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How to Build a Quality Work Wardrobe on Budget

When I graduated from college and started working, the most exciting part was actually building my work wardrobe. Of course it is never-ending and I still add to it from time to time. But if I had known then what I know now, my closet would only be filled with affordable, high quality, long-lasting pieces and I wouldn’t have spent as much money stumbling along the way.

I wished that there had been a quick and dirty list of everything I needed to get started. Of course this is not a one stop shop, but it is definitely a good foundation for a work wardrobe on budget.

My Wardrobe Selections – Basics133039766

The List

1. Crisp White Button Down Shirt
2. Blouse
3. Sheath Dress
4. Trouser
5. Pencil Skirt
6. Clean Cut Blazer
7. Cardigan
8. Trench Coat
9. Leather Pumps
10. Flats
11. Camisole/ Long sleeve
12. Pantyhose/ Leggings
13. Leather Belt
14. Quality Bag
15. Scarf/ Accessories

The Basics:

1. Crisp White Button-Down Shirt: This is the staple of any work wardrobe. Everyone should have at least one if not more. It is versatile and goes with any skirts or pants, for layering or stand-alone, for formal or business casual occasions. Choose a good quality material and non-iron to save headaches later on.  Personally I only own two crisp white button-down with the rest along the silky blousy type.

My pick: Ann Taylor Petite Perfect Long Sleeve Button Down Shirt (Similar herehere )
Advanced Option: Everlane Silk Round Collar Blouse (similar here )f7f22b5b_944b

2. Blouse: Start with colors that you know work with your skin tone (if you don’t trust your own judgment, ask your friends): neutral, monochrome colors are great starters. Don’t add patterns yet as they are memorable and harder to pass as a “different” blouse. Choose effortless slip-on shells with simple and feminine silhouette and neckline. Stick with material that are soft, but does not wrinkle easily.

My pick: Ann Taylor Crepe Cowl Neck Shell (white worn here, here and here :: good alternative here )
Advanced Option: Try a blouse with bow or other embellishmentsUntitledd

3. Sheath Dress: Instead of the LBD that many people recommended, I choose to go with a sheath dress with solid, neutral hue or simple pattern. It should fit your form without being too snug. Go for one that you can transfer from day wear to night wear. And one that can go from spring to winter with the right accessories. Needless to say, it should be versatile. I opted for pattern, but you get the idea; neutrals and solids are your best friends.

My pick: Ann Taylor Graphic Sketch Sleeveless Dress (alternative here or here, here, here)
Advanced Option: Try a different cut, a different hue
(J.Crew Origami Sheath Dress)imageService

4. Dark/Neutral Trouser: Pick a high-quality straight legged pants that fit comfortably. Look out for pleats because they will accentuate the wrong areas. Wear your pants one inch above ground or hit mid heel. If you prefer wearing flats, you will not magically start preferring heels. Nothing is worse than dragging your hem across the office or pants that scream “short!” Don’t forget, the tailor is your best friend.

My pick: Express Stretch Tab Waist Slim Flare Columnist Pants (15% off with code 9233 additional to buy 1 get 1 $39.90 till 7/31)
Advanced: Whites or neutrals. Nothing too crazy
(Express Stretch Tab Waist Slim Flare Columnist Pants)d

5. Dark Pencil Skirt: Whether it is pencil skirt or A-line, be sure to select a skirt that is knee length and fits your figure. More than one inch above your knee is not considered to be office appropriate. Also make sure your skirt hits the waist at the right place. One fitting too low would risk making you look old and wide-hipped. Once you settled on a figure-flattering skirt, it can be paired with so many items in your closet that will effortlessly transition you from season to season. Aside from AT, I also love the No. 2 Pencil Skirts from J. Crew (40% off with code SHOPMORE).

My pick: Ann Taylor All-Season Seamed High Waist Pencil Skirt (similar here, here )
Advanced: Neutral, natural hue with different cut (Zara Tulip Skirt worn here, here)imageService


6. Clean-Cut Blazer: The perfect blazer is key to making your wardrobe work. With the right piece, you can pair it with virtually everything you have: dresses, skirts, pants, and jeans. Choose a blazer in a conservative color, black, navy, or grey, that is versatile and fits comfortably.

Pointers to a perfect fitting blazer: 
1. Seam should fall right on your shoulder blade
2. Sleeves should be at where your thumb joins your wrist
3. Length and fit depends on your style.

My pick: Mango Double-Breasted Crepe Blazer (worn here)
Others: Try Zara, J.Crew, Ann Taylor for some great blazers


7. Cardigan: Cardigans are one of my favorite pieces. It can be worn all seasons for layering over tops, dresses, and any other outfit. The basic colors are black, grey, and navy. Choose one to start with and add other pops of color later on. It’s just such a convenient item to have in your purse and be able to pull one out for a cold air-conditioned place or even to cover stains.

My pick: J Crew Factory Clare Cardigan (worn herehere, here, here)
Advanced: Try a bright color or a different cut
(J.Crew Candace Cardigan worn here, here)14041_BL8133

8. Trench Coat: Perfect for wearing three seasons a year, a beige trench coat is a coat worth investing. Look for the classic trench that never goes out of style. Instead of going for a Burberry that is known for their trench coat, consider more affordable options such as Zara, The Gap, J. Crew, and Ann Taylor. The coat should fit in the shoulders with a style and length that suits you.

