The Young Professional’s Closet


My first job out of college was one of those elusive Real Jobs, the kind that required me to be somewhere from 9-to-5, with a one-hour lunch break, and paperwork and clunky computers with outdated operating systems. I interviewed for the role in my one and only suit: a houndstooth Michael Kors skirt suit purchased on deep discount at a Loehmann’s in San Francisco. The skirt had a slit in the back that came uncomfortably close to my butt, and the jacket was double-breasted, equipped with a fierce pair of shoulder pads. The shoes were suede, low-heeled, pinchy in the toes, leaving blisters on the back of my heels that hurt for days after the fact. Looking in the mirror, I told myself that this was what a professional wore. I It remains the most uncomfortable item of clothing I’ve worn to date.

I got the job, though I’m not sure it was because of the suit. Perhaps they smelled the eagerness I exhaled, or took pity on me as I shifted in the chair. Maybe they saw the simmering panic behind my eyes, and could read that I thought I was going to be stuck serving mediocre cappuccinos to Marin commuters at Peet’s Coffee for the rest of my life. Maybe there was a glimmer of something on my résumé. Whatever it was, I got the job.

The offer came with elation and a quiet panic. First, I had to take a drug test—in retrospect a comic affair that involved a trip to a head shop on Haight Street to purchase a beverage that promised to flush out the minimal amount of celebration weed I had smoked the night before. I had to buy an entirely new wardrobe, purchased one Sunday at Old Navy, consisting of ill-fitting pants and blouses. Each item I put on felt like I was play-acting, pretending at being something that I really wasn’t.

Seven years and just as many jobs later, I’ve had the luck to work at places where the dress code is decidedly casual. The trappings of sartorial professionalism make me deeply uncomfortable. I know I should own a blazer, a well-tailored pair of pants, a blouse that doesn’t gape at the chest, but whenever I’m knee deep in the sale section at H&M, I pass right over the kinds of clothing that I should have on hand, and instead stride up to the register with a clutch of floaty sundresses or oversized tees. These are professional, I tell myself as I purchase them. They are professional because I am a professional.

When I have an important interview, or am starting a new job, the one thing I worry about most before whether or not I’ll excel, or find good iced coffee on the way to the office, is what I will wear. I’ve been lucky enough to work in environments where the standards for what is considered appropriate are very low. I worked a 12-hour day in my house cutoffs and a tank top that I later figured out had a hole in it because I knew it was going to be a long day, and because I wanted to be comfortable, and no one said anything to me. Near the end of that job, when things were bad, and the company felt like it was held together with spit and Post-its, I was certain that I could simply put on a pair of shoes, grab my bag and come to work in my pajamas, without anyone noticing.

Clothing should be irrelevant to a productive and successful career. I will do my best work if I’m comfortable, not if I’m wearing a pantsuit that I bought on sale that makes me feel like a television lawyer or accountant for hire. The old adage “dress for the job you want” is something that people still say, and I understand that the right clothing can imbue you with confidence. The lucky blouse, if worn to a big meeting or a special event. If I work from home in pants with no discernible waistband and a sweatshirt that has what might be hummus on the left sleeve, is the work I produce of any lesser value? Creating the right work environment is a tricky arithmetic. Add a beanbag chair here, some floating holidays there, sprinkle the hallways on the way to the printer with KIND bars and pizza Wednesdays. Wear these pants only on these days. Navigating the modern workplace is tricky enough without having to worry about whether or not HR is going to pull you aside and gently tell you that you should really be wearing slacks.

I am adult in many, many ways—I pay my own bills, I grocery shop, I appreciate a quiet night in and have begrudgingly found that I can’t abide a loud bar. These things aren’t markers of being an adult—they are simply the way that my life has evolved. Wearing a suit to work every day is decidedly adult. Owning a blazer and wearing said blazer to work, on a Tuesday, when I don’t have a meeting is extremely adult. Showing up at my job, asking for a raise, doing good work and answering most, if not all my emails, in a timely fashion, while wearing things I feel good in is the most adult of all.


Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

Photo: m01229


27 Comments / Post A Comment

oh oh oh oh this speaks to me so deeply and, “Navigating the modern workplace is tricky enough without having to worry about whether or not HR is going to pull you aside and gently tell you that you should really be wearing slacks.” YES. YES.

