What to Wear When You’re Laid Off and Looking

We’ve been mulling this reader’s question for a while now… first, here’s the request:

My work wardrobe after 30 years is pretty set. However, I’m currently in recession mode, i.e. my job has been misplaced. I find that my non-work clothes are just not suitable for walking around in the supermarket, given that in my community (high tech in Silicon Valley) I might meet someone there who would hire me. So I want to upgrade what would be my weekend wardrobe (if I were working). Can you help? I have my dilemma posted here.  I hope this doesn’t take you beyond the scope of your blog, but once we get to the executive ranks, I have found that networking etc. can extend the requirements and definition of “professional style”.

We went to her website, and this is what she wore out to drinks with former coworkers:


Wow.  Ok.  First, some general theories on being “laid off and looking,” as the WSJ puts it. Keep your confidence high — don’t wear sweats or other clothes that you would normally use to clean the garage.   Networking is a lot about likeability; the more a person likes you — and respects you and thinks you’re competent and cool — the more they’re going to be willing to introduce you to their friends or, should a job open up, think “Oh, let’s get X in here; she’d be great for the spot and fun to work with.”  So our advice here is kind of like advice to teenagers: act cool, and you WILL be cool. Above all, your clothes should be clean, non-ripped, and the overall vibe you should strive to give off is “I’m just running a few errands before my fabulous dinner party,” not “I’m making an emergency run to the pharmacy in the middle of the night.”

laid-off-and-lookingThat said, for running errands and lounging around the house, we recommend wearing the tightest pair of jeans that you own and fit into comfortably (so as to prevent any recession weight gain, or at least recognize it early).  They shouldn’t be skintight, but they should FIT — no elastic waists or pants that are several sizes too big for you. There is plenty of advice to be found on the Internet and in ladies’ magazines about which jeans might work for you, and a huge price range to consider (from $20 to $300+).  Generally, we would recommend finding a dark color in a bootcut or straight-leg style; if you get one with a bit of lycra in it, it will be more comfortable for hanging out around the house. Check Levi’s or Uniqlo if you’re on a budget; we’ve also heard excellent things about Old Navy’s jeans. At right: Levi’s Boot Cut 515 Stretch Jean, available at Sears.com for $29.99. If you arewhat-to-wear-when-youre-laid-off really, really not a jeans person, we would possibly recommend some bootcut khakis or pants with a bit of stretch, such as these from Gap, also at right. Again, the leg should be straight or bootcut unless you can really own the other trends out there like the skinny pants or the boyfriend jeans. (Women: Curvy flare pants – earth brown, available at Gap.com on sale for $45.)

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Ok. So now that you’ve got your jeans on, let’s ditch the scrunchie. (You could burn it. Just a suggestion.) Instead, you may want to look into an understated claw or some elastics. Now, let’s ditch the sweatshirt. We would recommend wearing a well-fitting t-shirt in a basic color — black, white, your favorite color, whatever. By “well-fitting” we mean that it should skim your body (not hugging it, and not too boxy) and hit at the right spot on your hips (not too high — the belly shirt has (thankfully) not made a return since the late ’90s — and not too low, either, as the uber-low movement seems to have passed).  Again, there’s a big variety, but the stores for basics — Old Navy, Gap, Banana, J.Crew — are going to be your friends here.

Next, the shoes and the jacket, which are, simultaneously, the easiest and hardest parts. We say “easy” because this is your personality shining through, but it’s also hard just because there are so many options.  Assuming the shoes you wore at work are either uncomfortable or inappropriate for running around town, there are still a ton of feminine, comfortable options that are far, far better than white athletic shoes.  For example, some choices for the shoes:

what-to-wear-when-laid-off-1 Low Mary-Janes or ballet flats are a great look that can be worn with socks or not. Some brands to consider: Cole Haan Nike Air, Geox, Born. Pictured: Cole Haan – Air Bria Stitch MJ (Black) – Footwear, on sale at Zappos for $122 (from $168)
what-to-wear-when-laid-off-2 White sneakers with a heavy tread are fine for working out, but there are a ton of more fashionable, sporty shoes that serve as great “running errand” shoes. Some sample brands to consider: Converse, Puma, Keds, and Asics. Pictured: Converse – Chuck Taylor All Star Ox (Purple Passion) – Footwear, available at Zappos for $45.
what-to-wear-when-laid-off-3 There are a ton of other brands out there that might be a bit too chunky for the office, but are great for running around town and staying comfortable. Some brands to consider: Clarks, Born, Sofft, Beautifeel, and Dansko. Pictured: Indigo by Clarks – Tanzania (Light Brown Leather) – Footwear, available at Zappos for $100.

