Building a professional wardrobe for work - Part I

Hi readers! I had some time this weekend and recorded a video, but bear with me as my macbook fan went crazy during the intro. By the time I switched computers, the sun was almost gone...oh, winter : (

I get a lot of questions from women who are just starting to work in business casual / formal environments, regarding where to begin when shopping for work clothes. My answer is usually to invest in black suiting separates (which also comes in handy for future interviews) and wear them as coordinates with what's already in your closet. After you have the basic suit down, you can then start building up with pretty blouses and more jackets & skirts in different colors and textures.

When I graduated from college I had just one black Theory jacket and an H&M suiting skirt that were altered to "fit." I pretty much wore that skirt every day with casual tops & cardigans that were already in my wardrobe, and threw on the jacket occasionally as needed. In this video I showcase those two basics, with tips about alterations:

Items shown:
- Black blazer: Theory "Branden" sz 00, retail $375 paid about $150 from outlet and $25 to shorten sleeves
- Black skirt: H&M suiting skirt sz 4, paid $30 retail and $20 for alterations (take in waist and sides)
- Basic pumps: Ann Taylor suede pumps sz 5, retail $155 paid $70 with their last stackable sale

Pretty costly, but since these are classic foundation pieces I am more willing to spend the $. I also started a small compilation of suiting reviews by extra petite bloggers. We definitely don't cover all the bases (ie. Ann Taylor suiting, LOFT suiting, Talbots petites, Brooks Brothers petites, and J.Crew now has 00P suiting) so let me know if you have reviewed a full suit from one of the above retailers.

Readers - what are the "foundation pieces" in your work wardrobe?


  1. My foundation pieces are a black v-neck shirt or cable-knit sweater (I add a scarf or a blingy necklace to mix it up), dark wash jeans, and a closetful of flats!

    I work in an odd environment, though. The company is super casual (engineers in t-shirts and shorts), but over in HR where I work we have the entire spectrum from shorts to pencil skirts. I try to hang out in the middle and save t-shirts for Fridays.

  2. Great video! You have such a soothing voice!

    My current position does not require suiting, but if I ever decide to go hunting for one, I will keep your tips in mind. Also, thanks for the tips on tailoring skirts...I would have never thought of that!

  3. My foundation pieces are probably my skirts and cardigans....I can mix so many tops in with them! I don't really need to wear blazers at work, which is good for me, cause I can never find one that fits me properly haha!

  4. Great video, thanks for the thorough explanation for what works, what doesn't work, and how much alterations cost for you.

    I also prefer skirts to pants and ended up buying a bunch of those J. Crew pencil skirts that I didn't initially like to get altered. The seamstress was willing to work on it as a batch for a discount and the material was nice enough that the sale price plus the alteration bill didn't exceed the retail price. I think those will become a new staple in my work wardrobe.

  5. Really good advice! I never thought about a lot of the little details you mentioned here, looking forward to your next work wardrobe video! p.s. LOL @ toe cleavage :)

  6. Great video and advice! I'm currently job-hunting and have been on the lookout for those essential interviewing/work wardrobe pieces. I'll definitely keep those alteration prices and tips in mind when shopping.

    Also, love your necklace! Where is it from?

  7. It looks like we have the same nail polish colour on, judging from your video. ^_^ I enjoyed watching your very informative video! I think your grey blazer looks a lot better when you treated it like a one-button blazer.

    xx The Little Dust Princess

  8. Great video. My foundation pieces are definitely black pants and cardigans. I'd love to wear more skirts and dresses, but I feel kind of out of place when everyone tends to wear pants.

  9. Excellent video! I don't really need a full suit in my work environment, but still really great advice for blazer and skirt shopping. Great job!

  10. It's amazing what a simple deeper lapel can do to change the look and feel of a suit jacket! Plus it can better showcase whatever pretty blouse you have underneath :) The tips about altering skirts are really helpful too. Can't wait to see the next part! :)

  11. Hi babe, I am from Atlanta. I've been attending many events for networking and be a part of the socialites. It's all about how you dress, who you know and you'll get invited to all the events.
    I love your video. You have the best blog ideas. Love it!

  12. thanks for the video and tips! what would be a good suit to wear for medical school interviews? i'm very clueless about that and i'm pretty sure the only blazers i own are white, boyfriend style, and/or totally wrong for the occasion haha.

