Looking and acting ‘like a grownup’ has always been tough for me. In college, I always had to borrow clothing for presentations or interviews because I had absolutely no acceptable attire. During my one year in grad school I used unfiltered colloquialisms in somewhat professional settings (talks, meetings) that probably made me sound much less intelligent than I am. The primping and prepping that many other women prioritize rarely appealed to me, so I often turned up looking, well, a little worse for the wear.
It’s not that I’m a disrespectful slob! It’s that all these elements of professional appearance—formal shoes, subtle makeup, matching jewelry, dressy clothing, good posture, filtered speech—just feel so foreign to me. So what if this shirt has holes, my socks don’t match, and I’m the only one wearing denim—I showed up and delivered good work, and that’s what counts…right?
Apparently not. I’ve learned that you have to look the part to play the part. Most professionals just can’t take you seriously if you’re rocking the “possibly homeless chic” look (one I have mastered) or “video game night attire” in an office setting. But on the other hand, the one-two punch of excellent work product plus crisp personal presentation works wonders.
How can you make the jump from the comfort of your usual style to work-worthy ensembles?
Whether you’re a student starting an internship in the corporate world, a teacher grappling with a new dress code, or a former punk finally getting a ‘real’ job, these tips (plus the CSR “Look as good as your work” Pinterest board!) should help you get going.
Get some perspective. Talk to a trusted mentor, family member, or work friend about how to look more put-together and professional. Maybe all you have to do is stop wearing a particular item, switch out your makeup, get a haircut, or just stop biting your nails! Or maybe you usually look fine, but need to clean up a bit for certain client meetings. Finally, you might have everything you need and actually just need to pair things correctly. Get some perspective before you go out and buy things you don’t need.
Purge. Get rid of the clothing, shoes, and jewelry that are broken, shabby, or don’t fit. It’s tempting to keep that adorable dress, but it’s pilled and horribly contorted from that time you put it in the regular
Felicity and one of her color block dresses.
wash—throw it out. If you don’t have it, you can’t wear it.
Find inspiration. You may not like to wear office-appropriate outfits, but maybe a character in a TV show you watch does! My personal inspiration is Felicity Smoak and her edgy dresses from Arrow, but you might prefer Jake Peralta’s laid-back neckties from Brooklyn 99 or the sleek boardroom attire from Suits. You can also look for ensemble ideas on Pinterest or Polyvore to give you a starting point. Don’t underestimate the power of “playing pretend.”
Raid the bargain bins. I’m not saying you should buy poor-quality clothing, but if budget is a limiting factor, check clearance racks, discount clothing stores, and thrift stores before buying really expensive items that you can’t afford.
Make it personal. You don’t have to abandon all elements of your personal style. If you usually wear nerdy t-shirts, sneak in a Nightwing tie, TARDIS cuff links, a Middle Earth skirt, or a Groot bracelet. If you’re partial to comfortable shoes, try flats or wedges, which are much easier to walk in than regular heels. If you usually wear just workout attire, try thick tights and oversize dresses (sorry gents, you’re out of luck with this one). And hey, there’s always Casual Fridays for everything else.
Get a secret identity. If you feel weird dressing and acting “appropriately,” think of your job as
Hope these tips are helpful for the other 20-somethings struggling to transition into a professional appearance. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Please share in the comments or on social media!
PS: I created a Pinterest board with articles, infographics, guides, and inspiration relevant to this post—check it out.