You've probably heard it 100 times by now: If you want to make the right impression at work, you need to dress for success. But what exactly does that mean? And how are you supposed to look successful on an entry-level salary?
Thanks to outlet malls, Overstock.com, consignment shops and designer lines at discount stores such as Target and Kohl's, there are plenty of ways to find affordable work clothes. The key is to buy the right attire so you look like a polished professional and not a junior assistant in cheap clothing.
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A few ground rules
"Image is the first thing people notice, says Alison Doyle, the About.com guide to job searching. "What they see is what you're wearing." That's why it's crucial to project the right image if you want to get a job and get ahead. If you don't, you might not just be hurting your chances at success -- you might be killing your career.
Follow interview attire dos and don'ts. If you're searching for an office job, be sure to dress conservatively (think coat, tie and slacks or skirt and jacket) when you meet with a prospective employer.
Cover tattoos and remove unconventional piercings if you can. Keep jewelry to a minimum. And don't were cologne or perfume. Doyle says she knows employers who won't hire anyone wearing a strong scent during an interview.
Dress for the job. Just because you're part of the working world now doesn't mean you're stuck wearing only black, blue and gray suits. Nor does it mean you can wear grungy sneakers and ripped jeans in a casual workplace.
Look at what your supervisors and co-workers are wearing, read the employee manual to see if it spells out a company dress code and do your best to look like part of the team, says Doyle. "You don't want to wear a suit if everyone's wearing khakis," Doyle says. "But if there are customers or clients coming in, you don't want to look like a slob. You still need to be neat and put together."
Don't be too trendy. Remember, you're going to work, not a fashion show. You'll impress your boss more in conservative, professional attire, and you'll get more wear out of it.
A trendy piece will stand out, making it wearable only once a week -- maybe just once a month. Besides, Doyle says, "It's more cost effective to go with a classic look than something that will be out of style next season." Flip flops, short skirts and exposed undergarments, cleavage and midriff are off limits -- even in a casual workplace.
Seven inexpensive ways to look successful
When it comes to dressing well on a budget, Kathryn Finney wrote the book -- literally. "You don't have to spend a lot of money to look great," says the 31-year-old author of How to Be a Budget Fashionista (Ballantine Books, $10.36 at Amazon.com) and creator of The Budget Fashionista blog. We interviewed Finney to get her tips:
2. Focus on quality. If you don't have a lot, you want to make sure what you have is good. Men can find quality, inexpensive suits at K&G Fashion Superstore, JCPenney and Target.com. For shirts and slacks, Finney recommends the Lands' End line in Sears stores, Kohl's and the Kirkland brand of shirts at Costco. Women should check out Ross Dress for Less and Target's Merona line. Both men and women will find quality threads that will fit into their budget at Marshalls, T.J.Maxx, Loehmann's, Filene's Basement and major department stores' outlet shops.
3. Determine cost per wear. Finney says most of us are used to looking at the price instead of value, which often leads us to shying away from a pricey item that will last a while and, instead, buying an inexpensive piece of clothing that will fall apart after two or three wears. "You don't need a lot of cheap stuff in your closet," she says. To determine the true value of an item, divide the price by the number of times you will wear it in a given time period (usually a year). For example, if shirt is $100 and you will wear it 20 times, it will cost $5 every time you wear it. When you're starting out, look for items that are less than $3 per wear.
4. Dry clean suits once a year. If work clothes weren't costly enough, there's the added expense of dry cleaning them. Finney says you can save money -- and your garment from damaging chemicals -- by sending your suit to the cleaners just once a year. In between, use a bottle of Febreeze. Test first on the underside, then squirt your garments down to keep them fresh and use spot treatment for stains.
5. Fake it 'til you make it. So maybe you don't have a lot of nice things in your closet, but your friends and family might. So borrow from them until you have enough money to buy your own high-end threads -- no one at work will know, Finney says.
6. Outline yourself with expensive and color in with cheap. If you're working in investment banking on Wall Street or at a law firm and need to act like you have money to look successful, you can get status symbols without paying status symbol price, Finney says. For men, it's watches, and women can achieve the look of status with a nice handbag and pair of shoes. You can snag deals on these accessories at outlet stores or online at Overstock.com. People will focus on these "expensive items" and look past your $20 pair of khakis.
7. Consider thrift stores and consignment shops. If you're on a budget, you have to think outside the box. Consignment shops are better than thrift stores because owners are more selective about the clothes they accept and sell, and you can find designer fashions there. Or check out MyGirlfriendsCloset.com, where you can buy slightly used clothing.
A final note
Finney says it's important for young people to realize there's plenty of time to get fashionable work clothing and develop their style after they've been on the job a while and know what the culture of their office is. "It's better to go safe before coming in as an ultimate fashionista," she says. Besides, you'll be more thankful if you have the basics in your closet at 6 a.m. so you don't have to worry about picking out an outfit.