  13. This is a great video! I agree with Michelle about your soothing voice, lol.

    I agree with you about needing a well tailored black suit as a foundation piece. You can mix and match it so many ways. My professional wardrobe basics are pencil skirts in many different colors and textures (thick wool, tweed for winter, khaki, black, tan, charcoal lightweight wool for summer/spring) and cardigans!! I find that I wear a cardigan almost every day at work and so I can never have too many. Next I like ruffled blouses to go underneath or a blouse with at least some kind of interesting texture/detail. Last are some great comfy pumps and classic jewelry! I find that with these basics, I can almost effortlessly put together outfits that look polished without spending much time on them. Thanks for your video!!

  14. My foundation pieces are exactly what you stated in your video. I'm starting to think that we may be in similar fields. I, too, own more skirts than pants. Not because they're too long, but because they're too short! Petite pants are always too short on me =(

  15. Great video! I guess I'm pretty lucky to have my mom do my alterations for me. :P She is such a perfectionist that no bumpy zipper would pass through her inspection. I can't believe your alternations turned out like that- especially for $25.
    I've never really found a great black suit that I liked. It's always either in dark grey or black with pinstripes. The search continues.

  16. Great video and very informative! My foundation pieces are suiting pencil skirt, black trousers and a couple of blazers. My Mom usually does the alterations for me so I can save a bit of money and spend them towards better quality pieces. This video is extremely useful for someone who is starting their career in the professional environment.

  17. I like black or grey shift dresses, which work well when paired with cardigans at offices (or blazers).

    By the way, Jean, you don't have "shorter legs"/"longer torso." Your legs are very proportionate to your height.

  18. Great info and video as always. I have to agree on the foundation pieces. Nice suit/blazer is a staple item for me when I started working. Can't go wrong with that. I really have to invest and pay more for a high quality one.

  19. great video jean and lots of useful info! you always look so polished. my office is kind of causal. i can pretty much wear whatever i want besides jean. my the staple is a nice pair of black pants. lol! not much and i can pretty much wear whatever i want on the top as long as its not too revealing.

  20. This is exactly the type of advice that I need! Thanks so much for a comprehensive video. I really liked the alteration tips...good advice on the skirts since I had several that I've been wanting to take to the tailor.

  21. Great idea for video - one of my favourites! Those tips you gave - about the zipper on the side and waist band going around - are great. I had alterations where the zipper had not sit flat either. I will definitely be more selective with my skirts and jackets from now on (armed with your tips). I have yet to try AT pumps but I have a Guess one with toe cleavage. Simple but so classic!

    You are def one of the best petite gurus! Thank you for sharing.

  22. Very informative video! I had no idea about how much difference the lapel makes. Definitely something to look out for from now on.

    My foundation pieces (since I haven't actually started yet) are a gray blazer and black pants. I purposely went with gray because I find matching black pieces (especially from different brands) never seem to be the same exact shade.

  23. Thank you so much for a great video Jean!

    Like you I have a longer torso and also commute in flats or boots, so I also prefer skirts and dresses over pants. However I have no hips, so I gravitate towards tulip skirts over pencil. A must for me are pockets on my skirts and dresses, both for functionality and to add a touch of volume to my hips.

    My work outfit usually includes a silky blouse (preferably sleeveless), just-over-the-knee-length skirt, with a blazer or cardigan over top. I can never have enough cardis since I'm always a little chilly. Finally I spent a small fortune on my black patent-toe leather pumps from prada, but they are really comfy and have lasted over two years and still look great. I think it's worth it to spend more on quality classic items, especially when you have found it in your size. Like you say, it costs more to dress petite.

    A note to the med school interview petite: I remember going to those interviews. Most girls wear the same thing - black or navy suit with a crisp button up underneath. Whatever you chose, I suggest you wear something comfortable so that it's the last thing on your mind! And keep makeup and accessories to a minimum.

  24. Hi, Jean--
    Suiting is the most difficult wardrobe item to find and the most expensive to tailor. I regularly spend extra money to shorten the sleeves from the shoulder to maintain the spacing and the look of the buttons. Your tips are really excellent.
    I also wanted to say that I really appreciate your articulateness and poise. These are rare gifts in our day and age!
    - Lisa (smallerthanthou)

  25. Hi Jean. I love your video so much. very useful advice. By the way, I am looking for a perfect peal necklace like yours. do you have some suggestions on that?

  26. ahhhhhh what a great video! It was seriously informative and you looked gorgeous! Thanks for the tips on the risks of bringing in the shoulders of a blazer and skirts. I'll stay away from clothing that need those kinds of alterations :)

    I don't work in a corporate environment but if I ever do, I'm glad I got a good intro to what investment pieces to buy :)


  27. Coming from the desert, I'm still rocking a short sleeve skirt suit from Ann Taylor - given our current temps over the last few weeks, I definitely need something long sleeve!

