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Ah, graduation. So many newly-minted young professionals entering the work world.

Sometimes my life as an instructor and my life as a fashion blogger and stylist gleefully collide as students prepare for interviews and new jobs.

It wasn’t long ago (six years to be exact if Timehop is to be believed) that I transitioned from a career in media to teaching. Fresh out of graduate school with little money, I started building my own professional wardrobe. In radio, I could survive with a closet of station and band t-shirts. In higher education, I had to wear adult clothing.

The classic black suit and silhouette. Cotton jersey sleeveless dress, kitten orthopedic structured heels, structured dress jacket. I wore hosiery, because the facility was frigid, and the dress is shorter (deters from length). Hosiery is optional. © 2016 Rodrick. Emily Rodrick Photography. Photos used by permission. All rights reserved.

Impression management is an important concept. While I sing the praises of dressing for oneself, I am acutely aware that clothing makes a statement, and one should use that statement to their advantage.

Impression management is a theory from sociologist Erving Goffman (I know, you thought college was behind you). Goffman wrote an entire book on the subject. Impression management is the use of props, costumes and other techniques to control how people perceive you. I’m simplifying here, but you get the gist. We are actors, and the world is stage and all that. Obviously, how we dress fits into this narrative.

I’ve noticed most students wait until the last minute to address the wardrobe dilemma. While there are many articles addressing professional do-and-don’ts — which I ignore and abhor deeply, but that’s another post for another day — all these articles only add to the confusion and the anxiety of the interview process.

For the record, red lipstick and black nails are neutrals. © 2016 Rodrick. Emily Rodrick Photography. Photos used by permission. All rights reserved.

Here are the three major mistakes people make when trying to build their professional wardrobe:

  • Delaying the process until the need arises. You should never wait until interviewing season to buy a suit or similar outfit. Your options will be limited. Start building (notice I use the word “building”) no later than the start of your junior year. Do not assume you will have the salary and expendable income to buy an entire closet of clothes once hired.
  • Wearing the wrong fit for your body type. Professional clothing should look sharp and create a polished silhouette. Clothes that are too tight, too baggy or too small look sloppy. Suit jackets should button (top button only) with the sleeves ending mid-hand.
  • Wearing cheap, stifling fabrics. You’ve waited until the last minute, and now you’re frantically looking for something cheap to wear. Did you know most clothing, particularly fast fashion, is made from acrylics and other petroleum-based fabric? It’s designed to breakdown in the wash but not in landfills. Those fabrics don’t breathe either. You can’t alter. You can’t wash or dry clean. It’s a waste of money. Plus, it’s uncomfortable. If a suit is uncomfortable, it is either ill-fitting or made from a stuffy fabric. Yes, suits can be comfortable. I wear suits for fun and necessity in a hot, humid climate all year long.

I should add another mistake people often make — dressing inappropriately for your field. Some fields rarely require suits. Research your field. You’ve heard the advice to dress for the job you want? Yeah, I second that notion. Each organization has it’s own culture. While you can’t anticipate every culture, most fields have a standard uniform.

For example, my outfit reflects several individual factors that change daily. I consider utility (am I teaching on my feet all day or hauling equipment across campus), appropriateness (am I meeting with administrators or sitting in my office all afternoon), weather conditions, organizational culture (which oddly changes based on the department and situation) and time of the week or year (we tend to be more casual during the summer months or on Friday when I know I won’t see hardly anyone).

I wore the suit in the photos above for a departmental event showcasing panels of professionals in our field. I wanted to look professional as a departmental representative but also act as a visual model to students.

I might wear this outfit if I’m hauling equipment or sitting in my office all day:

Photo credit: Mary Beth Lursen. © 2017 Lursen. Photos used by permission. All rights reserved.

Please note, I’m not wearing plain athletic sneakers. I am fully able to wear leggings and dress sneakers. I can also swap the shoes out for ballet flats. All the fabrics and cuts allow me to bend, crawl and haul but not sweat to death.

So without further ado, the part you’ve all been waiting for —

Steps to building your professional wardrobe on a budget in three easy steps:

1) Research your body type.

This is crucially important when developing your style. You want a nice fitted, polished silhouette. There are plenty of style tutorials on YouTube to help you discover and dress your body type.

