How to Build a Professional Wardrobe in 5 Steps

What do I wear? It’s a question that we’ve all asked ourselves the night before (or the morning of) a school or work day. And if we’re honest, some days it’s easier to answer than others.

As young professionals, our professional work outfits are more than just workwear. It’s how we make a good impression and show that we take our jobs seriously. However, when it comes to knowing how to start a work wardrobe, the process can seem daunting, especially if you’re starting from scratch. Here are 5 simple steps for building a professional wardrobe to ease the process and hopefully save you some time and money along the way.

A working woman standing outside an office building

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Building a Professional Wardrobe

Updated November 2022 with suggestions for professional wardrobe pieces.

A work wardrobe encompasses all the professional work outfits one needs to wear while at work or on the job. It includes workwear essentials and wardrobe staples, which can build several outfits through mixing and matching. Overall, a work wardrobe should match your style, the formalness of your job, and the dress code of your workplace. While every woman needs some type of work wardrobe, building a professional wardrobe takes time, effort, and a bit of creativity.

How many pieces should you have in a work wardrobe?

The number of pieces you need in a work wardrobe depends on a couple of factors:

  1. How often you work during the week
  2. The type of work that you do
  3. The workplace dress code
  4. How comfortable you are with re-wearing work outfits in short periods of time.

To start, you should have enough pieces to create at least 2 weeks of different outfits, which could be 10 outfits if you work 5 days a week or 6 if you work 3 days a week. If you’re okay with re-wearing the same outfit week to week, then you probably need even less pieces. 

It isn’t necessary to have 10 different work shirts, 10 pants, 10 cardigans, and 10 pairs of shoes. In fact, with a lot less, you can still make 10 professional work outfits by mixing and matching. 

Add some creativity and accessories, and you’ll be surprised how much you can create for your work wardrobe.

Workwear Essentials and Wardrobe Staples

So, how to build a professional wardrobe for a 5-day work week? Pick up the wardrobe staples from this list to start, and you can mix and match to create a different look for 2 weeks.

For workwear essentials, you’ll want 2 pair of shoes (heels and flats), 7 blouses, 3 pants (black, blue, grey, khaki), 1 jacket/blazer/cardigan, and 1 dress. Below is the list of professional wardrobe items with suggestions.

How much should you spend on a work wardrobe?

Spending a ton of money is not how to build a professional wardrobe. Please, please, please – do not go into debt to purchase a work wardrobe. You do not want to be in a place where you are working only so you can pay back the credit card debt you got by purchasing professional work outfits. 

Stick within your monthly clothing budget as you acquire pieces for your work wardrobe. You do not have to get your entire work wardrobe at once. Focus on building a basic work wardrobe, then set aside money from every paycheck to buy one or two more pieces. As a young professional, learning how to manage your money and spending will set you up for financial freedom in the future.

5 Steps for How to Build a Professional Wardrobe

Now that we’ve covered what a work wardrobe is, you may be wondering how to create a wardrobe. These 5 simple 5 steps steps break down the process of building a professional wardrobe and give you helpful tips. No matter where you are in the wardrobe building process, here’s an overview of what to do to find the workwear essentials you need. 

1 – Determine Work Necessities by Asking about the Company Dress Code

When building a professional wardrobe, the best place to start is with information about the company wardrobe. Not all workwear essentials fit the bill for all workplaces. It’s important to tailor your shopping and overall approach to creating a basic work wardrobe to your workplace and company culture.

Business Professional Work Wardrobe

This workwear and dress code is seen as the most formal of all work wardrobes. For women, the work wardrobe essentials list for business professional would include:

  • Collared shirts
  • Collared button downs
  • Trousers and Slacks
  • Blazers and Suit Jackets
  • Pencil Skirts
  • Heels or Flats

Usually, this dress code is characterized by muted and dim colors, such as black, gray, dark blue, and white. Of course, each workplace has its own interpretation of a business professional dress code, so check with your colleagues to see what’s acceptable. 

Tip: Your shirts and blouses must have a collar to be considered business professional.

Business Casual Work Wardrobe

A step down from the formalness of business professional, business casual is one of the most popular dress codes. It’s also a personal favorite of mine because everyone can express their style in brighter colors and different clothing styles while still maintaining professionalism.

For women, the work wardrobe essentials list for business casual would include:

  1. Blouses, Knits, and Sweaters 
  2. Slacks and Trousers
  3. Khakis
  4. Cardigans and Blazers
  5. Heels and Flats

Notice for this work wardrobe, you don’t need collared shirts and you can use some of the closet essentials from the first list, but you have more options.