    I can usually find pants that more or less fit, it's the blazer that drowns me. Is Theory worth the splurge? I passed by the Wrentham Outlets the other day and thought of you...

  28. I have a question. At the shoulders, should my arms in a well fitted blazer not budge out?

  29. This is what me and I'm sure hundreds of thousands of other girls need to know - I have never really had a good sense of what to look for and am literally lost when I look for nice work clothes. This is seriously helpful (I don't think you know how fashion impaired I truly am, I take so many cues from your blog)

    Thank you so much for sharing - I know how much time blog posts take and you have always done an amazing job with keeping your blog fresh, fun, interactive & super informative!

    My business staple is a more business-casual approach with polo shirts and polos. However, I'd love to add some fun shirts & accessories in the future as I start building my new late-twenties wardrobe. :)

  30. Thank you so much everyone for your kind and thoughtful comments. This video was a little slow-paced so I'm amazed some of you watched it through.

    @Yan @Jamie Yan and Jamie - the necklace is an akoya pearl set (with stud earrings) I ordered on ebay from a Chinese seller. I was slightly skeptical but they had tons of feedback. The set was $25 and the pearls obviously have some irregularities, but it does the job for me! I wear the set almost daily.

    @Curvy Petite D - it's pretty important for arms not to bulge out (as well as vice versa, shoulder pads should not bulge out). Do you have example pics for your blog?

    @Megan I think Theory is worth the splurge for a classic black suit, and by splurge I mean outlet prices (which are still pricey at 50% off retail). You should definitely check out Wrentham! I'm shocked you drove by and didn't have the urge to scope it out ; )

  31. Also thank you guys for sharing you work staples. You can't really go wrong with cardigans and pencil skirts!

    @Elle I really like the material and heaviness of the J.Crew wool pencil skirts, but they're so expensive to begin with! How much did you get quoted to take in all your skirts?

    @Anonymous Lisa - That's so sweet of you and thank you for watching. Articulateness and poise? I can't say I've ever heard those compliments before ; )

    @Helen I'm with you, I like a little oomph at the hips but sometimes I go overboard and there's a fine line between tulip and bubble skirts. Thanks for sharing your advice regarding med school interviews. I always read that the goal when dressing for interviews should be to take the emphasis and attention OFF your outfit, so a sleek and conservative black/gray/navy suit should do just fine.

    @R.L.The lapel makes such a difference, yet I'm still guilty of buying stuff that violates that rule...sigh. Also, I agree with you on how blacks never seem to match, so gray on black seems to be a good idea. When photographed, the coordinates I'm wearing in the video look horrid together! The shades look like day and night. Yet I still lie to myself and wear the two pieces together...

    @Canadianpetite Petite gurus? Oh man, I've never heard that one before either. You are too nice to me ; ) Well they don't have AT for you Canadian petites, right? You'll have to try them on when you're visiting in the states.

  32. @Stephanie @PetiteLittleGirl I was soo upset about the bumpy zipper! I asked the tailors to re-do the purple skirt, but they convinced me the black side zip was fine. Oh how I wish my mom (or me, I guess) could do alterations...why is it that so many readers have mom's that can do alterations for them?

    @CynthiaC Shift dresses are always awesome, too bad I don't have any gray/black ones! And I know you always say that I'm proportionate lol, but I can always dream of a few extra inches...

    @TinyInTexas I love your idea of staples. Reminds me of your summer work ensemble!

  33. Your video was so awesome. You definitely covered the foundations of buying the perfect work suit. Very through, great job!!

  34. very helpful video! i can't wait for your next one! (=

  35. I'm lucky to work in an office that's pretty casual and laidback. Most of the employees are programmers so they wear jeans and hoodies to work :(

    The key pieces in my work wardrobe are a pair of black trousers, an A-line skirt, a feminine blouse, and a pair of sexy pumps (lol, gotta spice it up a bit :p)

  36. Just stumbled across your blog when doing searches for skirt suits for short women. Have to say... LOVE IT! Thanks so much for sharing. I am barely 4'll and have been having an extremely difficult time looking for suits to prepare for my future interviews. I will be referring to your blog entries to help me accomplish this task. :)


I love hearing your comments and opinions.

Please do not post a blog or giveaway link here (unless relevant). Thank you!

Pin It button on image hover