2019 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to do a complete wardrobe revamp — but you may also want to check out our more recent discussions on how to look great for work every day, as well as the minimalist’s guide to dressing for work.
Reader R has a great question that every woman — probably at multiple times in her life — needs to ask: how to update your look?
After letting my corporate wardrobe decline for the past 8 years, I’m hurting for new clothes. I went through several pregnancies, and then a long period of professional malaise coupled with new motherhood, which left all of my clothes looking old, drool-stained and generally schlumpy. I need to re-vamp both my attitude (I’m young and still have many working years left) and my wardrobe. The attitude, I can deal with, but I don’t even know where to start with my wardrobe. I don’t want to buy cheap clothes, but I also don’t want to drop $10k getting my wardrobe back on track. Where should I start and what should I get? I don’t really need suits (I work in Silicon Valley), but rather office-appropriate pants and tops. I try to shop when I can (which is hard with kids and a full time job), and I pick up one or two new things here or there, but that doesn’t do anything to address the fundamental problems with my wardrobe. I need to figure out how to get a new, fairly complete wardrobe quickly, and without totally breaking the bank (Banana Republic/Ann Taylor-type prices are fine for me). I’ve discovered Zappos and gotten some shoes you suggested, so I think I’m OK in the shoe department for now. If you ever have the time and inclination to address this issue, I would be eternally grateful.
I have a theory that we’re all going to need to address this question at multiple times in our lives. Some times are obvious — if you graduate school, or start your first “big girl” job, or have recently lost or (sigh) gained 35 pounds — the fact that you need to rethink your style is not news to you. Other times are more nebulous — you wake up one day and suddenly realize that your style has gone off kilter, somehow, from the path you think your real life is following (or wish it were). (Pictured: Mom Jeans, the old SNL fake commecial — hilarious!) Reader R is right that a lot of this has to do with attitude — maybe for Thursday’s post we’ll talk about how to revamp your attitude. But stylewise… now that’s another issue. As you’ll see below, clothes are probably the last thing you need to worry about — unless you take care of the first few steps, you’re still going to look and feel schlumpy no matter what clothes you own.
Step 1. Get New Bras. If your style feels schlumpy and you haven’t been properly measured for a bra in more than six months, get thee to a good bra fitter. Look for an upscale department store (Nordstrom) or a boutique like Bartenders in NYC or Rigby & Peller in London. Prepare to purchase at least two new bras, one that’s black and one that matches your skin tone. Depending on your bra size, this may run you about $150 — so be sure to prioritize and get bras that you can actually wear to the office. While you’re there, you may want to also assess your body — do you need new foundation garments like Spanx, control-top tights, a control camisole, or the like? For my $.02, these are great to have around for occasional uses — I can’t imagine wearing one every day, in and out — but I’ve heard of women who even wear Spanx to yoga. The trick is to know what kind of woman YOU are, and invest accordingly.
Estimated time and money: One hour of uninterrupted shopping time; about $150-$250 for bras and Spanx.
Step 2. How’s Your Hair? When was the last time you reassessed your hairstyle? If the answer here is “mid-90s,” get a few magazines or catalogs that represent your lifestyle. Watch television anchors and hosts (and then find printed pictures that show the anchor or host with her hair the way you like it.) Throughout it all, keep in mind the realities of your hair TODAY. Has it gotten wavier or curlier with age? Do you need highlights (or need to grow out highlights that are a pain to maintain with your current lifestyle)? Make an appointment with your stylist and come armed with pictures. Also, make sure the stylist sees your hair dry, so she or he knows the actual texture of your hair. (If you don’t have a stylist who you trust, ask yourself which of your friends or coworkers has consistently great hair — and then ask her where she gets it cut, and by whom.)
Estimated time and money: For research: about an hour or two of flipping through magazines, TV channels, or doing Internet research; about an hour or two for your cut. Prices will vary widely based on where you go, so we’ll say $15-$250.
Step 3. Reassess your makeup and skincare. (I’m not a dermatologist, so take this bit with a grain of salt (and perhaps see a dermatologist).) Every woman needs a good daily SPF and moisturizer; hopefully this is not news to you. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve added an under-eye cream, and I’ve replaced the clay masks I used to use in my teens and 20s with occasional skin-regenerating scrubs in my 30s. (Right now I’m using Aveeno Active Naturals Positively Ageless Firming Eye Cream and just finished a bottle of Clean & Clear Steam Soft In-Shower Facial, which I don’t think is being made any more — I have plans to purchase Neutrogena Pore Refining Cleanser on my next trip to the drugstore, primarily because it has both alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acid and I’ve always liked Neutrogena products.) I also really (really) like Caudalie Lip Conditioner for my overnight lip gloss. But the point is — if you haven’t done a reassessment in a few years, get on it. You may also want to reassess your makeup, because it will be little, small things that may “date” a look — for example, if you’re the only one wearing under-eye eyeliner or mascara at your office, you may want to rethink that.
Estimated time and money: This varies based on how you’re doing. Maybe it just requires you to be a bit more observant at office meetings. Maybe this step requires you to make an appointment with a dermatologist — and maybe it just requires a trip to Sephora or the drugstore.