Next, a light jacket — again, there are a ton of options but pretty much anything is better than a sweatshirt.  For example:

A fitted blazer in a casual fabric — twill, cotton, even a non-blue denim — can be great for running around town. In fact, you may already have some of these in your collection. Pictured: Women: Women’s Twill Blazers – Track Green, available at OldNavy.com for $30. looking-professional-while-unemployed
Traditional ladycoats are another great option, and also available in a huge variety of price points. You’re looking for a fabric that’s breathable and machine washable, in a cut that is flattering to you — it shouldn’t be too big and overwhelm your stature, and it shouldn’t be too tight, either. Pictured: Gallery A-Line Topper, available at Nordstrom for $110. looking-professional-while-unemployed-2
Cardigans and sweaters are another great option (and can be cleaned sporadically when worn with a t-shirt or something with sleeves beneath it). Some are even made from sweatshirt materials like fleece. Pictured: C&C California Fleece Tie-Front Jacket, on sale for $49 (was $130). what-to-wear-when-laid-off-4

Best of luck to you in your search — readers, please tell us if you have other thoughts on what to wear when you’re looking!

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  1. I agree with not wearing pants several sizes too big but I’m not convinced that wearing the tightest pair of jeans that you own/can fit into will give off a professional, “hire me” vibe. I think if the jeans in question are tighter than your business casual or suit pants would be, they probably aren’t the best option.

  2. Agreed — we’ll edit the text accordingly. We don’t mean stuff you have to lie down to zip up; just pants that fit your body as it is, not as it was or might be, 30 pounds heavier.

  3. A good place for clothes for this type of look is Martin and Osa.

  4. Guilty party here. Oh the horror. The shame. It looks way worse coming upon the images on the Internet than I even knew. In my own defense I made my son take the sweatshirt back to school and I bought new pants from Banana Republic to replace the khakis that were big enough to eat San Francisco. I confess, those sneakers are on my feet as we speak. In my further defense, this is how I dressed at work. http://amidlifeofprivilege.blogspot.com/2009/02/so-lets-be-serious.html. Much less horrifying. And now, having gotten all that defense off my chest I very much appreciate each and every suggestion. The jacket ideas are particularly helpful. A fleece tie front is genius for my situation.

  5. I’m kind of in love with the lightweight boyfriend cardigan at Old Navy now – it’s so office-appropriate over a tank or tee with pants or a pencil skirt, and I’ll also wear it with jeans or lounging around the house.

  6. Well done. A humorless slant on a serious topic! How do you do it?

  7. If you’re really concerned about weight gain, isn’t it easier to just weigh yourself regularly instead of torturing yourself with tight pants while watching the Price is Right?

  8. At first glance, I thought, “Silicon Valley – you can wear anything here and get a great job!” But then I saw the scrunchie and the tapered pants; game over. I think you offered great suggestions for looking decent, not dressy, anywhere you go. I went through a similar style intervention with my 50’s executive mother a few years ago and this is almost exactly her everyday wardrobe now. I would also add that cotton stretch dresses and wrap dresses are comfortable, if you can get past the “I’m not a dress person” mentality. Sketchers also offers a mary-jane sneaker that’s a bit cheaper than the Cole Hann if you’re on a budget.

  9. Anonymous :

    If you have a Kohl’s in your area, Vera Wang’s line for Kohl’s is a great place to look for weekend basics while you’re on a budget.

  10. Delta Sierra :

    TIGHT jeans for lounging around the house? Nuh-uh.

  11. I would also suggest outlet shopping. While this can be a minefield for those who don’t have a good eye, you can find current season basics at great prices, especially at JCrew and Banana Republic outlet. For summer, I like to wear short-sleeve button down blouses with jeans. I don’t look like I am trying too hard, but I also look polished! Get thee to Gilroy, Petaluma or Fairfield, lady!

