Working Girl: Building a Professional Wardrobe

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently moved into a new job. After spending nearly five years in DC’s community-based nonprofit sector, I’m now fundraising for an area university. I have my own office, a work-specific cell phone, and an engraved name tag – things I haven’t had since, well, my last higher ed job. I am also expected not to wear jeans to work.

You see, jeans are the big-time norm in the nonprofit sector – it’s understood that, if you’re going to be on the ground with your service population, it probably doesn’t make much sense to wear a suit. I preferred to dress up on the regular, but it was always acknowledged (and taken advantage of) that if I wanted to wear jeans and Chucks, I could do it. In my new job, though, casual doesn’t fly. Baseline, we get dressed up for work every day.

Here are the tactics I’m taking to transition my wardrobe from “casual 7 days a week” to “5 days of grown-up clothes” without totally busting my morning routine or checking account balance:

1. Stock up on basics.

Here’s the thing: even though I wear a suit way more regularly than I used to, I don’t wear a suit every day. In the past month-ish that I’ve been in this job, I’ve found a pretty comfortable uniform: flattering slacks, a jersey-knit t-shirt, and a blazer. I’m not saying I wear this outfit every day (I still love a great shift dress better than most things), but it’s a really versatile look. No meetings? You’re wearing a t-shirt, dude. Surprise face time with your boss’s boss? Good thing you brought that blazer.

Now, you’ll want to find the basics that most suit your shape, style, and budget, and then buy them in enough colors to wear what is essentially the same outfit multiple days in a row. Here are the pieces that work for me (and they all come in petites):

Women's Perfect Tees - TEAL NEXT TIME

Perfect Long Sleeve Tee | Old Navy

Take the name seriously, folks – this is the perfect tee. It comes in approximately one million different colors (with more added every season), it doesn’t stretch out unreasonably, and I’ve never paid more than $10 per shirt. It also comes in short sleeve, for the warmer months.

Perfect trouser pants - true black

Perfect Trouser Pants | Gap

More self-proclaimed perfection! These pants are quite flattering for my curvaceous upper-thigh-to-booty section, and the petite length is exactly right for me to wear with flats. I have these in navy pinstripe and black, and just saw they’ve added a marled charcoal gray to the mix – hello, Christmas list!

Classic basketweave wool blazer - light blue

Classic Blazer | Gap

I mentioned my love for this blazer in yesterday’s #OutfitSelfie post, and the recognition is well-deserved. It also comes in a bunch of different colors (sensing a theme?) and fabrics to take you from winter into summer without complaint.

2. Accessorize wisely.

I’ve never been super heavy on accessories, but I’ve always appreciated their potential to add a creative edge to an outfit. That said, when you’re in a more professional setting, you need to pay closer attention to your flair than you might in a casual office. For instance, wearing a leather dress yesterday, I knew I’d be pushing it too far to wear dangly earrings – so I opted for pearl studs to balance out the look. In my experience, you can always count on these pieces to add a dose of authority to your look:

  • a classic, slightly oversized watch (you need to make sure it isn’t tippling into comically-oversized territory, but a great watch with a bit of a masculine edge will always complement a work outfit – check out Extra Petite’s review of some good options for smaller wrists)
  • conservative stud earrings (the aforementioned pearls or simple metal will always work; if you go for gemstones make sure not to get the uber-blingy variety, as that will just be a distraction from whatever point you’re trying to get across)
  • a delicate necklace (a simple pendant with a 16-18″ chain will always work)

On the flip side, if you are wearing the above uniform for the fourth day in a row and are JUST SICK OF IT, you can always jazz up a simple and/or conservative outfit by adding some whimsy or flash with your accessories. For example:

  • a patterned scarf in a great fabric will never fail to get at least one compliment per wear
  • a great pair of shoes (with an interesting bow, perhaps, or a surprise neutral metallic or animal print material) will literally put a spring in your step

3. Do Ya Makeup Right

I knew, coming into this job, that I’d be dressing up on the regular. What I didn’t account for, however, was that I’d also need to have my cosmetic and hair game on point. Nothing looks lazier than a professional outfit paired with sallow skin or greasy hair. That said, I certainly don’t want to have to wake up early just to look a certain way – I’m not going to waste my time contouring or applying a smoky eye if nobody’s going to be photographing me. Here are the products that have helped keep my morning routine reasonable:


Matte Multiple | NARS

This beautiful cream blush stick gives me exactly the rosy glow I need in the morning. It’s a bit pricey, but it lasts forever and is literally the easiest blush in the world to use – stamp a dot on the apple of each cheek, and blend away.


Caviar Stick Eye Color | Laura Mercier

A big way to save time in the morning is to limit the number of makeup brushes you have to use. For daily eyeshadow, I find the “Rose Gold” color of this eye crayon is a perfect, subtle hue to define my lids. Bonus: once this product sets (approximately two seconds after application, so blend fast) it’s not going anywhere.


Detox Dry Shampoo | drybar

Y’all, dry shampoo. I’ve learned this is seriously the way to avoid a lot of styling effort – seriously. Even on the days when I wash my hair (down to twice per week now!) I spritz some of this in; it adds exactly the right amount of texture, voluime, and hold, where I’d previously have to use three separate products to accomplish the same goal.

So that’s my advice, #PetiteCrew. Still, I’m only a month or so into this gig – what other lessons have you learned to make a daily professional dress code happen without totally changing your entire routine?

One thought on “Working Girl: Building a Professional Wardrobe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s