Transition your wardrobe from college to work in 3 easy steps: 'Build a uniform for yourself'

Photo: Envato Elements; Graphic design by Gene Kim

Learning how to dress for your first job post-graduation can be confusing at best, and frustrating at worst. What does "business casual" even mean? Is there an unspoken dress code for working from home? 

These questions, and others, might be haunting you in the weeks and months following graduation.

The good news is that even though you might have to trade in your sweatpants for slacks at the office, you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars re-building your wardrobe for your post-grad career.

Learn from your co-workers

Before you spend a whole paycheck on new clothes, take note of how your colleagues are showing up to work: Are people wearing sneakers to the office, or are dress shoes an unspoken requirement? Do people wear blazers on video calls, or take them in sweatshirts?

Or, "have a conversation with the hiring manager or recruiter you worked with," says Christine Cruzvergara, the chief education strategy officer at Handshake. "They should be able to provide you with some expectations and advice when it comes to presentation … or, you can ask your school's career services office."

It's also important to understand what different corporate dress codes, which can range from "casual" to "formal," mean, she adds. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, "power casual" has become the dominant trend in offices. 

"'Power casual' generally means pairing elevated pieces of clothing with more relaxed pieces," says Cruzvergara. "Think of pairing a blazer with jeans, a trendy t-shirt with a silk skirt, or a dress with chic sneakers." 

You only need a few basic pieces to build your professional wardrobe, including low-top sneakers and a comfortable pair of slacks.
Illustration by Gene Kim

Build your own 'uniform'

When Syd Andrews graduated college in 2019 and started her first job as a commercial interior designer — which meant waking up two hours earlier and driving 30 minutes to her office in Boulder — she strived to put in "the least amount of effort as possible" while still looking put-together.

Her hack? "Build a work uniform for yourself," the 25-year-old says.

Andrews recommends all recent graduates, regardless of style or gender identity, consider investing in a pair of trousers, dark wash jeans, a loose-fitting blazer, neutral crew-neck t-shirts, and a pair of formal shoes, whether it's a loafer or boot with a small heel.

"When I was working in an office, I had set outfits that I mixed and matched and cycled through, so I never had to stress about what to wear," says Andrews, who is now a fashion blogger living in San Diego. "I always felt comfortable and confident."

Ultimately, a true capsule wardrobe should "extend beyond your life at work and have items you're excited to wear on the weekend, going out with friends and running errands, too," says Ali Howell Abolo, an associate professor and program director of fashion design at Drexel University.

When in doubt, go back to black

Start with a neutral palette, which works for any season or professional dress code. 

"Anything that doesn't have a busy pattern or adhere to a specific, timely trend will always have a place in your wardrobe," says Howell Abolo. "Think about solid black, brown and navy shirts, or a loose-fitting white button-down, which never goes out of style."

Simple, classic pieces that are one or two colors tend to be easier to care for, too, so they last a long time, she adds. "Consider the washing directions on the tag before buying something," says Howell Abolo. "If it requires constant dry-cleaning or ironing, that could get expensive, or tiring, quickly."

Don't stress about gendered dress code restrictions

Some companies still adhere to gender-specific dress codes, so you might come across a dress code that suggests "appropriate outfits" for men and women, whether it's recommending chinos for men or dresses for women, says Yen Tan, one of the co-founders of Kona, a Slack-integrated employee wellness platform.

But what if you don't identify with either gender?

"Unfortunately, how we dress at work can be very political," says Tan, who identifies as non-binary. "It all depends on your relationship with your co-workers and the expectations your office sets."

While Tan, 23, almost exclusively works from home in Los Angeles, they still prefer slacks and a loose-fitting crewneck shirt over less formal wear. "I just know that if I'm working in pajamas, I feel lazier and more tired," Tan explains. "Dressing up in work clothes helps me focus and feel more alert."

Yen Tan pairs a neutral long-sleeve shirt with an oversized blazer for an easy, put-together professional look.
Photo: Yen Tan

Yen's best advice for gender-nonconforming people feeling anxious about what to wear on the job is to stay true to yourself, regardless of what a dress code dictates. 

"At the end of the day, what matters most is that you feel comfortable and present your best self forward," Tan says.

It also helps to think of your professional wardrobe as "armor," they add. "If I have a big presentation, I think about getting dressed that morning as 'armoring up,' whether I'm slipping on a charm bracelet or my favorite blazer, whatever makes me feel more confident," says Tan.

"When you're confident, people can feel that radiate off of you, and it has less to do with the clothes you wear and more to do with how those clothes make you feel."

The best lesson Tan has learned after three years of dressing up for work almost every morning is that there's always room for error when it comes to building a professional wardrobe. "Your closet is something that continuously grows with you," says Tan. "You don't have to get it right on the first try, so don't put too much pressure on yourself."

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