By Kim Uslin
When attempting to put together an outfit for a recruiting event at a publishing company several weeks ago, I realized something rather distressing: I don’t own professional clothing. Sure, there’s that one dress that can pass for business casual and that cheap pencil skirt I bought for my (admittedly ill-advised) sexy secretary costume freshman year, but nothing that screams “Hire me.” While I was thankfully able to borrow an outfit from my suitemate, the experience got me thinking. When is the right time to start buying more appropriate clothing?
Being in college, I live for cheap clothes. Forever 21, Charlotte Russe clearance, upscale consignment like Plato’s Closet or Uptown Cheapskate…I love it all. I could spend hours (and do) rifling through the racks of absurdly low-priced jeggings, chiffon tops, and bodycon dresses. As a result, I have a ton of cheapoutfits spilling out of my college-issued closet and dresser. But what looks great on campus, I’m realizing, doesn’t necessarily translate into what will look great in the “real world.” In a semester and a half, I might not be able to get away with wearing short dresses or tight skirts every day, much less my slew of Washington College T-shirts. What’s cheap, easy, and cute for a Tuesday afternoon class could lead to a lecture on work-appropriateness from some future boss.
So how do we make the transition? Granted, some lucky graduates might find themselves at a T-shirt-and-jeans office or some other more relaxed environment, but the majority of us will be pitched straight into professional offices expecting business casual wardrobes. And, unless you’re like my aforementioned blazer-obsessed suitemate, you might feel entirely unprepared. With a few exceptions (like H&M, though the quality is negligible), professional clothing is expensive. Are college grads expected to just drop hundreds of dollars on a new, higher-quality wardrobe?
The short answer, unfortunately, is yes. The longer answer is that it can be in the lower rather than upper hundreds. If you’ve (like me) been living the Forever 21 life, odds are your clothes will either be out of fashion or falling apart in less than five years. But all hope is not lost. While grads are definitely going to need to invest in a few nice, well-fitting pieces (like a tailored suit for men or a few nice skirts and blazers for women), it is possible to build a professional wardrobe around some of what might already be hanging in the closet. As long as they’re not cleavage-bearing, tank tops or chiffon could look great under a blazer. And those fabulous red heels? Pair them with a conservative, work-appropriate dress to show some personality.
In short, the transition from a college wardrobe to work-appropriate attire doesn’t have to be painful (or wallet-draining). Obviously, office clothing is going to be pricier and require a bit of an investment. And perhaps, in the next few months, we should step away from the teenager/20something-geared aisles of Forever 21 or Charlotte Russe and into the Gap or the sale racks of New York and Company. But we should also keep in mind that we’re still young. We’re entitled to our bright colors and trendy clothes and, as long as we can make them work in the office environment, we should. And hey – after five, we can wear whatever we want.