Though military members don't live in their uniforms 24/7 for 20-plus years, dressing appropriately for liberty doesn't exactly prepare you to dress like a civilian professional upon transition. How do you know what you'll need when you don't know what job you'll have?
First order of business: a suit to wear to job fairs and interviews only. Get something that is going to be appropriate in the most conservative geographic location and industry in which you plan to apply for jobs. Solid dark colors (black, navy, dark gray) are good choices. Pants or skirts both generally are acceptable in most industries, so go with what makes you feel most confident.
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Pair with a different solid-color blouse or button-down shirt. Wear minimal jewelry and subtle makeup and nail color. Nails and hairstyle should be neat and professional. Shoes also should be conservative and in pristine condition. A 1- to 2-inch heel is best. Make sure to inspect your entire outfit a few days before the interview to give yourself time to dry clean or shine shoes if necessary. Don't forget to clip any threads holding slits together, but consider leaving those in the pockets to present a neater appearance (unless the stitching is obvious).
Many organizations conduct multiple interviews with a candidate, so you might want to think about either purchasing a second suit or adjusting the blouse and accessories to accommodate subsequent meetings with the same crowd. But unless you are sure you'll be wearing a suit to work every day, avoid spending too much money buying multiple suits.
Try to wait until you have a job offer and understand the dress code before beginning to build your full professional wardrobe. However, if you can, put some money aside each month specifically for that purpose as you approach transition, or perhaps purchase a few items but leave the tags on so you can return if not ultimately needed. Once you're able to assess the dress code of your new office, begin building with classic pieces that will mix and match nicely. Add variety with less expensive items like blouses and scarves.
If you find yourself starting work before your wardrobe is where you want it to be, consider consignment shops or a subscription to a clothing-by-mail service. For casual to business casual, Le Tote sends clothing you can keep or return after wearing, and Stitch Fix or Golden Tote each give you a few days to decide to buy or return new clothing before wearing. A quick online search will reveal many other choices to decide what works for you.
Here are few other favorites for building and sustaining a nice work wardrobe:
- Nordstrom's Trunk Club is a good choice for personal shopping by mail for anything from casual to business formal.
- MM.LaFleur (also mostly online, with fun boutiques in a few major cities) offers quality feminine executive business wear.
- For traditional shopping, Banana Republic, Talbots, and Brooks Brothers have great choices for professional women.
- For shoes, check out DSW, Nine West, big department stores, and Zappos and Rothy's.