Seeing as I exhausted myself over four hours this weekend between J. Crew, Banana Republic, ye olde Ann Taylor and the Gap trying to figure out what the hell made me look not like I was trying on my mom’s clothes, this feels really good to read. There’s such a part of myself that feels I’m betraying whatever it is in me when I ended up on a pencil skirt and a top, as well as feeling furious I had to spend the money, when the reality is I really can’t be the kid in checkered vans, shorts and a v-neck (yeah research job!) in ten years, I guess? Can I?

Also: best completely awful and totally inappropriate clothing choice I wore in an office! Working as virtual assistant, working Fourth of July, Chicago at about 99 degrees, with cutoffs, DIY halter top, and DIY hair (shaved back, long front). I was 23. Yikes.

@Carmen Aiken@facebook I also work in research (on the PM side, yay!)I THINK I’ve overcome the “being semi-professional without dressing in mom’s clothes” feeling by adopting a uniform of sweatshirt-material or jersey shift dresses from Target/Gap/H&M under blazers I buy on deep clearance at BR or J.Crew. I have 5-6 blazers in different colors and probably 10 shift dresses in different shades of grey. I wear this basically every day with a big necklace – ballet flats or white converse in the summer, tights and booties in the winter. I seriously wear this outfit 90% of days. It’s super comfy, a good combo of casual and professional, and I never have to think about what I’m pulling out of my closet.

Also, I currently have a DIY buzz haircut :-)

EM (#1,012)

@Carmen Aiken@facebook I ALSO work in research, as a research manager, so I wear jeans and t-shirts regularly. I gradually have transitioned to nicer versions of what I prefer to wear– like I have well-fitting, high-rise black jeans that look nice with any top tucked in, or I have a lot of pants like these, which basically feel like sweatpants but count as trousers. It depends on your body type and preferences, obviously, but I’ve found Joe Fresh, Zara and Everlane are all good places to find reasonably priced work-appropriate clothing that isn’t too stuffy. Good consignment stores are also a goldmine– I like ones in the upscale neighbourhoods, where I pillage rich people’s castoff cashmere sweaters and silk blouses.

TreeTownGirl (#7,031)

The dream is DEFINITELY to be able to wear jeans if I want. At my job the only truly prohibited item is jeans, and it drives me insane. Just– why?! I can think of so many other unprofessional pieces of clothing to ban. During my first annual review my supervisor pointed out that I dressed very professionally. I think that’s hilarious because I don’t have a car so my attire is 100% based on the weather and very much based on what’s comfortable to walk a couple miles in. In the winter I’d wear those stretchy and kinda-too-tight-for-work colored jegging pants with oversized chunky sweaters and my actual snow boots, and now in the summer it’s all maybe-too-short dresses that don’t cause me to sweat profusely walking home paired with sandals. I don’t think I’ve ever worn a heel. But god forbid I should wear jeans!

I wear a denim jacket all the time, I noticed shortly after that other people must have looked at the handbook and realized the dress code said “jeans” and not “denim.” And now everyone seems to have embraced denim jackets and shirts.

I think my agitation stems from the fact that I went to a K-8 school with a very strict uniform… and the whole reason the school did that was to try to improve academic performance. Didn’t work. The school isn’t even open now. So I’ve never seen the link, I guess.

dotcommie (#662)

I like wearing work clothes. I think it provides a psychological cue of “This is work time.” When I go home and change, it’s “This is chill time” or “This is goin’ out time.” It helps my brain get in the appropriate zone. But, I don’t have to wear suits on the reg, so maybe I’d feel differently if I did.

@dotcommie Yes, me too! Even if it’s just slightly nicer than what I wear in my not-work life, I like that delineation. And it also makes me take slightly better care of some clothes, so I know I have at least 5 days worth of not-stained, not totally pilled clothing.

anegativenancy (#4,155)

@dotcommie I am such a contrarian about this because on the one hand I like having stuff that’s just for work, as it helps me feel more professional… but the second I feel like I’m being FORCED to wear XYZ because my manager told me I can’t wear ABC I resent it intensely and any productivity bonus that the clothing provided evaporates.

francesfrances (#1,522)

Blazers are the answer. Jeans and a cute trendy tank top with weird straps from junior section at Macy’s are totally fine when paired with a blazer. They are the answer.

