Dressing Professionally in the Workplace

Author(s): Christina Kalel, M.A.

Originally posted: May 4, 2016

It started with a conundrum: I wanted to attend the UA's Career Fair, but wasn't sure how to dress professionally. Why? Well, I'd worked in a warehouse for over 4 years and my work "wardrobe" was simply comfortable shirts and shorts for 12 hours of intense physical labor - as well as lots of random knee-high socks to make people smile. I loved my job, but also knew I couldn't do it forever; the Career Fair gave me a chance to "dress like a grownup" and prepare for a more professional future.

When I did a quick search online, the results were daunting - so many options for female professional wear, and no one-size-fits-all advice! Added to that was the problem of budget; I couldn't afford a whole set of nice clothing, and generally shopped at the thrift store when I needed something. How was I supposed to pull together something professional, comfortable, and affordable? I needed advice from someone I trusted...

So I asked Dr. Brown, because her personal style always looked amazing. And she pointed out that I wasn't the first female student to ask her about this - because professional clothing for women is complicated, and the array of options can be exhausting for someone new to it. We decided to put together a workshop to address all these problems, including advice for doing it as cheaply as possible.

Who this post is for

Anyone like me! This post is for you if:

  • You find yourself wondering how to afford nice clothing that will help you look polished...

  • You're working in a new environment, with stricter rules about what you wear...

  • You need to fit a dress code, but don't have hundreds of dollars to spend on clothing...

  • You feel your current outfits don't fit YOU, and are uncomfortable when you dress for work...

  • Or if you're just curious about the topic and want some quick tips and resources!

What is the impression you want to make at work?

If your workplace has a required uniform, or involves a lot of physical labor, your clothing choices will be limited to purely functional ones - but you probably also aren't reading this post.

Research shows...

When you start to work in a more professional environment, your choices for what to wear can seem endless (as can the potential pitfalls of making the wrong choice). While formal business wear is fairly self-explanatory, dressing "business casual" is less so (Saiki, 2013), leaving many job seekers (or recent hires) without the information they need to dress appropriately.

Uncertainty Confidence

Dressing more formally can improve your self-perception, allowing you to feel more competent and professional at work.(Karl, Hall, & Peluchette, 2013). First impressions also rely heavily on clothing, and can even determine how much money people think you should earn, or how successful you are assumed to be (Kwantes, Lin, Gidak, & Schmidt, 2011).

DIY your own workshop (at home!)

So what can you do to cut down on the uncertainty? I recently piloted a workshop which teaches the basics of female professional attire, and learned a lot from the participant feedback. Some of the highlights mentioned:

  • Dressing more conservatively to begin with means you'll never look under-dressed at work - and you can dress down as you become accustomed to the style of your particular workplace. Basic suit pieces go a long way when paired with other items of clothing!

  • When choosing your makeup, be sure that you're choosing matte colors - no glitter, sparkly or glossy colors.

  • Shop clearance racks at department stores - if you know what you need (or shop off-season) you can pick up great quality clothing for hardly any cost.

  • Nordstrom offers in-store tailoring (for free!) of anything you buy there.

  • There are also a lot of choices online for clothing: subscription boxes, like Stitch Fix, Gwynnie Bee, Le Tote...; for makeup, I enjoyed Ipsy, and Birchbox has a lot of options as well.

If you still want to read (or view) more about the topic, below are some of the best links I used to design the workshop!



  • While this video isn't geared towards someone with a limited budget, I still found the visuals helpful - it's nice to see examples of the different clothing items.

  • A quick demonstration of simple, work makeup (and how to apply it).

  • The first three minutes of this video show off several work-appropriate hairstyles (for medium-long hair), the last three minutes show off some options for interview clothing.

  • Knowing how to tie a scarf is a useful way to add variety to a basic outfit (and the video is only 2.5 minutes!)

Other Resources

  • Dress for Success is a non-profit that works to help women achieve independence - they offer free professional clothing, workshops, and networking tools.

  • Your Sister's Closet is located in Tucson, AZ - they provide struggling women with a week's worth of professional clothing, makeup, hygiene supplies for free. All their supplies come from community donations.

  • This list has resources for pretty much anything to do with being a woman, having a career, or being online.

  • The YWCA also supports the Women's Business Center, which is a great resource for anyone thinking about starting their own business!

I had a wonderful time researching and interviewing for this workshop, and met with some amazing professional women who shared their stories. And the funny thing is, having to take all this information and package it up for other people really solidified it in my mind! I don't have the "perfect" wardrobe yet, but I do know what I need and can pick up great deals when they appear. When dressing for job interviews or career events, I feel more confident and skilled; and this feeling affects my bearing, the way I talk, and how people react to me. I was even able to pilot the workshop without breaking a sweat - and I used to be terrified of public speaking!

If this has been helpful to you, please share it! And I'll leave you with this call to action: what are the two words you would use to describe your personal style? One word should describe how you see yourself (mine is simple) and one word should describe how you want others to see you (fun!). If you know those two words, it makes shopping for any clothing a LOT easier.

Happy professionalling!

- Christina

Image by Kai Pilger from Pexels .


Saiki, D. (2013). Identification of workplace dress by low-income job seekers. Journal of Employment Counseling, 50, 50–58. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-1920.2013.00024.x

Karl, K. A., Hall, L. M., & Peluchette, J. V. (2013). City employee perceptions of the impact of dress and appearance: You are what you wear. Public Personnel Management, 42 (3), 452-470. doi:10.1177/0091026013495772

Kwantes, C. T., Lin, I. Y., Gidak, N., & Schmidt, K. (2011). The effect of attire on expected occupational outcomes for male employees. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 12 (2), 166-180. doi:10.1037/a0020872