Do Wardrobe Costs Prevent People From Moving Up in Their Careers?

Dressing for the job you want seems like one of the financial barriers to success. But building a work wardrobe needn't be a hurdle.
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  • As the role of the office is reevaluated, the perception of work wear is changing.
  • In a recent survey, workers identified their work wardrobe as a financial barrier to success.
  • How to dress for work is a factor that impacts both your performance and perception.
  • You can still dress for the job you want on a budget.

The tech industry is trending towards t-shirts and flip-flops. Your work-from-home looks are making their way into the office. "Power casual" is replacing business casual. All evidence might seem like it points to the contrary, but your work wardrobe can still impact everything from your productivity to how swiftly you climb the corporate ladder.

The adage used to be "dress for the job you want." And researchers suggest that this still holds true. Studies have found that what you wear to work affects how others perceive you and even how well you work. And yet, of 1,303 employed Americans recently surveyed by BestColleges, 16% identified wardrobe expenses as a financial barrier to securing a job or changing careers.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Financial Barriers to Changing Jobs

Of the working Americans recently surveyed by BestColleges, about 1 in 4 (23%) said that financial barriers kept them from changing jobs in the last five years.

Navigating a gap or change in healthcare coverage (36%), taking time off to undertake a job search (32%), and expenses related to improving or reinforcing skills (30%) were major financial factors that keep workers from pursuing a career change.
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Wardrobe expenses, too, were identified as a financial barrier. And female workers were nearly twice as likely as their male counterparts to suggest that the need for clothing to interview or start a job was a primary barrier they faced in changing jobs.

Does What We Wear Affect Our Productivity?

There's a perception that the modern office has abandoned workwear in the wake of work from home or as more casual hybrid work environments become the norm. But research still supports that what we wear in the office can affect everything from critical thinking skills to the likelihood of that promotion or raise coming your way.

Throughout five different experiments, researchers from California State University at Northridge and Columbia University found that the formal dress that used to be standard for the office can enhance abstract thinking and decision-making. Formal clothing, they argue, creates "social distance" between the wearer and their work. This distance elevates a worker's ability to think on more abstract, complex levels.

A pre-pandemic survey of employees by Hive suggested that 61% are more productive with a casual dress code. But as the pandemic set in, another survey conducted by workwear brand Qua found that 85% of women felt that getting dressed up to work from home increased their productivity.

How to Buy New Work Clothes on a Budget

How to dress for work doesn't have to be one of many financial barriers to career advancement. Building a wardrobe that fits both your budget and your vision of dressing for the job you want is possible if you strategize. Here are our tips for investing in new work clothes on a budget.

Assess Your Workwear Needs

As companies reevaluate the role of the office, you should also take some time to think about how you fit into this changing landscape. Will you be in the office all five days of the week? Or are you looking for fully remote work?

Assessing how work (and, by extension workwear) will fit into your life can help you figure out what you really need to purchase. If you aren't going to be working in a formal workspace full-time, you may not need a formal business outfit for every day of the week.

Recognize that Building a Wardrobe is a Process

You don't need to go out and buy your entire work wardrobe in one go. So many factors — from figuring out your style to your company's dress code — take time to think through. Building your work wardrobe will be a process, and taking it slow is ok.

Invest in the Essentials

Some workwear staples will never entirely vanish. Style experts say that classic pieces like the black dress, blazer, and neutral shoes are always worth investing in or splurging on.

Once you've landed your new job, you might be tempted to celebrate by buying a big-ticket item that won't be a part of your working wardrobe. A better strategy, according to experts, is to use those splurge moments to invest in the essentials.

Furthermore, author Jill Swanson recently told Today that shoppers should focus their spending on pieces worn on the top two-thirds of the body. This is the area that most people focus on in real life, but it's also always in the frame on your Zoom calls.

Bottom Line

Just like the modern office itself, workwear is changing. Dressing for the job you want should still be a consideration when building your work wardrobe. But the process of finding your style at work and building a wardrobe that fits your needs doesn't have to be a financial barrier to your career success.

Frequently Asked Questions About Wardrobe at Work

What should you not wear to work?

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Although the rules around what is appropriate to wear in the office are changing, it's a good idea to keep trends like crop tops, athleisure, and clubwear out of your work wardrobe.

Clothing that's too casual, revealing, or uncomfortable to work long hours in is not practical whether you are working from home or in the office nine to five. Try to find creative ways to incorporate your personal style into the standards for workwear instead of the other way around.

What are the four basic types of workplace attire?

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Office dress codes fall into four basic categories: business formal, business professional, business casual, and casual. Business formal is typically reserved for those working with executives and other high-level associates. For women, neutral colors, tailored suits, ties, and formal pantsuits are the norm.

Business professional preserves the trappings of business formal but is more flexible in terms of pattern and color. Business casual integrates casual pieces like the t-shirt or the sweater with more elevated pieces like the blazer, heel, and work pant. Finally, casual embraces well-maintained, casual pieces like jeans, sneakers, and open-toed shoes.

Does it matter how you dress at work?

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Numerous studies have found that how you dress at work can affect everything from your own productivity to how your colleagues perceive you. In short, it does matter how you dress at work.

But just because you need a wardrobe appropriate for work doesn't mean you need to let go of your personal style or dress in a financially burdensome way. Building a wardrobe over time instead of rushing out to shop the minute you land the interview or the job can create a financially sustainable model for how to dress for work.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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