I love clothes and I’ve never lived in a big city, so here are some tips gathered from my experiences shopping online. I wrote it with students at my school in mind, so the language reflects that. All the same, I think the information is helpful for anyone trying to buy business professional clothes without breaking the bank.
For the purposes of this guide
Quality: a lot of factors go into a good quality garment. In general, this refers to overall quality of materials (cloth, buttons, ties and other closures) and construction (stitch quality, how well a button is secured, whether a seam is actually sewn rather than glued together). A good quality garment will feel comfortable on your skin, wear well throughout the day, and last a long time. Conversely, a poor quality garment will shift and wrinkle throughout the day and start to pill or even fall apart after a few washes (looking at you, H&M).
Cut and fit: A properly cut garment will sit on your body the way it was intended to. More specifically, it should be snug where it’s meant to be snug, drape where it ought to drape, lay smooth with no bunching or pulling or bubbling, and not unnecessarily impede movement. Basically, does it look good and feel good on you irrespective of style? If so, it’s well cut.
Fibers / Fiber content: When you first launder a garment, you probably look at the care instructions first. That tag should also include fiber content, which refers to the type of material. For example, your favorite t-shirt is probably 100% cotton and your favorite sweater might be 70% acrylic. These fibers have unique properties that affect the look and feel of cloth and therefore a garment.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
“Classy” is a difficult word to pin down since one could argue that it’s a distinct trend itself. Looks that are considered “classy” change over the years just as casual clothing movements do. But that’s a discussion for another time. I say it here because although elements of a classy style move more slowly than other subsets of fashion, they do move. If you want to look sophisticated rather than dowdy, you should stay on top of these changes.
When looking for professional wear, you’ll want to look for items that are primarily considered classy. When you gain more confidence about what is and isn’t appropriate work attire, you can start bringing in more personal touches.
FIBERS AND FABRICS
For the love of all that is beautiful and good, try to get clothes made from nice materials. A better quality cloth or a change in fiber content can make a world of difference in how comfortable your clothes are, how well they wear throughout the day, and how elegant they look. A better fabric doesn’t always require a premium, either. If you’re willing to search, you can find clothes made from nice fabrics for the same price as clothes made from poor quality materials.
Polyester and other cheap synthetics can be found for very low prices, but they are much less comfortable and durable than natural fibers.
Tops – Cotton is king and it’s hard to go wrong with it. Cotton is breathable, crisp, easy to launder, durable, and easy to find. If you’re looking for a luxurious touch, silk is another option. Silk fibers are strong, so the garment should hold up well over time so long as you’re careful with it. Some say that it’s very breathable, but I find silk uncomfortable to sweat in. Since the garment is most likely sheer anyway, make sure to wear an undershirt to help absorb moisture and prevent staining. Silk is more finely woven than cotton and prone to snagging. However, its drape is smooth and sumptuous. The price of cotton varies quite a bit but is generally less expensive than silk. So if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative to silk, rayon is your best bet. Designed to mimic the properties of silk, rayon is a synthetic fiber sometimes made from bamboo. The handfeel of it is not as nice as silk, but the lovely drape and subtle sheen are still very present.
Bottoms – If this guide were meant for men, I would shout, “WOOL!” and be done with. Women, however, have much more options. While wool is still my favorite for both pants and skirts, you can choose just about anything here.
Suits – A lot of people have polyester suits and I shudder even thinking about it. Synthetic fibers work well for pants and skirts, but they look much more stiff and plastic in a suit because the curves and shaping of a suit is more important and more subtle in a suit than in a skirt. Polyester suits just don’t drape well and look very cheap. Wool is the ultimate best choice for year-round suits. If you want to switch things up in the summer, linen also works well and while silk is a little impractical, I have seen some nice rayon sets. A suit doesn’t have to be very expensive to look professional. On a student budget, I even recommend mixing separates. As long as the color and cloth are similar enough, it can pass as a set.
Shoes – Leather. Patent, suede, embossed, painted, it doesn’t matter. Leather shoes are not hard to find for $20, so unless you’re looking at a high quality vegan leather (which may even cost more), just get leather shoes.
WHERE TO START
If you’re just barely starting to build a professional wardrobe, I would strongly recommend starting with Uniqlo. If you have stuff already and are looking to supplement it, check out The Realreal and Asos. If you are looking for shoes of any kind, browse 6PM for a bit and then Yoox if you’re feeling adventurous. For blazers I recommend Uniqlo and the Realreal, but if you want a pantsuit or skirtsuit, look at the Realreal. I’ve also listed some other resources worth looking at if you’re bored of studying accounting (ha). And then after that are care tips for your fancy new clothes.
Think through what you have in your wardrobe and how you can style it in different ways before shopping for something new. Then assess any gaps you think you have and try to think of a single garment that will fill all the gaps. As much as I love looking at clothes, if I’m shopping with no specific purpose, I am far more likely to buy something I don’t need.
Once you have a specific garment in mind, say a pink silk button-up, set a specific dollar cap that you’re willing to pay. Don’t search beyond this cap because if you do find something you like, you might be tempted to buy it even when it’s outside your budget. Unless you have underestimated the retail price of whatever you’re looking for, stay firm with your initial cap.
Finally, the information you’ve really been looking for:
A go-to for basics and good value professional wear.
$5 Flat-rate shipping
For new items (not second-hand), this place probably has the best value in terms of price:quality. It’s really well known internationally for unusually good quality in the lower-priced clothing market.
The cut/fit/styling is overall pretty good and excellent for the price point, but be aware that sizing is a bit different. Uniqlo is a Japanese brand and Asian sizes tend to run small. Each item should have measurements for shoulder, length, waist, and hip, but if for some reason it doesn’t, size down.