My pick: Ann Taylor Iris Trench (worn here)
Advanced: The ultimate trench coat is probably Burberry



9. Black Leather Pumps: Black pumps go with everything and do not stain easily. They can easily transition you from day to night. Fit and comfort are the two most important elements when it comes to your staple heels. It is unrealistic to need to “break in” your shoes. Preferably invest in a pair of leather pumps so it breathes and conforms to your feet. I’ve purchased many many pairs of pumps and Brooks Brothers heels are the ones i kept going back for. These beauties are so comfortable even after wearing for long hours. Recently, there have been issues with it as discussed in past post. My alternative now is AT pumps which are classy and comfy and affordable.

My pick: Brooks Brothers Classic Calfskin Leather Pumps
Advanced: Ann Taylor Evie Peeptoe Pumps (worn here)dddd

10. Black Leather Flats: It’s good to have a pair in your office when you need to walk around a lot and don’t need to be imposing. A nice pair of black leather flats will let you relax and spare the horror of others by going barefoot. I would recommend leather flats for the same reason as pumps. 

My pick: Ann Taylor Laddy Quilted Leather Ballet Flats
Advanced: Try flats with demure embellishments (Tory Burch)ddddd


11. Camisole: These can be the ones found in your closet. A white and a black camisoles are musts.

12. Legging: I prefer the none see-through ones that are supple and not prone to snags. Purchase slightly better quality ones to avoid awkward moments when your legging snags in office.

13. Skinny Leather Belt: A simple belt can make you look even more put together. It will accent your whole look when belted with trousers or it can make you look more sophisticated over a cardigan and skirt. Opt for a leather belt so it lasts. AT leather belts can be around $10-15 when on sale.


14. Medium-Sized Leather Handbag: It should be a perfect everywhere bag whether going to work, to lunch, to dinner, or go shopping. It should be large enough to hold whatever you need during the day, but not so large that it makes you look out of proportion or if it makes you look awkward running with it. And always go for leather because it lasts years after purchase and color will not become dull after years of use.
(Ann Taylor Gallery Tote & Zara Mini City Bag)t

15. Statement Scarf/Necklace: I was never a big scarf person, but it accents your basic t-shirt, trench and LBD.
My Pick: Ann Taylor Striped Silk Square Scarf
Advanced: J.Crew Necklacesq

With extra 60% off sales every so often and 50% off full price items, Ann Taylor is a great place to pick up some great deals. (60% off with code SAVE60 till midnight 7/7/2014)
Zara has summer sale in June and winter sale in late December, great time to pick up some essentials as well.
Sign up for store newsletters and you’ll know exactly when the sales are.

Here’s a guide I find useful for wardrobe essentials. It analyzes whether to splurge or to save.

And here are some blogs that I find inspirations for work outfits: Jean from Extra Petite, Mary from the Classy Cubicle, and The New Professional for some bits and tips

Thanks for reading and let me know if this has been helpful!

Categories: Style, Wardrobe Tips

Recipe | Honey Lavender Madeleines


These little delicacies have a long history and many theories about its origin. It may have been invented in Lorraine offered to the King of Poland or in Avice by the pastry cook to Price of Talleyrand, but doesn’t matter where it originated, these delicacies are easy to make and very delicious to consume.

No wonder madeleines were known in 17th century as “tôt-fait” (French for “quickly made”). It takes no more than 35 minutes total for the whole process including preparation and cooking.


Honey Lavender Madeleines
Adapted from Bijouxs and Pierre Hermes

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup wildflower honey
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
2 teaspoons dried culinary lavender
1/4 cup powdered sugar, for dusting

Night before | 20 minutes
1. Sift flour with baking powder
2. Melt butter and add dried lavender. Infuse for 10 minutes then discard lavender and cool (don’t over-infuse, lavender flavor will become overpowering)
3. Beat the eggs with sugar until pale (3-5 min)
Mix in honey
. Mix in flour and baking powder
6. Mix in cooled butter mixture into batter until smooth and homogenized
7. Cover the batter and refrigerate overnight (I’ve tried baking the batter as soon as 1.5 hours after refrigeration and they turned out fine)

Day of |15 minutes
1. Preheat oven to 400°
2. Butter the madeleine molds
3. Fill the prepared molds 2/3 full
4. Bake for 8 minutes
5. As soon as they come out of oven, unmold and transfer to wire rack to cool
6. Dust madeleines with powdered sugar before serving

If you don’t finish using the batter, you can store them for up to two days. I would say they are the best dessert if you have guests over on short notice.


My favorite presentation of madeleines is at db Bistro Moderne in New York. They were served warm and bite-size in a napkin folded like a lotus. It took the four of us less than 5 minutes to finish the whole basket of mini madeleines. And I spent the next 5 minutes trying to figure out how the basket was folded. You can imagine my surprise and relief when the waiter walked up to us and offered to teach us. Maybe I’ll cover how you can fold your own lotus basket with your napkin in future post.


db Bistro Moderne
55 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
(212) 391-2400

Categories: Food