearing it, it needs to go.

Choose Your Silhouette

I wear skirts and dresses because I can buy them without alteration. Because of my body shape (small waist, curvy behind), it’s hard to find pants that fit without tailoring. Knowing that I only need A-line skirts and dresses filters my shopping and limits my shoe selections. Having a uniform makes my life easier because everything matches. Before I had a uniform, it felt like trigonometry to figure out my outfits. 

Decide on a Color Palette

I wear dark colors. Most of my clothes are navy, because it's the color of business and it represents wisdom, strength, and reliability. I also wear a lot of blues because I find dressing in its different shades to be flattering and calming. My bags and shoes are always black. If I buy something within this narrow range, I know that it will work with the rest of my wardrobe. 

Shop Classics

Always choose an item in a classic style because you can wear it for years. Brooks Brothers is the leader in timeless classics.

I once thought the brand was too preppy and expensive, until I ignored everything that looked too country club, got their credit card to earn rewards, and only shopped their sales. I became a convert. 

Their clothing is shockingly affordable in cost-per-wear. Each item is well-constructed, with top quality fabrics, linings, and details, and they last forever. 

For the last two years, I bought no new clothing because I didn't have the money. (I was laid off and started my consulting business). I wore a handful of Brooks Brothers pieces consistently throughout that period for client meetings, and they have held up beautifully. 

Their customer service is great too. I started recently buying from them again, and in the course of writing this post, I had an order from them delivered and received a handwritten card from them in the mail with a major discount card enclosed. 

Tops over Bottoms

Invest more in clothing from the waist up. You can wear the same skirts over and over, but you usually can’t with shirts because they are too noticeable. Shirts are easier to shop for, offer more variety, and are more fun than skirts. Shirts also tend to wear out and get stained more easily. Everlane offers the best silk tops at great prices.

Blazers over Cardigans

I’m turning traitor against my librarian roots but cardigans are the clothing item of defeat. I have accepted the fact that they are cozy, but I don't look good in them. Instead, I wear blazers that act as armor. I usually roll or scrunch up the sleeves, because I’m more comfortable that way. Elie Tahari has made an artwork out of luxurious linings, and my sleeves look great when I roll them. 

Solids over Patterns

Patterns often look cheap or trendy. They are memorable if you wear them often. Solids can pass for better quality at a lower price point, and you can wear them a lot without it being noticeable. I have two shells and one shirt with understated patterns that add interest. The rest are solids. Theory and Equipment do small patterns well.   

Spend on Accessories

I spend where it counts: a few designer bags, two designer belts, and fine jewelry. They are investments that will last a lifetime.

.I try to find earrings that are beautiful and memorable. I have gauged ears, so I wear glass hanging styles from Body Art Forms

You’re supposed to spend a lot on shoes, but I’m so rough on them that I buy them affordably. I search for classic, pointed toe, black leather flats and heels on Zappos. I usually rotate 2-3 pairs of shoes per season. 

I spend on my hair because it's an accessory I wear every day, and I trust my stylist with my life.

I count tattoos as accessories. I got three dumb tattoos when I was 18 that I felt bad about for years. Later, I had to choose between laser removal or tattoo cover-ups--both wildly expensive. I chose half-sleeve cover-ups of magnolia blossoms from Eric Rignall at Inkstop, and it was so worth it. Protip: you want an experienced artist with high rates, who is booked for months in advance, and who works at a shop that only does tattoos. 

Some More Tips

  • Dry-clean when you must. Handwash when you should. Don't wash if you don't have to.  
  • Wear V-necks under your clothes to protect them from sweat.
  • Get a professional bra fitting.
  • Create workout and leisure uniforms, and buy in bulk. 
  • Buy affordable skincare and makeup on sale at CVS's Beauty ClubMakeup Artist's Choice, and The Ordinary. High-end makeup and skin care is more expensive because it has better packaging; the ingredients are often the same as drugstore products. 
  • Have signatures. For me, it's Revlon's Cherries in the Snow nail polish and Egyptian Musk perfume. 

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