Regular price tops are $20-35.
Sale tops are $8-20
Regular price pants are $20-40
Sale pants are $10-30
Regular price blazers and outerwear $60-120
Sale blazers and outerwear $40-80
If you have a lot of semi-sheer button-ups like I do, I really recommend some undershirts in the airism/seamless line. The undershirts are in neutral colors, very thin, and breathable. I don’t recommend their shoes or scarves, but if you want long underwear for the winter, their heattech line is amazing.
They don’t have many promotional sales, but the regular sale section has a lot of decent offerings.
Terrible customer service, so avoid returns if you can. The actual return policy is fine, but their process of returning clothes can be a hassle and their customer service employees aren’t very helpful.
You have to create an account to shop here, but it’s free and you build up points for future discounts.
$12 flat-rate shipping
Secondhand clothes (sometimes new with tags, but mostly used)
Everything has been inspected and graded (pristine, excellent, good, etc.) so you don’t have to worry about sinister sellers trying to cheat you. Any imperfections are explicitly stated.
The Realreal exclusively stocks designer clothing. And this is not your basic Nine West or Ann Taylor; it’s really nice and sometimes high fashion brands. That sounds intimidating, but check it out. If you shop during sales or just get lucky, you can can find really amazing pieces for low prices.
There are handpicked “sales” on the front page, but the best way to shop if you’re shopping college-budget level is to choose the type of clothing (e.g. “blouses” or “suits and sets” and so on) you’re looking for and enter it into the search bar. Then you can filter by size and price.
Keep in mind that price varies a lot more here, but generally you can find
Tops for $30+
Skirts and pants for $30+
Jackets for $30+
Two-piece suits for $50+
Pumps for $30+
Oxfords and flat shoes for $35+
Since these are almost all secondhand pieces, you can get phenomenal deals on dress clothes that are usually as good as new or very close to it. There’s almost always a 20% off sale going on, so I’ve bought blouses and skirts for as low as $15 and seen some that are even lower.
I don’t recommend shoes from the Realreal unless you’re looking for really high-end designers like Ferragamo, Louboutin, Prada just because shoes show wear more than clothes do and you can tell that the shoes are used rather than new.
Bonus: there’s a “Skirts knee length” category you can simply punch into the search bar.
Sometimes free shipping
Great place for past-season basic designer (and here I do mean Nine West and Dolce Vita type) shoes. You can sort by size, style, color, material, pretty much any filter your heart desires.
Trendy and classic footwear from $15-40
Free shipping over $40
You’ve probably heard of or bought stuff from asos, so there’s not much for me to say. Decent knockoffs of designer brands, good finds when you hunt hard enough, very trendy styles.
Covers a wide range of prices and has a very large selection
I haven’t actually shopped here, so I can’t attest to their service or quality. It’s a pretty popular site, though, so I’d imagine it can’t be too bad.
Lord and Taylor
Free shipping over $99
Like Asos, you’ve probably heard of Lord and Taylor already. They sell a house brand, but also various designer brands in trendy styles. Their catalogue is very large and their shoes are generally a better value than their clothes. The price: low-to-high sort function does weird things sometimes.
Regular price tops $60+
Sale tops $20-30
Regular price pants $50+
Sale pants $20-60
Regular price skirts $45+
Sale skirts $30-50
Regular price shoes $50+
Sale shoes $20+
Regular price bags $50+
Sale bags $35+
Free shipping, I think
Good for past-season designer brands and lesser-known brands that have excellent quality.
They pretty much always have sales going on, but their inventory is so big that it’ll take you a while to sort through.They stock high-end stuff, too, so if you’re worried about price, just sort low to high.
Pants and tops $20-40 range, but you can find cheaper sometimes.
Shoes – great selection and variety (and always true to size in my experience), about $30+ depending on style/material/brand
Other Places to Check Out
Ebay – if you have a specific item or designer you like, look it up here.
COS and & Other Stories – better quality H&M (literally; they’re all owned by the same group). Haven’t bought from here, but I’ve seen decent prices on & Other Stories for bags and shoes.
Amazon – always worth looking something up here if you know a specific brand and style name / number
Ann Taylor / Loft – nice costume jewelry
Marshall’s – not online, good for nail polish and makeup and sunglasses. Ok for cheap bags and shoes.
Nordstrom Rack – hit and miss for me, but pretty popular and worth checking out if you’re grabbing some In-n-Out
Sometimes when you buy nicer clothes, the tag says dry clean only. Don’t freak out, there are alternatives. Unless it’s a coat or jacket, you can typically machine wash cold in a mesh laundry bag or on delicate and line dry.
Because of the nature of some fibers or the manufacturing process, there are some exceptions. For example, silk you should handwash and line dry if you don’t want to dry clean. My rule of thumb is that manmade fibers like poly/acrylic/nylon run fine through machines for washing and drying. Natural fibers like linen wool and cotton can be trickier.
Don’t machine dry if:
– A pair of pants fits perfectly or snugly and is made with 40% or more of cotton or linen,
– or if it has more than 30% wool. If it does, you can use a wool detergent and line dry
Dry clean if:
– It is more than 60% wool or you don’t want to wait for it to dry; takes a while when it’s cold
– It’s more than 50% silk
– you’re really worried it will fall apart or get stained
If you have to dry clean, you don’t necessarily have to take it to the cleaner’s. I buy at-home dry-cleaning sheets that you pop in the dryer with your clothes and that works fine if it’s not stained or overly soiled. The sheets are way cheaper and more convenient than getting clothes professionally cleaned, but sometimes you can’t avoid taking it in. I’ve tried Dryel and Woolite and they both work well.