Amanda M. (#7,040)

@francesfrances Almost any non-cleavage-showing shirt works under a blazer, and many dresses. It’s amazing.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

I’m the EXACT opposite. I own exactly ONE pair of jeans that I was gifted several Christmases ago.

I used to work in a very corporate style business casual environment where I still dressed more professionally than most people in the office. I now look out of place in a casual work place that allows flip flops and cut off shorts.

Only now I wear more of my clothes that are trendy versus my classic staples.

I’m different because I love fashion and dress for myself at the end of the day. It just so happens that my “comfortable” is a. fashion forward or b. classically professional.

I went two months without repeating an item of clothing when I started at my last job. That’s not repeating outfits, that’s not repeating an ITEM of clothing. I stopped because I was starting to get into the things that make me look slightly frumpy.

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

I have known people for 5+ years that have never seen me in pants. Or flat shoes…

@rhinoceranita I once tried to wear an item of clothing from my college every day, without repeating, and I got so sick of it I had to stop I think like halfway through(this was IN college, so sweatpants, etc, were fine). God bless my mother and her staff bookstore discount.

garli (#4,150)

Dressing for work is one of the (few) things that bugs me about working with mainly men. They are all basically interchangeable in what they wear – nice pants, leather shoes, button down shirt. There’s no way to mess it up. Often I’ll be in a meeting where every single dude is in tan pants and a blue button down shirt.

I know there’s some women who can get away with a slacks/button down shirt look but I an the walking embodiment of pear shaped. I look god awful in pants and a button down shirt.

@garli Oh god I am so uncomfortable in pants and a button down shirt, just uggggh no.

garli (#4,150)

@polka dots vs stripes Right? And for some reason I always try them on like OH THIS ONE WILL BE BETTER. No, it won’t.

@garli I HAVE found that looser, casual, cotton button downs are cute and fine but I own exactly one of the stiff starched collar type, and that is only because it’s my only professional red/maroon shirt, which I need about three times a year for Important Alma Mater days.

I do wonder about how effective dress codes are. I have always had to follow a dress code at work until now. As far as I can tell in my new job, there is no real dress code, but everyone dresses very nice! Sometimes people wear jeans but they look professional. I work at a medical school so I was unsure whether it would be more like a college (very relaxed) or more like a healthcare business (very conservative). At my last job I wore a dark denim pencil skirt and was told (very sympathetically) by my supervisor that it wasn’t allowed. I had another job where I wore very comfortable scrubs to work and hated them, so I guess comfort’s not really everything for me. I just think having really strict specific rules about dress really stifles people and they hate it, and when left to their own devices most people probably dress nice enough for work anyway.

yulya (#1,996)

Loehmann’s! RIP.

@fo (#839)

“a blouse that doesn’t gape at the chest”

Hollaback at those blouses! Tell ’em to gape at your *face*!

that one girl (#4,630)

This makes me love my scrub so much, especially since I wear hospital scrubs. Sure, they are ill fitting and the pants are somehow never the same shade of light blue as the tops, but I don’t have to purchase or wash them. They just magically appear (okay, are stocked by lovely sterile processing peeps) in the locker room, so when I get a pair of pants with a weirdly low crotch or oddly high waist, I can throw them into the soiled linen cart and start over. It does, however, make teaching days and conferences extremely stressful. Business casual: lost on professional scrub wearers!

jenny0 (#6,933)

I… guess? You speak as though you live on a remote island somewhere. A place where you don’t interact with other people. It’s fine to dress as you please at work and it certainly sounds like you picked the right career to be able to accomplish that. But while your holed t- shirt and I’ll- fitting pants make you feel “adult” and don’t take away from your work, it’s incredibly distracting and unpleasant for everyone else around you. Doing what you want just because just isn’t how the world works, unfortunately. Your choices, even as asinine as clothing choices, do impact other people. Trust me. I hate business casual wear and never quite feel like the me who enjoys short skirts and bright colors but I want the people I take care of to be uncomfortable (and they are visibly uncomfortable when I do wear old ratty tees or tight tanks) and I want my colleagues to know that I have the social sense and wherewithal to adjust my clothing and my expectations depending on what’s happening. It’s not so much about the clothes or you (it’s not about you!) it’s about everyone else, your ability to be socially savvy, your ability to read other people and gauge situations and to accommodate appropriately. So it’s adult to acknowledge that you can, in theory, do whatever you want but it’s decidedly immature to make that choice. I’m not sure if presentability and comfort and being yourself are mutually exclusive.

