When I started my first real job after college one of my biggest struggles was trying to invest in professional clothes without breaking the bank. Over the last several years, I’ve developed an approach to “classifying” my closet that really works for me, and it’s something I get asked about a lot. I live by the philosophy that my clothes should tell a story about who I am, and I try to dress accordingly. I’ve also seen as I’ve managed young women that too often they didn’t think about how they were dressing at work.
In many ways the Classified Closet concept is the opposite of the now-trendy approach of a “capsule wardrobe,” so I’m well aware that it won’t appeal to everyone! But hopefully something in this guide is useful, regardless of your current profession or personal situation.
STEP 1: Clean out your closet & determine the purpose of your clothes
If you’ve read Marie Kondo’s “The Magic Art of Tidying Up” you know that she asks you to consider whether or not everything you own brings you joy. I thought this was a nice thought, but unfortunately I own many necessary things (a vacuum, trash cans, eyebrow tweezers, night cream, etc.) that don’t bring me any joy. My approach to this is to instead ask… does everything I own have a purpose? If you can’t think of a purpose for an item of clothing you own, donate it.
My closet is not organized by type of clothing, it’s organized by purpose. I have seperate wardrobe items for seperate mindsets. This keeps my clothes nicer for longer (because they’re worn less and for the right purpose) and also helps me get into the mood for whatever I’m conquering that day.
A few questions to ask yourself as you go through your closet:
Do you wear workout clothes when you’re not working out? Consider devoting your workout clothes to only working out and finding a comfortable solution for lounging/cleaning/running errands, etc.
Do you have a few pieces you know you can easily grab and wear for a last minute professional event/job interview? Consider putting these items (I’d suggest a dress, skirt, and a few nice tops) in one area of your closet so that they are easy to find in a hurry.
Do you have some clothes that you keep for work days only? Consider that having some clothes dedicated to your work wardrobe will help them last longer, and get you in the mood for taking on a tough day. Make sure that they abide by the standards that your company has set for dress. If you’re not sure what your work’s dress policy is, study what your boss is wearing, or ask them if what you’ve been wearing is appropriate.
Do you have a few casual outfits you love that can serve different purposes? I am a FIRM believer that every woman needs some clothes that she doesn’t ever wear to work. I have a few blouses, skirts and dresses that would be totally appropriate for my job, but I’ve instead chosen to keep them for date nights with my husband or for going out to dinner with my girlfriends. I also have a lot of clothes that are either way too casual or way to fancy for work. Several of my dresses I only wear to church, and others I only wear to work. They each have a purpose.
STEP 2: Decide which pieces you’ll invest in
It’s easy to feel like every piece in your closet has to be on one end of the spectrum; either expensive so it’ll last longer, or cheap because you can’t invest anything in your clothes. Yet the most important thing you can do is to decide which pieces you’re going to invest in by buying nicer brands and spend more money on, and which make sense to spend less money on.
Part of this process is determining what your personal style is. I recently read A Simplified Life by Emily Ley and she dedicates an entire chapter to helping you determine your style. After going through the process in her book, I’ve determined that my style is classic, feminine and preppy.
After you’ve thought about how you want to present yourself, think about what is worth investing your money in. This doesn’t all need to happen at once, but it can determine where you should start spending your money moving forward.
Here’s what I’ve chosen to invest in for my closet:
Boots: I have a few pairs of higher-end boots I got on sale because they can easily be repaired or re-soled by a good cobbler. Some of the pairs I’ve had for several years and they still look like new because I’ve taken good care of them. I’m sure I’ve actually spent less money over time by having a few nice pairs of boots than if I had bought cheaper ones each season.
Dresses: If I can find a dress that I love that works for my modesty standards and my body, I buy it. I try not to spend more than $100 on a nice dress, but again, if I find a dress I love I buy it. But that comes with a caveat… I won’t spend that much on a dress if it’s really trendy. I have a few dresses that I’ve had since college (including my favorite little black dress) that I still wear years later because they still look great and are classic styles.
Bags: I love a nice, polished, leather handbag, and I believe that every professional woman should have a beautiful work bag. I still use the first “briefcase” type bag I bought for myself when I got my first promotion seven years ago. It was $400, (which at the time was so insane!) but again, I still use it years later and it looks like new. It’s actually not cheaper to buy a new purse every three months because the handles start breaking!