Step 4A. Clear out your closet. Go through your closet. First, take out everything that makes you cringe when you look at it. Next, take out the items that have seen better days — that blouse with the stain you keep hoping people will think you just got on there that morning, that sweater that has pilled so much that it looks like a cat attacked, and that favorite black tee that now looks gray. Either toss them (or donate them, if they’re in good enough shape), or relegate them to a weekend-wear-only section of your closet. See what’s left. Do the colors still work on you? Do they fit your current body? Whatever does not work, get it out of your closet.
Estimated time and money: Depends on the size of your closet; I’d set aside at least two hours for this. Cost should be nil, unless you decide to take some old favorites to the tailor to be fixed or whatnot.
Step 4B. Buy current, well-fitting separates. Because you’re in a casual office, and because you feel like you need to revamp your whole wardrobe, we would start with separates. The best way to build your wardrobe is to focus on bottoms that you can wear once a week without people saying “Oh, she’s in her floral skirt today.” Look for solids, or classic patterns, and pay attention to details — does the width of the leg opening flatter your body? Does the waistband flatter your body? We’d advise taking a pair of shoes with you to the store to try on clothes, because things always seem to look differently if you’re standing in bare feet versus with heels. (It’s the same with trying on bras, for some reason — I always have to put my top on before I can size up how the bra actually looks.)
In terms of colors, if you’re buying a new wardrobe in one or two trips, your colors should a) compliment YOU, and b) compliment each other. Personally, I like jewel tones, and see no problem with wearing emerald green, royal blue, fuschia, and purple together, or with blacks, grays, whites, and navies. Every so often, I’ll add a pale blue or a lipstick red into the mix, but for the most part, that’s my palette. On the converse, I don’t buy a lot of browns, beiges, creams, oranges, and corals — they don’t flatter me and they’re harder to mix with everything else in my wardrobe. Try to keep the colors you’re buying at the forefront of your mind. (If you’re really not sure about colors, focus on buying mostly neutrals — blacks, whites, grays — and add a pop of color only if you see a piece you really love — and that looks great on you.)
- Buy a few suits that you can wear as separates — the jacket, pants, and skirt. You don’t have to wear them together, but be sure to dryclean them together. AK Anne Klein sells a line of separates at Macy’s (it’s their EDV, or every-day value line) that is really affordable (and comes in petites and plus sizes); Banana Republic and J.Crew also sell suits as separates. The trick is to really scrutinize each piece, and make sure you feel comfortable wearing the pants and the skirt by themselves. (This isn’t always the case with suiting pants, for some reason.) We’d buy a black and a gray set, and then you have 2 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of skirts, and 2 jackets.
- Buy another pair of pants (or two) that flatter your body, are able to be worn frequently, and looks decent with the blazers you just bought. Mixing fabrics is fine, so long as it’s clear to other people that you don’t think you’re wearing a suit. So, for example, don’t wear a black blazer with non-matching black pants — but a black wool blazer worn with a pair of gray cotton pants is fine.
- Look for a cardigan or two that works for your body and your lifestyle. (Check out our guide to cardigans here.)
- Buy 4-10 tops that can be worn under the cardigans, with the blazers, or by themselves.
- Buy a sheath dress that works for you. Look for one that compliments the colors of the blazers and the cardigans.
Estimated time and money: Probably 4-5 hours of shopping, uninterrupted. If a certain brand of clothes always fit you well in the past, head there first. Our advice: go by yourself, or with someone who can a) devote themselves to helping you and b) will be honest about how you look. In terms of budget, set aside at least a $1000 for this. It seems like a lot, but you say you haven’t done this in more than eight years — and you may not do it again any time soon. Prepare to spend a little bit.
Step 4C. Update your jewelry. Maybe your jewelry is A-OK, and has held up to the test of time through the years. But maybe it hasn’t. Give yourself a budget here (maybe it’s $50, maybe it’s $500) and swing by the jewelry counters while you’re out. Look for a colorful necklace or two (perhaps in the popular touresade style) to compliment the other colors you bought. But also pay attention the next time you’re sitting in a meeting — what are the other women wearing? Some pieces you may want to save up for include a good watch, a good set of pearls, or some statement pieces (rings, earrings, necklaces) of a favorite stone.
Estimated time and money: Maybe 30 minutes at the jewelry counter. Stick to whatever budget you’ve set; it’s easy to overbuy on jewelry if you haven’t done it in a while.
Step 5. While you’re out, update your non-work style. Primarily: get a new pair of jeans and a new “hot mama” dress. For jeans, focus on what looks good on you, not what’s popular right now — there is no need to wear skinny jeans or boyfriend-cut jeans if you don’t want to; just get a new pair of bootcuts or flares that fits and flatters your body as it is right now. And, yes, a new “hot mama” dress — something that makes you feel absolutely amazing and sexy and wonderful. And then make your husband take you out somewhere nice to celebrate being done with this wardrobe revamp!
Estimated time and money: This can take a bit of time, finding a good pair of jeans and a good hot mama dress. Really, just keep your eyes open — even if you’re primarily looking for work clothes, these are things that you should give yourself permission to buy on this shopping trip.
Step 6. Keep an eye out for pieces you love — maybe it’ll be our TPS reports, maybe it’ll be driving by a shop window; maybe it’ll be someone walking down the hall with a fabulous blouse on. Keep your eyes open.
Readers, what are your best tips for revamping your wardrobe? Which pieces are absolute must-haves for you?