Note: This is not the time to exorcise body image demons. Dressing for your body type creates a slimmer hourglass shape. Baggy clothes look unkempt and add the appearance of weight, as does clothing that is too tight. Never underestimate the power of polish. Look like you have your life together. You want to exude confidence and expertise whether you feel it or not. Wearing the right clothes are magical. But allow the interviewer to interview you, not your demons.

2) Make a style plan.

How do you save money? By planning. If you know what type of style you want to create, you can save time and effort, not to mention money by not overspending or collecting clothes with tags. You are building your wardrobe one piece at a time. Create a Pinterest board of looks you like for inspiration. Read fashion magazines. Follow style bloggers on Instagram (I frequently take screenshots of outfits that inspire me).

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I like?
  • How do I want to be perceived?
  • Is it appropriate for my future career?
  • Does it fit into my personal narrative and brand (the story you tell others without saying a word)?
  • Is it practical?

Learning how to style pieces is key. If you don’t know what goes with what and how to style several outfits from one piece, you will be lost. Style tutorials are very helpful. I will launch a new style tutorial series on styling basics this summer. Please subscribe to this blog and follow me on Instagram for the latest posts.

3) Learn how to shop.

I rarely ever pay full price for anything, including designer items. That said, you should never scrimp on some things. I’ve written about frugal fashion shopping tips before at length and the value of not relying on fast fashion. Let’s review, shall we.

See this outfit? It cost less than $10 total. The cotton basic dress was $1 at a 10-for-$10 Goodwill sale. The jacket was part of a BOGO sale (this is the freebie). The shoes were a gift. The price is the accessories, which I purchased in through subscription box service. Excuse the poor iPhone quality.

The most obvious places to start are thrift and consignment stores. I buy higher-end designer clothes from online consignment shops. Clothing swaps are great. Some apps like VarageSale offer local items for less. Hand-me-downs are great if the clothing is in good condition and fits properly.

Put out a call on social media. You never know when someone is cleaning out their closet. I prefer to give clothing to people I know who need it than to donate it to charity. If I can’t locate someone, I will drop off a donation only to discover someone could’ve used it.

I understand the difficulty in finding a good size 6 shoe. I like to spread the joy.

If you buy retail (it happens — I rarely find petite pants), shop during semi-annual sales. Remember, you are building a wardrobe over time. You can be more selective and plan accordingly. Ask for gift cards for your favorite store for holidays, graduation and birthdays.

Until your closet is complete, budget for clothes. It doesn’t have to be an exorbitant amount. When I was poor and teaching on several campuses, I budgeted $20-30 a month. My budget is a little larger currently (not by much), but I figure out how much I can afford based on the rest of my budget.

Until you can afford clothing on a larger budget, stick to basics and neutrals. The goal is not to acquire lots of clothes. It is to create as many outfits as possible with the clothes you have.

Before you buy, answer the following questions:

  • Is is it well-made (look for natural fibers like cotton, silk, wool, leather, etc.)?
  • Is it breathable (same fibers as above)?
  • Can I style at least five outfits with this item?
  • Will it still look good three years from now?
  • Does it require tailoring? (Note: Tailoring should factor into the cost-per-wear. It’s not a deal breaker. Many of us are short or ill-proportioned, and thus, our clothes require tailoring. It’s life.)

I can’t express enough the need to invest in well-made clothing. If it costs $10 but shrinks or loses shape in the wash, looks cheap, can’t be altered or mended or is so trendy it looks outdated in six months, you’ve wasted $10.

Cost-per-wear is the price of the clothing divided by the number of times you wear it. This is why it’s important to invest in well-made, structured classic-silhouette pieces. There’s more longevity.

Be wise with your money, young padawan. You will save so much money in the long run.

I recently bought a white Calvin Klein dress jacket new with tags for $20 clearance at a consignment shop. How? It is white. Most people have an aversion to white garments for fear they will spill something on it (fashion tip: white garments usually have some sort of stain-resistant properties). I bought a pair of $200 Tahari statement heels online for $33. Most likely, the person didn’t know how to style them or lost interest. Their loss, my gain.

Retail is always my last option.

If you follow these three steps, I promise you will have a fairly nice (and chic) professional wardrobe.

Oh! One last thing. I almost forgot. You should own two suits. Many companies invite candidates to a second round of interviews. Preparation is key.

Don’t forget to subscribe for my upcoming style basics tutorials and advice. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Happy shopping!

© 2016 Rodrick. Emily Rodrick Photography. Photos used by permission. All rights reserved.