Jeans/Pants: I have found that higher quality jeans last longer than the ones I used to buy at Forever 21… shocking, I know! I still try not to spend more that $100 on a pair of jeans, but I’d rather have 2 pairs I love that fit me well that will last forever, than five pairs of cheap jeans that aren’t very flattering or well-made.
Suits: Stay with me, even if you think I’m crazy. I LOVE blazers, but it makes so much more sense to buy suits than a blazer on its own. I have rarely worn a full skirt or pant suit (other than when I worked in politics), BUT I do wear the pants and blazers separately all the time. You can often find nice suits on sale at department stores for the same price as a nice blazer or pair of trousers, so it’s like buying one piece and getting one free! Blazers look great with jeans for a more casual day and instantly make me feel like I can take on the world.
I’ll stand by my belief that nothing is more universally flattering on women than a well-fitting blazer. If you don’t own a blazer or tailored jacket, I dare you to try one on next time you’re shopping.
STEP 3: Decide which pieces you can buy on the cheap
Once you’ve decided which classifications of your closet you’ll invest in, you need to make sure you’re not spending as much money elsewhere. Consider which pieces in your closet will get worn out regardless over time, or commit to only buying trendier clothes if they are cheaper. Something that’s really helped me spend money more intentionally on clothing is to keep a list on my phone of things I actually need. Then if I find something fun that I don’t really need, I make sure that it’s very affordable. Even then, I make sure that it has a purpose.
Here are the things I’ve decided that the quality doesn’t matter much to me:
Trendy items: I don’t like to invest in clothing I feel like will be obviously out of style in a year or two. If I really want to experiment with a trend, I just make sure whatever I buy is on major sale. This is something my mom taught me from a young age and it’s paid off. This way much of my closet stays “relevant” and I just swap out a few different items each season that are trendy.
Blouses: For the most part, I don’t spend more than $20 on any top I buy. This is where I like to hunt down sales and find good brands for less. I try to find tops that can be dedicated to one purpose; work, church or play (more on that below). This keeps each classification of clothing looking better for longer.
T-shirts/Casual Tops: I have never noticed a difference between a t-shirt from J Crew and one from Target (other than the price)… they all eventually wear out, and for the most part are seasonal, so I’d rather have a bunch from somewhere cheaper than a few pricey ones.
Exercise Clothes: A year or so ago I bought a bunch of exercise clothes from Lululemon, and yet I still find myself grabbing my Old Navy yoga leggings instead because I like the fit and feel better. I know that might be blasphemous to Lululemon lovers, but I just don’t find the quality to be worth the price. I would also rather have several cute and fun workout tanks and leggings to choose from than just a few “nicer” ones.
Flats/Casual Shoes/Heels: For me, the most important factor with shoes is comfort, but that doesn’t mean they have to be expensive. I also end up trashing my work shoes (specifically flats and heels) regardless of how much money I spend on them. By spending a little less on flats I get to have more to choose from each morning. I actually have a separate place in my closet for work heels and another for fun/night out/not as comfortable heels.
STEP 4: Change your mindset when you’re shopping
While many of these tips apply specifically to working women, I think this concept is the most universal. Don’t just buy clothes to buy clothes; determine what mindset you are in need of an outfit for.
If you’re a stay at home mother and you struggle with a certain aspect of your role, consider how changing your approach to the way you dress may help you. Up for a promotion at work? Go find something you can regularly wear to set yourself up for success. Shopping purposefully is really tough (raise your hand if you know the struggle of being on the hunt for one specific thing and not finding it!) but it’s a much smarter way of approaching your closet.
When I shop, I don’t ask myself if I love or need something, I determine exactly where and when I’d wear it. It’s crazy how much that simple question has stopped me from buying cute clothes I just didn’t need. I then dedicate that item of clothing to the purpose it was bought for. That doesn’t mean I am crazy intense about not ever wearing clothes I bought for work when I’m dressing casually, but it has completely revolutionized how I shop.
Bringing it all together
By classifying your closet, you will find that your mindset is influenced by what you’re wearing. This is already happening, but when it becomes intentional, so will your actions. For example, by forcing myself to only wear exercise clothes when I’m at the gym, I’m more productive when I’m running errands or cleaning my house.
When each piece has a purpose, you will actually need less, not more. I’d love to hear what you think and what experiences you have if you choose to classify your closet!