  12. One more suggestion – don’t skip the makeup. Just the basic five minute face of eyeliner, shadow, blush, lip gloss will go a long way to making you look professional and polished.

  13. Personal style should be a recurring topic for all women as bodies, seasons (of life), positions, etc. change often and often aren’t accurately reflected in our style.

    Getting in a rut and dressing for a previous position is common, hence the myriad of style books & makeover shows.

  14. Guilty party here.
    @Emily, I just want to know, who told you I am not wearing makeup either!
    @mj, I confess I have never been to the Gilroy outlets. Pass them all the time on the way to my mother’s house in Santa Barbara, but have never stopped. Time to put my old ways aside.
    @Nicole, can you or someone explain the scrunchie hatred? I missed the day that scrunchies were sent to the same camp as nude pantyhose. You see I had Carly Fiorina type hair for a decade and have only recently grown it out. I blow dry for office days but non-office days I just loathe that hairdryer….

  15. It’d be nice if the women I work with didn’t skip the basic makeup even while they’re still employed.

    I think part of the problem is that women in offices tend to let themselves go and get sloppy long before layoffs are even in sight.

  16. I think part of the problem is that women in offices tend to let themselves go and get sloppy long before layoffs are even in sight.

    I wish we could banish the phrase “let themselves go” (let’s be realistic: it’s almost always “let herself go”) from the English language. Basic standards of professionalism are one thing, but women are under no obligation to look decorative at any given moment of the day.

  17. Pony tails are fine – I sport one 3 out of 7 days; I just can’t stand my 16 inch long hair near my face, getting stuck in my lipstick and shedding all over me, my boss, my desk, my books. But I use a thin black fabric band – not a big ol’ fabric scrunchie. They are out of style but worse, they’re juvenile.

    And I agree about the basic makeup – just enough to add some definition and wake up the face. My basics besides skin care are a luminizing under-eye concealer (YSL Touch Eclat or DiorFlash), mascara, sheer pink or nude matte blush and a lip balm.

  18. women are under no obligation to look decorative at any given moment of the day.

    Well stated. “The problem” here is not whether or not a woman employee wears makeup that pleases you (or for that matter experiences “recession weight gain”). The real problem is the assumption that a woman’s worth (even employ-ability) is based on how attractive the (men) around her find her.

  19. V and Mimi: Of course women are under no “obligation” to wear makeup and look pretty. And, no one else is under any obligation to assume the best about them. Sloppy appearance implies sloppy work.

    It’s just like how you’re trained to write memos free of typos and do perfect citations. These things are pretty superficial, but they color the way in which someone will view the substance of your writing.

    If you aren’t disciplined enough to go to the gym three times a week, why should anyone assume you’re disciplined enough to stay on task for eight hours? If you can’t find the time to do your makeup, why should anyone think you found the time to read the WSJ? If you don’t have the willpower to skip a mid-afternoon donut, will you have the willpower to skip blogging all afternoon long when there’s work to be done? (I’m waiting to hear back on work I submitted earlier and don’t actually have anything else I need to be doing.)

    This isn’t a male/female thing at all. Women also judge and men also get judged. A mis-tied tie, poor ironing, unkempt facial hair, or an expanding waistline all reflect poorly on how seriously a man takes himself, and by inference, his job.

    If you would be embarrassed to meet a date immediately after work because of the way you look, you should be embarrassed to show up to work looking that way in the first place. This goes for women and men.

  20. @LPC

    Aside from being the better part of two decades out of style, the scrunchie is not only way too inherently puffy to be very flattering, but also it takes up so much hair length as you wrap it around that your ponytail ends up excessively horizontal/perky.

    I’m a fan of the simple elastic (Goody makes great ones that blend with your hair color for a sleek look) or a black/tortoiseshell large barrette.

    I do, however, wear nude (very sheer – we’re not talking a fake tan look) pantyhose to work in spring/fall weather. Don’t give up on that one for leg smoothing and an extra day of not shaving… which I can guess you dislike from your description of being the scary non-Lilly wearing gardener :)