Also, business casual allows for brighter colors, patterns, and more variety while keeping a professional look. You can see why it’s my personal favorite.

Smart Casual Work Wardrobe

The best way to describe smart casual is casual with a touch of formal. You can likely reuse most of what you have in your day-to-day wardrobe to build a professional wardrobe that’s smart casual. But you must be selective with your choices as there should be a “neatness” to your professional work outfits.

For women, the work wardrobe essentials list for smart casual would include what’s on the business casual list and:

  1. Polo shirts 
  2. Casual, yet conservative dresses
  3. Jeans without rips or holes
  4. Sandals

The great thing about smart casual is that you have a ton of options. If you would like to dress up in a more business casual look, then go for it. But if you prefer a polo and a nice pair of jeans with sandals, that’s okay, too.

2 – Assess the Workwear Essentials You Already Have

You may be surprised by how much of your casual wardrobe you can repurpose for your work wardrobe. For example, your nice blouses, certain dresses, cardigans, flats, and heels can easily become part of your work wardrobe. By adding a blazer or a cardigan to a sleeveless shirt, suddenly it becomes professional.

Some of the same dresses you wear to church or out to dinner can be made professional workwear with a professional jacket and heels.

How do you build a professional wardrobe on a budget?

Reusing the clothing pieces you already have is key to building a professional wardrobe on a budget. That way, you can spend money on the few workwear essentials you need to complete your professional wardrobe instead of creating a wardrobe from scratch.

If you do have to start from scratch and are on a budget, shop at secondhand stores for your workwear essentials. One of my favorites consignment stores in the US is Clothes Mentor, where you can purchase quality, second-hand casual and work clothes at a discounted price. 

A woman working in an office and wearing a light pink blouse and sitting at a computer

3 – Get the Work Wardrobe Basics

Now that you have a good idea of where you are (#2 – assess what you have) and where you need to be (#1 – learning about the dress code), you can close the gap by acquiring the wardrobe basics you’re missing.

Depending on what the dress code is at your workplace, you may or may not need all the basics listed below. Even so, I’ve found that these clothing pieces come in handy for interviews, presentations, formal gatherings, or any place where you may want to look more professional.

How to Build a Work Wardrobe with Just Five Basics 

  1. Black Blazer
  2. Black Slacks or Trousers
  3. Heels or Flats
  4. Button Down, Collared Shirt
  5. Pencil Skirt or Dress

I suggest purchasing the first, second, and third basic work wardrobe staples in black. Black clothes are more versatile and can go with almost any other color in your closet (except maybe brown).

Nude colored shoes are also a good versatile option. For the fourth and fifth items, you can vary the colors so you’re not wearing all black to the office.

With these basics, you can take casual pieces in your closet, such as a patterned shirt or nice blue jeans, and dress it up with the more formal pieces. For example, a floral casual shirt with a black blazer can easily be smart casual and business casual.

4 – Add Accessories 

Accessories are an easy and inexpensive way to turn casual clothes into professional work outfits.

Accessories help you transfer an outfit from day to night or formal to informal.

You can also transform an outfit with accessories and use it to coordinate and tie colors together. For example, adding a belt to a blouse and a skirt will change the whole outfit, and earrings or a simple gold necklace will easily make a dress more formal. Additionally, you can show your personal style with accessories. 

So if you’re afraid the corporate work dress code will stamp out your style, you can still shine with your accessory choices.

5 – Make the Work Wardrobe Your Own

Like most things when it comes to adulting, there is no one-size-fits-all work wardrobe essentials list. While the basic work wardrobe above will get you started, you must also consider the workplace culture and your own style when building a professional work wardrobe.

Don’t be afraid to deviate from this list and make your work wardrobe your own. Experiment with different accessories and styles, take your casual pieces and dress them up, and find what fits your body shape and personality. You can find examples of work outfits on Pinterest generate ideas for a work wardrobe.

When transitioning from college to the workforce, getting a work wardrobe is just one of many steps to being a successful young professional.

How to Build a Professional Wardrobe

I hope these 5 steps for how to build a professional wardrobe help you create a basic work wardrobe and professional work outfits. As a young professional, starting a new job can be overwhelming, but having a work outfit that makes you feel confident and comfortable can ease some of the anxiety from your first day

When it comes to how to start a work wardrobe, my best advice is to start slow and don’t spend all your money in one place. You need less than you think you do, and with a little creativity, you’ll be building a professional wardrobe in no time.

What do you need for a work wardrobe?

Leave me a comment below!

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1 thought on “How to Build a Professional Wardrobe in 5 Steps”

  1. Pingback: How to Curate a Professional Wardrobe – Connie Jacobs-Walton

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