Creating a Professional Wardrobe on a Budget

Written by

Abbey Harris


March 24, 2018


One of the challenges of a working life is choosing what to wear. The good news is that no matter what your budget is, there are ways to create a professional wardrobe without breaking the bank.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama famously told Harper’s Bazaar that her husband, President Barack Obama, “wore the same tuxedo to formal events for all his eight years in office.” In an interview with Vanity Fair, Obama himself said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m…wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.”

This is relevant advice, even for us non-presidentials. By streamlining the outfits you have to choose from for work, you can help yourself avoid decision fatigue–or what Fast Company defines as “the mental equivalent of hanger, that dreaded combination of hunger and anger.” So, by using up all your decision making energy in the morning (by deciding what to wear), you may be less likely to make good or sensible decisions later in the day.

The secret to a budget friendly, but professional wardrobe is….the capsule wardrobe.

A capsule wardrobe is a small collection of clothing in which all the pieces easily mix and match. In fact, Business Insider revealed that the phrase was coined by Susie Faux in the 1970s as she sought to “describe a minimal wardrobe composed of 30 to 40 high-quality, versatile items that will meet your needs for a given amount of time.” Embracing the capsule wardrobe doesn’t mean throw out every piece of clothing you own, just limiting your selection of work-appropriate clothing to a handful of items that all go together. A good way to start this is to pick a few items you already have in your closet that you love for work and start building your capsule to include those pieces.

what to wear to workStylebook App gives some rules to get started: like choosing your color palette (limit to two to four colors), picking enough shirts for one week and choosing conservative hemlines and items with the best fit.

Faux built her capsule wardrobe (all clothes, not just professional) with 37 items for each three-month long season. Her capsule included “five pairs of shoes, three pairs of pants, one skirt, two coats, one rain jacket, one blazer, one cardigan, three dresses, one romper, five blouses, three sweaters, two tees, one button down and one tank top.” Jess Atkins, author of the Stylebook article, had 23 items that included “six shirts, five bottoms, two jackets, two dresses, two bags and six pairs of shoes” to build her work capsule.

When picking the shirts, Atkins suggests making sure that every bottom in the capsule matches at least three different tops, but both of your jackets should look good with all tops. She also encourages “including some subdued patterns” like stripes, dots or geometrics because “they are fun, but still office-appropriate,” but suggests trying to “avoid anything overly bold if you’re planning on keeping a small office wardrobe” as you might feel self-conscious if you wear it frequently.

While picking the items for the wardrobe is important, it’s equally important to create a budget for the capsule and stick to it. Additionally, ignore the trends and stick with classic and timeless pieces and consider the versatility of an item before adding it.

What is your go-to work look? Could you function in this capsule capacity? Share your comments below!

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 Photo: President Barack Obama (Source:


Written by:  Abbey Harris

Abbey Harris is a communications professional with more than 10 years experience working in government, education and retail. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in Communication and Information, both from the University of Tennessee.

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