What to Wear When You’re Laid Off and Looking

what to wear when you've been laid offWe’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.)

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!


  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 :)

  21. 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?

    Uh, you could just as easily say “If you have time to go to the gym three times a week, how do you have time to do work properly?” I try to do neither and instead form opinions about the work people are doing based on the work product they produce. Shocking, I know, but it just might work.

    Whatever; fortunately, one of the perks of being a confident and successful adult instead of an angst ridden teenager is that I’ve learned that there are some people whose good opinion it’s just not worth having, and it appears that you are, for me, one of those people. (Signed, a fatty who doesn’t read the wall street journal or regularly wear make-up who JUST THIS MINUTE finished eating some chocolate.)

  22. I completely disagree that not wearing makeup is “sloppy.” Poorly applied makeup may be sloppy, but not no makeup at all. I’ve made a conscious decision to not wear makeup, and it doesn’t have any bearing on my work product (in fact, less time spent applying/buying/thinking about makeup means more time to work).

  23. You ladies are completely right. This morning I’m showing up to work without shaving and sans suit. I’m sure no one will care so long as my work is good.

  24. I once asked a woman who worked at home how she stayed disciplined and professional without the structure of an office (which is basically the predicament of the looking-for-work).

    She said she got dressed properly every morning, regardless of whether she had anywhere to go. She didn’t get totally dolled up, but at the very least, she was in trousers or skirt, a nice top and flats.

    She also did her hair and make-up, picked up a bag or briefcase, and walked to her local newsstand. (She cancelled all her home newspaper and magazine subscriptions). Then, when she re-entered her home, she was “at work.”

    I know this sounds superficial, but she was way more efficient than I was, when I was in my lounging-in-my-PJs phase of working from home.

    The effect of looking decent is both psychological and practical. If she had to jet out to do an errand and bumped into someone important, she looked good. When I ran out for errands, I looked like a college student who had just pulled an all-nighter — not the sign of a confident potential hire.

  25. I once got a job interview explicitly because I happened to look neatly pulled-together when I bumped into the boss while running errands. One of my friends suggested that if I was looking for work in a new town, I shouldn’t leave the house looking at all unkempt. I wasn’t sure if I believed her, but I thought I’d try it nonetheless. And it worked. I found myself speaking to a woman sitting near me at lunch, and she asked me to come in for an interview. At the interview she specifically said that she was impressed that I was dressed so nicely the previous day because she thought it implied I was detail-oriented (which I am in spades). I got the job, which I stayed at for 2 years and really enjoyed. That woman turned out to be a really good boss.

    Do I believe women should be judged on looks, makeup, etc? No. But do I think in reality we are? Yes. And would I do it again if I was looking for a job? Absolutely.

  26. I don’t believe that a woman should have to wear make-up at work. I have overly sensitive skin.

    I can get away with wearing makeup once in a blue moon for a special occasion like a wedding. But wearing make up daily is a sure way to get eczema on my face, which I’m sure looks far less professional, and more distracting then my face “au naturel”

    My first full time job was in 1984, as the secretary/receptionist of the province’s real estate association. Believe it or not I ended up going to the interview in a plaid flannel shirt, faded jeans and running shoes. I was called by agency while at my part-time job at 3:30 pm for a 5:30 pm interview. I just had time to get to interview leaving work at 5. Couldn’t go home to change. I told them that I was dressed inappropriately for an interview. They told me to show up anyways. Despite them interviewing more then 10 candidates, all of which were dressed appropriately for a job interview, I got the job. It was the only time I wore jeans and a plaid shirt & running shoes to that office.

  27. I feel a little bit sorry for BL1y. Her comments tell me that she is not really mature enough to be a lawyer. Whether someone goes to the gym three times a week is hardly indicative of her character and integrity. But I would never want to work with someone who judges others for eating a donut. What is going to happen when life get a little bit hard for young Miss BL1y?

  28. Ha, I just realized that BLiy is a man. I think that is even worse.

  29. oncealawyer :

    Whew. I am really glad I am not in the professional worlds you people llive in. Don’t think I ever was, even when practicing law – never was “BigLaw.”
    But I thought I had conservative views on dressing professionally — I have never ever [before this blog] heard anyone suggest that a neat, low ponytail (on a woman) was not professional.
    “only for the gym?” “Juvenile?”
    And not wearing makeup means you don’t spend enough time on work? When I was practicing, wearing full makeup, carefully applied, was considered (if at all) a sign that that woman spent way too much time on her looks and not enough on her work.
    And the prices and brands you’ve been discussing…amazing. I’ve never even heard of most of the brands of bags on the front page. (What is a Longchamps?).
    ColeHaan shoes for an out-of-work person? Get real. Apparently most of you have not been unemployed for some time.
    And for the “gentleman” who equated not wearing makeup with not shaving — no, the equivalent of not shaving is not washing your face or your hair.
    Not everyone even CAN wear makeup – as one of the above posters mentioned. I can’t wear eye makeup–eyes swell shut with any kind of shadow or mascara. I curl the lashes occasionally – if I get up early enough.
    Give me a break, people. You all are waaaay too overthinking this dress and makeup thing.

  30. Any comments from those of you with children on how to look put together while hauling at least 2 kids around from school, to playdates, to classes/activities? I don’t think my usual business attire would do and I certainly couldn’t carry my 3 year old in a low kitten heel from the playground to the car….and the jacket buttons would pop off in the melee. (For this purpose, I have assumed that if one is temporarily unemployed, the nanny is also laid-off and more working moms are getting more hands-on with the kids.)

  31. i loved the original post. it’s good to have tips for giving yourself a subtle boost in a down economy. but the whole “look good or die” at work thing is a little bit much for me. I manage around 30 women and they all dress differently, professionals and support staff. I find that there is no correlation between competence and dress. Pantyhose and buff arms don’t make for a better brief. so, just a thought there. personally, i have my good days and my bad days for looks, long periods of time when kids consume my after-work energy rather than the gym. my focus is insuring i’m always on top of my game at work and always there for my family. places like corporette help me look, um, better than i would otherwise, but i don’t feel a need to be perfect.

  32. Kat, are you advising the jacket for the look or for warmth? I’m l&l in Fla. My uniform lately has been a longish (18-19 in) skort or a split skirt with a bra top, no jacket or sweater. I’m not a fashion person, but get compliments from other moms.

    • It depends what you’re looking for, I guess. If looking for a management/trust-me-with-a-million-dollar-case type of job I would still go for a jacket or something structured.

      • I just realized this post was from 2 yrs ago. There goes any claim of being a detail person! Thanks for your reply.

work fashion blog press mentions