How to buy work clothes on a budget
Doing an internship or about to start a graduate job? Getting yourself a work wardrobe doesn't have to cost the world – here's how to get smart work clothes for low prices…
Whether you're starting your first graduate job, doing some part-time work over summer or heading on an internship, it's important that you have the clothes you need to make a good first impression and fit in to the workplace.
Of course, all workplaces are different – some might require professional or formal attire, while some might keep it pretty casual – and knowing what each dress code actually means in reality can be a nightmare.
To give you a helping hand, we've not only got a guide on to where to shop for work clothes, but also what kind of clothes you should be buying for each of the main three dress codes; professional, smart casual and casual.
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Where to buy cheap work clothes
The first hurdle you'll face when you need new work clothes is where to actually look for them – especially when you're on a budget.
If you think that the only places which sell smart work clothes are designer brands, think again. Whether you head to the high street or go second-hand, there's no need to splash out loads of money on work attire.
On the high street
If you know what to look for, you'll be able to find work clothes in most of your favourite high street stores. Here's our pick of some of the cheapest:
- Primark – This should be your first port of call when shopping for work clothes. They stock loads of smart causal stuff, like shirts, trousers, skirts and dresses, although you might struggle a bit of you're looking for more professional clothes
- George at ASDA – Smart work clothes might not be the first thing you think of when shopping at ASDA, but their workwear range at George offers great value for money
- ASOS – Use your student discount to the max and check out the workwear range at ASOS. They do smart blazers, shirts and shoes as well as blouses, dresses, pencil skirts and heels. Keep an eye out for flash sales for even cheaper deals
- New Look – Now stocking menswear as well as women's clothes, New Look have a whole range dedicated to workwear at reasonable prices. Again, don't forget to make use of that student card for extra savings
- H&M – These guys have an absolutely huge range of workwear for both men and women that's not only high quality, but super smart too
- Next – This definitely isn't your cheapest option, but if you want to invest in a timeless piece – a three-piece suit, for example – Next provides good quality at a fraction of the price of designer brands.
If you've just bagged yourself a brand spanking new graduate job, then buying a new work wardrobe that will stand you in good stead for the next few years might be a good idea.
But if you're just doing a stint of work experience or an internship, buying a load of new clothes that you're only going to wear for a week is a bit of a waste of money.
Why not try buying them second-hand instead? You'll be saving yourself a whole load of cash, and you can easily sell them on again after you've used them to make some of your money back. Here's some of the best places to try:
- Try websites and apps like Depop and Vinted – They're becoming super popular for people wanting to sell on clothes they no longer need or want. You can often have a scout around in stores for the clothes you like, and then wait for them to pop up on apps like these a few weeks' later – for a fraction of the price!
- Charity shops – You might have to do some serious rummaging to get to the good stuff, but charity shops are full of great finds if you persevere. Get your work clothes for great prices, all while helping a worthy cause – use our charity shop shopping guide to get started
- Thrift shops – Ok, we get that most vintage thrift stores are stuffed to the brim with denim shirts and 90s tracksuits, but there will be some smart work clothes in there. Plus, if you're working in a smart casual office or an edgy startup, this could be a great way to show some flair.
How to dress professional for work
If you're working in an industry like finance, law or accounting, you'll likely be asked to stick to a professional or formal dress code – and it's probably what you should be wearing for most job interviews.
In a way, this is the easiest dress code to get right, as you're basically aiming to be as smart as you can. However, it can also be pricey – check out our guide to buying formal wear on a budget to see if you can save yourself some money.
Professional business clothing usually means a full suit and tie, or suit jacket with a skirt or dress.
To keep costs as low as possible, invest in a couple of pairs of good quality suit trousers, skirts or dresses and one suit jacket. This means you can switch up what you're wearing underneath throughout the week, without having to buy multiple suit jackets or blazers (which are likely to be the most expensive).
Also make sure that any clothes you buy are machine washable – the last thing you want is to splash out on an expensive suit, only to have to take it to the dry cleaners every time it needs a wash.
You'll probably be also asked to stick to plain or neutral colours, so no jazzy patterns or bold statement pieces.
Here's our suggested professional dress code checklist:
- Suit jacket or blazer
- White shirt with tie, or blouse/dress
- Suit trousers or skirt (mid-length or pencil skirts are good for this)
- Smart shoes – Brogues, Oxford shoes, black flats or heels
- Briefcase or handbag
Unfortunately, it's still not illegal for an employer to ask women to wear high heels to work – but we've got more on your dress code rights below.
