Since the seventies the college uniform has been denim. Denim skirts, denim totes, denim hats and denim jeans (from hipsters to 501s and back again). Since the seventies the business uniform has been suits. Pant suits, velvet suits, pinstripe suits, summer weight suits and basic black suits.
Making the leap from the world of casual to the world of corporate chic isn’t easy. It’s hard not to feel like your dressed like an air hostess when you suddenly have to button a blouse and wear those strange creations known as pumps. And despite radical changes in fashion, there are certain classics that bosses seem to love: the crisp tailored shirt, the pencil skirt, the neat cashmere sweater and the well cut suit.
Few women aggressively power dress these days, with shoulder pads ala Working Girl, but a certain formality to work wear endures. No matter what job you’re going for after college you’re going to have to dress for it. It seems unfair to add a new wardrobe to your expenses when you’re probably already shouldering a huge student loan, but there are savvy ways around it. Build yourself an economical little capsule wardrobe — a small group of pieces that can get you out the door to any interview anytime and have you looking organized on a Monday morning no matter how hard you reveled the night before. Start like this…
INTEGRATE YOUR STYLE
Unless you attended a Mormon college, it’s doubtful your wardrobe is already equipped with knee length skirts and navy blazers. Just the idea of sensible, classic, “basics” is offensive to a free spirit. What about color? What about dread locks? What about wearing more than one earring on each lobe? If your style is more Lauryn Hill than Laura Bush you can still land that job; simply learn to work your style over to balance eccentricity with elegance. Buy a blazer in chunky corduroy or cotton velvet for fall, team it with a basic black knee-high boot, a black turtleneck and a narrow tweedy skirt. Express yourself with a gorgeous vintage scarf or a pair of hand knitted gloves. Such little pleasures worn outside the office keep you feeling quirky and alive. Nobody types in gloves!
Skimpy singlet tops, low rider jeans, sheer peasant blouses and other flirty items reduce your smarts off campus. Older co-workers, leering old farts and bosses have predictable reactions to the prime of youth so it does pay to veil it. Wear a bra (yawn!), wear slightly more neutral makeup (double yawn!) and lower your hemline to the knee. It might feel like you’re going to church rather than to work, but a sense of modesty will take you far. The best protection against female envy and male sexism is a little black dress and a tasteful trench coat. Dressing chic rather than cheap gives you an authority beyond your years.
EXPERIMENT WITH DIFFERENT STORES
Malls are divided tribally. There are “girl” stores and Mom stores and a weird category in the middle that sells cheap little suits and black high heels to women who are neither. No one under 25 should have to wear chocolate brown, navy blue or sand! With this stated, I urge you to experiment with your shopping. Blend a trendy item from a store like H&M with a smart piece from Banana Republic. Try a straight looking pair of black Capris with a cool beaded cardigan. Some lace stockings with sober ballet flats. Cross-shopping shifts your mindset away from the idea of a total look,and, each store has their own. You might find a perfectly good long sleeved black jersey top at the Gap that is screaming for a velvet jacket from Betsey Johnson. Whatever you do, don’t let one sales assistant make you over for a job interview. I still own the hideous black wool “slacks” bought at Country Road one insecure moment when I was 27 that made me look 57.
BUILD YOUR BASICS
I left college fifteen years ago, and I still need three black skirts (one for day, one for PMS bloat, one for evening), a nice cashmere cardigan, a neat short black overcoat, a pair of black flats and crisp white blouse. Without these basics my wardrobe spins into a vortex of ragged vintage dresses, strange caftan blouses, leopard print camisoles and other thoroughly un-professional indulgences. Your capsule wardrobe wish list might be a little different. You might prefer burgundy to black, pants or boots to flats but the reigning principle is this: It doesn’t matter how plain an item is if you can wear it six ways, make it last six seasons and see it in more than three very different situations. A little black dress that stretches from job interview, to office to cocktail party is your new best friend!
GROOM RATHER THAN SPEND
Looking smooth is more important than looking expensive. Invest in a manicure set, cuticle oil, tweezers, a weekly hair at-home hair treatment and a haircut that can shake and blow dry in five minutes flat. Make sure your shoes look clean and shiny and carry extra hose in your handbag. Before you leave the house check for pilling, creases, fallen bra straps and VPL (visible panty line). Once you harness the Joan Crawford routine of giving yourself a once-over in the hall mirror, you’ll have the power to make the simplest outfits look presentable. Basically, it’s a confidence trick of looking more together than you are. Over time you’ll start to believe your own publicity.