jenny0 (#6,933)

Don’t want*

spottedwren (#4,437)

I’m a teacher and four days a week I wear clothes I often don’t particularly like or feel comfortable in because they are professional. Especially in the winter, when I care more about warmth than style, I often find myself wearing unflattering slacks and oversize sweaters.
It is downright sad how happy casual Friday makes me. Wearing jeans to work seriously brightens my whole day.

cryptolect (#1,135)

I used to dress somewhat conservatively at my job, but I love informal vintage dresses. I asked my dad if he thought it would be okay to wear a fun dress. “What does your boss wear?” he asked. “A transparent top with a lace bra underneath, white jeans and high-heeled sandals, with several thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry.” “I think it’ll be okay.” And it was!

ellabella (#1,480)

You can feel like yourself and moderately comfortable in work clothes (if/when you need to wear them)! It will never be as comfortable as sweats, of course, but you just have to refine your professional style, in the same way that you’ve had decades to develop your casual style. The best professional clothes DO require more money upfront, though, and I really think that it’s impossible to be comfortable and look good/like yourself in cheap professional clothes (unlike casual clothes, where you can really just go budget and still look great). I think fabric is most important: silk, wool, cotton. No polyester!!!! It is scratchy and cheap-looking and makes you feel like you’re pretending to look professional but aren’t. I’m not busty so a button-down does work for me, but if you are, get one of those specially-made for bustier women shirts, or skip the button-down altogether and go for jersey and silk blouses. A quality wrap dress is EXCELLENT, people will compliment you on it all the time, it’s so comfortable you won’t take it off when you get home, and you’ll look dressed up. Ankle-length skinny-ish pants, in black and maybe one other color (khaki, or bold), look great with flats and can be dressed up with heels. Cardigans. Cardigans with belts around the waist.

In winter, low-heeled booties are a lifesaver. Lots of cute flats and slightly glammier sandals than you’re used to.

In sum, here’s what I’d get if I had to build a work wardrobe from the bottom up. Obviously I prefer black as a base color but you could do whatever neutral you’re comfortable in. All of this stuff would run you a pretty penny, but you wouldn’t need all of it at once (multi-seasonal) and I’ve had most of these pieces for 4-5 years, still running strong.

Black pants I feel GOOD in; probably cotton with some stretch
Second pair of pants, maybe in brighter color or khaki; if you don’t like/hate pants, do a second skirt
Wool skirt for winter, probably in neutral color
Summer-y skirt; bring in some color/pattern

Wrap dress
Shift dress; both these dresses should be multi-season +/- tights, sweaters

Long-sleeved silk blouse; pattern ok (check out Everlane)
Nice-looking white shirt of some kind; whatever feels comfortable and makes you look good
3-4 colorful or patterned short-sleeved or sleeveless blouses
Tank/shell for underneath blazers/cardigans

Black cardigan/blazer
Colorful cardigan/blazer

Neutral belt
Colorful belt

Black tights
Moderately colorful tights; perhaps in wool for winter

Black low-heeled (and comfortable) booties for winter
Black flats/low-heeled shoes
Colored flats/low-heeled shoes/clogs
Dressy sandals for summer
One pair of heels to keep under your desk if it’s that kind of place

Then bring accessories—scarves, statement necklaces/earrings, patterned tights—in from what you already have to both feel more like yourself and look more put-together!

selyse (#497)

I used to wear cheap, ill-fitting suits (that’s all I could afford!) and felt like I was wearing some dowdy old lady costume. When I finally found a suit that fit, I felt like a warrior. On days when I have client meetings and I wear my favorite suit and heels, I feel fucking invincible.

Good consignment stores are also a goldmine– I like ones in the upscale neighbourhoods, where I pillage rich people’s castoff cashmere sweaters and silk blouses.

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