Even though mum & dad taught us early on not to judge a book by its cover, we do anyway. Why? Because usually the cover can tell you a lot about a book… or a person. Of course, this isn’t always true, but I want to show you why it’s better to believe that it is.

Although I’m still young and have a lot of job roles and future employers ahead of me, my workplace experience is pretty extensive for someone my age. When I look back on the jobs I’ve had over the years, I start to remember some of my many colleagues and superiors, all from different cities and industries. I remember people who I immediately looked to and thought “wouldn’t it be nice to be that successful some day?” and others that made me think “he works so hard, and is such a smart person; why is he still in this department after so long?”.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my employment history, and trying to figure out how I can become one of those people who I had immediate respect for. What was it that instantly made me like them? It might’ve been any number of things, but I’m going to focus on just one of them for today: looking good.

A bit of effort here…

I’m not talking about trying to look like a VS supermodel at work or anything. I’m talking about looking put together, polished, and like a million bucks, even if you’ve only got a hundred to your name. There are people who take the time to get up in the morning and really think about what they’re going to wear, and people who do not. Even though both kinds of people can be hard-working, intelligent, and good at what they do, it’s easier to convey these qualities when you play to the effectiveness of snap judgements and first impressions.

…can help you fast track to here

The thing about working in an office is that it doesn’t take a $1000 suit or some Manolo Blahniks to garner peoples’ respect. You could be wearing a $30 shirt and your sister’s old pair of heels, and still look pretty great. Office attire for the most part is about quality and neutrality, not “the more you spend the better off you are”. This means wearing clothes that don’t stand out too boldly, and that can be worn multiple times in multiple ways. It’s like a giant mix-and-match. This is the best way for a new grad to build her wardrobe on a budget, without looking like she’s wearing the same thing every third day. And this is how I’ve learned to look and feel respectable, without having to shout it from the mountaintops (although I’ll find any reason to take a trip to the mountaintops).

Ain’t nothing beats a classic skirt! (or proper english…)

A good place to start in building your wardrobe is with a good pencil skirt and a good pair of pants, in either black or another neutral colour (grey, beige, navy, or brown). Make sure whatever colour you buy is going to match with the other items you have.

I would also recommend getting at least a week’s worth of shirts and blouses. Button-up shirts can be great, as well as silk blouses that will go with your pants or your skirts. I didn’t buy enough at first and felt like my outfit options were getting exhausted very quickly… no good!

These are some of my favourite shirt styles, but just make sure they’re not too sheer (wear another shirt underneath if they are!)

Many people recommend getting yourself a good suit for your first job, but personally I don’t. It obviously depends on what type of workplace you’re in, but for most I’d say that this is unnecessary. Instead, I bought myself a well-fitting black blazer that can be worn with pants or a skirt, and possibly even a dress (although this isn’t really a necessity).

Always wear tights when you are wearing a dress or a skirt at the office. Black is best, but beige, grey, or other dark colours can also work. Whatever you do, don’t try to get too Gossip Girl and attempt yellow, red, or other brightly coloured tights. Most people have no idea that this might be “stylish”, and the result is that you’ll end up emphasizing age differences with your outfit. This is bad, as you do not want people to see you as being too young or inexperienced.

I do love bright tights, but just not at work

Get a couple of good pairs of shoes for the office. When I got hired, I bought myself a pair of black flats, black pumps, and nude pumps. This was a great place to start, and they’ve given me so much versatility in my outfit options. It’s also worth spending a bit more money on shoes that don’t hurt your feet (or getting insoles for them), because it would be very undoing of your efforts to have to take your shoes off at work!

Some great shoe options similar to the ones I’ve purchased

Lastly, and something that I seriously overlooked, is the value of a couple good sweaters. In Vancouver, it doesn’t even get that cold outside (compared to my hometown in Ontario), but the office can be quite chilly. As a recently graduated student who loved to wear hoodies and yoga pants to class (yep, breaking the stereotype right there), most of my warm sweaters are too casual for the workplace. So if you work in a place that gets cold in the wintertime, definitely pick up something that will keep you warm and maintain the professionalism of your outfit.

I love this cardigan from H&M

One last thing to note: last year I made the mistake of trying to be too budget-friendly on my outfits. This resulted in me buying things that fell apart, wrinkled easily (and thus looked unkempt), or just didn’t sit right on my body–none of these is a recipe for looking great, nor are they comfortable to be wearing for 10 hours a day. So keep in mind that although you might not have a lot of money to spend on your new work wardrobe, sometimes sacrifices in the bank account need to be made.

Another easy option for the office: dresses!

If you’ve got any other great ideas for other versatile work-wear, please feel free to share. I know that I haven’t even nearly exhausted all of the fun things you can wear and accessorize with when you’re on the job, but this was my list of absolute staples that hopefully will help you out too. Happy shopping!