Dear Heidi: How do you build a polished, inexpensive professional wardrobe?

Looking the part is important in a career. You should make an effort to be well put together — and you don't have to break the bank to do it.

I have felt strongly for years that you do not need to blow your entire budget on your work wardrobe. There are a few simple rules to stick to, and you'll be perfectly polished every time.


Establish your style

First, you need to establish your style, and that means no COVID-era sweats. You need to decide upon a style that suits your sensitivities and is appropriate for your industry. For example, when I was a young female grain trader—trying to make it in an overwhelmingly male industry — I needed a look that said: "Take me seriously. I know what I'm doing." Yet, it couldn't be too feminine or masculine.


Generally, I dress conservatively. I prefer clothes that are tailored and traditional, with clean, simple lines rather than flouncy dresses. It's my personal preference. I'm not sure where my vibe came from because my mother's style was vastly different from mine. My mom was pure glamour. She used to say to my sister and me, "Your shoes look like Nun's shoes. Wear beautiful shoes!" True story, in the '70s, my mother fell-off her fancy platform shoes and broke her foot. She recovered just fine and went right back to her very high heels.


Lucky for me, my subdued style suited my career. I worked in New York for an Italian firm that considered your appearance important. Our office was furiously busy and formal. Italian artisans came to install beautiful marble for our entry. We had a very elaborate espresso machine (cappuccino only in the morning, please!), and Pellegrino flowed all day. I needed to look like I belonged.


I was a frequent shopper at Brooks Brothers—for the sales, that is. In particular, women's suits, coupled with a silk tee or a crisp blouse, worked well for my industry and for me. I couldn't spend a fortune, so I waited for discounts to add to my wardrobe. I started wearing Ferragamo's Vara Bow Pump — a classic, short heel, and comfortable, but expensive. I took excellent care of them. I didn't like the "running shoe to work look," a la Working Girl (if you haven't seen this terrific, old movie, fix that), I walked miles in those Varas. I still wear that model today.


I didn't have many clothes, but I could mix and match, add scarves, jewelry, or a sweater to stretch out my wardrobe and build its perceived size. I lived in a tiny apartment with a smaller closet, so not having a wealth of clothes suited my accommodation and my budget.


While I was wearing suits, Ginger, my friend in the entertainment business, wore cool, trendy outfits that I only wished I could carry-off. I can't. I would have felt like a fish-out-of-water in super chic, "downtown" clothes. She shopped boutiques and vintage shops within her limited budget and always looked modern and super cool.


Ginger and I would meet for drinks after work in midtown Manhattan, and we must have looked like "Yin and Yang" —"Business Boring meets Entertainment Fun." Oh yes, I was the former, but I was "doing me," and you should "do you" too.


Best tip: Find your style at the intersection of your nature, you industry's culture, and your budget, and stick with it. That route is the most authentic, comfortable, and economical.


Consider color, and don't neglect the basics

Do you know which color palette works best for you? If you're not sure, ask family and friends for their opinions, and take a few pictures of yourself in different colors. Once you decide, be loyal to that palette. Being true-blue to your palette will be flattering, and make mixing and matching a limited wardrobe easier.


Make sure that whatever you wear is neat, clean, and well pressed. Taking care of those little details will make a difference and can elevate an ordinary ensemble to extraordinary. Also, being well-groomed shows the world that you respect whomever you are meeting and yourself.


I fondly remember my sister showing me a blouse she purchased at a discount store. She was proud of the purchase, but it didn't look like much to me. We met for a posh lunch, and she arrived looking like a million dollars in a great navy suit with pink piping and a crisp white blouse.


I told her how nice she looked and she said, "Remember my bargain blouse you dismissed? Well, this is it! I had it professionally laundered and pressed; what do you think of it now?" Of course, I felt terrible about dissing her blouse. But, to this day, I still use her trick—a professional cleaning and pressing can make a world of difference in a garment; designer, or bargain.


Work on your virtual wardrobe

Most of our budgets are tight these days, so keep your virtual presence in mind when spending precious funds.


Some colors, like white, may not come across well on camera. Check your background, and take a few screenshots to see how you look. Also, skinny stripes and busy patterns are a poor choice for virtual meetings—they can "crawl" and disrupt others in the forum.


Best tip: Don't spend the bulk of your budget on great tops. We will meet again in person, and you want your whole self to be perfectly presentable.


Years ago, I received some wardrobe advice from a classy, elderly, family friend. She said, “Budget your money to buy a great coat, great pair of shoes, and a good watch, and the rest won't matter as much.” That advice is still sound today. Always put your best self forward, and take pride in your appearance.


Good leaders need to have executive presence, or EP, and appearance, while a small part of EP is essential. Being polished and professional need not break the bank. Employ some of these simple tips, and you'll ready to take on the world, online and off.

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©2020 Heidi Dulebohn. Created by Idea Booth.