How to dress smart casual for work
Smart casual is arguably the most tricky of the work dress codes. You have to get it spot on in the middle of formal and casual, and there's a bit more uncertainty about what it actually means in practice.
But don't panic – it's actually really straight forward. Avoid trainers, t-shirts and informal jeans and you'll be fine.
A smart casual dress code can be as simple as a casual shirt/ smart top and chinos. Button down shirts, polo shirts and dresses are generally accepted, and you usually have a lot more freedom with colour, patterns and jewellery.
Whether jeans are permitted is a bit of a grey area – some companies might allow them, and others might not. As a general rule, though, we'd advise only wearing jeans if they're completely black and not obviously denim – so they can pass as black trousers.
In winter, jumpers and cardigans over the top of your usual attire is typically accepted.
Here's what we'd suggest for a smart casual dress code:
- A shirt, smart top or dress
- Trousers like chinos, culottes or very black jeans
- Relaxed but smart shoes or boots (think leather or suede)
- A satchel bag
- A smart coat, like a trench coat or mac
How to dress casual for work
Casual dress codes at work aren't as rare as people think – if you work for a startup company, or in the creative industries, it's likely the dress code will be much more relaxed.
You might think casual translates into ‘wear whatever you want', but there are still some unspoken rules here.
Within reason, yes, you can whatever you feel most comfortable in, but you still have to keep it professional. So that means leaving the following at home:
- Tracksuits and sportswear (save it for the gym)
- Dirty clothes (your muddy trainers from the weekend will need a wipe down first)
- Football strips or other sports merchandise
- Your pyjamas (as tempted as you might be on a Monday morning).
As a guideline, as long as you're comfortable but still relatively smart, you're likely getting it spot on.
Here's what we'd recommend:
- A casual shirt, t-shirt or jumper
- Skirt or jeans (but stay away from ripped or distressed denim)
- Boots or trainers (Converse or similar are fine, just keep them clean)
- A rucksack or shoulder bag
- Any kind type of coat or jacket
4 top tips for nailing your work wardrobe
Find out the dress code first
Make sure to find out the dress code before your first day in a new job. Your manager might forget to pass this information on, so don't be afraid to ask – it'll save you lots of stress and hassle in the morning.
If they tell you the dress code and you're still a bit unsure, it's best to stay on the safe side and go slightly more formal on your first day. Then if you get there and see that everyone is more casual, you can switch your outfit to match from then on.
Be prepared to switch it up
Sometimes you might work in a job which doesn't require the same level of dress code every single day.
Say, for example, you work for a startup company. They might have a casual dress code most of the time, but you might be expected to dress smarter if you're meeting clients or attending events. You don't want to be caught out without anything to wear, so prepare one or two more professional outfits to have to hand just in case.
Don't forget the accessories
Most people spend so much time focusing on the clothes themselves that they forget about some of the extra bits and bobs – your coat, bag, watch and even stationery.
You might turn up for a board meeting in a smart suit, but if you pull out a chicken nugget themed notepad from your briefcase, you're not going to create the best impression.
Know your dress code rights
It's not illegal for an employer to enforce a dress code. However, if a dress code has a negative effect on you based on your age, gender, disability, religion, gender reassignment or sexual orientation, then it can be classed as discrimination – and you're within your rights to refuse (or take your employer to court).
Normally the only instance in which an employer can force a specific dress code, contrary to someone's religious beliefs for example, is for health and safety reasons. They might not permit loose clothing around machinery, for example.
Dress codes must apply to both men and women equally, although there can be different requirements. It's not illegal for employers to ask women to wear high heels, but it's been quite a hot topic in the media recently, and has generated some bad press for employers which do so.
Equally, employers are also allowed to ask employees to cover tattoos and remove body piercings (especially for safety or hygiene reasons), but after some public outcry, many strict no-tattoo policies are being reconsidered.
Another company hit the headlines recently for a uniform policy that banned dreadlocks, braids and beards – it was widely condemned by the public and described as discriminatory, leading the company to allow exceptions for religious reasons.
When it comes to succeeding in the workplace, you can't just walk the walk, you've also got to talk the talk. Check out our guide on how to act in your first graduate job.